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  • How to Teach Moral Wisdom

    Posted on August 1st, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    דאמר רבי ישמעאל בר רב נחמן

    עשרים וששה דורות קדמה דרך ארץ את התורה

    מדרש רבה ויקרא פרשה ט פסקה ג

    Rabbi Yishmael Bar Nachman said:  Derekh Eretz preceded the Torah by 26 generations

    -Midrash Rabbah Vayikra

     

    Summer camps and beach holidays, ice cream and blockbusters; even as we relax and indulge the march towards the High Holy Days has begun. The practical components not withstanding, the spiritual journey is complex. Elul is still weeks away, but Tisha B’Av has just passed and opened the doors of contemplation.

    Baseless hatred was the cause of the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and even if we are not inclined to rebuild we cannot fail to recognize the corrosive power of negative speech and mean spirits. How tenuous the life of a community when we all do our best, kal va’khomer, all the more so when malice and negativity invade.

    Before there was a Temple, before there was Torah, there was derekh eretz- the way of the land, the natural path, simple wisdom. It was straying off that natural path, into the briar patch of pettiness and small mindedness that got us stuck and created destruction. If we want to do teshuvah, really repair the wrongs, then we need to return to the way of the land, to the simple wisdom that would have us make right and thoughtful moral choices in the world.

    This is the drum that psychologist Barry Schwartz beats loudly. Known for his work on choices, he has recently turned his attention to common place wisdom. Schwartz traces the origins of practical wisdom to Aristotle, who saw it as a combination of moral will and moral skill. As he explained in a recent TED talk, “A wise person knows when and how to make an exception to every rule. A wise person knows how to use these [moral] skills in pursuit of the right aims.” Someone who is wise, knows how to improvise and does so in a way that helps not hurts others. This kind of wisdom can, for example, turn a hospital janitor into an essential element not just of hospital maintenance but of patient care and wellness, for the janitor who goes against her supervisor’s directive and does not vacuum the waiting room, allows the family sitting vigil to catch vital moments of sleep.

    Critically, Schwartz, contends that practical wisdom can and should be taught. From where he stands that learning comes through experience and through being allowed to try and fail. But there is also a need for mentoring. Or in the words of our tradition,

    “רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה אוֹמֵר: אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ. אִם אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, אֵין תּוֹרָה.” (משנה אבות ג יז

     

    Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: without Torah there is no derekh eretz, without derekh eretz there is no Torah. –Pirkei Avot 3:17

    Derekh Eretz may have predated the Torah, as practical wisdom which knows no religious or tribal boundaries ought to, but it is the specific precepts of Torah that shape our understanding of what is right.

    When he was setting down the foundation for modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch took the phrase,  תּוֹרָה עִם דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ Torah with derekh eretz, (also from Pirkei Avot) as the basis for his vision. He focused less on the element of derekh eretz as practical wisdom but on the element in our tradition that sees it as engaging in the world, earning a living and abiding by the customs of the general community. As he explained in his commentary on Avot, “Derech Eretz includes everything …this term especially describes ways of earning a livelihood and maintaining the social order. It also includes the customs and considerations of etiquette, that the social order generates as well as everything concerning humanistic civil education.” His main concern was making sure that observance of Torah did not eclipse the practical elements of modern life.

    For modern Reform Jews, Hirsch’s understanding of derekh eretz in well within our grasp. On the whole, we are successful in the boarder world, we participate in the social and communal fabric of modern society with ease and achievement. But it is possible, that if we focus exclusively on that understanding of derekh eretz alone, we will miss out on the other fundamental meaning of the term, its link to Torah and the power that comes from the combination of the two.

    Tisha B’Av opens up a conversation about what pulls apart that which is most precious to us, it reminds us of what hangs in the balance with our simple actions, like speech. Derekh eretz is the beginning of the redemption, the use of the common wisdom that keeps our tongue from speaking evil our lips from telling lies. But as essential as derekh eretz –in both its practical wisdom and engage with the secular world meanings- is, it is only a starting point. We step from this general wisdom in Av into the rituals of Elul, the blowing of the shofar, the singing of slichot, culminating in the very particularistic rituals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that define for us clearly the blueprint that is Torah and Jewish practice.

