Writings and musings from Or Shalom’s Rabbi Hannah Dresner
All material © Hannah Dresner
Holy Listening in the Hannah Narrative
Rosh Hashanah 5777, October 3, 2016
There’s nothing better than feeling heard.
And there’s nothing more gratifying than being in relationship with someone whom we truly hear, feeling known in return.
We say that the biblical Hannah, whom we just read about in our haftarah, is of theologic historical importance because she invented personal prayer. The fact that she spoke to God in lament and supplication means that she conceived of a Divine Presence who listens, and that is her great innovation.
In an environment where worship was not based in language, but rather in the presentation of sacrificial gifts, and where Israelite worship was a communal act offered by the priest as intermediary on behalf of the collective, Hannah imagined that her individual plea could reach God, and that God would be affected.
Not, herself, a prophet who had dramatic epiphanal experience, she, nevertheless engaged in what Reb Nachman of Bratzlav, 2000 years later, called hitbodedut, pouring out her soul to a divine listener.
In this, she appeared crazy to her clergy person, Eli the priest, …at least at first glance.
Eli’s second take on Hannah, wherein he didn’t just see a mumbling woman, but was drawn in, to really listen, is a touchstone of attentiveness that this narrative we read today – part of our sacred myth – provides for all time. The priest models the shift in perception that is possible when we slow down, let go of judgment, and enter the story of an Other as respectful witness to their pain.
At first, the priest watched Hannah’s mouth, but as Hannah cried, she was “praying in her heart,” and this Eli did not, initially, perceive. A shift was triggered in him by the poignancy of her explanation, and on better thought, Eli stopped trying to silence Hannah’s dirge; instead, he companioned her grief, and by way of his attentive presence held holy space for her intimacy with God.
Listening to what was in her heart, he was moved past her outward appearance of dishevelment, instinctively inspired to do what a well-educated pastor would do: he responded by metamorphosing Hannah’s expression of her longing into a blessing. As he opened to listen with compassion, his inborn empathy flowed to expression, transforming the cultic priest into a compassionate pastor.
In this way, the first personal prayer invited the first therapeutic listening
There is more to learn about listening in this narrative:
If the priest Eli can be said to have penetrated the surface of Hannah’s appearance of drunkenness or psychological impairment with his willingness to listen, Elkanah, her husband, might be said to have penetrated the surface of her grievance, hearing, with the deeper listening of a beloved, the root cause of her distress.
Upon hearing Hannah’s weeping, Elkanah tried to comfort her by offering to fill the void she mourned with his own tender regard for her. “Am I not more devoted to you than ten sons?” By asking if he is not enough to fill her void, perhaps what Elkana is trying to impress upon Hannah is that she is enough to fill his heart, whether or not she bears him sons.
He has been damned for trying to placate her, as if this means he didn’t respect her womanly sorrow. And maybe his love was such that he just couldn’t stand to see her pain. But is it possible that his acknowledgment of her intrinsic personhood contributed to Hannah’s sense of worthiness to stand, as an individual woman, before her personal God?
And is it possible that with spousal love, Elkanah held his wife in God’s light, and his plea for the root cause of her pain, her sense of self-worth as tied to her ability to conceive, was part of what God noticed?
Elkanah is often read as insensitive to his wife’s frustration with infertility, but reconsidered, with softer-hearted listening on our parts, we hear him, too, crying out. He was crying to liberate his wife from a profoundly embedded social construct.
Eli the priest gives Hannah a second listen, and we have given Elkana a second listen…
And there was another adult member of the family: Peninnah, Hannah’s rival wife, who had given birth to children and whose children each received a portion of Elkanah’s sacrifices when they made pilgrimage to Shiloh. What we know of Peninnah is that she was wont to deride Hannah because of her barrenness, so that Hannah wept and would not eat.
We aren’t given Peninnah’s words, but we know what she sounded like, don’t we? …Or do we?
What would we hear if we gave Peninnah a second listen?
I have a dear friend who teaches this text from 1st Samuel to a class of seventh graders in a Jewish day school. Finding her students too quick to judge Peninnah, she suggested that they formulate of a question they might ask Peninnah so as to better understand her behavior; in this way they would give Peninnah a second chance.
All participated in the brainstorming, imagining a time when they’d been mean…
What they heard, in answer to their questions, was the anguish behind Peninnah’s jibes.
