Tag: Spirituality

10 Ideas for a Spiritual Thanksgiving

(Adapted and expanded from works of Rabbi H. Rafael Goldstein)

Rabbi H. Rafael Goldstein writes: “We do not often think of Thanksgiving as a Jewish holiday – it is an American holiday which we, as Americans observe. Thanksgiving in America was started by Christian pilgrims, and infused by many Christian values. In the media, we are surrounded by images of people sitting down to their Thanksgiving dinner and “saying grace,” celebrating the Christianity of Thanksgiving. There are always special program episodes on TV of all of our favorite shows, in which, for one episode a year, the people in the show actually express some human kindness. Homeless people are visited and fed, others in need are helped, and the heroes of our shows demonstrate that they can be “good people.”

It seems that we have not developed our own specifically Jewish traditions for Thanksgiving. Yet, Thanksgiving is an interpretation of our holiday, Sukkot, the fall festival designated to thank God for the bountiful harvest. As American Jews, we should revel in celebration of an American holiday, and not have any feelings of discomfort about it. Thanking God, after all, is a value we all share.”

  1. Begin with a blessing. A collection of Blessings for Your Thanksgiving Table are found at www.orami.org on the Holidays page.
  2. Light Candles: Light candles at your table. There is no blessing for Thanksgiving candles, which means you get to make your own!!! Start out with the way we start all our blessings, Baruch Atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melech Ha’olam… (Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Guide of the Universe, who we thank for …) Then finish the sentence as you see fit. As you light your candles, invite others at your table to make their own blessings, using the same formula.
  3. Challah and Wine: Have challah (or delicious bread) and wine at your table, and say the blessings for them. Wine: Use the blessing formula above plus: Boray p’ri hagafen (who brings forth fruit of the vine). Challah: Use the blessing formula above plus: Hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz (who brings forth bread from the earth).
  4. Shehecheyanu: Thanksgiving is a great time to say shehechayanu (the blessing for thanking God for keeping us alive to enjoy this moment). Use the formula plus: shehechayanu, v’kiyimanu, v’higianu lazman hazeh (who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment).
  5. Share Symbols of Thankfulness: Ask everyone invited to your dinner to bring something which symbolizes what they are thankful for. After the blessings, before dinner, have everyone talk about what they brought and its significance. Be sure everyone knows to bring something, and has a chance to talk, including children.
  6. Light a Yahrzeit Candle to Remember Deceased Relatives: Make some time for remembering the people who are not with you, either because of distance, family obligations (or preferences) or death. Families change. The people sitting at your table all have other family members with whom they are not sitting (in-laws, cousins, parents and grandparents, children who are with former spouses, etc.) Talk about who else is not physically there. A moment of silence for people who have died, and are missed can be a great way of allowing people to remember. Have people talk about who they miss and special things about them from previous Thanksgivings. You can also light Yahrzeit candles for people who have died as a part of remembering.
  7. Do some random mitzvot (acts of lovingkindness): Collect and deliver food, household and personal supplies to people who need them. There are plenty of food drives at this time of year. Contribute food. Make a donation in honor of the people coming to your dinner (or alternatively, in honor of your hosts) to your congregation, the Jewish Federation, Jewish Family Service, Mazon (Jewish hunger organization) or a local shelter. Invite a single person, or people whose families are distant, to be your special guests. If you are a guest this year for the first time, donate what you would have spent hosting a dinner for others in honor of those you would have invited, or in honor of your hosts.
  8. Teach children about the connections between Thanksgiving and the Bible. Remember, for the Jewish community, Thanksgiving offers a special opportunity to be grateful not only for the bounties and comforts of our lives but especially for the religious freedom we have found in the United States of America. The Bible was very important in the Pilgrims’ lives. When they wanted to give thanks to God for helping them survive, they recalled the harvest festival (Sukkot) they had read about in the Bible (Deuteronomy 16:13-17). They used the Sukkot celebration as their model. In 1702, author Cotton Mather referred to the Plymouth colony as “this little Israel.” He compared William Bradford, Plymouth’s second governor, to “Moses, who led his people out of the wilderness.” More at URJ’s Thanksgiving page.
  9. Read Jewish Perspectives on Thanksgiving Day. Kevin Proffitt writes: “The Pilgrims of Plymouth observed the first American Thanksgiving in 1621, when Governor William Bradford proclaimed a special day of thanks for the colony’s first harvest. To celebrate, the Pilgrims prepared a feast that they shared with their Native American neighbors. Some time later, in the eighteenth century, many of the thirteen colonies observed days of prayer and gratitude during the harvest season. But it was not until 1777 that they agreed to observe a common day of thanksgiving.” Read more
  10. Review Jewish Values about Hunger and Poverty. As we sit down with our family and friends at the Thanksgiving table and offer thanks for the bounty that is ours, we often forget about the thousands of people in America, Canada and around the world who do not share our prosperity. While we gorge ourselves on turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and pumpkin pie, others do not even have the bare necessities to sustain themselves and their families. Jewish tradition teaches us that we are required to feed the hungry. Instead of celebrating this holiday in our own insular family units, Thanksgiving is a perfect time to reach out to the community and serve those who are most in need. Print out these Jewish texts, read them at your table, and then discuss how you can make a difference in the world. More ideas at www.rac.org.