    Derekh eretz is essential to creating community and success but it does not happen in a vacuum. As Schwartz reminds us, it must be learned and reinforced. His worry about lack of leadership, overlooks the resources we have at hand. The means to moral wisdom is available to all of us if we remember that ein Torah, ein derekh eretz. Leadership that is rooted in the precepts of our tradition, in the teachings of Torah, in the rituals and rhythms of Jewish life will not only inspire but guide and instill. As modern Reform Jews, we would do well to reinterpret and reembrace Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s charge. We already know how to navigate the practical elements of modern life, but if we want to ensure continued moral and communal success, we need to reaffirm talmud Torah with derekh eretz.

     

    Moral Wisdom, Torah, Limits of Rules

     

     

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  • Who is Free?

    Posted on March 28th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    As we look towards Pessach and the S’darim, Rabbi Larry Bach asks us to think about the meaning of freedom.

    At Kiddush time at our Seders, we will proclaim the days of Passover z’man cheruteinu, the “season of our freedom.” And the question is, who belongs to that collective “our?” Who is becoming free?

    At the most obvious level, the entity doing the talking, and proclaiming its freedom, is the Jewish people. Pesach celebrates our liberation from Egyptian bondage. We — the Children of Israel — were redeemed at this season, all those years ago. Pesach, at this level, is a powerful exercise in communal memory. We celebrate it each year, so that we’ll never forget that we were freed.

    Author - Rabbi Larry Bach

    Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson saw the text a little bit differently. He sought to expand the reach of the “our” in that passage a bit. For him, “our” implies that there are two entities involved, and they turn out to be us and God. Passover is the season of “our” freedom, ours and God’s. We celebrate our freedom from Egyptian bondage, to be sure; but we also celebrate the freeing of the divine within us. Pesach is our celebration of freedom from enslavement to habit, anger, and small-mindedness, all of which are the very opposite of liberation. In his words: “Freedom is two-fold. There is a physical liberation of the Jewish People, and a spiritual liberation of the Divine Presence, which is to say, the divine within each and every one of us.”

    Another “member of the club” may be at work as we celebrate “our” freedom: everyone else. For many of us, it’s not enough to talk about “our” freedom and limit the conversation to Jewish concerns. We are part of something larger, that encompasses all people, indeed all beings. To speak about “our freedom” and exclude other people seems to run counter to the spirit of the season and the story. Our children’s prayerbook says it well in the reading that introduces Mi Chamocha, the Song of the Sea: “When we sing it we say, ‘Let everyone be free.’”

    Ultimately, I believe, all of the freedoms contained within that little possessive pronoun — the safety and security of the Jewish people, the releasing of the divine spirit within us all, and the universal redemption for which we work and hope — are connected. It is only from a place of physical security that I can develop the habits that connect me to God within me, and everyone else around me.

    It is my hope that each of us will be challenged by the words of the haggadah and the symbols of the seder to expand our sense of belonging this year. May the Seder work its ancient magic, bringing us — all of us — from slavery to freedom, from darkness to great light.

     

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  • Sources on Repentance and Forgiveness for Yom Kippur

    Posted on October 3rd, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Today I got a request from a listserve to which I subscribe, asking that I forgive them for any wrong they may have done in the last year.

    Clearly in this era of social media it was only a matter of time before repentance and forgiveness went online. But while the format of the request was somewhat surprising and sent me off to reflect on the nature of virtual community, it was the broad nature of the request that really caused me to think more generally about the nature of apologies and mehkilah. I neither know the manager of the listserv personally nor do I feel aggrieved by this individual, so in this case it is easy to be big hearted and forgiving. But most of the work we do during this season is more complex than that.

    Our tradition has much to say and this is a case where I think it best to let the sources speak for themselves. As many of us prepare to teach over Yom Kippur and all of us are hopefully taking some time to take stock individually, it is my hope that these will serve as either a resource or a reminder of some of what our tradition says.

