Where Everybody Knows Your Name

The past couple of weeks has been full of highly emotional events, times of joy and times of anguish. On weeks like these, I am glad I have a synagogue home.

Friday night, Linda and I went to services at Temple Sinai. We arrived extra early, but it almost wasn’t early enough. I wasn’t surprised that the parking lot was full. I’m not the only one who wants to attend services at my shul after a tough week.

Rabbi Mates-Muchin started the service with Shehecheyanu, the blessing for extraordinary moments. We celebrated Obergefell v Hodges, the Supreme Court decision that made same sex marriage legal in all 50 states. We celebrated King v Burwell, in which SCOTUS affirmed the Affordable Care Act. And on the side of anguish, we prayed for those who are mourning in South Carolina, as the funerals begin for the nine people murdered in Emanuel AME Church. Many of us had been deeply moved by President Obama’s eulogy for State Senator Clementa Pinckney.

After the service, at the oneg, there were hugs and stories exchanged. The guy who was organizing the group to march at Pride in San Francisco was at one table, signing folks up. Regulars and newcomers were crowded around the cookie table, and another little group (me included) were crowded around the hot water for tea. I had an impromptu subcommittee meeting with one person, and set up with another for study later in the week.

Synagogue is a place Jews go when we need to be with fellow Jews. In moments of great joy or great sorrow, after bad news from Europe or Israel, after anything in the national news that touches us strongly, it is good to sit with the Jews and take it all in. After 9-11, which took place in the midst of the High Holy Days, we gathered anxiously to ponder the meaning of events. During the Gaza War last summer, attendance was high. At such times, we need to be together.

And true, these are also times when newcomers seek out the synagogue, because they haven’t felt the need for one until just that moment – and that is fine. They’re welcome, and odds are, they’ll see us at our best. But synagogue is even better when it’s a familiar place, with familiar faces, and you know who gives great hugs. (If you are reading this and thinking, gee, my synagogue isn’t like that, may I suggest How to Succeed at Synagogue Life?)

Why join a synagogue? Because after a Very Bad Day, it’s wonderful to be able to go there and feel at home.

Shabbat Shalom: A Visit to Kehilla

Today was an especially sweet Shabbat, exactly when I needed it.

My dear friend Rabbi Robin Podolsky is visiting town, and we joined up to attend services at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Oakland this morning. Their website proclaims:

Kehilla is a community of social progressives and spiritual seekers:a  participatory, musical, celebratory and democratic congregation of all ages, identities and family constellations.

I have experienced them as a Renewal community that is serious about both social action and spiritual growth, and it was a treat to daven with them this morning. We didn’t quite have a minyan (a lot of the regulars were away at an event) but the prayer was nevertheless sweet and the Torah study led by Rabbi David Cooper was inspiring. Our welcome from all attendees was warm and very personal.

It was a particular pleasure to learn with Rabbi Cooper, since he was one of my first teachers of Torah, back when he was the proprietor of Afikomen bookstore in Berkeley. I was exploring Judaism, not yet ready to talk to a rabbi. He was just a bookstore guy, as far as I knew, and he had a knack for picking out good reading for me. Those books are still in my library; many of them have been lent again and again to other explorers.

At the simple kiddush meal following the service we chatted about lots of things, then Rabbi Cooper gave us a tour of the newly-decorated sanctuary and we chatted for a bit about the Pope’s new encyclical Laudato Si. Then I returned Robin to the home where she is staying and I returned home to a nice Shabbat shluff [nap.]

So, nu, how was your Shabbos?

The Wonders of Shabbat

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There is a Jewish mystical tradition that holds that every Shabbat a Jew receives a neshamah y’teyrah, an extra soul. The first time I heard that, I thought it sounded a bit excessive: I have my hands full with the soul I’ve got.

The concept of the extra soul holds that on Shabbat, we are given extra capacity because of the holiness of the day and the opportunity for learning Torah. Torah study is not just an intellectual activity, although it is certainly that. It also has the power to transform our souls. Traditionally, study on Shabbat is even more powerful: we can take in more Torah than on an ordinary day, and the Torah we take in is more potent than usual.

I confess that I’m a rational little person, and I don’t know how seriously I can take all that. If someone asked me to locate for them the mind or the soul I would have no idea where to look. I think of the mind as attached to my head and the soul to my heart, but I have no evidence for either. (Nor does it explain why I feel sick to my stomach when I feel guilt.)