If there is among you a poor person, one of your kin, in any of your towns within your land which God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against them, but you shall open your hand to them, and lend them sufficient for their needs, whatever they may be. –Deuteronomy 15:7-8 

This is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh. (Isaiah 58:7-8)
When you are asked in the world to come, “What was your work?” and you answer: “I fed the hungry,” you will be told: “This is the gate of the Eternal, enter into it, you who have fed the hungry.
(Midrash Psalms 118:17) 

When you give food to a hungry person, give your best and sweetest food. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Issurei Mizbayach 7:11) 

Hunger is isolating; it may not and cannot be experienced vicariously. He who never felt hunger can never know its real effects, both tangible and intangible. Hunger defies imagination; it even defies memory. Hunger is felt only in the present. (Elie Wiesel)

How will you make your Thanksgiving Spiritual? 

Changing the Conversation about God: A How To

I am getting tired of this conversation:

Jewish Person: But rabbi, I don’t believe in God.
Rabbi: That’s okay, but what kind of God don’t you believe in?

So many God conversations seem to include this refrain.

It’s time to change the conversation. I yearn to hear this conversation:

Rabbi: So what do you believe about God?
Jew: While I don’t believe in the God of “reward and punishment,” I am drawn to the God-concepts of Martin Buber’s I-Thou and Milton Steinberg’s Limited Theism.

Setting aside the Pew Research study’s conclusions about the religiosity and spirituality of American Jews (my take here), there is no doubt that we Jewish leaders can and should spend more time talking about God. Only when our congregants hear about the wide variety of perspectives, theologies and experiences of God will they open themselves up to more Jewish conversations about God. At Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA), we are facing the challenge head on. This year, God-talk purposely permeates all aspects of congregational life. We hope to change the conversation by reframing the issue.

Talking Frankly about God, our Beliefs and Our Doubts at the High Holy Days
During the High Holy Days, our clergy spoke personally and passionately about their beliefs and struggles regarding God. On Rosh Hashana, I preached on 18 Different Ways to Believe in God (a.k.a. 18 Different Jewish God-Concepts). On Kol Nidre all three clergy shared their understanding of B’tzelem Elohim: Cantor Doug Colter preached a home-made multimedia sermon, new mother Rabbi Julia Weisz spoke about how while everyone talks about which parent her newborn son resembles while no one talks about how he is in God’s image, and I addressed the very essence of tzelem – that God is unseen yet ever present within us.

God-Talk Theme Permeates Our Learning Programs
Our Educational team selected B’tzelem Elohim (Creation in God’s Image) as the thread that binds together our tapestry of learning programs. In Kesher, our camp-like drop-off learning program, our teachers regularly lead students to explore how they are created in God’s image. Rap with the Rabbis time allows open discussions about different ways to think about and believe in the Holy One. In Mishpacha, our family alternative learning program, we focus this year on God, Belief and Disbelief, which has been so successful that we have adults without children in the program who are studying with us. Finally, our Adult Learning programs include multiple options for engaging God-talk.

Board Meetings Transformed into Spiritual Journeys
Our president Hedi Gross identified a return to the Jewish spiritual search as the central focus of the first term of her presidency. During her Rosh Hashana presidential message, she shared her own Jewish spiritual path and her belief in God. She then transformed our Board meetings so that almost half of our meeting time is now God-focused. The meeting opens as one board member shares and explains a short quote that inspires her, after which another recounts his Jewish spiritual journey in a 5-10 minutes prepared talk. Next, one of our rabbis leads the board in analyzing then praying a prayer, and following a discussion of congregants and family members who are in need of healing, the cantor leads a spiritual singing of the Mi Shebeirach healing prayer.

