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  • Spiritual but not Religious

    Posted on January 30th, 2013 Special Contributor No comments
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    “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” When I heard that phrase from a student or prospective congregant, I used to suspect they were pushing me away, holding me safely at arm’s length.  On January 14, I heard an interview with Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson on Fresh Air, and he gave me something new to consider.

    “I think people often come to the synagogue, mosque, the church looking for God, and what we give them is religion. And I think that is a huge mistake, and sometimes we let our … fussing around with the institution get in the way of what people came for, which is help in facilitating their … access and relationship with God,” he said.

    My first thought was, Christianity is different.  My second thought was to rewrite his words slightly:  ”People come to synagogue looking for Torah, and what we give them is religion.” Oh dear: Could it be that while I was hearing rejection, what students were really saying was, “Where’s the good stuff?”

    Perhaps that “spiritual but not religious” line is really another version of the rebuke in Isaiah 1:

    Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
    Your incense is detestable to me.
    New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
    I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
    Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
    I hate with all my being.
    They have become a burden to me;
    I am weary of bearing them.
    When you spread out your hands in prayer,
    I hide my eyes from you;
    even when you offer many prayers,
    I am not listening.

    Your hands are full of blood!

    Wash and make yourselves clean.
    Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
    stop doing wrong.
    Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
    Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.

    Has the business (busy-ness) of religious activity gotten in the way of making my institution the home of living Torah?

    When a newcomer calls for information, what kind of greeting does he receive? If the contact is by phone, does she talk to a friendly person or to a machine? if the contact is via the Internet, does the website feature human faces or a picture of a building or symbol?

    What does the website and the bulletin say about our priorities?  How does that statement of our priorities match up with the budget and the reality every day?

    Author: Rabbi Ruth Adar

    When a visitor to the congregation wanders into a service with a bar or bat mitzvah, is he welcomed or treated as an uninvited guest?

    When a darker-skinned person visits, is she greeted properly, or immediately assumed to be the employee of a member or an intruder?

    Do we walk our talk about Jewish ethics and tikkun olam? Do we pay our humblest employees a decent wage? Do we employ people “part time” but expect unlimited hours and dedication? Is our institution a good citizen in its neighborhood?

    The answer to some of these questions may be “not yet.” Human institutions are, well, human. But if our intent, our kavanah, is to be a home of living Torah, then perhaps the answer to “I’m spiritual but not religious,” might become, “You’ve come to the right place.”

    This week’s post was written by Rabbi Ruth Adar, known by her alter ego The Coffee Shop Rabbi.

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  • The Power of Gratitude

    Posted on July 9th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment
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    By: Ruth Abusch-Magder

    A simple street scene glimpsed on the early morning commute. A woman in her forties dressed in a sari, a gentleman in jeans and a collared shirt pressed up by her side. A rolling suitcase stood on the sidewalk nearby. A few feet away two young women in western dress milled about one of them fiddling with a camera, reading to capture the scene.

    Stopped at a red light, I watched for a moment. Driving off I knew that while it was just one of thousands of mundane moments that I had already experienced that morning, there was no denying that something important had happened.

    The concept of gratitude is fundamental to Jewish life and practice. The miracle of opening the eyes deserves a prayer of thanksgiving, as does our ability to put our feet on the floor and going to the bathroom. Following the structures of our liturgy, much of life becomes worthy of gratitude. Gratitude is powerful stuff.

    When I was in 9th grade, my mother went back to school, I moved from a tiny Jewish school to large public school, and my family prepared to move to a different city. I was miserable. Each night, my mother would make me make a list of the things that had gone well that day- my sandwich was not soggy, I finished my math homework with ease, walking home before the rain started. My mother is not a religious woman but she was studying psychology. Positive psychology knows the power of gratitude. As Martin Seligman writes in Flourish, “gratitude will raise your well being and lower your depression.”

    I know this power. Three years ago, I arrived with my family in San Francisco after two challenging years in the Midwest. The sea air, extraordinary vistas and mild climate could not change the difficulties of the past, but the appreciation of the miracles around me made it possible for me to heal some of the scars. I can tell the difference between the mornings when I wake my children with urgent cries to hurry and those I when I wake them with the prayer of thanksgiving followed by a personalized appreciation of my child. On the former, there is tension, on the latter there is harmony –and either way we manage to get out in time.