They heard that she did not feel valued as Hannah was valued, that she felt like a surrogate, that she was marginalized by the text, her story not considered, let alone told, and they heard the misery of her need for Hannah to remain barren, so that she, Peninnah could maintain her dignity as the less loved wife.
Playing out their roles in the classroom, “Hannah” told “Peninnah” how she felt: “I desperately want to have kids. I don’t care about Elkanah’s love!” To which “Peninnah” responded: “I want what you have! Take my kids!”
With this, “Hannah” and “Peninnah” moved their chairs closer together.
It was a powerful moment.
Slowly, the class began to discuss how the relationship changed and what was gained when they spoke and listened in this way.
The students felt the women had formed the beginning of an alliance and might be able to help one another as sister wives.
These young teens saw no happy characters in the story, and so, in a subsequent lesson, a support group was convened in their classroom, the circle made up of other biblical characters, chosen and represented by the students, for what they have to offer to Elkanah and Hannah and Peninnah by way of empathy and counsel. Hagar and Leah, the fertile and less loved wives were there for Peninnah, Avraham and Yaakov, husbands torn in their loyalties, objects of jealousy, were there for Elkanah, Joseph the outcast, and Rachel the barren one, were there for Hannah. Moshe and Yitro, the arbiters, facilitated.
Of course, what was most moving, in the classroom, was the way in which marginalized kids jumped in to express their own powerful feelings through these characters.
It is not surprising that such rich teaching on the subject of listening is possible, based on the Hannah narrative. The text asks to be considered in this framework precisely because of Hannah’s introduction of divine listening.
God is listening, and that sets the tone, indeed, the theme, the mida, the quality to be examined and emulated by characters and readers alike.
If God listens, we, who emulate God, must learn how to listen.
Eli, the man of God, the spiritual leader, set a human example for striving to match this holy attribute, reigning back judgment, allowing his mind to broaden so that he could truly hear a woman who seemed so odd, so aberrant.
In truth, Hannah was extraordinary, her revolutionary notion of God drawing the priest, himself, over the threshold of a shift in paradigm, from his concrete role as master of fire-offering into a clerical role based on imagining the possibility of talking to God in one’s heart, and being heard.
Ultimately, we pray to be heard, understood, held, and companioned by God. Forgiveness is part of the acceptance we seek. This, in service of refreshing the relationship.
And we seek the same with our fellows: to be truly known, to be compassionately held in our authenticity, to be able to speak our truths freely and in safety, and to have loving interactions comprised of deep listening and generous companionship.
Seeking and granting forgiveness refreshes our relationships, and we participate so whole heartedly in the work of these Days of Awe because we care; we really care. We don’t want to be alone. We don’t want to be abandoned. We don’t want to shut down conduits of communication. We don’t want to loose connection.
So we take a second look and we ask for a second chance. Teshuvah is about second chances, second takes, second looks, revised hearing, and revised judgment.
Rosh Hashana is a time to question what we think we know, what we think we see, what we think we hear. It’s a time for letting the walls of certainty tumble down so that we are vulnerable and unmoored, acknowledging we may have misjudged and that we may need to ask different questions – listen differently.
And our prayer during the Days of Awe is an outpouring of our hearts, our broken hearts yearning to be held, heard, understood, forgiven, reinstated, revised in estimation, restored to respectability.
We want to tell our truth. We want to be heard on our own terms. And we want to relate, whether to our God or to our fellows in relationships of intimacy, wherein we deeply hear and are deeply heard.
Or Shalom is a family by choice, a beautiful family, talented and generous, and smart, and varied, each in the particularity of our own history and in the individuality of our own soul’s expression. There are sensitivities and perspectives we share that draw us together so that we can raise our voices, as we have and will this morning, in both a cacophony of longing and in a harmony of prayer-song.
But there are also ways in which our experiences and viewpoints diverge, even polarize, and these differences frighten some who hold the community precious.
So, with all the love and affinity, there are things that have been difficult to talk about, like: who is a Jew; like the State of Israel.
We seem a little afraid of confronting one another’s Jewish politics, lest we fracture and loose the dream of Or Shalom, and yet we love one another’s stories and we surely know how to dignify one another’s broken hearts…
(I say this, just having seen 100 positive responses of volunteerism to take care of one another, in the first wave of our Gemilut Chesed survey…)
And truly, is hearing one another’s deeply held feelings about Jewish identity or the struggles of Israeli society so very different from attending to one another’s sensitivities about anything else?
