Posts Tagged ‘Judaism’

It’s a Knitzvah

Our Hebrew high school offers core classes and elective classes in small units.  When we were approaching the new unit, the educator asked me if I would be willing to teach a knitting class.  I agreed to do it on two conditions: that we were able to somehow create a class that also involved serious Jewish learning, and that there was enough interest to make it worthwhile.  As it turned out, eleven students signed up for the course (including four boys!), and I was having no trouble coming up with good topics for learning that related to both knitting and Judaism.

We called the class, “Knitzvah.” The course has three primary goals: To learn the craft of knitting; to complete a blanket (made in squares) to donate to the charity of their choice; and to study Jewish texts that tangentially or directly relate to the craft.  All of this in a 30 minute time-slot!

For our first class, the students selected the color yarn they wanted to use and learned about knitting charities.  The chose, as a class, “Project Linus” to be the beneficiary of their knitting.

By the second class, we had our supplies in hand, and I spent the entire class going around the room teaching the basic stitches.  I handed out a text study about the 39 categories of labor that went into producing the Tabernacle.  I hoped that the students would discuss how much love, skill, and craftsmanship went into the building of a holy place.  The reality was however, that since this was their first day with yarn and needles and the class was only thirty minutes, the text study was largely ignored.  This class was pretty much a skill-building class alone.

I worried that that would be the norm, and that the class would fail as a “Jewish” course even if it succeeded as a knitting course.  In planning for the third class, I realized that I needn’t have worried.  The topic was keva and kavannah.

Prayer takes two forms – keva, the concrete, written text of the prayers, and kavannah, the personal intention that each individual brings to the text. When we learn the Hebrew text, the keva, and know it well, we have an opportunity to get lost in the kavannah.  Hebrew prayer can work as a mantra, and it actually helps if you aren’t fluent in Hebrew!  If I am praying the Yotzeir prayer, for example, I know that this is a prayer about creation, nature, and light.  As my mouth recites the Hebrew words, my mind and heart can meditate on their meaning.  If the prayer was in English, I would be far more wedded to the actual written words of the text.

After we discussed the concept in class, we talked about it how it applies to music.  I sang the chorus of Jeff Klepper’s “Shalom Rav” twice.  The first time I sang it, I tapped out the rhythm on my thigh and gave a clean rendition of the notes on the page with no inflection or prayerfulness.  Then I sang it again, praying for peace as a I sang the words.  We talked about the importance of prayerfulness.  We discussed the difference between the notes on the page and a musical interpretation – kavannah.

After all of that, I brought the subject to knitting.  I explained that we were beginning our knitting with a swatch just for learning, but that we would discard these swatches.  These are about learning the keva of knitting.  Once we have all mastered the stitch, we will begin work on our blanket squares.  In making these, we can add the kavannah.  These blankets are for sick children.  We will knit our love, caring, and our prayers for healing into the stitches.  Having mastered the keva, as they have with their prayers, they will have the attention left over for kavannah.

Charlie's BlanketMy sister had a baby recently.  Her first child had been born very sick and this new pregnancy was frightening for our family as we all worried for my sister’s health and that of this new baby.  I began a baby blanket almost as soon as she told me that she was pregnant.  As that tiny baby developed, I knit his blanket, adding love, hopes, and prayers to every stitch.  Her older daughter, now a beautiful five year old girl, still sleeps with the blanket that I knit for her.  I dreamed of seeing this new, hopefully healthy baby, wrapped in the thousands of stitches that I knit for him.

Charlie was born in October.  He is a beautiful, healthy, happy baby.  The favorite plaything of his big sister, and loves to nap on all of us.  His blanket came out perfectly.  I hope he can feel all the love within the stitches.


Happy New Year!

Time Passing

Image Credit:

Happy New Year to my wonderful readers!  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of New Year’s resolutions.  I’ve never thought much of them because I have rarely seen them work!  It always seemed strange to me that everyone at once would pick an arbitrary, if unified, day to suddenly become better people.  I happened to mention this to my husband a few days ago, and he turned to me and said, “but you do it too!  You just do it on a different arbitrary day – Rosh Hashanah.”