    There is much in our lives that we often fail to appreciate – and for the most part my gratitude practice helps me noticing those things. But the lady in the sari was different. With the exception of the sari, which was a bold contrast of gold and maroon, there was nothing remarkable about what I saw that morning. Yet throughout the day my mind returned to that moment, to the wonder I had felt in witnessing that moment. Having seen those people standing there, doing nothing that demanded my attention, somehow opened me. The rest of my day was similarly unremarkable and yet throughout I felt profound awareness and sense of awe.

    Both my spiritual study partner and my husband, having heard my story, sought a meaning in what I had seen. But I could uncover none intrinsic to what I had seen. For all I know this was a sad moment in the life of these people a moment of departure. Likewise it could have been a positive moment. But the meaning it had to them was not apparent to me. For me I simply felt blessed to have be able to witness what I did, where I did, for no reason in particular.

    Skeptics often wonder why God needs so much praise. In my experience, it is not about God’s need but rather our own. Most of the prayers of thanksgiving are directed at things that we simply take for granted. Likewise for most of the things on the lists I used to make with my mother. But it is daily noticing that which often is left unenjoyed that I credit for enabling me to be grateful for that scene. There was nothing that I ought to have been grateful at that moment nor was it remarkable in any way. Yet I was profoundly glad for having noticed and taken it in –just because it was. Witnessing and valuing the scene created a sense of openness in me, equanimity that allowed me to be present in an extraordinary way for the rest of the day. And for that too, I am grateful

    This post originally appeared on MyJewishLearning.com

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  • Music In Modern Israel

    Posted on April 10th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Music always offers a wonderful way to connect to Israel and the diversity of Jewish life. As we look toward the marking of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut, we offer this tour of ancient and modern music as seen through the eyes of Cantor David Berger of Congregation Tikvat Joseph of Manhattan Beach CA.

     

    This year I have the unique privilege of spending nine months in Jerusalem studying at the Hebrew University and teaching at the Hebrew Union College. Within a few blocks of my apartment in Jerusalem there are more synagogues than you can imagine.

    Situated right between the old alleyways and courtyards of Nachla’ot, and the bustling shopping of Ben Yehudah, my temporary home is just about a block away from the first Reform synagogue in Israel, Kehilat Har-El, on Shmuel Hanagid street. Bouncing between all these different types of Jewish communities gathered together in such close proximity, I am continuously reminded that the sounds of Judaism are so much more diverse than any one community can ever contain.

    Author: David Berger

    Some of these places preserve melodies that have been sung for hundreds of years, accompanying the community through different historical eras and geographical locations. Other places experiment with new types of musical expression, reaching out to the “secular” Israeli population by following the words of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook – “May the old be renewed and may the new be holy.” I wish that I could personally take you with me on a tour of the exciting Jewish sounds all around my Jerusalem apartment, but instead, I’ll share some of those sounds and sites with you using Youtube.

    We’ll start at the “Great Synagogue Ades of the Glorious Aleppo Community.” This stunningly beautiful building in Nachla’ot is the center of the Syrian Jewish cantorial tradition. Every Saturday night, from Sukkot until Pesach, members of the community gather at 3:00 AM and sing piyutim (liturgical poems) and psalms for four hours in a ritual called “Bakashot.” After a whole night of singing, the community starts their Shabbat morning service at 7:00. It is quite the undertaking to visit, but the spirit and joy of the community makes it all worth it. Check out this video to get a sample of this Bakashot ceremony (filmed in 1976, but things haven’t really changed much).
    http://youtu.be/9BsIW4yGljM

    Moving from Nachla’ot to my favorite music store on Ben Yehuda Street, Hatav Hash’mini (The Eighth Note), I would love to share some of the newest Israeli popular music that takes Jewish texts and melodies once limited to the synagogue and gets them on the radio.