Board Member Gary Kaplan
Shares his Jewish Journey

We balance the time devoted to Jewish spirituality and God-talk with fiscal responsibility by instituting new procedures for the board meetings: all presentations must be written out beforehand and must be limited in time and scope. Those items that can instead be shared by email are shared that way. Board members no longer leave the temple frustrated by arguments and divisiveness. They leave inspired, and often tears now flow as heartache and hope are shared in equal measures. They then can guide their families and other congregants toward these same central values of God-talk and spirituality.

Ever Wonder What Your Mom and Dad Believe about God?
During their B’nai Mitzvah speeches, our students discuss what they believe and do not believe about God. After capturing those ideas, often with the rabbi’s help, the students return home to record three statements from each parents (or one or three or four parents, as the case may be) about what the parent(s) believe about God. A most amazing thing happens: mom, dad and B’nai Mitzvah student (or mom and mom, or just dad or…) share a discussion about who and what God is. Some students incorporate the statements with which they agree into their own D’var Torah God statement, writing “Like my mother, I believe…”. This process allows the rabbi with a chance to share his or her own thoughts about and relationship with God, thus providing additional in depth adult modeling of God talk.

God Shopping: Choosing from 18 Jewish God Ideas Dramatically Changes the Conversation
Most exciting are the sessions of the Mishpacha Family Alternative learning program. Revising a curriculum written originally by then HUC-JIR interns, now Rabbis Sara Mason-Barkin and Dan Medwin, current Mishpacha Coordinator rabbinic/education student Dusty Klass leads the families to pray, play, engage in age specific learning, and spend time doing family-focused God-talk.

Recently, we used Rabbis Medwin and Mason-Barkin’s God Shopping lesson plan, an adaption of a NFTY program, which in our version introduces participants to the plethora of Jewish God-concepts and modern Jewish theologies. Each participant – young and not so young – received a blank “God Shopping Grid.” As families, they traveled through the “God Shopping Mall,” visiting six different “God Stores.” Each God Store presented one category for understanding God: What is God like?; God and the world; What does God want?; How do I get to “know” God?; God and me; and Big questions I have about God. Each God Store offered up to 18 different responses, based on the ideas of twelve different Jewish theologians.

Participants read the responses, chose as many responses as they agreed with or connected to, and pasted the chosen responses into the corresponding square in their God Shopping Grid. Those who could not find a response that reflected their ideas could write in their own statements.

Reassembling in the sanctuary, family members compared their God Shopping Grids. Since same color responses represented the thinking of one specific Jewish theologian, a quick look at the colors of the God Shopping Grids showed how parents and children shared similar or different God-concepts.

Faculty Hikers Prepare to Ascend
their own Paths to Finding God

During same age-learning, small groups of students continued to explore the God-concepts, utilizing the metaphor of different paths up the mountain to God. Older students met the theologians themselves through their writings and biographies. In each group, participants created/decorated/illustrated their own individual “path” up the mountain to God. Adults, meeting with a rabbi, discussed a color-coded “God Concept Grid” which delineated the thinking of each theologian across the six categories for understanding God. Adults were encouraged to identify intriguing God-concepts and to continue learning about them at home by first googling the theologian, and then exploring other secondary and primary sources.

Wow, I Might Actually Believe In God…
Toward the end of the God Shopping session, we asked the adults to raise their hands if they arrived thinking that they did not, or were not sure whether they, believed in God. The same group was asked if this activity enticed them with new God-concepts so that they might actually be able to believe in God. Almost half of the people kept their hands raised. Over the next weeks, adult participants, and their children, remarked at how they found the session to be both eye-opening and belief altering.

Danielle, her husband David
and one son Aidan

As participant-parent Danielle Waldsmith reported:

A few weeks ago when we began our Mishpacha study of “God: Belief and Disbelief,” I was definitely one of the participants who was unsure that I believed in God. But while shopping for God last Sunday, it became very clear to me that I do in fact believe in God – it’s just that I haven’t been sure what that means to me. As we visited the stores around the God Shopping Mall, a picture of MY God – my own belief in God – began to emerge. 

I am inspired that I now know that I am on my path to realizing what God means to me. And it is a wonderful experience for our family to be able to find our paths together. Certainly God means something different to each of us, but exploring it together is strengthening our ties to each other. We are looking forward to learning more about the ideas of Isaac Luria and Martin Buber, and to discovering more about God through nature, our connections and Tikkun Olam (social justice).

6 Lessons Learned about God-Talk
We have so much more to accomplish if we want to fully alter the God-conversations. Yet through these immediate steps we learned a number of lessons:

  1. Adults, teens and children do want to talk about God, especially when a variety of Jewish options are presented.
  2. Vast numbers of Jews do not believe in the “God rewards the good and punishes the bad” Torah-literal theology.
  3. So many Jews, even those very involved in synagogues and Jewish life, do not realize that there are a plethora of alternative modern Jewish theologies.
  4. When introduced creatively to multiple God-concepts, Jews of all ages are intrigued by the possibilities for belief.
  5. More work needs to be done to publicize newer God theologies, including those of female Jewish thinkers.
  6. Jews of every age can and should engage in God talk, especially in the synagogue.

