You Asked, I Answered

Sheep and chalkboard that says 2+2 = 5
Hey, I make no promises that these are, like, correct answers.

Two weeks ago, we had an ask the community conversation, with promises that any questions directed at me, specifically, would be addressed in a couple of weeks. It is now a couple of weeks.

So! As usual I a lot, so– fewer questions, more text. Your shocked face.

Apologies if I didn't get to you this time.

First off– coming to terms with the past

How do I come to terms with the past? There is so much I wish I could change, and so many ways my choices then still impact me now. On Repentance & Repair has been so helpful, but my heart and my life keep reminding me how much easier things would be if it all went differently.

This one is big and hard, my friend. So big and so hard. I think we all think about choices we've made that we would love to rewrite, rewind, redo. I know that I do. And then there are the things that were always beyond our control that we have to figure out how to find closure on, which is a different kind of project.

In all cases: We have to name what happened, as honestly as we can. That's always, always, always the starting place. Here's a piece I wrote about an old, painful regret that I kept buried for many, many years, and the story of how I managed to set it free (even if the person most impacted by my choices wasn't here to receive amends.) And when harm was done to us, it's the same thing: We must name it. To ourselves, and to compassionate, loving witnesses who can help us to hold the thing so that we do not have to hold it alone. Those people can include friends, a partner, a therapist, other people– but we cannot hold these things on our own.

But that is also not the end point. You know that I have a lot of thoughts about the what next if you caused harm because you have the book I wrote on that. And, similarly, if you were harmed–there's work to be done making sense of it, ritualizing it, giving yourself space to mourn what happened and make meaning of it and turn it around a thousand ways to understand its many faces– make bad art about it until the sobbing takes over, write pages longhand in a room lit only with candles until there aren't any more things to say, whatever your way is, give yourself permission. All the permission.

And then you have to do the somatic work. Trauma lives in the body. Pain lives in the body. Literally: When you go into fight or flight mode, adrenaline and cortisol are released into your body. And unlike non-human animals who know to run or shake off that stuff even after the immediate danger has passed, we–don't. So our body takes it in– there are all sorts of studies about the impact of trauma on the body, on cells, on the parasympathetic nervous system, etc. But the bottom line is: After trauma, talk therapy isn't enough. There are a range of different of modalities meant to address stuff at the root, but it's got to involve the body, and feeling the actual feelings (even if it's hard and awful and we haaates it.) The only way out, the only way free, is through.

Finding local Jewish community when there may not be values alignment:

Does it make sense to continue attending a synagogue full of people I care about, but with whom I deeply disagree on Israel matters?
I am a [newly observant Jew] who is trying to live [a religiously observant life]. I am also an autistic man of trans experience and live with my nesting partner, who is an FFB intersex man. We are [strictly observant of things like] Shabbat and kashrut, and live a religious life at home together.... But we don't have a local religious community, especially since 7 Oct 2023. I don't know where to go from here.

I would like to hopefully smash some binary thinking. (Obviously first and foremost a community has to be safe for you at bare minimum.)

First, a reminder that even if the rabbi of a synagogue is preaching stuff that does not align with your political beliefs–that does not necessarily mean that every single person in that community is similarly aligned. There may be other folks who are much more kindred spirits than you might think at first blush — and it might take a second or two to find them, but that does not mean that they are not there or impossible to find. Synagogues are often comprised of communities within communities, and it may be possible for you to find yours. How? Well, first you have to start showing up to things where you might be able to meet people. Is there a social justice or social action committee doing stuff? Are there other subgroups within the synagogue that feel like they might be more likely to have folks on your wavelength? Is there a younger folks group — even if they call it “Young Professionals“ or some such thing, you may find some true kindred spirits there — you never know. I say this from experience, as someone who showed up to a Conservative synagogue in my early 20s, as the youngest (by about 15 years) and queerest (by far) person I could see for miles. With some patience and digging, eventually I connected with an amazing intergenerational group of people (some of whom knew each other before, some not), some of whom I am still in touch with today, many many many years later.

Second of all, even though it is lovely and comfortable to go to community that has been built, don’t discount your own power to build community. You can (eg) host Shabbat dinner for a motley group of people–some of whom may be Jews, some of whom may not be, some of whom may be familiar with Jewish practice, some of whom may not at all. ‏ Make it potluck, or do a simple pot of soup and salad and frittata. Or make a vat of chili get some chips and guac you’ve got dinner. Get some wine or juice and challah– bam! Get this going as a monthly thing and see if you can get enough of a community together to get some text study or prayer action before or after dinner (davening first, study after). Etc. Do a lunch! Make it a picnic when the weather improves! Host holiday things! Get creative! Start slow, build.

And then, of course, there is the Internet — it is not a full substitution for in-person community, but it is an excellent supplement. There are Svara, Shel Maala and Hadar for learning, plus Ammud for Jews of Color, and tons of places for online prayer if that's an option for you religiously– Mishkan and Ikar and Kolot Chayeinu and the Kitchen and so many other places....

