Tag: Institute for Jewish Spirituality

Meditation: Unplugging and Seeking the Silence

I just began meditating again, this time with Oprah and Deepak Chopra. They personally invited me to join them for a 21-day meditation experience and I just couldn’t refuse. So daily I have been meditating again, guided by Oprah and Deepak.

The meditation comes at an opportune time. The adventure in daily silence meshes smoothly with my experiences during five recent days of vacation.

Seeking the Silence
After investing an intense summer of synagogue administration focused on the spiritual and administrative growth of my temple, Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA), I knew I needed some time away to retreat and refresh my soul. When it became clear that I was doing this on my own – my wife had a major work project and my friends could not take the time away – I realized that this was a gift just for me. So I checked into a hotel in Long Beach and with Yelp’s help, I set about to renew my soul.

Yelp guided me well – to a yoga studio, to great Oceanside walking locations, and to restaurants that boasted good food, wine and live jazz. With iPad filled with books and articles, I venture off daily in search of non-excitement.

I ignored email. I stopped returning phone calls. I wrote a little and thought a lot. Even when I was in public spaces, I kept to myself, allowing my introverted side to push aside the usual public extroverted persona. I talked to very few people and I actually enjoyed it.

The silence – external and internal – recalled the six silence retreats I attended with the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. Recalling the lessons of my teachers Rabbis Sheila Weinberg and Jonathan Slater,

whatever arose in my mind, I noted non-judgmentally, mentally marked it “pleasant” or “unpleasant,” and then pushed it aside. 

Whether overlooking the water, reading my book or breathing in yoga, I allowed nothing to replace that silence. I celebrated and embraced it.

Getting Out of My Head
I confess that every so often I would return in my mind to the synagogue work I left behind. It happened during yoga and meditation, during dinner, and while I was watching blues in a local club. Instead of getting angry or frustrated, I recalled the words of my new teacher Deepak Chopra:

Because we are alive, thoughts, feelings, and sensations in our bodies are a normal part of our human experience—even while meditating. When you have thoughts and sensations during your meditation, just be with them, then notice your breath, and allow your breathing to gently bring you back to center. See your thoughts without judgment—just allow them to drift across your mind much like clouds in the sky. Once you realize that you are involved with your thoughts and no longer repeating the mantra, simply return your awareness to the mantra and continue repeating it, just mentally. As you engage in the practice in this way, after a little bit of time, the mantra and thoughts will begin to cancel each other out.

How freeing it was to let it all go! What stress relieved when I was able to just be.

Feeling Transformed
Soon I will return to the conversations, pressures, joys and noise of regular life. For the moment, I feel transformed. In fact, I feel like our Biblical ancestor Jacob, whose nighttime experience transformed him. So the Torah teaches:

And a man wrestled with [Jacob] until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for dawn is breaking.” But he answered, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Said the other, “What is your name?” He replied, “Jacob.” Said he, “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Jacob asked, “Pray tell me your name.” But he said, “You must not ask my name!” And he took leave of him there (Gen. 32:25-30).

My long distance text study teacher Rabbi Larry Bach of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality explains it this way:

Jacob is utterly transformed that night. He is changed physically, his hip strained from the wrestling. The name change is perhaps the deeper transformation. “You shall no longer be Ya’akov, the sneak, the schemer, the supplanter.” As explained in the text itself, the patriarch’s new name, Yisra’el, points to his successful striving with the ish who opposed him.

Yashar El: Straight Path to God
One Hasidic reading (Kedushat Levi on Genesis 32:27) sees the “wrestling” was more of a “settling,” as Jacob learned to let go of distraction and remain attached to the Source. Jacob is able to connect “directly to God” (yashar el, the same letters of yisra’el, but simply re-vocalized).

So I return soon from five days away, transformed (I hope). Able to rise above the noise to remain connected yashar El, directly to the holiness that is life, I look forward to guiding others back onto the straight path to holiness.

And now, shh… It is time to meditate…

Do you meditate? What has your experience with meditation been like?

I’m Starting to Hear Voices and It is Affecting My Sanity

I grew up believing that when people start hearing voices, it’s the sign that they are beginning to go crazy. How much the more so when the person is hearing “religious” voices. Such occurrences often I thought were followed up with medication, hospitalization, or – in a few special cases – a move to Jerusalem where the voice-hearer declares himself the messiah.

I started hearing voices. That should be making me feel nervous, but surprisingly it hasn’t. In fact, as I’m hearing voices, it’s making me feel increasingly sane.

Am I Going Crazy?
It began in a pseudo-religious setting, Yogaworks Tarzana, where I engage in the spiritual practice of yoga. After a long weekend of inspiring teen-led worship services, intense pastoral counseling, awesome adult learning and our heartwarming Mitzvah Day social action project, I arose early to start my week with an energetic 6:30 am class.

Yoga mat spread out – 2 blankets, 2 blocks and a strap by my side – cell phone silenced, I assumed the cross-legged Sukasana pose to begin. I set a practice-guiding intention (that’s English for kavannah) to guide my day’s yoga practice: that I be mindful, becoming aware of the thoughts that arise in my mind, yet simultaneously moving them aside non-judgmentally so I can focus on my yoga practice. Simple enough to declare; challenging to live.

The Voices
That’s when it began. As the yoga increased in purposefulness, I began to lose focus on the poses. At first, thoughts about work – the growing to do list, people I need to call, intriguing new ideas – invaded my mental space. Although I wanted to contemplate each one, I let them go, lest they turn me aside from being present in the yoga flow. “That was good,” I thought to myself.

Then our yogi intensified the practice, leading us into Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose). Stretching along the top side of the body, from the back heel through the raised arm, my body began to complain. My thighs burned in concert with my breathing; my brain kept telling me I couldn’t hold this pose or others for more than a breath to two. I began berating myself for my failure, my inability to do what days ago was so simple and natural. An old story, perhaps, but quite effective in sabotaging my spiritual work.

Along Came New Voices, More Intense
That’s when the voices became quietly insistent. “Listen,” they said. “Listen to yourself, and see the judgments that pervade your mind. Let go. Let go of judgmentalism and just embrace what is. Accept what you can do for today without assigning blame or finding fault.”