Spiritual but Not Religious: How Religion Lets Us Down


Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans, its survey and analysis of American Jewish attitudes and beliefs, has emerged as THE topic of conversation in the Jewish world. Some celebrate the survey; some wring their hands over what it says about us Jewish Americans.

The Union for Reform Judaism released a preliminary analysis for the Reform Movement.

Jewish Religiosity or Lack Thereof

Most fascinating are questions about the religiosity or lack thereof of our Jewish brothers and sister. According to the study, only a slim majority of U.S. Jews say religion is very important (26%) or somewhat important (29%) in their lives. We might surmise that almost half of the Jews do not consider themselves religious.

In a related category, we see that Jews are not significant worship service attenders. Roughly one-third of Jews (35%) say they attend religious services a few times a year, such as for the High Holidays (including Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur). And four-in-ten say they seldom (19%) or never (22%) attend Jewish religious services.

Similarly, those Jewish practices defined by the study – beyond the popular Passover Seder and, for some, fasting on Yom Kippur – do not attract significant adherents. Only a quarter of Jews (23%) say they always or usually light Sabbath candles, and a similar number say they keep kosher in their home (22%).

Yes, it seems that a vast majority of U.S. Jews consider themselves “spiritual, but not religious.” Just what does this mean?

What’s the Difference Between Being Spiritual and Being Religious?

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.

Religion Sometimes Spoils 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 to separate out our women, to eschew the non-Jew, or to extend our power over others for so-called holy purposes. Of course, when religious leaders – rabbis, teachers, communal leaders – speak such nonsense in God’s name, they further alienate Jews from the religious part of Judaism that could be strengthening their spirituality.

What do we do?

Rituals find meaning when they point us back to the holy, the spiritual. Rituals are significant when they inspire our spiritual core.

It becomes the responsibility of religion – and religious leaders – then, to return to Judaism’s roots, to rethink/reform/renew Judaism’s ritual components, and to embrace the holy in the midst of the rest.

How do we do that? 

Let me know what you think…

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.

How Do We Talk about God, Especially When We are Unsure, Confused or Conflicted

How do we talk about God when so many of us have such conflicted, confused and challenging concepts or relationships of/with God?

As a community about to jump into major community-wide conversations about God, Congregation Or Ami necessarily will face this conundrum.

When at Yom Kippur Kol Nidre services Rabbi Julia Weisz, Cantor Doug Cotler and I deliver a collaborative, multimedia sermon about God, we will strive to speak openly about what we know and what we do not know, what we believe and what we do not believe.

Similarly, every parent, teacher, adult, child, Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, believer and non-believer will be invited to struggle with their beliefs about God. Openly. Honestly. Aloud.

Teaching about God and Spirituality

In Dr. Sherry Blumberg’s Teaching about God and Spirituality, we face the challenge head on. As you read on, try to read yourself into the role of the “teacher.” How does this text speak to you?

What if the teacher is unsure of his or her own conception or feelings about God? Can an atheist or agnostic Jew teach about God? A person who is going to teach about God needs to have examined his or her own belief, and tested it in the light of Jewish criteria, namely, metaphors, concepts, and views of God found in texts or expressed by Jews throughout the ages. For example, a person questioning why bad things happen to good people could examine, among other things, views on the concept of free will, the Book of Job (the biblical classic text on theodicy), or the responses of Holocaust survivors to that horrifying experience. 

Perhaps thinking about the agnostic or the atheist teacher raises the deeper question of whether or not a doubter or a non-believer can or should teach about God. The best teacher to teach about God is one who has a deep religious faith, and yet doubts, questions, and struggles with his/her understanding of God. This person exemplifies the Jewish seeker, one who is actively engaged in a relationship with God. Therefore, I would rather choose the agnostic teacher who can honestly search with the students, than the confirmed atheist, or even a person with a conception of God that doesn’t allow for any disagreement or flexibility.

Jewish seekers seek understanding, meaning and connection. Jewish belief may be religious, spiritual or even intellectual. The best part is the conversation.

An Invitation to Talk God
Are you intrigued by discussions about God? Are you interesting in exploring different Jewish concepts of God and of Jewish spirituality?