    Sagiv Cohen has combined traditional Yemenite melodies with contemporary pop arrangements on his new album Hal’lu. Listen for his Yemenite pronunciation of Hebrew on this recording of the 150th psalm.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cEyskYGQbR4&feature=related

    The New Jerusalem Orchestra released a live recording of their inaugural concert, lead by the incomparable Rabbi Haim Louk, the leader of the Moroccan cantorial world. This unique ensemble brought together Jazz, Arabic music, Classical music and modern Israeli music – something that has never really been done before. Listen to their recording of “Ya’alah Ya’alah,” a classic Moroccan festive song.

    Etti Ankari has been a major figure on the Israeli popular scene for 20 years. After six albums of beautiful, secular songs, she went through a religious transformation, and recently came out with an album of original melodies to religious poetry by Rabbi Yehudah Halevy (1075-1141). On this extraordinary album is a touching setting of Psalm 23 – watch her in a live performance here.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZk46Npki80&feature=related

    Going back up Ben Yehuda Street, there is a new major Jewish institution on King George Boulevard, right next to the Jewish Agency building. Beit Avi Chai (bac.org.il) is a center that offers an unbelievable array of concerts, classes, programs and exhibits around issues of Israeli culture, Jewish tradition, food, music, theater… It is impossible to keep up with everything that goes on there. Check out this small sampling of exciting videos on their Youtube channel.

    Guy Zuaretz (an Israeli TV star) singing “Cuando El Rey Nimrod” in a concert of Ladino music:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iOgd_0UChhA&list=UUjazC-ZG_ob-cRR16ZljaxQ&index=9&feature=plcp

    Here is a group performing the text “Even when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” from Psalm 23 to an Arabic melody:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOFSMeyiwRQ&feature=relmfu

    Here is a jazz ensemble performing a classic, nostalgic song made popular by North African Jewish singers about the city of Barcelona:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUiav2qKCFg&list=UUjazC-ZG_ob-cRR16ZljaxQ&index=28&feature=plcp

    Look around their Youtube channel – it is a tremendous treasury of the newest and coolest Jewish culture coming out of Israel today.
    For one more synagogue visit – I want to take you to an exciting new place called Nava Tehila

    This relatively new community meets once a month for Friday night services and offers continuing classes on Jewish spirituality and kabbalah. Mostly using their own melodies, this community reaches out to Israelis in a musical and spiritual language that feels natively Israeli. They post videos of their musicians performing many of their new melodies so that people can come to synagogue prepared to sing. Check out this melody for Psalm 98, part of the Kabbalat Shabbat service (and then look around the rest of the site)
    http://navatehila.org/35897/Psalm-98

    I wish that I could bring you into more places – but for now this taste will have to suffice. Jerusalem is alive with Jewish music and Jewish prayer that never ceases to amaze. Just when I think I’ve heard it all – I wander into another place and find myself enthralled with something I’ve never even imagined. As I enter my last few months of time here in Jerusalem, I wonder how I will be able to bring this music back to my synagogue in California. As Reform Jews, we are committed to an ever-expanding vision of Judaism. This year at your Passover seder, when you recite the words “L’shanah Haba’ah Birushalayim” – “Next year in Jerusalem” – and you think about the sounds and sites of the holy city, may you be inspired with a vision of Judaism and Jewish music that celebrates all the diversity and excitement Jerusalem can bring.

    This piece originally appeared on the American Conference of Cantors blog and was reprinted with permission.

     

     

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  • Is Pride Really a Deadly Sin?

    Posted on February 22nd, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments
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    “Pride is, in the Jewish tradition, among the most serious of the vices, as humility is among the highest of the virtues. The Talmudic Rabbis, perhaps because of their awareness that scholars are easily tempted to lord it over the ignorant, denigrate pride in the most caustic terms.”

    –Rabbi Louis Jacobs  The Jewish Religion: A Companion

    How ought Jewish leaders think about pride? In Christianity pride is viewed along with wrath, greed, sloth, lust, envy and gluttony to be the seven deadly sins. These sins, stand in a category of their own because, among other reasons, their tendency to cause more sin. True Judaism does not buy into the framework of original sin, but if we take Rabbi Jacobs and the sources he sights, it would seem that we ought to leave pride alone all together.

    At first, I was completely comfortable with this approach. My chevruta and I have recently began making our way through Alan Moranis’s Everyday Holiness which uses the traditional Jewish approach to self examination mussar to lead readers to self improvement. The starting point for this work? Humility. The polar opposite of pride.

