Thursday, December 27, 2007

We didn't start the fire -- the death of a former prime minister

It was only a few months ago that I was writing about what it felt like to be at Dealey Plaza (the site of JFK's assassination). I was so overcome with grief that I felt physically ill. And now I feel ill, again. Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, is dead. Murdered by the same fanatics that have tried to kill her before.

Murder is evil in all its forms. But the evil of political assassination reaches to another level of magnitude. It is a crime against any hope that our differences will ever be able to be worked out peacefully. It is a crime against democracy. It is a blow against every person who stood with that leader. It is an assault on all our dreams.

May it be the will of the Holy Blessed One that people's eyes will be opened to the truth, the truth that we were not created to maim and to kill, but, rather, to seek what is holy in one another. May it come speedily and in our days.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Torah under the trees

The guy in the white shirt in the center of the picture below is me! It's from Hebrew College Currents' recent article about the Oraita retreat back in October.

photo by Anne Meirowitz

The retreat -- and the weeks of follow-up havruta learning on-line -- was a tremendous Torah learning opportunity for which I am deeply grateful, and I would highly recommend this program to rabbis and rabbinical students. Oraita continues on June 16–19 with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (via video-conference) and Dr. Arthur Green teaching on “Judaism of the 21st Century: Paradigms and Practices for the Global Age” at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn.

Natan Margalit is a great teacher and scholar who is heading up the Oraita program. If you're interested, you can contact him at or 617-559-8617. Or visit

(And if you want to read all the blog postings I made that were inspired by my Oraita experience, click here.)

Monday, December 17, 2007

The revolution will be googleized – living and working in a “cloud”

There were couple of interesting articles in the New York Times recently about how Google is challenging Microsoft. One was a personal account of how the writer declined to buy a copy of Microsoft Word when she bought her last computer and instead has used Google's free on-line word processor ever since. The other article was a long analysis of how Google's “cloud computing” vision may be changing where our computing lives are going. The “cloud” is a place where I've been living and working for a good year now and it's made me so much more efficient and has eliminated so much of the frustration I felt before from computing. I invite you to try the cloud, too!

Do you, like most of us, have to work on your documents both at home and at work or even more locations? Can you imagine having all of your documents right in front of you whatever computer you're sitting in front of? Can you imagine not having to carry around disks or thumb drives, not having to email files to yourself, not having to constantly wonder what folder or hard drive you saved that file on? That's what cloud computing does for you.

The reason it's called cloud computing is that the bulk of the work of the computer, including file storage, no longer happens on the computer in front of you – it happens out in the cloud. That is, out in some data center somewhere that you're connected to via the Internet. You don't need to know where this data center is. And it might very likely not even be in one place. Software like Google's distributes the computing work seamlessly wherever its data servers happen to have capacity at the moment. And there's no center or hub to the system, another reason it's like a cloud. What that decentralization means is that – as it is with the Internet itself – it's almost impossible for the whole network to fail. Or, at the very least, the chance of it failing is infinitely smaller than the risk of your computer's hard drive crashing (along with all the files you have on it) at any time.

The best part of the cloud that Google has made available so far is Google Docs, its free word processing program that works right through your Web browser (even Microsoft's Internet Explorer). I use it for almost everything that I do. When I want to write a new document, I just open up a new one and start writing right away. I don't have to worry – as I always had to do with MS Word – about where I'm going to save it so I can find it again. When I look in my Google Docs directory next time, I know it will be sitting there right on top of the list (the list is organized in the order of the files you last worked on). And if I want to find it again months later, Google Docs has a great search feature that blows away anything MS Word can do – it searches the text in your files in the same efficient and intelligent way that Google's Web search looks through the Internet. And I don't even ever think of saving a file. Google Docs just does it for me all the time (saving all of my old versions in case I want to look back at something I did before).

In addition to Google Docs, Google's free online applications include a spreadsheet (think MS Excel ) and a presentation program (think MS PowerPoint ). They all work great and have simple and intuitive interfaces (you don't need to be looking through a manual – nor will you have to take hours-long classes – to learn to use these programs).


One thing that's fascinating to me about this move to cloud computing is its “back to the future” quality. When I was working in the newspaper business, we had an incredibly excellent mainframe-based computer system that had many of the features just now becoming widely available in Google's products. Those mainframe programs, however, were long ago displaced by PCs. There are many reasons for the PC displacing those older systems, but one was that the programs that Microsoft wrote for those PCs could do a lot of things – especially in terms of manipulating exactly how things you created appeared physically on paper or on other computer screens – that the mainframe systems just couldn't do.

Google's products have this same downside – Google Docs, for example, has none of the sophisticated desktop publishing features of MS Word. But the difference between the old mainframe systems and what Google offers today is that Google's applications actually run on your PC (or Mac). That means if you need desktop publishing you can “bail out” of Google Docs and use your PC for just that one more demanding project.

Google understands this as part of a 90-10 kind of approach – one where 90% of your work gets done with “cloud” software and the other (highly specialized, computer-hungery work requiring having direct access to a hard drive, etc) gets done on your PC itself with “old-fashioned” programs like MS Word.

Another downside of Google Docs, at least for now, is that it you have to be connected to the Internet to use it. In fact, as I started to write this particular post you're reading, I was not connected to the Internet. But, even so, I had not “bailed out” to MS Word to write this. Instead, I was using Sun Microsystems' excellent StarOffice package (an alternative to MS Office ), which is currently available for a free download from Google as part of Google Pack.


