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.



Categories
Chanukah Holiday

The Full Story of Chanukah Has Much to Say to Us Today

In the fall of 1976, a young Jew stood at the crossroads. Recently confirmed, just back from a summer in Israel, a veteran of our URJ camps, and now a religious school intern — for the first time honestly confronting the story he, and countless generations of Jews, had learned about Chanukah. The one where a religious zealot named Judah Maccabee, with the help of a ragtag bunch of pious Jews, defeated the army of the evil King Antiochus. And when they rededicated the Temple, the story of the miraculous oil that burned for eight days.

That kid was me, and it seemed like we had learned that Chanukah was a celebration of militant Jewish zealotry. In 1976, the only contemporary Jew who fit that description was Meir Kahane of the JDL, a Jew I wanted nothing to do with. So why should I celebrate this holiday if he was the modern embodiment of Judah Maccabee? And, worse, if that is what Judaism values, why should I want to be Jewish?

Fortunately, I found myself at a teachers’ workshop, taught by Rabbi Manny Gold, where, for the first time, I learned of the Books of the Maccabees and the Apocrypha, and an entirely different tradition for why we celebrate Chanukah — one that made more sense to me and might just have saved me for Judaism. So, when I got to rabbinic school, I was open to harmonizing the two versions under the tutelage of Rabbi Martin Cohen, and found an even deeper story.

A story that starts with Jews divided over the best way to approach our Jewishness — either exclusively according to our traditions, or as part of seeking to participate in the larger (Greek) society. A division of the community in and around Jerusalem severe enough to cause King Antiochus to declare martial law in Judea to calm things down. Martial law, in this case, meant suspending the “constitution” (i.e., Torah) and sending in the troops to enforce the ban, garrisoning them in the most secure location in Jerusalem — the Temple complex.

This becomes the background against which Judah enters the story, not as a religious zealot, but as a compromise leader that the previously feuding Jewish factions all could rally behind to fight the common enemy. Among Judah’s first actions as leader was to allow his forces to take up arms on Shabbat — hardly the act of a religious zealot, but smart strategy, which eventually also allowed them to attack the enemy on Shabbat, to gain the element of surprise.

Using these tactics, Judah was able to hold the Syrian-Greek army at bay for three years, by which time there was enough going on elsewhere in Antiochus’s kingdom to convince him to pull his troops from Jerusalem. In the Maccabees version of the story, this led to cleaning the Temple from the Greek soldiers’ use, and an eight-day rededicatory celebration based either on Sukkot, or Solomon’s dedication festival after building the original Temple.

If things ended here, we would have a story that speaks to the tension between traditionalism and assimilation, and, as we will see, teaches us important values still today. But the story doesn’t end there, and over the next 700 years takes a series of twists and turns — all of which end up reinforcing these same values. The feuding picks up and is eventually ended by Judah’s last brother Simon, who inaugurates the Hasmonean Dynasty, which loses its control when the group that will become the Pharisees, and then the rabbis removes its support, leading to the Roman takeover that eventually leads to the destruction of the Temple and the rise of Rabbinic Judaism. Once in power, the rabbis try to make Chanukah go away, but cannot, and so add the oil story to recast it within parameters that they can live with. (Yes, that summary was rushed, for space reasons, but these events are each well worth studying and understanding on their own!).

For the next 1000 years, the oil story becomes the only story Jews learn within our isolated communities — so even though it is added late with deliberate purpose, it is important to see that without it, there is no guarantee that the holiday survives on its own into the modern world, given the rabbis’ earlier efforts to make it disappear. It is only when Judaism emerges from isolation into the world of the Enlightenment and America that we Jews finally have access to both versions of the history.

So, at roughly the same time we American Jews were elevating the significance of Chanukah, mostly in response to the commercialization of Christmas around us, we also were given the texts, the opportunity, and the responsibility to change our understanding of the Chanukah story, bringing both versions together. Doing so replaces the miracle story with one that, with multiple examples over time, emphasizes for us the importance of rededicating ourselves to being serious Jews, participating more fully in the life of the Jewish community and its institutions, adapting our Jewish practice to allow us to navigate successfully between the polar pulls of strict traditionalism and full assimilation, and live lives of positive Jewish value.

And THAT is a story that has much to teach us about our Jewish life today.

Rabbi Steve Weisman is the rabbi of Temple Solel in Bowie, MD and a long-time teacher of the Chanukah story to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.

Categories
Israel

Yom HaAtzmaut, One Family’s Home-Based Practice

Congratulations! You made it through all of the big feelings of Yom HaZikaron, and emerged into one of the best days of any small child’s life – a birthday! It’s Israel’s birthday! Let’s throw Israel a party! And the best part of any birthday is cake. Obviously.

However, thanks to two of your four of small children developing nightmares, REM sleep is now only a thing that other people do. Survival mode it is!