“I’m hearing voices,” I thought. And I let it go.

I smiled. I slowed my breathing. I reengaged with the flow. I let go.

I recognize those voices, I realized. And I let that realization flit away. I let them go.

Naming the Voices
Only later, on reflection, could I put names to the voices. The cautionary voices, reminding me that I could choose to let go of judgment, were those of Rabbis Jonathan Slater and Sheila Weinberg, my teachers and spiritual directors from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. I attended a two year rabbinic program with IJS – silent retreats, yoga, meditation, study of chassidic texts – and years of distance learning and Spiritual Direction since.

My teachers engrained within me the need to let go of the stories we spin about good and bad, and success, and more often, failure.

Accept what is without judgment. 
Notice it. 
Name it. 
Move on beyond it.

My teachers had gotten into my head. And yet again, when my practice – and my life – threatened to spin away from me, their voices – implanted within – helped stabilize me until in savasana – the lying on back restorative pose – I was subsumed by silence outside and silence within.

Yes, Today I Heard Voices, and They Kept Me Remarkably Sane.

May you too find voices within that calm you within and without. Thank you Institute for Jewish Spirituality and YogaWorks for the lessons and the mindfulness.

18 Jewish Ways of Believing in God

Have you ever been to the Grand Tetons, our National Park in Wyoming? I did a few years back on a family road trip. It was magnificent. The jagged peaks of the Grand Tetons mountain range, rise up more than 7,000 feet above the valley floor, in a way that is just stunning. The lush green fields are beautiful, as are the rainbows of wildflowers that paint the meadows in vivid colors. Noisy streams cascade down the rocky canyons to fill larger lakes at the foot of the range. After driving around in the Park for a few days, I became so overwhelmed by the beauty that I had to pull off the road.

Overwhelmed by the Beauty of Nature
Grabbing my camera, I jumped out of the van and ran down to the winding Snake River. I was overcome with emotion. My heart beat rapidly, my breathing quickened, and, standing there, I began to shed tears of joy. The words of the Biblical Psalmist rang out in my head – (I’m a rabbi, what did you expect) – M’lo chol ha’aretz k’vodo – the whole earth is filled with God’s majestic grandeur. I was in awe. To paraphrase the 20th century Jewish thinker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, I was in awe of creation; I was filled with radical wonder at its magnificence. At that moment, I had no doubt that this world had a Creator, for I saw the Creator’s illustrious splendor before my very eyes. Mah nora hamaqom hazeh – how awesome was this place!

Have you ever been moved by the radiance of nature, a mountain, an ocean, or a beautiful sunset with a loved one by your side? Did you feel a sense of radical wonder? Did you feel “spiritual”?

I think spirituality is the “sense that we are all part of something greater.” Many of us feel astounding spirituality within nature. Which leads to the question: Is that God?

Personal Spiritual Connections among a Bunch of Addicts
Another story. Years ago I led retreats for Jews recovering from alcoholism and addictions. Participants learned and prayed together, confessed weaknesses to one another, and cried the reaffirming tears of recovery. Strangers at the start of the weekend, they grew close as they shared stories of pain and failure, of shattered dreams and broken lives.

At the end of each retreat, we gathered for a friendship circle. Interspersed between songs of hope, participants reflected on their experience on the retreat. A few described their interactions with others as being “holy.” In fact, a 20th century German-Jewish philosopher named Martin Buber taught that when two people place themselves so completely into a relationship, to truly understand and “be there” with each other, without masks and without pretenses, then God is in the moment. That Jewish recovery retreat became one, united by concern for each other. For them, God wasn’t some guy with a white beard sitting on a throne in high. God was a nearby Presence, felt in each encounter.

Have you ever had a feeling of spirituality borne within the intimacy of an encounter with another person? It might have been an interaction over a cup of coffee, sharing life’s stories, or the connection that happened while taking a walk with an old friend. Or with someone you deeply care for, truly making love.

So many of us have felt spirituality in those kind of human encounters. But one might ask: is that God?

Time to Talk about God
It is time we be upfront with each other. And speak about the three-letter word, which keeps coming up but that we continuously stop short of discussing: G-O-D! It is time to talk about God.

Let’s start with short poll. I’ll give you three options; you each may vote once: I believe in God. I don’t believe in God. I’m not sure about God. Everyone please vote, but only once: Raise your hand if you believe in God. (Please lower your hand.) Now raise your hand if you don’t believe in God. And raise your hand now if you are not sure.

[At that service, 60% raised their hands professing a belief in God, 30% not believing in God, and 10% not sure. These results are an anomaly from my experiences with other groups. It has been suggested that few would want to declare a lack of belief in God before their Rabbi, with their neighbors surrounding them, at synagogue, on Rosh Hashana. Usually about 2/3 of the group are unsure or non-believers.]

That’s a pretty interesting response on a day ostensibly devoted to thanking God for our blessings, and for asking God to write us into the metaphoric Book of Life. You would think it would be a given that people who will spend so much time in worship services would be God-believers. Yet as our poll evidenced, so many of us are not, or at least we are not sure.

I spend so much of my time as a rabbi speaking with people about their relationships with God (or lack thereof). The topic arises in the planning of a wedding when a bride or groom will ask, “How many times during the ceremony do you mention God?” It arises in difficult times when people ask why God “took” the 19 year old boy, or what was God’s plan in “giving cancer” to a kind, loving 48 year old husband and father of two?

What God Don’t You Believe In?
I often ask people who don’t believe in God, which God don’t they believe in. One congregant recently responded, “You know, God in the Torah who rewards the good people and punishes the bad. All knowing. All powerful. All Good. I just can’t believe in God because too many bad things happen to good people and too many bad people get away with murder.”

I get it. In fact I too don’t believe in God as literally depicted in the Torah: A God who punishes people with illness, who always rewards the righteous in ways we can see. My observations do not support this idea. That God-concept is like a youngster’s understanding of his parent. Like back when my kids were young and thought that I, Daddy, was the smartest man in the world, that everything I did was planned and perfect. (Oh, how I sometimes miss those days.) As my kids have grown they have developed a more nuanced view of me, which I’m glad has allowed us to develop a richer, more realistic, closer relationship.