Why do I care so much about this to write about it? Well, one reason is that I have always seen the computer as a potentially revolutionary phenomenon – something that has the potential to be a force for human freedom and the expression of the human spirit. Back in the 1980s the personal computer was still a very new device as was the desktop publishing it was starting to make possible. Here in the States, desktop publishing was a godsend for many small businesses. But it had even more profound implications in the Communist world where it threatened to put an end to one of the most powerful tools that totalitarian system had for maintaining its tyranny – the monopoly the Communist party had over the printing press. What the intelligentsia of the Soviet Union saw happening with computing in the West helped make clear that Communism's days were numbered and helped put the forces together that made possible what had once seemed impossible – the Soviet Union deciding on its own to dismantle its Communist system and to tear down the Berlin Wall.

It was a revolution. The changes in information technology made it possible. That was the day of the personal computer. Now is the day – and revolution – of the cloud.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Submission in CPE -- the power and the authority

I had a teacher in rabbinical school who insisted that if you wanted to truly become a rabbi you had to find somebody to be your rabbi and you had to submit yourself to that person.

I rejected that at the time (as a dangerous and perhaps even idolatrous practice), and I still reject it, today. But my experience as a person who supervises chaplain students and directs them in their learning has given me a different perspective on the issues of authority and submission to it.

There is one kind of submission to authority that is surely necessary for the learning process to work-- you have to accept the authority of that learning process. That is, you have to accept the potential of that learning process to teach you something and you have to buy into the method that underlies that learning process.

But getting people to buy into the potential of the process to teach them something is especially problematic in clinical pastoral education (CPE). That's because learning in CPE is unlike most kinds of learning that people have been exposed to in their lives. First of all, learning in CPE is mostly _not_ about the usual educational tasks of acquiring information or learning established techniques -- learning in CPE is about self-transformation. That is, it is about change. And change hurts. People resist it like crazy even when it's in their best interest. Kurt Lewin's force field theory is one of the many ways we have of understanding resistance to change.

And, because the change CPE offers the potential of is such a personal kind of change it can involve people revisiting some of the most personal and painful parts of their lives. For example, a person with a history of sexual abuse will have to revisit those experiences if he or she is going to be able to get to the point where he or she can minster to other abuse survivors without either closing his or herself off from the patient or, alternatively, becoming overwhelmed by feelings while talking with the patient. And who would want to revist such horrible experiences? No wonder people resist the authority of the CPE learning model!

The question, then, becomes how do you help students accept the authority of the learning model? My old rabbinical school teacher seemed to suggest that what's needed is kavod harav/כבוד הרב -- honor of the master or teacher. That is, she suggested that students must be more respectful of their teachers and submit to their authority.

But I think she had it all backwards. What's needed is not kavod harav, but kavod hatalmid/כבוד התלמיד -- honor of the student. That is, the teacher needs to honor the student. I don't mean giving the student everything he or she wants. I mean treating the student with an attitude of respect and service. I mean learning to love and accept the student as being made in the image of God and being able to feel compassion for them.

What kavod hatalmid does is create room for the student to find his or her way of accepting the authority of the process and the authority of the teacher/supervisor. That's when the learning can begin.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


Tonight was the first time that I not only loaded a lot of stuff on my Xtracycle (or "X), but that I also loaded more than I ever possibly could have dreamed of fitting on a standard "non-stretched" bicycle.

The load was not particularly heavy (mostly plastic containers and shelving units along with maybe $30 of groceries), but it was bulky. It took a little thinking to figure out how to get it all nice and stable on the "X". I'm still learning how to efficiently load the "X", so it was a good exercise for me in terms of how learning to use it well.

When it's not loaded, the "X" handles pretty much like any other bike and you really forget that the extra foot and a half of bicycle is back there. But loaded it's a very different experience and kind of hard to explain. There really is something truck-like about it. On the one hand, you can really feel the bike sway with the load and you have to expend a little bit of effort keeping it straight. On the other hand (and this is the part that's hard to explain) it feels incredibly steady. It must have something to do with the "X"'s very low center of gravity when loaded -- you just feel glued to the ground (note, in the pic to the right, how close to the ground the cargo is; standard bike bags -- usually called panniers -- ride much higher).

Did I really need to buy groceries, etc., tonight? Nah, but there's a winter storm coming and I don't want to "bail out" of my car-free life (at least when I don't have to actually leave town) anytime it snows, so I decided to stock up a bit. And, in all honesty, I just love to shop via bicycle. . . It's hard for me to motivate myself to go for a ride unless I know I'm going to stop at the supermarket or something on the way back.

Tonight I rode for about an hour (in temps that were around -3C, or in the upper 20s Fahrenheit). That was about the coldest I've ridden in so far this season and it was a good opportunity for me to think about exactly how I need to outfit myself when I go out for an hours-long ride in winter temps (which I hope to do some snow-free Sunday soon!). I'm grateful for this one heavy wool sweater that I have. I just don't think anything beats wool for working out in cold weather.

I had wool on my feet, too. Believe it or not, I wear sandals when I bike ride in the winter. The advantage of sandals is that you can wear pretty much as many layers of socks as you want without the "shoe" getting too tight. And since the socks don't get all squished from being crowded in a shoe, they better retain the "loft" they need to actually keep you warm. A challenge with sandals, however, is the lack of wind protection for your toes. In the past I've stuffed the front of my socks with newspaper (other people use baggies) for wind protection. But, the sandals I was wearing on the "X" tonight actually have rubber toes, which helped some. If it was much colder I would have needed some additional wind protection down there, though.