    G’mar Hatimah Tovah,

    Ruth Abusch-Magder

     

    Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. (Micah 7:18)

     

    One who forgives an affront fosters friendship, but one who dwells on disputes will alienate a friend. (Proverbs 17:9)

     

    “One who has sinned against another must say to him or her, ‘I’ve acted wrongly against you’.” (Talmud; Yoma 45c)

    “If you’ve done another a small wrong, let it be great in your eyes…” (Talmud; Avot d’Rabbi Natan; ch. 41)
    “If another has done you a great wrong, let it be small in your eyes.” (Talmud; Avot d’Rabbi Natan; ch. 41)

     

    “If one has received an injury, then, even if the wrongdoer has not asked for forgiveness, the receiver of the injury must nevertheless ask God to show the wrongdoer compassion, even as Avraham prayed to God for Avimelech, and Job for his friends. Rabbi Gamliel said, ‘Let this be a sign to you, that whenever you are compassionate, the Compassionate One will have compassion on you.” (Mishnah; Baba Kamma 9:29-30).

     

    A bad tempered person gains nothing but the ill effects of anger; a good tempered person is fed with the fruit of the deeds. (Kiddushin, 40b – 41)

     

    “All who overlook what’s owed to them, Heaven overlooks their sins in return.” (Talmud; Rosh HaShanah 17a)

     

    Forgive your neighbors [their] transgressions, and then when you pray, your sins will be forgiven. (Ben Sira 28:2)

     

    No sin is so light that it may be overlooked. No sin is so heavy that it may not be repented of. –Moses Ibn Ezra

     

     

    “Love your neighbor as yourself; I am Adonai” (Leviticus 19:18). There is a Chasidic interpretation of the last words of this verse: “I am Adonai.” – “You think that I am far away from you, but in your love for your neighbor you will find Me; not in his love for you but in your love for him.” He who loves brings God and the world together. The meaning of this teaching is: You yourself must begin. Existence will remain meaningless for you if you yourself do not penetrate into it with active love and if you do not in this way discover its meaning for yourself. Everything is waiting to be hallowed by you; it is waiting to be disclosed and to be realized by you. For the sake of this, your beginning, God created the world. –Martin Buber

     

     

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  • Converts & the Deep Good in Judaism

    Posted on September 21st, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments
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    Jewish Children at Jewish School outside Mbale Uganda

    -by Ruth Abusch-Magder

     

    “Why do these people want to be Jewish?”

    I was telling an old friend about the work I do with emerging Jewish communities in places like Peru and Uganda. It is a reasonable question, the kind of question anyone on a beit din is likely to ask of a potential convert. But as my friend spoke, I heard an edginess emerging, one that suggested more than simple curiosity. I have become familiar with this underlying current which sometimes shows itself more overtly, “Are they trying to get out of [name of homeland] and go live in Israel?” [no] “Are they in this for the money?” [again, no]

    I countered gently, “is it so hard to believe that there is enough to love in Judaism and in living a Jewish life that people would simply choose this path?”

    Jews often site the history of non-proselyzation as the source of Jewish discomfort with converts and conversion. Halakha is on our side when it comes to pushing people away. Historically this made sense. Today, we as Reform Jews, recognize that a different attitude is needed. Still difficulties remain. Yet in talking to people on a regular basis about conversion, converts and potential converts, I have recognize that at the core of much of the discomfort with conversion to Judaism comes from discomfort with Judaism.

    Those of us who have chosen to make the celebrating of Judaism our life’s work know how powerful and wondrous living fully engaged Jewish lives can be. But we also know that many of those we serve –and even more so those who circle on the edges of our communities-  are less sure about the positive value to being Jewish. In a twist on the Groucho Marx quip, that discomfort can translate into discomfort with those that choose to join our club.

    When I was in college I was friends with a man who became Jewish in his early twenties and was studying for the cantorate. I have memories of long drawn out conversations in which I repeated pushed him to explain what possible brought him to choose Judaism. In retrospect, he was extraordinarily patient with me. Perhaps he recognized that his answers were part of what I was searching for as I, from the family of survivors, sought to see my Jewish inheritance as more than an inescapable burden.