Similarly, our Jewish people has grown up from the early days of the Torah, and our relationship with God similarly has evolved to become more mature.

New Jewish understandings have emerged that are at once more sophisticated while still embedded in Jewish tradition. This host of Jewish God concepts just might entice you to rethink your beliefs or lack thereof.

18 Different Jewish Views of God
Why rethink your belief in God? Because a relationship with God can give us strength, courage, perspective, patience, and an appreciation for something beyond ourselves. Because the very act of wrestling again and again with our beliefs can empower us. And because over the last 50 years, Jewish thinkers have articulated more than 18 different Jewish views of God, which are radically dissimilar from each other, and from the “reward and punishment” view of God.

We have talked about Abraham Joshua Heschel’s radical sense of wonder as one way to realizing God’s presence, and we touched on Martin Buber’s “personal relationships” theology.

Now, have you ever considered the “God is an idea” theology, that God is a well-constructed ideal against which we can measure our actions? That’s from Jewish thinker Eric Fromm.

Have you heard about the feminist theology, challenging the notion that God was not present during the Holocaust? Scholar Melissa Raphael teaches that the attempts by women to take care of others and to cover the bodies of the suffering restored God’s presence to Auschwitz.

Often I connect with a concept of God as the totality of all the forces in life – gravity, centrifugal force, of the forces that keep us breathing and moving forward. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan’s God is not supernatural, yet is still very real.

Rabbi/author Marcia Prager and others have developed a God-concept from the name of God – Yud Hey Vav Hey. We usually pronounce this name “Adonai” but that is just a euphemism since we do not know how to actually say God’s four-letter name. God’s name – Yud Hey Vav Hey – is actually a collection of three verbs – haya – was, hoveh – is, and y’hiyeh – will be. So to those God-thinkers, God is that which was, is and will be forevermore. God is Existence. Which turns on its head the question of whether one has to believe. Existence just is and so are we.

Then there’s Limited God theology, which explains that while God created the universe, God limited Godself to make room for humanity, and thus cannot act in the world to change it. If you like that, check out Milton Steinberg.

And then there is Kipnes “Internet-analogy” theology, in which God is liken to the Internet, an endless source of wisdom, strength and connectivity. (That one hasn’t made it into the Top 10 theologies list… but it is still young.)

This smorgasbord of Jewish spiritual beliefs points us back to why we are here today. Is it tradition? Or because today is a holy day?, Are we here to count blessings or to ask forgiveness? Or for for introspection, for the kids, or because the music is inspiring and the rabbi’s sermons are thought-provoking… Or as just an excuse to buy a new outfit?

No matter how we interpret our time together we cannot escape the prevalent presence of God in our services. God’s name is written in our machzor (prayerbook). Does that mean God is among us?

God Lessons from a Funeral
Last week, sadly, I officiated at the funeral of a 19 year old. A wonderful, loving, caring boy, Josh Isaac’s recent heroin drug addiction sabotaged his blessed, beautiful life. His parents begged the assembled to remember his essential goodness, yet simultaneously to wipe out the scourge of addiction. Said his mom Joyce, “There is no such thing as recreational use of heroin.” One moment you are enjoying yourself. The next you are hooked.

At the funeral, I asked the 450+ mourners to hold hands. (Let’s do that now. Take the hands of those to your left and right.) Why? For the same reason I had them do it. Because Martin Buber said we could sense God’s presence through personal relationships. Because Mordecai Kaplan believed that we nurture a God-like compassion through our own hands. Our physical connection created a holy place for the community of mourners, just like now. At that moment, even those who were sure they did not believe in God, hoped and prayed nonetheless.

These many ways to think about and experience God are all Jewish, and are available for you to explore and incorporate into your spiritual life. In fact, Rabbi Julia Weisz and I are teaching a twice monthly, Sunday morning course called “God, Belief, and Disbelief.” Learn more about it in the Adult Learning postcards outside.

What’s the Difference Between Being Spiritual and Being Religious?
Let’s do another poll. This time may vote as many times as you want. Raise your hand if you consider yourself spiritual. Raise your hand if you consider yourself religious. Raise your hand if you think you can be spiritual and yet not believe in God.

Remember, I think spirituality is the sense that we are all part of something greater. Spirituality can lead to behaviors and thought-processes, which connect us with a larger reality. Spirituality can but does not necessarily include a connection to a higher power or divine.

Now religion is a collection of beliefs, rituals, and prayers intended to help people retain a feeling of connection to an intensive spiritual encounter. Religion aims to connect us with our spirituality. For Jews, our Torah teaches that generations ago, our people – the children of Israel, the Jewish people – had a spiritual encounter with the Holy One that embedded within us a clear sense of who we were and how we should live forevermore. Jewish rituals are intended to lead us back to the central experience of the Exodus from Egypt and our later spiritual encounter at Mt. Sinai. Jewish religious prayers return us to these spiritual events, as well as our arrival into the Promised Land, and our covenant with God.

How Religion Sometimes Ruins One’s Spirituality
So why do so many people say they are spiritual but not religious? Religion can be its own worst enemy. Sometimes religion just gets in the way of the spiritual quest. When the religious rituals become overly dry and ritualistic, they tend to suck life out of a potentially spiritual moment. When religious leaders become overly concerned about saying just the right prayer or about standing in exactly the right position when they pray, our traditions can strangle the spirituality right out of us.

I don’t believe that God cares how big our sukkah is or how long we sound the tekiah gedolah on the shofar. Nor does God does ask us – as some literalists believe God asked Abraham – to sacrifice our children, either on a mountaintop or by strapping a suit of dynamite around their waists.

I do believe that God cares that we use our minds and our hearts to nurture compassion, pursue justice and make peace. I am drawn toward those ritual actions and prayerful words that deepen our connection with Yud Hey Vav Hey, the totality of existence.

And I believe passionately in the ability of people to gain purpose, strength, and consolation from their relationship with God. Why?

When I Talked to God and God Answered
Because it has happened to me.

