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Books

On Living Text

Our tradition teaches that there are seventy faces of the Torah. Originally, shiv’im panim laTorah  referred to the multiplicity of ways a single verse can be interpreted: pshat, drash, remez, and sod (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15-16). It is mentioned later on in commentaries by Ibn Ezra, Nachmanides, and in the Zohar. Today, the Torah’s seventy faces often refers to the multiplicity of viewpoints within every community and gathering—the glorious tapestry that we know is our Judaism.

The 70 faces of Torah are an entry point into the tradition. But successfully claiming our inheritance from the tradition is most likely to happen when we are grounded in foundational Jewish knowledge. Exercising informed choice is only possible when we learn together and engage in discussion and dialogue. How do we offer our communities diverse ways to do this? How do we help our communities  experience the open, evolving Judaism which emerges when we live the texts, returning to the wellspring and renewing their relationship with the wisdom of our tradition? For just as the sages of the Talmud did for their times, we can (and must) bring our cherished values and hard won knowledge to the interpretation  of our tradition.

If you are looking to bring your community into the ongoing conversation, the CCAR, as your rabbinic membership organization, is continually creating new resources to help with this. That is why we are pleased to introduce the launch of Living Text, the CCAR’s presence on The Tent, the URJ’s collaborative workspace for lay and professional congregational and community leaders. Living Text’s mission is to foster ongoing discussion among scholars, rabbinic and cantorial leaders, educators, and community members, and to share ideas and resources on the CCAR Press’s newest works of thought and practice, as well as on Judaism’s rich library of wisdom literature, classic and contemporary. These texts will serve as the foundation for conversation as we navigate ways to meaningfully engage with Jewish tradition, bringing together past, present, and future.

Please visit, and join our forum. Our launch features Rabbis Rebecca Einstein Schorr and Alysa Mendelson Graf, editors of The Sacred Calling, who are inviting members to talk to them in real time, or view and download video interviews and study guides available on the group page. This is only the beginning. In the coming months, there will be resources for you on the themes of Creation, Israel engagement, and Reform Judaism, all of which will be available for teaching and learning within your communities.

Please explore Living Text, and let us know what you think. Post your comments and questions in the group, so that we can continue to develop new resources for community discussion and learning that you can use. We want to hear from you.

Rabbi Beth Lieberman serves as executive editor at CCAR Press.  Join CCAR Press in The Tent, in our new group, Living Texts.

Categories
Books Israel

It’s Lonely in the Middle

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share how the book came together. The book is officially available for pre-order now from CCAR Press. 

Randy Newman, tongue planted firmly in cheek, wrote a song with the title “It’s Lonely at the Top.”  When it comes to political ideology – and in particular, to Zionism – it’s more like “It’s lonely in the middle.”  That covers a wide range somewhere between Haredi fanatics who want to expel every non-Jew from Greater Israel to those whom I call “template leftists” who see Israel only through the lens of colonialism.  Where do we find the ground to engage in reasonable dialogue, even with those whose perspectives differ from our own, without any side claiming a monopoly on truth?  Where do we find a safe ground for this dialogue to take place?

These questions prompted the vision for the forthcoming book, The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism.  In the autumn of 2011, I had guest-edited an issue of the CCAR Journal which contained a symposium on Progressive Religious Zionism.  A few years later, Rabbi Stanley Davids (who had contributed a seminal article to that symposium) took the initiative to suggest that we expand that dialogue between the covers of a book.  Our objective was to garner a wide spectrum of perspectives, ages, and topics.  Now that we have seen the finished product, both of us are very pleased with the result – and we hope that you will be too.

Among other things, I’m happy that every article in the book presents something new and fresh.  I learned something significant from each and every author.  Rather than point to specific articles, I’d like to share some of the insights that I gained from the collection as a whole:

  • I was reminded that, even though the Jewish population of Eretz Yisrael has been scant at times, we as a people have never relinquished our hope for a return.  This constitutes the historical core of our Progressive Religious Zionism.
  • I learned that there is a widening gap between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews with regard to our expressions of Zionism.  We don’t always understand each other.
  • I also read first-hand accounts of the distancing from Israel that is taking place, especially in the United States.  This appears to be due to different factors: discomfort or disagreement with Israeli government policies, fear of being singled out on campus as an Israel supporter, or simple lack of interest.
  • I became convinced that any solution to the above phenomenon will depend on intensive, creative and nuanced educational initiatives.
  • It was also interesting to discover that liberal Zionism is expressed differently in different countries of the Diaspora.  In our book, we gain an insight from the United Kingdom; I hope the exchange between Rabbis Baginsky and Gold will open the door for other nationalities to join the conversation and to learn from each other.
  • I was saddened to read that, for some liberal Zionists, Israel must take second place to their home country in addressing issues of civil society.  I would have hoped that the values of Reform/Progressive Judaism would be applicable – and necessary – for both nations.

These are my impressions after reading the essays in solitude on my computer screen.  But my main hope for our Fragile Dialogue is that it will encourage readers to meet together and to initiate their own dialogues to discuss its contents and to seek meaningful responses.  The book has been deliberately crafted so that a wide range of responses are presented and respectful disagreement is encouraged; and even beyond these, the door remains wide open for further thoughts and plans of action to emerge.  I welcome you to pick up what I truly believe is a great read!

Rabbi Lawrence A. Englander serves as Rabbi Emeritus of Solel Congregation of Mississauga, Ontario and Adjunct Rabbi at Temple Sinai in Toronto.  He also serves as Chair of ARZENU, the international Reform Zionist organization, until August of 2017.  The Fragile Dialogue: New Voices of Liberal Zionism is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press. 

Categories
Books High Holy Days Holiday Mishkan haNefesh Prayer

Mishkan HaLev: Transported Beyond Words

A prayerbook is a repository of rituals and ceremonies; its language is often formulaic and sometimes feels abstract. Yet the rituals contained within the best prayerbooks also speak to our souls: the recurring idioms (for example, “Baruch atah, Adonai . . .”) create a shared spiritual space in which communities gather to affirm their values and beliefs, define their orientation to the world, and try to make sense of life’s vicissitudes. That is, in addition to teaching us the right steps in the right order, a prayerbook worth its salt must be “real.” Its content should touch our hearts — speaking to the lives we live, while aiming to inspire hope and faith and courage.

And so we come to Mishkan HaLev — a book whose name means “A Sanctuary of the Heart” (or “a dwelling place of the heart”). Mishkan HaLev is largely a response — albeit a partial one — to a single question: how do Reform Jews prepare for the High Holy Days? Here is what we learned by asking that question in a CCAR survey several years ago: (1) serious Reform Jews value preparation because they recognize the unique character of these holy days; (2) some Reform Jews have found interesting, creative ways to prepare for the Days of Awe — the season of introspection, repentance, and forgiveness; and (3) many have yet to figure out how to make time for meaningful preparation, but would like to do so. What is the goal of Mishkan HaLev? Its main purpose is to encourage more people to be better prepared, spiritually and emotionally, for the High Holy Days— and we hope that those who pray its prayers, read its poetry, and study its commentary are enriched by the experience.

Mishkan HaLev is comprised of two sections: Shabbat Evening Service for the Month of Elul; and S’lichot: Songs of Forgiveness for the Season of Return. The Shabbat service is intended for all Friday evenings during Elul, the month that leads to Rosh HaShanah; in addition, it includes the liturgical insertions for Shabbat Shuvah — the “Sabbath of Return” between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. The S’lichot service is the CCAR’s first new S’lichot liturgy since Gates of Forgiveness was published in 1980. Both services contain many choices for communal worship, study, and discussion, as well as diverse options for private devotion and inspiration — in particular, the “Meditative Amidah” for Friday evening and abundant poetry. Both are designed, as well, to serve as resources for educational programs leading up to the High Holy Days.

Many poems appear in these pages, because, as Edward Hirsch has written, “poetry is a soul-making activity.” At its best, poetry celebrates the gift that allows human beings to see things differently, to remake the world, and to reinterpret received ideas and traditions. Reading a poem can stir within us a sense of intimacy and even urgency.

Why have we called this prayerbook “Mishkan HaLev — A Sanctuary of the Heart”?

Love is the theme of the month of Elul, in part because the initial Hebrew letters of Song of Songs 6:3 — “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li) — spell out the word Elul. Our Sages saw the verse as expressing the tender mutual devotion that makes t’shuvah possible. If we turn with open hearts to the Holy One, they taught, God is forever ready to embrace us with love.