  1. Join our Jewish Spiritual Seeker Facebook group to participate in our discussions about God, Spirituality and Holiness.
  2. Learn with Rabbis Paul Kipnes and Julia Weisz in an adult study on “God, Belief and Disbelief” which will explore up to 18 different Jewish conceptions of God. This adult portion of our Mishpacha Family Learning program welcomes all adult (families with children can enroll in the full program, instead of our Kesher Learning program). Sundays, twice monthly, beginning at 9:00 am. For more information, contact Nancy Acord at Congregation Or Ami ([email protected] or 818-880-4880).
  3. Read my musings about God.

God does not Have a Place, Rather God is The Place

Bryce Canyon National Park

One summer, we drove over 6,000 miles, visiting 20 States in 31 days in our own Odyssey minivan.

Most memorable of all were the 14 amazing National Parks. There, we were overwhelmed by America’s natural beauty. Its spacious skies and amber waves of grain. Its purple mountains, majestic; those low-lying, fruited plains. Wherever we drove, from the mountains (in Colorado) to the prairies (in South Dakota) to Oregon’s oceans white with foam, I kept encountering… HaMakom.

Of the 70 names for God referred to in Torah, HaMakom, meaning “The Place”, stayed with me during the sabbatical. Why do we call God THE Place, HaMakom? It’s a metaphor. As physical beings, we sometimes best understand difficult concepts from a physical frame of reference. If you think about the meaning of a “place”, you may agree that it is more than just a geographical location. A place is a space which is capable of containing something else. When we call God HaMakom, we mean that everything is contained within God, while God is not contained in anything. As our Sages say: “God does not have a place, rather God is The Place … of the Universe” (Genesis Rabba 68:9).

My heart first opened to HaMakom, “God as Everywhere”, as Michelle and I meandered for two days up the gorgeous Oregon Coast. Each scenic overlook brought us to a view more breath-taking than the last. Have you ever been so overwhelmed by the beauty of nature surrounding you that you lost track of time, of priorities, of yourself? Every inch of the Oregon coast was so darned beautiful. It was God’s country. It is God. HaMakom.

Oregon Coast

I felt a little like Adam in that first week following his creation. After the work of naming the animals, and the fun of dallying with Eve, what did Adam do? Midrash Tanhuma, a fifth century collection of rabbinic stories, tells us that Adam spent his free time admiring the glory of creation. Overwhelmed to his very core, Adam stood silent on the shores of the sea, contemplating the majesty around him. Then he lifted up his voice to extol God, saying: “Mah rabu ma’asecha Adonai – How great are your works, O Eternal Creator!” (Midrash Tanhuma Pekudei 3, end, on Ps. 104:24).

Imagine that! The first human being, Adam, the first to behold God’s creation, was so inspired that he became Creation’s first poet. Adam responded with astonishment, and with deep appreciation. Then he became philosophical. In both the simple beauty of the ocean and in the world’s complexity, Adam saw evidence of the Holy One.

Philosophers call this panentheism, with the world being in God and God being in the world.
The kabbalists, Jewish mystics, call this Ein Sof, that there is no end to the Holy One. God is everywhere. I just call it HaMakom.

Like Adam did, so often this summer I perceived signs of HaMakom, God’s Presence: in the ocean, in the mountains and the sky. My ears began to hear the praise-songs of nature. My heart, inspired beyond its usual capacity, began to burst.

Often we, who live closed off in cities, drive around in climate-controlled cars, work in climate-controlled offices, forget to take notice of the glorious splendor which surrounds us: California mountains and Pacific seashores, desert palm trees and picturesque sunsets. We make ourselves too busy, too stressed, too worried about money, or time, or our jobs, to see the wonder. We use every excuse to remain in our homes, walled off in our cars.

So this Shabbat – and tomorrow, and next week – EVERY DAY… be like Adam, the first human being, and open your eyes to the wonder around us.

An Invitation
Are you intrigued by this conception of God? Is it different from the vision of God that you no longer believe in? This year, Rabbis Paul Kipnes and Julia Weisz will be co-teaching an adult study on “God, Belief and Disbelief” which will explore up to 18 different JEWISH conceptions of God.

This adult portion of our Mishpacha Family Learning program welcomes all adult (families with children can enroll in the full program, instead of our Kesher Learning program). Sundays, twice monthly, beginning at 9:00 am. For more information, contact Susie Stark at Congregation Or Ami ([email protected] or 818-880-4880).

Drumming our Way to a Spiritual Shabbat

Ken Meyer Leads the Drumming
(All Pictures by Michael Kaplan)

We learn in Torah that Miriam took a timbrel in her hand and led the Israelite women sing, as they, her brother Moses and the Israelite men crossed through Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds. We regularly tout the spiritual uplift that comes from music of shofarot (rams’ horns) and of singing.

