Torah of the earth

 

Adamah, v’shamayim, chom ha’esh, tzlil hamayim

Ani margish zot begufi, beruchi, v’nishmati

Earth, sky, heat of fire, sound of water

I can feel it in my body, in my spirit, in my soul

“Adamah v’shamayim” was a favorite song of Adam’s. Often, we’d sing it in the mornings during our Avodat Lev (“service of the heart”) meetings between more traditional prayers, English songs, meditations, and other activities. We’d sing it at other times, too, sometimes spontaneously, like when a group of us was walking from one side of the farm to the other. It’s a good one because it’s sung call and response style—somebody would shout out “Adamah!” and we’d all echo back “Adamah,” followed by “V’shamayim!” (“V’shamayim”)—up until “Ani margish zot…” which is sung all together (often, the Hebrew for that bit would escape us). It’s also a good song in that it weaves together several of Urban Adamah’s central philosophical pillars or themes—Judaism, relationship with the Earth, and even, I’d say, mindfulness, in the way that it centers an awareness of the body and spirit. The song is one that’s become very popular among organizations like Urban Adamah, including Jewish summer camps and wilderness programs. There’s a flavor of newness to “Adamah v’shamayim,” as well as to the Jewish sustainability/environmentalist movement as a whole, but as Urban Adamah and other organizations (Wilderness Torah, also based out of Berkeley, and Hazon are just two that come to mind) are quick to point out, the roots of such thinking are deep, reaching back to the very beginnings of the tradition.

Tree

One need look no further than scripture to identify the deep-seated relationship between Judaism and the natural world. While in the modern imagination the Jewish people are typically represented as bookish city folk, our heritage is truly in the land. It was in the wilderness, after all, that many of our prophets and forbearers were tested and came to experience divine revelations. Wild spaces provide much of the backdrop of the stories found in the Bible and in some ways take on a character of their own. In many ways, it is through their relationship towards and struggle with natural places that the Israelites of the Bible are defined—their journey through the desert and dependence on the water of Miriam’s well, their waiting for Moses as the foot of Mount Sinai. God and Their qualities are often represented as or through natural phenomena: as a clap of thunder, the source of a great flood, or, among other examples, a burning bush.

The burning bush is one of the most iconic images from all of the Five Books of Moses. It’s captivating for a number of reasons, among them its paradoxical quality. It’s a bush that constantly burns and yet is never consumed by flames. It’s also a bush that apparently speaks, or at least has a voice emanating from it. While found in nature—in the deep wilderness, in fact—and consisting of natural elements, the bush has also been touched by the divine, is itself an element of Moses’ personal encounter with divinity. To me, this represents a certain acknowledgement of the intersection between nature and divinity, a wink to the idea that nature is itself divine, or at least can be. It also seems important to me that, in order to have this experience, Moses himself had to trek out far into nature, leaving far behind the human settlement that was his home. Of course, the timing could have just been happenstance—it could be that God was planning to deliver this message to Moses at that certain time no matter where in the world he was. But in the Torah, we’ve been taught to think, nothing happens without a reason. Everything is a symbol with some deep wisdom to be extrapolated.

So why the wilderness? Why is it featured so prominently, and why does it seem to be so important in the biblical psyche? One potential answer is that maybe the authors of the Bible felt what so many people today feel—that out in nature, we are more connected to something greater and deeper than that which we have access to in crowded urban centers. Another answer—which doesn’t necessarily exclude the first possibility—is that, when you consider the lifestyle of people living in millennia past, they were forced to confront and work with nature on a daily basis in ways that many of us no longer do. One’s local topography and the cycles of the natural world were a part of common consciousness in a way that, for many, they simply no longer are. This is reflected in many places in Jewish tradition, from the way we tell time to the blessings we say and even to our holidays.

As I wrote about in my last post, the moon governs Jewish time. Our calendar is lunar, with every month beginning with the new moon and following it through its cycle. This indicates an acute awareness of at least one aspect of the natural universe, one which was thought of as being important enough to sanctify with its own holiday, Rosh Chodesh. But nature-consciousness can be found in other aspects of Jewish practice, as well. For instance, the Shema Yisrael prayer, the daily recitation of which is considered among the most important elements of Jewish practice, is, in part, a prayer for rain, when you look at the full text of it, including Deuteronomy 11:14. Then, of course, there are all of the holidays we celebrate, many of which have deep agricultural roots. Sukkot is the most obvious to trace—as a late Fall holiday, it served on one hand as the major harvest festival for the Jewish people while also, on the other, serving to commemorate God’s protection of the Israelites during their forty-year trek through the desert. Many of the other major holidays have agricultural significance to them, as well. Passover, for instance, while commonly celebrated as a commemoration of the Jews’ flight from Egypt, is also a spring festival acknowledging “the lambing of the flocks and the harvesting of barley,” which was the first cereal crop to return in spring (Waskow 137).

This is all to say that the Jews of ancient times were attuned to the natural world, partially because of their dependence on it and partially due to the awe and wonder that it inspired in them. The growth of a Jewish sustainability movement and of “nature-based” Judaism in modern times can be seen as a revitalization of that. Such revitalization seems necessary to me in a world that by the day inches closer towards total environmental collapse and for a Judaism that continues to question its role in that world and how best to assert its own unique identity in it.

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Rosh Chodesh

 

Moonlight slanting

through the bamboo grove;

a cuckoo crying.