Ingredients:

  • A box of cake mix, Funfetti recommended for extra awesomeness
  • Duncan Hines white icing
  • Sprinkles, ideally in blue and yellow
  • Festive cupcake papers, because asking the children to share cake decorating duties is for people who love unnecessary arguments

Instructions:

  • Spend 20 minutes and what you are sure is half of the Earth’s clean water supply washing hands before you cook.
  • Follow directions on the box, making sure to keep the babies from eating too much raw egg.
  • Feed the children what you hope will be a lovely, balanced lunch that inevitably devolves into their exclusive diet of yogurt and cheddar bunnies while the cupcakes bake.
  • Wait for cupcakes to cool because last year you ignored this advice and burned everyone’s fingers. Just to enhance your already blossoming Jewish parental guilt, the children still talk about the time we all touched the “too hot cake.”
  • Have the children first apply white icing, then decorate with sprinkles. Extra points for encouraging the kids to practice lines and shapes by making a Star of David from two triangles.
  • Enjoy the cupcakes with your sweet and beloved children. Allow the sugar high to wash over you, hopefully carrying you through the next thirty minutes, when you will permit yourself to have a fourth cup of coffee for the day.

Rabbi Lauren Ben-Shoshan, M.A.R.E., resides in Palo Alto, California with her energetic husband and their four very small perpetual motion machines children. 

 

Categories
General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism

Blurred Lines: The Role of a Rabbi

Thanksgiving can be a great time to be with extended family. . . Especially when it isn’t your own.

Even so it’s hard not to long for the familiarity of home, childhood memories, food that mom used to make.  Of course going home can also involve family drama and return us to familiar roles no matter how old we are or how much we have achieved.  This can be even more complicated when it’s you, the rabbi, spending time with family.

When I am with my extended family for holidays, especially Jewish holidays, I find myself in a strange space negotiating my role as relative and rabbi.

Often times I am with my in-laws, in their home for Passover.  When I have a seat at their Seder table, what role should I play?  I have the most Jewish knowledge at the table.  I have ideas that could enliven the Seder.  Yet, I have a different role too; I am a participant and son-in-law.  I’m not the family rabbi, I am not in charge and I admit it’s nice to have the “night off” and enjoy watching my father-in-law lead the Seder.

Rabbi Charles Briskin

Roles at the Seder are easy to negotiate. How do we respond when we are called to help family members or friends in their time of need?  What is our primary role? Rabbi or family member/friend?

A little over a month ago, my uncle died.  He was 86, and had been in declining health for some time. I called to check in with my aunt and cousins.  ‘Hi Terri” I said, when my cousin picked up the phone.  “Rabbi Chuckie,” she said with relief upon hearing my voice. (Only family who have known me since I was 10 or younger can call me that!)  “Rabbi Chuckie” I thought to myself?  I’m not their rabbi, I’m family.  I gently reminded my cousin that I am the family member who happens to be a rabbi.  Even so, I was pulled into that rabbinic role of helping my family in their (really in our) time of grief and loss.

I was then asked by their family rabbi to help officiate at his service and offer a eulogy.   Was this because I was so close to my uncle and could offer special insight?  No.  I was being honored for my title.  It wasn’t easy being the rabbi for so many people who have known me since I was called “Chuckie.” I would’ve preferred to have been sitting next to my mother (my uncle’s sister) rather than on the bimah.  However, those lines were blurred.  That day I was the rabbi more than the nephew.

These two experiences are powerful reminders of how complicated and blurry our roles in private life can be as spouses, parents, children, in-laws and friends who happen to be rabbis.  Where do we draw our boundaries?  How flexible must they be?  Are there times when we can truly step outside of our rabbinic role simply to be the truest essence of who we are, stripped of the vestments that we place on ourselves and that others place on us as well?  I am sure Edwin Friedman and Jack Bloom have written about this already, and I should return to their works to see what they suggest.  My sense is that we simply need to be attuned to the way we project our more public role (as rabbi) even when we are trying to be family or friend first.   Our relationships with those who knew us before we became rabbis are vital and can be quite liberating as well.  Nevertheless, among the many things we are to them, “rabbi” is one of those roles we play.

We should accept the way others view us. We can never turn it off completely.  If our friends or family members need us to provide rabbinic guidance, do it.  That’s what a good friend would do.  And the opportunity to name a friend’s baby or stand under the huppah with a cousin is a unique blessing.  Know, too, that we can offer something even more substantial.  The power of a deeper connection that goes well beyond the rabbi-congregant relationship.  Our primary role is friend or family member.  However, be the best rabbi you can in that time, especially a time of need.  It is the blessing of this role and offers unparalleled opportunities for profound moments of sacred meaning.

 Rabbi Charles Briskin serves Temple Beth El in San Pedro, CA