We can make monsters out of the sharp edges of our fears, or we can do the teshuvah of setting aside dogma and listening a bit more deeply to the tenderness of one another’s perspectives.
Embrace of holy listening is, I believe, at the heart of our intention as a sacred community of spiritual friends. For this reason, this month we are embarking on the Or Shalom Dialogue Project for the sake of creating safe space for the difficult conversations.
It is my hope that we are taking a step deeper into our true nature by developing a mechanism for holding one another in heart-centered conversation. We’ll train facilitators and, than, practice our mechanism so that we own it, and can count on it, as a way of convening communal meetings on topics that arise, from time to time, whether in the world at large or within our midst as a dedicated fellowship.
It will be a way of pulling our chairs together, in moments of disparity, not in agreement, but in love.
Holy listening at Or Shalom is practiced by our by our Womens’
Torah Study and by those who participate in our Yizkor Support Groups, it will be a centerpiece of our Shabbat Sheli circle time for 3-5 year olds, and the whole point of “Nechama,” a new Gemilut Chesed initiative, providing a dedicated “listener” to mourners beyond the shiva and sholshim for the full year of avel.
Holy listening is alive at Or Shalom in the gleanings you articulate after my divrei torah, and around the Shabbos lunch tables, and in the resonance of long vocalizations at Chanting and Chocolate that reverberate into the silence with which we follow each chant. We listen as we harmonize with one another and even as we canvass one another for monetary donations.
You have come forward and shared with me that the Vancouver Jewish Community is a place where it is hard to find safe space for a divergent voice. And I believe that Or Shalom has the capacity to become a touchstone for putting love first, respect for human difference first, inclusion of all voices first, before certainty, before opinion, before judgment.
We refer to our synagogue at East Fraser and 10th as the Bayit, our home. And “home” is a place of acceptance and unconditional love.
We are loved by an unending love, and ours are the arms the fingers, the voices; ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles.
V’chein yehi ratzon, and let us say, Amen.
Parshat Eikev – August 26, 2016
What does the Sovereign One, your God, desire?
Only this: experience the awe of the Divine and walk in all Her ways…
What does it mean to walk in all God’s ways?
During the Days of Awe that rapidly approach, we will repeatedly enumerate the Divine attributes, saying, these are the ways of the Holy One:
Gracious and compassionate, patient, abounding in kindness and faithfulness,
assuring life for a thousand generations,
forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin,
and granting pardon…
And our sages teach that just as God is gracious and compassionate, so we must be gracious and compassionate. God is faithful in all Her ways and loving in all His deeds.
As the Holy One is faithful, we too must be faithful. As the Holy One is loving, we too must be loving.
Perhaps we can go a step farther in recognizing that not only do we follow God’s holy example, but that we also have agency in stimulating the divine ratzon, God’s desire to emulate us. The Chassidic rebeim teach that God follows our example, our abounding loving kindness breaking the supernal heart open in an outpouring of compassion that flows into the world on the stream of light emanating from Eden.
As we circumcise our individual hearts, as our parasha calls upon us to do, opening to others in forgiveness and acceptance, with patience and generosity – we increase the presence of these qualities in our world. As we walk in God’s ways, we will experience a world more and more enriched by godliness.
It is through one another that we truly experience an open-handed God, attending to each of us in just the way we need to be nourished and supported.
We do God’s work in the world. We complete Creation. We are the arms, the eyes, the smiles, that communicate God’s love. When our parasha says: “You open Your hands and satisfy each according to their need,” I hear: you open your hands by entreating us to open our hearts, so that we see our fellows and reach out to tend to one another in love.
Parashat Pinchas, Wherein God Welcomes Human Questioning.
July 28, 2016
This week, Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirza, the daughters of Zelophehad, come forward. They stand before Moses, the priest and chieftains, and the entire assembly, at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting and say: “Our father died in the wilderness, and he was not one of Korach’s faction… Why should our father’s name be lost because he had no son? Give us an inheritance.”
The Rabbis ask: Why do they bother telling Moses that their father was not a part of Korach’s band of rebels? And they answer: He was not a man swallowed by the earth; he was a man who died of natural causes – his death was not a lesson. The Rabbi’s say the sisters were asserting the legitimacy of their complaint against the present regime – in contradistinction to Korach.
