How Jewish New Year Resolutions are Different

According to a website called statisticbrain.com, the top five New Year’s resolutions people made for 2012 were:

  1. Lose Weight
  2. Get Organized
  3. Spend Less, Save More
  4. Enjoy Life to the Fullest
  5. Stay Fit and Healthy

When calculated for types of resolutions, they found that 47% of resolutions made were related to self-improvement or education; 38% were related to weight; 34% were related to money; and 31% were related to relationships. (The total comes out to over 100% because people made multiple resolutions.)

Like most Americans, I make New Year’s resolutions in December (or, in years that not procrastinating doesn’t make my list, I sometimes make them in January). And this time of year, in the Jewish month of Elul, I also engage in making resolutions.

MeditationElul is the month that leads up to the Jewish new year, and it is the month in which Jews are supposed to be involved in the process of cheshbon ha-nefesh, an accounting of the soul – our spiritual preparation for the new year. It is a time to look inside of ourselves and engage in the process of teshuvah. Teshuvah is usually translated as “repentance” but it literally means “turning” – we seek to turn toward wholeness in our relationships with others in our lives, with God and with our true selves.

When I make my resolutions in the month of Elul (this year Elul occurs from August 7 – September 4), unlike in December, my resolutions aren’t about being thinner, healthier, wealthier and happier (not that I would mind any of those things!). Instead, I make resolutions about how I will relate to my family, friends and community and how I will engage in the world. I contemplate not just my physical wellbeing, but more important, my spiritual wellbeing.

One of the great things about the process of cheshbon ha-nefesh is that it’s something that everyone can do, regardless of their own faith tradition or lack thereof. (I don’t know of any religion or culture that wouldn’t encourage individuals to look inside of themselves and contemplate ways that they can be better people in the year ahead.)

If you are not Jewish, you may or may not be comfortable accompanying your Jewish partner or family to synagogue for the High Holy Days. And you may or may not feel connected to the at-home rituals that are part of these holy days. But you can still find meaning in the process of reflection in which Jews engage at this time of year.

I hope that as the Jewish New Year approaches, all of us will give ourselves the gift of taking time for cheshbon ha-nefesh, for the accounting of our own souls. May we recognize and be grateful for our generosity and goodness; and may we be honest with ourselves about those qualities that we need to improve – and may we seek to do so in the year ahead.

Are you taking time for yourself during the month of Elul to engage in cheshbon ha-nefesh?  Have you made any resolutions for the year ahead? If so, please share them below.

What Does it Mean to Be Jewish?

I love questions that do not have one right answer. They allow each of us to explore the question and connect in our own way. Defining what it means to be Jewish is a perfect example. Close your eyes. What images come to mind when you think about what it means to be Jewish?

The InterfaithFamily staff from across the country (San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston) came together for two days of retreat and meetings in our national office. One of the first questions posed to us was “What does it mean to be Jewish?” In true retreat style, paper and markers were brought out and we each got to draw our own answer to this profound question.

What would you draw to show what it means to be Jewish?

Staff Day

I drew a picture of a home and, next to it, people holding hands in a circle. You may notice that my artistic ability is not amazing. My people took the form of stick figures and I showed diversity by using every color of marker that was available. As I started to think about how to explain my drawing to my colleagues, I realized you could “read” my picture from left to right like English, or from right to left like Hebrew.

In “English,” my drawing says that one needs Judaism in their home to transmit values and traditions to the next generation. Then, one needs a community to share those values and traditions. To deepen the connections and share the experiences. But my explanation didn’t stop there.

I thought about my own family’s history and that of many interfaith households. For them, Judaism often starts with the community, reading my picture in “Hebrew.” It is with this community and their support that each individual family can find Jewish traditions and values that they want to embrace. Often they don’t have the tools to do this on their own. For them the community aspect is imperative. And with a supportive community, Judaism can infuse into traditions in the home as well.

My colleagues came up with so many different interpretations. I’m curious what you imagine when you answer the question, “What does it mean to be Jewish?” Please share your thoughts in the comments section—and remember, there is not one “right” answer.

