Reb Zalman’s Passing and a New Era Emerging

I wanted to add my own little story into the flood of memories, stories and reminiscences that so many have shared in the past few days since Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z’tl, beloved teacher and rebbe to so many, passed from this world.  Probably my fondest memory of Reb Zalman was at a Simchat Torah retreat in 2004 at the old Elat Chayyim in Accord, New York.  That was the time that I proposed to my (now) wife, Ilana, and Reb Zalman was there to give us his amazing brakhot.  I remember that he blessed us to build a “binyan adei ad” – which translates something like “an eternal structure.”  I was overjoyed with this blessing because binyan adei ad is a favorite phrase of the Ishbitzer Rebbe, whose book, Mei HaShiloach, I had been learning regularly for a number of years.  When the Ishbitzer uses that phrase he is referring to any act that a person does which accords with the deepest truth, the deepest need, of that particular moment – then that act, and the person doing it, participate in eternity. I love this idea and it resonated as the perfect blessing for a marriage – a lifetime that is made up of the sum of so many little moments, so many opportunities to make the right decision, to open up to the moment – to create a binyan adei ad.

Reb Zalman was a Rebbe who knew how to give the exact right blessings. He created a binyan adei ad, an eternal structure in so many ways.  I want to bless us all now that those structures that he brought into the world: Aleph, Pnei Or, Jewish Renewalby whatever name it goes by, will have that quality of truth, deep resonance with the needs of the present moment, spiritual “rightness” so that they endure, continuing to nourish and re-generate the life and aliveness of the world.

I also want to acknowledge and honor Reb Zalman as the pioneer who courageously stepped out into the void – out of his world of Old-World Hasidut, with nothing but his faith that he was building a bridge as he walked – connecting that rich old world to the new, emerging world of 20th and 21st century America. Reb Zalman knew that in order to navigate the turbulent waters of these times we would need the ancient wisdom of Torah, but he also knew that we would need to re-imagine that wisdom in new ways that resonate with this age of the world. We needed to see the paradigm shift.  Along with so many of his followers, I can attest that everything that we do at Organic Torah is built on his recognition and articulation of paradigm shift.

Now that Reb Zalman has left us, we will continue to walk on that bridge he built. May we all be blessed to strengthen it, broaden it, until, speedily in our day, it no longer feels like a narrow, scary bridge, but the knowledge of God will fill the earth, like the water covers the sea.

17 Tammuz / Ramadan Fast Against Violence

(Note: Organic Torah is reprinting an e-mail sent by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, in which he spreads the word about a Hunger Strike Against Violence set for July 15, to be concurrent with the Jewish fast of 17 Tammuz and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.  As he explains, the idea originated with Eliaz Cohen, a settler, and was joined by a number of Palestinians.  Join us as we demand an end to violence worldwide.  The following text is from Rabbi Arthur Waskow, over his mailing list.)

 

Dear chevra,

Our chaver Rabbi Eyal Levinson, an Israeli musmach of ALEPH,  wrote about a proposal from Eliaz Cohen (a poet/ settler in Gush Etzion) that in the midst of outbreaks of murder, pogrom, and lynching in Israel & Palestine,  Jews & Muslims join in the fast of 17 Tammuz, July 15, which is also a day in the fast of Ramadan. (Both fasts are from sunrise to sunset.) Eliaz Cohen proposed this shared fast be a Hunger Strike Against Violence.

My thought:  — It would be both a serious expression of commitment to peace and decency and also a serious memorial to Reb Zalman (who schrei’d Gevalt, gevalt, about the massacre of Palestinians in Sabra and Chatila, who visited the Kever Avraham in Hebron not in triumph but in Abrahamic peace, who became a Sufi initiate, who climbed the mountain known as Sinai with Muslims) for us here as well in the USA to join with Muslims on 17 Tammuz in a Hunger Strike Against Violence, and to end the day together with Iftar, the evening break-fast. To do this, we could ask a mosque near any one of us, and/or a chapter of CAIR, the Council of American-Islamic Relations, to join with our own congregation.