“Moonlight slanting,” Matsuo Busho

Rosh Chodesh is a monthly holiday acknowledging the arrival of the New Moon and marking the beginning of a new month in the Jewish calendar (“Rosh” means “head” and is the same as in “Rosh Hashanah,” the new—or “head of the”—year). It serves as one among many signals of Judaism’s ancient relationship with the natural rhythms of the world and is one of the rare traditional Jewish observances that is thought of as being particularly linked to women and femininity due to the common association between women and the moon. For many observant Jews throughout history, Rosh Chodesh has been recognized as something like a bonus Sabbath for women—a time when they are to rest and do no work. In contemporary times, Jewish feminists have revitalized the observance of Rosh Chodesh, creating new traditions centered around the roles and experiences of women within Jewish communities (Waskow 229). On our last Tuesday together in Berkeley, a group of other Fellows and I decided to put on our own Rosh Chodesh service, pulling from a model created by one such Jewish feminist organization, the Women of the Wall. Already in this contemporary moment of Judaism, one can observe the transition of newly-minted ritual turning into intergenerational tradition. In observing Rosh Chodesh together and doing so of our own volition, without the facilitation of Urban Adamah or anyone outside of the group, it felt like we were engaging in something special and important, like we—as young Jews and as young Jewish feminists—were in some small way doing our part to seal together the future and the past of our tradition and to mark it with our own imprint. And for me, it was very special to do it in a context that observed and honored the moon.

What’s the deal with the moon, anyway? Why, of all symbols, is that the one that comes to the fore on Rosh Chodesh? The most obvious answer is, of course, that Jews, like many ancient societies, mark time in accordance with the moon, following a lunar calendar as opposed to a solar calendar such as the Gregorian system. Since each month begins with a new moon, and the Jews saw it fit to acknowledge the beginning of the months with a holiday, it’s only natural that the moon became involved with that ritual observation. But, of course, the rabbis saw fit to come up with a better story than that.

According to Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s appendix on the moon in his book, Seasons of Our Joy, which provides an overview of the major Jewish holidays, there is a story within Jewish folklore that maintains that when God created the Sun and the Moon, They made a mistake in “diminishing” the light of the moon to the benefit of the sun. In acknowledging this mistake, God gave the Moon Rosh Chodesh as a form of compensation, and a promise that Her light would one day be restored. Many have interpreted—somewhat paternalistically, I’d say—this fable as having to do with the role of women within traditional Jewish societies, the idea being that the sleight dealt to the Moon represents the “diminished” position of women in society, with God’s promise representing the promise of a perfect, future world in which misogyny and patriarchy have been eliminated, and women have been “restored” to their proper place as equals among men (Waskow 229). To me, this interpretation of the myth seems problematic, not because women and femmes haven’t experienced injustice throughout the course of history, including Jewish history, but because of the insinuation that this has resulted in them being “diminished” such that they can only be restored through some outside force, through the hand of God, who in much of the common imagination is represented as a man.

What I do find useful and interesting about the story is probably its most controversial facet: this idea that God—a supposedly perfect, divine “being”—could have somehow made a mistake. Given God’s supposed omnipotence and righteousness, divine mishaps should theoretically not be possible. But when interpreted through a kabbalistic lens, the whole thing makes more sense. One key aspect of kabbalah is the belief that the state of the material world and human society mirrors the state of the Divine. This understanding of the relationship between the Divine and the mundane elevates the role of ritual; in kabbalah, ritual serves the purpose of trying to bring together the Divine and material realms in harmony, to try to balance and “repair” both of them. All of this relates back to the idea of tikkun olam—this concept that the world is in a state of brokenness that requires repair, and that the repair of the world serves some Divine significance. This is because, just as there are fractures in the accessible, tangible world around us, kabbalah understands Divinity to be in a certain state of being fractured, as well. Kabbalah refers to an idea of “catastrophe” within the Divine, a splitting-apart and alienation of the various aspects of Divinity from each other and from humanity. While the ultimate nature of God in kabbalah is understood to be divine perfection, there is also an understanding that, insofar as Divinity relates to humankind and approaches materiality, there is brokenness in it as well. In some respects, the goal of kabbalah is then to try and restore Divinity to its proper, united state, and in the process to bring the material world into that same state of perfection, as well. Rosh Chodesh in some ways reflects this line of thinking.

According to Waskow, the mystics of Safed—a major center of kabbalistic thought and study in 16th century Ottoman Palestine—saw “the waning of the moon as a symbol of the exile of the Shechinah (God’s presence in the world) and of the alienated and shattered state of human and cosmic existence. Rosh Chodesh for them was a symbol of renewal and hope” (Waskow 228). In other words, the arrival of the New Moon and the beginning of the waxing process was read by the mystics as a sign of a hope that both the Divine and earthly realms of existence could and would be restored, that repair was as natural as the process of calamity that is so familiar in all of our lives. Thinking of the state of things in our world today, this idea brings me hope, as well. It seemed like impeccable timing, that the last Rosh Chodesh of our fellowship cycle should fall right in the midst of our last week together. As one chapter ends, another begins, and while it is sad to be torn away from what is familiar and nurturing, such change is necessary if we are to go on to brighter things, to realize our potential for creating a better and more harmonious world for ourselves and for others. I’ve always felt an affinity for the moon, a pull towards its dimmer light, an admiration for its patterned fluctuations—it serves and will continue to serve as a reminder for me of the constancy of change, and of moments past and moments to come.

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Engaging with the world

“And God said to Abram, ‘Go forth (lech l’cha)

From your land, from your birthplace, from your

Parents’ house

To the land that I will show you.’”