By the way, if you look at the second pic, you will see that I have my regular day back (packed with my laptop and a copy of the Brothers Karamazov ) on the back of the left side of the bike. After the main part of my ride, I stopped to get a coffee and read the Brothers "K" for a while. Really enjoying the book. Russian literature was a big part of my undergraduate career, but I haven't read any Dostoevsky in a long time. Having developed more of a faith life of my own since I was an undergrad, I'm more able to appreciate all the religious themes and struggles that populate Dostoevsky's literary universe. It's incredibly rich.

Here are a couple for more pics of the "X" loaded:

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Is it the miracles (a Thanksgiving question)?

I have to admit I have never given much thought to the meaning of Thanksgiving. I have thought of it primarily as an opportunity for folks to get together with their families, which is something that can be the source of all kinds of meaningful stuff. But does the holiday itself have some kind of meaning? Is that meaning rooted in the story that's told about the holiday, like the way the meaning of Passover is deeply rooted in the story of the Israelites' redemption from bondage in Egypt?

The below prayer from Rav Zalman would seem to suggest that the meaning of Thanksgiving is indeed rooted in that traditional story. The prayer is written to be included in the "about the miracles" section of traditional Birkat HaMazon, or 'blessing of the food' that is said after meals. The insertion into the "about the miracles" section (which is where we traditionally make insertions on Hanukah and Purim) in and of itself suggests that what we are thankful for on Thanksgiving has something do to with miracles given to us by the Divine. And the content of the insertion suggests the miracle has something to do with the traditional story about Thanksgiving I was told as a kid where poor settlers were helped by Native Americans.

I wonder, however, do we still tell our kids that story? Is there something in there that might be offensive to Native Americans? Do we really want to uphold that traditional story when we celebrate Thanksgiving, or is it about something else for us now? I'm not sure I'm comfortable with this blessing.

But this year, I'm just glad that tomorrow I will have the opportunity -- God willing -- to see my Mom and my Sister and her kids. I hope you will have the opportunity to be with people you care about, too.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Rav Zalman's "About the Miracles" blessing for Thanksgiving

(click on image to see full size)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

21st Century Consumer Man

I don't know if the first decade of the 21st century will be the time that Americans finally wake up to embrace the principle that small is better (a pursuit that really consumed me when I was a college student in the 1980s). But I'm really feeling like a part of that movement right now: Today my reusable ACME shopping bags finally arrived and I had a chance to head to the shopping center with them and my Xtracycle. That's about $40 worth of groceries, etc., below in two of the bags on the left side of the bike. The bags aren't full and I haven't even begun to use the other side of the bike! And, it's also possible to strap stuff to the snap deck above the rear wheel, meaning I should easily be able to carry two and three times as much stuff. Pretty exciting. And the bike handled like a dream on the way home, even with the weight being all on one side.
The pic, by the way, was taken with another consumer good that also came in the post, today. This purchase was a good bit more expensive than the shopping bags -- a camcorder (a Panasonic SDR-H18) that I bought for work purposes (I need to record some of my work with my chaplain students). The camcorder can take small stills in addition to recording video.

So, I am indeed willing to admit that some of the thrill I feel tonight may be the joy of good old-fashioned consumerism (it's fun to play with new toys!). But there is some genuine being kind to the earth in there as well. And, in the small is better department, the camcorder is wonderfully compact (especially in comparison to the over-sized, outdated alternative without the editing features I need which I would have had to use otherwise).

Shabbat Shalom!


More pics of the (loaded) bike:

Beauty at a soldier's death

There was a great interview on NPT's Fresh Air, yesterday, with a Catholic priest who is serving as an Army chaplain in Iraq. One of the most powerful parts of the interview is when Father John Barkemeyer describes giving last rights to a dying soldier. He says it's a painful experience, but also . . .

In some ways it's very beautiful. It's the most beautiful thing you can do -- to reassure them of God's love, God's care, God's compassion at the time of the life where they need it most. So, it's beautiful. But it's difficult.

Worth a listen.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I won!!!

Well, not really. But -- when I read today about the last of the bastions of pay-for-content news on the Web, the Wall Street Journal, finally giving up and going free -- I couldn't help but feel a sense of vindication: it was in a 'past life' now (ie, well before I became a rabbi), but I still remember clearly how passionately I argued with my colleagues at my old newspaper against the idea that we had to charge for our Web content ("how can we just give it away!?!!). With the cost of distributing content on the Web being effectively free (especially when compared with the cost of delivering piles of black ink printed on dried sheets of wood pulp to the end user) I just thought it was inevitable that the only sustainable source of revenue would end up being advertising. . . . And so it has come to pass.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Trauma -- is it catching?

When a study came out recently suggesting that you can 'catch' obesity from your family or friends, it sure got a lot of press. But a tendency to gain weight is not the only non-viral or non-bacterial thing we can pick up from other humans -- we can take on their trauma, too.

Anybody in chaplaincy or the other helping professions knows this. If you talk to someone who has undergone a great physical or emotional trauma you start to feel the weight of it, too. You may even start to develop the same physical symptoms as the person you are caring for. If they can't sleep and wake up in the middle of the night with terrible nightmares, you may start having trouble sleeping at night and might start waking up with terrible nightmares. But how does this process of contagion of trauma actually happen?

That was the question the speaker was pondering at a lecture I went to the other day on vicarious trauma (sometimes called second or secondary trauma). An answer occurred to me that I think might help in understanding this. It occurred to me to think of secondary trauma kind of like the way we think of the fight or flight impulse, something that was very useful to the humans who lived before civilization, but that is now potentially deadly for the modern human who is divorced from the pre-modern context.