He was right!  (Although I would not call Rosh Hashanah arbitrary!)  I make New Year’s resolutions every Rosh Hashanah, but they are very different from the ones that I ponder (but usually don’t make) on the secular New Year.  On the Jewish New Year, I resolve to be a better person, to turn away when in the presence of gossip and to avoid doing it myself, to be a better friend, daughter, sister, wife, Cantor.  My Rosh Hashanah resolutions are mostly about how I relate to others.

Secular New Year’s resolutions always seem to be about self, whereas t’shuvah (return or repentance) is so often about our relationship with others.  Most of the common New Year’s resolutions that turned up after a basic google search were related to a person’s relationship with themself alone– losing weight, getting more exercise, trying new experiences, stopping bad habits.  It’s not a bad thing to focus attention on self-improvement, even if it only benefits you.  Truthfully, the things that benefit you, improving your health, are bound to also reflect positively in your relationships with others.


Image Credit:

Judaism has four New Year’s holidays spread throughout the year. This means that American Jews get five.  Five opportunities to focus on different aspects of our lives that we can improve!  The next New Year is Tu B’shvat (falling in the secular calendar on January 20th, 2011).  Tu B’shvat is the New Year for Trees.  Many Jews take this holiday as a time to focus on environmentalism.  It would be a great time also to consider environmentally themed resolutions.

Oh so many ways to work on improving ourselves and our world.  Well, it’s January, people, let’s get started!

On Prayer…

iStock_000013821066SmallI’d like to do a series of posts on this blog about prayer. But, before I discuss specific prayers, I think we need to first discuss the concept of prayer itself. Prayer is about relationship – a three way relationship between self, community, and G-d. Every prayer involves the interaction of these three and yet even when one of them is lacking, the prayer can still serve a purpose (more on this when I discuss specific prayers.)

Anyone who tells you that they have believed in G-d, without any doubt at all is either lying or hasn’t given it any serious thought. A great Rabbi once taught me that the word Yisrael means, “one who struggles with G-d,” and that if you aren’t engaged in the struggle with faith, you aren’t truly part of Yisrael. It was a teaching that changed my life. Everyone doubts; everyone struggles. So, if you choose not to engage in prayer because you don’t believe, you are missing out on the other two components that prayer has to offer – connection to self and bond to community. In moments when faith is strong, prayer can be even better.

The Hebrew verb to pray, “L’hitpaleil” is a reflexive verb. It literally means to examine yourself. Sometimes I think that prayer is a like a lens. It turns our attention to things of importance and focuses us in on them. If we pray for healing of our family and friends, we are more likely to be in touch with them, to ask after them. Even if we don’t believe that G-d intervenes on their behalf, prayer reminds us to intervene. If we pray for peace, we are more likely to work for it. If we pray about nature and the environment, we are more likely to recycle, to go out and enjoy nature, and to take care of the world in which we live.

The prayers provided to us in the service ground us in things outside the self that are meaningful and important to the world at large. The silent prayer, the personal prayer is the time to turn that focusing lens inward to our own dreams as well as to our own shortfalls, to make a focused wish, which, once stated we can start to work towards bringing to fruition. This is a benefit of prayer that can serve any person, regardless of your current position on faith. Faith is the beautiful plus. Faith is the melody that accompanies the words.

Now many out there will read this and respond that they don’t need prayer to focus them on what’s important, that there are other ways to do that. I am not denying that at all. There are thousands of ways to connect spiritually. I would argue that most of them are, in some way, a form of prayer. It can happen in or outside of a synagogue. I had a very powerful moment of prayer on a bicycle once while on vacation. You never know where spirituality and inspiration will strike.

I’m interested to hear from you, if you are willing. What were some of your most inspirational moments of prayer?

Watching From the Pews

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for me. I made it through the holidays fine, but came down with a nasty case of laryngitis, which progressed into fever, infection, and a week of misery shortly after Yom Kippur. The doctor put me on a Z-pack and a heavy dose of prednisone and promised me that I would have a voice for the B’not Mitzvah the following Saturday. Ahh…. the best plans…

Friday night came around and the voice was not there. I went to synagogue and sat in the pews while two wonderful congregants, Libby Tulin and Hilary Schwartz, lead the congregation in song. These two wonderful members of my choir often substitute for me when I am on vacation, but I had never had the opportunity to watch them do it. It was extraordinary.