Lastly, even if you're limited in terms of synagogue options local to you, it's definitely worth checking what's nearby, do a double-check. And even– depending on how the suggestions above land–being willing to consider whether you could ever expand your ideas of what kind of place might ever be home for you. I know how hard it can be when you're in one place spiritually and synagogues that do it not-that-way maybe feel like ill-fitting shoes. But again: if you can find a way to reject binary thinking– especially if the risk is "my spiritual practice is about to be toast because I can't maintain it all by myself like this for much longer,"– it might help in the long run. Maybe you go to Place A for services sometimes and Place B for things that are more interactive and social. Or you go to the services at Place B, even if you feel a bit like Goldilocks in the wrong chair, because it's more of your community in other ways and that's going to be the key to long-term sustainability (and don't look now, but that awful aesthetic/halakhic/whatever compromise you just made is growing on you? 😬) I don't know. Just think about it?

Jewish values??

My question is Jewish Values. What are they, where did they come from, how do they translate into everyday life. 

Oh, phew. There are so many, and they come from so many places– but namely, they're concepts found in the Torah and expanded upon in the Rabbinic tradition (aka the "we read Torah through the ongoing process of interpretation, most especially in light of the Mishnah and Talmud). Some are pretty straightforward– Genesis 1:27 teaches that everybody's created in the divine image. Yup. We should, like, treat everyone that way (even as we debate what that means.) We find the value of kavod habriyot– honoring everyone's dignity– first in a mishnaic statement, then expanded upon in the Talmud. The value of tzedekah, remunerative justice/philanthropic redistribution, has Torah roots, but is expanded upon in the Talmud and beyond. The Torah tells us over 36 times not to oppress the stranger, and/or to love them, care for them, etc– so that becomes a Jewish value. Some– like tzedek, the pursuit of justice, and chesed, lovingkindness, have many deep roots in the tradition. And phew, I'm not even done listing like half of them! And then how do they translate into everyday life? Well, sometimes they don't– that's the honest answer. Jews, like every kind of people, sometimes live our values and sometimes strive to live our values and sometimes miss the mark. Facts. But when we strive to do it, you see people doing everything from showing up for one another when times are tough (if someone's sick or Going Through It, there will inevitably be a meal signup passed around so that people bring them dinner for a bit– and every synagogue has a Chesed Committee aimed at keeping track of exactly who needs love and care and organizing that stuff.) You see entire networks of Jewish organizations doing justice work, and almost every synagogue has a tzedek committee doing justice or social action work, and many Jews– religious or not– take giving tzedekah, whatever they can within their means, very seriously. And so forth. Is that a helpful start? Might be that some of the resources here could be of interest as a next step?

Seven Jewish values for an inclusive community: Respect, peace in the home, in God's image, communal responsibility, guarding lagnguage, love your neighbor, solidarity
Here's one articulation of what Jewish values can look like-- certainly not the only one!-- from the LGBTQIA+ Jewish org Keshet. These posters are meant to be hung up around Jewish spaces, so read with that in mind. (Also "Israel" is often a synonym for "the Jewish people" in traditional texts, fyi.)

Rabbinical school, personal bits:

Are you marked as a spiritual leader in some way by your community? Then I would love to hear how you came to that path, both spiritually and practically.
I’m wondering what it was about being a rabbi that it was something you desired to become?

What's a nice kid like me doing in an ordination like this. Not the first people to wonder this about me! A bunch of my path from atheist-feminist-philosophy nerd-in the mosh pit-to rabbinical school applications was chronicled in Surprised By God, my memoir/atlas/soapbox on some of the hard, complex, messy parts of taking on a spiritual practice.

But honestly, I was watching Rabbi Alan Lew give a sermon over the High Holy Days probably my first year right out of college, using ancient stories to talk about meaning for our lives today in ways that was deep and thoughtful and that mattered to what people were going through, and the thought, "I want to do that," hit me like a lightning bolt. It was disorienting, to say the least, since I was barely out of my atheist identification, and skittish about the idea of Judaism at all. But it was there–oof. I followed Rabbi Lew around for a number of years–services, Torah study, retreats... and became more religious, spent more time connecting with, sometimes yelling at, God– and though I tried my best to focus on freelance writing and hurling myself into the exquisite chaos of late 90's San Francisco, the still small voice deep within kept getting louder– that rabbinical school– that doing serious study of my tradition's texts, and training in the ways of being clergy was just... what I needed to do, regardless of what I wanted to do. The spiritual call was there, and it didn't make any sense. I had great friends in SF, a fabulous life, a thriving freelance career. But it wasn't meeting this other, deeper pull. Hmph. I cried a lot. Like: a lot. I went to LA. It was hard. Really hard. I thought about dropping out more than once. But the dang still small voice (the voice of our intuition, what I think of as the divine radio station) kept telling me to stay. I didn't start rabbinical school knowing what work I wanted to do– the first treasure hunt clue was to go (it's a 5 year program, sometimes 6, after your BA). Eventually I got more clarity that I wanted to work on campus as the next thing, work with emerging adults, but that didn't happen until towards the end of my time in school. It really was about following these clues– "OK, this summer I guess it's time to do hospital chaplaincy training. My BRAIN says I'm supposed to do it in SF, but" (cries some more) "ughhh I guess I'm doing it in LA." (turns out to have an incredible supervisor at UCLA). And so forth.