They are a legitimate minority voice, and their audience, indeed, their request for equity, is granted.
In hearing their case, Moses realizes that this is an exception to the law – theirs is a situation not taken into account by the law; he finds himself unable, in good conscience, to perform as ordered, and he brings the problem back to God for re-consideration. Our Rabbis site this incident as reason for the importance of recording minority opinions. And the Talmud is the rare legal code that religiously records minority opinions, including the opinions that do not pass into law.
Former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon explains that Jewish Law accepts uniformity in legal decision-making as an operative necessity. On the theoretical plane, however, it considers each and every opinion as important, and it maintains the full spectrum of views.
During the process of editing the Mishnah, the divergent views and disputes among the various rabbis were preserved and recorded. One reason for this, stated explicitly in the Mishnah, is that should a later court of law see fit to rule in accordance with the minority opinion, it would be at liberty to do so. Professor Elon explains that there is no such thing as an absolute ruling in Jewish law. Every talmudic case has multiple considerations and although the majority determines the ruling in a particular age, a different majority, at a different time, might arrive at a different conclusion.
When asked my opinion as to why Judaism has prevailed as a religion that promotes human flourishing, I point to this. Judaism is meant to be a flexible, elastic, an evolving framework, designed to provide the proper embrace in every age. And when I am asked why I think that Jews turn away from Judaism, I say it is because some powerful Jews have frozen in fear of change and that a protective rigidity can only feel comforting for so long, then it will begin to feel like a restraint holding us back from more natural expression of the very spirituality it means to contain.
We are mandated to renew in every age, living our Jewish lives in compatibility with the values and traditions of our forbearers, enlivening those traditions and values with their authentic expression in our own time. And I ask: Who are the daughters of Zelophehad in our community? And can’t we have the same faith Moses demonstrated? If we question in the name of conscience and kindness and equity, won’t today’s God be on the side of love and inclusion? I like to believe that God rejoices in the evolution of human life on earth and is fulfilled in seeing that we take life seriously enough to stretch and tailor our inherited structures so that they fit us and serve us well.
On My Mind – an open letter regarding blessing an interfaith marriage
Parah Adumah – The Red Heifer – April 2, 2016
Dvar Torah for Shabbat Hagadol shared April 16, 2016
Our haftarah, from the book of Malachi, ends with this description of the coming of the Messiah: “The hearts of parents will turn toward their children, and the hearts of children towards their parents… Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet to herald the coming of the Day of the Lord.” Malachi’s prophesy is that the era of peace for all peoples will be inaugurated by the resolution of the Generation Gap. Parents and children will turn their hearts toward one another in a shift that has cosmic ramifications.
Ross and I are profoundly gratified to anticipate sitting with two of our three daughters as well as the significant partner of one, an adopted son, if you will, at Seder in a few days’ time. We recognize that the religious medium of the Seder is the open conversations that will ensue as we re-tell our sacred story by way of the questions that will be raised and the answers that will be offered as we re-live our mythic history and its meaning, putting its pieces back together, yet again, collectively re-envisioning biblical redemption as it is relevant to us, here and now.
I come from a family with proud Seder traditions that resonate as the legacy of strictures and ritual and music I have received and have to share. It is a “halacha,” a way of walking the walk of Pesach inherited from my mother’s modern Orthodox German family – as that legacy was adapted by my parents’ innovations, based in their particular experiences of slavery and freedom. For them, this was expressed with reference to my mother’s holocaust survival, my father’s US Civil Rights activism, and his immersion in the teachings of the Hassidic masters whose lost perspective he wished to transplant into the New World, the beginning of Neo-Hassidism.
The wealth of what I have received is turned over, yet again, in the rich soil of Ross’s psychological glosses on the Children of Israel, their kvetchesodes, as he would say, and their upbringing by God, the good-enough parent, and by the extravagance of my artistic imagination.
I have just brought Liberation brand cigarettes home from Cambodia; they will be on our Seder plate this year.