Why should we do this? The editorial board of Haaretz, not just an op-ed piece, has just warned that:

There are no words to describe the horror allegedly done by six Jews to Mohammed Abu Khdeir of Shoafat. Although a gag order bars publication of details of the terrible murder and the identities of its alleged perpetrators, the account of Abu Khdeir’s family — according to which the boy was burned alive — would horrify any mortal. Anyone who is not satisfied with this description, can view the horror movie in which members of Israel’s Border Police are seen brutally beating Tariq Abu Khdeir, the murder victim’s 15-year-old cousin. . . .

[We Israelis] belong to a vengeful, vindictive Jewish tribe whose license to perpetrate horrors is based on the horrors that were done to it.

Prosecuting the murderers is no longer sufficient. There must be a cultural revolution in Israel. Its political leaders and military officers must recognize this injustice and right it. They must begin raising the next generation, at least, on humanist values, and foster a tolerant public discourse. Without these, the Jewish tribe will not be worthy of its own state.

It seems to me that for the sake of God’s demand for justice and love for BOTH the peoples of Israel and Palestine, and  for the sake of our own souls as well, we must support such a “cultural revolution in Israel” and in the American Jewish “organized” community  – where idolatry for Israel is replacing love for Israel, despite deep disquiet and disaffection at the grass roots.

Below is what Eyal and Eliaz wrote. And below that is a report from The Times of Israel (NOT a left-wing or liberal paper) about visits of sorrow and condolence between the bereaved families of the two peoples, including a Palestinian Muslim affirmation of sharing the Fast of 17 Tammuz/Ramadan.

(If you want to know more about Eliaz Cohen, as I did,  click here.  The article from The Times of Israel is here.)

Shalom, salaam, peace!  –  Arthur

A Genuine Culture?

As I always do on my visits back to Honolulu to see my mother and other family (who still live at or near the old homestead), this last February I attended Shabbat morning services at my mother’s congregation, Sof Ma’arav. It’s a wonderful, eclectic mix of people. Among them is a very interesting and pleasant fellow, Alex Golub, an anthropologist who turns out to be a graduate of the same anthropology department and the student of the same brilliant, fear-inspiring advisor I worked under as an undergraduate at Reed College.

Sof Ma’arav is a havura, so there is no rabbi, and they take turns giving the “drash” — the short interpretation of the Torah reading. On my visit Alex gave an inspiring drash, which I especially appreciated because he quoted from one of the greats of anthropology, Edward Sapir, in a 1924 paper that I had never heard of before. It was entitled “Culture, Genuine and Spurious.” In this paper Sapir argues that there are such things as “spurious” cultures: fragmented, shallow cultures in which the individual doesn’t feel a personal stake in the whole, and where people pay lip service to their ideals and beliefs, but don’t really believe the things they claim to believe.

And there are “genuine” cultures, in which the individuals feel they are not like cogs in a machine, but have a personally fulfilling, meaningful part to play, the elements of the culture fit together to form a coherent and satisfying whole, and, whatever the core beliefs may be, people actually believe them. Of the things Sapir wrote about a genuine culture Alex quoted this line:

“. . . it reaches its greatest heights in comparatively small, autonomous groups. In fact, it is doubtful if a genuine culture ever properly belongs to more than such a restricted group, a group between the members of which there can be said to be something like direct, intensive spiritual contact. This direct contact is enriched by the common cultural heritage on which the minds of all are fed . . .”

As he said this, I realized that he was describing something of a “holy grail” (to mix in some mythology from another religion) of what the Jewish world has been looking for: a key to a self-sustaining, vibrant Jewish community.

“Direct, intensive spiritual contact.” Remember, this is 1924 and Sapir isn’t using the word “spiritual” in exactly the same way we use it today. He’s not talking about closing their eyes and meditating together. In his lexicon “direct spiritual contact” sounds more like real, meaningful contact between people in ways that touch their true values and deepest sense of themselves. It is contact between people by which they touch something of their own “spirit” or true selves. This is participation in a community which facilitates people expressing their values and their individual talents in meaningful communal action. They are valued contributors and they feel themselves in alignment with their actions.

