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?

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.