This timbreltof in Hebrew, a percussion instrument, part mini-cymbals, part drum – was new to the Israelite orchestra. If our ancestors added this instrument into the mix, shouldn’t we?

There is something about rhythm, about holding a beat, that is primal. Drumming brings people together; it forms disparate elements in a group. Drumming transforms individuals into a community.

In the Torah, no doubt the tambourines and drumming gave purpose and direction to the Israelite tribes as they walked through the sea. Just as the heartbeats of choir members beat in sync, so too the drumming might have kept the Israelites on the exodus on task.

Drumming can Greatly Enhance Jewish spirituality

Sheryl Braunstein Sings
While Aaron Meyer Plays Piano

On a recent Friday night, at a backyard Shabbat service at the home of Rabbi Wendy Spears and Eitan Ginsburg, Congregation Or Ami worshippers gathered for a musical drumming Shabbat. Playing a range of instruments – drums, tambourines, maracas, and sticks among others – worshippers explored the hypnotizing and meditative experience of praying with a beat. Soloist Sheryl Braunstein, pianist Aaron Meyer and drummer Ken Meyer led us through a rhythmic service. Same prayers, same tunes, but with an entrancing beat. Rabbinic intern Jonathan Rothstein-Fisch told a story about our responsibility to respond to the beat hat calls to us. Then Ken Meyer led us in a “call and response” drumming activity.

Drumming Leader Ken Meyer explained,

It was a meaningful service to me for several reasons. It is always great to be outdoors on a beautiful summer evening… I am so glad I came to help. I have been drumming for over 50 years. By giving each of the congregants an instrument of some kind to play, they were more active participants; no experience was needed and anyone of any age could join in. Since everyone can easily make a sound, we all played various beats to the songs. We even created another new version of Cantor Doug Cotler’s prayer-song, Listen.

Sometimes I think that non-musical congregants might feel awkward when asked to sing, especially if they think they might sing out of tune or off pitch. With percussion instruments, there is no such worry. 

When we did the drumming-only “call and response” section of the service, we kicked it to a higher level of participation. It was great for community building, group bonding, teamwork, cooperation, and stress relief. It was also a lot of fun. This all led to a higher degree of spirituality for me.

Following the service, we invited other worshippers to reflect upon the spiritual rhythmic experience. The discussion continued longer than expected because the experience was so meaningful. Their experiences varied.

An Intense Active Full Body Experience

A Few of the Drumming Participants

Steve Greenberg said, Drumming along with the group got my body to pray along with my brain. It brought us together so that it felt like I was praying with the whole of my being.

Rabbi Wendy Spears wrote, I loved the sense of connection that the drumming vibrations gave us. It felt like all of our hearts were beating in a synchronous rhythm. There was a different sense of active participation when we added our hands to our voices in song.

Kevin Palm explained, Friday night’s “out of the box” Shabbat service kept worship fresh and did two things for me: It made me an involved participant by having to match the beat and participate wholly in the songs and prayers. Simultaneously, it proved once again that we don’t need to be in a synagogue to create a holy place – we can create one anywhere including a backyard, a campfire, a park… anywhere…

A Sense of Communal Connectedness

Aaron Koch wrote, The experience of everyone joining together in the collective rhythm of prayer, created a feeling of connectedness, community and Shalom.

Dianne Gubin emailed, Friday night’s Drum service was a memorable and touchstone experience for me. It was really fun and creative to be so fully engaged in services. Soloist Sheryl Braunstein, pianist Aaron Meyer and drummer Ken Meyer were easy to follow and quickly had everyone drumming together… I love the variety of services we have at Or Ami!

Soloist Sheryl Braunstein noted, The rhythm connected us all to each other and to the prayers. I loved Jonathan’s story and story telling!

A Liberating Participatory Experience

The Lachers and the Koches

Ralph Lacher responded, A liberating environment seemed to grow as the evening of Shabbat drumming and humming matured into a communal singular voice. The experience was a very enjoyable stress reliever that had a child like quality of innocence.

Rabbinic Intern Jonathan Rothstein-Fisch texted, For someone who is not musical I looked forward to being able to play an instrument no matter how out of sync I was because I knew it was acceptable.

Of course, Congregation Or Ami will again hold a Shabbat Drumming Service again soon. Still, this experience leads me to wonder…

What are other ways that we might enhance (and change up) the communal prayer experience?

Why Rabbis Attend CCAR Conventions

So much work to be done, classes to prepare for, articles to write, administration to supervise, and yet I am going away for four days to the national convention of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Why?