(Genesis 12:1)

It’s been a week since the Nazis waved their torches on the Rotunda steps in Charlottesville. A week since friends of mine, faces I have known and cherished, bodies I have stood by in the streets, put their physical safety at risk to face off against them. The day that followed was only worse, with a larger contingent of the alt-right marching through downtown, armed and aggressive, chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans such as “Blood and soil!” and “You will not replace us! Jew will not replace us!” as they gave Nazi salutes and waved Confederate flags. It’s been a week since Heather Heyer died and other heroes were injured in the brawls. The Nazis, KKK members, neo-Confederates and other white supremacist alt-righters are, for the most part, unscathed and emboldened. Meanwhile, we have a complicit president and local institutions that refuse to do nearly enough to protect their constituents from white nationalist terror. As fires burned in the shadow of the Rotunda and blood was spilled on the streets of Charlottesville, a home to me for four of the most impactful years of my life, I was across the country on the so-called “Left” coast in Berkeley, hands tied and stomach in knots.

It was interesting, one of the first things a staff member said to me after everything happened. We were talking about my plans post-Urban Adamah, and I said that for the time being I was thinking about going back home to Virginia, to reassess my plans and figure out what comes next. He knew I was from Virginia, but I guess the conversation reminded him, and so he asked me, “Do you know Charlottesville?”

“That’s where I went to school until a few months ago.”

“Wow. Did you know people in the protests?”

“Yes.” Given who my friends are, it seems to me that any of a number of them could just as easily have been Heather Heyer.

“If you were there, would you have gone?”

“Yes.”

He smiled at me and said, “Well maybe that’s why you’re here now.” Otherwise, perhaps I’d be dead.

I guess what he said was meant to be encouraging. Out here, we like to buy into the idea that “the place you’re in right now is the exact place that you’re supposed to be.” Usually I find it helpful to think that way. And yes, I think there’s some lesson for me in experiencing all of this while so far removed from the physical space of Charlottesville. But the fact that my being here means that my body is safe from the harm that some far-right demonstrator might have wanted to inflict on it (and mine less so than others; I’m queer and Jewish and a leftist, but these are things that are harder to spot than the whiteness that so often protects me) does little to absolve the guilt I hold over the fact that I feel like I should have been there and that, yes, my body should have been on the line. Charlottesville, for all of its dark history and problematic institutions, is a home to me, and it’s where a lot of my friends are—friends who are people of color, who are women, who are queer, who are susceptible and who are targets and who are tired, physically and emotionally and spiritually, from living in a place that rejects us and being among people who want to see us dead. In all times, but especially in times like these, we need each other, and while I’m glad to be out here, I know now that for reasons that are totally outside of myself, I need to be there.

On Wednesday we went back to the Jewish Studio Project for another session with Rabbi Adina Allen, this time called “Journeying into the Unknown.” We spent a lot of time contemplating the command given from God to Abram (later known as Abraham), “Lech l’cha,” which according to the biblical commentator Rashi is both the direction to “go forth!” and to “go to you,” meant to indicate how Abram’s journey from citizen of Ur to father of a “great nation” (Genesis 12:2) would be both external and internal, at once physical and spiritual. The point here is that journeys happen on multiple levels—that transitions often bring with them transformation, as well. Coming close to the end of my time in California at Urban Adamah, I know this to be true—that the trip out here and the process of moving through the fellowship has been both a laborious physical journey and a transformative internal experience as well. It makes me wonder about the next part of my life. About what it will mean to have landed back across the country, in a place that will feel like a home and, after the events of this summer, also like someplace new and strange, and about what inner transformations await me there.

In the Genesis quote, God commands Abram to “go forth” specifically “from your land, from your birthplace, from your parents’ house.” As Rabbi Allen points out, each of these three places—“your land,” “your birthplace,” “your parents’ house”—is essentially synonymous for “home.” So then why does God basically repeat Themself? Wouldn’t “your home” or just one of these other options suffice? One possibility is that the repetition was for the sake of emphasis, to acknowledge the severity of what it was They were asking of Abram and to point out the difficulty and discomfort that comes with leaving your land, your birthplace, and your parents’ house. What the passage is getting at here is that “journeys” of the type being discussed—the kind that engender transformative experiences—are difficult, will cause discomfort, and will involve a degree of personal sacrifice. Thinking about what comes next for me and my journey, this has some resonance as well.

I’m at a point now where I don’t know exactly what comes next. Where will I be, what will I be doing a month, two months, more down the line? At this point, I think I’m okay with not knowing. “Not knowing” is something that Urban Adamah has helped me to become a lot more comfortable with than I was before. But at the same time, it helps to focus on the few things that I do know. Among them, the fact that, whatever I do and wherever I go, I want to be a positive presence in the environment around me. I want to make a difference. This can be difficult and uncomfortable, as Jewish tradition promises that our lives’ journeys will be. And of course, Judaism has something to say about being a force for positive change, as well.

The concept of tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) isn’t new to Judaism, but it has adopted new meaning in recent decades. The original meaning, as pointed out to me by my theological mentor, Rabbi Vanessa Ochs, and corroborated by the essay “Tikkun Olam in Contemporary Jewish Thought” on the website myjewishlearning.com (excerpted from the chapter “Tikkun: A Lurianic Motif in Contemporary Jewish Thought” by Dr. Lawrence Fine) had to do with the displacement of idol-worship in favor of the One God of Israel, a particularly militant and proselytizing notion. In much of the contemporary Jewish world, however, as Dr. Fine points out, “’tikkun olam’ (‘repairing the world’) has come to connote social action and social justice work” (“Tikkun”).