    Fully loving and embracing Judaism (though not without arguments –after all that is part of what I love) helped bring to the rabbinate. Reading statements for a beit din and working with converts inspires and deepens my appreciation of our tradition and community. Judaism and Jews –all Jews- need to these stories, these affirmations of what we have inherited. To borrow language from our Christian friends, we need them to witness for all of us.

    Sitting with my friend, I began to share some of the themes and stories that I have been encountering in my work. I told my friend about the African Chieftan for who the first part of the Bible given to him by Christian missionaries resonated so strongly that he laid aside the second half and circumcised his tribe, the beginning of today’s Abayudaya. I shared from the inspired conversation I had had with a single mother by choice who was raising her children as Jews with the blessing of her Black Baptist mother. I talked about the Annusim in Columbia –who after 100s of years away from Judaism- are making sacrifices so they can come together and live in Jewish community.

    In getting ready for Tishrei, I have personally been focusing on the concept of hakarat hatov, recognizing the good. In the traditional framework of mussar we are encouraged to see the deep good in ourselves and in others. As I sat with my friend and confronted her familiar line of questioning and doubt, I recognized that  we need to add another critical element to this mix, one that converts inherently understand, the deep good in our tradition, that which can draw us to this path as the means to affirm our lives and relationship with our collective inheritance. Why do they want to be Jewish, for the same reasons we all should remain Jewish: hakarat hatov.

     

     

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  • God and Twitter 2: Spiritual Innovation and Connection

    Posted on June 27th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment
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    Last year during the High Holiday services at Temple Emanuel of Beverley Hills California, Rabbi Laura Geller paused during her sermon and asked those assembled to take out their cell phones. Contrary to expectations, she did not ask them to turn them off, instead she asked them to turn them on. The theme for the holy season at synagogue was, “What are you doing here?” Smart phones in hand, over a thousand people joined in the conversation with Cantor Yonah Kliger (@CantorYonah) moderating an online conversation that mirrored the lively live discussion led by Geller. The entire dynamic of the service changed. At best, a rabbi leading a traditional conversation from the bimah can hope to engage a handful of people, who may or may not stay on topic. Here everyone was involved and limited to 140 characters, people were considered and deliberate about what they shared.

    At first glance it can easy to dismiss Twitter. Small bites of conversations not necessarily joined in linear progression have the potential to be devoid of meaning. But playing with the medium, it is clear, that the format also lends itself to innovation. Last week I described how Twitter is enhancing the traditional work of Jewish professionals, but Twitter is more than just a way to do the expected in a different format, it is an opportunity to do the unexpected.

    In the Spring of 2010, Rabbi Oren Hayon (@rabbihayon) gathered a group of rabbis to retell the story of the Israelite experience in Egypt. Setting up accounts for Moses, Pharoh and many other biblical players, the story unfolded in Tweet the Exodus (@tweettheexodus) a narrative that had nearly 1,500 followers and received attention in the Wall Street Journal and on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. Such a broadly collaborative and interactive retelling would be impossible to imagine in any other forum.

    Traditionally Elijah the Prophet visits Jewish homes on the first and second nights of Passover, but OurJewishCommunity.org uses Twitter to let see what that often elusive angel of old does throughout Passover. As Rabbi Laura Baum (@JewsOnline) explains throughout the 8 days of the holiday, “We had him in various places, he would go on 8-9 cities a day and we would photo shop him in.” Instead of having the holiday fizzle out in malaise of matzah menu madness, this creative use of Twitter maintained the aspect of interactive anticipation that is meant to infuse the sedarim.

    In this era of being overloaded with information, time and again, Jewish professionals cite Twitter as a means by which they can vet articles and information to help make sure we are getting to the material that we want to focus on. It was this element of Twitter that led me to propose the idea of tweeting the Jewish Women’s Encyclopedia to the Jewish Women’s Archive (@jwaonline). The Encyclopedia, which is housed on their site is an incredible resource of exceptional and diverse content. Taking up the idea, JWA recruited about twenty people to choose an article a week during American Jewish Heritage month, to summarize it in 140 characters and link to the source. The project caught one quickly and soon large numbers of people were delving into Jewish history and sharing info on more than 200 articles. Not only did it bring in new readers and feedback to the JWA but it engendered conversation about serious Jewish history in a democratic non-hierarchical format.