“Enriched by the common cultural heritage on which the minds are fed.” Sapir uses the metaphor of a tree planted in good, rich soil, as opposed to thin, sandy soil. A strong, healthy culture is going to draw from deep, rich resources – but equally as important, it will re-work and re-imagine those deep resources so that they become its own. For a Jewish community, the culture is alive when each person is a builder and not simply a consumer. That means people jumping in as participants. It means some kind of DIY (do it yourself) Judaism, whatever that may mean for each person and community. It doesn’t mean everyone is a rabbi, or that we don’t need learned leaders, but it means that people should strive to join, to take some active role, in the centuries-long conversation which is Torah and the drama of Jewish life.

I sometimes hear people ask “Am I not a good Jew?!” – They are proud to be Jewish and they are living good, ethical lives. They are even contributing in many ways to the Jewish community: going to services (occasionally), volunteering, giving tzedakah, sending their kids to Hebrew school.

But, the “Jewish culture” to which they are attached is very often no longer genuine in the way Sapir was talking about. It holds the power of tradition, perhaps nostalgia, and certainly some guilt. Perhaps there is a fear of losing something that one senses has enormous value, even if you don’t really experience that greatness except on rare occasions, and vaguely. But it is not alive and growing.

Today, it’s not enough to ask whether I’m a “good Jew” if the Jewish cultures we create don’t radiate that sense of vitality. We need to ask “are we creating a viable, alive, Jewish culture in our community?” Asking this question gets us to think about the things that Edward Sapir (a Jew, by the way) was thinking about: is there intensive, direct contact within the group? Are we creating contexts where people can express their real selves, where they can express their talents and interests? Are we creating contexts where we create real bonds within the community? Do people really believe what we are saying in synagogue, or is it lip service? Are people able to draw from the rich wellsprings of the tradition and make it their own?

Maybe it means more anthropologists, or doctors or artists or farmers or grandmas giving the “drash” after the Torah reading. Maybe it means planting a garden in rich, deep soil – metaphorically or literally. The challenges are great, but the choices are stark: genuine cultures are alive and self-sustaining; spurious cultures fade away.

Mark Your Calendars, Aug. 11-15! Wild Roots of Torah

WildRoots_Image Mark your calendars, and join us the week of August 11-15 for Wild Roots of Torah: Exploring Texts, Tribe and Trees as a Jewish Spiritual Practice with Natan Margalit and Mia Miriam Cohen.  This track will be part of Elat Chayyim’s Living Labs retreat, held every August at the beautiful Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in the Connecticut Berkshires. Click here to register now!

At the great hearth of our Jewish culture live sacred stories. These stories hold within them the seeds of our inheritance and connect us to the roots of our beginnings. Within Torah is a dynamic eco-system: a vast network of organic connections that is fertile, alive, and strong. When we bring a living systems approach to text study with experiential learning in nature, the result is an embodied, new and ancient, deeply moving understanding of our tradition.

Join Mia and Natan for a week of discovering our wild roots through sacred text study, nature connection and wilderness skills, music, and an exploration of Jewish sacred story and lore, discovering once again our own stories within our tribal narratives, and our own lives in the great web of all life.

We will delve into:

  • Jewish text study as a living eco-system
  • Wilderness awareness skills
  • Music, creative energy, and the wisdom of our bodies
  • Plants as food and medicine, animal tracking, and bird language

We hope to see you there!  To register, please click here.

The Many Stories of Passover

One of the simple but important sentences that we read on the Seder night is: “Even if all of us were wise, discerning, venerated, and completely knowledgeable in the Torah, it is still a mitzvah for us to tell the story of the deliverance from Egypt.”

This sentence presumes a very simple question: “If I already know the story what’s the point of telling it all over again?” The answer is that this is not the kind of knowledge that one gets all at once and then you have it. It is a different kind of knowledge that is capable of growing as we re-tell it and go deeper into it.

