Categories
Books CCAR Press Social Justice Torah

Editing ‘The Social Justice Torah Commentary’ in the Crucible of 2020

When I proposed The Social Justice Torah Commentary to the CCAR Press Council in December 2019, we were already in the midst of a heated presidential campaign—but then, aren’t we always? I could not have predicted the divisions and threats to democracy that were ahead. Some epidemiologists were already aware of COVID-19, but I was not. Though I had been engaged in racial justice issues for years—even specifically regarding extrajudicial executions of Black suspects by police—I could not foresee the murder of George Floyd or the way our nation would be both galvanized and divided by that crime and the protests that followed.

All that is to say that I did not expect and was not prepared to edit a Torah commentary focused on social justice in the crucible that was 2020. Contributors proposed their topics and wrote for the book during the spring, summer, and fall of last year. Though the book is dated and will be published in 2021, virtually every word of it was written and edited in 2020.

In the midst of the editing, I expressed a concern to Rafael Chaiken, Director of CCAR Press: Would the book be relevant by the time of its publication, let alone for years thereafter? So many chapters make reference to the COVID-19 pandemic, which I incorrectly imagined would be over long before the book would be in print.

Rafael calmed me. First, he reminded me that he and I had edited passages that seemed particularly tied to current events to make them more universal. Moreover, when contributing authors delved into problems that were brought into sharp relief while they were writing, they addressed larger and more timeless concerns. Even Rabbi Asher Knight’s piece on Parashat M’tzora, which addresses inequities revealed by the pandemic, is not written as a newsmagazine piece, calling for change limited to the moment of its authorship. Instead, Rabbi Knight addresses inequality that transcends the COVID-19 crisis: longstanding plagues in our healthcare system and the problematic ways people view those who are stricken. Yes, a large percentage of the book’s chapters confront racial injustice, but I hasten to note that the subject matter of virtually every commentary in the book was proposed before the murder of George Floyd.

Racial injustice is America’s most persistent and vexing malady. The summer of 2020 was a symptom of an infinitely larger problem, and no chapter of the book exclusively addresses the events of that time. Many of the commentaries on racial justice are not directly related to criminal (in)justice—including, among many others, Rabbi David Spinrad’s description of the way that systemic racism impacts access to water (Tol’dot), Ilana Kaufman’s argument for celebrating Jews of Color in our midst (B’midbar), and Rabbi Judith Schindler’s discussion of reparations (Eikev).

I am grateful, too, for contributors who proposed and wrote about injustices that are no less acute for their not having been one of the three issues most in the public eye in 2020. For example, Rabbi Marla Feldman addresses gender pay equity (B’reishit­), Student Rabbi Evan Traylor confronts toxic masculinity (Vayishlach), and Maharat Rori Picker Neiss highlights mortality in childbirth (Tazria). These teachers remind us, as if we needed to be reminded, that gender equality remains an unrealized dream. I could claim that Rabbi Mary Zamore is prescient in addressing harassment in Jewish spaces (Vayikra), a topic that would explode in 2021, had Rabbi Zamore, like Rabbi Hara Person and others, not been spotlighting the issue throughout her career. 

We could be forgiven for thinking that every year is election year in Israel, so 2020 was nothing special in that arena. Still, Israel is at the focus of several of our contributors’ offerings—for example, Rabbi Jeremy Barras’s chapter on the social justice imperative of supporting Israel (Lech L’cha), Rabbi Naamah Kelman’s piece on marriage inequality in Israel (Chayei Sarah), Rabbi Jill Jacobs’s critique of occupation (B’har), Rabbi Ethan Bair’s plea that we hear the full range of voices in discussions of Israel (Korach), and Rabbi Noa Sattath’s focus on Jewish supremacy (Ki Tavo).

I am grateful that CCAR Press, our diverse contributors, and I are able to present a book that delves deeply into Torah to call for justice in areas far more varied than those that rightly absorbed so much of our attention in 2020—not to mention more varied than I could name here.

Most amazing is that dozens of CCAR rabbis, rabbis of other movements, and an ACC cantor were able to muster these brilliant articles at exactly the same time that we were preparing for the most challenging and unprecedented High Holy Days of our careers. And most did so without time off that came anywhere close to approaching their usual summer downtime. For that commitment and for the sacrifice it bespeaks, our readers may be grateful.


The Social Justice Torah Commentary will be published in November 2021 and is now available for pre-order. Browse the table of contents here. Those who pre-order are eligible to receive online access to the initial parashot to begin the year of Torah study. Forward your confirmation email to info@ccarpress.org to request access.


Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. A member of the CCAR Board, he is also the editor of  The Mussar Torah Commentary (CCAR Press, 2020).