I’d love to know more about the Jewish understanding of sin. It sounds like it’s quite different from what some Christian theology teaches, but maybe not as far from others.

Here are the entries from Brown, Driver, Briggs, the go-to Biblical-era dictionary:

†חָטָא238vb. miss (a goal or way), go wrong, sin (NH id.; Aramaic חֲטָא, ܚܛܳܐ; Assyrian ḫaṭû, ZimBP 46; Sab. חֿטא, החֿטא, id., DHM in MV; Arabic خَطِىَٔ do wrong, commit a mistake or an error; ii. make to miss the mark; iv. miss the mark, miss the way; Ethiopic ኀጥአ fail to find or have; sometimes sin, especially in deriv.)

Basically: The Jewish concept of "sin" originates from the idea of "missing the mark." Not "you are BAD BAD GOD HATES YOU BADDDD" but rather, "you shot, you missed, whoops." Things kind of flow from there. More on sacrifices and etc. here.

There are two kinds of sin in Rabbinic Judaism– b'maizid, intentional (you knew it was wrong, you meant to do that thing, you did it of your own free will) and b'shogeg (unintentional– didn't know it was wrong, coerced, didn't mean to do that thing, etc.) Obviously carry different kind of weight and consequences.

Lastly– should one go to rab school if one hates communal prayer?

I am a Jewish professional in my 40s, a lover of text and a Jewish educator, and considering becoming a rabbi - but I hate group prayer. Hate it. I can handle about 10 minutes, maybe 15, and then I feel like the walls are closing in. ...I wouldn’t be a pulpit rabbi, so that’s not an issue. But it seems like even the “progressive” denominations put a lot of pressure on group prayer. (Or drumming or chanting or silent meditation, which are even more unbearable for me.) is there a place for me as a leader in the Jewish world who doesn’t like communal daily/weekly prayer services??

Oh, empathy for this conflict, and also must say, this is an excellent time for me to get on my soapbox about how we need so many kinds of Jewish leaders, and enough with the fetishization of rabbis (sorry, this rant is not directed at you at all, feeling some Extra Feelings about the gadolatry* in our community these days.)

My question is this: What is your goal with regards to rabbinical school? Why go through all the tzuris/headaches of five or more years of grad school? What job do you hope to get and what training do you require in order to get it? Or is it deeper text study is what you're craving? Is a MA or PhD in Talmud or Jewish Thought (or – etc) the way? A dual masters in Jewish Ed and MA in Talmud or etc? If you're looking at the chaplaincy path, you could do CPE units without ordination– plenty of non-Jews do. The fact of the matter is, I don't think you'd be able to escape the communal prayer situation at any of the rabbinical programs I can think of– everywhere is going to have mastery of liturgy as an obligation, including showing up to services regularly (or intensively, for the remote programs).

After school, if you're a rabbi in an organization or a chaplain, there's some element of "what the rabbi does on their own time is their business" but even in roles like that– you might be tapped to lead High Holy Day services or even Shabbat sometimes, and certainly on campus even if it's not part of your regular expectation, knowing that you might have to pinch hit is... just part of the deal. (And you can get campus educator jobs without ordination, too.)

That said, the rabbi role is way bigger than any of us, and none of us are masters at, or love equally, All The Parts. But still– not being able to sit through services is a real liability for this role. (In my most recent org job–ostensibly services-free in the job description!–I have guest-sermon'd as a visiting scholar at Shabbat services, led services at conferences, run services at rallies and other gatherings... etc.)

So: At minimum, you'd have to be swallowing your dislike of communal prayer for the five+ years of seminary, and more likely it'd be an ongoing issue in a number of roles. Again, my suggestion is to get super clear on what about the rabbi gig it is that's so pulling you, and try to see if there are other ways to get to that (that may well require fewer years of grad school and/or wrangling tuition, to boot.)

*gadol, literally "big," or "great," can refer to someone who is regarded as a great or important teacher of Torah/rabbi/rebbe, and I'm not sure who gets credit for the word "gadolatry" (+idolotry) but it is perfect. "But he has such great Torah!!1!" is not how we respond to news that someone has caused harm, kids.

That's it for now! More next time!!

Thank you, as always, for being part of this wild and weird project with me. ❤️

assorted sliced citrus fruits on brown wooden chopping board


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