One final story. Many years ago something occurred in my family, which required prompt, critical decision-making, but the crucial response was beyond my capability. Anxious to guide and protect my family, I heeded the counsel of Nachman of Bratslav, a 18th century rebbe. Rebbe Nachman advocated for hitbodedut, for speaking to God – crying out to God if necessary – in a normal way “as you would with a best friend.” So I opened my heart and began talking to God in the same way that I am talking to you now. I discovered through my conversation with God a new voice and unparalleled strength, just what I needed to help my family. I felt as if God had heard my plea for guidance.

Have you ever called out in a time of need and felt like something, someone, was listening?

Was that really God? For me it was. And perhaps for many of you.

Yes, the idea and reality of God are complex but they are worth it. The investment of your time and attention might introduce or reintroduce you to another or even a more sophisticated God concept.

Perhaps like I did at the Grand Tetons and in my time of personal need, and like the recovering addicts did on the retreat, you too will break through to a new spirituality or religiosity. Of course, Cantor Doug, Rabbi Julia and I, and all our interns, are always here to listen to you, to help you with your God questions, issues, or disillusionment. Together, let’s explore the human desire for connection with God.

This New Year, let’s each get in touch with our spiritual side. Now that would truly make it a Shana Tova uMetuka – a sweet and good new year. The invitation is on the table. Let’s walk that road together. L’Shana Tova.

Words of Thanks

My Rosh Hashana Morning Sermon in 5774/2013.

Sermons are always result from the collaboration with a group of people. I thank my wife, Michelle November, for her brilliant editing skills and unfailingly on target suggestions. I thank my practice partner Rabbi Julia Weisz (also of Or Ami), whose insightful comments helped bring the written text to vocal expression. I am indebted to (and slightly irritated by) my friend Rabbi Ronald Stern (of Stephen S. Wise Temple) for honestly telling me that my intended sermon needed a lot of work; that constructive criticism led me to shelve that one in favor of this sermon, a message I really wanted to share. (I only wish I had sent it to him much earlier so that I would have had more time to write a new sermon.)

So many people introduced me to the thinking of the theologians reviewed here, including my teachers – Drs. Eugene Borowitz, David Ellenson, Larry Hoffman and Leonard Kravitz of HUC-JIR; author Rabbis Rifat Soncino and Daniel Syme; my Facebook friends – Rabbis Jordie Gerson, Heather Miller, and Kari Hofmaister Tuling who helped crowdsource this sermon; and my Institute for Jewish Spirituality teachers  – Rachel Cowen, Nancy Flam, Myriam Klotz, Marc Margolius, Jonathan Slater, and Sheila Weinberg, who collectively led me into deeper connection with the Holy One and helped me understand how to live Reb Nachman’s hitbodedut.

When ‘just be good’ isn’t enough

Cross Posted at the Jewish Journal

“Why all these values, rabbi?” preteen Josh asked. “Can’t you just say we should be good people?” Often it is the most basic questions that set me thinking, and Josh’s query sure did.

My wife, Michelle November, and I are at Camp Newman, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Santa Rosa, where we are chaperoning Congregation Or Ami’s 45-person delegation. While Michelle serves as camp mom, answering questions by phone for the next session’s camper-parents, I work as dean of faculty, guiding young people with the camp’s daily middah (or Jewish value/virtue).

Jewish Values Guide Our Interactions
Over the course of a session, we explore b’tzelem Elohim (recognizing that each person was created “in the image of God”), kehillah kedushah (that as part of a “holy community,” we have responsibilities to each other) and kavod (that “respect” necessarily guides every interaction we have with other people and creations).

We embrace ometz lev (being “courageous”), insist on ahavah (the “love” that binds us together) and turn our hearts toward Yisrael (the land, modern state, people and children of Israel). These middot and others permeate the camp, invigorating every moment of the day from mifkad (morning assembly) to sports to hashkavah (bedtime activities).

When ‘Just Be Good’ Isn’t Enough

Josh’s question penetrates these moments of meaning by asking, “Why do we name and number so many middot, when one simple instruction — Just be good — or one simple Torah verse — v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha (love your neighbor as yourself) — might suffice?

We find our answer back in the mid-19th century, in a commentary by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner on this week’s parasha, Shofetim. The Ishbitzer (Polish) Chasidic rebbe (d. 1854), whose teachings were compiled as “Mei HaShiloach,” believed that the more clarity we have about how we should live, the purer, more righteous lives will we lead.

Guarding the Gateways Into Our Bodies
Our parasha opens with what appears to be basic instructions for the creation and implementation of a new justice system for the tribes. “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the gates [she’arecha] that YHVH your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice” (Deuteronomy 16:18). For Rabbi Mordechai, this opening verse points also to the way we guard our lives from sin. He teaches, “She’arecha (gates/settlements): we are to establish magistrates (judges) for each and every detail of life, in every state and in every city. This applies, as well, in our individual lives. These ‘gates’ are the seven sense-gates by which we receive God’s goodness: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and a mouth. We have to exercise great care over each of these gates by which we derive good.”

Rabbi Jonathan Slater of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality drashes (explains) that “the Ishbitzer is concerned with guarding what enters us from the outside, how we are affected by what we see, hear, say and smell. All of these sense-events/acts are powerful, affecting our inner awareness and our capacity to respond in a balanced, loving manner. Without awareness of the forces at work on our consciousness we are unable to align ourselves with the Divine.”

A Complex World Requires a Multiplicity of Tools
So why do we name and number so many middot? Because we live in a complex world with widespread influences that pull us in all sorts of opposing directions. Because our yetzer harah (inclination for evil) can easily overpower our yetzer hatov (inclination for good). Because we need multiple tools to filter everything we experience. The middot stand as shofetim (judges) at our seven sense-gates, ensuring that everything we see, hear, say and smell can and will be interpreted and moderated for goodness and godliness.

Sending Kids Off With Toolboxes Filled With Torah
When we say goodbye to Josh — and to the 1,400 young people who enter Camp Newman’s gates every summer — we know we are sending him home with a toolbox filled with Jewish virtues to keep him on a morally straight path. As the 19th century Rabbi Mordechai Yosef teaches and the 21st century Rabbi Jonathan Slater reinforces, the overall message is this: We need to establish practices that guard us from passively being affected in negative ways, just as we need to prevent ourselves from affecting the world negatively through our deeds.

