Monday, September 5, 2016

#BlogElul 2: Act - Thinking about Mitzvot as a kind of technology

Every year, my colleague, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, offers bloggers a shared list of themes that, if followed, allow for some neat collections of thought pieces or images (the #ElulGram) to be found throughout the web on the same theme on the same day. While I seldom keep up with a daily post during this month, I'll be following the general flow of the themes above, and thank Phyllis for the connections that she helps us all make in the blogosphere. On Facebook or Twitter, just search for #BlogElul to see what others are writing.

Inspired by my teacher, Rabbi Irwin Kula, who has been thinking a great deal in recent years about disruptive innovations and how they might be reshaping Jewish experience in North America and beyond. I'd like to riff off of Phyllis' theme of day 2, 'Act' by introducing the notion that Mitzvot can be thought of as a kind of technology. It was Clay Shirky who, in talking about disruptive innovations, asked us to consider of whatever is the focus of our attention the question, 'what job does it do?' In one easy to grasp example that he offers, he considers the ways in which new technologies have changed the way that we consume music. From the gramophone which brought the sounds of live performances into the homes of listeners, to the rise of the cassette tape and the introduction of the portable cassette player and then the 'walkman', enabling us to carry our own music with us into the street and other spaces; from the CD player to the iPod, exponentially increasing how much music we could transport with us and how little space in our homes we would need to store it, to today's online streaming music services. As consumers, we have responded to each new technology that made listening to music, finding new music, and sharing music a little bit easier. In the process, companies that made old hardware had to either recreate themselves to offer the newer technology, or would find themselves out of business. When something came along that did the essential job better, cheaper, in a way that was more portable, offered more choice, etc. it became the next thing.

We can take Shirky's question, 'what job does it do?' And ask it of all kinds of things that we use or choose to do. If we accept his basic assumption, if it has a purpose, we will continue to use it or do the activity in question. Religion clearly does an important job for many people. For sure, we live at a time when more people than in the past are questioning that assumption, but the fact that so many of us are engaged in religious life, communities of faith, and ritual practices, suggest that these continue to do a job for us, as individuals and as a community. Exactly what that job is is a little more complex to define than the role of something that delivers music, and the answer may not be the same for everyone. Yet, as the societies and cultures that we live in continues to evolve and change, being able to look at our traditions through this lens can help us stay true to the essence of what Judaism is helping us do even if some of the outer forms (style of a service, choice of music, where rituals take place, the role of online communities, etc.) are changing.

In traditional verbiage, a mitzvah is a commandment. To young children, we sometimes say it is a good deed. But that doesn't really capture the full essence of mitzvah. Some of the acts that are commanded as Mitzvot are ethical in nature, but some don't come with an explanation in Torah or in rabbinical texts. What would it look like to take a list of Mitzvot and ask the question from a modern perspective, 'what job does it do?'. Rabbi Kula is thinking about a project that does exactly this. If we can demonstrate how a mitzvah deepens our awareness of the world, strengthens our relationships with others, enables us to have an experience that we might label holy or spiritual, provides a mechanism for taking care of the vulnerable and needy, brings mindful awareness to our engaging in ordinary, everyday things, and so on... We can begin to reframe the deep, deep value of some of the Mitzvot of our tradition. Mitzvah as a technology that we can use.... What mitzvah comes to mind that really speaks to you and helps to shape your sense of self, or sense of holy, or sense of obligation to another?

Sunday, September 4, 2016

#BlogElul 1 5776: Who am I? What do I aspire to be?

creative commons; attribution 273C on
Who am I?

One of the most essential and yet perhaps most difficult of questions to answer. I can tell you where I was born. I can tell you about my family. I can tell you what I do for a living. I can tell you about some of my favorite and least favorite activities. Perhaps I can go a little deeper and tell you about some of the characteristics that are most present in me, and others that are not so present. I can tell you what I most like about myself and what most disappoints me about myself.

How much of the above gets to the essence of who I am?  How much is superficial and descriptive? Is it even possible to respond to the question of 'Who are you?' in words, or is the best answer, perhaps, the way that we conduct ourselves and the things that we do with the length of our days?