As I sat, voiceless, in the pews, Hilary and Libby sang, harmonized, smiled, and prayed. The community joined with them and I felt like I was seeing my shul from a wonderful new perspective. How blessed I am to have such a capable, talented community by my side!

Saturday morning came and I remained silent. The Rabbi’s wife, Naomi Adler, CEO of United Way of Westchester and Putnam, came to the bima with me and she and the two Bat Mitzvah girls lead the service along with Rabbi Beal. I was there purely for moral support. It was a beautiful service. Naomi’s voice is as lovely as her soul. I prayed silently, but rejoiced in the beauty of the day.

My speaking voice came back in time to teach Hebrew school on Tuesday night, and it will be there, although quite weak, for Simchat Torah. As difficult as it was for me to step aside and let others do the singing, it was a blessing too. I am surrounded by love and talent.

Leaders often think that the world will fall apart if they cannot step up to the plate. I am glad to say that the world kept turning, services continued, two young women became Bat Mitzvah. I look forward to joining my voice once again with this fabulous community in joyous and heartfelt prayer.

Two Things to Get You in That Rosh Hashanah Mood

Hi all! I wanted to share two things with you to put you in a Rosh Hashanah mood for tonight. The first is in the catagory, “Wisdom of My Students.” I assign my students thirteen mitzvot to do in preparation for their Bar or Bat Mitzvah. One of these is to read something Jewish (a book, an article, a website) and write a few paragraphs about what they learned.

My student, Levy Singleton, read the article “Wilderness Awakening” in the Fall 2010 issue of Reform Judaism Magazine. I need to read this article! Here is what she wrote:

Wilderness Awakening

Guest Post by Levy Singleton

“There is a Chasidic story about a boy who left the synagogue each morning during his daily prayers to go into the woods. One day his grandfather followed him and watched his grandson pray amid animals and trees. ‘Why do you go outside to pray,’ he asked. ‘When I am in nature, I feel closer to G-d,’ the boy replied. ‘Don’t you know that G-d is the same everywhere?’ ‘I know,’ said the boy, ‘but I’m not.’ In nature people often realize they’re part of something larger than themselves, the whole web of life.” – Rabbi Kevin Kleinman.

I believe, after reading this article, that when you’re in nature you are in a peaceful atmosphere in which you’re surrounded by G-d’s creations. When you are praying in the wild, you get the opportunity of using all of your senses, you can smell, hear, feel, and see what G-d created and how much power the beauty has on you is enlightening. It allows you time to clear your mind.

“In the city, with the noise of the marketplace, dust from the caravans, and friends saying hello, it’s possible that Moses didn’t notice G-d’s call.” – Rabbi Jamie Korngold. Our belief today is that G-d is everywhere, though for hundreds of years before we had the Torah our ancestors communicated with G-d on top of mountains. Why? Because they believed G-d lived in heaven, so mountain-tops would bring them closer to the realm of G-d. In a way they were right. Being outdoors does bring you closer to G-d, but not physically, spiritually. When you’re outdoors, you have a better relationship with G-d’s creations, making your bond with G-d stronger.


Can you believe that a 12 year old wrote that??

The other thing that I wanted to share with you was a bit of fun. While I was driving to the synagogue this morning, I was listening to The Brian Lehrer Show. One of the guest speakers was talking about website called Wordle, which allows you to analyze writing by looking at the frequency of word use visually. The more often you use a word, the bigger it appears in the graphic that the site generates. Curiosity won me over, I had to see what my blog would look like. I think the result is a nice pre-Rosh Hashanah meditation:

Fear… or Awe!

“And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal One your G-d demand of you? Only this: to revere/ fear (yirah) the Eternal One, your G-d, to walk only in G-d’s paths, to love G-d, and to serve the Eternal One, your G-d, with all your heart and soul.” (Deuteronomy 10:12). With this week’s parashah, Eikev, we are commanded to fear, or revere, or be in awe of G-d.  The Hebrew term, yirah, is a problematic one.  The two potential emotions that it suggests have very different connotations and suggest contradictory types of relationships with the Divine.