For this is our highest hope: that Josh and all the children who attend Jewish summer camps around the country find direction and guidance from the Jewish values we impart to them. And we pray: May all they have learned transform them, so that they come home kinder, more compassionate and more Jewishly self-identified than ever before.

Encountering the Essence of the Ten Commandments

Most of us would recognize the Ten Commandments, even though few of us could actually list them. Beyond arguing about whether the commandments belong on the walls of schools and in the Federal Courts (they don’t), fewer still have tried to explore deeply the essence of this list.

Recently, I read Rabbi Yael Levy‘s Torah Commentary, Journeying with the Torah: Week by Week, Season by Season, Moment to Moment (from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality), which delves through and beyond the words to discover the essence of the Ten Commandments. Her explication of the list, through a Jewish spiritual lens, is breath-taking and refreshing.

Top 10 Commandments: The Usual Listing
We begin recalling a “traditional” listing of the commandments (from Ron Isaacs). While there are multiple ways to count the Ten, the prevailing Jewish tradition appears to be:

  1. First Commandment (Exodus 20:2): I am the Eternal Your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
  2. Second Commandment (Exodus 20:3-6): You shall have no other gods beside Me. You shall not make for yourself any graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them, nor serve them…
  3. Third Commandment (Exodus 20:7): You shall not take the name of the Eternal Your God in vain…
  4. Fourth Commandment (Exodus 20:8-11): Remember the Sabbath, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Eternal Your God…
  5. Fifth Commandment (Exodus 20:12): Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Eternal God gives you.
  6. Sixth Commandment (Exodus 20:13): You shall not murder.
  7. Seventh Commandment (Exodus 20:13): You shall not commit adultery.
  8. Eighth Commandment (Exodus 20:13): You shall not steal.
  9. Ninth Commandment (Exodus 20:13): You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
  10. Tenth Commandment (Exodus 20:14):You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, nor his wife, … nor anything that is your neighbor’s.

Reimagining the Transcendent Moment
Rabbi Levy imagines the moment at Mt. Sinai, when

…the world disappeared.
All distinction vanished.
There was no I, no you, no tree, no bird, no water, no rock.
There was only One:
One breath,
One life,
Only One.

And all of us stood
With the One breath still on our lips
And we knew.
We knew
The One inside the many
The One beyond anything that could be or seen known
The One:
And we trembled in awe… 

We listened to the One reverberate in our hearts
And in the silence, we heard the Mystery call:

Going Beyond the Words
Rabbi Levy pierces the essence of the Ten Utterances:

  1. I am, I was, I will be. I am the unfolding of all that is. I am constant transformation calling you forward to be.
  2. You cannot arrest me in motion. You cannot grasp or hold onto time. Do not strive for certainty. Do not seek permanence.
  3. Do not use a Divine name to make false promises. Do not use sacred teachings to lift up a destructive path.
  4. Rest, Stop, Pause. Be. Honor creation. Declare your freedom. Rest and allow others to rest as well.
  5. Honor your parents. Honor your ancestors. Honor those upon whose shoulders you stand.
  6. Do not murder.
  7. Do not betray.
  8. Do not steal.
  9. Do not use the power of words to hurt or destroy.
  10. Feel the fullness of your life. Don’t be led astray by comparing yourself to others. Don’t get lost in desiring what others have. Be content, be fulfilled with what your life brings.

Breath-taking, mind-altering, refreshingly expressive
Rabbi Levy invites us to reencounter the holy list.

In what ways can you embrace this interpretation of the Ten Commandments?

God Loves Like a Dog

My teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Slater of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality illuminates this week’s parasha by comparing Loving God to Loving a Dog. His first sentence grabbed me so (I’m not a pet person either), and it just got better and better.

I reprint Rabbi Slater’s wisdom here for pet lovers who might find meaningful this metaphor of God’s love. [Reprinted from Selections from Birkat Avraham: Ongoing Text Study Program, The Institute for Jewish Spirituality, on Parashat Bo (15)]

Rabbi Slater Writes: 

I am not a dog person, but I’m watching family and friends who are and trying to understand the phenomenon. I’ve come to feel that part of it is that dogs allow us to express love and attention and never be rejected (and forgive me my mistakes – but the argument is for the sake of our lesson). As opposed to cats, dogs do not turn away impassively, ignoring offers of attention, blasé to expressions of care and concern. They pant, roll over, fall into paroxysms of ecstasy when rubbed just right. Dogs rarely reject the invitation to play, to go for a walk, or be hugged. They are always there for us, and receive our notice with joy.

Loving Like a Dog
From what I’ve observed, dogs don’t make us feel guilty. Sure, they may whine when we leave them. But, they don’t sulk (for long) when we come home – they lavish attention on us, welcoming us back. There is never a “what have you done for me lately”; whatever we are doing for or with them now is received with immense gratitude. And, while dogs do seem to have their own personalities, they mold themselves to their families with great sensitivity and insight. They know what we want from them, and they figure out how to give it unconditionally.

That is hardly the case with our human family and friends. There are always conditions, and the love we may wish to offer is not always accepted. We have decided that it is important to tell others how our needs should be met, and that they are not doing so. We are the ones who fall into and out of love. We are the ones who figure we can fix up our partners, while resenting every suggestion they might make for us to shape up. We allow our egos to get in the way, making our needs and desires, our fears and grudges, more important than the people who love us, more important than loving the people around us.

So, people turn to their dogs for solace, and for affirmation. In offering love to their dogs, and receiving love in return, their hearts find ease. Resentment thins, anger abates, confusion settles down. Dogs, responding with love, meet our love, inviting its growth. Received without judgment or challenge, we can once again allow our love to flow. Their unconditional love allows us to practice unconditional love.

God Loves Like a Dog
God, too, wants to be able to express unconditional love. But, God does not have a dog, only we humans. And we’re just not as good as dogs in receiving God’s freely given love. We think that if God loves us it must be like the human love we know: and so we feel we can tell God how we want to be loved, how our needs should be met, how God is not doing it right.

