Meaningful Spiritual Practices and New Translation of Psalms

I have often felt uncomfortable with the word spiritual. It’s usually used in a way that makes me feel inferior, because I don’t know if my experiences measure up. I mean, I get a lot out of traditional Jewish practice, like prayer and making blessings and doing mitzvot and stuff like that, but I can’t say that what I’m getting is spiritual. It’s a little zap or zing of feeling, something emotional, but maybe that’s not spiritual? I don’t know. I also get a little thrill reading poetry or listening to religious music in other traditions, like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or Mavis Staples–but is that a spiritual thrill?

Nevertheless, I wrote a Jewish Spirituality Resource Guide for our site, after about three months of research and introspection–and kvetching. (The kvetching was surprisingly fruitful, if utterly unspiritual, because people responded with their insights in the face of my whining.) I thought a lot about how interfaith families have unique opportunities for hiddur mitzvah, making the performance of commandments extra beautiful and excellent.

After I wrote my piece, I found this blog post on jewsbychoice.org, Three Meaningful Spiritual Practices for Rural Isolated Jews. I love this! The practices that I chose for my guide were very community-based ones, and I am so happy to see something about how to find something meaningful on your own.

Another nifty thing I came across after I wrote my guide was Pam Greenberg’s The Complete Psalms: The Book of Prayer Songs in a New Translation. I’m friendly with Pam and really excited about this new edition, which becomes available today. You can read and hear an interview with Pam on the pbs.org website. Psalms are a really important part of Jewish (and many Christian!) worship services, so a new translation that gives a chance to rethink them is very exciting. (Plus I’m so stoked to realize I watched Pam working on this at the Diesel Cafe! That’s just nifty, you know?)

I’d love to hear from you about your meaningful spiritual practices.

No More Rubber Cement!

This is amazing. I knew something like this was going to be invented, but I’m still blown away. IFF’s partner and friend, BBYO (the organization formerly known as Prince –no, sorry  Bnai Brith Youth Organization) sent out a press release about their new resource, buildaprayer.org. It’s a website where people can put together their own Jewish services out of the traditional liturgy, meeting the needs of the people who will be there.

I started making a sample service on the site, just so I would know how it works. (I didn’t print out, because the last thing I need is to have to find a respectful way to dispose of paper with the divine name printed on it.) Right now they have four choices: Friday evening, Saturday morning, Saturday evening services and Grace after Meals. As you may know, there are set prayers in Hebrew for different occasions–these are the ones that youth group members need the most frequently. You can choose a traditional service or only components of it to build your own custom service–Hebrew prayers, with translation or transliteration, with two choices of layout of the components and places to insert other introductory or inspirational texts.

If, like me, you used to participate in Reform youth group services back in the dark ages before personal computers were common, you know that we did, in fact, use actual scissors and rubber cement to lay out services with these components.

Now, it’s true that this site doesn’t give you the opportunity to change the Hebrew liturgy. You can’t paste a text from the Talmud into the Psalms, as we sometimes do at my Havurah. But for knowledgeable Jews in interfaith families who are planning a bar or bat mitzvah or a wedding and want to make sure that their non-Jewish relatives and friends understand the service? This is a fantastic tool. There are also impressive resources on the site for learning more about the history and meaning of Jewish liturgy.

We already love BBYO around here. Check out this great article, Teenagers In Love which shows how enthusiastic teens from interfaith families feel about the youth movement. This buildaprayer.org site is such a nifty resource that I would be excited about it even if we didn’t already think BBYO was awesome–go look! 

Perfect Book for the Days of Awe

I love how some people want to generously include the whole world in their greetings on Rosh Hashanah. It makes me smile to see people greet each other on person and on the internet.

Now we’re in the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur called the Days of Awe. The traditional greeting for this period is “Gamar Hatimah Tovah,” a good completion of being sealed (in the book of life. Of course it’s also more than OK to keep saying “Happy New Year.”)  It’s during this period when people often take the opportunity to repair their relationships with one another.

One book that I’ve been enjoying in the last couple of weeks is Dawn Light by Diane Ackerman. It’s a book of essays about rising early to see the sunrise, and what other things in the natural world Ackerman was able to observe. She is the author of A Natural History of the Senses, a book that made a big impression on me, and the bestselling history book about Poland during the Second World War, The Zookeeper’s Wife. Ackerman writes about getting up early and observing the natural world. She does an excellent job of including Jewish spiritual and cultural practices in world cultural contexts, and the way she, as a seemingly non-religious person, is respectful of religion as a human artifact in general.

I liked the essay in which she repeats all the Hebrew names of Venus, the dawn star.

The book is just right for this time of year. It’s not about God or sin, but it is about wonder and awe, and to some extent about how life is ephemeral. She addresses a friend, a poet who died suddenly:

We all died last night, as we do every night. Waking is always a resurrection after what might have been death. What would dawn have been like, had you awakened? It would have sung through your bones. All I can do this morning is let it sing through mine.

That reminded me of the first prayer in the Jewish liturgy in the morning, “I am grateful to you, Living God, for restoring my soul in Your great faithfulness.” It’s a great book to be reading now, with the themes of this season in mind.

New Parenting Resource in Time for Shavuot

This Thursday evening is the beginning of Shavuot, the Jewish holiday when we celebrate the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. It is actually quite a fun holiday. One tradition for the holiday is to stay up all night studying Torah at a community event called the Tikkun Leil Shavuot. There is also a custom to eat dairy food on this holiday. One reason I’ve heard for this custom is that prior to the giving of the Torah, the Jewish people did not know the kosher laws. Once they learned them, they realized that they weren’t eating meat properly, so they had to eat meatless meals. Perhaps that’s why we eat dairy meals today.

This year I am struggling with how to make this holiday meaningful for my family. I do not have the energy to stay up all night and I certainly don’t want to give my two year old son any such idea! So far, I am planning to retell him the story of Ruth and Naomi, which is chanted on Shavuot morning at the synagogue. We will make a lasagna and chocolate milk together. We are also going to our neighbors for a dairy dinner. Other great ideas for Shavuot with children are available on Jewish Everyday website.

I was recently introduced to Jewish Everyday and its creator, the Bible Belt Balabusta. I am much impressed with its multi-denominational approach and the way it offers ideas from different bloggers and Jewish organizations — including ours — on how to introduce Jewish living to your children not only on Shabbat and holidays, but every day. I have already book marked it.