Fear:  Fear is one of our most basic, primal emotions.  We feel it from earliest childhood.  Fear is not a gentle and loving state.  It brings forth adrenaline, a fight or flight response, the need to be rescued or to escape.  We cannot be comforted by those things that frighten us.

Fear is not always bad, however.  The other side of fear is that it can keep us from engaging in dangerous behaviors.  It can inspire us to behave well, as a way to avoid punishment.  Still, the motivation of fear is self-centered and somewhat child-like.  It is couched in negativity.

Awe is a very different kind of emotion – a higher, more adult way of understanding the things around us.  Awe is about inspiration, beauty, the recognition that there are things in this world that are beyond human reach and understanding.  In some sense awe and fear are opposite sides of a coin.  Both are about the unknown, but one requires a greater depth of thought.  In order to feel awe, we have to appreciate and accept that we understand little.  Through that acceptance, we can avoid fear and embrace awe.

The High Holiday liturgy and music deal extensively with the concept of yirah, both as awe and as fear.  I am troubled by the liturgies and melodies that seek to convey and express fear.  To me, it is like those television shows that sell only sex.  Those pieces are calling out to our most primitive mind in the effort to reach out to our souls.  It’s easy.  It’s a cop out, and yet I am sure that the liturgists felt that the absolute necessity to touch people on the High Holy days makes that kind of (perhaps) cheap trick necessary.

The best example of this that I can think of is the Un’taneh Tokef prayer, which includes the B’rosh Hashanah prayer.  The prayer begins by describing G-d as “nora v’ayom” – “awesome and full of dread.” The Brosh Hashanah prayer describes the great tragedies that can befall people.   In it, we consider who, in the coming year, will die by fire, hunger, thirst, flood, or devastation.  The prayer makes us ponder our mortality and by suggesting that we can “temper the severe decree” through acts of prayer, charity, and repentence, it invokes a sense of fear that we will not do enough, and that G-d will punish us.

If the text wasn’t frightening enough, the music certainly compounds the sense of dread.  Clearly the writers of this liturgy believed that this is what it took to keep the people from anarchy, murder and mayhem.  This is not a theology that most of us subscribe to and yet, I know that when I sing those words, I suddenly do believe them.  I cold chill goes through me almost every time.  The text and music have their desired affect on  me: yirah, but in the most negative sense of the word.

Do we really believe that G-d is the destructive force in the fire, the flood, the tragedy?  Isn’t G-d the Oseh Hashalom– the MAKER of piece?  Our liturgy says, “Baruch Omeir v’Oseh” – “Blessed is the One who speaks and it comes to be.”  G-d is a creative force.  G-d is in the firefighters, the relief workers, the people who run to donate blood, time, and money.  G-d is the spark in all of us that inspires us to help one another through difficult times.  Evil is the absence or denial of that spark.  Evil is in destruction, not creation.

The other side of the yirah coin is awe, that sense of wonder in the contemplation of that aspect of G-d that is beyond knowing, the ein sof. When we ponder how small humans are compared to the Earth, how small the earth is compared to the sun, how small the sun compared to the solar system, the galaxy, the universe.  We are a tiny, insignificant speck.  The psalmist writes, “what are we, that you are mindful of us?”   This is awe.  Awe is in the realization that even in being so minuscule, G-d is indeed “mindful” of us.

The music of the High holy days expresses this aspect of yirah as well.  We hear it in the Mah Tovu with which we open our Rosh Hashanah services at Temple Beth Torah- the setting by Lewandowski.  “How good it is,” we sing with wonder as G-d’s presence fills us with awe through this glorious melody.

Yirah as awe is such a wonderful way to experience the Divine.  We feel it in a beautiful sunrise and a baby’s smile.  Awe is full of positive feelings, but it is much harder to access than fear.  This is part of what makes it such a treat when it happens.

The mystics teach us that there are many aspects to G-d’s presence.  They illustrate this in a structure that looks like a ladder or tree.  At the top is the unknowable ein sof, also called the keter, or crown.  Ein sof means without end.  This is the most mysterious aspect of the Divine.  At the bottom of the ladder is shechinah, the feminine aspect of G-d.  This is essentially G-d as we experience G-d on earth.  What a gift that is.  G-d is at the same time a completely esoteric being beyond all understanding, AND a presence that we can feel and relate to in our everyday life.