Categories
Books CCAR Press spirituality

CCAR Press Author Interview: Rabbis Goldberg and Zecher on ‘Because My Soul Longs for You’

Rabbi Edwin Goldberg and Rabbi Elaine Zecher are the coeditors of Because My Soul Longs for You: Integrating Theology into Our Lives, recently published by CCAR Press. In this interview, they discuss the development of the book and what readers can learn from it.

What inspired the creation of Because My Soul Longs for You?

Rabbi Zecher: In the 1990s, in preparation for the development of Mishkan T’filah: A Reform Siddur, the CCAR embarked on a study of what today’s liturgy should look like. One of the findings was the need to include a diversity of theological expression in the experience of prayer. As we considered what might be possible, our colleague, Rabbi Elyse Frishman—editor of the new prayer book—presented the idea of a two-page spread to the editorial committee, allowing for a multivocal presentation of each prayer. As a result, many images of the Divine could be offered. We called it an “integrated theology” because the experience of the Divine is expressed in many ways and yet they are interconnected. Several years later, Mishkan HaNefesh: A Machzor for the Days of Awe carried this concept forward. As we reflected on the idea, we wanted to offer pathways to understand what it could mean through the experiences of our lives. Instead of viewing it as a specific theology, we regard integrated theology as what Rabbi Abraham Heschel called a depth theology, the actual experience of the Divine. We are inspired by the way we can share the story of our lives and the way the sacred becomes foundational to how we understand who we are.

What was the most challenging part of editing this book? 

Rabbi Goldberg: The most challenging part was defining the nature of the project. Originally we planned to present more intellectual views of God, all part of the normative Jewish spectrum of theology. The notion was not working, however, since we are not classically educated theologians. Once the concept of integrated theology became the focus of the book, everything fell in place. After that, the challenge was finding writers who could evoke the Divine in their lives in a way that was not too reductionist. We did not want a report of someone finding God in music, for instance; we wanted a record of a spiritual experience that involved music. It sounds the same, but it is not. One is a report, the other an experience. We were fortunate to succeed in finding the right people who lived their experiences and could share them so well. 

What is something new you personally learned while working on Because My Soul Longs for You? Did any of your own perspectives change? 

Rabbi Goldberg: I was astonished to learn about experiences that my colleagues had undergone of which I had no idea. There is so much trauma in people’s lives, and it is easy to forget this because we hide it so well. I like to say that spirituality is a dedication to reality at all costs. When editing this book, I saw people’s struggles, as well as their blessings, in a new light. This insight also helped me put my relatively minor challenges into a better perspective. Especially in this pandemic, the book affirms that we need each other, and we need God in our lives. And we really need God with others in our lives. I have missed that group experience of shared spirituality so much.  

What do you want readers to take away from the book? 

Rabbi Zecher: This book is a jumping off point for each of us to contemplate where we might not have considered God’s role in our lives, or our understanding of the sacred as implicit or explicit to what we believe to be true. The beauty of the storytelling offered within these pages is that it helps us identify something similar—or even different—but that may have been there all along. We also hope that it will help the individuals we work with and pastor every day in their own journey of discovery. If reading, studying, and considering their lives awakens their understanding of the Divine in a new way, then putting together the book has been a holy endeavor. 


The editors and contributors to Because My Soul Longs for You are available to teach by video on topics in the book. Email bookevents@ccarpress.org for more information.


Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg serves Congregation Beth Shalom of The Woodlands, outside of Houston, Texas. He was an editor of Mishkan HaNefesh and Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh, also published by CCAR Press.

Rabbi Elaine S. Zecher is Senior Rabbi at Temple Israel of BostonMassachusetts. She was an editor of Mishkan HaNefesh, Machzor: Challenge and Change, Volume 2, and Mishkan T’filah for the House of Mourning, also published by CCAR Press.

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CCAR Press Prayer Technology

Creating the World of Visual T’filah

It was Friday morning, the day after Yom Kippur. Even though we were exclusively worshiping on Zoom throughout the High Holy Days, I felt a sense of peace and contentment, and a strong connection to the Temple Sholom family. All of our services were held using Visual T’filah. Without machzorim in hand, we were able to truly pray as a community with our electronic devices. I was very tired after all the preparation leading up to the Holy Days and after leading so many different types of services, but Shabbat comes every week, ready or not. I could have reused a previous Visual T’filah Shabbat service I had put together, but I had a strong desire to create a new service. And then it dawned on me that crafting a Visual T’filah service is a form of praying for me, in and of itself. 