No prayerbook can choreograph the turning of our hearts to God and to other people; nor can it possibly choreograph their loving responses to us. Such events are profound and unique; often they are transcendent — moments in which we are transported entirely beyond words, and far beyond the pages of the prayerbook. But it is our hope that Mishkan HaLev will challenge all of us to open our hearts and minds to the possibility of such moments in our lives. May this prayerbook help us to make Elul a time of profound introspection, self-examination, and turning.

Rabbi Sheldon Marder is currently the Rabbi and Department Head of Jewish Life at the Jewish Home of San Francisco. Rabbi Marder is the co-editor, translator, writer, and commentator of Mishkan HaNefesh: Machzor for the Days of Awe, published by CCAR Press in 2015, as well as the co-editor of Mishkan HaLev: Prayers for S’lichot and the Month of Elul, a companion prayerbook to Mishkan HaNefesh. He is also the contributor to other publications, such as Divrei Mishkan HaNefesh: A Guide to the CCAR Machzor, published by CCAR Press in 2016; and CCAR Journal: The Reform Jewish Quarterly, Summer 2013 issue.

Categories
Books Israel

My Classmate Was A Force of Nature: Rabbi Bob Samuels

Each of my HUC-JIR classmates (Cincinnati ’60) has had a transformative impact on his congregation or community.  (Yes, sadly we were a class of all men.) We taught and counseled, provoked and celebrated in ways that enriched and deepened the lives of those we served.

One of the members of our class had a particularly powerful impact on his community.

Bob Samuels made aliyah to Israel with his family in 1962 and never looked back. The saga of his amazing career is captured in a newly published book, Stepping Up to the Plate, Building a Liberal Pluralistic Israel, which Bob completed shortly before his death in 2016.  Published by the CCAR, it is the first volume issued under its newest imprint, “Rabbis Press.”

Bob was my cherished friend and my hero. His entire life was powered by the ideals of the Hebrew prophets. Every day of his life, Bob translated those ideals into real life action that lifted up the fallen, fed the needy, and embraced those who live at the margins of society.

Bob understood that Progressive Judaism would flourish in Israel only if we raise up exceptional leaders. The Leo Baeck Educational Center in Haifa, which Bob built into one of the premier institutions in Israel, produced such leaders.

Bob was a force of nature. I have never known anyone with as many talents, as determined a spirit, and as much energy as Bob Samuels.  A star first baseman at Brandeis who was scouted by Major League Baseball, Bob knew what it meant to “step up to the plate.” He never flinched.  Even after he was diagnosed with a devastating disease, he continued to live a life of courageous determination, doing good and loving us all.

Our colleague Michael Marmur wrote, “This book tells his story. Reading it can do what Bob always managed to do in his life. Even if we are disheartened and out of new ideas, even if the next step seems unclear, it builds us up.”

I hope you will read and be inspired by this amazing story about what it means to be a leader of our people.

Charles A. Kroloff is past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.  Currently Vice President for Special Projects at HUC-JIR, he is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El, Westfield, NJ.  Rabbi Robert L. Samuel’s book Stepping Up to the Plate, Building a Liberal Pluralistic Israel, is now available for purchase from CCAR Press. 

Categories
Books

There is No Moment Too Small or Too Large for Gratitude

We are surrounded by holiness. By beauty. By wonder and awe. At the same time, we must live life as it’s offered to us, sometimes messy, sometimes challenging, potentially painful, potentially traumatic, a mixed bag of joys and sorrows. No matter what, our lives are enriched by prayer. Prayer gives our hearts a voice. There’s no moment too small for a prayer. Or too large for that matter. A single petal of a rose. A field of wildflowers. A birth. A death. And there’s no moment too small or too large for gratitude.

Composing prayers is a natural expression of my desire to move closer to God. In response to various life tragedies I began a spiritual journey of prayer, meditation, daily journaling and making gratitude lists. This writing evolved into a regular practice of composing prayers. The practice was a large part of my healing from those tragedies, including the loss of Ami z”l – my wife of 27 years – from catastrophic brain damage.

