In Need of New Language

The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) needs new God-language and is asking for input. Here are two cents, which I hope will be useful to the CCAR and all who happen upon them.

Searching for Reform perspectives on the Amidah, I stumbled upon a “RavBlog” post relating to one of the blessings. Rabbi Leon Morris, a member of the editorial team for the Reform movement’s inchoate machzor, asked: How “Current” Should a Prayer Book Be?

His post raises a number of questions, ones I’m not sure the author intended but ones the CCAR — and the rest of us — would do well to consider.
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Who Is a Jew and how would the Forward recognize her?

UPDATE, 11/15, 13:36: Both the Jewish Telegraph Agency and the Forward have replaced the original photo with different ones: JTA’s article is now accompanied by a photo of an open Torah held by jacketed arms, adorned with a prayer shawl; the Forward‘s new photo shows three males in kippot (head coverings) with dreidels (Chanukah tops). Neither photo seems to have any relationship to non-Jews at the Torah, but the one that was clearly a mistake is now gone. No correction or apology in either place, however, and it is not clear whether JTA is correcting the mistake with other outlets that might be using their article.
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The Whole World Is Watching

I was young during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when my hometown police violently arrested protestors in Grant Park. I grew up thinking that a chant of “The whole world is watching” and a little press coverage were important tools in social change. And I listened to the Chicago Transit Authority album so often that the words of the “Someday (August 29, 1968)” still come to mind unbidden whenever I witness or learn about police/state violence.

Someday you will see how long we’ve waited for the time
to show you how we’ve got to get together with you all

Songs of Hallel.  Photo: D. Tepfer

Songs of Hallel outside Israeli Embassy, 3/11/13, Rosh Hodesh Nisan, in solidarity with Women of the Wall. Photo: D. Tepfer

This morning (3/12/13), for the first time in months, Women of the Wall in Jerusalem was able to pray without arrest. Most likely the presence of the several Knesset members, secular women who joined in solidarity, prevented arrest. But there were also the prayers and notoriety generated here in Wash, DC and in other U.S. cities.

Although there were no arrests, WOW had to pray through the shouting and taunts of hundreds of men and some women who believe WOW is “desecrating a holy site” with their worship. Lack of arrest does not mean the healing, on either side of the situation, is done.

But Women of the Wall in Israel is international and cross-denominational. Washington Friends of Women of the Wall includes men and women, and yesterday’s solidarity gathering included Conservative, havurah, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal, transdenominational and unaffiliated Jews participating. This, we hope and pray, will be part of getting us all to “Someday.”

More Gratitude: Waking Up in Real Life


It is an age-old Jewish practice to start a day with gratitude and thanks. The question was raised in a recent study session about why tunes for the earliest of morning prayers tend to be very peppy, while not all of us awaken like that. One associated teaching is that we should approach each day with as much vigor as we have. I no of no sleepier versions, so to speak, so perhaps someone needs to compose a “modah ani for slow wakers.”

Early blessings to accompany the acts of awakening — opening the eyes, putting feet on the ground, dressing, etc. — are found in the Talmud (Berakhot 60b) and included, in various orders and with different forms of address to God, in countless Jewish prayer books. Among the blessings recited earliest in the day are those focusing on the soul, body and intellect. This practice is meant to train the Jew to enjoy nothing — not even the functioning of own bodies or brains — without acknowledging and thanking God.

As discussed in Temple Micah’s first Shabbat session on the siddur, the “modah/modeh ani” prayer came into practice more recently — recent, as in the last few hundred years. It is an odd blessing, in Jewish tradition, because it does not mention God’s name. Leaving aside the reasons for this, the real power of the prayer is in practicing conscious direction of thought upon awakening (or as soon thereafter as possible).

In that spirit, here are some further resources and notes:
Gratitude without God
Gratitude with Coffee: in the Midst of Work, Attending to Others
Gratitude in Tough Times and in Mourning

Here are two musical approaches to modah/modeh ani. One was composed by Cantor Jeff Klepper and is frequently sung at Temple Micah; it’s performed in this video a capella by a mother and daughter. Another is Rabbi David Paskin performing his own composition. There are many other versions, but these are two I like.

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“Sacred Religious Duty”

In 1877, Rabbi Leopold Stein, a prominent figure in the Reform movement, published a 36-point catalog of religious ordinances for “present-day Israelites,” entitled “Torath-Chajim” [Living Torah]. This was one of the readings in Temple Micah‘s recent class on “‘Challenges’ in Contemporary Jewish Faith.”

Class reactions to Stein’s specific ordinances were varied. As were responses to his use of “law”: distinguishing between “divine laws of the Bible” and “rabbinical ordinances…which excessively weigh down and impede life,” on the one hand, and, on the other, labeling some “rabbinical institutions” as “sacred obligations to us in the ordering of our religious life and law.”

I was personally struck by two spots in Stein’s text where one form of “obligation” is seen to trump another:

Ordinance #19 of Torath-Chajim insists that “we have both the right and obligation” to set aside rules which make it impossible for a modern business person to observe Shabbat. Ordinance #20 states that it is “a sacred religious duty” to do away with second-day festival celebrations. While the idea of “sacred religious duty” could launch many volumes of discussion, my most powerful response was to wish I heard this phrase more often in contemporary Reform discourse. I particularly miss it when speaking — as Stein is doing — about variant understandings of such duties.
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Chayei Sarah, Shabbat and Transgender Remembrance

Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1 – 25:18), begins:

וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים–שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה
And the life of Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.

We have not heard from Sarah since Chapter 21, when she asked Abraham to send out the maid-servant Hagar and her child, Ishmael, born to Abraham. Midrash offers many suggestions for what happened to Sarah between that moment and her death, reported here. Avivah Zornberg suggests that Sarah died from an experience of “the reversibility of joy,” in relation to the Akedah [binding of Isaac]. (Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, [JPS, 1995], p. 399)

Without short-changing what Zornberg has to say about Sarah’s life and death — which I recommend everyone read — I thought this single idea of death by “reversibility of joy” worth considering…especially as we enter Shabbat tonight, with Transgender Remembrance Day ahead of us and weeks of turmoil behind us.
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Remember Miriam: Process & Patience in Parashat Ki Teitzei

“Remember what your God YHVH did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt.” — Deuteronomy/Devarim 24:9 — What is this personal remembrance doing in the midst of a portion which consists largely of commandment after commandment? And what might it tell us, in these days leading up to the high holidays, about memory and return ([teshuvah])?
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