Thank G-d for that!  There is yirah, as awe or (hopefully not as) fear – those glimpses of the Ein Sof that take our breath away.  And then there is a more accessible experience of the Shechinah.

“And now, O Israel, what does the Eternal One, your G-d demand of you? Only this: to have yirah for the Eternal your G-d, to walk only in G-d’s paths, to love G-d, and to serve the Eternal One your G-d with all your heart and soul.” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

No. You Can’t Take That Away From Me.

This coming Tuesday we will mark the Jewish observance of Tisha B’av.  Tisha B’av, or the 9th day of the month of Av, is a national day of mourning for the Jewish people.  According to tradition, a large number of disasters befell our people on this day.  The most significant of these were the destruction of the First and Second Temples in 586 BCE and 70 CE, respectively.  However, our tradition tells us that the date also marked other tragedies: from the decree that the Jews would wander in the wilderness for 40 years all the way to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and even beyond.

The central observances of Tisha B’av resemble those of Yom Kippur:  fasting, abstention from bathing and sex, and the avoidance of perfume, body ointments, and the wearing of leather.  We chant the sad melodies of the book of Lamentations and other dirges.  In addition, we observe mourning customs on the three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av by avoiding public celebrations such as weddings, and by not shaving.

Reform synagogues observe Tisha B’Av intermittently.  My last congregation had a major observance of the holiday.  At my current one, we have not chosen to emphasize the day.  As far as my personal observance in concerned, I have been ambivalent about it for a number of years.

In ancient times, when the spiritual life of the Jewish people was in its infancy, our people were united behind one sacrificial cult.  Time and again we, in the Torah, showed how badly we needed concrete signs of religion, almost an idolatrous way of worshiping.  We needed a golden calf, a visibly grand and holy Temple, and adorned leaders.

Gradually our faith developed and changed until, with the destruction of the second Temple, and the beginning of Diaspora Jewry, we were forced to become decentralized and de-cultified.  The religion of sacrifice could no longer be followed, so the Rabbis taught us to substitute avodah – worship, for avodah – sacrifice.  Rabbinic Judaism was born and with it Talmud, discussion, dissention, debate, the fruits of everything that we love and value about Judaism today.

Some years, as Tisha B’Av approaches, I dare to think that we should almost celebrate the day when the sacrificial cult died and Rabbinic Judaism was born.  But of course, we should never exult in a tragedy, a battle where people suffered and died.  Nevertheless, this very dark cloud had a very bright lining and we should rejoice in the Judaism that we experience today, just as we mark that terrible day that caused the change.

This year in particular, I am feeling very glad for the decentralized Judaism of our time.  I am so grateful that there are Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Humanist, and Cultural Jews.  I love the debate that our difference enables.  We are now, as we were when we came out of Egypt, a mixed multitude.  This diversity means that we each have an important responsibility to insure that our singular voices remain a part of the collective Jewish community.  Today especially, we need to make sure that liberal Judaism does not become marginalized and separated.

Once there were Jews.  There were more and less observant Jews, but if you were born Jewish, you were… Jewish.  Then Reform Judaism was born and as a reaction against it, Orthodox Judaism came into being.  Neither one is traditional.  Neither one is authentic.  The only truly authentic Judaism that ever was died on that fateful Tisha B’Av when the second Temple was destroyed.

In ancient times, worship was centered around the holy Temple.  The only remnant of that sacred place is the Kotel – the western part of the retaining wall that surrounded the Temple mount.  Since the destruction of the Temple, Jews have returned to this holy site, thought to be so close to G-d.  We have pushed our written prayers into its crevices and cried our tears onto its cold stones.  The wall is a strange place.  Its stones are strangely smooth, rubbed by countless hands in tearful prayer.  It has a smell that exists nowhere else on earth.  It has an aura.  After you pray and touch its holy stones, you walk backwards away from it, never turning your face from its beautiful countenance.  Strange that though I would actively pray that we never return to the Temple worship, I find this place so holy, so compelling.  I guess it is because it has been the center of the Jewish universe for so many thousands of years.  It is, more than any other place on earth, the homestead of every Jew on earth.  Not the Temple mount, not Jerusalem itself, not any other place is really ours as much as this tiny wall in this tiny country.