In the body of his essay, Dr. Fine tracks the development of tikkun olam from a concept originating in Lurianic kabbalah (a particularly potent and prolific branch of Jewish mysticism) having to do with the “repair of divinity” to the modern interpretation of it as having to do with a “mending of the world.” He points out the stark contrast in these goals by indicating the difference in the way that their “achievement” is framed. For the first, the goal is “dissolution” in the sense of a “dissolution of the material world in favor of a purely spiritual existence, similar to that which existed before intra-divine catastrophe and human sin.” This is meant to be achieved through the elimination of idol-worship. In the second framing, the goal is to “[repair] the condition of the world” through “social, moral, or political activism.” In both instances, however, Dr. Fine points out two similarities: first, that there is some “rupture” involved in the state of things that is meant to be mended, and second, that there is a large degree to which human beings are responsible for that mending process (“Tikkun”). Given the events in Charlottesville a week ago and the recurring tragedies that are becoming more and more a part of daily existence in the contemporary world, I think it is easy to see that there are social, physical, emotional, and spiritual ruptures in our times. For me, figuring out how to be a part of mending those wounds is what takes me forward, is my own “Lech l’cha.” May it be a journey of peace, if not of ease.

Trees

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Brachot – Blessings Part 2: Practice

When the praises go up, the blessings come down

It seems like blessings keep falling in my lap

From “Blessings,” Coloring Book, Chance the Rapper

As I wrote about in my last post, blessings within Judaism are not necessarily set in stone; they can and have been adapted to reflect contemporary societal and cultural needs. In this follow-up post, I mean to touch on how the very concept of what a prayer/blessing in Judaism is might also be susceptible to change.

Our final exercise with Adam during our class on brachot was to write a new blessing of our own and then to find a way to illustrate it. I didn’t really write a blessing, and the illustration I went with is admittedly pretty unclear without explanation. At the center of my page I did my best to write a Hebrew Aleph—the first letter of the alphabet, unpronounced, mysterious, and central to a story by one of my favorite fiction writers, Jorge Luis Borges. All around it I scribbled in an asemic script that I’ve used to doodle with since high school. The idea behind it was that I’m interested in silence and in meaninglessness—in the tension between our observation as human beings of a senseless, chaotic universe and the search for meaning that is fundamental to our nature, and in the seeming unresponsiveness of the void. While it might seem like a bleak outlook, it is in those two places that I most readily and consistently locate my understanding of God. So I’m interested, as well, in the idea of nonverbal blessings, in prayer that is not based in language, and in the potential to connect to something higher through that. One place where I see the most potential for this is in meditation.

Wordless blessing drawing

In his book Jewish Meditation, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan lays out the foundations for what he considers to be an indigenous Jewish meditative tradition, one that is deeply steeped in Kabbalah (a form of Jewish mysticism) and rooted, as it turns out, in prayer. For instance, Rabbi Kaplan suggests meditating on certain Hebrew phrases and Jewish prayers in a similar fashion to how one might use a mantra in Buddhist meditation practices (Kaplan 62). He also talks at length about the ecstatic prayer practices of the Chasidic movement (a Kabbalistic Orthodox sect), linking them to meditation in their ability to produce altered states of consciousness (Kaplan 48). Both meditation and prayer are capable of producing in the practitioner “altered states of consciousness,” and this forms the crux of Rabbi Kaplan’s argument that Judaism has its own indigenous meditative practice. He goes so far as to present meditation as an integral component of many biblical narratives and experiences of Jewish prophets and mystics, arguing that it is the “states of consciousness” engendered by meditative practices that we associate with the “enhanced spiritual experiences… experienced by prophets and mystics.” He claims that it is in “meditation” that “the feeling of the Divine is strengthened, and a person can experience an intense feeling of closeness to God” (Kaplan 38). To read Kaplan is to be left with the impression that, without meditation, Judaism as we understand it would not exist, and that prayer is itself a form of meditative practice already.

Rabbi Kaplan’s view on Jewish meditation is perhaps controversial. Personally, I find it problematic that he insists that Jews stick strictly to “Jewish” forms of meditation while avoiding “non-Jewish” (i.e. Buddhist and Hindu, among other traditions) forms due to an insinuated association with “idolatry.” This is problematic especially given the fact that his understanding of meditation as a white American writing in the 1980’s was clearly inflected by Western, appropriated understandings of Eastern traditions. Nonetheless, his writings on the topic open up an interesting dialogue on the relationship between saying blessings and sitting for meditation, and on the shared goals of both practices.

Why do we pray? During a session with Rabbi Dev Noily from Kehilla in Oakland, we learned of four basic types of prayers that people make: prayers of gratitude, prayers to make request, prayers asking for forgiveness, and prayers expressing awe. During our class back in June, Adam presented saying blessings as a way to slow down, be mindful, and check in with ourselves and the universe. Clearly, Adam and Rabbi Dev approach the topic of prayer from different directions, but I think there are ways to map one answer onto the other. After all, what’s the point of articulating one’s gratitude and/or awe if not to slow down and take a moment? Can’t we see the goal of “checking in” as being articulated by the idea of evaluating one’s needs and regrets, a way of evaluating our particular position in the nexus of space-time? Can’t we see meditation as fulfilling similar purposes?

When I think about meditation and the ways or reasons why I’ve integrated mindfulness practice into my life, I often frame it as a way of getting to better know my thoughts and mental landscape while also working towards the goal of transcending ego and connecting with a greater presence. As I’ve come to understand prayer through my experiences here, I see it in a similar way. Another aspect linking prayer and meditation is their relationships to tradition and community, both practices coming with their own long histories and an intrinsic quality of linking their practitioners to each other in a certain communal bond. In speaking and saying blessings (as well as meditating) with my cohort here at Urban Adamah, I’ve felt firsthand the power of these practices to unite groups and orient individuals within lineages of practitioners. Observing these common aspects shared by meditation and prayer, it strikes me that they’re not the only activities that I engage in that fulfill these needs, and it makes me wonder about the broad swathe of activities that could be potentially subsumed into the category of “blessings.” Two that seem particularly salient given my experiences here are physical work (farming) and activism.