    Getting rid of pride is no easy task, no less a persona than Moses struggled to do so. According to our tradition, his understanding of the divine was greater than anyone before or after him. And yet, when it came to preparing for his death, he was not easy to accept his immiment passing. According to the Midrash Tanchuma VaEtkhanan, upon understanding that the authority of interpreting the Torah and receiving prophecy had passed from him to Joshua, Moses cried out and said “Rather a hundred deaths than a single pang of envy. Master of the universes, until now I sought life. But now my soul is surrendered to You.” And yet, when the angel was sent to bring him to God, Moses fought back claiming greater authority and power.

    Pride makes us take up too much space, makes us inflate our importance in comparison to that of other people. As leaders, it can trip us up as we step too far forward, expect too much recognition, or put our own needs ahead of the tasks that need completing. It can cloud our judgment. Pride can lead to a fall sense of importance. As a rabbinic mentor once told me, half the bad stuff they attribute to you is not your fault but at the same time, half the good stuff they attribute to you is not your accomplishment either.

    Yet as Moranis points out, false humility is just as bad as pride. We need to own our strengths and capabilities. Real humility demands stepping up and working to accomplish what we are capable of doing.

    Nonetheless, I was left wondering whether pride, like other elements of the evil impulse, ought to be managed but not entirely eradicated. Is it wrong to find joy in the hard work we do, in the skills we learn and use well? Sometimes, the desire for recognition pushes us to do the right thing. Sometimes our inflated sense of self gets us through what might otherwise be an impossible situation. Describing Sephardi Jews of Turkey, Rabbi Marc Angel explains that no matter how poor these Jews were, they held on to the memory of having once been part of the prosperous Spanish Jewish community. Generations had passed, still pride helped them cope with what were often difficult lives.

    Manage it, contain it. But in my humble opinion, pride is far from entirely negative.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

     

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  • Trees, Roots and Spirituality: Tu B’shvat Torah

    Posted on January 17th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    An elm on our street the morning after Hurricane Ike

     

    On February 8th, 2012 we will celebrate Tu B’shvat. This week Talmudist, Rabbi Judith Abrams of Maqom shares some personal and textual teachings about this holiday.

    B”H

    This past year, Texas suffered through an extreme drought.  Roads melted and cracked and water mains fractured under the stress.  But perhaps the worst of the drought was what it did to the trees.  Thousands and thousands of them died and now the city workers go through our neighborhoods marking trees that are definitively dead with spray paint so crews will know which trees to cut down.  We all understand why these elms, pines, magnolia and others need to be cut down:  they need to come down in an orderly way or they will fall down and cut off power and traffic.  But still, we see those sprayed painted markings and fell a sense of loss.  

    The “tree deaths” aren’t randomly distributed.  We found this out during Hurricane Ike in 2008.  Elms, which have a very shallow root system, were simply blown over because their ratio of canopy to roots was too small.

    The Same Tree a Few Days Later

    You can see the shallow ball of roots that tipped up as the elm fell, uprooting the sidewalk.

    Interestingly enough, we have a live oak tree in our front yard and it scarcely lost any foliage at all:  some leaves and twigs blew off but that was about it.  That oak’s roots go down about 20 feet and the tree itself is probably only 30 feet high.

    During the drought, I worried about the elms, but not about the oak.  I knew the oak’s roots would be able to reach downward toward the water table.

    The lesson, I’m sure, is clear.  What is it, who is it, that survives?  The one with the deepest root system.  Those who composed the Torah, and those who wrote rabbinic literature knew how much wisdom we can gain from observing trees.  Important events happen with trees (e.g., the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the terebinths of Mamre, Genesis 12:6).  The menorah in the Tabernacle is a stylized almond tree.  Trees are not to be cut down in a war (Deuteronomy 20:19), nor are permitted to exploit trees while they are still saplings (i.e., the rules in tractate Orlah).  They can even teach us some interpersonal lessons, as it is said, “A person should always be gentle as the reed and never unyielding as the cedar (B. Taanit 20a).”

