I want to begin by acknowledging my teacher, Max Ticktin z”l, for whom the period of shloshim is coming to a close and whose connections to Temple Micah are more varied and interesting than I knew before he died. Max taught me — and others in several generations — a lot about who is and […]

Readers may have noticed a long silence on this blog. But I have not been entirely silent. At start of June 2015, I began an additional blog, #SayThisName, to mark those lost to homicide and police action in the District of Columbia. Since then, I have personally typed out and said aloud the names of […]

Instructions to appoint judges “for yourselves,” in “all your tribes,” or, more literally, “in all your gates,” opens the Torah portion Shoftim [judges] (Deut 16:18-21:9), and the famous line, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof… [Justice, justice you shall pursue…],” follows:

שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים,
תִּתֶּן-לְךָ
בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ,
אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ, לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ; וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת-הָעָם, מִשְׁפַּט-צֶדֶק.

Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.
— Deut. 16:18 (mechon-mamre.org; translation “Old JPS”)

Appoint yourselves judges and police for your tribes in all your settlements that God your Lord is giving you, and make sure that they administer honest judgment for the people.
— another translation, from Bible.Ort.Org

Last week at Temple Micah, the commentary discussed the emphasis, throughout Deuteronomy, on centralizing ritual. In contrast, we see here that judges and justices are to be local concerns.

Julia Watts Belser writes in Torah Queeries:

We are asked to find judges who recognize the landscape of our lives, who have lived in similar terrain and can help us navigate its cliffs and fissures. We are expected to come before judges who expect holiness within us and consequently find it – who know our goodness and consequently call it forth.
–“Setting Yourselves Judges,” pages 250-253

She notes that we all belong to many tribes – pointing out that for example, she is a bisexual rabbi with a disability and that queerness alone means belong both to one tribe and many. She asks how her white skin and wheels and Jewishness intersect, concluding that “no single judge will hold all our answers, and no single officer will provide us with a perfect map.”

I had hoped to discuss various tribes to which we all belong and how they intersect. Events forced my attention toward different local justice issues. But I wanted to share her commentary, which I found inspiring and hope to pursue further another time, before moving in the different direction I was led.

The words of Torah I did write are a bit much, in a number of ways, for one post. So look for more on this shortly.
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A story is the easiest, and, I hope, clearest, way for me to convey this thought to open the week of Netzach [“eternity,” also leadership] in the omer journey away from oppression. (apologies for length)

At this morning’s worship service, Temple Micah‘s Rabbi Zemel pointed participants’ attention to the following note, a kavanah [focusing intention] before the Standing Prayer:

Rabbi Ammi taught: A person’s prayer is not acceptable unless one’s heart is in one’s hands. (Taanit 8a)
Mishkan T’filah, p.243

I attempted to approach the Amidah’s opening blessing in that spirit.

The opening blessing calls on God who “remembers the love of our fathers and mothers” and “brings redemption to their children’s children for the sake of the Divine Name.” Mishkan T’filah includes the matriarchs — “God of Sarah, …Rivkah, …Rachel, and God of Leah” — here. But it does not mention Bilhah and Zilpah, concubines to Jacob and mothers of four of the twelve tribes of Israel.

A Heavy Heart

For some years, I included the names of Bilhah and Zilpah myself in an effort to honor them and the many “fathers and mothers,” Jews or non-Jews, who contribute to the community over the centuries. But a few years ago I stopped on the theory that this, however inadvertently, led to erasing the history of oppression.

Ignoring race or underdog status in an attempt at inclusiveness, I reasoned, can have a negative impact, allowing those of more powerful or privileged status to forget that the underdog/slave still carries effects of that (former?) status.

Nowadays, instead of including the six mothers as equals in the list, I’ve taken to pausing after calling on “God of Abraham…God of Leah,” to specifically call on “God of the Ancestors of all with whom we’ve traveled.”