I assure you there were no colored eggs on my grandparents or parents tables, but our family cleans and switches the kitchen, makes bedikat chametz, and then settles in for an erev erev Pesach of egg painting and decorating, on Passover themes, so that (if you don’t look carefully) you might think there’s a bowl of Easter Eggs on our Seder Table… Look closely, however, and you will understand that the peach colored egg with the dots – well, that’s “boils,” and the green smiling one, well, that’s the frog, and the deep deep blue one with the tan colored stripe, well, that’s the parting sea…
Most importantly, our Seders have turned over in the soil of those traditions shared with us, over time, by our family of choice, those friends with whom we have made Seder over the years. And so our Seder becomes, in itself, a product of bridges and joinings with others and their expanded perspectives. It becomes a ritual embracing even more than conversation between us and our kids. It becomes a broader collection of family histories, perspectives on suffering, and utopian visions.
By sharing Seder with friends – family of choice – gaps are closed between more than the generations of our family, they are closed between families, between the traditions of Germany and Galitzia, between the traditions of Orthodoxy and Humanism, between our redemption story and the narrative of our regular Seder guest of many years, Sandra Moody, a Christian woman of color, who brought us to incorporate the beautiful Negro Spirituals Swing Low Sweet Chariot, and Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd, and whose story might parallel ours, but is very much her own, her family’s own, and of a different People.
The closure of the Generation Gap intended by our tradition’s fashioning of it’s most central ritual as a fully participatory familial give and take – all the archetypes present – ripples toward closure of lots of other disjunctions, with the potential to gentle our human connections and strengthen our sense of interconnection.
Living in this new place, here, in Vancouver, I delight in anticipating new fibers of connection and interconnection to be woven at this year’s Seder table. I’ll sit, for the first time, with my beloved teacher, Daniel, and I’ll have the joy of observing the interactions between Hanna and Daniel (parents of choice) and my own children. I will have the joy of sharing my children with my teachers and my teachers with my children in a way I have never done before. And further, I will knit the love I have for my mentor together with the bond the Or Shalom-niks at my table have with our same shared teacher and rabbi.
Hafoch ba, v’hafoch ba. Blessed are you, O Fountain of Blessings for offering this framework – this frame for the inter-weavings of our stories and the fibers of our beings.
I’d like to conclude by acknowledging yet another opportunity for connection, as we gear up for the holiday.
In a beautiful narrative recorded in her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, one of my Clinical Pastoral Education teachers at the University of California at San Francisco, Rachel Naomi Remen, tells a story of Passover prep by a young woman new to Jewish practice, switching over the kitchen of her Jewishly observant beloved. She is overwhelmed, saying: “Rachel! You have never seen so many dishes pots, knives, forks, and pancake turners! It all seemed really pointless to me, but it was terribly important to Herbert and I was terrified of making a mistake and ruining things for him…”
“But a really strange thing happened,” she says. “Somewhere in the middle of setting up things, I was standing by myself in the kitchen with my arms filled with the everyday milk dishes, looking around me desperately for some shelf room. Every shelf was full. I remember thinking, ‘Where am I going to put these daily milk dishes?’ and suddenly I was not alone. I had a very real sense of the presence of the many women who had ever asked themselves this very ordinary question, thousands and thousands of them, some young, some old, in tents, in villages, in cities. Women holding dishes made of clay and wood and tin, women dressed in medieval clothing, in skins, in crudely woven fabrics and styles I had never seen.”
“In that instant I knew that if the human race continued there would be women dressed in fabrics I could not even imagine holding dishes made of materials not yet invented, who would be standing in their kitchens facing this same problem.”
“In the blink of an eye, alone in Herbert’s kitchen, I was in the company of women across more than five thousand years. And, too, at that very moment all over the world there were women asking themselves this very same question in every human language: ‘What do I do with these daily milk dishes?’ And I was among them…”
All of this, my friends, is what Reb Zamlan called “backward compatibility.” We hold on to the essence and we do it our own way, allowing the core value of bridging gaps and making connections that is embedded in the Seder’s ethos to ripple beyond family to link us up with brethren near and far, similar and different. And we grapple with the halacha, the path, in a way that is manageable and that connects us to every Jewish pre-Pesach kitchen and Seder table that ever was and ever will be.
May your preparation and your Sedarim close many gaps. And may we remember that closing the gaps brings the Messiah.
from the Rabbis Without Borders Blog on MJL.com, posted March 24, 2016”
If We Build This World in Love
March 24, 2016
This week’s Torah portion, Tzav, ends with a ceremony consecrating the first Israelite priests, Aaron and his sons. The blood of a sacrificial ram is smeared on an ear, a hand, and a foot. With this, their bodies are sanctified and their sacred work begins. As paradigms have shifted, we don’t mark our own service as a Kingdom of Priests with animal blood. Still, the Talmud debates just how many paces we may walk from bed, upon awakening, before washing our hands, renewing their dedication to serve as God’s arms in the world.