The Spirituality of Mindfulness Meditation

If someone had told me two years ago that I’d be spending a half hour most days of my life sitting on a cushion focusing on my breath, I would have told them they were crazy!  (Then again, if someone had told me 15 years ago that I’d be living in the suburbs driving a minivan I would have told them they were crazy too.  Fact is, we never know what the future holds or what we may decide to embrace.)  But for the past year and a half I have been practicing mindfulness meditation.

I began my practice by participating in a MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) eight-week foundation course in the winter of 2011, and after developing a daily (well, almost daily!) practice of my own and attending a terrific Jewish Meditation Retreat led by Rabbis Jeff Roth and Joanna Katz of the Awakened Heart Project, I participated in a ten week practicum in which I trained to teach MBSR.

meditateMy study – and much more important, my practice – of mindfulness meditation has taught me a great deal. I originally enrolled in the MBSR foundation course a year and a half ago because I was seeking a way to reduce stress and anxiety, which are all too prevalent in so many of our busy lives. I realized that I was often running from here to there as if I were on a treadmill from which I’d never get off – work, errands, my three kids’ activities, you name it! I usually felt like my day was one big “To Do” list that I was trying to get through. And too often I wasn’t succeeding – let alone enjoying the moments in the process. Even on the days when I did “check off” everything on my To Do list, I usually ended up feeling exhausted and depleted, and not very satisfied.

I hoped that my MBSR practice would help me feel less stressed, more relaxed and more focused, but I never expected for it to be a spiritual experience. After all, I’m a rabbi. I find spirituality in prayer and Jewish ritual. I never expected to find spirituality in just SITTING!

But boy have I learned a lot. My mindfulness practice has taught me so much about the importance of being in the moment – of being truly present in my life. I have come to realize that my mindfulness practice is fully interwoven with my Jewish spirituality. After all, the blessings we say in Judaism are all about being mindful. For example, when I say HaMotzi (the blessing over the bread) before eating a meal, it causes me to pause and be mindful of how grateful I am to have my food, as well as to appreciate where it came from and the human work that went into creating it and bringing it to my table, and to recognize that eating is a sacred act. Or when I put my hands on my children’s heads on Friday night and recite the traditional blessings for children, I am mindful of how lucky I am to have them in my life as well as how fortunate I am to be part of a religion that spans thousands of years of history and thousands of miles of geography.

When I’m truly mindful, whether it’s during a meditation sit or going about my daily life, I experience a wonderful sense of spirituality. In a way, my meditation sits are like “little Shabbats.” Like Shabbat itself, they offer me a time to BE, and not just a time to DO. And just as the beauty of Shabbat can be carried into and infuse the other six days of the week, the beauty of mindfulness meditation has come to enrich the moments of my life when I am not meditating. I now have a greater sense of being truly present – and not just “getting things done” – as I move throughout my life.

Recently, the teacher of my MBSR practicum shared a beautiful saying in class. She spoke of how we are all human BEINGS and not human DOINGS – yet all too often we live our lives as if we were “human doings” and not “human beings.” For me, mindfulness meditation and Shabbat (along with blessings and many other rich resources from the Jewish tradition) help me to remember this and to spend more of my life BEING – truly appreciating the beauty in the world, and in my life – and not simply DOING. I find that my mindfulness practice hasn’t just enriched me personally but it has also enriched my relationships with others as it has enabled me to be more present for them.

These days, on my daily “To Do” list (which is still as long as ever!) I have a “To Be” entry, reminding myself to take time every day for meditation and contemplation. And I have no doubt that this is very spiritual!

What about you? Are there things you do that you find helpful to be more present in your life? Are there religious rituals that bring you a sense of mindfulness and gratitude? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section below.

Is God Taboo?

Many will agree that taboo topics of conversation include sex, politics, money, and religion. We’re guided not to discuss these things at work, sometimes not even with our extended family, but do we talk about them at home, with our spouse? With our children? If you don’t talk about these topics, how will your children know what’s important to you?

Children's Spirituality Quest Set

Children's Spirituality Quest Set

Jim Keen states, in response to his daughter’s query, “What is God?” in When My Jewish Child Asks Me about God: A Christian Parent’s Perspective,

“My wife and I had never really discussed the topic of how we would explain God to our kids. The frequent discussions we had had about raising our children in an interfaith family had left what suddenly seemed to be a large gap.”