This reminds me of a passage from a beautiful book by Mary Katherine Bateson, called Peripheral Visions: Learning along the Way. She writes,

“Planning for the classroom, we sometimes present learning in linear sequences, which may be what makes classroom learning onerous: this concept must precede that, must be fully grasped before the next is presented. Learning outside the classroom is not like that. Lessons too complex to grasp in a single occurrence spiral past again and again, small examples gradually revealing greater and greater implications.”

Telling the Passover story at the seder is more like this kind of learning than classroom learning: it spirals past every year and we are meant to get new insights as we re-tell it in different circumstances, at different ages. When I was a single grad student studying Talmud I would have seders with my friends in which we’d stay up almost all night discussing the deeper meanings of the story. Now, with a couple of small kids, we usually get up from the table, put on costumes and act out the story in a fun and attention-grabbing way.

In this way the Passover story is a lot like the myths that many traditional cultures tell: they are often deceptively simple stories, but there are layers of meaning hidden, waiting to be revealed. Notice that I am using the term “myth” not in the way that we sometimes use it in everyday speech, as something that isn’t true: “It’s only a myth that someone buried a Red Sox uniform under the new Yankee Stadium.” I’m using myth in the old sense of the stories that cultures tell to try to convey and teach their deepest wisdom. These stories are the heritage of the whole culture, from children to the oldest and wisest, so they need to be both simple and deep at the same time.

We tell of the enslavement o the Israelites, the plagues and the “passing over:” when God/the Destroyer sees the blood on the doorposts of the Israelite houses their first born are saved while the first born of the Egyptians are killed. The Israelites carry their unrisen dough out of Egypt in the middle of the night; they get to the sea and are chased by Pharaoh’s chariots. The sea splits and they cross to freedom while the Egyptians drown in the sea.

Like many myths, it has elements that are harsh and cruel: We often struggle over the unfairness of the punishment of the Egyptians, or the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. It is important to have these conversations and to confront the problematic aspects of this story.

But, remember that this is only one layer of the many meanings of the story. Another layer, for example, is a story about the birth of the Israelite nation. The Red Sea is the birth canal. The blood on the door posts is also a symbol for birth. When we look back on the story of the Exodus we see that most of the heroes are women and the stories relate to birth: the mid-wives saving the Israelite male babies, Miriam waiting for her baby brother to be taken out of the water (another birth metaphor), Zipporah, Moses’ wife circumcising their son on the roadside.

Telling the story of a birth is a way of talking about how we all come into this world: not on our own merits, but freely given the mysterious gift of life. There was no real merit that the Israelites had over the Egyptians. The ancient Rabbis told of how the Israelites were completely assimilated into Egyptian society. They worshiped idols just like the Egyptians! So, the Egyptians in the story are really a mirror of us. We could have been them and they could have been us. We could have not been born at all, but, instead, God gave us life.

This is the beginning of Israel, of Judaism: We recognize that we were given the gift of life. So we enter into a relationship with The Source of Life. This relationship is the Covenant, and all of Judaism flows from there.

The story of the Exodus is meant to be told on many levels: we can throw plastic frogs and act out the story of the “good guys and the bad guys” for the kids, we can struggle with the ethical issues of the “price of liberty” and the perennial struggle for human freedom, we can think of it as a metaphor for our own struggles to free ourselves from our own narrowness and constrictions (Egypt, mitzrayim in Hebrew, means narrow). All of these meanings are there to be explored.

Even if we’ve heard them all before, there is one element that is always new: I’m always a different person each time around. In discerning what the story of Egypt means I need to ask myself: what does the story mean to me this year? After all, the center of the Passover ritual is “in every generation each person must see him/herself as if s/he had come out of Egypt.”

Introduction to Organic Torah

Announcing a Free Series of Workshops:

Introduction to Organic Torah
Join us as Rabbi Natan leads these workshops on untangling the complexity of Jewish texts with insights from the study of complex systems.  Learn how the literary structure of rabbinic text reflects natural structures and systems.  These events are free and open to the public.  Everyone is welcome!  Click on the poster below to download, and please feel free to redistribute.  If you are interested, please e-mail Natan at natanm118@gmail.com to RSVP.