It’s not many paces – at most, about eight strides.
We don’t really know why the hand, ear and the foot – but it is not hard to assign meaning to dedication of our feet to walk paths of righteousness, our hands to help and to create beauty, and our ears to hear important calls without and within, cries of suffering as well as the still small voices with which our souls speak to us.
In this week of AIPAC’s need to apologize for a crowd sucked into applauding hatred of the most insidious order, I cannot help but feel we have forgotten our role as priests tending an eternal flame of holiness in our world. And the week’s news, including Jewish misuse of [clapping] hands and [cheering] mouths, and including new acts of ISIS terror, helps me to understand the wisdom in ritualizing a pledge of our bodies to holy service. Let’s remember the touchstone of Abraham Joshua Heschel, praying with his feet as he marched at Selma. In the aftermath of the attack in Brussels, I see Facebook posts entreating me to “pray for peace;” it just feels too passive. We can’t leave it to a transcendent god; we have to be hands, ears, feet, mouths, hearts, and heads dedicated to serve peace, enact peace, sacrifice for peace, bring peace, be peace.
Today is Purim. God is not mentioned in Esther’s story. There is no supernatural miracle. Her prayer was not a prayer to be saved, rather, she and her people fasted in prayer for the human strength to set things right. Psalms describe God as a divine bedrock of strength, tzur levavi, the rock of our hearts, and it is for connection to this Source that Esther prayed. But, as Reb Nachman of Bratzlav explains, God’s heart is, indeed, a tzur, a rock, and we must warm God’s heart to open with our own acts of compassion. Then, following our earthly example, God’s heart will crack open and we will experience divine love flowing as water flowed form the rock in the dessert.
This is the sentiment of Rabbi Menachem Creditor’s song from Psalms sung in protest at AIPAC – Olam Chesed Yibane. “If we build this world in love, then God will build this world in love.” Let’s not go another eight paces without rededicating ourselves to agency in determining the story of our own unfolding megillah.
Excerpted from Rabbi’s Report, Or Shalom, Jan 2016
On My Mind
As I move into a mode of sharing a written monthly report with you, I’d like to offer our board some awareness of what I am thinking about in my role as the spiritual leader of Or Shalom. I’ll offer some thoughts on a single issue each month, not necessarily for the sake of feedback (although I may ask for this) but, rather, so that you are included in the process of my visioning and discernment.
At present, I want to share on the issue of interfaith marriage.
As I reported last month, three couples have approached me asking whether I would participate in or help them to craft ceremonies for their interfaith marriages. Two of these couples are members: Natalie Grunberg and Michele Segal (daughter of Barry and Amanda Segal). While I referred the couple who are not members to Rabbi Dina Hasida Mercy, my inclination is to participate, in some way, in the weddings of our members.
I want you to understand my rabbinic thinking on this.
First, I am aware of Or Shalom’s communal stance that an Or Shalom rabbi not perform an intermarriage. And I am aware that it is my duty to uphold the community’s stance. I am not thinking to perform an intermarriage and I am not thinking to ask the community to reconsider its bottom line.
From an halachic perspective, a Jewish wedding is the marriage of two Jewish people. In accordance with Jewish law, there is nothing I can do, in my role as rabbi (or in any other role), to render the commitment of a Jew and a non-Jew a Jewish marriage. For me, this is an important fact.
No ketuvah document and no set of blessings under a chuppah renders the marriage of a Jew and a non-Jew halachic-ly valid. Such a marriage can be secularly ratified according to Canadian law and it can have the flavor of a Jewish wedding and the feeling of a Jewish wedding and it can contain the rituals of a Jewish wedding, but none of this renders the marriage halachic-ly binding as a “kiddushin.”
What this means, to me, is that I am free to bless an interfaith couple as their rabbi, as their pastor, in keeping with our community’s commitment to embrace interfaith couples and in keeping with our community’s commitment to ministering to interfaith families equitably – without claiming their marriage to be a Jewish one. Such a marriage is something else, a marriage equally holy, attended by their rabbi, blessed as holy by their rabbi, celebrated by their Jewish communal peers, even as it is not a Jewish wedding.