However, I do experience something different about Shabbat, something that I cannot simply move to a different day. Those who are mystical will have their explanations of that, and I have my own. For me, Shabbat is the time when we, the Jewish People, build that “cathedral of time” that Rabbi Heschel wrote about in The Sabbath. Whether it is given from above or created by human beings, there is power in the intentional pause that so many Jews make as the sun sets on Friday. We stop and take a collective breath, and then for 25 hours, we simply are.

Any individual can opt out, of course, and many do. Many Jews go on to work, or to sporting events, or to the shopping mall, and they don’t feel that they are missing anything. There are Jews who have experienced Shabbat, but for whom it has been marked with the stink of deprivation (“No, you may not listen to the game,” “No, you may not color,” “No, you may not make mud pies!”) and for them, being able to make or do is an expression of freedom their Jewish souls crave.

Anyone who has read this blog for long knows that I think there are many ways to be Jewish. When I think of the world on Shabbat, I think of the vast sphere of the planet revolving on its axis, and as it turns, candles light in Jerusalem in some homes. In other homes, in Tel Aviv, music plays on the radio as people enjoy their dinner. In London, a group gathers for Kabbalat Shabbat, and somewhere in Dublin, another Jew meets friends at a pub. A little later, as the sun sets in New York City, a young adult group meets for potluck in Manhattan while Chabadnikim walk home from shul with dinner guests in Brooklyn. In Cincinnati, Kabbalat Shabbat begins at the Plum Street Temple; in Denver, young families gather for Tot Shabbat. An hour later, in Berkeley, a group parks on the street near Urban Adamah where they come for singing, and prayers, and dinner; afterwards, they’ll drive home. And even later, on the Kona Coast of the Big Island, a few Jews light Shabbat candles and welcome the Sabbath Queen on the beach. And some simply watch the sunset and marvel at the wonder of it all.

It’s all Shabbat, and it is all authentic and good. What will happen in your life when the sun goes down for Shabbat this week? Whatever it is, I wish you Shalom.

Sacrifices for Shabbat?

I was delighted to see that sjewindy at A Humanistic Jew in Indianapolis left a pingback this morning to my post, Why Can’t Jews Get Married on Shabbat? entitled Jewish? Want a Saturday Wedding? Find a Humanistic Jew. He’s right about that; a humanistic Jew is one of the alternatives if you want a Saturday wedding.

However, I have an issue with something in his summary of my post, and I think it merits a post of its own. He wrote, “traditionally this [foregoing weddings on Shabbat] is a sacrifice Jews have made.” [emphasis mine]

Jews went out of the sacrifice business in 70 CE, when the Romans pulled down Herod’s Temple and burnt the broken fragments. As a Reform Jew, I am not praying for or looking forward to a restoration of that edifice, although there are folks in other movements of Judaism who are. (There’s another post for another day.)

Things I don’t do on Shabbat are not sacrifices in any sense of the word. For example, I don’t do my shopping on Shabbat. That is my practice because the day is a break from acquisition. I’m not sacrificing shopping in the way a Catholic sacrifices eating chocolate for Lent. I’m taking a break from shopping because it’s a distraction from Torah and relationships with people, and those are the focus of my sabbath.

I draw my boundaries around Shabbat differently than a halakhic Jew (a Jew who regards the contents of the medieval codes as a binding set of rules given by God and handed down through the generations.) For me, Shabbat is a day to refrain from creation and acquisition, a day profoundly different from the other six, a taste of the world as it should be. It is absolutely not a day for sacrifice in the sense of “going without.”

One of the most famous descriptions of Shabbat is in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s The Sabbath. He describes Shabbat as “a cathedral in time.” It is time set aside for openness to the numinous, when we put away anything that might get in the way of that activity. While Heschel himself was a halakhic Jew who kept Shabbat in the classic fashion, keeping Shabbat in the 21st century means different things to different Jews.

Sjewindy and I are largely in agreement. There are lots and lots of different ways to be Jewish. But sacrifices? Not since 70 CE, and never on Shabbat!

Why Can’t Jews Get Married on Shabbat?

