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
Death Healing spirituality

If I Should Meet God

A disciple came to his rabbi and lamented: “Rabbi, I have all these terrible thoughts. I am even afraid to say them. I feel absolutely terrible that I can even think these thoughts. Rabbi, I simply cannot believe. Sometimes I even think that God doesn’t exist.”

“Why not, my son?” the rabbi asked.

“Because I see in this world deceit and corruption.”

The rabbi answered: “So why do you care?

The disciple continued: “I see in this world hunger, poverty, and homelessness.”

And the rabbi once again responded: “So why do you care?”

The disciple protested: “if God is absent there is no purpose to the entire world. And if there is no purpose to the entire world, then there is no purpose to life – and that troubles my soul greatly.”

Then the rabbi said to his troubled follower: “Do not be disturbed. If you care so much, you are a believer!”

When the atheist Stephen Fry is questioned as to what he would say if he met God, he leaves the interviewer at a loss for words when he responds: “if I should meet God I’ll say: “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is so much misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil!”

As a rabbi wrote: “it is time to raise the bar in the conversation about religion and faith, with the knowledge that most people, whether religious, agnostic, atheist, or whatever-ish, truly do want to do what is right, to find and express love, to live a life of purpose, and to be in a meaningful relationship with others.”

“It is good to question and challenge those with whom we disagree, but we deserve more than pithy catch phrases, caricatures of those who we have defined as our enemy, and the childish need to win. Human beings can be glorious creatures who, through conscious choice, can bring healing to the world, and we all need to do this together.”

In my many years as a rabbi, and especially since my illness, I have come to believe that more important than any theology or system of belief is caring, compassion and loving kindness. I have evolved spiritually to believe that no matter what we believe or don’t believe the true heart of our humanity is human goodness and decency.

Rabbi Hirshel Jaffe serves as Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Jacob in Newburgh, NY.  Rabbi Jaffe just celebrated his 80th Birthday in Israel after surviving cancer for the fourth time. 

This blog was originally posted on The Running Rabbi. 

Categories
spirituality

Spirituality in the Rabbinate

I was ordained in 2007, and accepted the position as the solo rabbi in a very small, extremely remote congregation in southeast Alabama.  My nearest colleague (Rabbi Elliot Stevens) is a two hour drive away.  Mine is the only synagogue in 100 mile radius, and we are located in the buckle of the Bible Belt where it is assumed if you walk and breathe, you must be a Christian.  My congregation is wonderful, and I have really enjoyed my 8 1/2 years here.

However, I should tell you that while I learned so much at HUC, I was not prepared spiritually at all.  We never talked about our relationships with God, we never prayed, except at services. Every meeting here in the south begins with a prayer, and I swear I was a deer in the headlights the first time I was asked to begin a meeting with a spontaneous prayer.

I think the lack of spiritual training hurts us and it hurts our congregations.  I have never once been asked to translate Talmud; in fact, most of my congregants only have a vague idea what Talmud is.  But when I do sermons or adult education on prayer or God, I am overwhelmed by the response. There is such a hunger among our congregants for a relationship with God, to learn about God and prayer.  And it is the area where I seem to have the least expertise.  Thank goodness for good books!

And I have so felt so empty spiritually myself so much of the time.  I cannot pray during services.  I have no cantor, so it is just me leading services and the music.  How can I do all that and focus on God?  It just doesn’t happen. I tried praying on my own using the prayer book.  That did not work at all.  And I am so busy because I am the only rabbi around.  It is truly a 24/7 job. Finding time to enhance my spirituality falls on the back burner.

I have been fortunate to be involved with a group of Christian clergy women, all seminary ordained. We meet once a month to study, or to let our hair down and complain about how the robes never fit right, or why dresses and slacks don’t have pockets to put your portable mike in, or most importantly to share serious problems we are having. There are many people down here who don’t think women should be leading a congregation, so we are a support group for each other.

I was surprised when I found out that all of the other clergy in my group are REQUIRED to have spiritual direction.  Required!!  The nun from the Catholic Church is REQUIRED to go to a spirituality retreat every year.  I wondered why we Reform Rabbis do not have anything like that.  I thought about it for a very long time, and finally approached one of the women ministers to ask about spiritual direction.  Of course, a Jewish spiritual director is out of the question here in Alabama, but I have a director who is Methodist. I have been seeing her once a month, driving two hours each way.  I’m slowly but surely getting my head straight and reestablishing the relationship I had with God before I started HUC.  I find it ironic that I lost the relationship I had with God which helped propel me into HUC while I was at HUC.  In any event, I look forward to seeing Lesley each month, and think I am becoming a better rabbi because of the explorations I am doing with her.

So I want to ask, why do we not have any training in this most important aspect of our rabbinate?  I took four required classes in Talmud, yet never talked to anyone about God, except theoretically as part of a Bible class or Philosophy.  I know now that the Institute for Jewish Spirituality does very good work in this field.  I am also aware that some inroads for spirituality training have been made on the LA and NY campuses of HUC, but I have not heard anything about Cincinnati.  And Rabbi Rex Perlmeter wrote a blog post around the High Holy Days about spirituality programs he is doing through the CCAR.  We are becoming more aware of the need to talk and teach about spirituality and our relationship with God.  I hope it continues and becomes an integral part of training for future rabbis.

Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith serves Temple Emanu-El of Dothan, Alabama

Categories
spirituality

How is Your Jewish Self?

Out of nowhere, in a Facebook message, she asked her father, who is more Jewish– you or Rabbi Kedar?

And so, in a Facebook message to me, he relayed the message, my daughter wants to know who is more Jewish, me or you.

I answered; we are not in a contest, no winner or loser. Just a journey toward expansiveness. I walk with you, I said to him. Let us consider together a few more questions. My guess is, I said, we are equally engaged in four of the five categories? He agreed.

And so now I ask you, how is your Jewish self?

Judaism is belonging: Do I claim Judaism as my past, my tradition, my heritage and my people? Do I cast my destiny with the Jewish people? Do Jewish rituals, customs matter to me? Am I part of a Jewish community? Do I participate in that community? Do I care? Do I belong?

Judaism is choice and consciousness: Am I a Jew by default or by intention? Is my Judaism white noise in the background until some event turns up the volume? Like High Holidays. Or my child’s Bar Mitzvah. Or when someone I love dies. Or an attack on Israel. When I am uncomfortable do I hide my Jewishness? Even at work? Am I satisfied with a seventh grade Jewish education? Or do I choose more?

Judaism is a perspective: Do I see the world through the lens of my Jewish sense of ethics? Is the Jewish story my story? Am I aware of being Jewish everyday? Is Judaism an integrated part of my life? When I see, watch the world and when I try to understand my life, do I have a Jewish filter? Sometimes? Ever?

Judaism is what I do: Do I pray? Bless? Study? Read? Give away my time and volunteer? Give away my money and help others? Do I give away my kindness, and heal? Do I have a sense of obligation to behave in a Jewish way? Do I feel the rhythm of the Jewish calendar? Does Jewish time enter into my time? Shabbat? Holidays?

Judaism is tending to the spirit: Am I aware of my spiritual life? Do I talk to God? Do I allow myself to struggle with my faith? Does my life have meaning? Do I have purpose? Do I sit quietly, settle down. Ever? Do I practice love?

I pose the questions, to me, to you. Everyday is an answer.

Rabbi Karyn Kedar is the senior rabbi at Congregation BJBE, in Deerfield, IL.

Categories
Prayer Rabbis

Texas: Unexpected Moments of Awe

It has happened to me (more than once in my lifetime) that a person will come and tell me something about what will happen next in my life. It is most often a very specific bit of advice from someone I know but not well; it is normally not someone I would seek out for counsel. And every time it is the same thing: the person will see me out at a social gathering – often at a gathering in which it was not a given that I would be there – and announce to me ‘I have a message for you,’ as if they had just listened to a voice mail addressed specifically to me.

When that happens, I know to listen: the person will invariably tell me something that I need to know about what will happen next.

The most recent example occurred right before I started my job search a few years ago. At a party, an acquaintance came up (someone who did not know that I was looking for work) and told me the following: ‘You will leave here; there is a move in your future. It will be some place – like Texas – that you’ve never considered before.”

“Texas?” I asked, wondering, “Why Texas?” It’s not the first place I would pick.

She shook her head: “It’s not Texas specifically; it could be Texas, or it could be somewhere else; I can’t tell you where exactly. But it’s a part of the world that you have never considered before. They need you, and you need them. They need to hear what you have to say, and you need them to hear it. You will both benefit.”

Okay.

At that point in the process, I had not even mapped out what I wanted to do. So I took her comments under advisement.

A few months later, I had come to the (somewhat surprising) conclusion that I really wanted to go back to congregational work. I love academics, of course, but I realized that I missed that element of transcendence that hovers over the work of a rabbi.

So I called the Director of Placement and told him that I was thinking of returning to congregational work. After he quizzed me about my general background and interests, his first question regarding my search was: “Have you ever considered living in Texas?”

Okay.

“Texas is fine,” I tell him. “I am open to living in any location.”

It did not turn out to be Texas, but my move was to a place I’d not known existed. Nonetheless, the advice to be open to new places, to leaving, to going somewhere I had not considered before was indeed helpful. When the option came open, I was in a place spiritually and emotionally to accept it, and to do so joyously, without doubt. I left with a clear heart.

I cannot give you a good reason why this phenomenon takes place; I simply cannot explain it. I can tell you that the Bible records several instances of a person – ‘ish’ – who appears mid-narrative with instructions as to what will happen next. Joseph, for example, finds his brothers after encountering such a person.

The person’s instruction is not necessarily one that makes the road smooth; rather, it is an announcement of what needs to happen next. And it has happened enough times now that I heed its call.

And it can be subtle. Recall, for example, the story of Elijah the prophet’s encounter with God. Elijah has retreated to a cave after a difficult set of circumstances to try and regroup. He is a wanted man, and he is experiencing grave doubt. And then he seeks God. This is how the text describes the encounter:

“There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind.”

“After the wind – an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake.”

“After the earthquake – fire; but the Lord was not in the fire.”