A note from Judith Z. Abrams on the opening blessing explains

The content of this prayer has to do with the merit of our ancestors. This is traditionally conceived of as a sort of bank account into which the Patriarchs and Matriarchs deposited funds of righteousness that were so great that they covered all future generations.
Mishkan T’filah, p.244

And, if we’re to invoke the merit of all the ancestors, there are some debts owing as well. So, this morning, I found that my heart, in hand, grew heavy as I invoked the God of all the Ancestors.

By the time I reached Sim Shalom, the closing blessing and prayer for peace, I could hear the wails of so many oppressed descendants of those Ancestors calling on God to “bless all of us as one, through the light of Your Presence” that I wondered how others seemed (apparently) unaware of the din filling the sanctuary.

Open Fingers

In many prayerbooks (outside the Reform Movement), the prayer for peace includes the ancient priestly blessing:

May GOD bless you and keep you.
May GOD shine his face toward you and treat you graciously.
May GOD lift his face toward you and grant you peace (from Numbers 6:26).

Hands-Blessing164Priests — and in some communities, all the participants — accompany this blessing with an open-fingered gesture. (See right>>>) And so I got to thinking after the service about open fingers and hearts in hand.

I decided to look up Rabbi Ammi’s teaching in the Babylonian Talmud:

R. Ammi said: A man’s prayer is only answered if he takes his heart into his hand, as it is said, “Let us lift up our heart with our hands” (Lam 3:41). [But a teaching of Samuel asks: Do we not also read] “…For their heart was not steadfast with Him, neither were they faithful in His covenant; and yet, But He being full of compassion, forgiveth iniquity etc.” (Psalms 78:36-38)? — This is no contradiction. The one refers to the individual, and the other to the community.
— Soncino translation, from Halakhah.com
[I added quotation marks for the biblical verses; see also note below]

Samuel uses Psalm 78 to suggest that a community can be answered, even when its collective heart is not steadfast — which seems a great mercy.

Loving-Kindness in Leadership

Today is the day of Chesed in Netzach, loving-kindness in eternity or leadership. And in the spirit of this day, I ask:

  • What is the relationship of heart in hands and an open-fingered prayer?
  • Can individuals — priests or, in some understandings, all of us — bring blessings on the whole community if our own hearts are in our own hands? Are our own hearts impediments? or an aid to opening our fingers?
  • What does it mean that Rabbi Ammi’s proof-text is in the plural “lift up our heart with our hands”? Is there, somehow a collective communal heart and an individual one?
  • And, finally: Who else finds the heart they bring to prayer a heavy one these days? And how can we work together to help bring blessing with, or in spite of, that weight?

We counted 21 on the evening of April 24. Tonight, we count….

NOTES:

Lamentations 3:41 —

נִשָּׂא לְבָבֵנוּ אֶל-כַּפָּיִם, אֶל-אֵל בַּשָּׁמָיִם.
Let us lift up our heart with our hands unto God in the heavens.

The bracketed material above:

[But it is not so. Surely]18 Samuel appointed an amora19 to
act for him and his exposition ran thus:

with these notes —

(18) So Bomberg ed. and inserted in cur. edd. in square brackets, p. 33 n. 1.
(19) Same as Meturgeman. V. supra p. 12, n. 4.

And the supra note on “meturgeman” —

The translator or interpreter. The function of this official in Talmudic times was to interpret to the audience in the Synagogue in a popular manner and to enlarge upon the theme of the rabbi lecturing. Rashi, feeling that in our passage no such official could be referred to, explains that here the lecturing rabbi and interpreter are one and the same person, he who lectures on the first day of Passover, and that he included in his address a prayer for rain. V. however, the commentary of R. Hananel ad loc.

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10599394_717380508311895_7027393843189443889_n“Every 28 hours across America a black person is killed by security guard, police officer or some other executive of the state,” Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson said on the recent “Face the Nation,” adding that President Obama needs to use his “unique position” to explain the rage emanating from Ferguson, MO:

[Obama needs to explain] to white people whose white privilege in one sense obscures from them what it means that their children can walk home every day and be safe. They’re not fearful of the fact that somebody will kill their child who goes to get some ice tea and some candy from a store.”
— Michael Eric Dyson on August 17 Face the Nation

The Torah portion known as “Eikev [heel]” calls us to consider whether we might be, however inadvertently, tugging on the heel of a brother. And Mishkan T’filah‘s adaptation of words taken from this portion demands that we avoid making “gods of own comfort or power.”