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“Why can’t Jews get married on Shabbat?” a reader asked me recently. She and her fiancé had made a lot of expensive wedding arrangements, only to discover that very few rabbis will officiate on Shabbat (between sundown Friday and sundown Saturday.) Now they are scrambling to find an officiant that will agree to officiate before sundown on a Saturday evening in the summertime.

TRADITION – At weddings, couples do many expensive and inconvenient things to honor tradition. Brides may pay hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars for a dress they will only wear once. Couples mull over the “old, new, borrowed, and blue” custom. People who do not frequent synagogues or churches suddenly need a rabbi or priest. We do these and other things because on one of the biggest days of our lives, tradition matters. And it is Jewish tradition that weddings do not take place on the Sabbath and certain other days.

SHABBAT – Shabbat began at creation: as the story goes in Genesis 1, in six days God worked to make the world, and on the seventh, God rested. One of the traditions of Shabbat is that like God in the creation story, we don’t create new things on that day. What happens at a Jewish wedding is the creation of a new household among the Jewish People. It’s one of the most important events in not only the couple’s lives, but in the life of their Jewish community and the Jewish world. It should have a good start, and for a Sabbath-observant Jew, “breaking” Shabbat is not a good start.

RABBIS – Rabbis become rabbis because they care deeply about Judaism. Shabbat is the holiest day of the Jewish week, and it actually “outranks” nearly all the holidays. It isn’t a judgment on the couple or the family; it is a question of the rabbi’s personal boundaries.

So what is a couple to do?

1. Talk as a couple about what you really want out of this wedding. Is Jewish tradition important to you? If so, get in touch with a rabbi and include them in the process. They will be happy to take you through a process of learning the Jewish traditions for weddings and making educated choices about what you do and don’t want.

2. If you are in the early stages of planning your wedding, talk with your rabbi before you put deposits on the venue and the caterer!

3. If you have already made arrangements that cannot be changed, then it’s more complicated. There are some rabbis who officiate on Shabbat, but you may have to look out of town to find one. If it is actually not all that important to have a rabbi, maybe you have a relative or friend who could officiate. Many states have arrangements for one-day officiants. Any marriage that is recognized by the state is also recognized by the Jewish people.

Please don’t be mad at the rabbis you call who say they won’t officiate on Shabbat. They are exercising their right to observe Judaism according to their beliefs. You are exercising yours as well. You and that rabbi just aren’t a good match. Getting angry or calling them names will not persuade them to do what you want.

Your wedding day is one of the most important days of your life. Take your time figuring out what you really want out of it, and the tone you want to set for the rest of your life together. Your wedding day truly is “the first day in the rest of your life.”

Where’s the Miracle?

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If you look very closely at the heart of this photo, you may be able to spot a miracle: among the milkweed leaves and blossoms there is a Monarch caterpillar!

My garden is crawling with these little fellows at the moment, all happily munching their way through the milkweed. The casual observer won’t see a single one of them. All that most people see are the colorful flowers and the large, weedy-looking bushes.

This caterpillar is a tiny miracle. In a week or so, she’ll find a handy spot to set up housekeeping and make the cocoon, which will look like a bright little piece of jade studded with gold. No one is likely to notice her for another two weeks, when she emerges from the chrysalis stage as a fully-formed Monarch butterfly. Then she’ll look like the miracle she is.

We pass by “caterpillars” all the time in our lives, miracles we are just too busy or preoccupied to see, miracles that are not yet very fancy. My wish for all of us this Shabbat is that we will each have a chance to see at least one such miracle in our own lives, one tiny thing that has escaped our notice.

May this be a Shabbat of peace and blessing, a Shabbat of seeing clearly!

P.S. – if you still can’t find the caterpillar, visualize an X drawn from the four corners of the photo. Look at or just above the place where the two lines cross.

Seasons of Shabbat

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Shabbat experiences are part of our lives, and they change over the course of a lifetime. The Shabbat we remember (or don’t) from our childhoods is not the Shabbat we will have as new parents. Single adults will have a different Shabbat, as will empty nesters.

There is no “perfect” Shabbat. Stop looking for it. Instead, experience the Shabbat that comes. Sometimes it will seem peaceful and holy, and sometimes the sink will stop up or the baby will wail half the night. Sometimes we are surrounded by people, sometimes we are alone.

Shabbat simply is. She comes with the sunset and will leave 24 hours later. In between it is up to us to make of her what we can, what we will.

Shabbat shalom.