And we imagine that God, like we, will turn away from us to take care of other business, to watch TV, or play with the family. So, we are resentful, thinking that God wants us just to wait around until God gets back to us. R. Avraham is always inviting us to turn to that unconditional love without conditions, and to trust that it is always there. But, it is hard. We cannot be dogs. We are not programmed like them. We have to choose to give up our agendas, and actually learn to notice what is there. We have to turn to that love and receive it however it comes, whenever it comes.

Waking Up in the Moment to What is True Right Now
We have to let go of what we learned before, what we thought yesterday or last year; we have to recognize what is happening now, the conditions of this moment. Over and over we have to choose to let go of habits of mind and heart and be present to what is happening now, without prejudice or preference. This is what it takes to live our lives fully. That is, this is what it takes to be able to welcome whatever comes, knowing that this is the only life we have, and this is the only moment we have to live it.

We have a Choice: We can be a Cat or a Dog
We can turn away from our lives, looking only for the sunny patches in which to snooze and offer gratitude only when our bellies are full. Or we can be present to each instant, grateful for this moment of attention, delighted in receiving love.

We humans are imprisoned by our confusion, our fear, our pain, our needs; God … cannot force us to receive love. We can be liberated when we learn to connect to each moment, to receive the love offered in this breath, this instant of aliveness. And God will be redeemed when God’s love is accepted by our open, willing hearts.

Holy Yoga with the Rabbi: Reflections from Yoga Instructor/Congregant Julie Buckley

In my early courtship with yoga, I understood the word “yoga” to mean “union”. I was breathing and moving my mind, body, and spirit into union. How delightful to discover the far reaches of possibility within myself. There were poses which enabled me to feel strong, to feel flexible, to balance.

Becoming a yoga instructor offered me knowledge of yoga principles and philosophy which ask for an alignment of intention and action. Funny… I hear that at temple, too. As my yoga practice deepened and the notion of embodiment called to me with some insistence, my time on the mat shifted from me to me as the embodiment of what?? As I inhale (HaShem’s exhale), I wonder about the quality of my exhale. This curiosity about what I am made of was long ago sparked by my Jewish upbringing.

Judaism, as expressed at my synagogue, Congregation Or Ami, is interested in questions of how we move through this world– what ground we’re on, what we stand for. My rabbi, Paul Kipnes, is a passionate advocate of social action. Teaching yoga at Or Ami has generated a beautiful tapestry with yoga and Judaism engaged in a dialogue of teachings and practice, so that we learn to live and breathe our teachings. How do we begin to repair our world if we have not lived and breathed our wholeness, our brokenness, and our journey back to wholeness– over and over again? And how do we, as we age and endure strain, continue to cultivate strength, flexibility, and balance? How do we have a presence which will allow us to be part of tikkun olam… helping to heal our world.

The fact that my rabbi is on his mat, down dogging with his congregation, speaks volumes. Being welcoming and connecting with humanity are not just slogans in my synagogue. The energy that is exchanged during our practice is uplifting, calming, fortifying. It is perfect that our rabbi participates…

Our yoga community at Congregation Or Ami meets monthly in front of the ark, under the eternal flame, sharing the nourishment of yoga. We are finding that our Jewishness comes to life by “breathing it” and our yoga is that much more holy in our sanctuary. Just as our full lives expand God, inviting Judaism into yoga and vice versa creates a greater sense of integrity, of fullness. No longer are we or the aspects of our lives necessarily secular or religious, sacred or profane; rather, we are whole… Jewish yogis who embody the light of HaShem.

“OMG WTF”, said the Rabbi to the Campers

We gathered together, a dozen Jewish tenth graders and me, their camp rabbi, for discussions about God.  I sat them down and, figuring we were about to share some deep thoughts, I invited them to introduce themselves by explaining why they chose this group. Some didn’t believe but wanted to find a way to believe. Others wanted to know why bad things happen. One teen was just looking for a place to talk about the really important issues of religion.

I looked around the circle, smiled at them, and said (in my best “Valley Grrl” impression), “OMG WTF!”

They laughed.

To those well versed in the shorthand of texting, OMG WTF usally means “Oh My God, What the &@#%!”  Few expected such language from the mouth of their rabbi.

Of course, I explained that I meant, “Oh My God, Where’s The Faith?”

We all live in a gorgeous world of wonder and possibility, but so few of us talk about holiness, or spirituality or God. So I asked, “Where’s the Faith”?

It is right here at the URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, where a dozen teens are sitting together sharing their deeply held ideas and questions about faith, belief, disbelief and about God. Here at Camp Newman we take on the most challenging topics, which for teens seems to include intense questions about God’s existence.

So I invited them to pick one of four ideas, which most closely resembled their ideas:

  1. I believe in God OR I know God exists
  2. I’m not sure I believe in God but I lean toward probably.
  3. I’m not sure I believe in God and I lean toward not
  4. I don’t believe in God or I know God doesn’t exist.

Then we challenged each other to collectively determine the top three reasons they picked this idea.

Then we talked. Choosing among these four arbitrary choices forced participants to examine their beliefs and articulate to others their reasons why. With ground rules that honored the multitude of opinions about God, we engaged in an energetic exchange. My role was merely to ask questions, to help them clarify their ideas, and to identify where their opinions paralleled significant Jewish philosophers. Thus we found teens speaking the thoughts of Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Baal Shem Tov, Spinoza, and the theologies of monism, panentheism, and Kabbalah to name a few.

Informed by the faith development work of Professor James Fowler, I patiently allowed for the agnostic and sometimes atheistic thoughts of the campers. While hewing very closely to the Principles of Reform Judaism which presuppose One God yet allow for a multiplicity of ways of describing and connecting to that One God, we invited challenge and response.

I must say that these discussions are amongst the most enjoyable that I have had up here at camp this summer. Serious kids talking about serious topics. Deeply personal one minute; hysterically laughing at a joke the next. Although God is a topic like sex, drugs and death which make many parents feel squeamish, here at Camp Newman it is just one of the topics that permeate this sacred space we call Camp Newman.