Fight or flight refers to the physical changes that a person undergoes when he or she feels under threat. These changes -- including the release of adrenaline, the increase of the heart beat and an inhibition of digestion -- are quite useful if the typical threat one faces is a physical threat: they help one either fight stronger or run away faster.

But for most of us -- for example, those of us who work in a modern office environment -- the threats we face ("am I going to lose my job if my boss doesn't like this report?") are not physical at all. We don't need physical strength or speed to cope with them. But we still suffer from increased heart beat, upset stomachs and sweaty palms. And these can be much more than uncomfortable symptoms -- they can contribute to real medical problems like heart disease.

I postulate that the process of trauma being able to be communicated from one person to another may also have had a pre-modern function that is of little help to the modern person (especially the modern chaplain). Way back when, people lived in small bands. Any trauma that affected one person in the group had the potential to affect all of them. Thus, the transmission of trauma from one person to another helped the group to act as a collective against the threat that caused the trauma. And, therefore, the ability of trauma to be transmitted from one person to another within the group helped the group to thrive and survive.

But that same function is of no benefit to the chaplain of today. We take on bits of trauma from folks who are not part of any group we both belong to. But that received trauma doesn't lead us back towards a change in the behavior of a group that both we and the directly traumatized person belong to.

This all underscores, once again, the importance of self-care for chaplains and others in the helping professions. If we don't figure out ways to take care of ourselves amidst our work, then our work literally can kill us.

What have you done for yourself, today?

I got brake

Well, it's been about a month now since I stretched my bicycle, but only last night did I finally reinstall the rear brakes, which pretty much completes the transformation of my plain old bicycle into a SUB (see pic below for an example of what an stretched bicycle looks like, and, more significantly, how much stuff it might be able to carry).

Tonight I not only did the radical be-kind-to-the-earth-while-being-kind-to-yourself thing of going grocery shopping via bicycle (which I've actually been doing for some years now, even during my years in the internal combustion kingdom of Los Angeles), but I actually used a paper grocery bag at the self-checkout line (something I had never witnessed before in these parts -- a locale where the checkout people most definitely do _not_ say "paper or plastic?" before plunging your groceries into some solidified petrochemicals).

Soon after I placed the paper bag (which I should add was provided by the supermarket itself right there next to my self-checkout station), the young woman in charge of the area came plodding by. She silently looked me over with palpable suspicion and peered into the bag to make sure I hadn't sneaked anything in there before having the temerity to break the normal plastic routine. . . . Apparently, using a paper bag must be on the official shoplifter profile they train these self-checkout overseers with. I'm happy to say that me and my groceries were allowed to leave the store without incident!

Before going to the supermarket, I took my SUB (well, actually, I'd rather just call it an Xtracycle) on the longest ride I've gone on with it, yet, about 30 kilometers (about 18 miles), including a climb up one of the steeper hills around here (with about a 600 foot climb) -- a pretty good Sunday afternoon workout for the likes of me. :) . . . The bike did fine, and soon I may build up the confidence to take it on longer trips.

The paper bag thing, by the way, was not just about upsetting the supermarket personnel. I realized the other night that the Xtracycle is pretty much incompatible with the common plastic grocery bag: Note, in the picture above, that the sides of the bags on the Xtracycle really don't come up very high. So, if you really want to get your money's worth out of this thing (cargo carrying wise), then you have to put your stuff into something (like a box or a paper grocery bag) that has a little structural integrity of its own and can hold some stuff higher than the side of the Xtracycle bags.

But, in fact, I have no intention of converting to paper bags. Maybe I would if they were the nice, strong ones that the likes of Trader Joe's has with the handles, but the ones in the supermarkets here (if you can find them!) are not such premium-quality grocery holders. So, I ordered four ACME bags (see, image on the left) from They're supposed to be exactly the same size as paper grocery bags and they're supposed to stand up on their own like paper bags. I think the Xtracycle should be able to easily accommodate four of these completely loaded plus additional stuff on top of the snap deck that sits above the rear wheel, between the bags.

Below, by the way, is a pic of an Xtracycle with two Trader Joe's style grocery bags on each side. Note, by the way, that this bike looks very different from the one in the pic above. That's because the Xtracycle is a conversion kit that can be added to just about any bicycle. In essence, it lengthens the bike frame to accommodate super big bags to carry lots of cargo. For me, it's part of my pursuit of a long-time dream: a lifestyle -- one that will be kinder to both me and the earth -- that does not have the internal combustion engine at its center. It's also part of my love of things that are simple and versatile. People who know my cooking, for example, know that I eschew gadgets (no garlic presses or yogurt machines please!) in favor of a nice sharp chef's knife, a big cutting board and a big cast iron pan (almost anything worth doing can be done with little more than those few things). The bicycle is one such wonderfully simple and versatile machine. But we Americans too often tend to impose our need for complexity and specialization upon it -- routinely marketing bikes that are meant only to be a toy, for recreation or exercise (have you noticed how many bicycles have no braze-on's for a rack to be easily attached? . . . scandalous!). The Xtracycle is a machine that is indeed a wonderful toy. But this toy is also a workhorse. Simplicity and versatility. . . . Now with (rear) brakes, too. :)

P.S. For a wonderful explication of just how much cooking can be done with just a little equipment, see this article from the New York Times' "The Minimalist."

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Stages of CPE -- Are we pushing our students too far?