Meanwhile, the Torah portion known as “Eikev [heel]” calls us to consider whether we might be, however inadvertently, tugging on the heel of a brother. And Mishkan T’filah‘s adaptation of words taken from this portion demands that we avoid making “gods of own comfort or power.”

If we turn from Sinai

The portion Eikev (Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25) includes verses that make up the second full paragraph of the Shema. These words, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, are included within tefillin as well. This passage, therefore, appears several times in many prayerbooks. But it’s far less prominent in, or missing entirely from, some liberal prayerbooks.It’s easy to see why a passage that speaks of reward and punishment as a direct result of the People’s actions was omitted or diminished in Reform Prayerbooks. (See, e.g., Richard Sarason on the Three Paragraphs of the Shema.) But Mishkan T’filah (URJ, 2007) includes, as an alternative reading, a thematic paraphrase of the Shema’s second paragraph.

The reading — by Richard Levy, a member of the editorial committee for the prayerbook and an author of many contemporary liturgical pieces — can be found on page two of these Mishkan T’filah sample pages:


But if we turn from Sinai’s words
and serve only what is common and profane,
making gods of our own comfort or power,
then the holiness of life will contract for us;
our world will grow inhospitable.

Let us therefore lace these words
into our passion and our intellect,
and bind them as a sign upon our hands and eyes….
— from Mishkan T’filah, p.67 and p.235

Levy’s is one of a number of approaches to this paragraph that take what theologian Judith Plaskow calls “a more naturalistic” view, focusing on the need to avoid thinking that “we can trample on or transcend the constraints of nature.”

The passage also seems to capture what another theologian, Elliott Dorff, calls the insistence that God is ultimately just. He points out that the ancient Rabbis had trouble with the way reward and punishment are described in this portion. Still, he says, they included this passage as a central part of the prayers because of their “deep faith in the ultimate justice of God as the metaphysical backdrop and support for human acts of justice.”

(Both Dorff and Plaskow quotes are from Jewish Lights’ My Jewish Prayerbook, vol 1: The Shema and its Blessings)

I see this idea reflected in the passage which is recited when laying tefillin on the hand (wrapping around the finger three times):

  • I will betroth you to me forever;
  • I will betroth you to me through justice and rule of law, kindness and compassion;
  • I will betroth you to me in trust, and you will know that I am God

— Hosea 2:21-22

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UPDATED 7/27 : See clarification on Aramaic and names of God below. Also see post-Siddur Study “More on Kaddish” resources and notes.

KaddishIs Kaddish — in its various forms — “prayer,” as in some combination of praise, request and/or submission to God? Or is it a recitation, more like the Shema? Is it a mystical device? Or punctuation, signaling a tone-shift in prayer services? None or all of the above? And where does “praying for the dead” figure? Explore.

Has this prayer, recited so often in Jewish services, become such a fixture that you no longer process its meaning? Were you, perhaps, taught to recite the ancient language without understanding the Aramaic words? Some creative translations and alternative readings can help break through the kaddish-trance.

Temple Micah’s lay-led Siddur Study group will be exploring the questions above and others on July 26.  Materials are here to whet the appetite and for those who cannot join us in person. No background in Hebrew or prayer is needed. No preparation required. All are welcome.

(Meetings generally begin roughly half an hour after morning services end, i.e., sometime between noon and 12:30 p.m. in the summertime.)

Join Siddur Study at Temple Micah in person, July 26.
If you’re not in our physical neighborhood,

join us virtually by posting comments or questions here.


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Remarks before Mourners’ Kaddish, Temple Micah (DC) Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath (March 13-16, 2014) Hadiya Z. Pendleton lived in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, my hometown, not far from where I lived for several years and where friends still live. She liked Fig Newtons, my favorite snack when I was a teenager. She and I […]