In fact, one colleague reported that immediately after she finished plunging a toilet in one of the camper cabins, the staff members said “thank you” and then peppered her with questions about God.

OMG WTF.  It seems like God is part of the conversation at so many different times: when things are good, when we are worried, and when the #[email protected]& begins to flow.

Omer Day 11: Stop Doing, and Just Continue “Being”

Today is the 11th day of the Omer, that is 1 week and 4 days.
Today is also the day I write my 613th post on this blog. It feels like a mitzvah! A time to pause and reflect:

Shabbat Shalom.

  • Can you be at one with the universe?
  • Can you stop doing and just continue being?

Shema, a central prayer recited twice daily, concludes Adonai Echad.

Some teach that this means God is one, that God is not two like the ancient Zoroastrians believed. And God is not three, like we Jews understand the Christian Trinity to really express (Father, Son, Holy Ghost equal three for Jews). And God is not many, like the ancient Greeks and the contemporary Wiccans believe.  All this is true for Jews.

I prefer to translate Adonai Echad as God alone, following our Reform Movement siddur (prayer book), Mishkan Tefilah. This teaches multiple significant lessons:

  • There is nothing but God. Ain Sof, as the Kabbalists express, God has no end. Everything is within God. Separation is just a way we comprehend the world. Unreal but effective. So we are part of the Oneness of the Holy One.
  • Everything is connected to everything else. If God alone means everything is God, and I am within God and You are within God, then we are connected within God. It means that I am connected also with those I do not know, those I have never met and those who exist across the world and across our city. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches that the world exists within the invisible lines of connection.
  • If I want to experience holiness, sometimes I should just stop acting on and in the world and just be. When I just focus on being, I might catch a glimpse, a sense, a shadow, of the is-ism of Adonai Echad. I might truly recognize that I am part of that oneness.

It is hard to do when one is running and doing. So try this. It is something I learned at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

Sit comfortably, quietly close your eyes, and just breathe. Focus on the breath. When thoughts come into your mind, categorize them as pleasant or unpleasant. If pleasant, push them, in your mind’s eye, to the left. If unpleasant, push them to the right. Then return to focus on the breathing.

You might find, somewhere in there, that you sense the eternality of the breathe, that just in being you exist in a most profound form.

At that moment, you just might have experienced the oneness of holiness, the oneness of the Holy One.

For more mediations on living on the journey, take a look at Seeking Words Where There are None, the Omer blog of Rabbi Ari Margolis, a former Congregation Or Ami summer rabbinic intern. It is well worth the time.

She Almost Killed the Rabbi This Morning

Early this morning, I lay with arms and legs splayed out across the floor and thought to myself, “I think I’m gonna die. Right here; right now.”

Holy yoga, rabbi. What were you doing?

Just that, Holy Yoga with the Rabbi, Congregation Or Ami’s monthly morning yoga, led by master instructor and congregant Julie Buckley. My teachers in the Institute for Jewish Spirituality encouraged us to deepen our yoga practice by bringing yoga into the synagogue.  So we did. 

Recently I have let my yoga practice slip – “be forgiving,” I tell myself – but the return to yoga this week was refreshing and wonderfully exhausting. Yet under Julie’s guidance, I realigned my body, and stretched my back, legs and hips. It was challenging for me (though the group was filled with yoga novices to yoga mavens) but rewarding. 

Why is a synagogue hosting a yoga group and why is the rabbi allocating time to participate?

With the exception of that momentary death wish (“kill me now so I can be finished”), the hour and a half is centering and mindful. During yoga, I feel at one with my breath, the nefesh chaya, breathed into me by the Holy One. I feel whole, filled with shalom, shleimut. Is this not what is meant when we sing the Shema? Adonai Echad, we sing, God is one… God is the oneness, the Unity that connects us all.

For those of you who do yoga, is it spiritual for you? How is the experience Jewish?

When Nature Becomes the Jewish Text

Up at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, California, nature itself has become the text from which to teach a whole Torah’s worth of Jewish lessons. Daily, the four hundred plus campers, counselors and Rabbinic faculty study the myriad of religious sources to illuminate the religious truths hidden right before our eyes. Little did I realize when I received my “camp faculty marching orders” from a way too young but exceedingly creative visionary Rosh Eidah (unit head) Aaron Bandler that I would be blessed to witness some truly amazing moments of holiness. 

Lesson #1: Opening the Door to Inspiration
Twice this past week a group of wide-eyed Rishonim campers (8th and 9th graders) and I (camps’ rabbinic dean) braved the 87 degree heat to venture beyond main camp to explore Jewish theology about God’s role in nature. Armed with reusable water bottles and plenty of sunscreen, we made our way, boisterously, up a steep incline. We paused at the water tower mostly to catch our breath. There, we told the folk tale about a man who, searching for something of meaning, travels far and wide seeking inspiration, only to return to discover it right outside his backdoor.  Sitting together, staring out over a stunning view of the far reaches of camp’s spacious back country, the folk tale gave voice to a universal truth. Lost so often with our thumbs on the cellphone keyboard and our hearts caught up in the drama du jour, most of us miss out on the inspiring beauty surrounding us.

Lesson #2: With Eyes Open, Colors and Wonders Abound.
The Baal Shem Tov (“keeper of the Divine name”), founder of chasidism, once commented m’lo chol ha’aretz k’vodo, that the whole earth is filled with God’s magnificence, but we humans use our little hands to cover our eyes. Sometimes it only takes but one story to open our eyes from this temporary blindness.  The second leg of our hike, under an uncomfortably hot sun, was noticeably more inspiring. Eyes opened wide to the beauty around us, we noticed more colors, interesting plants, and “cool” rock shapes. Soon talk about cabin drama turned to conversations about how soil erosion can be both beauty and of concern.  Before we realized it, we were being treated to front row seats as a turkey vulture hang glided on the air currents.  So close that we could almost reach out to pet him, the bird gave us city folk a lesson on flight control in the wild.

Lesson 3: Exploring the Relationship between God and Nature
With our hike in nature as the text, our discussion delved into the subtext: What was the connection between God/holiness and nature? As we hiked on, I offered four statements to ponder about God and nature:  

  • That God was mainly just the Creator of nature.
  • That God was in nature.
  • That God was nature (and nature God).
  • That God was really unconnected with nature.