The act of creating a prayer is healing. One aspect of that healing comes in recognizing the yearning, the deep desire that needs a voice. Another element of healing is the writing itself, which attaches those yearnings to language – often lyrical, but sometimes blunt – evoking a prayer of the heart. I recommend it.

In our Siddur, whether it’s Mishkan T’filah or any other Jewish prayer book, we say that God is the one shomeah t’filah, the One who hears our prayers. The faith that our prayers are heard gives prayer power. We don’t have to be alone in grief. We have a witness, perhaps the ultimate Witness, to both our troubles and our triumphs. Our extraordinary times will be heard by the One who hears.grateful-heart

The core of This Grateful Heart, my newest book from CCAR Press, however, is bringing prayer into the routine flow of our lives. Waking in the morning. Going to sleep at night. The change of seasons. Holy days. Regular days. Shabbat. We recognize that the regular practice of gratitude in prayer will enrich our days and help us get through the tougher times.

To create this collection I reread every one of my pieces, more than 600 liturgical works. As you might imagine, with such a large body of work I’d lost my connection with some of these prayers. Creating This Grateful Heart gave me an opportunity to reconnect with my own prayers, to remember the love that went into each piece. To remember why I wrote each one. That was a real gift.

This book is aimed at both personal and communal prayer. That was a key challenge in creating this anthology. By design, most of the pieces in This Grateful Heart can do ‘double-duty.’ While individuals and families will find voice for their hopes and aspirations, rabbis will find prayers and readings that engage us in t’filah – in worship – as well as a rich resource for counseling congregants.

The flow and organization of the prayers, matching the rhythms of our lives, gives This Grateful Heart a unique warmth and charm. The experience is much different than reading a classic anthology organized by topic. This Grateful Heart connects deeply into the flow of time and seasons. It can be used in private prayer and in communal worship. As a book of prayers, it’s versatile. As a spiritual guide, it brings both intimacy and tenderness, as well as a sense of strength.

Prayer and gratitude elevate us. Prayer and gratitude light our way. This is not always easy. My own love affair with prayer has had rocky moments, moments when I resisted prayer, moments when I resisted my higher gut instinct that prayer would guide me to healing. That’s one of the reasons that this book moves with the cycles of our lives. Any day a prayer is needed, any day someone decides to say a prayer, or to deepen a personal prayer practice, there’s a doorway here, in this book.

We pray in joy, fear, sorrow and loss. We pray to celebrate, to mourn, to create a connection with beauty, hope and love. Prayer is an expression of our inner voice. We pray as an expression of gratitude. I hope that people will see This Grateful Heart as a prayerbook, a resource kit, a spiritual practice, an inspiration, and a source of hope.

Alden Solovy is a liturgist, author, journalist and teacher. His writing was transformed by multiple tragedies, marked in 2009 by the sudden death of his wife from catastrophic brain injury. Solovy’s teaching spans from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem to Limmud UK and synagogues throughout the U.S. The Jerusalem Post called his writing “soulful, meticulously crafted.” Huffington Post Religion said “…the prayers reflect age-old yearnings in modern-day situations.” Solovy is a three-time winner of the Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism. He made aliyah to Israel in 2012, where he hikes, writes, teaches, and learns. He is the author of This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day, now available from CCAR Press.

Categories
Books

Nu, Did You Know? What’s New For You from CCAR Press

There is so much going on around us that it is easy to let information slip through the cracks. As we head toward Convention, our annual opportunity to come together as a community face-to-face, we want to take a moment and bring you up to date on some of the resources now available to you from CCAR Press.

The CCAR Press has been providing essential resources for the Jewish community for over a century. With the recent addition of our new imprint, Reform Jewish Publishing (RJP), as well as our ongoing development of a wide-range of electronic products, we find ourselves in an exciting new position. Now we are able to extend our support to rabbis worldwide, whether through eBook versions of classic texts, our growing collection of Visual T’filah, or any one of our liturgical publications. And by providing such support, we are blessed with the opportunity to support our Jewish community at large. As the primary publisher of the Reform Movement, we see it as our responsibility to not only provide the highest standards of support to our members, colleagues, and friends, but that we are able to directly connect with and strengthen the many communities of which we are lucky enough to be a part.