At a recent chaplaincy conference in Dallas, the speaker laid out a challenge to the people who educate chaplains and clergy about how to care for sick and hurting people: Most of the people training to be clergy these days are no longer highly educated folks pursuing masters degrees and doctorates in seminaries, said Elizabeth Conde-Frazier (of the Claremont School of Theology). Rather, they're less educated folks (who generally have more conservative theologies) at Bible Colleges. And chaplaincy education -- founded by highly educated white, male (mostly Protestant) folks -- has a long way to go if it's going to be able to reach out to Bible College people and find a way to accept them into the world of professional chaplains, Conde-Frazier told the room full of the spiritual care educators of the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE) on October 25.

I was thinking of Conde-Frazier's challenge this week at a regional conference of spiritual care educators (otherwise known as CPE supervisors) I was attending (at a wonderful retreat center) in Stony Point, NY. The speakers there gave us a framework for helping us with understanding -- and with working with -- Conde-Frazier's challenge: the adult development theory of developmental psychologist Robert Kegan.

Developmental theory has been around for a long time, but it's mostly been applied to understanding the development of children. It has special application to the education of children. It helps educators understand when they are pushing a child too hard and when they are not pushing a child hard enough. If a child, for example, has not developed to the point where he or she is capable of abstract thought then you would be pushing the child too hard to demand abstract thinking from them and they will only become frustrated and discouraged. But, if you don't push them hard -- including making them feel frustrated sometimes! -- to make the leap to abstract thought when they have developed to the point that they are just about ready, they may never make that developmental leap.

Kegan, and others, have worked to extend developmental theory to adults. The conference speakers, who both studied under Kegan at Harvard, said that in CPE our official standards, in effect, ask us to push students to the highest level most adults are capable of ever reaching -- Kegan's stage 4.

The speakers called stage 4 "The self-authoring mind." Unlike people at the earlier stages, the person at this stage does not need an authority or institution to tell him or her what is right or wrong or what is the right thing to do. They don't think something is right just because the church says so or their rabbi told them so -- they can, and will, decide that on their own. Similarly, the person at stage 4 is not threatened when people disagree with him or her. They see such conflict and critique as productive. If someone says to them, "you're a bad person!" they might say, "oh, that's interesting, why do you say that?" whereas an earlier stage person would seek to defend his or herelf -- "no I'm not! How can you say that!?"

The problem with this framework is that some people might find it offensive in that it implies an implicit criticism of their beliefs. For example, for many Orthodox Jews, accepting the authority of a rabbi (and going to him for a ruling on whether something is permissible or not) is a central part of their belief system (which they understand as coming from God!). Kegan seems to be saying that such an Orthodox person would be intentionally hobbling his or her development, and thus an Orthodox person might find his theory offensive. Conservative Christians might feel the same way.

For spiritual care educators (like myself) the challenge put to us by the speakers in Stony Point is clear: If CPE really demands that people reach stage 4 in order to become certified chaplains or certified educators of chaplains than maybe we are walling off our group to the Orthodox Jews and the conservative Christians of the world. And can we really justify doing that? Also, since the speakers found a correlation between how educated a person is and how likely they are to reach stage 4, are we cutting off the less educated and people from less-privileged economic backgrounds? In other words, it's the diversity question. [And, are we valuing things that have little or nothing to do with patient care?]

One thing that is interesting to contemplate are the parallels between Kegan's theory and James Fowler's Stages of Faith. Here, side-by-side are Fowler's stages 3-6 and Kegan's 2-5 (as described by the conference speakers, Deborah Helsing of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Kathleen Pakos Rimer, an Episcopal priest):



Stage 3 - "Synthetic-Conventional" faith (arising in adolescence) characterized by conformity

Stage 2 - "The Instrumental Mind"

  • Capacity for concrete thought
  • Orients to explicit cause and effect
  • Dualistic
Stage 4 – "Individuative-Reflective" faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for their beliefs and feelings.

Stage 3: "The Socializing Mind"

  • Capacity for abstract thought
  • Authority is external
  • Orients to inner states
Stage 5 – "Conjunctive" faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems

Stage 4: "The Self-Authoring Mind"

  • Authority is internal
  • Conflict and critique as productive
  • Responsible for and can regulate inner states

Stage 6 – "Universalizing" faith, or what some might call "enlightenment".

Stage 5: "The Inter-Institutional Mind"

  • Orientation toward dialectical, paradoxical
  • Underlying morals and values that precede social institutions
  • The self as incomplete, in process evolving

Note that in both frameworks the understanding is that very few people ever reach the final stage. . . . . have you. :)


By the way, the example the speakers used to illustrate the transition from a three to a four (under Kegan's framework) was Nora from Ibsen's A Doll's House, which is available on DVD in a version starring Anthony Hopkins. (#*#)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Finding fellowship (the Jews of Dallas, the Jews of CPE)

One of the great highlights of a wonderful few days I have had in Dallas during the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education's annual conference was a meeting of a group of Jewish supervisors and supervisors-in-training organized by the extraordinary Rabbi Naomi Kalish.

This meeting was so important in part because of the content of what we talked about -- especially the project of how Jews, and Jewish concerns, can get more of a "seat at the table" at the APCE. But, it was also so important to me just for the fellowship of it.

It can really be lonely being a Jew in CPE. When I was a rabbinical student considering doing CPE I had trouble finding anyone to talk to who had done CPE before; and, certainly, none of my professors or deans had. What a contrast to the mainline Protestant world where CPE has been required of most seminary students for decades. Seminary students have tons of people -- both peers and professors -- who can talk to them about their own CPE experience. And the Protestant people who go on to train to become a CPE supervisor will find that almost all of their peers come out of their same general faith tradition (Protestantism).