Location: Harvard Divinity School
Andover Hall, Room 119
45 Francis Ave., Cambridge, MA 02138

Parking is available for $2 in a lot adjacent to Andover Hall, just to the south.  Andover Hall is a large grey stone building at the northeast corner of the Harvard University campus.  It is a 10-minute walk from Harvard Square.  Click here for map and directions.

We thank Harvard Divinity School, the Harvard Divinity School Talmuddlers, and Harvard Hillel for their sponsorship of these events.  Light kosher refreshments are sponsored by Harvard Hillel.

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Mandela, Polemics and the Jews

I’ve been thinking recently about how polemics can impoverish us. When we engage in polemics — taking two opposite positions, “poles,” and “polarizing” into our corners — each side becomes only a caricature of what they really are: we all become one dimensional.

Of course, polemics happen all the time. People debate and they want to make their point clear and easy to understand. They paint their opponents in clear and simple — and easy to dismiss — colors. If Democrats are compassionate, then Republicans are hard-hearted. Or if Republicans are sober then Democrats are irresponsible. If East Coasters are deep then West Coasters are superficial. If West Coasters are innovative then East Coasters are stodgy.

Maybe some polemics are unavoidable. Groups work out their self-definition and boundaries by defining themselves over and against an “other.” Jews have been defining our identity in opposition to Christianity (and visa-versa) for almost two thousand years. We grew up together, as it were, and like siblings sometimes do, we formed our identities in comparison with the other.

We are still very much doing it today.

The recent passing of Nelson Mandela brings up for me the old polemic: “Christians are into forgiveness and Jews aren’t.” Often this goes back to the old idea of the “angry God of the Old Testament” — which even many Jews seem to accept, even though the “Old Testament” or Hebrew Bible has at least as many instances of God being forgiving and compassionate as being angry. Sometimes I hear a similar polemic from the Jewish (especially Zionist) side: “Christians have this idea that you should ‘turn the other cheek’ when someone hits you — but that simply doesn’t work in real life. We Jews know that you sometimes have to fight back and defend yourself.”

But Mandela showed us, along with other greats of the twentieth century such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King that forgiveness and compassion even for an enemy can in fact be vital and effective tools of struggle. At the time of Mandela’s memorial, I heard several people repeat the story that Bill Clinton told about how, when Mandela came out of 27 years of prison, he did feel anger and hatred for those who imprisoned him. But Mandela realized that if he held onto his hatred, he might be out of prison but he would never be really free.

Mandela’s determination not to hate his former oppressors not only freed him from his internal shackles, but it paved the way for a national reconciliation, or at least enough reconciliation so that South Africa could emerge post-Apartheid as a multi-racial society. Even though it still has a long way to go, it could have been much, much worse.

It seems to me that instead of the embarrassing scene of the Prime Minister of Israel deciding not to attend Mandela’s memorial service “because it would be too expensive,” we might make more progress on peace if we learned from him about the practical value of listening, respecting, and forgiving.

Of course, Judaism does have forgiveness. The “angry God” of the Torah wasn’t always angry. As we repeat every year on Yom Kippur, this God is
“compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin. . .” (Exodus 34:6-7). The Rabbis of the Talmud often emphasized forgiveness, saying, for example, “Whoever forgives another, his sins are forgiven him” (TB Rosh HaShana 17a). More recently, in the Jewish mystical tradition we find the idea that there is a spark of God in everyone — even the worst criminal or most hated enemy.

But, in this polemic with Christianity we’ve almost given it away.

Maybe some polemics are unavoidable. Groups by nature define themselves in comparison to others and create boundaries. But, in nature, boundaries are always permeable. Energy and information flows though the membranes of cells and the borders of ecosystems. And so it needs to flow between groups. Simplistic polemics put up brick walls. That may be fine for the debating floor, but we can do better than to live with stereotypes and caricatures — of others or of ourselves.

We can move history forward, perhaps come closer to peace, both inner and political, by learning to see ourselves in others and others in ourselves: whether it is Judaism and Christianity, Democrats and Republicans or East Coast and West Coast. Hey, I’ve lived in California, and not everyone is shallow, dude.

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