Friday, August 24, 2012

#BlogElul, Day 6: On Faith, (or at least Light)

Today's #BlogElul theme is faith. And as I was reading Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr's blog on the subject, I was reminded of something I wrote lo those many years ago, as a rabbinic student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. A classmate organized a group of us to write kavannot (remember, intentions) for the eight nights of Chanukah. I was assigned to write about faith.

So, while this is geared towards the lights of the chanukiah, perhaps it can serve as an intention as you light your Shabbat candles tonight..... 

Shabbat Shalom!!


Each year when I place my candles in the chanukiah, I celebrate the Festival of Lights—a way of bringing light into this very darkest time of the year, and an acknowledgement of my faith that the light will shine after the menorah has burned out. Each one of us, in our own way, has faith in those lights.

This year, these are the faiths with which I light my chanukiah:

With each candle I light, I affirm my faith in my Jewish way of life, just as the Maccabees did with their struggle.

With each candle I light, I acknowledge my faith in the Divine Presence, even though it may seem far or even absent at times.

With each candle I light, I announce my faith that, even in the darkest of times, I will be able to summon a light to guide my path.

With each candle I light, I regain my faith that the Divine Presence will light that path.

With each candle I light, I proclaim my faith in the family and friends with whom I gather around the menorah, for they too are guiding lights of my life.

With each candle I light, I broadcast my faith in miracles, even if they seem to be only the little ones of daily life.

With each candle I light, I publicly declare that I am a person of faith.

With each candle I light, I reclaim the very notion of faith.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

#BlogElul: Lessons From a Non-Yogi: What The #Talmud Taught Me About #Yoga

This is my #BlogElul post, Day 3, which originally appeared at Kol Isha, where I occasionally guest-blog.
The first time she said it, I am pretty sure I rolled my eyes. The second time too. Probably the third and fourth times too. But somewhere along the way, the dimmed lights, candles burning, and the sounds of everyone else’s ujayyi breath lulled me into acquiescence.
I should state, for the record, that I had never been much of a yogi. Give me a good spin class or dance class, or sign me up for a 5K any day. If I am going to be exercising, I want to be breathing hard, sweating, and probably wondering if I am going to make it. But stretching myself, finding balance, and taking a moment of stillness? That sounds like hard work.
But, I fell in love with a dance class—and a community—and yoga came with it. And so,several days a week, I found myself closing my eyes, breathing deeply and finally giving in. “Take a breath. Let it travel through your body. And, just when you think your lungs are full—sip a little more air. And then a little more. Hold the breath, and in this space: Set an intention for your practice.” Yeah, right. Can't we just start dancing?!
Let your mind go. Breathe deeply.
Somewhere along the way, though, I noticed that my experience in those opening moments shifted. I stopped rolling my eyes, and started closing them. I stopped smirking, and started breathing. And I began to set an intention—sometimes an inward reflection. At first, my intentions were solely fitness-based: Lose weight. Get in shape. Tone my arms.
But as those physical changes actually did start to happen, I noticed that my intentions grew more expansive, if still totally embodied: Love my shape. Celebrate my body’s abilities.
Then, my intentions grew wider, more integral to the life that I was living. Sometimes a specific goal. Sometimes a one word plan: Hope. Contentment. Focus. And my dance became more than just a way to work out.
Sadly, I had to leave my studio behind. But I often hear my teachers' words when I embark on a new project, a new endeavor. And they came right back to me as I began Daf Yomi a few weeks ago. While I am not sure I will be able to finish it, I have—for the time—committed to studying a daf (two pages) of Talmud every day…for 7.5 years. And I thought to myself—I better set an intention. And so I did. One of discpline, of learning lishmah (for its own sake, and of rejoining a conversation I think desperately needs our liberal, female voices.
The Talmud begins with a discussion of the recitation of the Shema. After a thorough discussion of when to recite Shema, the rabbis begin to ask how we recite Shema. The case that they bring is of someone who is engaged in Torah study of some sort of another—even studying the verses that contain the words of the Shema—when the time arrives for the recitation of Shema. What, they ask, is he to do? The rabbis teach that if he directs his heart towards the recitation of the Shema, he (or she, I suppose!) has fulfilled the obligation to recite the Shema.
The word for “direction” here is kavannah. While it is often used to describe the parts of the prayer service that happen organically, in contrast to the fixed liturgical pieces, it more correctly means “intention.” It means your internal compass is focused, directed, on what you are doing—or what you hope to do.
And the Gemara continues with one short, weighty statement: Mitzvot require kavannah. To engage in the significant acts of Jewish life, it is not enough to do so woodenly, robotically, without deep thought and commitment.
As Elul begins, we are asked to take spiritual stock, to reflect on the year that was—to consider who we have been and what we have done. And this “inventory” we are asked to take should inform who want to become and the steps we’ll take to get there.
So, I invite you to sit. Close your eyes. Breathe deeply. Breathe in a little more. And set an intention for your practice.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Get Ready to Make It New: #BlogElul