    Another one of the consistently reported upon benefits of Twitter is that it allows users to connect with others who you might never otherwise connect with. One such person for me is Reverand Naomi King (@RevNaomi) a skilled user of social media and a Unitarian Universalist minister. Writing on Patheos, a religion site, she explains how Twitter can be used for what she calls, “Digital Faith Formation.” Using a Twitter application called Tweetchat, she brings together experts with those interested in discussing “particular texts, or to speak to particular emotional, spiritual, or social issues.” By locating these conversations in the virtual world of Twitter, she is able to connect across location with a range of people that simply could never come together. As she explains,  “Using a few free and inexpensive tools, people of faith also have a chance to live so openly that others who are seeking can actually find them.” What she is describing is that far too elusive ability to reach in Jewish parlance, “the unafilliated.”

    The use of hastags (#s) is another element of Twitter that is allowing broad conversations to happen. The # symbol in front of a word in the Twitter system allows one to signal that a particular topic is being discussed and to add to a broader series of comments about this topic. A few years back for example JewishTweets (@JewishTweets) introduced #shabbatshalom. Now you don’t need to be on the streets of Jerusalem to feel as though everyone is in on the Shabbat spirit.

    Hashtags allow more much more than list formation. They are a means to virtual participation. Were not at the Women’s Rabbinic Network? Missed out on a session at NATE? You can follow along by following the hashtag associated with the conference and seeing what people have to say. Recently, Collier Meyerson (@WoodyAllenNot)  in the New York office of my organization, Be’chol Lashon, participated in a conference in that city. Sitting at my desk in San Francisco, I monitored the reaction to her presentation on Twitter. As people commented, I chatted with them, (@bechollashon) adding my thoughts. As an organization, we were able to use Twitter to augment and shape the perceptions that were created face to face.

    In the days before Shavuot, a new tradition is emerging that uses the #Torah hashtag to create an international Torah study free for all. Rabbi Mark Hurvitz (@rebmark) keeps hoping that the concerted effort of Jews around the world to send out significant numbers of tweets with the #Torah tag connected will result in Torah trending, or rising to the top of the list of popular Twitter topics. So far it has not, but given the dispersion of Jews and the diversity of our approaches to Torah, this may be as close as we can hope to get to a recreation of the gathering at Sinai. Several of the conversations in which I participated as we “Tweet[ed] Torah to the Top” this year, were as profoundly meaningful as they were direct. And there is no other forum in which so people of such diverse backgrounds, in so many geographic locations, could ever get into serious Torah conversations.

    18 months ago, I did not see any of these wonderful ways to use Twitter to innovate spiritual connection, meaning making and engagement. Given the vast network that is Twitter, I have no doubt missed many other great innovations. And given that Twitter is still in its infancy, I feel certain much more will unfold. Let me know what I’ve missed, and keep me posted on what develops.

     

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  • Reflecting on Faith After the Holocaust

    Posted on May 4th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    This week we observed Yom HaShoah. Rabbi Larry Bach shared this beautiful reflection with his community. The message is both timeless and timely.  —- Ruth Abusch-Magder

     

    The text is fairly well-known:“I believe, with perfect faith, in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he may tarry, I will wait for him.” The context is verywell-known. It was this text, set to that tune, that Jews sang on their way to their deaths during the Shoah. The Modzhitzer niggun nearly perfectly captures the longing, the hope, and the horror of those moments on the trains, on the platforms, on the journey to the gas. He tarries…and we wait.

    I’ve been thinking about the text, and the melody, a great deal lately. I’ve been thinking about what it takes to say “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah” while everything around you suggests otherwise. Would I have had the strength of faith to join that song? Would you?

    I cannot know, but I can hope. Better yet, I can prepare. I can try to live each moment well, forming habits of the heart and soul that will lead me to do the right thing, instinctively and reflexively, when the chips are down. And as I practice, I come to realize that faith in the Messiah is, most of all, about faith in myself. It is about the having faith in my own capacity to connect to Other, to Self, to God. When I do those things…when any of us does those things…we bring what our Tradition calls Y’mot Hamashiach that much closer.

    Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz concludes his Faith after the Holocaust with two pieces of testimony from that time and place, seeing in them reason to believe. He tells the story of

    Abraham Seidman, the Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto, the kind of Jew whom Judaism produced in every generation in tens of thousands, a pious, modest, hardworking pater familias at the same time scholarly, not in a professional sense, but simply because it was the duty of every Jew to study and know the Torah. He had been taken from the Ghetto to the Umschlagplatz to be sent to Auschwitz. There was still some time before the transport was to leave. How did Abraham Seidman spend the few remaining minutes? He wrote a letter to his children taking leave of them forever and asking them for forgiveness should he ever have offended or hurt them.


    And Berkowitz also tells this story, first-told in Rabbi Michael Dov-Ber Weissmandel’s Min Hametzar, regarding Itzik Rosensweig:

    Itzik was a Jew somewhere in Slovakia, a Jew like Abraham Seidman in Warsaw. He made a living by raising poultry. One day he and his family were squeezed into the cattle cars, in which hundreds of other Jews were pressed to suffocation. In the car there was despair all around him; outside a celebrating population of former neighbors was jeering at him and deriding him. He begged them: Please go to my house and give food and water to the poultry. They had nothing to eat or drink all day.


    Where is the Mashiach for whom we wait? He is Abraham Seidman, showing himself to be, for one shining moment, a perfect parent. He is Itzik Rosensweig, answering baseless hatred with a display of compassion and wholeheartedness for the ages. He is those Modzhitzer Hasidim, singing their faith with full hearts, performing the ultimate act of Kiddush Hashem Barabim, sanctifying God’s Name for all the world to see. He is always at hand. When we are be’emunah shleimah, in a place of wholeness and trust, feeling safe and secure no matter what is happening around us, then Mashiach lives in us. And so…

    Ani Ma’amin – I believe. I believe. I believe.

    Be’emunah sh’leimah – with a faith that is whole. With a faith that emerges from my own wholeness, the clear sense of just what is, right now.

    B’viat hamashiach – I believe with a faith that emerges from the clarity of this moment, that all moments can be this moment. Clear. Perfect. And I believe that the clarity and perfection is precisely what is calledmashiach.

    V’af al pi sheyitmah’meyah – And though that clarity is fleeting, though the moments of perfection are few and far between…

    Im kol “zeh” – With every moment that passes, every “now,” every “this”…

    Achakeh lo – I seek to open to that possibility, waiting, and working, and hoping.

    B’chol yom, sheyavo — Every day, every moment, let it come to pass.

     

    Ani Ma’amin…

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  • What is God? Praying to One

    Posted on September 2nd, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments
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    More than at any other time of year, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, demand that we grapple with our understanding of God. This week, Rabbi Larry Bach of Temple Mount Sinai, in El Paso TX, writes about his struggles with the liturgy and the evolution of his understanding of the Divine.

    Rabbi Larry Bach

    As we move into Yamim Hanora’im, some of us will find ourselves face-to-face with a familiar dilemma: the challenge of praying “face-to-face” with a God who is so intensely personalized in our liturgy. “God as Person,” it seems to me, is even more present in the machzor than the siddur. This is certainly true for North American Reform Judaism today, where experiencing the polyvocality of Mishkan T’filah year-round sets us up for a jarring experience upon returning to Gates of Repentance, so thoroughly (almost uniformly) couched in the language of dialogue.

    My own struggles with saying “You” while in prayer are an outcome of my explorations in the world of Jewish mindfulness. Through meditation, prayer, study, and observation, I’ve come to experience God not as other, but as All. Ein od – there is nothing else. How then, to speak to a separate being, a “You” when experience tells me that it’s all One?