Certainly, none of us want to leave a large gap in our child’s development. So, let’s start talking about it.

Answer these questions for yourself: Where does God live? How does God listen? Does God ever sleep? Does God forgive me? Does God hear my prayers? Children are thinking about these things and developing their own responses. Ask your child what he/she thinks. Share your ideas. If you’re stuck, check out the Children’s Spirituality Quest Set published by Skylight Paths Publishing in Woodstock, VT. They are designed for children ages 3-6, but I’ve used them when teaching teens. This set is perfect for any family; it has been “endorsed by Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Buddhist religious leaders.”

Another book you may consider adding to your child’s library (or your own), In God’s Name shares insights from many different people about qualities that they see in God and what each calls God. This book allows the reader to create his/her own connection to God and adapt one of the names in the book or develop his/her own name for God.

My personal favorite is called God’s Paintbrush. In writing this, I discovered that there is now a special 10th Anniversary Edition of God’s Paintbrush. In the introduction, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso tells a sweet story of a child explaining to his grandmother why he likes this book so much. “It’s because it asks questions.” When asked if the answers to the questions were in the back of the book, she explained, “no, the answers are inside you.”

Sandy continues,

“For children to give us a glimpse of what is deep inside them is their great gift to us. For adults to give our children the language to talk about their spiritual lives is our great gift to them. Time and again parents have read these pages to open a window in the soul, their children’s and their own.”

She goes on to share some ideas for how to read and utilize the book to open the door for conversation.

So start your conversation. Take the “taboo” label off God and start talking about God with your partner, with your children, with your family, and maybe even with your friends!

Understanding Our Commandments

We are half-way through one of our online classes, Preparing for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in Your Interfaith Family. One of the sessions is about the concept of “mitzvah,” the word in the name of this life cycle event, “bar mitzvah” or “bat mitzvah.”

Mitzvah is a Hebrew word that means commandment. The word mitzvah is in many Jewish blessings. The Friday night candle lighting blessing says, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, Who make us holy through commanding us to light the Sabbath lights.”

Because of the commanded language, some rabbis hesitate to permit those who aren’t Jewish, who have not formally through conversion taken on the commandments, to say the blessing and do the ritual. Thus, a mom who is not Jewish, who has raised Jewish children, may not be able to light the candles at the Friday night service before her child’s bat or bar mitzvah in some synagogues.

In the session on mitzvot (plural of mitzvah meaning commandments), we asked our class how the parents understood the concept of being commanded. Two interesting comments came up:

“I want to lead a spiritual and ethical life, and in that way there is a sense of commandment, but if someone were to ask me if I’m commanded by God to be ethical and spiritual, I don’t feel particularly comfortable thinking of it in these terms….”

“When I hear/read “commanded by God” what I feel is “connected to God.” Being mindful of performing mitzvot not only makes the world better (animals are being taken care of, kindness is extended and experienced) but also helps to keep me grounded. It’s easy to get caught up in my life, my own needs, wants, etc. I like the way the concept of connectedness helps me to remember others and my place in the world — as a contributor and vessel for good things beyond me.”

It seems that those connected to liberal Jewish families understand “mitzvah” in much broader terms than adhering to the actual ritual or ethical commandments of the Torah, as elucidated by the rabbis in the first centuries of the common era. This should be no surprise as Reform Judaism, in particular, can be fully expressed when lived within the spirit more than the letter of the law.

I would think that liberal rabbis would also understand “b’mitzvotav vitzivnu” — “with God’s commandments, God has commanded us” in a broader sense. There are moms and dads connected to Jewish families who understand the concept of “commanded” as guiding their lives in profound ways. To keep someone from saying blessings with commanded language because they are not technically commanded seems misguided in some circumstances, as the comments above beautifully prove.

Leo Baeck (1873-1956) was a German rabbi, teacher and writer who led the push for Progressive Judaism (which today encompasses Reform Judaism). He taught that God’s commandments can be understood by the individual as boiling down to the ultimate statement of “Thou shalt.” It is up to each of us to fill in that blank, “Thou shalt _______.” It’s clear that the parents in this class are harkening a call for ethical and moral living by filling in the commandments in a broad sense — and this is powerful.