As we begin the hebrew month of Elul, which announces that we are approaching another Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, this is the time that our traditions encourage us to reflect on these core questions of essence. Who am I? Who do I aspire to be? This year, those of us in the USA are also asking that question communally in a more intense and reflective way. Once every four years, as we decide who will represent us in the highest office in the land, we look at the character of our leaders and the way that they describe the landscape in which they hope to govern and make progress. We have to ask ourselves, who do we aspire to be? What values will shape our sense of self as a nation?

As in previous years, I will be using my blog to offer brief reflections several times a week during Elul, that provide some food for thought as we grapple with these core questions. This year, I'm going to be using the lens of technology and technological innovation to inspire a different way of trying to get at the essence of what it means to be human. This is inspired by the topic that our congregation has taken on for the coming 1.5 years, supported by a grant from 'Scientists in Synagogues' provided by Sinai and Synapses. Here is an excerpt from a book that has been inspiring a lot of my thinking as I prepare sermons for the High Holy Days this year on this topic:

Kevin Kelly, author of ‘The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape our Future” presents the following insights:

… we’ve been redefining what it means to be human. Over the past 60 years, as mechanical processes have replicated behaviors and talents that we thought were unique to humans, we’ve had to change our minds about what sets us apart. As we invent more species of AI [artifical intelligence], we will be forced to surrender more of what is supposedly unique about humans… We’ll spend the next three decades – indeed, perhaps the next century – in a permanent identity crisis, continually asking ourselves what humans are good for. If we aren’t unique toolmakers, or artists, or moral ethicists, then what, if anything, makes us special?(p. 48-9)

Today, many of the debates about the impact of technological innovation on our sense of self and our communities gets simplified into the binaries of 'good' or 'bad' impacts. But we are, and have always been, creatures who use technological innovation to enable us to do more and be more. From the most basic of tools that enabled us to mold, shape, and change things in our natural environment, to the technologies that enabled us to write - first on clay plastered on rocks, then on papyrus or parchment, and later in books, with printing presses enabling an enormous leap forward in the democratization of knowledge, literacy, and language - we are not and could not be who we are today, either individually or communally, without the integral role that technologies have played in enabling us to become more.

I hope you will join me in this exploration of ideas as we look at the question of 'who am I?' through a different lens, as we begin this month to recenter ourselves and find our way back to more deeply understanding 'who do I aspire to be?'

Monday, April 11, 2016

Kosher Wines for Passover: Not your Grandfather's Manischewitz!

Last week, I co-hosted a Kosher for Passover wine tasting at Julio's Liquors in Westborough. Julio's, for those not familiar with it, is not your typical liquor store. They hold several free tasting events a week, ranging from wine evenings, to whiskey, to beer, and many weekend afternoon festivals featuring large selections from multiple distributors. They have a large basement space dedicated to these events. For me, the result is that I've not bought anything that I didn't like in the past four years, because I've had an opportunity to taste pretty much everything I've purchased prior to buying.

With around 70 people filling the room, we had a lot of fun tasting a broad range of kosher for Passover wines from all over the world, distributed by Monsieur Touton wines. For those who could not attend in person but wanted a review so that they could stop by to make a purchase before Passover (or for those reading this in other locations who are on the hunt for something a bit different), here are my tasting notes from the evening.