In an effort to better serve you and every one of your unique communities, we have launched several new Press initiatives. The first, our CCAR Press Resources initiative, provides material and event planning services to lay leaders, gift shop professionals, and congregants. Whether seeking educational resources for Temple programming, customized material for upcoming events, or a message of inspiration to share with the community, CCAR Press is here to help! Coupled with our 2015 Gift Shop Initiative, which provides resources for gift shop professionals at significantly discounted rates, our new Resources initiative makes it as easy as possible for you to introduce and utilize the most current and essential Jewish resources to your friends, family, and congregants. Please contact info@ccarpress.org for questions and tailor-made materials.

This is a time for learning and conversation, and we believe that in fostering community-wide conversations with accessible Jewish resources, we can aid in restoring and sustaining the unity and strength of our community worldwide. To that end, we’ve also introduced our Host an Event Program, created to help you organize and host community events in your congregations, schools, libraries, and Jewish Community Centers. Here at the CCAR, we know that no community is the same, and we’re excited to work together to determine how we can best meet your distinct needs.

Launched in 2016, The Sacred Calling Event Program continues to connect and inform congregants throughout the nation, and we are excited to announce that this program remains available for communities through 2017. Meant to facilitate an ongoing conversation about the impactful reality of women in the rabbinate, this program uses the narratives provided in the award-winning CCAR Press publication, The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate, as a launch-pad from which communities may begin to add their own voice to the continuing narrative of equality in the Jewish world. In celebrating the accomplishments of the past, we encourage you to consider the future, and to discuss the actions you can take against prevailing inequalities in your own communities.

New in 2017, we also offer a Grateful Heart Event Program, which features our new publication from poet and liturgist Alden Solovy. This Grateful Heart: Psalms and Prayers for a New Day provides a uniquely original anthology of modern day psalms and prayers to lift us up, inspire our days, and mark our milestones, spanning topics from the simple delights of daily living to the complexities of grief and sorrow. We offer this program not only with the conviction that Solovy’s words will speak to our own personal moments of grief and joy, gratitude and struggle, but with the hope that these prayers will speak to your collective hearts, giving you the opportunity to bring your community together with the simple yet formidable power of prayer. For more information about these programs, please see the links above. For a full list of upcoming events, visit events.ccarpress.org.

Finally, and in response to requests, we have launched Your Jewish Library, a one-stop-shop for the home libraries of anyone who hopes to further immerse themselves in the rich heritage of our tradition. From CCAR Press classics to critically acclaimed Torah commentaries from RJP, we offer essential Jewish resources to enhance your Jewish life and learning. All titles included in Your Jewish Library are offered at a discount, providing the perfect opportunity for congregants to  stock their shelves with important Reform resources.

As always, we continue to develop new publications, resources, promotional material for your bulletins and mailings, and programs that will help us to help you in strengthening your communities and, ultimately, in strengthening our Movement. Please contact us to learn how you can work with your local libraries, gift shops, and JCC’s to better introduce Jewish resources to your communities, continue important conversations pertaining to our Movement, and to come together in empowerment and gratitude over our shared heritage, traditions, and faith.

Please plan to visit the CCAR Press area at Convention. Meet our staff, and find out what we can do for you. See you in Atlanta!

Rabbi Hara Person is Publisher of CCAR Press and Director of Strategic Communications for the Central Conference of American Rabbis

Categories
Books shabbat

Creating Holy Moments

A way to deepen the Shabbat experience involves less talking and more silence—something focused more internally. It is a practice called mindfulness. The following essay, exerpted from Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition, explores how mindfulness can be part of your Shabbat practice.

 

Be Like God

The opening narrative in the Book of Genesis introduces us to a hard-working and busy God, creating the entire world, according to the Torah, in just six days. The Book of Exodus introduces us to another aspect of God’s identity. Here the Torah reminds us, “On the seventh day [God] ceased from work and was refreshed” (Exodus 31:17). The Hebrew words of this verse, bayom hashvi-i shavat vayinafash, are part of the V’shamru prayer sung on Friday night; they are also used to introduce the Kiddush on Shabbat morning.asset_image

The words tell us about God and speak to the human condition as well. They suggest that on the seventh day, we can be like God. We can become still; we can settle in, breathe deeply, and be refreshed. The rituals for the Shabbat table blessings are built around the Torah’s suggestion that God’s actions on the seventh day of creation are a model for all of us—men and women, teenagers, and even children. Work six days with a full heart at whatever you do and then stop. Stop and do something godlike, shavat vayinafash, sit still and breathe, become refreshed, and then return to the sacred work that fills our days, expressing creativity, working for freedom, repairing a broken world.