If you're following me on #Twitter, you already know (read: might be super annoyed by the fact) that I am, at least for now, doing the Daf Yomi. If I manage to maintain it, it means that every day for the next 7.5 years, I will learn a daf (that's two sides of a page) of Talmud a day. That's a LOT of Aramaic, a LOT of picayune rabbinic detail, and--I hope--a lot of deep questioning and introspection.

One of my plans to maintain it is to get ahead when I can, so my Elul teaching for today, on return, actually comes from the daf that is assigned to Wednesday, August 22nd. The rabbis are engaged in a discussion of prayer--seems fitting for a tractate named for Blessings. One of the rabbis raises the question about a man (of course a man--more on that later, I am sure!) who has already prayed--meaning he has fulfilled his obligation to recite the Shema and the Amidah, which are central prayers of the Jewish prayer service. What happens, they ask, if he then walks into a synagogue and finds the community at the point of the service where they are reciting these prayers? Does he join in, or just sit there?

And this is one of those moment where I fall in love with Talmud all over again. Because in the midst of this somewhat specific, detail oriented question, they respond with a concept that just blows my mind. He can join in, they say, as long as he finds something new to add to his prayers. 

The Hebrew month of #Elul began today. And one of its primary motifs is that of return. Returning to ourselves and returning to God. But, like the man who walks into synagogue hearing the words he has just spoken, I don't think we are being asked simply to return, to go back to what and who was. I don't think we CAN do that.

One of my teachers once described Jewish time as a spiral, not a circle. Yes, we come back to the same texts, the same holidays, the same questions--but we never come back to exactly the same place. We grow and we learn, we climb and sometimes we fall. 

And so, I want to suggest for this #Elul that perhaps the rabbis words can inspire us too. We can join in, as long as we can find something new--something to learn, something to pray, something to become. 

Marge Piercy, one of my favorite poets, writes the following:

Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue.

If you can't bless it, get ready to make it new.

Now is the time for return. Get ready to make it new.

For your listening pleasure.......


Earlier this week, a congregant was asking me about the High Holy Days. Do you just dread them, she asked? And the answer is--I don't. I don't think any of us rabbis/cantors/educators do--if we did, we're in the wrong business. But it is more than that. The minute I step onto the bimah for Erev Rosh HaShanah, I am overcome with a sense of excitement, a sense of possibility. I walk through those days charged with the feeling that a new day has truly dawned.

Had she asked a different question, I might have had a different answer. Had she asked about Elul....well....this morning dawned with, if not a sense of dread, certainly a sense of anxiety. There is (obviously) the professional anxiety--will I get the sermons written, will they be good? And within that, I think, are deeper questions: What do I have to teach this year? How can I bring challenge and comfort at the same time? What is MY Torah this year?? What is yours?

And even deeper, of course, there is my personal anxiety about these High Holy Days. Will I have enough time for my own spiritual preparation? Will I use my professional responsibilities as a way of dodging tougher personal commitments? What is the work of teshuvah--repentance--in which I have to engage this year?