I began the evening with a quick history of wine-producing among Jews, what makes a wine Kosher (and kosher for Passover), and what the origins of the four cups of wine are. I won't post the full presentation here, but just a few key points:
1) Ancient Israel is one of the earliest sources of vineyard growth and wine making in the world. Biblical references include Noah, and the 12 spies who brought a huge vine of grapes back from Canaan as proof of the fertility of the land.
2) The Talmud references 60 varieties of wine. Wines were flavored with spices, salt, date honey, and cooked into a sweet syrup (the equivalent of today's Manischewitz and other sweet kiddush wines).
3) In winemaking there is a process called 'fining' which helps to remove some of the soluble particulates from wine. These can be from organic or inorganic sources. When an animal product is used it renders the wine unkosher. Additionally, for those who are strictly observant, a wine will need a kosher certification stamp on it. Kosher for Passover wines are those where the certifiers will verify that the wine has not come into contact with any grain product from harvest to production.  Wine that is 'mevushal' is very quickly flash pasteurized. Today, that can be done with lasers. Historically, it left a somewhat 'cooked' odor to the wine, but today's technology can lead to some 'mevushal' wines being pretty good. The reason for this process has to do with some pretty ancient halachah about avoiding wines that may have been used for idolatrous purposes, and/or mixing with non-Jews in taverns. It has little relevance today, except for strictly observant Jews who continue to follow the letter of the law.
4) The Passover Seder was modeled on the Greek Symposium - a gathering that involved copious amounts of wine drinking. There was some debate in the Talmud about how many cups of wine should be drunk at a Seder. It took a while for our ritual today to become fully formed and settled. One interesting remnant of the original debate is 'Elijah's Cup'. When some rabbis advocated for a fifth cup (based on how they were parsing phrases in Exodus that refer to God's redemption of the slaves from Egypt), it was decided to pour a fifth cup but not drink it. Elijah, who tradition has it will announce the coming of the Messiah, was also understood by these ancient rabbis to be able to answer all unanswered questions when he came. Apparently, this included the question of how much wine we should drink at our Seder!

Here are the wines we sampled and their 'regularly listed' price. For those going to Julio's who mention last week's tasting, they will honor the preferential pricing they had, while stocks last.

Louis Blanc 'Les Favieres' 2015 Coteaux Varois en Provence $19.99
This is an excellent Rose wine that I'd be happy to drink at any time. If you are serving chicken at your Seder, this would be a nice accompaniment. Hints of watermelon, raspberry, and mint. Vibrant, long finish. Mevushal.  This sold out at our tasting, but you can place an order with Julio's.

Joseph Mellot 'La Graveliere' 2014 Sancerre $31.99
From the Loire Valley in NE France. The priciest wine that we tasted, but an exceptionally good Sancerre. 100% Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Flavors of red grapefruit, balanced minerals, and a little spice on the finish. This sold out at our tasting, but you can place an order with Julio's.

O'Dwyers Creek 2015 Sauvignon Blanc $16.99
100% single vineyard Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand. Also organic, vegan and mevushal.
More a mix of tropical fruits (pineapple and passion) than the Sancerre. Citrus, lemon/lime finish -  more acidity than the Sancerre. Very fragrant.

Ella Valley Vineyards 2013 Estate Chardonnay $20.98
100% Chardonnay
I've been a big fan of Ella Valley wines since I tasted them about 10 years ago at an Israeli Wine Festival at the Israel museum, Jerusalem (the same museum that holds the Dead Sea Scrolls). I don't love all of their range equally, but on the whole I've found them to be consistently among the better wines to come out of Israel. Not the cheapest here in the USA, but I'd rather pay an extra $5 for an Ella wine than a mediocre Dalton, Alfasi, or Carmel wine any day.

A light, almost sherbert-like crispness with green apple, lemon, and a touch of cinnamon. If you like Chardonnay, you'll like this one.  Monsieur Touton is no longer carrying Ella Valley wines, so the case or two that is left at Julio's is the last they'll be bringing into the State of MA for a while.

Louis Blanc 'Vintage' 2012 Cotes du Rhone $14.99
Main grape is Syrah. Also some Grenache and one or two other varietals in small quantities.
Dark blackcurrant and peppery finish with medium tannins. Will pair well with lamb or beef.

La Fille du Boucher (The Butcher's Daughter) 2012 Bordeaux Reserve $14.99
70% Merlot 30% Cabernet. A great story to this wine. Named for the daughter of the largest Kosher meat family producer in France. The daughter runs a famous kosher restaurant in the Old Jewish quarter, Paris.  This wine is a very dry red with deep fruits and medium tannins and a long finish. You'll enjoy this if you like an earthier, heavier red. Will pair well with a fattier meat like lamb or a brisket.

