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Hanukkah, the “Other” and Organic Torah

We are witnessing a dawning of awareness in this country: many had thought that racism was behind us. Many considered themselves to be no longer racist because they and their friends didn’t explicitly use racist language any more, didn’t consciously discriminate against other races, gender preferences, or religions. But we’ve seen that white America still holds prejudice inside, in assumptions, fears and projections. It comes out in the assumptions of white police officers when dealing with a black man that they wouldn’t have dealing with a white man.  White America still projects its wildness, uncontrolled passion and violence onto blacks.

I’m reminded of one of the most memorable passages from Toni Morrison’s classic novel Beloved, in which she talks about the jungle inside people:

White people believed that whatever the manners, under every dark skin was a jungle. Swift unnavigable waters, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood. . . . The screaming baboon lived under their own white skin; the red gums were their own.

When people can’t admit their own passion, their own aliveness and untamed life force, they demonize it and project it onto others.

It makes me wonder whether, so long ago, the sophisticated Hellenists thought of the Jews as wild and untamed, in need of the control, discipline and logic of their great civilization.  And, throughout the centuries of diaspora, especially in the European world, the Jews were seen as wilder, as primitive, dirty, unruly, not quite fully civilized.  In many respects it was the same Hellenistic way of thinking that liked neat equations, linear logic, eternal Forms, universal truths, that couldn’t deal with the dream-like weave of the Talmud or Midrash, the disconcerting tangle of a tzitzit hanging out of a belt, the babble of voices in a shul.

But, perhaps there is an awakening.  Perhaps we’re seeing in our day the beginnings of understanding that we are all wild, alive, organic beings, and that is nothing to be afraid of.  We are all ecosystems of relationships. We can see their patterns but they can’t be pinned down or defined.  We all live in a balance between control and spontaneity, between love and discipline, between the river and the shore.  Perhaps we can help to foster understanding that we are all human beings in the Image of God, but not Gods ourselves.

This awareness is what we are trying to grow at Organic Torah.  We look at Jewish texts, thought, and life as an organic weave. And we look at the turn in Western thought toward systems thinking, complexity, emergence and networks. We look at the pattern of patterns emerging that says we can understand one another without fear.  At Organic Torah we are teaching classes and workshops, writing, fostering discussions and seeing new patterns. We hope that you’ll join us in this exciting journey.  As we come to the end of 2014 and you think about what you value and in what direction you want to see the world move, I invite you to support the work of Organic Torah with a donation.

Wishing you a joyous Festival of Lights – חג אורים שמח!

Trees, Chanukkah Light and Torah

We are getting close to Chanukah, and I’m looking forward to seeing the Chanukah candles flickering and glowing. Every year I appreciate their beauty.

Everyone has a Winter Solstice festival. Christianity got the idea for the Christmas tree from earlier European indigenous peoples who saw in the evergreen pine tree the symbol of renewal of life despite the cold and dark of winter. The Romans had Saturnalia, and even where I grew up in Hawaii (where they really don’t have anything you could call a winter) they had a kind of ancient Hawaiian Olympics festival called Makahiki. Judaism had a slightly different way of saying a similar thing: In Israel December is the end of the olive harvest. Olive oil was used for everything in those days, cooking, anointing, and maybe most importantly, to burn for light. Chanukah evolved from an agricultural celebration of the olive harvest and the beautiful clear light of olive oil lamps in the dark of winter.

Am I saying that we’re all doing the same thing and it doesn’t matter what we do? No, not at all. Many cultures have similar winter light festivals, but each has a unique point of view. To see the Jewish perspective we need to look more closely at the olive oil and its light.

Light is a universal symbol of knowledge. In Judaism the light of the menorah reminds us of Torah. And one way of understanding the fight of the Maccabees was that they were defending the Torah. The Greek empire was different from the others that the Jews had known in their already long history of fighting off aggressive empires. The Greeks brought with them the intellectual and cultural riches of Hellenistic philosophy, art, language and science. They were interested in more than colonizing the known world. They wanted to spread their own ideas and educate the world.

Many Jews were all in favor of this and they quickly began to assimilate. But there were others, like the Maccabees, who felt that as attractive and advanced as Greek ideas and culture were, it was not a replacement for Torah. Greek philosophy looked at the Eternal Forms of Plato, while Torah was like the tree — and the menorah is in the shape of a tree — in that it stays rooted in its past but is also constantly growing and changing. The Torah teaches the paradoxical truth that anything that would be “eternal” needs to grow and change. It needs to be alive like a tree.

The interesting thing, though, is that after the famous victory of the Macabbees over the Greeks the Jews didn’t retreat into a period of splendid isolation, but instead they began a period of great creativity through mixing and borrowing between Greek and Jewish cultures. Perhaps they needed to defend the essential idea of Torah’s integrity, but once that had been established they felt freer to mix and borrow and create new forms.

So too, for us, as we enter this season of celebrating the light within the darkness, we can light our menorahs with a proud and secure feeling of our own unique and beautiful path of Torah, and with that pride and security we can look out and appreciate the many other ways that peoples of the world celebrate the light within the darkest time of the year.

After all, we light the menorah in our homes, letting the light start from inside and shine outward, through our windows into the world. In this way, Chanukkah is a wonderful reminder of something that we can well reflect on no matter what time of year: when we are secure and confident in our own “homes,” our beliefs and our values, we carry that light with us out into the world and we can be open, clear and creative, knowing that the light is always shining within us.

Sunday 12/7 5pm: #LightForLIMA

This December, as world leaders meet in Lima, our future is on the line.

Time is running out for our leaders to reach an agreement to save us from devastating climate change.