    One option, which has worked for me up to a point, is to mentally “translate into monist.” While speaking to God as Other, I attempt to offer a running, internal commentary, hearing kavvanot in my head that allow me to reflect on the theme of that  particular prayer through the lens of my own theology. Often, these kavvonot present themselves in the Bronx-inflected lilt of my teacher, Sheila Peltz-Weinberg, a master at praying aloud in this way. As I speak the words, “Cause us, O Eternal God, to lie down in peace, and raise us up, O Sovereign, to life renewed…” my mind might be offering this prayer: “May this evening be one of attunement to YHWH, the Breath of All Life, and may that attunement manifest in me as a sense of peacefulness. Resting peacefully, may I be restored in body and spirit, so that I can stand up tomorrow with energy and strength to meet the day.” This practice works well for me on many levels, not the least of which is “keeping my head in the game” and not drifting toward a mindless rehearsal of words, disguised as religious leadership.

    And yet, what is so satisfying intellectually can sometimes leave me cold, emotionally. And since I believe that prayer is as much about the heart as the head, I’m going to try something very different each year. I’m going to offer up each “You” with all my heart and soul, and see what arises. My kavvanot as I take on this practice will come from two teachers, Alexander Susskind of Grodno (d. 1793) and Kalonymous Kalman Shapira (1889-1943).

    Susskind, a Lithuanian Kabbalist, wrote Yesod Veshoresh Ha’avodah, which explores various aspects of prayer and mindfulness. The selection below is anthologized in Yissachar Dov Rubin’s T’lalei Orot:

    When you say baruch atah imagine that the Creator is actually standing there, in your presence. That’s what’s implied in the second-person singular form, atah. This intention is an important part of praying, praising, and offering thanks. Don’t just “go through the motions!” Have it in mind when you say “Blessed are You…” that there really is a “You” confronting you. After all, “The fullness of the whole earth is God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3).

    The second text comes to us by way of the Warsaw Ghetto, and is from Sefer Aish Kodesh, the Shoah-era commentary of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piaseczno (1889-1943). On the opening verse of Ki Tezei, Shapira offers a beautiful and creative Hasidic rereading.

    “When you go to war against your enemies…” When you are in a bad place, in “wartime”…

    “..put ‘YHWH, your God’ in your hands…” Pray “You” from the depths of your heart. Take refuge in the fact that “YHWH is your God,” and that divinity is present to you, personally…

    “…and return, come back.” We pray, “Bring us back, O YHWH, to You,” and God says, “Return to me.” How is that accomplished? When we make God present in our prayers, we and God are returned to each other.

    Together, these teachings have helped me to recontextualize my struggle against saying “You” when I pray. I find in them – particularly in the Piaseczner – an invitation to be more imaginative at prayer. These mystics understood ein od just as I do (l’havdil….they understood it far more deeply!), and yet they invest their “You” with power and meaning. With their teachings in my repertoire, I find myself less concerned with reinterpreting my way toward some “theological correctness” when I encounter the metaphor of God as Other. Instead, see it for what it is: a metaphor.

    In saying “Blessed are You” to some Other, I no longer feel as though I’m denying reality as I understand it in light of my meditation cushion; rather I am affirming it in a new and profound way.

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  • Why Judaism? Loving Kindness

    Posted on August 26th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment
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    Rabbi Joseph Meszler

    As we approach the High Holidays, the question of why Judaism lurks behind many sermons and clergy conversations. This week, guest blogger, Rabbi Josesph Meszler of Temple Sinai in Sharon, MA provides an answer to that question. The author of a Facing Illness, Finding God, he draws on Jewish text and personal experience to help us understand why Judaism matters.

    When the prophet Micah told us to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God,” he may have been summarizing what could be characterized as a Reform halacha. Rabbi Rami Shapiro once wrote that many of our commandments could be divided up into one of these three categories: doing justice in the world by engaging in tikkun olam, facing the inevitable pain of life through loving kindness, and walking humbly with God through our ritual observance. But it is the middle injunction, to love kindness, that I think draws more and more people to the synagogue today. The main function of our religion seems to be to help us cope.

    I believe Jewish people are looking to their Judaism as a source of solace. Healing services have become commonplace. Debbie Friedman’s Mishebeirach has long been something of an anthem. Rabbis are no longer sought after to be towering figures in robes speaking from high pulpits or deciders of halacha but rather a compassionate person with empathy. Congregants will forgive a rabbi a bad sermon; they will not do so if we are not there in their time of need. Jews today want rabbis to embody the Judaism that they need, a dependable human touch.