Innovation Requires Retreat Time for Reflection
To serve as rabbi of an innovative, engaging 21st century religious institution like Congregation Or Ami requires I constant effort to remain ahead of the curve (or as we say now, “ahead of the shift”). Rabbis do this at national gatherings of rabbis, where – egos left at the door – we can explore best practices, engage in critical and self-critical thinking, and become current in the literature and scholarship of Judaism and contemporary religious thought.

Torah Speaks in Many Evocative Voices
We explore how Torah and Jewish texts speak to the most significant issues of our day. We reconsider how to engage marginal subgroups including people recovering from addictions and divorcing couples, from newer generations of young people to the aging Jewish population, and from other American religious groups to other denominations of Jews.

Attending a Circle of Practice for technologically proficient rabbis led me year ago to introduce into our congregation the use of Facebook, Twitter, Visual T’filah, and even High Holy Day mid-service texting. A CCAR conference workshop a few years back began the shift in my thinking that, when combined with Rabbi Julia Weisz’s ideas and the Union for Reform Judaism’s vision, led to a top-to-bottom revamping of our youth engagement program. Another convention session pushed me down the path toward complete integration and inclusivicity for people with special needs.

Becoming a Better Rabbi
I have learned how to be a better administrator, a more caring pastoral rabbi, and a better husband and parent (many discussions on balancing work and family). I rediscovered my social justice commitment at one convention and my dedication to pro-Israel organizing at another. Practical rabbinical sessions have addressed staff supervision, program financing, leadership partnerships and fundraising in a difficult economy.

Chevruta: Other Rabbis as Sounding Boards
Then there is the chevruta (collegiality/friendship). One study places clergy as the profession with the fourth highest rate of burnout, high levels of depression and stress, and prevalent bouts with anxiety and weight issues. Being with other colleagues, people who understand the unique challenges of this calling, creates a safe, sacred space for self-reflection, in a place where mentor and veteran rabbis are easily accessible for discussion and guidance.

Stepping away from the daily processes of the synagogue for these four days is challenging, but with the help of our Cantor Doug Cotler and an Or Ami leadership committed to ensuring the clergy remains fresh and rejuvenated, I know that this time spent away will recharge my batteries and reinvigorate my rabbinic presence.

Todah Meirosh (thank you ahead of time)
So I say Thank You to Or Ami’s temple board and our staff, for allowing, even insisting, that their rabbis attend these rejuvenating conventions. Each time I have returned to the congregation with ideas to deepen and transform our community.

I wonder what I will bring back after this convention?!?

One blesses the bad as one blesses the good. One blesses the good as one blesses the bad.

Ever wonder how we as Jews might deal with the bad things that happen? In my inbox appeared this Torah Reflections on the Hebrew Month of Nisan, written by Dorothy A. Richman of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center. Such wisdom here! [BTW: The month of Spring and of Passover begins as the Rosh Hodesh New Moon appears Monday evening, March 11, 2013.]

“One blesses the bad as one blesses the good. One blesses the good as one blesses the bad.”
—Mishnah Berakhot, Chapter Nine

Blessings are what we as Jews use to articulate our spiritual experiences. Just as lighting a candle with a blessing means that we are bringing light and holiness into our lives, so, too, do we make a spiritual moment out of a physical act when we say blessings before and after eating.

The possibilities for inspiring our blessings seem unlimited: gratitude for seeing the light of the morning (“Pokayah ivrim”: we bless the Creator who opens our eyes); praise for the garments which cover our body (Malbish arumim: we bless the One who clothes the naked); awe at the sight of the sea (Oseh ma’aseh b’raysheet: we bless the Creativity of Creation). There are traditional Jewish blessings for things we taste, do, smell, hear, see…the rabbis of the Talmud suggest that each person could offer a minimum of one hundred blessings each day.

Yet, as the quote from the Mishnah shows, we do not only make blessings over the joy or pleasure in our lives. If you hear good news, the proper blessing is Baruh Atah Adonai, Elohaynu Meleh ha-Olam, ha-Tov v’ha-Maytiv, Blessed are You, Creator of the Universe, Who makes the good and the even better! Upon hearing bad news, one says, Baruh Atah… ha-Olam, Dayan ha-Emet, Blessed are You…Judge of Truth.