Luis Felipe Edwards 'Terra Vega' 2014 Bin No. 964 Carmenere $7.99  From Chile
This sold out at our tasting, but you can place an order with Julio's.
This was a big hit at our tasting. Very pleasant, fruity wine that is very competitively priced. Lacks some of the depth of the larger, drier reds, but a very nice wine to either drink by itself, or with a lighter meat dish. I'd even suggest pairing with chicken or turkey if you prefer a red wine. It has a beautiful deep, red color but is light on the nose and has a fruity, blueberry taste with a slightly peppery finish.

Ella Valley Vineyards 2011 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon $29.99
85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot.
See my notes above the Ella Chardonnay for my personal preference for this winemaker and the limited availability moving forward in MA.

This is a well-rounded, predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon wine. It has deep blackcurrant tones, a hint of licorice, and forthright but well-balanced tannins. I'm making a Moroccan beef stew for my Seder so this is the kind of full-flavored dry red that will pair well with a rich, meaty dish. It might be a bit heavy on the tannins and spice for some (in which case the Carmenere is probably the wine for you), but this and La Fille Du Boucher are, in my opinion, the more sophisticated and 'big' wines of the range that we tasted.

Cantina Gabriele 'Vino' NV Sweet Red $9.99.
70% Merlot, 30% Sangiovese.
Think of this as a better 'upmarket' version of Manischewitz. It has a very slight sparkle to it and is sweet but not cloying or syrupy. It comes from South of Rome and is certified vegan as well as Kosher.  This isn't my personal taste - I like a chilled dessert wine like a light Muscat, Sauternes, or Icewine. But this one was also a sell-out at the tasting, and I even brought home a bottle, knowing that I'll have guests who really won't enjoy the Ella Valley Cabernet but would rather have something like this. And its only 5.5% ABV!

I hope you try something a little different for your Passover meal this year. One thing everyone at our tasting came away appreciating - there's much more to Kosher wine than Manischewitz!
Chag Pesach Sameach!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

#BlogElul 5775: When the music brings you home

Kol Nidre... the anthem with which we begin Yom Kippur. We take the Torah scrolls out of the ark and they bear witness, as if a Jewish court of law - a Beit Din - while we hear these ancient Aramaic words chanted.  What, precisely, do they say? Essentially, that we regret any vows or commitments that we have made, we repent for having made them, and we asked that they be discarded, forgiven, and undone; that they no longer be regarded as valid and binding.

Why would we begin this Holiest of days with such a declaration? Is this one of these Jewish legal loopholes, by which we figured it was easier to just nullify promises we made than deal with the consequences of having made them and failing to live up to them? While that's not why these words feature in our liturgy, what is clear is that the power of Kol Nidre in our communities today has very little to do with the words themselves. But first, a quick history of this prayer.

"For all of Kol Nidre’s significance and power, its origins are shrouded in mystery. There are two “histories” regarding the prayer, one popular and the other scholarly. The popular version connects the wording of the prayer with the religious dilemma facing medieval Spanish Jews. In 15th-century Spain, at the hight of the infamous Inquisition, the Roman Catholic Church embarked on a determined hunt to seek out and punish all non-practicing Christians. In response to extreme anti-Semitism earlier that century, a sizable number of upper-class Jews chose to convert to Christianity in order to, at the very least, avoid social disdain. For a small number, their religious conversion was genuine; but for the majority, their “conversion” was in name only as they still found creative ways to practice Judaism in the privacy of their own dwellings. These Jews came to be known as “marranos” and became one of the foci of the Church’s inquistory offensive. The Kol Nidre prayer, according to this theory, was created in response to these Jews’ desire to nullify their vows of conversion...
        Scholars do not wholly refute this understanding of Kol Nidre, but they do contend that Kol Nidre has much earlier roots and probably pre-dated the marranos. According to their research, it is unclear exactly when or where the Kol Nidre legal formula was created. The wording seems to mimic other legalistic contracts of the Babylonian Jewish community of the 6th and 7th centuries. The first undoubtable citation appears in an early comprehensive siddur edited by Rav Amram in the 8th century. Over the next few centuries, the prayer became more widespread and a soulful melody became associated with it. Notably, there were some rabbis who disparaged the prayer as a superstitious attempt by Jewish mystics to nullify vows made by evil forces in the universe intent on hurting the Jewish people. These criticisms were muted by the majority of the people who cleaved to the prayer and aided its spread to other communities."
 (Rabbi Eric Solomon, 2000, 'Examining the Mystery of Kol Nidre')