My participation in offering a blessing at such a union does not make it a Jewish wedding, but my refusal to participate does deny our congregants the blessing of their own rabbi at a critical life moment. It is an act of distancing at a time of vulnerable transition that, pastorally, calls for embrace. Further, my absence, and particularly my absence as an expression of the policies of our congregation could, likely, distance members who are forging new families.
We want to embrace families.
Rabbinic decisions are called “teshuvot” – “answers;” they are answers to specific questions that arise for individuals or communities because of a seeming conflict between Jewish values. The central role of a rabbi, traditionally, is to decide what to do in such circumstances.
As a Jewish Renewal rabbi, and one who is well trained in and deeply cares about halachic process, I weigh the voice of our tradition in balance with the reality on the ground, seeking a solution that is right for the human beings whose flourishing I am called to support in concert with the core values of Judaism.
In this case, what I see is a relatively easy path, upholding Or Shalom’s desire that her rabbis not perform intermarriages while also upholding Or Shalom’s mission to embrace interfaith families.
Further, I see an important opportunity, in this question, for Or Shalom’s demonstration of real spiritual and pastoral inclusion of interfaith couples and families, demonstrating a loving embrace that will draw more families to us without compromising Or Shalom’s communally agreed upon standard of Jewish identity.
I offer this to you as food for thought.
And I hope you will support me as I support our members, Jews and non-Jews alike, from a place of respect and love and from a place that interprets our policy with compassion and honesty.
Parah Adumah – The Red Heifer, a dvar torah for Or Shalom
Rabbi Hannah Dresner
Some of you may know that I am about to embark on my third trip to Cambodia this week.
Last year at this time I had just returned from a very northern province of Cambodia, near the Laos/Vietnam/Cambodia border, where I visited with an indigenous People who live on a bluff above the San River, a river that flows down from Vietnam. The San River is the river that is fictionally depicted in the movie Apocalypse Now.
I bring forward my trip on the river today because of the breathtaking sight of bright red/orange water buffalo bucking and playing in shallow waters all along the river.
I had flown 23 hours to Phnom Penh, traveled another 10 on paved and dirt roads, and then another several by motorized canoe to see something profoundly different from what I know, at what seemed to be the end of the earth.
When I arrived at shore of Kopheak I could hear shouting and chanting from above, and after some quick interactions with women washing clothing in the river, my guide told me that two of the magnificent parot adumot, the priceless red heifers, had just been sacrificed in the village in supplication for the healing of a sick villager, and I was invited to join the ritual.
As we climbed the headland and walked to the raised community building at the center of the village, an elder explained that a man in the village had been struck by lightening and killed a few months back. Ever since, the community chief’s daughter had been dreaming that she would be taken next. The nightmares had robbed her of her joy, had changed her walk in the world, and the suffering had to stop. If death did not take her, the dreams would.
Her family responded to these very real threats to the wellbeing of their child by offering up two of the huge, sleek, broad horned buffalo I’d seen cavorting along the banks as we’d traveled up river – a significant sacrifice. This was a preemptive substitute to the Powers that Be for the life of their unblemished child. And the community joined in support of her – butchering the meat and preparing it, making music. They intended to stay with her in the communal building until the animal was consumed. Even for some hundred people, there were a few days of feasting ahead.
The community house was a one roomed structure on stilts like all the other houses, but much larger, and just in front stood two golden-red buffalo heads mounted on stakes under a large weeping tree that was decorated with hanging “sukkah” decorations woven from palm fronds. These swung and danced from the branches, dangling around the heads. The kills were so fresh there weren’t even any flies.
Inside, the first stage of the feast was beginning as blood from the red buffalos, and rice for dipping, was being set out. It was explained to me that first they’d eat the blood, then raw meat, then, the next day, meat would be cooked and the ritual would end when the afflicted young teen ate the contents of the buffalo heads.
This was the real deal.
I didn’t witness the slaughter of the animals, and maybe I’d have a different story to tell if I had. But as it was, what I felt, the whole time I was with these incredible people, was not the shock of severed heads or outrage that these animals’ limbs had been cut off while the animals were alive, not a revulsion in seeing hundreds of people drinking blood, but rather, astonishment that a community would take notice of the vulnerability of one unsettled adolescent girl and take her anxiety so seriously as to sacrifice in an effort to alter her fate, so seriously as to suspend all daily pursuits and come into communal solidarity with her plight – sitting with her in vigil.