“And after the fire – a still, small voice.”

Elijah encounters God as a still small voice after the fire and noise and trembling.

There are things in this life that you just know intuitively, in a spiritual way, in a ‘still, small voice’ kind of way. There is an element of God in that knowledge.

Our perception of the world, as we move through our lives, involves this interplay of presence and absence, of articulate speech and of silent wonder. But we do not ever capture its fullness; in truth, we simply cannot.

As I said: I cannot tell you why it happens, any of it. I can only stand in awe and listen.

Rabbi Kari Tuling, PhD serves Temple Beth Israel and teaches at the State University of New York in Plattsburgh.

Categories
General CCAR News Rabbis Reform Judaism

13 Ways a Rabbi Can Help Jews Recovering from Addictions, and their Loved Ones

I have just co-lead a class at HUC-JIR in their Pastoral Counseling Course on addictions and how Rabbis and congregations can be helpful to Jewish addicts, alcoholics and co-dependents. For eighteen years, I have been blessed to work with Jews with addictions.  I have learned so much from people in recovery about spirituality, perseverance, healing and hope, about God and t’shuvah (repentance).

Through self-study of addictions and recovery literature, running retreats for Jews recovering from addictions, study sessions around holy days, mentoring rabbinic interns on how to support Jews in recovery, and from a CCAR-sponsored week of addictions counseling and spiritual care training at Minnesota’s Hazelden Addictions Treatment Center, these 13 guidelines/suggestions for Rabbis became apparent:

  1. Be Comfortable with 12 Steps: 12 Steps and Judaism are fully compatible. The 12-Steps parallel Rambam’s Laws of Repentance and Rabbenu Yonah of Gerona’s Gates of Repentance. One can work the 12 steps as a believing Jew!
  2. Show parallels between 12 Steps Spirituality and Judaism: Jewish D’veikut (clinging to God): Jews CAN turn themselves over to a Higher Power. Some Rabbis question the “Jewishness” of the 12-Steps because of the latter’s call that addicts “turn themselves over to the Higher Power” (e.g., to become a servant to God’s Will).  To some, this seems to clash with Reform Judaism’s historical opposition to blind faith. Yet it is not so! To quote Lawrence Kushner’s Perush on Likkutei Yehudah’s citing of the Sefas Emes, Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger:
    • To be a servant is more than being servile; it is carrying out the will of an ‘Other.’ It is being the agent, the instrument through which what is supposed to happen, happens.  A good servant is always aware of the importance of his [her] act, and this gives heightened meaning to his [her] life…  Everything we do, and everything we do it with, and everywhere we do it is filled with the Presence of God.   We are free to choose whether or not we will be aware of it, whether we will be servants.  That is Jewish spirituality.
  3. Help remove the Busha (Shame): Each morning a Jew rises to say, Elohai, neshama sheh-natata bi, t’hora hee! – My God, the soul that you have given me, it is pure!  Judaism, when applied correctly, helps lift the shame connected with being in recovery.  We remind ourselves that though as addicts/codependents we may do, or may have done, terrible things with our bodies and minds, our essence (our neshama, soul) remains pure.  This is true, because how else could we rise each morning after a day filled with terrible acts and still say “Elohai, neshama she-natata bi, t’hora hi!”?
  4. Be Amazed at the Spiritual Power of 12 Steps: People who are in recovery are amazing in their spirituality.  They know that they have to turn it over to a Higher Power to recover. God is not a metaphor; the Higher Power is reality in their life.  They know that their Higher Power is saving them from certain death! Wow! Soak in their belief and spirituality.  Learn from it how to speak to others.
  5. Don’t Try to Fix the Addict: If he is in recovery, chances are he got there without your (or the Jewish community’s) help.  If she is an addict, you cannot make her recover.  Rather, listen, and be non-judgmental.  The 12 Steps teach the three C’s: You didn’t Cause it. You cannot Control it.  You cannot Cure it.  The addict has to do the work.  You can be there to be open, listen and accepting.
  6. Welcome them into (or back into) the Jewish community: Many addicts and their families live with shame (see #3 above). Provide them with Jewish resources, including prayers, and Twersky or Olitzky books (Jewish Lights Publishing).  Invite them to study with you.
  7. Buy the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous: Display it prominently over your shoulder. Read it to see how real people find spirituality and God’s help.
  8. Refer to Addiction Recovery and Codependency Help: During Mi Shebeirach d’var refu’ah (words prior to Healing prayer), mention the category of people struggling with addiction and codependency (by category, unless they give specific permission to say their answers) among those for whom you ask for healing.
  9. Open your Synagogue to 12 Step Meetings: Publicize widely, attend if it is an open meeting.
  10. Remember that people in Recovery often “fall off the wagon” multiple times: Be aware of this. Be open to this reality. Don’t be angry when they do; don’t be too hopeful when they are in recovery.  Be non-judgmental.
  11. Know that Addicts lie.
  12. Write a sermon and bulletin article about addiction and recovery every few years.
  13. Read and become familiar with www.JACSweb.org, the website of Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others.
Do you have other suggestions?  Please share them.

Rabbi Paul Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.  This post originally appeared on his blog, Or Am I?