 

The Invitation

Shabbat is an invitation to slow down, to become more mindful of your self and your place in creation. The table blessings and rituals are tools to help make the transition from busy to not. It can be challenging to accept this sacred invitation, which is why it helps to keep the following in mind:

  • Slowing down is important.
  • Silence is good.
  • Posture makes a difference.
  • Any attempt at prayer is enough.
  • Even smiling helps!

Accepting the invitation to Shabbat and preparing to celebrate at the table can help us change pace and enable us to pay attention to how we move our bodies, use our breath, and quiet our minds. It’s a tiny taste of how we could live our lives, more attuned to the natural world, with greater connections to other people and greater awareness of God’s example.

 

Your Preparation

Even the physical act of setting out the candlesticks, the Kiddush cup, and the challah can help you begin to move into Shabbat with intention. The mindfulness meditations, which are offered along with the Home Service, can lead you further. You might try using one each week; perhaps do the same one for a few weeks in a row, or rotate them at other times. Some Fridays the process will feel right. You’ll know it has “worked.” Other times you may have less success. Remember that it is a practice, so we keep practicing, being grateful when we succeed and forgiving ourselves when we don’t.

 

Creating the Moment—Even Before Saying the Blessings

Experiment with the following steps when your friends and family arrive at the table ready to welcome Shabbat.

Stand with your feet planted about shoulders’ width apart. (This can also be done by those who

choose to remain seated.) This is a sturdy and deliberate stance.

Push your shoulders down and lengthen your spine to actually feel taller.
Close your eyes in order to focus better on your breath. If that is uncomfortable, just lower your

gaze to give everyone at the table some privacy.

Unclench your jaw, and loosen the muscles around your mouth.

Take one or two or even three long, slow, deep cleansing breaths in and out—inhaling so

deeply that you can actually feel your heart lift and ribs rise in your chest. It’s good to hear the sound of the breath, making its way from the world into the body and out again.

Open your eyes or raise your gaze.

Smile.

Turn to the Home Service or one of the readings or meditations in Gates of Shabbat.

Read aloud—slowly, very slowly—paying attention to the pause of each comma, the rest after

each period, the open space between each paragraph.

When you are done reading, pause again—counting to five in your head. There is no rush.

Take another deep breath in and out.
Smile again.
Notice how Shabbat has arrived.

Shavat vayinafash. Now you are into the moment. Hold an image or a word in your mind and then . . . then it is time, depending on which meditation you are using, to strike the match, raise the Kiddush cup, or remove the cover from the challah and begin to bless.

Mark Dov Shapiro is Rabbi Emeritus of Sinai Temple in Springfield, MA. He is the editor of Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition, published in 2016 by CCAR Press.

Excerpted from Gates of Shabbat, Revised Edition, edited by Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro and published in 2016 by CCAR Press.

 

Categories
Books Death spirituality

What is Your Concept of Soul and Afterlife?

As we ask big questions during the High Holy Days, Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, presents a range of Jewish responses to both theological and philosophical questions pertaining to God, humanity, and the Jewish people. In the spirit of the High Holy Days, we would like to share some of the inspirational responses included in the book, for a thoughtful and meaningful New Year.

In yoga class we do an exercise where we imagine holding a basketball in our hands. With minds focused on the present, feet planted, and hearts lifted, with our hands we trace the shape, push against the edges, even toss it into the air and catch it. We can feel the ball even though we can’t see it; we interact with it even though it is not there. The same is true of the souls of our loved ones after they have died.