By the late Nineteenth Century, as the Jews of Europe and the USA sought greater integration into the societies in which they lived, some felt self-conscious and embarrassed by the words of Kol Nidre. They were concerned that non-Jews might regard them as a people who could not be trusted because they would not keep their word.  In Germany, some early Reform Rabbis sought to remove Kol Nidre from the liturgy. But when a machzor (High Holy Day Prayer book) was published without it, congregations rebelled. They insisted that it be sung anyway. Already, for centuries, Kol Nidre was chanted to a haunting tune. Max Bruch, a non-Jewish composer, set it to the melody (in 1880) that we associate this prayer with today, and it is this that congregations across the world today listen for to announce the opening of Yom Kippur. Many congregations, my own included, begin with the sounds of Bruch's arrangement, played on cello or adapted for some other soulful sounding instrument.

I think there are few other liturgical moments or melodies in our tradition that is as emblematic and central to us as Kol Nidre. In Mishkan HaNefesh, this introduction conveys something of its power:
Rabbi Leizer survived the death camps and returned to his hometown, Czenstochow, Poland. For years following the Shoah, he roamed the streets playing a hand organ. At regular intervals, amid the numerous tunes he played, he would intentionally play Kol Nidre. As he did so, he would look into the eyes of the children who walked by, looking for a hint of recognition. In this way, he was able to bring many children back in contact with their people.
For us, too, Kol Nidre is a moment of recognition -
a sound that brings us back to our people. (copyright CCAR, 2015, Yom Kippur, p.15)

What other melodies are so part of your sense of identity that they bring you back home in a profoundly spiritual way? What melodies connect you to a sense of your people? When you hear the reverberations of Kol Nidre, what thoughts and feelings are aroused within?

Welcome Home.
Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer, 1927. 

Friday, August 21, 2015

#BlogElul 5775: Yizkor and Forgiveness

Photo by Roger Glenn
Why do we have a Yizkor (memorial) service on Yom Kippur? It is clearly a ritual that has great meaning to many people. In most congregations it is one of the services of the holiest of days with the largest attendance. There's an historical answer to the question, if we want to learn more about the original connection between remembrance and atonement. Certainly, some of us attend Yizkor because its just what you do, and it is what those before us did. But, like most things in Judaism, especially in progressive communities, rituals and times of gathering don't continue to be widely observed unless they have a contemporary meaning and value that is experienced by those who engage in them.

Yom Kippur is sometimes described as like a rehearsal for death. The Vidui (confession) that we pronounce several times over the High Holy Days is a ritual that is also meant for one who has the opportunity to say it if they are aware that they are close to death. There is also a nightly vidui ritual, precisely because most of us can never know when our last day will come. So there is something powerful, as we reflect on our own mortality, about turning our thoughts to those who have already died. They have shaped our lives, and we often see things in ourselves that we inherited from them. There are things that we do, and ways we behave that we are aware that we do because of them, or sometimes in spite of them.

Yizkor may be a time for appreciation. It may be a time for us to be inspired by our memories of others to seek to live each of our days so that others will have cherished memories of us at some time in the future. It may be a time to find a spiritual path forward to deal with unfinished business, pain or hurt.