    My hometown rabbi, Gustav Buchdahl, once remarked to me that today people seem to look for “therapeutic Judaism.” We want our Judaism to help make us whole and to help us heal. While this refocusing of Judaism cannot be at the expense of social justice or vibrant prayer – the other two parts of the verse from Micah – I believe he is accurate in that we crave shleimut: peace of mind/wholeness/completeness. Something in our age seems broken, and we are trying mend not only our world but ourselves.

    As I’ve discussed elsewhere, I have had my own experience with illness and faith. Now completely healthy, my wife (and our colleague) Julie was once ill and had to have a scary operation. As I was sitting in the waiting room, surrounded by strangers who were preoccupied with their own thoughts, I was overflowing with anxiety. I began to pray in a way that Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught – to scream silently in my mind. I didn’t know how loud thoughts could be until I was mentally screaming to God to please help my wife. It was in that moment that I needed a human touch the most, and I was fortunate that my Judaism was there for me.

    I believe the Judaism of the future is going to be as a spiritual practice, and its central function is going to be to be as a source of comfort.

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  • The Ordination of Women: A Reform Debate from 1922

    Posted on December 8th, 2009 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    huc 1892

    Jenny Mannheimer Received B.H.L. HUC 1892

    Just a short post to provide a link to a wonderful resource. While it is always possible to go to the archives to find jewels of Jewish history, the blog On the Main Line has connected us to a series of  responsa from a 1922 CCAR discussion on the ordination of women. The issue of women’s place in Judaism long predates the advent of Reform Judaism but there is much to be learned from reading these sources carefully. Not only do they highlight a moment in the history of Reform Judaism and provide an excellent resource for deepening our own knowledge and teaching but the discussion from the early years of the last century continues to resonate today. While the debate about the place of women in the Reform rabbinate has long been settled (thank God!) it is still under consideration among our Orthodox brothers and sisters. It is notable that while the historical circumstances differ greatly, there is much that still resonates with attitudes towards women and the LGBT community in some quarters of the Jewish world.

    Today the women who graduate HUC-JIR go one step further than Jenny Mannheimer when they receive a Masters in Hebrew Letters and the wives club of HUC includes people of all gender identities.

    HUC's Wives Club 1952

    HUC's Wives Club 1952

    Photo credits American Jewish Archives

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  • Communal Teshuvah: 12 Step Programs, Community Organizing and the Jewish Way

    Posted on September 23rd, 2009 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    People's mandala - 12 hands

    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    What would it look like if a community really undertook teshuvah? And where would god sit in the process?

    These were the questions that puzzled my chevrutah and I, a short while ago, as we prepared for the Yamim Noraim.  As I wrote before Rosh Hashana, I struggle with the process of teshuvah, often wondering how it happens in reality. At this time of year rabbis, cantors and educators, teach, preach and sing about teshuvah in community. But what does success really look like? In reaching for answers, we gained some insight into nature of teshuvah and God’s place in the process of change.

    The Jewish tradition presents us with an odd sort of tension when it comes to repentance. On the one hand teshuvah is a highly personal act. Each person needs to undertake the process of soul searching, remorse and redirection in a way that fits with their own challenges and failings. Much of the language found in rabbinic sources points to individual responsibility. Indeed the power of personal teshuva is so great according to Rabbi Meir (BT Yoma 86) that “one individual who vows penitence, pardon is given to him as well as to the entire world.”

    But there is also an important role for the community in the process of teshuvah. Our liturgy speaks in the plural, Avinu Malkainu Ashamnu. We have sinned. Our prayer, for forgiveness are offered not in private, but in community as our tradition acknowledges that no individual is alone in their transgression. There are even examples of group repentance such as the hooligans who were befriended by Rabbi Zera and after his death reconsidered their actions and chose to repent. (BT Sanhedrin 37a)

    It was easy to of think of stories of how individuals have changed their lives based on a deep experience during this season. But these were so personal that it was hard to know what they meant for us as individuals struggling with our own demons. By working to imagine communal teshuvah we hoped to gain more universal insight. Read the rest of this entry »

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