At the first Yizkor service led by Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, nearly twenty-five years after my mother died, he taught something that has taken me twenty-five years to understand: “Our relationships with our loved ones continue even after they are gone.” Like the basketball at yoga class, we can’t see them or feel them, but we can hold them, and our relationships with their souls, with our own souls touched by them, continue.LITFXXX_Page_1

For many years I thought my soul, the sparkling sacred essence of who I am, was a response to my mother’s death, that I am who I am because she died, that I took on her soul when we buried her young body. But now I know that isn’t entirely true. I have my own soul, formed and shaped, expressing my own values, dreams, and personality, breathed into me by God on the day I was born, not on the day she died. I am a wife and mother, a friend and a rabbi, not only because my mother died when I was a child, but because in the eleven years that we had together in this world, she shared her soul, her passions and commitments, with me—and because in the years since I have made them my own. She was clear and consistent about her core values, and they endure and find new expression in my life: hospitality, Jewish life in America and Israel, teaching and learning, nurturing friendship, being part of a complicated family, expressing creativity, being organized and in charge. With my feet planted, as I breathe deeply, focus quietly, lift my heart, feel confident and supported, I can see her soul and my own. I feel and embrace our ever-evolving and deepening relationship, life and after-life, breathing together for eternity.

Rabbi Debra J. Robbins serves Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, TX.

Excerpted from Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, edited by Rabbi Paul Citrin and published in 2015 by CCAR Press.

Categories
Books High Holy Days spirituality

What is God’s Relationship to Suffering and Evil?

As we ask big questions during the High Holy Days, Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, presents a range of Jewish responses to both theological and philosophical questions pertaining to God, humanity, and the Jewish people. In the spirit of the High Holy Days, we would like to share some of the inspirational responses included in the book, for a thoughtful and meaningful New Year.

I imagine that God weeps at the sufferings of the whole disharmonious natural world. If God does weep with us, it is with a heart that we wrote into the story. We invented God’s heart, our greatest contribution to God’s tale.

I cannot know why suffering and evil exist. No work of fiction is free of it. It is the stuff of timeless story. However, our greatest spiritual resistance to suffering is metaphor and interpretation. To interpret is divine. God breathed that ability into us.

LITFXXX_Page_1A traditional Jewish ritual response to nightmares is called “the Amelioration of a Dream” (Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 55b). The ritual requires three friends to declare that the dream be interpreted for good. The text explains that all dreams have a hint of prophecy; however, all dreams can be interpreted positively. In fact, the prophecy of the dream lies partially in its interpretation. The dreamer says three times, Adonai shamati v’yareiti—God, I heard what You made me hear and I was frightened. Three friends respond with the prescribed words, “Choose life, for God has already approved your deeds. Repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the decree.”

We dream, but we are also dreamt. We are written, and within that story, we write. It is said in Torah and our liturgy: U’vayom hash’vi-i shavat vayinafash, “On the seventh day God ‘rested.’” Translators struggle in translating vayinafash, suggesting, “On the seventh day God rested and was refreshed.” Vayinafash, however, literally means God “ensouled.” On the seventh day God rested and created spirits. Out of God’s dark, void chamber before Creation, God suddenly dreamed a dream/nightmare and based on that dream/nightmare, the world was sketched and animated in full color. We are the dream/ nightmare. We have little control over the outcome except to interpret it for the good.

A congregant had a double mastectomy and did not know how to love herself afterwards. She would stand before a mirror naked, seeing herself as grotesque. We sought a metaphor that would help her to see herself in a new light. We imagined her body as a sacred altar and that her breasts were the sacrifices that redeemed her life. Years later she told me that now when she stands before the mirror, she thinks “sacred altar” and has found a love for herself inside that she thought had disappeared. She reinterpreted her nightmare through metaphor.

Rabbi Zoe Klein serves Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, CA.

Excerpted from Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, edited by Rabbi Paul Citrin and published in 2015 by CCAR Press.

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Books Torah

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary — A Love Story

It began as many new relationships do:  I was curious but tentative.  How would this new entity fit into my life?  Did I really need it?  Could I make room for it in my over-stuffed brain and on my increasingly crowded bookshelves?

I received The Torah:  A Women’s Commentary as a gift during my fourth year of rabbinical school at HUC-JIR.  My professor, Dr. Andrea Weiss, was one of its editors.  Dr. Weiss was thrilled to share this project—into which so much love, care, and scholarship had been poured—with me and my fellow classmates.  Although I accepted the gift with gratitude, I wondered how much I would actually use yet another Torah commentary.  And what about this commentary’s emphasis on women?  I had read—and felt uncomfortable with—ways of approaching the Bible that sought to project the author’s agenda onto the sacred text.