I start with a set of Mishkan T’filah Visual T’filah slides from CCAR Press, which have all the prayers from the prayer book. I focus on the service as a whole and explore the feeling I want the day’s prayers to convey. What is going on in the world around us? What inspiration can I glean from the Torah portion? Should the service be upbeat and celebratory, or more contemplative and calming?  What do we, as a community, need this particular Shabbat? 

Next, I focus on one prayer at a time. What is this particular prayer saying to me today? I look through my collection of photographs and art to find the image that best portrays that feeling. I also search through my collection of music to find just the right melody to enhance the feeling of the prayer as it speaks to me. As I work on each prayer slide, finding the best way to arrange the text around the picture, the words of the prayer permeate my soul. I am praying as I create each slide. 

For example, the Mi Chamochah has many different melodies. Many of them are joyous. Others are more contemplative. The celebratory melodies reflect the excitement of the Israelites finally making it to the other shore and rejoicing in their newfound freedom. I see the more contemplative melodies reflecting amazement and awe. “Wow. Did we really make it? Are we really safe now?” I choose a particular melody based on the emotion the congregation might most benefit from that Shabbat. 

Then I attach a visual. I often use visuals containing water for Mi Chamochah. It doesn’t have to be the Red Sea; it can be a river or an ocean. The visual helps me—and the congregation—feel as if we were there with the Israelites on their journey. As I put each prayer slide together, playing the music to make sure it goes with the visual, I find myself praying the Mi Chamochah as I compose the slides. I feel completely immersed in the message of the prayer and experience connection to God through those words.

Some of the images I use are photos. Others are graphics. Sometimes I choose more abstract images to allow for each person’s imagination to explore the words of the reading or prayer.

Shabbat is about creation. In the Kiddush we read, Zikaron l’maaseih v’reishit —“A reminder of the work of Creation.” Made in the image of God, each Shabbat I create a prayer world, for myself, and for the congregation.


Rabbi Michele B. Medwin, DMin serves Temple Sholom in Monticello, New York. Her Mi Shebeirach Prayer for Chronic Illness appears in Mishkan R’fuah: Where Healing Resides, published by CCAR Press.

Categories
Books CCAR Press Torah

Abortion and Reproductive Justice: A Jewish Perspective

In light of the recent Texas anti-abortion law that has gone into effect, we are sharing this excerpt about reproductive justice from The Social Justice Torah Commentary, forthcoming in November 2021 from CCAR Press.

A study by the Pew Research Center found that 83 percent of American Jews say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.1 American Jews’ widespread support for permissive abortion laws finds grounding in Jewish tradition’s approach to pregnancy and its end. Though the Torah makes no specific reference to any process resembling a modern abortion, the following passage from Parashat Mishpatim provides our tradition’s earliest guidance on the termination of a pregnancy:

When individuals fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (Exodus 21:22–25)

The passage contrasts two scenarios in which two men are fighting and accidentally strike a nearby pregnant woman. The permutations differ only in who or what is harmed. In the first, only the fetus is lost, and the punishment is a monetary fine, paid to the woman’s husband. In the second, the woman herself is harmed or killed. There, the punishment is retributive: an eye for an eye and a nefesh—literally, “soul,” but in this case meaning a human life possessing personhood—for a nefesh. From this, we may derive the principle that a woman has the full status of a person, nefesh, while the fetus—though valued—has a lesser status.

The Mishnah expands this understanding of differential value by stating that if a woman’s life is threatened in childbirth, the fetus inside her can be destroyed, even to the point of “taking it out limb from limb, for her life comes before the fetus’s life.”2 Through the graphic language of this text, the Mishnaic author leaves no ambiguity as to whose life takes precedence. This text sets the standard from which all other halachah (Jewish law) on abortion flows. Later commentators debate in great detail the implications of this text, particularly the breadth or narrowness of the definition of a threat to the life of the woman.3 Some are more permissive of a range of emotional as well as physical impacts that could justify an abortion, while others understand the instances of permissibility with excruciating parsimony. Still, from the outset, Judaism can imagine some instances when an abortion would be permitted and even required.4

Furthermore, the Gemara concludes that prior to forty days, a fetus is not a person but rather is considered “mere water.”5  The debate about abortion in America hinges on questions related to what constitutes personhood and when life begins. But these are religious and spiritual questions, about which people of faith and conviction can disagree.