Runners often talk about their “runners’ highs.” I’ve tried (and stopped trying) to be a runner. But for a while during my undergraduate career, I did work down in the stacks at UVA’s Special Collections Library, where most of my day consisted of being on my feet performing repetitive tasks such as putting books away in order on shelves or working with my hands to make cases to help preserve precious items. Nowadays, I’m a farmer, which, while intellectually engaging, also involves a lot of rote, physical tasks. In both cases, I’ve experienced the pleasure of losing myself in mechanical tasks, and the reward of connecting with something bigger than myself. At the Special Collections Library, that thing was history; at Urban Adamah, that thing is the Earth. In both cases, these experiences have helped me to better understand the way that I am constituted and the position I take within the world. Similarly, activism for me has involved a lot of repetitive action (marching and chanting for hours, sitting through long and frustrating meetings that go in circles, learning and unlearning and challenging my perceptions) that have, in certain moments, brought me to elevated heights, helped me to feel more connected to my community, and better understand myself as a body navigating society and a subjectivity existing within the context of history. Perhaps this is too liberal an application of the concept of prayer, but I tend not to shy away from being too far to the left on any issue. I believe that prayer can be a lot of things, and that language is only the beginning.

Blessings artwork by fellows

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Brachot – Blessings Part 1: Language

Baruch ata Adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam…

Blessed art thou Lord our God King of the Universe…

Brucha at Ya Shechinah eloheinu Ruach ha’olam…

Blessed is our God (feminine) which is One, Spirit of the Universe…

Tanakh ScrollsEarly on in the Fellowship (and—hard to believe—exactly a month ago to the day that I am writing this), Adam, the executive director at Urban Adamah, led a class for us about brachot, “blessings” in the Jewish context. The class was comprised of several components starting with a mini-lecture by Adam in which he laid out the basis for why we say brachot and various perspectives on the role of the practice within Judaism. We also investigated some of the language around prayer and blessings employed in Judaism and discussed our own responses and personal relationships to that language. Much of my focus at the time was on the aspects of prayer and the Hebrew employed therein that I find personally alienating, including in particular some of the gendered, hierarchical, and anthropomorphizing language used in reference to God in traditional Jewish prayer formations. A good example of this is in the common Baruch ata Adonai formation utilized in many standard Jewish blessings:

Baruch ata Adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam…

Blessed art thou Lord our God King of the Universe…

While comforting in its familiarity and grounding in its ancient resonance, this particular statement is alienating to me for a number of reasons. First among these are the gendered associations I hold with the words “Lord” and “King” which, in this context, cast the image of a male, patriarchal God. As a feminist who holds the dismantling of patriarchal systems and institutions as critical towards my own liberation, I am personally uncomfortable with such images of God. Second, as someone who does not believe in or feel capable of relating to the idea of a personal God (that is, the idea of a deity that is itself a humanlike being rather than an impersonal “force”), this idea of God-as-Lord/God-as-King (and therefore a male person) feels incoherent. Third, the God-as-Lord/God-as-King formation explicitly presents God as occupying a position above humankind in a hierarchical relationship. As I discussed in my last post, I believe there is a certain level of reciprocity in the relationship between God and humanity as represented by the Covenant; while God to a significant extent exists outside of the plain of human power, understanding, and control, the expression of “God” as a concept is dependent entirely on humanity, and I believe it is useful—and powerful in our contemporary cultural and intellectual moment—to reconstitute the relationship between God and humanity not as hierarchical but rather as being represented by a set of concentric rings. In such a model, God does not occupy a space above humankind, but instead is represented by a circle around and outside of humanity, which is itself represented by another circle formed within the larger God-ring. In this way, the concentric rings of God and humanity share a center (human consciousness), humanity is acknowledged and represented as a part of God, and the existence of God as something that surpasses human boundaries is acknowledged. God and humanity are One at the same time that they are distinct. Neither relates to the other by way of domination (can a non-Being dominate a Being?) but, rather, both relate to each other through mutual connection, by sharing a central point and containing each other in their fundamental Nature.

All of that is difficult to express by way of saying “Blessed art thou Lord our God King of the Universe.” In fact, most of the above is contradicted by that statement, which is itself such an integral part of the religious/spiritual practice of so many Jews. At the same time, however, one of Judaism’s most enduring qualities is, perhaps surprisingly, its mutability. The history of Jewish tradition is one of change and adaptation. The basis of many core Jewish texts—particularly the Mishna and the Talmud—is the interrogation and reinterpretation of scripture. While dogmatic in many of its forms, the sacred within Judaism is not hard stone. Like humanity itself, the sacred within Judaism is made of clay and therefore can be molded. Even our ancient prayers can be rewritten. Within feminist Judaism a vast amount of energy has been put into this work.