Rabbi Phyllis Sommer started something called #BlogElul. The idea--to take a different topic for each day of #Elul and blog, Tweet, or FB about it. I know I cannot commit to each and every day, but I am posting the topics here, in hope that they will inspire you---and me---to begin the introspection this month requests of us. 

Chodesh Tov. Welcome to this new month. First #BlogElul to follow....

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Can I Prop a #Gemara on my Spin Bike: Musings on the Talmud from one Reform Jew

In case you don't follow all the Jewish news, last night was the Siyum HaShas--an event that can only happen every 7.5 years as a cycle of daily Talmud study is completed. It is a HUGE accomplishment, and as I contemplate trying to begin the Daf Yomi cycle, I cannot even begin to imagine how to fit that sort of sustained, daily study into an already packed calendar.* 

In an article about the Siyum HaShas, one of the leaders of the Reform Movement is quoted as saying:
“Text study is very important to us, but we focus on the Ur-text, on Torah in particular. Talmud, the Oral Law, is not our core text,” he said. It “certainly doesn’t rise anywhere to the level of a daily study encouragement for us.”

He is, overall, correct--I think. We as Reform Jews have long eschewed Mishnah and Talmud in favor of Torah and Tanach. We have seen these books as solely the province of halachic Jews; Talmud belongs to "them." I don't want it to be that way; more importantly, I don't think it should be that way. I know, like many things in a dynamic movement, this is shifting, and I am happy about that. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi might roll over in his grave, but I think that the Talmud in particular is a liberal text! 

A newly ordained colleague of mine is mid-cycle in Daf Yomi, and he was the one who first posted the article I quoted above. He wrote: A complete program of study can't ignore the single most important text outside of the Bible! Needless to say, I agree. And more, as I wrote to him:  I think it SHOULD be more of a priority.  It is, by definition, an interpretive document, lending itself to creativity, debate, and--well--interpretation, which are three things I think the Reform Movement holds dear and does quite well. If  we are asking the question of how we live Torah in our everyday lives, I think that the Talmud is probably the best living example of how to ask that question.....I'll get off my soapbox now.

But, clearly, I did not get off my soapbox. I just came over here.

We rabbis are asked to write personal statements as part of our job application process (now I am spilling all the secrets). In part of mine, I wrote about text, and what Talmud in particular has become for me:

I walked out of my very first Talmud class. I could not understand the language or the logic; moreover, I could not understand what it could say to me even if I could comprehend it.  Later, I fell in love with the study of Talmud. I learned, deeply and with great reverence, the language of our ancient texts. I threw myself into their debates; I talked with them as I talked with friends.  I learned their language, to be sure, but I also think I helped them speak in ours. And therefore, I am able to introduce these friends to others, to allow them to enrich the lives of congregants as they have enriched my life. I passionately believe that the rabbis of the Talmud, of the Mishnah, and of the Midrash can speak to Reform Jews in the 21st century; I just as passionately believe that we need to speak back. The rabbis themselves say that when two people sit to study words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests with them. Each Shabbat morning, I invite people into the conversation of Torah, including their expertise and their thoughts and their struggles into the ongoing chain of Jewish learning. So, when bnei mitzvah students sit in my office, thinking (or complaining!) about writing their divrei Torah, I always remind them that Torah is a living, breathing document. It is not a book that sits on the shelf. We change Torah and Torah changes us—and in it and with it, I believe we can find the Divine Presence. 

Full disclosure--and for any of you Congregation Rodeph Sholom learners who might be reading--I have not taught a sustained Talmud course. And I don't think I will be able to this year. But, I will continue to learn and teach Talmud from my lens, and my eyes. 

And if you'll learn with me, I really do think we might encounter the Divine. And if not the Kadosh Baruch Hu, some old Jews with senses of humor.

Ken yehi ratzon.

*Think I could prop a Gemara on my spin bike??