This is why OurVoices is organizing #LightForLIMA – a global, multi-faith prayer vigil.  OurVoices is a new group that aims to reach millions of people of faith and moral belief, urging them to PRAY in their own tradition for the Paris 2015 UN Climate Summit to succeed where all past talks have failed.

On Sunday evening, December 7, around the world people from diverse faith and spiritual communities will gather for public vigils – lit by solar lamps! We want you to be involved, so see you there!

Boston Vigil:
5-5:45 PM
Fanueil Hall Square
Sunday, Dec. 7

Sign Up on Facebook:

Light for Lima Vigil #LightforLima | Facebook

or R.S.V.P.:

Can’t come?  Join the virtual vigil at:  (scroll down) Send photos of your vigil.

When world leaders come together in Lima, they need to know that we’re holding them in our thoughts, meditations and prayers. Our prayers will bring hope. Our lights will guide the way.

The Heart of the Torah

Just a few weeks ago we finished the High Holiday season with Simchat Torah and that wonderful moment when we finish reading the Torah with the last words of Deuteronomy “l’eynei kol Israel” “in the eyes of all Israel” and, without so much as a pause to catch our breath, start reading the Torah again with “beraisheet bara…” “In the beginning of God’s creation….” The famous drash (interpretation) of this is that the last letter of the Torah is Lamed ל and the first letter of the Torah is bet ב. When we combine the ending with the beginning we get the word לב – lev – heart.

When we make that jump from the end back to the beginning we are somehow putting the heart into Torah. It is as if we are saying: this is not a book that we read and then put down. This is not a straight line that goes from beginning to end. It is a circle that never ends. Or, better, it is a spiral, in which we paradoxically do and we don’t come back to the same place. We circle around and read the same words, but they are changed because we have changed. They say you can never step into the same river twice, and we can never read the Torah exactly the same way as we read it before. We have new perspectives and the words strike us differently.

So, the weekly reading of the Torah isn’t just about acquiring knowledge, or at least that is not the heart of the matter. Yes, we get more knowledge of the text as we read it, but we get to the heart of Torah when we listen each time to what it has to say to us. Mixing and deepening the narrative of our lives with the narrative of the Torah can have a wonderful effect on our lives. I’m often amazed how the struggles of Abraham’s family, or the wanderings of the Israelites, or the ethical laws of Deuteronomy, or even the rituals of Leviticus seem to be speaking to me in my present situation. When a community all follows these narratives they form a background like a musical score to a film, giving an extra dimension to our lives.

Another entertainment analogy that comes to mind is that when a community is all tuned into the parshat ha’shavuah, it’s like we’re all watching the same T.V. drama (lehavdil! – not to really compare Torah to T.V.!) There is a narrative that everyone is talking about; there’s a gripping story and there are lessons to be learned. The main difference is that we get this series year after year – and yet it doesn’t get old.

Perhaps that’s because, in the Torah, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint “the meaning.” There are so many ambiguities, so many things that don’t seem to quite make sense, that it stimulates us to dig deeper, come back again, reinterpret. The great anthropologist and scholar of mythology Claude Levy-Strauss once made the observation that myth mostly disappeared as a mainstay of European culture when people started writing novels. In a novel you can tell, more or less, what the narrative is, and, with room for interpretation, what the meaning is. He also noted that when myth started to morph into novels, it left a vacuum in the culture for that depth and mystery that myth had provided. He proposed that this was the time classical music began to fill that vacuum: it evokes, it stirs thoughts and emotions, but, like myth, it doesn’t reveal its “meaning.” The Torah, even though it seems to tell stories, is actually more like music or myth than like a novel.

We in the modern world often don’t have much in the way of myths, music or narratives that hold us together as communities and give a deeper perspective on our lives. T.V. and other entertainment come and go. Music, for the most part, has become a personal preference and not something that usually defines a community. The beauty of the changing seasons is too often reflected in the mainstream culture in the latest sale displays or commercialized holiday. We’re barely done with one shopping season when we’re urged to buy something else for the next binge. We are pulled from one news story to the next, one political battle to the next crisis. Yes, it is important to keep up to date on what’s happening in the world, but where do we find perspective on it? Where do we check our core values and the truth of our hearts against the rushing urgencies of the world?

Jews have been known as the People of the Book, and on some very basic level that means reading the Book, and lettings its rhythms become our rhythms. Experiencing the Torah as the year-long, underlying story (or music) of our lives can open our hearts as we listen for the heart of the Torah.

Kevah Organic Torah Miniseries – Sign Up Now! Embodied Torah

Taught by:
Rabbi Natan Margalit, Ph.D.
Founder, Organic Torah Institute

Embodied Torah: Holiness and the Body in the Torah.

Judaism embraces this world, nature and, of course, our human bodies. In fact, the Torah is a network of organic patterns and connections; flexible and strong. Viewing the Torah this way as an organic whole, the result is a holistic, new and ancient, deeply moving understanding of Judaism.  In this class we’ll explore how such things as our hair, skin, blood and clothing are all central to understanding the religious and social meaning of biblical texts.  Why are the Priests (kohanim) prohibited from letting their hair grow, while the Nazerites (those who make a vow of holiness) must let it grow?  Why are does a mourner tear their clothing while a Priest is not allowed to?  These questions bring us to deep patterns of leadership, authority and holiness in ancient Israel.  And, those in turn help us reflect on our own ideas today.  We’ll be focusing on text from the Tanakh itself, with some references to Talmud and Midrash. We’ll use original Hebrew texts, but English translations are always available when needed.

February 2, 9, and 23, 2015
Cost: $96, scholarships available

Congregation Eitz Chayim, 136 Magazine St., Cambridge

To sign up, or for questions, e-mail Natan at or Joe Sousa, course organizer, at joseph.c.sousa@gmail.comh today!