A Poem for Rosh Hashanah

I want to share this poem by E. E. Cummings (apparently, contra the myth that he legally changed his name to e e cummings, he actually preferred his name with the normal capital letters).  I want to thank Linda Yael Schiller for reciting this poem, at a memorial circle for Shira Shaiman, at Dance New England Dance Camp this August. It was at that time that I was struck by the resonance of this poem with themes of Rosh HaShana.

i thank You God for most this amazing

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

For me, this beautiful poem speaks deeply about the essence of Rosh HaShana. The Rambam (Maimonides) explained that when we blow the shofar on Rosh HaShana the purpose is to wake us from our slumber. Of course, he wasn’t talking about being physically asleep, he meant awakening to a deeper level of awareness, awakening to a sense of what is beneath the surface, but which is infinitely real: “now the ears of my ears awake/ and the eyes of my eyes are opened”

And, when we are in that state of consciousness, that feeling of being awake and alive, the natural response is one of gratefulness and awe, a sense that we are a small part of something infinite, beautiful and . . . awesome. The High Holidays are traditionally called the Days of Awe, and Rosh HaShana is traditionally called “The Day of Judgment” – Yom HaDin — and in our society which values egalitarianism, self-reliance and the infinite value of each individual, it can strike a negative chord, bringing associations with outmoded ideals of hierarchy, domination, male father figures demanding submission. But, Rosh HaShana is paradoxically both a “Day of Judgment” and also a day of celebration, a day not to fear but to try to be very clear about who I am and where I stand in the world.

I think that this poem captures that intention: I am “human merely being” . . ., I am “lifted from the no of all nothing” — I recognize my limitations; my place as a tiny being that has been given the gift of life. But this recognition isn’t a resigned, fearful or weak feeling of submission. It is, rather, a recognition that I want to remain awake, remain conscious and grateful. It is a feeling that simultaneously acknowledges the vastness of which I am but a small part, while feeling joyful, expansive and alive.

Rosh HaShana is also traditionally known as the birthday of the world, and this newness is reflected in the poem: “and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth/day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay / great happening illimitably earth)” There is a sense that everything is renewed, that there is a chance for a new beginning which encompasses the whole wide world, but also myself personally (I who have died am alive again today. . .) When we talk about the “judgment” of whether or not we will be written into the Book of Life on Rosh HaShana this is what we mean: will I be really alive? Will I consciously feel the essence of my life and the beauty of being alive? Or will I be bored, living on the surface, asleep?

Rosh HaShana and all the High Holidays are very focused on God, and specifically the God of creation, the God who brings into being all the earth, the sky, the trees. The old picture of the Creator God, who, In the Beginning, spoke and commanded all the cosmos to appear isn’t one which resonates with many of us today. Yet, this poem captures the idea of the God of creation in a much more resonant way: there is a “yes” that emanates from the world, especially the world of nature. There is no separation between that which is natural and that which is infinite.

That “yes” (which lifts us out of the “no of all nothing”) is what we call God. That “yes” is saying that the world isn’t neutral, inert or random. Rather, as God observes in our creation story: it is good. This is a God within nature, undeniable when we are awake and seeing with the eyes of our eyes. It (S/he?) is a God who we intuitively want to thank and praise – “for most this amazing / day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees. . .

Whether we are listening to the sound of the shofar, or walking in nature, or reading poetry, this is the time in the Jewish calendar when we are given the invitation to wake up, to see anew, to feel with all our senses, to feel thankful for the renewal that is constantly offered by that “yes” whispering in the trees and the blue true dream of sky.