Not so for a Jew like me. And so I just want to express how deeply grateful I am to Rabbi Kalish for her efforts to form an official Jewish Network in the ACPE and for making our meeting in Dallas happen. I feel like I have חברה/hevre (community/colleagues) now! I can't even begin to tell you how that makes me feel!


In Judaism we consider הכנסת אורחים/hachnasat orahim (the welcoming of guest) to be one of those great mitzvot that merit a reward both in this world and in the World to Come. I was so welcomed by the Jewish community here in Dallas. Not only by my host Rabbi Paul Steinberg and his family, but also by the members of Congregation Shearith Israel, and, especially, the rabbi of their minyan that I attended on Shabbat, David Glickman.

I most certainly felt like I had fellowship with the Jews who I met here in Dallas, and I am very grateful for that. I will be thinking of them long after I return home to Pennsylvania tonight. Thank you!

It ain't broke, so we aren't going to fix it (the CPE certification blues)

In the world of chaplaincy and clinical pastoral education (CPE), the person who trains other folks is called a supervisor. I'm in the process of working towards certification as one such supervisor. It's not like any other process I know.

When one starts training to become a doctor, for example, one knows that one has a long and difficult road ahead. But you _can_ feel pretty confident that if you work really hard and your health holds out that you will be able to finish the process. And you know how much time it will take you to finish. None of that is true of the CPE supervisor process.

Many people (including people I know) are never able to get their final approvals (from the committees we appear before, periodically) despite years of sacrifice and good work with their chaplain students. And the process can take from three to six (or even more) years.

In my view this process is profoundly broken. There is a wonderful report put out last summer by a task group from the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE) that clearly spelled out the ways in which the process is broken and made concrete recommendations to fix it. I was so heartened when I first came across this report. The message it sent me is that this organization (the ACPE) was willing to confront its problems and work to fix them. [I first wrote about the report, here.]

So I was deeply shocked at the ACPE's annual conference last week to learn that the powers that be at the ACPE rejected the report at the beginning of the week. One senior CPE supervisor told me that the board did this because they had decided that the process was working. After all, this supervisor said, some 87% of people who appeared at a recent committee meeting were approved by their committees.

That statistic totally misses the point, in my view. The real question is not how many people pass on a particular day, but what the attrition rate from the whole process is -- ie, how many people start the process, but are never able to finish. I don't know what that stat is, but I wouldn't be surprised to hear it is as high as 50%.

And then there are all the people who are discouraged from entering the process at all when they find out how unpredictable it really is. Is it any wonder that there are currently only seven Jewish supervisors who have been fully approved? Is that tiny number alone not a sign of a process that is broken?

Of course the powers that be at the ACPE will maintain that they did listen to the report (and that they have appointed a new committee that will study reforms). One senior CPE supervisor told me that there were three areas the board will want reforms along the lines of what was in the report:

  • curriculum
  • position papers
  • the training relationship

Another senior supervisor told me that what the board really recognized was that there is a great deal of inconsistency in how supervisors are trained in different programs. That needs reform, this supervisor said.

But I say that reforms are not enough. If the leadership does not recognize that the process is broken then no amount of tinkering with it will make any significant difference. The tragedy is that many areas of the country have a shortage of CPE supervisors. If more supervisors are not approved than students wanting to do CPE -- including people training to be pulpit clergy -- will have to be turned away. And that is a tragedy for their future congregants and other people they minster to with pastoral care. CPE is by far the most effective way to train people do pastoral care.

I would love to hear reaction from leaders in the ACPE to what I have said here . They (or anybody else who is concerned about this) can leave comments here by clicking the "comments" link, below.


I want to add one thing -- I do not think that I personally have been treated unfairly in any way during my own process. And I believe that I personally have the resources and skills to navigate this process despite the fact that it is broken. But I have never been a person to sit silently and let an injustice stand just because it doesn't affect me. I don't know who I would be if I was to be such a person. I certainly wouldn't be me.

Friday, October 26, 2007

A hero for our time

I just want to give a "shout out" to Rabbi Paul Steinberg, a dear friend and colleague of mine who is hosting me on my trip to Dallas for the ACPE conference.

This morning, I had a chance to see Paul at work for a couple of hours as the rabbi of a Jewish day school here in Dallas. As I heard Paul say this morning to a number of parents considering sending their children to his school, day school is the leading way of assuring that children will identify as Jewish throughout their lives. There are few tasks that seem more Holy to me than the task of working to preserve the future of this Holy people Israel by encouraging children to become Jewish in a way that lives not just in their minds, or even their hearts, but deep down in their bones.

Listening to Paul talking to these parents this morning, I was deeply moved by his passion for this task and for his work. He expressed a vision of a Judaism that is about educating the whole person in such a way that they not only have their intellect stimulated but that they build the strength, courage and fortitude to withstand even the greatest challenges of life.

Paul's efforts to build Jewish continuity go far beyond just his work in the school. Paul is also the author of a new series of books on the Jewish Holidays. With these books, Paul has created something that is both highly accessible and that has great depth. It's something that will both encourage people to take up Jewish practices for the first time (or reengage them after many years of absence), and will be a force in their lives to keep observing as the years go by and they grow and change spiritually.

May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that Paul will find the strength and resources to continue his great Holy work and that he will touch -- and help grow -- many a Jewish soul.

Shabbat Shalom.