    So with all this as background, how might we best celebrate Tu Bishvat this year? We could Study one tree and its place in the local ecology.  We could make a plan to make a “local lulav” of branches in the fall and mentally mark four trees for that purpose.  For example, if you live in Vermont, you might include maple leaves and apples in your “local lulav.”  And, of course, plant trees here and in Israel.

    See the trees everywhere you look, for they are there…even where you might least expect them to be.  If you look closely at what a scribe did to this Torah scroll, you can tell that he saw the trees and plants everywhere, everywhere

     

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  • Blue Women and Biblical Tales: The Work of Siona Benjamin

    Posted on May 23rd, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Esther is blue. So is Vashti. And it is hard to take your eyes off of them. Born and raised in Bombay in a Bene Israel Jewish family and educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian Schools, artist Siona Benjamin brings many influences and cultural understandings into the bold art she creates –much of it based on Jewish stories. Her current exhibition at the HUC-JIR Museum – New York, The Croll Center for Jewish Learning and Culture, is an illustrated Esther Megillah and is on display until the end of June.

    Benjamin recently returned from a spending four months as a Fulbright scholar in India. She is thoughtful and passionate about the work she does and her desire to express the complexity of contemporary Jewish life. I sat down with her to talk about her art.

    Siona Benjamin

    Ruth Abusch-Magder: Much of your art revolves around Jewish themes, especially those of Jewish women, how did you come to this focus?

    Sonia Benjamin: A lot of my work is about issues of identity and social and political identity and my role as a woman and a Jew and as an Indian.  When I was studying in art school, my professors said only big abstract bold paintings will sell and will make you lots of money. But that was not really me. My paintings are small, decorative, feminine, mythology based. Why is myth not high art? Why is decorative art not high art? When you speak in your true voice people really start seeing it.

    Ruth Abusch-Magder: How do you engage Jewish content in your work?

    Sonia Benjamin: I study midrash with Rabbi Burt Visotsky. The whole process of studying midrash is the starting point. Then I have to make it my own. If I just drew Ruth walking with Naomi or Rebecca by the well, it would be redundant. People would say, how skillful or how beautiful, but it would not be compelling. It would be redundant. But midrash is about having a take on the story. I am making visual midrash that will affect not just Jewish people, but all kinds of people. They can connect in their own way. I’m striving for that.

    Ruth Abusch-Magder: The Esther Megillah was a commission, so how did you decide what to illustrate and how to do the drawings?

    Sonia Benjamin: The person who commissioned me had a lot to say, and so did Rabbi Visotsky. I also did historical research. Haman’s hat, for example, was it supposed to be three cornered like a hamantashen? There were no hamantashen in Persia. So I asked what could he have been wearing? Then I exaggerated it to show his character.

    There is a scene where Achashverosh is receiving Esther and Modechai is presenting her.  I was doing sketches, and I went back and forth with the rabbi and the guy about the throne. I wondered if I should go back to the Persian miniature and copy Moghul miniature painting which showed King Akbar or Gihangi sitting on thrones. But there is actually there is a midrash about the throne that Achashverosh sat on. There is a contemplation that he sat on the looted throne of King Solomon. Now, what does that look like? It is said in the midrash that it had a lion, a falcon, a bull and human face on it. According to the midrash Solomon’s throne was looted by the Persian kings and this is what Achashverosh sat on. So I used this as the basis in my painting. It is a hidden secret, no one will know unless it is pointed out but it will make it more interesting.

    Ruth Abusch-Magder: Which is your favorite character? Who do you identify with in the megillah?

    Sonia Benjamin: A lot of my work is feminist, I like marginal characters Vashti, Lilith, dina, tziporah. So I was disappointed that Vashti disappears [from the story]. She is like the ex-wife who wants to come back. So in the scroll painting in one of the scenes when the King is married to Esther and she is planning to save the Jewish people and she is pouring wine in the background there are arch ways and the marriage bed. In the background I painted the shadow of Vashti, she is watching, maybe approving, saying this king is finally getting what he deserves.

    Ruth Abusch-Magder: Why are the women in your paintings blue?