If you are in Chicagoland and would like to take one of our on-line classes (with opportunities for in-person sessions), please register at www.interfaithfamily.com/Chicago. The next round starts in February.

Learning to Pray

This summer I met with the senior staff at Temple Chai in Long Grove, IL. The staff told me about a chavurah (fellowship group) that had grown organically at their synagogue, made up of mostly interfaith families with young children. One request the staff at Temple Chai had heard from the parents in this group was the desire to have a learner’s service on Shabbat so that they (and older children) could come to understand the whole Jewish worship experience on a deeper level.

On November 17 at 10:00am, the Learner’s Service: Shabbat Unpacked will take place, and I will be co-leading the service with Rabbi Stephen Hart and Laura Siegel Perpinyal, their Director of Congregational Learning. We have been working on a handout that will unpack five main prayers in the Shabbat morning service. For each prayer we offer three ways to understand it by sharing the history and background information for the prayer, a brief “instruction manual” to understand how to “do” the prayer in terms of choreography, and a timing explanation in terms of when the prayer is said during the service and why.

As we go through the interactive service, we will highlight these five prayers and share even more through music, explanations about the meaning of the prayers historically, and how we can make them our own today. There will be childcare for young children, but children are welcome to join in the service as well.

In order for Jewish prayer to be meaningful, maybe especially for someone who didn’t grow up being exposed to Jewish worship, several things have to happen. Hebrew has to be grappled with. Most people in congregations can’t translate prayer book Hebrew word for word. Yet, through understanding basic Hebrew roots (the letter core of words), which often repeat and shed light on the meaning, one is able to gain a tremendous amount about the nature of the prayer. For instance, the root for “holy” in Hebrew is three letters, koof daled shin. These three letters form the word kiddush (blessing over wine), kadosh (the actual word meaning holy), and kaddish (the prayer said by mourners). Yet even if one knows many Hebrew root words, understanding prayer transcends literal understanding of the words. This is because much of prayer is poetry. So the sound the Hebrew makes and the rhythm is important (this can be understood by just listening to the Hebrew being said or sung). As well, reading the English translation can tell you what the prayer says, although thinking about the imagery and the repetition of words can bring deeper meaning. Thus even though Hebrew may feel like a barrier and a challenge, one can understand prayer on some level even when just beginning to learn Hebrew.

Other ways to make Jewish prayer more meaningful are to learn about the prayers (as will be a goal of this service), to contemplate Jewish views of God and one’s own sense of spirituality, and also to seek meaning in being part of community. Prayer can be deeply meaningful when the images in prayer of peace or shelter, for example, lead us to action to brings these ideals to reality on earth.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the 20th century’s leading theologians, once said those “Who rise from prayer better persons, their prayer is answered.” Jewish prayer can feel mysterious, boring, antiquated, and removed from what we know and understand today. Yet it can also elevate, inspire, and connect us. I hope those of you in Chicagoland will join us for a lively and upbeat prayer experience on November 17.

Life Cycle Innovations

A couple recent articles relating to Jewish life-cycle events caught my eye.

For starters, via Jewschool we learned about a  Wall Street Journal piece looking at birth ceremonies. Specifically:

Manhattan lawyer [Epstein] recently asked New York federal judge Kimba Wood to grant him a day’s reprieve in a criminal trial to attend the bris of his grandson. Epstein’s daughter has not yet given birth — so he doesn’t yet know the sex of the baby. But Epstein wanted to give Judge Wood ample notice to consider his request, given that his daughter’s due date is Dec. 3, smack in the middle of the scheduled trial.

So Epstein was stuck in the slightly awkward position of asking Judge Wood for a day off if, in fact, the baby turns out to be a boy. If it’s a girl, well, no bris, no day off needed.

Wrote Epstein, in this letter filed with the court on Thursday:

“Should the child be a girl, not much will happen in the way of public celebration. Some may even be disappointed, but will do their best to conceal this by saying, ‘as long as it’s a healthy baby.’ … However, should the baby be a boy, then hoo hah! Hordes of friends and  family will arrive … for the joyous celebration … known as the bris. … My presence at the bris is not strictly commanded, although my absence will never be forgotten by those that matter.”