They just don't get it (being a Jew in CPE)

The Jews have had the observance of Shabbat for well over two-thousand years now, but amazingly, the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education (which, ironically, is dedicating its annual conference to multiculturalism and diversity), seems seems not to have figured this out, yet.
Tonight -- when observant Jews around the world will be dispensing with operating electrical devices and the consumption of popular media and entertainment as part of their core religious observance of Shabbat -- the association has chosen to schedule the event of most interest to Jews -- the showing of a bit of popular media about Jews.
It's a documentary film called Trembling Before God. The film is an intense examination of the struggle some observant Jews have faced with reconciling their core religious beliefs and practices with their realization that their sexual orientation is gay.
I know exactly what will happen tonight. The overwhelming Christian members of the association will be deeply touched by the film. But they'll also be confused. They won't understand some of the practices the people in the film were struggling with. They'll want to ask the Jews questions. And so they'll look around them. But the Jews won't be there (I, for example, will be celebrating Shabbat with a dear friend in North Dallas, dozens of miles away -- much too far for me to walk, even if I was willing to watch a film on Shabbat).
I wouldn't care so much if this was an isolated incident. But it's not. Next year, the association's annual conference, dubbed "Courageous Conversations: Division, Diversity and Dialogue," will probably be lacking any Jewish participants in that dialogue -- most of us will be elsewhere celebrating the holiday of Simhat Torah which falls on the first day of the conference. Even if I could get on a plane right after the holiday, I would still miss most of the conference.
And then there was the memorial service at the conference, yesterday. There are few things that feel more like a fundamentally Christian form to me than a choir. Now, admittedly, some Jews are ok with choirs, but why would experts in interfaith dialogue and learning -- like the CPE supervisors at this conference -- chose a form that is so potentially problematic? And not just for Jews. I have only been in a mosque a few times, but I can tell you that there was nothing that looked like a choir (or an organ or anything like that) in those mosques. Might a Muslim also find a choir a strange form that somehow feels Christian?
Now I want to add that I was deeply moved by parts of the memorial service (especially when Bob Cholke's name appeared on the screen). And also that I have found this conference incredibly valuable to me and that I am a big believer in CPE in general, in the ACPE in particular and in the incredibly wonderful work CPE does every day to help future clergy and other students become more sensitive to differences in people's beliefs and practices. The ACPE is most certainly an organization that is devoted to interfaith ministry in a profound way.
One of the senior supervisors at the conference listened to my story of how alienated and excluded I felt by the choir being in the memorial service and he challenged me to give him a picture of what would be more acceptable. I will respond to that challenge soon in a comprehensive way. But I want to just say a few quick things, first.
A part of the service that did work really well for me was the reading of a powerful poem by Maya Angelou called Elegy. Here are some of its lines:
I lie down in my grave
And watch my children
Proud blooms
above the weeds of death.
. . . the worms, my friends,
yet tunnel holes
bones and through those
apertures I see rain.
Why was this more acceptable? One reason is something that comes out of 'CPE 101' -- the importance of using "I" language when you are dialoging with someone about intense feelings or experiences. The voice in the poem speaks of something "I" experienced. There is no use of the word "you" and all the use of that word might demand of the listener to do or feels something the speaker wants. That is, the poem did not demand that I share any belief or practice of the speaker.
So, I remain hopeful that there will be more sensitivity to the presence of non-Christians in chaplaincy. But there is much work that needs to be done.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Dealey Plaza (and PTSD)

I wasn't expecting it. But there it was -- starting when I was still blocks away. It wasn't in my mind; it was in my gut. First, I started to feel vaguely nauseous, and then more nauseous. And then when I stumbled across the memorial to JFK a block and a half away from Dealey Plaza itself, it grew into the chocking sobs.

Why? I was only 2 years old when JFK was murdered by Lee Harvey Oswald there on Dealey Plaza. I never voted for him. I never looked to him with hope for what he might do. I don't even have any memory of him when he was still alive. How is it possible I have so much grief sitting in my gut about his assassination?

We talk a lot these days -- especially these days when so many Americans are overseas at war -- about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD ). But, we tend to think of this only in terms of the individual and the individual's experience. We think, for example, about what being almost killed by an IED might mean to an individual soldier's ability to feel safe again and to be able to trust others again once he or she returns home.

But entire societies and cultures can be traumatized, too. And traumas -- as we know -- can act almost like an echo chamber for one another. I remember the first disaster I dealt with as a chaplain. I was working at UCLA's Santa Monica hospital when an elderly man lost control of his car and drove it through the farmers' market there, killing at least 10 and wounding dozens.

We chaplains stood there in the lobby and made ourselves available to the non-wounded family and witnesses who came in. I talked to this one man who saw the disaster but emerged unschathed. I was surprised that it wasn't the incident itself he wanted to talk about. Instead, he told me the story of other traumas in his life, incidents where people he cared about were hurt or died. The new trauma of witnessing this disaster seemed to have left him with a tremendous hunger to talk about those previous events.

That's what happens with trauma. They echo in our head and in our heart. And that's what I think happened to me at Dealey Plaza, today. So much violence in the world. And so much of it meant to destroy not just people, but thoughts and hopes and dreams and the potential for change. We see it (dear, Lord, please bring it to an end, speedily and in our days) every day in Iraq. People murdered as a political statement. A murder not just against Holy human flesh, but against democracy and the hope for democracy. Bullets, not ballots.

And then there is the trauma of the Jewish people. So many centuries of exile. So many centuries of powerlessness. So many centuries of being viciously hated for inexplicable reasons. So many centuries of being murdered just for who we are, a chain of violence of which the Shoah was only its most terrible expression. The murder of JFK echoed in my head. It reminded me of all that injustice from that violence. And I cried. I cried.