As with each and every step of the High Holy ritual, our new machzor provides prayers, reflective readings, and insights that can help us with all of the above. Here is a piece written by Cantor Linda Hirschhorn entitled Forgiveness and the Afterlife (copyright CCAR, 2015, Yom Kippur machzor, p.581).
I do have an ongoing relationship with the dead, and I do think about the afterlife - my afterlife, that is - after someone I know dies: what happens to me afterwards, in my life.
Some deaths come too soon; some deaths are unexpected; some deaths we think we are prepared for, but really we are rarely ready: we don't usually know when a conversation is the last conversation, with so much that may be left unsaid, unresolved.
So in this afterlife of mine I am still in relationship with people who have died. I miss them, I talk to them in my mind, I ask them questions about our relationship that I wasn't ready to ask them when they were still alive. I show off my accomplishments, and wish they could witness them; and yes, I still have some of the same old arguments, still trying to prove my point of view. What helps me go forward? How do I resolve these lingering feelings?
Here is what makes the Yom Kippur Yizkor so special - this forgiveness prayer devoted exclusively to those no longer with us, that comes late in the afternoon when we are tired, hungry, vulnerable, and open. During this Yizkor I am given the opportunity to forgive myself for cutting off that last phone conversation with my father - I was always in a hurry; he always wanted to chat longer; and then he died. It's during this Yizkor that I have the opportunity to forgive my mother for her harsh ways; to let go of being angry - for my sake in this world, if not for her sake in the world-to-come.
For this Yizkor to feel honest and meaningful, I don't want to sentimentalize those relationships. I don't just want to remember the ideals and gifts they may or may not have passed down. I want to remember those relationships exactly as they were, and then be able to forgive myself and them for our failings, for what we never got a chance to repair or finish.

May our memories bring the light of loved ones into our hearts. May our prayers help us forgive and receive forgiveness. With remembrance, may healing come our way.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

#BlogElul 2 5775: Hineni - Here I am

At the opening of the High Holy Day prayer services there is a traditional prayer leader's confession, Hineni which, in essence, is the prayer leader proclaiming their unworthiness to lead the congregation in prayer and asking God not to hold the community responsible for the leader's shortcomings. I understand its original intent, but it has never been something that I have felt comfortable saying. I think it was meant as an ego check-in - certainly an important thing to do. But, over the years, it has become a moment that has sometimes been accompanied with great cantorial flourish - a performative moment that I have felt expresses the opposite.

I usually begin each of the holy days with an invitation to the congregation to travel through the prayer service in any way that enables them to make it a meaningful experience - to not feel obligated to read along with everything that I am doing; to choose readings to sit with longer, to close their eyes and meditate, to go for a walk and return. Even though my soloists and I have woven together liturgy and music with intention and the hope of creating a vessel for meaningful prayer, I have to create something that I believe will touch upon things that many different kinds of people appreciate and, therefore, is likely to lack something for everyone too. And so we all have to be responsible for our own prayer experience, and for our own shortcomings and sins.

Until now I have struggled with what to do with the Hineni prayer. Perhaps my feelings about it have been colored by the old joke:

During one service in a wealthy synagogue, the rabbi got carried away. Falling on hands and knees, forehead to floor, he said, "Oh God, before thee I am nothing.”The Cantor, not to be outdone, also got down, forehead to wood and said, "Oh God, before thee I am nothing." Seeing this, Levy, a tailor in the fourth row, left his seat, fell to his knees, forehead to floor and he too, said "Oh God, before thee I am nothing.” With this, the Cantor elbowed the rabbi and sniffed: "Look who thinks he's nothing!"
On the High Holy Days we are all meant to enter into this time of deep introspection and communal reflection as equals. There is no difference between one congregant and another, or between clergy and congregant. This year I have a Hineni that I feel able to read, and one that I will be able to invite each and every person in my congregation to read - each of us quietly to ourselves, as we prepare to enter into the ritual vessel that we are creating together with mindfulness:

Here I am,
one soul within this prayer community
Like those around me, I bring my own concerns and yearnings to this place,
hoping they will find expression in the time-hallowed words of my people and in the traditions cherished by generations before me.
May I bring the best of my energies to these Holy Days,
approaching this spiritual work with open heart and mind, sincerity, and sustained focus on the deep questions of this season:
Who am I? How shall I live? Where have I fallen short - or failed?
This night I take up the challenge of the Days of Awe:
cheshbon hanefesh - a searching examination of my life,
a moral inventory of my deeds, words, and thoughts.
During the next ten days,
let me face the truth about myself and listen to Your still, small voice.
Taking comfort in your promise that I am always free to change,
released from staleness and routine,
let me know the joy of beginning again.
May I gain strength as I share this task with those around me, united by our common purpose;
tikkun midot (improving our characters) and tikkun olam (repairing the world).
I now prepare myself to pray - one soul amidst this holy congregation.
(copyright CCAR, 2015; Rosh Hashanah Evening Service, p. 16)