Judge Wood, in a note written at the bottom of the letter, granted the request. But she did Epstein one better. Wrote Wood:

“Mr. Epstein will be permitted to attend the bris, in the joyous event that a son is born. But the Court would like to balance the scales. If a daughter is born, there will be a public celebration in Court, with readings from poetry celebrating girls and women.”


Fantastic!

I then learned of virtual bar mitzvah studies via the NY Times:

If dating, shopping and watching TV can be revolutionized by the Internet, why should bar and bat mitzvahs be immune? Parents who once might have turned to their local synagogue for Hebrew lessons and spiritual guidance are now turning to Google…

It was interesting but it’s too bad that they focused on the downside of group learning – or highlighted the ease of individual learning. Learning with others (chavruta especially) holds many benefits for both religious and secular studies.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that our clergy referral service isn’t just for weddings – we can direct you to clergy for all life cycle events, from a baby naming or bris to bar or bat mitzvah to weddings and funerals.

On Perceiving God…

Our good friend, Rabbi-Jamie-Korngold-on-MSNBC-Oct-8-2010.htm">Rabbi Jamie Korngold, was on MSNBC’s Jansing and Company on October 8th discussing perceptions of God with David Campbell, co-author of American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. Rabbi Korngold is author of God in the Wilderness and the Executive Director of Adventure Rabbi, the Boulder-based organization which offers amazing and innovative local and national programs that are inclusive of interfaith families and take advantage of the natural inspiration of the outdoors.

David Campbell did an excellent job describing how Americans perceive God and how these perceptions can shape how one votes. He looks at how the “growing inter-mingling” in our relationships (read: interfaith relationships) also impacts our understandings of God and how we vote. Rabbi Korngold talked about how the Jewish view is that God does not directly intervene in a single act but rather inspires us to make the world a better place. Repairing the world, or tikkun olam, is an essential part of the traditional Jewish covenant with God. The hope is that those who relate to the idea of tikkun olam, that there is a divine responsibility within all of us to repair the world, will keep that in mind when seeking out candidates and will vote for those with similar beliefs.

Spiritual Journeys

An interesting article appeared in the most recent edition of our local Jewish newspaper, The Jewish Advocate, outlining the interfaith, interreligious, intercultural practices of one of our community members.

Friday afternoon he goes to the Mosque for the Praising of Allah on Shawmut Avenue in Roxbury for the Jumu’ah prayer. By 6 p.m., he is at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, throwing on a tallis to drum for the Shabbat services. He returns to TBZ on Saturday morning for Torah study and services. Sunday he begins the day at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Roslindale and then heads to his own church, the Unitarian Universalist First Church of Roxbury.

[Reverend Ronald] White, 66, said he has been doing the same routine for the past three years, and over time he has become more than a visitor at each place of worship. On Friday night during Sukkot, TBZ congregants clapped their hands to the beat as White pounded the drum and shook his tambourine from his seat in the front row of the sanctuary. After services, he schmoozed with congregants in the sukkah before getting on his bike to ride home to Jamaica Plain.

Wow. That’s quite a commitment!

He and his interfaith family are members at Temple Israel in Boston, where his three daughters, who were raised Jewish, all had bat mitzvahs.

Possibly of interest to our readers in the Boston area,

For a class at TBZ, Rabbi Waldoks asked White to draw on his personal experience. On four Tuesdays beginning Oct. 19, he will teach a class at TBZ called “Spiritual Journeys: Sharing Our Personal and Communal Narratives.”

It sounds like it will speak to those of us who continue to grow and wrestle with our Judaism – and those who are in interfaith families/relationships.

Earth Day

Today is Earth Day. Zik Daniel, whom I follow on Twitter,  linked to a Carl Sagan video. It’s Sagan reading his speech, “The Pale Blue Dot.

Yes, Carl Sagan was Jewish. He was also a true agnostic about God, a skeptic and a secular person. Nevertheless, the videos circulating on the internet with his speeches feel intensely spiritual. As I’m still mulling over the experience of writing the Jewish Spirituality Resource Guide for our site, and trying to think about how to talk about these difficult, intensely personal subjects with my kid, I am filled with appreciation and love for Sagan.


See?