The goal of the Commentary, I learned, was to share “the variety of Torah interpretations, past and present”[1] that would help its users enter the cross-generational conversation that is Torah study.  Its editors wanted to create a commentary that “would help women reclaim Torah by gathering together the scholarship and insights of women across the Jewish spectrum and around the world.”[2]  The Board of Directors of Women of Reform Judaism, which sponsored the project, wanted the commentary to “provide a way into Torah study for women who had previously felt excluded or marginalized.”[3] The Commentary encompassed recent discoveries about the richness and complexity of life in the Ancient Near East.  Its authors and contributors included scholars such as Dr. Ellen Umansky, Dr. Amy-Jill Levine, Dr. Carol Meyers, Dr. Judith Hauptman, Dr. Tikva Frymer-Kensky, and Blu Greenberg.  This was my kind of agenda!WTC - Jewish Book Award - Updated

I began to use The Torah: A Women’s Commentary in my studies at HUC-JIR, at my student pulpit, and in my work after ordination.  The way in which the commentary combines traditional rabbinic sources and contemporary scholarship dovetails with my own approach to Torah study.  Each parashah begins with an introduction and outline, which provides an overview of the Torah portion and its themes.  The central commentary, a running exegesis, is patterned after the way commentary is presented in Mikraot G’dolot.  Short essays by contemporary biblical scholars elaborate on or challenge the central commentary’s point of view.  Each parashah includes teachings from rabbinic literature and other commentaries, presented by a scholar of rabbinic literature—sources that I could explore in greater detail on my own if I desired.  I liked each parashah’s contemporary reflection, an essay by a current Jewish scholar, about what meaning the text has for us today.  I was often moved by the voices section, which offers creative interpretations—mostly poetry—of the parashah’s themes.

My relationship with The Torah: A Women’s Commentary entered a new phase when I became one of the writers for its Study Guides. Conceived as part of the original project, the Study Guides are designed to be used in conjunction with the Commentary.  Writing the study guides allowed me to immerse myself in all aspects of the Commentary.  As I prepared each guide, I focused on the overarching themes in each parashah, and sought to understand—with the help of the central commentary—the p’shat of the text.  I thought about the questions I had about the text, and about how I could help those studying the Torah portion to answer these and other questions, using the resources in the Commentary.  With the guidance of Dr. Weiss and Dr. Lisa Grant, editors of the Study Guide project and master teachers of Torah, I learned to ask questions that would help students delve more deeply into the text.  I wrote questions arising from other sections of the Commentary that I hoped would lead to a greater understanding of the biblical text and to how our rabbinic ancestors, contemporary scholars, and poets saw each parashah.  I asked questions that I hoped would allow students using the study guide to think about relationships between the biblical text and their own lives.

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary is the commentary to which I turn first—for my own study, when I am preparing a D’var Torah, or when I am getting ready to teach.  It is the Torah commentary that I recommend most frequently to students.

I often use poems from the voices section in my sermons.  Although it is difficult to choose a favorite, this poem by Barbara D. Holender [4] expresses eloquently the joys of immersing ourselves—aided by this wonderful Commentary—in the sacred song that is Torah:

Torah

 

Even when you hold it in your arms,
you have not grasped it.
Wrapped and turned it upon itself
the scroll says, Not yet.

 

Even when you take them into your eyes,
you have not seen them: elegant
in their crowns the letter stand aloof.

 

Even when you taste them in your mouth
and roll them on the tongue
or bite the sharp unyielding strokes
they say, Not yet.

 

And when the sounds pour from your throat
and reach deep into your lungs for breath,
even the words say, Not quite.

 

But when your heart knows its own hunger
and your mind is seized and shaken,
and in the narrow space between the lines
your soul builds its nest,

 

Now, says Torah, now
you begin to understand.

 

 

Rabbi Stephanie Bernstein serves Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Virginia, as well as teaches the Introduction to Judaism program for URJ in the DC area. She also was one of the writers of the Study Guides for The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.  Purchase the The Torah:  A Women’s Commentary.

[1] The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, “Women and Interpretation of the Torah,” p. xl

[2] The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, “Forward,” p. xxv

[3] Ibid

[4] The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, “Torah,” p. 1234