In our class, together with Adam, we considered a rewritten version of the Baruch ata Adonai prayer structure:

Brucha at Ya Shechinah eloheinu Ruach ha’olam…

Blessed is our God (feminine) which is One, Spirit of the Universe…

Hebrew is a gendered language. God in Judaism has many names that reflect Their various aspects. The word Shechinah is a feminine name for God, a title which acknowledges God’s oft-overlooked feminine aspect. The rest of the language of this version of the prayer has been adapted to agree grammatically with Shechinah as a feminine noun (Brucha, for example, is the feminine version of Baruch). Eloheinu is the word that translates to mean “our God.” Ya is a shortened version of the Tetragrammaton (YHVH)—another, traditionally unpronounced, name for God—and is often interpreted as referring to the quality of Oneness. Ruach is the word that means “spirit.” It is often used in contemporary practice to replace terms such as melech (“king”) as a less anthropomorphic and hierarchically-based term. Ha’olam simply (if such a thing can ever be said about Hebrew words and their meanings) means “of the universe.” This version of the blessing lends itself more easily to open interpretation, presenting a more fluid and flexible conceptualization of God and Their relationship to humanity and the universe. Personally, I have found it helpful to embrace such linguistic playfulness within Hebrew, or at least to consider it. By reworking the language we use to address spiritual concepts, we can create open spaces for those who might otherwise feel excluded from traditional religious institutions and the language that has been used to codify their mores and power. By reexamining the language of prayer, we begin to reexamine what it means to pray, and thus generate pragmatic, enduring and utilitarian rituals for the contemporary moment.

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The power to create

There is a prayer in Hebrew that goes

Hareyni mekabel alai et mitzvat ha’boreh v’ahavata lereacha k’mocha reacha k’mocha

The Urban Adamah translation of that prayer says

It is upon me to receive the connection of the Creator, to love your neighbor as yourself.

This translation reads a little awkwardly, but the sentiment of it is beautiful: that it is through loving our neighbors as ourselves that we receive “the connection” of the Creator, or that in receiving that connection, we will inherently be loving our neighbors as ourselves. In one way or another, it makes it such that the idea of feeling the connection of and with the Creator (in whatever way that concept makes sense to us) is tied inherently to empathy and compassion.

While the use of the word “connection” is powerful in the UA translation, it is also the source of its syntactical awkwardness. “Connection” is used here to translate the Hebrew word mitzvat, more commonly translated as “commandment.” The common translation of Hareyni would read more like, “It is upon me to receive the commandment of the Creator, ‘To love your neighbor as yourself,’” but Urban Adamah opts for the more neutral translation of mitzvat as “connection.” This is interesting to me because it provides a different understanding of what we mean when we talk about “commandments” in Judaism, and also of how we understand the relationship between God and humankind. Rather than looking at the commandments as orders sent down from an anthropomorphized God-on-high, the translation of mitzvat as connection reframes the concept as useful strategies through which we as human individuals can feel some closeness to the at once transcendent (unknowable) and immanent (all-present) Divine. It generates a more reciprocal understanding of the relationship between God and humanity, one that can be opted into, that is consensual. This understanding of mitzvat more closely relates to my personal understanding of the Covenant within Judaism, the supposed pact between God and Israel (the Jewish people) from which our entire national identity is derived. In my understanding of the Covenant, “God” is accepted as the infinite source and Creator of the universe (after all, that is Their intellectual/conceptual role), but at the same time, it is equally important to emphasize the role of the Israelites and of Jewish God-consciousness in the generation and articulation of a Jewish-specific concept of God. There exists between God and Israel a mutual bond of creativity. For me in particular, I know that it is through acts of creativity that I have felt some of my clearest moments of connection to my concept of the Divine.

SunsetOn Wednesday afternoon, the other Fellows and I went to Studio Am – The Jewish Studio Project where we spent a few hours with Rabbi Adina Allen talking about the intersections of Jewish spirituality, art-making, and justice work. In her introduction to the day’s activities, Rabbi Allen drew our attention to the fact that God’s first act in the Bible was one of creativity—in fact, it was the titanic creative act of producing the universe. The God of the Hebrew Bible is primarily a creative deity. Perhaps it makes sense, then, that in my experience, many of the moments where I’ve felt the most “transcendent,” when I’ve felt a certain power flowing through me, a connection to something higher and outside of myself, have been when I’ve lost myself completely in a piece of writing. It’s those long hours that pass like minutes, when the moon’s high up in the sky and I seem to know exactly where I should be going next in a piece without having to step back and think about it. When the story writes itself. It’s in those moments when I feel the least myself, the least rooted in the world around me, but the most awake and energized, the most connected to the deepest place within me, the place that is so easily blocked out by things like ego and daily life. Even before I started to become comfortable again with the idea of God, I’d say that in those moments I truly felt like I was tapping into something spiritual, something more meaningful than the limited physical world around me, and especially more meaningful than whatever words it was that I’d just put on the page. That’s the thing I’ve come to realize about writing: that, in writing, I am trying to capture and portray something that transcends materiality but am stuck with tools that themselves are only crude, false representations of the material world. It’s frustrating. It’s futile. So too is the search for God. I cherish both pursuits all the same.

The framing of creativity as a modality through which to connect with the Divine also attaches an important ethical and communal aspect to the creative process. If we recall the words of Genesis, we realize that God’s creativity is inherently tied to an aspect of “goodness” (“God saw all that [They] had made, and behold, it was very good.” Genesis 1:31, NASB). One might also look again at Hareyni and remember that the particular mitzvah involved there is to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We might feel a connection to the Divine through our creative acts, but the imperative to “Love your neighbor as yourself” as a part of feeling that connection reminds us that our creative acts don’t exist inside a bubble; that they must, in some respect, be undertaken with a love and consideration for one’s neighbors in mind if they are truly to connect us to God. To me, this strengthens the purpose of creative acts such they are not just an arbitrary outpouring of some pent-up mental and/or spiritual energy, but rather serve as intentional efforts to connect more deeply both with God and with other human beings. It reminds me of one of the most important lessons I received as a creative writing student at UVA, that a writer must consider their audience. After all, while there is much to be said for what I feel like I personally receive from writing, what is the point of making art if not to share it with others? To try and make your reality known to other people and, perhaps, somehow inspire them to connect more fully to their own personal truth? For me, for my writing to feel important, it must serve the ends of spiritual and political uplift. Connecting my understanding of how and why I write to my understanding of the Divine and my particular relationship to that as a Jewish person helps to refine and deepen that goal.