    Sonia Benjamin: A lot of my characters are blue because a lot of times people don’t recognize what I am, I get asked if I am Moroccan, Puerto Rican, Pakistani, Persia. If I say Indian then they say Hindu, Muslim? Then what are you. When I explain that I am Jewish, they often want to touch me –I’m exotic. There have been Jews in India for thousands of years. When I was painting self portraits I tried all these brown colors but none seemed right. But blue is the color of the ocean and sky it could belong anywhere. It is the color of Israel all the synagogues in India are painted this blue, and Krishna is a God who is blue. It became a symbol for me of being a Jewish woman of color. It became a joke that I could play. Feminist writers have said, that I am the other 3x removed, Jewish, woman and in a foreign land, so your blueness gets amplified, you get bluer and bluer.

     

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  • General Religion Sites II

    Posted on October 18th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Last week I reviewed a few of my favorite general religion sites. As I promised, I am continuing this week with some general news or information sites that have dedicated religion content. Let me stress, it is not really possible to read everything that is out there, but it is helpful to know where to find the kind of material that you are looking for. Each site has its own specialty. Many of the sites are well known, others not quite as well known. Once again I welcome additional thoughts and ideas.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    BBC Religion: This site, a department of BBC worldwide, is a conglomeration of variety of features. In addition to straight news stories culled from the diversity of reportage provided by the network of BBC reporters world wide, there are links to BBC radio and TV shows dedicated to religion and ethics. But the site has a smattering of the cool elements the uniquely religion sites I discussed last week also have. There are explanations about world religions and a world religions calendar that is quite comprehensive.

    NPR Religion is similar to the BBC site in that it collects the news of interest from all the variety of National Public Radio shows in one place. There are few additional bells and whistles but if you are an NPR junkie (which I am) this is a good place to find it all together. One cool thing is the ability to make a podcast of all the religion items for your listening pleasure.

    Religion News on the Web is a project of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Though the site is not a news generator, it is a selective aggregator of religious news from around the world. Articles are sorted by topic, region, and date, making it possible to track stories or issues in a myriad of different ways and from very different points of view. The connection with the larger Pew Forum means that there a great deal of information that can help contextualize what is going on in a broader context.

    Washington Post On Religion: One of the early adapters to the new world of the web where blogging has taken the place of traditional reporting, the Washington Post has built a following by recruiting religious leaders to speak each week to a specific timely question. The quality of the questions and diversity of answers make the site a wonderful resource for thinking about the news issues of the day. Not as well known and not officially a religion site, the sister site, Washington Post On Leadership is another wonderful resource that is worth a look. Like the On Religion format, On Leadership poses a question to a series of leaders and gets a variety of leaders to answer from their point of view. There is some great stuff here.

    The Huffington Post is a recent addition to the mix. Bringing together articulate religious leaders and thinkers, the Huffington Post site offers religious opinion pieces from around the world. Contributors are not necessarily religious leaders, or even religious. But the posts are edited and often highly engaging. Of late many of the big viral stories on Jewish religious opinion, started life on the HuffPost as it is known. Many Reform Jewish leaders have been known to use the site as a forum for sharing ideas.

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  • General Religion Sites

    Posted on October 11th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 5 comments
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    By Ruth Abusch-Magder

    I’m a fan of general religion sites. There is the obvious: any Jewish professional needs to know what is going on in the broader world of religion to be able to adequately address the Jewish community. While I could, and sometimes do turn to other denominationally affiliated sites for this kind of information, getting the range of religious responses to, for example, a supreme court case, is more easily found on a single site which aggregates opinions. Often I’m inspired and engaged for my own work, by stories and opinions on these pages. Additionally, I’ve come to recognize, that these general sites, like the one stop superstore, often bring in people who might not immediately think to stop off at a boutique Jewish site, no matter how friendly, informative or easy to navigate such a site might be. It is good to know what these sites are saying about Judaism and how people are reacting. Finally, many of these sites are not just good but great. Often, they recruit high level contributors who share real wisdom and insight.

    There are two main kinds of general religion sites, those that stand alone focusing on religion and belief exclusively and others that are subsets of larger general news/information sites. In putting together my list of recommendations and reviews, I’ve decided to break them down into two separate groups over two weeks, starting with those specifically devoted to discussion of religion.