Challah and Halakhah

I’m a pretty good challah maker. Actually, I’m being too modest. I make some of the best whole wheat challah most people have ever tasted. I think that part of the reason it comes out so well is that at crucial points in the process, I don’t rely on measurements in the recipe, but I rely on my senses to see what is actually happening with the dough. I add flour to the liquid little by little, so that I get the exact right consistency for the dough. I can feel the weight, the bounciness, the shine of the dough. I know in my hands when it is ready. No measurement in a recipe could get that kind of accuracy. Simply following measurements in a recipe you don’t know all sorts of things like the exact coarseness of the flour, the temperature that day, the hardness of the water, etc. When you knead and feel the dough, you get exactly the consistency you want.

natan-challah-1I was happy to see that one of my favorite food writers, Michael Pollan, is on the same page. In his most recent book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, Pollan at first goes into the world of bread baking with the normal expectations that this is a world for the exacting, perfectionist, carefully measuring, carpenter or computer coder types. Not the artist, writer, poet type with which he more identifies. But, it turned out not to be the case. Yes, he needed to buy a scale that measured in grams, but when he sat down to read the recipe for one of the most amazing breads he had ever tasted, the “Tartine bread” made by Chad Robertson, he found that, “Robertson encouraged bakers to be observant, flexible, and intuitive. . . He talked about dough as if it was a living thing, local and particular and subject to so many contingencies that to generalize or make hard-and-fast rules for its management was impossible. Robertson seemed to be suggesting that success as a baker demanded a certain amount of negative capability — a willingness to exist amid uncertainty. His was a world of craft rather than engineering, one where “digital” referred exclusively to the fingers.”

It turns out, this intuitive approach is also the secret to Jewish civilization: for centuries Jews have followed Jewish law, in Hebrew: halakhah, a word that comes from the word “to walk.” It is a path, an active going one step at a time. It is not some theory proposed by a philosopher in an ivy tower. It is not a recipe. It is, at least when it is working well, a constantly evolving, constantly fine-tuned feedback between lawyer/scholar/teachers (rabbis) and the rest of the people who are living out Jewish life, walking on the path.

There is no one set of principles or abstract deductions on what is Right or Truth. Rather, there are stories, examples and arguments all woven together. Any rabbi or practicing Jew who wants to decide a question of Jewish law needs to have a feel for the law and a feel for the community and the individual people involved. Then a decision can come out exactly right for that moment.

natan-challah-2Of course it didn’t and doesn’t always work that way. But apparently it has often enough that the Jewish people survived for 2000 years in difficult exile and are miraculously still here today. The organic structure of learning, action, law, has been flexible and durable, like an eco-system adjusting to new conditions and continuing to grow.

In the case of making challah, the key point is that the baker has to develop a sensitivity to the dough. He or she needs to be in second to second contact and feel in his hands the dough’s weight, stickiness, bounce. It’s a feedback loop, as the dough responds to my hands and my hands respond to the dough.

In the case of an organically alive Jewish community, there is a constant, dynamic, shifting and alive feedback loop between the tradition and the lives of the people. It’s not limited to rabbis and big legal decisions. Even a simple thing like opening a book of the Torah, Talmud or other book of Jewish learning – when it is done successfully it is a back and forth interaction between our perceptions, values, insights and the text. And the text, of course, itself is a record of centuries of such conversations. There is never one clear solution, but many perspectives. One day I might be swayed by this argument, another day, with some new information or changing circumstances, I might see something new.

The beauty of baking bread, or any craft, is that because you are in a feedback interaction with something, it is never possible to completely control it. You work hard to perfect your craft; you have discipline and consistent practice to build your skills in order to get something beautiful. But so much of the beauty actually comes from the surprising things that happen not as part of your plan. The real accomplished artist knows how to ad lib and play off the aliveness of the work.

natan-breakwater-1I’m powerfully reminded of this whenever I walk on the historic breakwater in Rockland, Maine. I always marvel at the way the huge slabs of granite were placed there, 700,000 tons of them are lined up, almost perfectly in a line on one side, and more random on the other side. You can see the dynamic process recorded in the pattern of stones. Someone back in the 1890s was making aesthetic decisions, planning where to place each granite slab, but only so far; also improvising and reacting as each stone is put into place. There is a beautiful aliveness in this record. It’s the beauty of all craft – it is always a feedback loop of action and reaction, a living system. It’s a record of the interface between our striving for order and control and the dynamic randomness of the living world.

Whether its baking Challah, building a rock wall, or trying to figure out what God’s will is for me in this moment – we’re always asked to stay awake: using our skill and to shape and form, but always open to feedback, looking, listening and feeling for that perfect moment of aliveness. In that way, we’re always on the path.

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.”