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Gratitude at Urban Adamah

Modeh ani lefanecha ruach chai v’kayam

“I am grateful before You eternal living spirit”

From the Modeh ani, traditional morning prayer, Urban Adamah version.

In my first few weeks here at Urban Adamah, gratitude keeps emerging as a central theme. At first I didn’t recognize it. It was just a subtle feeling I had been carrying around, something I felt when Chloe, our Fellowship director, transformed Lake Anza into a mikveh (ritual bath) for the twelve of us Fellows, and when we were hiking back down through Tilden Regional Park in silence afterward. It was something I felt when, within just a few hours of meeting them, I began to have intimate and meaningful conversations with my housemates, talks which made me feel seen and heard and at home. It’s something I’ve felt every time I’ve noticed a seed sprouting or a stalk growing or a flower opening up in the greenhouse, where in the span of a few weeks I’ve gone from a known killer of succulents to, somehow, a nurturing plant-parent. Gratitude has been with me from the very beginning, from the moment I stepped off the plane in San Francisco, saw a few queer couples, and knew, thank God, that I’d arrived. It just took me about a week and half to be able to put a name to it.

Every Thursday, Kate—another Fellow—and I bike down from Berkeley to West Oakland to work at People’s Grocery, a community garden on the property of the historic California Hotel, which opened in 1930 and by the 1940s had developed into an important Black cultural center. In its heyday, the hotel hosted such iconic figures as James Brown, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and many more. It began to decline in the 1960s and eventually (but only temporarily) closed its doors. Today, California Hotel serves as subsidized housing for West Oakland’s low-income and disabled communities. With its awesome presence and history, California Hotel and its gracious, welcoming residents are enough to inspire gratitude in and of themselves, and it was while working there on our first Thursday in Oakland that it clicked for me that gratitude was the common thread that ran through so many of my experiences.

On that first Thursday, Kate and I helped set up and got to stay for “Flavas in the Garden,” a weekly event where California Hotel residents and community members get to gather in the garden, eat, and engage in facilitated discussion. Topics can range from racial equity and politics, to food justice, health, and pretty much anything else. The first week we were there, the topic, as it turned out, was gratitude, and all of us in the circle were invited to share a few things we were feeling grateful for on that particular Thursday. A lot of people shared their gratitude for Heather, the gardener extraordinaire and sole staff member at People’s Grocery, whose birthday it just so happened to be. A lot of people thanked God for waking them up to a new day every morning. I gave my gratitude to Berkeley, and to Oakland, and I think expressing that has helped me feel closer to both cities.

Seedlings

The underlying philosophy of our conversation during “Flavas” was that the energy you put out into the universe is the energy you attract. While that might sound a little esoteric and New Age, it’s a concept that has found itself expressed in many of the world’s prominent religious traditions. Think of karma. Think of prayer. Rabbi Michael Lerner, in his book Jewish Renewal, writes:

Judaism places transcendence on the agenda of the human race. Human beings need not be stuck in a world of pain and oppression. We can regain contact with a deeper level of being, a level more consonant with who we really are — namely, beings who are created in the image of God, who embody an inherent tendency toward goodness and holiness, toward being ’embodied spirituality.’ Transcendence is not transcending this world, but rather our ability to bring more fully into being in this world aspects of ourselves and aspects of reality that surround us but to which we have become tone deaf. Every inch of creation, every cell of being, not only contains atoms stored with physical energy, but also contains and reflects the spiritual and moral energy that we call God. Much of the pain and oppression we experience in this world is a reflection of the way we do not recognize God in the world, in one another, in ourselves. (Lerner 29)

This path of transcendence that Rabbi Lerner identifies within Judaism sounds to me a lot like a path of gratitude. Gratitude is a strategy by which we can open our eyes and ears again to the positive aspects of our experiences, to the things we want to acknowledge and manifest in the world. The expression of and meditation on gratitude actively shapes one’s perspective into one of positivity, even if that gratitude feels forced or hard to find. It’s not about ignoring the things about the world and ourselves that we would like change, but about transforming the world and ourselves through the filter of our perceptions. A world characterized by positivity is one in which it is easier to move and breathe and create change. There is a political element to this as well. Practicing radical gratitude can be seen as a strategy for self-preservation, a crucial praxis of resistance in a time when the struggle is as all-encompassing, ongoing, and daily as it is today. If oppression operates through a strategy of dividing people and making us feel small, radical gratitude serves to unite us and remind us of our collective power. It reminds us that, even as there are institutions and systems of oppression we wish to dismantle, there are values we wish to preserve. Let us not forget our values.

Thinking about gratitude in this way, something I’ve come to realize is that the dominant mode through which I have tended to relate to myself and the world around me is one of negativity—focusing on aspects that I do not like, that I want to suppress. Flipping that and focusing instead on positivity, on the things that I enjoy, the qualities of existence for which I am grateful and which I want to foster at least feels healthier, more productive. I’m trying to put that into practice. It’s a slow process—I have a lot of unlearning to do—but I believe in my ability to achieve my goals. After all, I have people to help me along the way.