    It is not a comprehensive list nor does it aim to be. This list is completely based on my own opinions.  I have not included every general source on religion. I am limiting myself to sites that have named authors for each article or piece or at least most of them. Nor am I a big fan of those sites that declare themselves completely objective, as I am not sure that is a goal that is either attainable or desirable. I much prefer people own their points of view so that I can understand where they are coming from.

    I’m sure I’ll leave out some good ones, so send them on and I’ll learn something too.

    Beliefnet: One best known religion sites on the web, it is also one of the oldest, founded in 1999 Steven Waldman and Robert Nylen. It gets a tremendous amount of traffic. On the positive side, this site has much to offer with information about spirituality generally as well as particular religions. There are some fun elements like sections on sports and movies, practical advice for daily spiritual living, and general knowledge quizzes and forum. One stand out is the Belief-0-Matic a fun multiple choice game which can help readers find their true spiritual home –though I will note that try as I might I have yet to align with their version of Reform Judaism, this morning I turned out to be a Unitarian. Readers can contribute to the site and there are many well known clergy –including rabbis- who use the site as a forum for sharing ideas. The downside of all the bells and whistles, open as well as solicited content, is that sometime the serious stuff gets lost.

    Patheos: This is a relative newcomer to the world of online religion founded in 2008. The site is hipper in format and content than Beliefnet but still building its Jewish content. The information that is there is strong and interesting and growing daily. In addition to thought pieces and blogs, there are cool elements like the comparative religions tool as well essential elements like the resources for teachers. The interactive world religions map provides information of individual countries while the interactive map highlights religious holidays by date and would be useful for planning community events. Patheos earned extra points in my book for having both Reform and Conservative/Orthodox dates for Sukkot!

    Religion Dispatches: In contrast to Beliefnet and Patheos, Religion Dispatches does not attempt to speak to the full array of religious opinions or denominations but rather focuses on progressive religious voices. The first topic heading is sexuality and gender mixes news and personal accounts. The writers are of high quality and well known. The topics are engaging and timely. A recent article on dialogue in the Mormon Church about LGBT issues went far beyond the sensationalist headlines.

    Kill The Buddah: This religion site stands out among others as being up front about irreverence. By the words of their own manifesto, it is a site for “people both hostile and draw to talk of God.” Founded over a decade ago by Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau the site draws writers from a myriad of traditions. There is some wonderful poetry well worth exploring. The powerful thought pieces explore the complexities of religion and religious questions that are often on the fringe of the mainstream debate. It is not a site that will help you better prepare for an interfaith meeting or teaching about Islam but it may inspire your own journey.

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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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  • Jewish Meditation

    Posted on November 19th, 2009 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    This week I am glad to share with you the wisdom of Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz whose has been blogging for the last few months as part of project she started to enrich her congregations spiritual life during Elul. Rachel has an extensive background in meditation and hassidut and has created a short series about meditation. I share with you here a post on breathing and encourage you to look at her subsequent posts.

    Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

    Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

    Why do so many meditation practices, found in so many spiritual traditions, begin with the breath?  Something so simple as breathing in and breathing out?  Breathing is something we do every moment of our existence in this world.  So simple, and yet it teaches us so, so much.  In meditation practice we wish to bring our attention to this moment – to sense what it really is to exist in the present.  So simple?  Where else would we be?  Well, try it.  Close your eyes and just gently bring your attention to the sensation of breathing in and out.  Notice how the air comes in and, at a certain point, the air goes out again.  If you notice your mind wander, or you start to think of other things, as soon as you notice that that is what you are doing, gently bring your attention back to noticing your breathing – the air going in and going out.

    Chances are, if you are like most of us, you’ll notice certain things.  One of them might be, as you begin, ‘am I doing this right?’  To that question, I answer with another question – ‘what were you doing the moment before you closed your eyes and brought your attention to your breath?’  I’m guessing that you were probably breathing.  Were you worried then about whether you were doing it right?  So notice how quickly we move to judgment, even on something as basic as breathing.  Being present to this moment means just noticing what is arising right now.  As soon as we make a judgment about it – its nice, ugly, distracting, good, bad… that is something additional, and it removes us from just being fully present to what is. Its completely natural and human, and so don’t get annoyed with yourself when you notice judgment arising – that’s another judgment!  Just notice, and let it pass by.

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