The Supreme Court held in Roe v. Wade that abortion is protected under the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, which guarantees a right to privacy, including a right to private medical procedures. For American Jews, the protection of access to abortion could also be understood under the First Amendment’s free exercise of religion clause. Because Jewish law permits abortion under certain circumstances as a morally acceptable choice, or even in some cases a halachic requirement, any law that limits a woman’s right to choose might limit a Jewish woman’s ability to make a decision in accordance with her religious beliefs. When people of faith seek to adopt laws asserting when life begins, they endeavor to enshrine their own religious understanding in law. In civic discourse, the fact that Judaism understands these issues differently can be a powerful antidote to the pervasive sense that religious voices are only to be found on one side of this debate. Judaism is unequivocally “pro-life” in that it values life in all its forms, both actualized and potential. But where that term has come to mean “anti-abortion,” then it is clear that Judaism allows for abortion under at least some circumstances and therefore calls us to advocate for civil laws that protect a woman’s right to access abortion services.

These texts and their subsequent interpretations are a vital resource for all of us who seek to affirm Jewish support for the choice to terminate a pregnancy and to advocate from a Jewish perspective for laws that protect reproductive choice. And we are called to go further; the law is only one facet of a full and holistic justice. Even as Parashat Mishpatim guides us to a choice-oriented understanding of abortion law, it also leaves us with the injustice of a silenced story.

The text in Exodus 21 begins with an act of violence perpetrated against a pregnant woman, and yet this woman is all but absent from subsequent conversation about this passage. Across the centuries, almost all of the voices of Jewish interpretation, and even many modern commentators, fail to acknowledge her story. The interpreters miss the opportunity to see her as subject, rather than object. To see the woman in this text as merely a hypothetical in a legal case study is to deny that cases such as these were very real to the people who experienced them. To reach a full sense of justice in our understanding of abortion, we must pair mishpatim (laws) with sipurim (stories). …

The full chapter by Rabbi Joshua R. S. Fixler and Rabbi Emily Langowitz appears in The Social Justice Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Barry H. Block. To learn more and pre-order the book, visit socialjustice.ccarpress.org.


1. Pew Research Center, “Views about Abortion among Jews,” Religious Landscape Study, 2014, https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape- study/religious-tradition/jewish/views-about-abortion/.

2. Mishnah Ohalot 7:6.

3. We recognize the complexity of this term and acknowledge that it is not only women who experience pregnancy and abortion and also that not all women can experience pregnancy. We offer this word for simplicity but intend it to include a broad range of experiences and identities.

4. Many trace the split between lenient and strict positions to Rashi and Maimonides, respectively. See Rashi’s comment on Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 72b; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Rotzei-ach Ushmirat Nefesh 1:9. Rashi defines the fetus as non-nefesh (in keeping with our passage in Exodus), while Maimonides focuses his discussion on the fetus as a rodeif (meaning only if the fetus is actively pursuing the life of the mother should the pregnancy be terminated). For fuller discussion of the halachic texts that flow from each side, see Daniel Schiff, Abortion in Judaism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

5. Babylonian Talmud, Y’vamot 69b.


Rabbi Joshua R. S. Fixler serves as the associate rabbi at Congregation Emanu El in Houston, Texas.

Rabbi Emily Langowitz serves as program manager for Jewish learning and engagement at the Union for Reform Judaism.

Categories
Books CCAR Press spirituality

Why Is It So Difficult to Talk about God?

Rabbis Edwin Goldberg and Elaine Zecher are coeditors of the new CCAR Press book Because My Soul Longs for You: Integrating Theology into Our Lives, which delves into the many ways we can experience the Divine. In this excerpt from the introduction, they examine the challenges of discussing God.

“Can you speak to my child about God?” The concern showed on her face. She had no idea how to explain who, what, why, and how God is.

She is not alone. God is the other three-letter word that makes some parents cringe when they are asked about it. Actually, it sometimes feels like explaining sex is easier and more rehearsed in our minds than getting involved in a conversation about God. The truth is, many people feel uncomfortable having this conversation.

Why is it difficult to talk about God? Is God like a mathematical equation we could solve if only we could get the right definition? There are many ways to describe God. Judaism is a monotheistic religion founded on the principle that all the disparate gods are really One God. There is no god of the seas, or the sky, or even the underworld. Our biblical ancestors Abraham and Sarah found one God uniting the universe and united by the universe. Jewish tradition teaches that their tent was open on all four sides in order to receive wayfarers from any direction.1 The image of the tent serves another purpose as well: it signifies that there are countless paths to come closer to this One God. Within our own tradition, many passageways lead us to an experience of the Divine—an experience that so many of us are longing for.