To get started, here are a few things I’m grateful for:

The source of life, which wakes me up every day

My body, which protects and cares for me, and which I hope to protect and care for in return

The Earth, which houses and nourishes us all

History and tradition, which guide us

Fiona and Inana, the goats at Urban Adamah, who bring happiness to all of us here

Thank you.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.

A time for rest

“For in six days God made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore, God blessed Shabbat and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:11)

Today, Friday, marks the beginning of the end of my first week here in Berkeley as an Urban Adamah Fellow. Sundown on this day will also mark the beginning of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest which continues until the following sundown on Saturday. As I’m writing this, I hear the peaceful sounds—with the occasional expletive sprinkled in—of a house full of my newfound friends preparing to welcome in this time-honored Jewish tradition: the cooking of the Shabbat meal, pairs of feet padding lightly up and down the carpeted hall, a shower running. Already, I can feel the sense of rest and ease sifting down like a gentle snowfall over our home, a welcome respite after a long day of Avodat Sadeh (service of the field) at the farm. They say it usually doesn’t get up into the 80s in Berkeley, but this has been a particularly hot week. By now, I think that even the hardiest of us are ready to lay down our tools and take a break.

Garden ToolsShabbat is not a tradition that we observed in my (half-) Jewish home growing up. Although it is a weekly holiday “guarded” (to borrow from Deuteronomy) throughout the millennia by generation after generation of Jews, Shabbat is still a relatively new observance in my life, and so tonight’s Kabbalat Shabbat (welcoming in the Sabbath) holds a double significance for me: as our community welcomes in the Sabbath for the first time together, I will be welcoming it as a new tradition into my life, one that I will perhaps observe in one way or another for the rest of my days. Given the double meaning for me of this particular Shabbat, and the conversations we’ve been having about the tradition today, I’ve been thinking a lot about its meaning and particular resonance in my life right now. In some ways, it seems to me, these three months at Urban Adamah are something like an extended Shabbat, a time for rest. This might seem like a strange claim given the fact that most of my time here is going to be spent doing farm work, but bear with me.

In Jewish tradition, the Sabbath comes with a long list of rabbinic guidelines about what one can and cannot do during that span of time between when the first three stars of evening appear in the sky on Friday and the sun sets on Saturday. This includes things like not being allowed to handle money, tear paper, drive a car, or operate a light switch. As a highly observant Jew, what you’re supposed to do on Shabbat is stay home (and/or go to temple… but don’t drive!), pray, and be happy about it. To many less observant Jews, these rules seem extremely draconian, just another example of how halakha (Jewish law) wrecks any chance of a Jew having a good time. Thus, for many, Shabbat passes by unmarked. But there is another way to look at the tradition, one that is suggested by the manifold restrictions and yet is not beholden to their strict observance. It goes back to the quote from Exodus above about “God [blessing] Shabbat and [making] it holy,” and it has to do with mindfulness.

What does it mean to make Shabbat holy? If the basis for our observance of Shabbat is that we are following God’s example in “resting on the seventh day,” then how, exactly, are we to follow Their example in “blessing” this specific span of time? The rabbinic prescriptions regarding Shabbat achieve this one way by providing a bunch of rules and practices that set Shabbat apart from any other day of the week. The important thing is that Shabbat is somehow different from any old day, that it is in some way special. The other important thing about all of those rules is that they fall under the general justification of one not being allowed to engage in any form of “labor” during that special time. In this way, the proscriptions allow us to have a special amount of awareness during Shabbat—awareness of the day itself, but also (since we are not working and are not even supposed to be thinking about work) awareness of all the things that we usually shove to the side during our hectic weeks. These are things like our family, our community, our God, and ourselves. Observing Shabbat forces you to step out of the whirlpool of everyday life, to just live and just be, and it is in this way that I feel like my time here at Urban Adamah is something like an extended Shabbat.

Having recently graduated and then now having traveled all the way across the country to Berkeley in order to be here, it feels like the time that I will be spending at Urban Adamah is “special,” in many ways set apart from the rest of the life that I have known. As a recent graduate back in Virginia, I felt myself weighed down by all of these questions about what I would be doing next in life, about where I was going and what it would all amount to. There are so many things that I want to experience in the short time that I have, but as of yet, I still have no idea how to go about accessing those experiences. In addition to these broader concerns, I also carry the basic anxiety of how to survive in a world where money is a necessity and things like food, water, and shelter aren’t a guarantee. But being out here, working with the land, connecting with the amazing people around me, and trying to be of service to the broader Bay Area community, it feels like I can let go of all of those questions, at least for the time being. Like I can just breathe and be. And that, surely, is a blessing.

Another aspect of Shabbat which connects to my experience with Urban Adamah is brought into focus in a line from Deuteronomy, chapter 5: “You shall perform no labor, neither you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your ox, your donkey, any of your livestock, nor the stranger who is within your cities, in order that your manservant and your maidservant may rest like you.” Shabbat is not just a rite to be observed by us as individuals, but rather that a day of rest is a right to be extended to everyone in our community, including our animals, our servants, and even strangers in our midst. In this way, it can be read as a call to social action, a call to be mindful of the needs of others and to help them satisfy those needs. It is my hope that through the labor that I do perform over the course of my fellowship that I can help to improve the material stakes of underprivileged residents of the Bay Area, if even only in a small way, to lighten their load a little bit so that they, too, can find some time for rest.

For updates about the PLT Summer Internship, click here. We also post updates online using #PLTinterns. To get these updates please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at @LivedTheology. To sign up for the Lived Theology monthly newsletter, click here.