The “sick” girl looked to be about fifteen years old. She was wearing a yellow hoodie and sweat pants and was crouched at the top of the stairs. Upon entering, each person took a piece of cotton string and tied it to her outstretched wrist in solidarity, some tied money to her wrist, indicating that they, too, sacrificed on behalf of her healing, then they took a drink from a strong inebriating libation in a big earthen jug. One very old man brought her a tiny roasted pig which he laid at her feet.
She’d suffered a series of bad dreams and was afflicted with anxiety. What do we do when a teen has nightmares? Help them to relax? Try to talk them down from the place of their fear? Send them for talking therapy? Cognitive behavioral therapy to help tease out what’s “real”? These people took a direct approach: they bartered. They gave something precious because she was precious; they stood by her in day and night; they were willing to bargain with their gods stop her pain!
Psychologically, there’s healing power in being seen with such seriousness, one’s fear perceived as a real threat, not just a trick of the mind. There’s healing power in being companioned. There’s healing power in resting in the embrace of community, and this child was embraced.
As the women prepared food and the men made music, she sat and was greeted with bows and soothing words. I was astounded by the gravitas: how earnestly they took her distress and her vulnerability.
And here we are gathering on Shabbat Parah, when we read a special portion from the Torah about the laws of the Red Heifer. Already far removed from Temple and Tabernacle times, the Talmudic rabbis considered the law of the Red Heifer to be the most incomprehensible law in the Torah and were wont to say – this law is “just because” – just because God said so…
To a post sacrificial Judaism, to us as people who don’t believe in magic, and who care, differently, about the lives of animals, it’s impossible to understand the ancient cultic command to find a perfect red or auburn cow without blemish, a cow that had never labored under a yolk, but had cavorted free like the red buffalo in the village, and burn it utterly, totally, its ashes to be mixed with water and used as a means of purification – specifically purification of those who’d come in contact with the dead.
It is a ritual in the Torah that had no meaning to me, but being in Kopheak that day afforded me an opportunity to witness the power of acting so directly and viscerally to realign, to rebalance, to heal, make things right!
The ritual of the Red Heifer was death removing the taint of death – it’s bright aliveness given to restore members of the community who’d come too energetically close to death. It was a grass fed, truly free ranging being given completely and unselfishly to God, without utility to human beings in life or in death. The ashes of the joyful creature were mixed with free flowing water from a stream or spring and made into a potion used to symbolically reverse fortune. An essence of precious vitality washed away fear of death, altering conditions, so that a tainted person’s fate might become uninfected.
This is not a part of our paradigm, and yet, if only we could believe in such things, or the power of sacrifice embraced at Kopheak. In it’s scale and drama and primal physicality, the sacrifice amplifies our own desire to have agency in protecting our beloveds. What wouldn’t the Or Shalom community have sacrificed to save precious members from suffering cancers and other terrible illnesses?
Of course, I don’t advocate our return to a cultic life. But there are ways that we can stand by members of our community who withstand pain, whether physical or psychic, giving deeply of ourselves and of what we have so that our embrace is one into which our own members can rest when needed. Since my arrival I have heard so man testimonies of appreciation offered by individuals supported in Or Shalom’s wrap-around of gemilut chesed.
In coming weeks, you will hear more about a new gemilut chesed initiative being hatched by Pat Gill and Hariett Lemer and Bat Ami Segal and Ann Daskel. They are working to create a structure that makes asking for help easier, coordination of support stronger, and performance of the mitzvot associated with accompanying the sick identifiable and easy to take on.
We won’t drink blood together or tie money to one another’s wrists in demonstration of affinity, but we will witness one another, companion one another, make sacrifices for one another, and do what we humanly can to wash away fear.
That is my blessing for our community.
For myself, as I head out to a far-away place that scares me a little, I want to remember the value of celebrating with other peoples. I want to embrace the efficacy of indigenous worship and indigenous modes of healing. The sacrifice I did not witness pushes many reactive buttons, and these remote villagers, believing in animal demons, are climbing the same spiritual mountain I am, with dignity and beauty and even with similarities to the practices of my ancient ancestors.
Above all, they demonstrated a communal love I wish for my young daughters and, indeed, wish for myself.