Why does the Mishnah go out of its way to tell us that the bad requires a blessing, too? Why does it then repeat the idea, letting us know that the good is blessed in a similar way to the bad? In my experience, good news and bad news don’t necessarily come separately: every new beginning is an ending; every start is a farewell. Sometimes, the very things we have been praying for bring us pain; other times, things we would have given anything to avoid bring us blessing we could not have imagined. Perhaps when we bless the bad as we bless the good, we bless the possibility in each experience to bring us joy or pain. We bless the gift of the moment and at the same time we bless the gift of perspective, the sight which will only come later and interpret the experience as good or bad.

The month of Nisan is a month of special joy in our spiritual calendar. In it, we celebrate Pesah, the Feast of our Freedom, breaking physical and spiritual bonds into liberty and movement! Yet a day into this celebration, we enter the period of the ‘Omer, a time which many observe with mourning practices. Our joy and our grief come together, in the calendar and in our lives.

There is a special blessing which is traditionally said during the month of Nisan (beginning this year on the evening of March 11th). Upon seeing trees blossoming for the first time in the year, one says, Baruh Atah Adonai, Elohaynu Melech ha-Olam, shelo heesar b’olamo davar, u’vara vo briyot tovot v’ilanot tovim l’hanot bahem b’nay adam. Blessed are you….Who has withheld nothing from this world, and Who has created beautiful creatures and beautiful trees for humans to enjoy.

The Nisan prayer is a prayer celebrating growth. We bless the Holy One whose world models for us seasons of turning in and turning out, moments of joy with moments of loss, a world where blessing is in the good and the bad.

This Nisan, may we find blessings in the moments we have, and may we find many moments to offer blessings.

NFTY Convention: Where Prayer is Spine-Tingling, Bone-Shakingly Inspiring

Teens can be so surprisingly inspiring.

At home, we sometimes used to struggle to feed balanced meals to our 3 teenagers. Imagine trying to feed 1000 as these Jewish teens sat together to for Shabbat dinner. And that was only the beginning.

We are gathered at a hotel in Los Angeles for the NFTY Convention, perhaps the largest Jewish teen gathering around. NFTY, of which our kids are third generation members, has brought together teens from all over the US and Canada (and also, I heard, teens from Israel and a half dozen other countries) for five days of fun, socializing, Jewish learning, energetic music, teen issues, social justice activism, eating, talking, laughing, singing, dancing, praying …

Oh, the praying…

This is not your Grandfather’s Davening (worship)
Growing up in many a synagogue, most teens experience prayer as a formalized experience. Lots of responsive readings mixed in with serious music. Over time, our Ashkenazi ancestors, and their American Reformer descendants, articulated a formalized experience, with precise words and structure, and instructions of when to stand and sit, and just how to bow. Services at the NFTY convention were anything but that. I imagine some of our Jewish ancestors might be turning over in their graves if they watched these 1000 NFTYites pray.


Because our teens sang energetically, chanted meaningfully and swayed with joy and abandon. It was meaningful. It was exciting. And just so inspiring. It was more early chassidism then early reformer.

The early European chassidim transformed the Jewish prayer experience from the staid to the emotional. They taught their adherents to open themselves up by singing and dancing, to lift themselves beyond the “here and now” to the hopeful and the passionate.

Prayer can be spine-tingling, bone-shakingly uplifting
Yes, spread out all over the ballroom floor, our teens sat and sang a beautifully melodic prayer. But as the energy built up, the inspiration ramped up, and before we knew it, kids popped up onto their feet. Singing and swaying, dancing and clapping, they became the modern definition of hitlahavut, joyous enflamed passion.

Perhaps that best describes this indescribable experience. More than prose, this teen tefilah is poetry in its wholesomeness and all encompassing nature. It is chassidic hitlahavut, combined with Martin Buber’s I-Thou relationalism, mixed in with Debbie Friedman-inspired musicality.

I turned to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, the parent body of our congregations, and the older sister to NFTY. Praising the scene we were witnessing, I shared my frustration at my inability to find the words to capture the wonderful spiritual transformation we were witnessing. He nodded knowingly, as he smiled appreciatively, clearly touched by the expansive displays of prayerfulness surrounding us. We clapped on.

God was in the House!
Most synagogues would celebrate if a dozen teenagers showed up at Shabbat services on a regular Friday night. How would it feel when 1000 attended? Awesome. Just awesome.

Rabbi Jacobs began his story drash asking, “Is NFTY in the house?” The thunderous response assured us all that they were.

Had the question been a bit different – Is God in the house? – I feel confident, the answer would have been the same.

Prayer that Wows
Thanks NFTY. Thanks URJ. Thanks Rabbi Dan Medwin of the CCAR for the Visual Tefilah. And the unnamed shlichay tzibur (prayer leaders). For a spiritual, musical, inspirational tefilah.

Yes, God was in the House!

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.