The title of this book, Because My Soul Longs for You, comes from an old Sabbath hymn, formally called Shir HaKavod (“Song of Glory”) and also known by its first two words, Anim Z’mirot. It is ascribed to Judah HeChasid of Regensburg (d. 1217). The entire song features a number of original verses and some language from the Bible. Our title is taken from the first stanza, אַנְעִים זְמִירוֹת וְשִׁירִים אֶאֱרוֹג, כִּי אֵלֶיךָ נַפְשִׁי תַעֲרוֹג (Anim z’mirot v’shirim e-erog, ki eilecha nafshi ta-arog, I seek pleasing melodies and thirst for songs because my soul longs for You), itself a reference to Psalm 42:2. The tradition is to open the Torah ark before reciting this prayer, a way of suggesting that God’s spirit is summoned when it is sung.

It is human nature to long for God’s presence in our lives. However, many of us do not know what to do with this longing. The subtitle of this book is Integrating Theology into Our Lives. There are many and diverse Jewish paths to experience and think about God, and we as Reform Jews have the privilege of having more than one path open to us. With a little bit of study and a lot of living, our soul’s longing can be addressed. All we need is intention, some humility, and the honesty that open up before us a warm and redolent world.

Shir HaKavod includes these words:

And so I tell your glory, yet never have seen you;
Imagine you, find names for you, yet never have known you

By hand of those who prophesied and throngs who worshipped you,
You gave imagination to the glory beyond view.2

Within these pages, we hope you will discover the One in the different forms described and experienced in the many and diverse paths by talented writers, rabbis, cantors, scholars, and seekers who allow and welcome God into their lives. In their wisdom, we hope you are inspired to allow and welcome God into your own life, too, while also drawing God out—in the path that is yours.

Read the full introduction, download the free study guide, and order the book at theology.ccarpress.org


1. Rabbeinu Yonah on Pirkei Avot 1:5.
2. Translation by Joel Rosenberg, in Kol Haneshamah: Shabbat Vehagim  (Wyncote, PA: Reconstructionist Press, 1994), 452.


Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg serves Congregation Beth Shalom of The Woodlands, outside of Houston, Texas.

Rabbi Elaine S. Zecher serves Temple Israel of Boston, Massachusetts.

Categories
Books CCAR Press High Holy Days Prayer

How Can We Build a Life of Meaning? Reflections on S’lichot

The S’lichot prayers are traditionally recited on the Saturday night before Rosh HaShanah to help prepare us for the soul-searching and transformation that we hope to do during the High Holy Days. S’lichot is thus the opening scene of our efforts each Jewish year to build a life of meaning, a life of consequence. 

We want to break through the routines to which we have become accustomed. As we entered adulthood, we developed certain habits that served us well at the time. Some of these are still valuable practices that serve important functions for one reason or another, but many others are useless, pointless, or even counterproductive. Sometimes we develop workarounds that achieve what needs to be done in the moment but not necessarily in the best way. There is a story about a person who takes their car to a mechanic because the brakes aren’t working. When they come back the next day, the mechanic tells them “I couldn’t fix your brakes, but I made your horn louder.” Isn’t that what we have often done when facing challenges in our lives? We did the best we could, patching things over in order to carry on.

Real change is hard. In fact, it’s well-nigh impossible unless there is some sort of burning internal or external motivation. If the doctor were to say to us, “You have one year to live,” then we might go home and, after pouring ourselves a stiff drink, actually decide to change everything, living in a completely different way than we had been up to that point. There are other dramatic moments in life that can compel us to spontaneously reject everything that we have always done and move in a completely different direction.

Yet I don’t think that S’lichot is trying to push us to impetuously change our lives 180 degrees in one evening. So don’t trade in your Ford Explorer for a Porsche. Don’t buy a plane ticket to India in order to spend the rest of your life in an ashram. Don’t book your seat next to Elon Musk to fly off to Mars. Rather, I would argue that what Judaism is asking us to do on S’lichot evening is to evaluate and reevaluate our lives in order to try to realize our full potential for lasting fulfillment.

Several years ago, I was the editor of a CCAR Press volume titled A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path. Our goal was to get people thinking about what Reform Judaism could mean in terms of how we find meaning in our lives. Though published before the pandemic started, the chapters remain timely and relevant. As we enter a reflective mode during this S’lichot season, I hope this book can inspire us to create positive change, both in our communities and in ourselves.

We are reminded by the words in the prayer book that we are granted the gift of life, a gift of uncertain duration but of certain laborious effort. However much we protest or negotiate, this short time is all we get. For many, fate overwhelms, truncates, or destroys their journey. To the best of our knowledge, this is the one life that we have, and we have a sacred obligation to make the most of it. And so, let us pray that this new year 5782 may be a year of wisdom acquired and shared, a year of virtue and the strengthening of our characters, a year of mitzvot and the meaningful practice of ritual, and a year of community and the sharing of our commitment to making the world a better place. May God’s presence in our lives this new year strengthen our souls and renew our spirits.


Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan, PhD, serves Temple Beth Shalom of the West Valley in Sun City, Arizona. He is the editor of A Life of Meaning: Embracing Reform Judaism’s Sacred Path, published by CCAR Press.

Categories
CCAR Press High Holy Days Prayer Technology

Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: Why Make an App from a Book?

These days, books go far beyond print volumes—they can be converted into many digital formats. Perhaps the most straightforward digital form of a book is an ebook; CCAR Press has over a decade of experience creating a variety of ebooks, from basic reflowable text to enhanced, interactive, multimedia versions. However, there are often compelling reasons to put in the extra time and resources to transform a book into a standalone app.

Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, published by CCAR Press in 2019, was a perfect candidate for this transformation. Rabbi Debra Robbins’s book guides readers through a meaningful practice that she created, introducing daily meditation and reflection into their lives.

With our busy lives, a meditative practice is always a challenging new routine—we often need a bit more help to begin and maintain such a practice. Our new app, Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart, includes a variety of features designed to help in this process. When you first open the app, you are presented clearly with the basic steps and flow of the process, with a user interface that strives to emulate the meditative tone of the practice. Rather than asking the reader to figure out which is the current daily Reflection for Focus, the app knows the date, performs some calculations based on when Shabbat occurs, and automatically delivers the intended reading for the day.

There are also other features of the app that simply could not be a part of a print book. One of the most enriching is the inclusion of a variety of beautiful musical settings to verses in Psalm 27, some of which are original to this project. One can listen to the same music for a week, diving deeply into the complex layers of each piece, or listen to a new song each day. Similarly, each new day reveals a meditative image, often photos taken by the author or her students, in vibrant color. The app also includes a mediation timer, with the option to choose visual and audio cues, as well as a daily reminder to engage in the practice, both of which are extremely helpful features that could never have been a part of a print work.

This is perhaps the most beautiful app that CCAR Press has created to date. While many of our previous apps are nicely designed and function well, they focus on delivering a large amount of content in an easy-to-access way. The Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app was designed specifically to convey an emotion, a sense of peace and calm, commensurate with the intentions behind the practice. It is our hope that the content of this incredible work, along with the carefully crafted experience of using the app—with all of its helpful features—will allow individuals and groups to enter this High Holy Day season with an open heart and a more meaningful experience.

Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart can be downloaded from the Apple and Google app stores. Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 is available as a print book and ebook, with a free companion study guide.


Rabbi Dan Medwin is Director of Digital Media at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

Categories
CCAR Press High Holy Days Prayer Rituals Technology

CCAR Press Author Interview: Rabbi Debra J. Robbins, on ‘Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27’ and the New Companion App

Rabbi Debra J. Robbins of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas, shares her thoughts on the process of writing Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year (published in 2019 by CCAR Press) and creating a companion app (just released for Apple and Android).

What inspired you to write Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27?
I did not set out to write a book about Psalm 27. The book emerged over several years from my own practices. I first began reading the psalm daily in Elul, then I began writing about it daily, and then I added time to sit and sing. I kept reading it all the way to Simchat Torah. Eventually, I shared some of my reflections and they resonated with people; I realized my personal practice could be embraced by others. Thanks to those who encouraged me, it became a book.


What was the most challenging part of working on Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27?
There were three things that were challenging in creating Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27. First, it was really hard to work on a book while also working full time at a congregation! Second, because I didn’t set out to write this as a book, figuring out how to organize all the reflections into something coherent and comprehensive was a big challenge. Finally, I think the most difficult aspect of working on this book (or I imagine any book) was feeling confident enough to be vulnerable—to put my words, my ideas, my heart in print for others to see.


Was there something new that you learned while writing the book? Did any of your own practices change?
I have always found that unpacking/studying Torah was meaningful in a small group or with a partner. I discovered, however, that I could also have some powerful insights about my life and the psalm by giving myself time to sit alone with the text and reflect on it, both in writing and in silence.


Do you have advice for readers on how to strengthen their own reflection practices?
For me, ritual really helps build a practice. It can feel awkward at first to sing along to a recording with no one else in the room. It can be hard to keep writing or sitting for a full five minutes. It’s easy to resist taking the time to be forgiving, to remember an insight, or to give thanks. But as it is with good ritual, once we get in a routine, it can become a habit, and then hopefully easier (in some ways), opening up possibilities for great insight and commitment.


How do you recommend that readers use Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27?  
The book itself contains suggestions for how to use it, and there is also a study guide available with source sheets. New this year, and something so exciting, is a smartphone app that will help readers use Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27 even more easily. It has writing prompts and photos for each day, a built-in timer and daily tracker, and individuals can read or listen to the psalm and each of the reflections. It also has amazing music.