But this wall is not fully mine.  The wall is set up as an orthodox synagogue, run by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.  There is a mechitza (divider) separating the large men’s section from the smaller women’s one.  I am okay with this because I can respect that some people are not comfortable praying with those of the opposite gender.  As long as there is also a place for me, it’s okay.  But the Kotel is not run like a mainstream Orthodox synagogue.

Orthodox synagogues run the gamut in observance.  Some are as strict as or even more so than the one at the kotel, not having a mechitza down the middle, but rather one that divides front to back, or worse yet, relegates the women to an entirely different room.  But many Orthodox synagogues have found ways to welcome women even within the confines of Orthodoxy.  There are women’s “minyanim” where the Torah is taken out and read.  They respect the history of women like Beruriah, who was known to be a great scholar, and who also donned tefillin.  The women pray, study, and sing together.  At the Kotel, however, the most stringent rules are applied: women are not allowed to wear tallit and tefillin or read from the Torah, and any loud singing or prayer will be met with criticism.

When a group called, Women of the Wall, meets, they are often greeted with violent and abusive behavior from ultra-orthodox men.  The men have been known to throw chairs, bottles, feces, and even punches at these women.  Strange that they cannot shake their hands in friendship due to the prohibition against touching a woman who is not your wife, but they can raise their fists in violence?

The Women of the Wall have been fighting for their right to pray.  Their struggle ultimately led to two Israeli Supreme Court decisions.  On May 22, 2002, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that it is legal for the Women of the Wall to hold prayer groups and even to read Torah in the women’s section of the main Kotel plaza. The ultra Orthodox did not like this decision and within four days were not only attempting to overthrow it, but presented a bill that would have made it a criminal offense for women to pray in “non-traditional ways” at the western wall, punishable by up to seven years in prison. Although the bill did not pass, the Israeli Supreme Court reconsidered its earlier decision, ruling once again that women could not pray at the Kotel in the manner of their choosing. Why?  Because such continued meetings represented a threat to public safety and order.  They certainly did not!  It was the protests that lead to the threat!  The Court required the government to find an alternate site, which they did: Robinson’s Arch.

Since then, the police have been increasingly visible against the Women of the Wall.  In 2009, Nofrat Frenkel was arrested for wearing a tallit… under her coat.  Just this past week, Anat Hoffman was arrested for holding a Torah scroll.  She was carrying the Torah scroll from the women’s section of the Kotel for services at the Robinson’s Arch, where should would be permitted to read from it, when she was arrested.  The video of her arrest made me want to cry.

Anat Hoffman was fined 5,000 shekels and was given a restraining order according to which she is not allowed to approach the Wall for 30 days.  It’s a sort of funny punishment in the sense that her prayer group meets at the Kotel monthly and so 30 days is exactly the next time she would appear there.  Nevertheless, it seems terribly wrong to sentence a Jew by telling her that she is barred from our most holy place.  Would they EVER punish any man in such a way?  For ANY crime, let alone for wanting to carry a Torah?

So, as we approach Tisha B’Av, I am renewed in my feeling of gladness that we no longer sacrifice animals as part of our worship, with joy that our faith continues to evolve and grow, and with fear that we should ever return to a truly centralized religion.

I leave you with this thought.  A few weeks ago, we celebrated American Independence Day.  Our Constitution’s First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”  Our country is NOT a theocracy, and we oppose them wherever they exist because they do not tend to lead to good government.  Israel is possibly an exception to that rule.  They are a democracy, but as a Jewish state, they also dance on the border of being a theocracy.  The Rabbinate determines rules about marriage and divorce, and would love to decide many other things.  Can the Jewish state be Jewish without being a theocracy?  Can a theocracy exist without impinging on the human rights of its people?  Can we, as American Jews make a difference in defining what Israel will become?  Do we have a right to try?

I am a Jew.  I am as much a Jew as those Orthodox men are.  I want my Torah and my wall and I want to chant and pray loudly and with pride.  I want to hear their voices too on the other side of the mechitza blending and melding with mine.  Bayom hahu and on that day…  There will be peace.

Kein Y’hi Ratzon.

The above was the sermon that I delivered at Temple Beth Torah this past Friday evening.