Our next break provided an opportunity for a Four Corners discussion. Campers divided into groups along whichever statement best described their ideas about God and nature and there came up with their three top reasons why that statement spoke to them.  I sprinkled their insights with connections between their ideas and those of famous Jewish thinkers – Israel’s Rav Kook, Baruch Spinoza, early Kabbalists, Reconstructionism’s Mordechai Kaplan – and with philosophical systems ranging from Torah’s creation story, Isaac Luria’s shevirat hakayleem/tikkun olam myth, monism, mysticism, pantheism, and panenthism.  Give 8th and 9th graders an opening, and the conversations become refreshingly intense and deep! 

Lesson 4: Mah Norah HaMakom Hazeh (How Awe-Inspiring is this Place!)
The Torah tells the story (Genesis 28:10ff) of our ancestor Jacob, who lies down on the ground in the middle of nowhere only to awake to find a ladder stretching up to the heavens, with God standing alongside it. After conversing with the Holy One, and gaining unprecedented assurances that God would be with him throughout his life, Jacob declared achen yeish Adonai bamakom hazeh (God surely was in this place) vanochi lo yadati (and I did not know it). Suddenly aware of what always was, Jacob said with amazement Mah norah HaMakom hazeh (how awe-inspiring is this place). Ein zeh kee eem Beit Elohim (it must be God’s temple) v’zeh sha’ar hashamayim (and this is the gateway to heaven!).  Standing above a scenic overlook, we agreed that although we all differed in our theological outlook, we each agreed on one thing: that we were surely standing in a holy place.

Lesson 5: Hitbodedut – Talking to God
Another perfect segue, and an opportunity to talk to the Holy One.

We Jews spend inordinate amounts of time saying prayers yet often the ancient words serve as  incomprehensible conversation stoppers, even to the fluent Hebrew speaker. Someone once compared trying to use the prayerbook language as a means of talking to God with trying to speak with a 21st century American using Shakespeare’s Olde English. Both throw up roadblocks to real conversation.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, recognizing the danger of a disconnect between formal prayer and the soul’s need to speak to the Holy One, encouraged his followers to engage in hitbodedut.  Hitbodedut, often translated as self-seclusion or intentioned walk-talking, refers to unstructured, spontaneous, individualized form of prayer in which one walks around and talks aloud with God. I first encountered hitbodedut when I was instructed to do it during a rabbi’s retreat at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.  It moved me so deeply that I knew I had to teach the spiritual practice to others. 

Now imagine fifteen teenagers, usually hobbled with concerns about “what will others think of me?”, walking around in the hills, pouring out their thoughts and feelings to a God some of them weren’t even sure existed!? I encouraged them to suspend their disbelief and let go of their teenage discomfort.

The results were awe-inspiring. One teen spent his time talking to a bush (a la Moses and the burning bush), only to be rewarded with a sense that the bush talked back to him. A madricha (counselor) confessed that while during silent prayer in worship services she rarely says anything of significance, speaking aloud during the hitbodedut exercise forced her to focus her thoughts and open her heart. Others shared a sense of spirituality and a feeling that someone/thing/God was really listening.

Their words took my breath away. Just a the Biblical Jacob discovered, retreating into the wilderness can lead to deeper meaning and inspiration. With nature as our text and Jewish teachings as the subtext, eyes are opened, and lives are transformed.

Final Lesson of the Day: Send Kids to Jewish Summer Camp
That’s why I send my kids to summer camp every summer. And that’s why you will find me at Camp Newman in Santa Rosa every summer, volunteering my time. Because this kind of transformation occurs every summer at Camp Newman.  Sometimes it happens in the cabins. And we see it during a particularly raucous song session on the basketball court. For some, they discover it at the top of the 50 foot climbing tower. I was blessed to witness it firsthand, as one group of campers – 8th and 9th graders of Rishonim – found God also in the middle of nowhere, in the back country of camp. And their words inspire me.

Eating without Scarfing

So often we eat so quickly, scarfing down our meal, without taking even a moment to enjoy or contemplate what we are doing. At the Institute for Jewish Spirituality retreats, we enjoy 2 silent meals a day, during which we sit in silence with just our thoughts and our food for company.

Each meal, we set an intention for the dining experience. Sometimes it is just to put the fork down between each bite. Sometimes it is to offer a “thank you” or a “recognition of a blessing” before each bite. Sometimes it is to “taste” the food.

One of my favorite pre-eating meditations is:

As we make ready to eat this food
We remember with gratitude
The people, animals, plants, insects,
Creatures of the sky and sea
Air and water, fire and earth
All turning in the wheel of living and dying
Whose joyful exertion
Not separate from ours
Provides our sustenance this day.

May we with the blessing of this food
Join our hearts
To the one heart of the world
In awareness and love
And may we together with everyone
Realize the path of awakening
And never stop making effort
For the benefit of others. (Norman Fisher)

Sustaining the (Spiritual) High

I’m home from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality Hevraya (alumni) retreat. Four days with rabbis and cantors (and a few educators) to explore, deepen, develop, uncover our spirituality and our relationship with the Holy One.

Meditation, yoga, silence (10pm until 1pm the next day), chassidic text study, intense prayer.

I have blogged plenty about my recent and past experiences at the IJS Retreats.

How will I sustain my center? In part, I turn to the IJS’ Yoga CD, its elearning text study, and its meditation podcasts.

Intrigued? Try a podcast (on your ipod or online).

Join Rabbi Sheila Weinberg for a meditation on, and exploration of, what it means to experience life as b’tzelem Elohim – created in the divine image. We return to the beginning, to where it all starts, Chapter 1 of Genesis; recognizing that there can be no liberation from bondage without the affirmation of the inherent dignity of the human being. This understanding is articulated in this verse – And God created Adam b’tzalmo – in God’s image, male and female, the one being was created in the divine image. This might be the most important text in Torah. This might be the root core out of which all else emerges. What does it mean? What does it mean to you?)

Let me know what you think!