Why was the app created?

We created the Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app in response to requests from many people who have used the book, laypeople and clergy alike, since it was published. People wanted to be able to easily stay on track and have the music readily available. The live sessions we shared showed that they liked having someone lead them in the blessing, hearing the psalm read in different voices, and listening to the Reflection for Focus instead of reading it. I’m grateful to everyone who shared their feedback and encouraged us to develop this twenty-first-century digital tool for spiritual practice.

What makes the Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app unique?

The app is so special because it has not only the words from my book, but it also includes the voices of talented musicians and cantors who have written music to accompany Psalm 27 and the photographs of friends and family members whose eyes have captured the beauty of Psalm 27 out in the world. The app also has a lot of really cool functions that reflect the values of the book. One example: you can choose between doing the writing segment electronically or, better yet, you can write by hand on paper and then store a photo of your writing. You can choose a preferred sound for your meditation timer, and you can easily give yourself a prompt at the end of the practice so your experience will more easily stay with you all day.

Who helped with the app’s creation?

Rabbi Dan Medwin, CCAR Director of Digital Media, was the mastermind of the app. His combined skills as a rabbi and a technology expert allowed the development team to create something that is truly spiritually engaging in a realm where that is often a significant challenge. We were also fortunate to have some teenage campers test the app this summer, and thank goodness they did. They not only had some great innovations to add but caught a lot of bugs! Thanks are due as well to a generous donor who gave us the resources to make this possible.

How can people best use the app?

I hope people will use the app in a variety of ways. It can be a complement to the book or it can be used on its own. It is super flexible. If someone wants to listen to the various musical settings, that is easily done. If they want to hear the blessing only in English, they can do that too. Or, if someone prefers to listen to either a male or female voice read the psalm in Hebrew or English that’s possible as well. What I hope most is that people will use the app to do the real work of this season, open their hearts, and then be moved to continue that spiritual work into the new year.

To further enhance your practice, check out the free downloadable study guide and the Psalm 27: Opening Your Heart app, now available for Android and iPhone!


Rabbi Debra J. Robbins serves Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, Texas. She is the author of Opening Your Heart with Psalm 27: A Spiritual Practice for the Jewish New Year, from CCAR Press.

Categories
Books News Prayer

B’chol L’vavcha: Renewing a Classic

Rarely does one have the opportunity to create a new edition of a book many in our movement have grown up with: B’chol L’vavcha: With All Your Heart: A Commentary on the Prayer Book, the beloved magnum opus of Rabbi Harvey J. Fields, z’’l, who was a rabbi, teacher, and friend to many Reform rabbis, cantors, and congregants alike. His warm, clear, and accessible writing provided introductions to and meditations on the major prayers of the previous Reform siddur, Gates of Prayer, for adults, teens, and children—equally useful in adult education, bar and bat mitzvah preparation, and religious school.

And it still does. However, the third edition of B’chol L’vavcha, just released by CCAR Press, adds new layers of learning and teaching to the familiar book. Many female and queer rabbis and teachers have found their way onto the pages as commentators; the book itself is the product of the labors of one Reform cantor, Sarah Grabiner, and two Reform rabbis, Hilly Haber and myself. Many contemporary poems and prayers have been added to bring diversity, new depths, new meanings, and new Torah to the familiar liturgy. Newly added sections—Kiddush and Havdalah—reflect today’s reality in which we, as Reform Jews, do not pray only in our synagogues, but just as often in our homes, particularly during the past pandemic year. However, perhaps the most basic but also the most remarkable change is the shift from the language and layout of Gates of Prayer to the words and aesthetics of Mishkan T’filah, making the third edition the perfect companion for any teaching on prayer, including iyunei t’filah.

Let me give you two examples:

Accompanying the Sh’ma, you will find this prayerful version by Rabbi Emily Langowitz:

Sh’ma Listen.

Yisrael God-struggler.

Adonai Was-Is-WillBe

Eloheinu Is our God

Adonai Was-Is-WillBe

Echad Is One.

Listen, God-struggler. Was-Is-WillBe is a reflection of my own divinity. Was-Is-WillBe, the One who moves the universe, the One who knows that being can never be static, the One in whose image I am made, bears witness to my own unity.

I give thanks to that Spirit of life who allows for the continued revelation of self.

I marvel at the wonder of sexuality unfolding.

I lift up the truth of all the ways I have loved, do love, will love.

.בְּרוּכָה אַתְּ יָהּ, אַחְדוּת הָעוֹלָם, שֹֹֹֹּּּּוֹמַעַת הָאֱמֶת

B’ruchah at Yah, achdut ha-olam, shomaat ha-emet.