It is another of those moments that the editors of Mishkan HaNefesh have provided alternative ways to encounter (the traditional Hineni is still there too). I am grateful for a text that better reflects how I would like to begin. And, of course, the core questions asked in the text above do not need to wait for the eve of Rosh Hashanah. This month of Elul is the time to begin to ask ourselves: Who am I? How shall I live? Where have I fallen short - or failed? Our inventories of deeds, words, and thoughts are likely to be long. We can take the time we need to review and begin the job of return.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

#BlogElul 5775: Let's get real

Speaking with a colleague the other night, I was hearing how it is not uncommon to hear from those training for the rabbinate that they struggle with liturgical prayer. While this does not surprise me, it may be something that surprises, and perhaps troubles our congregants.

I can only speak personally, but I've traveled my own path to making prayer work for me. It has taken time - years, in fact. I suspect that most people don't have the patience, but it seemed rather important to me, given my desire to serve as a rabbi to the Jewish community.  I've learned to love the 'back stories' (known and theorized) behind why our liturgical prayers came into being. Context and history provide one way in. But getting beyond the literal, and even getting beyond what might have been the original intended meaning, theology, and message, to recast liturgy to speak to us today, has helped me find moments of deep, thoughtful, prayerful experience in the midst of Jewish worship.  Music helps a lot too.

Perhaps more than at any other time of the year, the High Holy Day liturgy can be particularly challenging. In the Reform movement this year, several hundred congregations will be praying out of a brand new machzor, Mishkan HaNefesh (Sanctuary of the Soul).  I am so excited by the potential that lies within the pages of this new prayer book. Perhaps, more than any other single thing I can highlight about what makes it so special, is the opportunity to get real.

What do I mean, by 'let's get real'? I think the best way to illustrate what has been missing for me in some of the liturgy (especially the english language readings) of our previous high Holy Day machzor and what is now available to us in our new book is to share one of the new texts with you. Here is a new text that introduces the Vidui (Confession) on Yom Kippur morning.

Because I was angry
Because I didn't think
Because I was exhausted and on edge
Because I'd been drinking
Because I can be mean
Because I was reckless and selfish
Because I was worried about money
Because my marriage was dead
Because other people were doing it
Because I thought I could get away with it

I did something wrong.

Because I'm in pain
Because I wish I could undo it
Because I hurt him
Because I lost her trust
Because I let them down
Because I was self-destructive
Because I was foolish
Because I'm ashamed
Because that's not who I am
Because that's not who I want to be

I want to be forgiven.

bring down my walls of defensiveness and self-righteousness.
Help me to stay in humility.
Please - 
give me the strength to do what's right.
copyright CCAR, 2015 (p. 293, Yom Kippur morning service)

I can't read this and remain on automatic pilot. I can't read this and coast through the ritual of reading words out loud in a room full of others, disconnected with the purpose of this holy day. I can't read this without being pulled out of my lethargy and denial and acknowledging that I have been so many of the things listed above. They ring true for me, and speak in a contemporary language that resonates with my experience in a way that some of the traditional words do not. There are other words that are part of the traditional vidui that are much easier for me to read as being about somebody else.  But Yom Kippur is not about somebody else. It is about me, what I have done, who I am and who I want to be. And for the ritual of spending designated time in extended communal gatherings and prayer at the High Holy Days to be useful and meaningful, I need tools and texts that will take me to the places that I need to go if I am to emerge at the end feeling like anything has changed (even knowing that I'll need another 're-set' next year).

This year my #BlogElul posts will all feature new texts or new translations from Mishkan HaNefesh. It is an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of moments within the prayer journey we take over these Holy Days, to familiarize ourselves with the gifts provided by new texts, and to begin to do the work of Soul refinement that can help us enter the New Year with greater intention.  I invite you to join me, and share your own reflections to add to the conversation in the comments section. Together, let's make it real this month of Elul.