Blessed are You, Oneness of the world, who hears my Truth.[1]

And the book closes with a moving reflection by Rabbi Andrea Weiss, PhD, Provost at HUC-JIR:

Lech L’cha

Go forth on a journey.

Go by yourself.

Standing at a crossroad

You venture from the known to the unknown.

Some journeys must be made alone.

Go to yourself:

Spiral inward and unwrap your past

And your potential.

Remember that the soul which you have made

Is unique and holy.

Go for yourself:

Smell the fragrance

Which spread across the land

As you roam and wander.

Refresh yourself

Under the tree which grows by a spring

At the side of the road.

Make your name great and

Make your life a blessing.[2]

Go and have a look at this book, so that it can accompany you and your people on your journeys!


Rabbi Sonja K. Pilz, PhD, is the Editor at CCAR Press.


[1] Previously published in Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells , edited by Rabbi Denise Eger (New York: CCAR Press, 2019). Copyright © 2019 by Emily Langowitz.

[2] Previously published in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (New York: CCAR Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008). Copyright © 2008 by Andrea Weiss.

Categories
Books Holiday Passover

The Poetry of Passover

Photograph: Leslie Jean-Bart

Mishkan HaSeder, the new Haggadah from CCAR Press coedited by Rabbi Hara Person and poet Jessica Greenbaum, contains a wealth of poetry in conversation with the seder text. In this preface to the book, Greenbaum explains how poems were selected for inclusion. 

Metaphor’s regenerative powers of imagery, expansiveness, and personal connection have singularly sustained the imagination of the Jewish people and enabled us to arrive at this moment. Chaos—our first metaphor, and one we seem in relation to on a daily basis—became separated into harmonious parts to compose our first home, the Garden. We call Shabbat a bride, and during the Yamim Noraim, both the Great Book of Life and the Gates of Heaven are open. Metaphor has carried the Psalms through the ages so that goodness and mercy pursue us the rest of our days—they are always just now on our heels. The image of God, especially, is wholly reliant on metaphor, in the metamorphosing images of clouds, smoke, wind. Our close reading of the parshah continues, over centuries, to mine metaphor and uncover flashes of new truths like mica beneath rocks. Tradition teaches that Talmud is not finished being written until everyone has read it—because our individual sensibilities share in the creation of revelation.

By joining with our imaginations, metaphors write us each into the text; and of all the holidays, Passover’s dynamism wins the metaphor count. We are instructed to relive our ancestors’ enslavement, escape, and deliverance as though it were our own journey—while sitting around a table. How will each of us envision the mitzrayim, the “narrow space” from which we will make our way? And how will each envision a promised land? What signs show us the need to change, and what wonders nurture our faith that we can? The seder plate announces itself as a constellation of symbols and metaphors, and we connect the dots as we do the individual stars, for how it makes up a firmament of directions.

I first felt the organic relationship between poetry and Jewish text when I studied The Torah: A Women’s Commentary with Rabbi Hara Person, one of its editors, long ago. Seeing the text through its interaction with the poems was like being able to see the wind because of the fluttering of leaves. This revelation has led me in my own study and teaching since, and I can’t overstate my good fortune and pleasure from working with Hara here. In choosing poems that might encourage an authentic inhabitance of the seder’s progressions, Hara and I looked for ones that reflected, or countered, the text so that each participant might, then and there, relate candle-lighting, drinking, washing, breaking, telling—and questioning—to their own journey. We hope the poems hold a “bit of Torah,” an opening out of that moment of Passover. For their discerning suggestions toward that Jewish value, I thank Central Synagogue’s adult engagement class, who studied with me from an earlier draft of the Haggadah, test drove the poems at their own seders, and returned with (as usual!) salient and revelatory comments. But positive or negative, our personal responses to poems are ours to have, and huzzah for all responses, because passion reflects our profound sense of aliveness—and defines the authentic to each of us. The seder table allows us to be authentic together.

With the opportunity of co-editing this Haggadah, I thank all the poets, regard-less of their background or ways of identifying, for how they offer Jewish values to me, always: values of Havdalah, as a way to make time and experience distinct; tikkun olam as a response to brokenness and injustice; and turning it and turning it to see new coherence in the very world being considered. If you think of a poem you would prefer to the text, tuck it inside for next year! We invite your imagination, your history, your aspirations to the seder table through these stanzas—which live, as does the Haggadah, by being read and going through our own breath.


Jessica Greenbaum is a poet, teacher, and social worker who has published three collections of poetry. With Rabbi Hara Person, she is the coeditor of Mishkan HaSeder: A Passover Haggadah, now available from CCAR Press.