May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that true peace and wholeness will come over all of us and that the chain -- and the echos -- of trauma may come to an end. Let it be speedily and in our days.


As I write these words, by the way, I am listening to a lecture by Elizabeth Conde-Frazier (of the Claremont School of Theology) here at the ACPE's annual conference in Dallas, and she is talking about how we can use our faith to find paths to peace and multicultural understanding. She is holding out the possibility that true change really is possible. But she also cautions patience. Change is incremental, she says. It takes a -- sometimes painful -- process of deconstructing our beliefs and values (disorientation) and then reconstructing them anew(reorientation).

And we cannot teach in such a way, she says, if we are not open to change in ourselves.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Urban Cowboy (going to Dallas!)

No, I'm not planning on riding any mechanical bulls (that's John Travolta from 1980's Urban Cowboy on the right). Actually, it the annual conference for the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education. I'll be there Thursday and Friday and I'm really looking foward to it! It should be a great opportunity to connect with chaplain colleagues past and future -- especially fellow Jewish ones!

I'm also hoping to find some spare moments for a little tourism. Dallas is one of the few major American cities I've yet to set my feet in (although I think I changed planes there a couple of times). I'm hoping to at least take a stroll to Dealey Plaza to pay my respects.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Making it our own -- the key to Jewish survival (and chaplaincy)

On my iPod I have a list of songs I call "He Made it his Own." It was inspired by Johnny Cash's hit rendition of the song "Hurt". Listening to Cash's stark voice amid the spare acoustic accompaniment, it's hard to imagine anyone else ever having sung these words, not to mention them being sung by the heavy metal band (Nine Inch Nails) which had performed the song originally and had made it a hit (for the first time).

It's something like the Passover Seder, the grand and ordered holiday meal where we retell the story of our people's redemption at God's hand from slavery, and that was the center of the Judaism in which I was raised. It's such a quintessentially Jewish practice that it's hard to imagine that anybody else ever did it. But scholars tell us that much of the Seder's practices were borrowed from the Roman practice of a symposium meal.

My Jewish heart -- and its desire for all things Jewish to be something purely and uniquely our own -- could be discouraged by what the scholars tell us about the Seder. But I've learned to see things a bit differently.

Last week, at the Oraita retreat, I was privileged to study with Zohar scholar Melila Hellner-Eshed (as well as the great Art Green). Hellner-Eshed drew this rich picture for us of the world the authors of the Zohar -- the great work of mysticism in Judaism -- lived in as members of a minority group in 13th c. Christian Spain. One of their challenges was the attraction of the surrounding religious culture and its seductive promise of a more loving (and more human ) God than the seemingly harsh God of the Hebrew Bible.

The Zoharists created a rich symbolic system that described a God that was not only loving, but that was in an intense love relationship with the people Israel. That is, this was a spirituality manifested as an intoxicating dance between lovers constantly seeking union and the (holy) products of that union. In effect, the Zoharists were saying -- "you Christians have a loving God, I'll show you a loving God!"

As professor Hellner-Eshed taught us at Oraita, "the project [of the Zohar] is molding something that feels more Jewish. This is a kind of Jewish religious genius. . . You do that midrashic dance [with the Jewish tradition and its Holy texts] and you have to give it enough time so it slowly becomes Hebrew and it feels good."

That is, the Zoharists took some things that may have first come to them because of their contact with Christians but they then imposed Jewish forms, language and styles of biblical interpretation (that is, midrash) on them. With time, this grew into something uniquely and quintessentially Jewish (kabbalah) that has helped sustain and preserve the Jewish people throughout the ages. In effect, they made it their own.

Making it our own remains the central task before Jewish leaders, today. The "it" changes, surely. For me, right now, the biggest "it" is the world of pastoral care (chaplaincy) and especially the task of training the spiritual caregivers of the future (as a CPE supervisor, which I am training for).

When I first started to hear about "pastoral care," I recoiled. Just the word "pastoral" bothered me. It sounded too much like "pastor", which was a Christian word. How could a Jewish person be involved in such a Christian project?

But the study of pastoral care is no longer brand new to the Jews. We've been living with it for a while. We've been playing with Jewish language and forms for it. We've wondered whether calling it "spiritual care" instead of pastoral care helps at all. We've been teasing out which pastoral care assumptions and practices are antithetical to Judaism and which ones are not.

And, yet, I don't think we've done enough midrash with it to feel in any way like the project of making pastoral care our own is anything but in its infancy. What's really lacking, in my view, is the application of serious scholarship to this project. Our midrash with pastoral care has to involve our finest minds and has to be deeply grounded in a serious understanding of our tradition and its texts -- the kind of understanding of those things that the Zoharists had. It's that grounding that allows us to truly make things our own. This is the project that I really hope to dedicate much of my rabbinate to -- doing the serious midrash required to make pastoral care and CPE our own. And some of what I've written here on this blog is very much about this project.

It strikes me that the kind of people needed for such a project were the very kind of people who were the teachers at the Oraita retreat. As Natan Margalit -- the organizer of the retreat -- said, the teachers he was looking for were people who can teach in a way that is both 1) intellectually rigorous, and 2) deeply meaningful. Too, often, in the Jewish world we see these two things in an "either/or" kind of way -- either a teacher is a brilliant (but boring) academic scholar, or he or she is indeed a charismatically spiritual teacher, but has no serious intellectual grounding.

This false division leads nowhere. This is especially true regarding the making it our own project that is even more important to me than the spiritual care one -- the project of preserving the Jewish people here in North America. Most people are pretty smart. So, while they may be attracted by a dose of spiritual religious charisma at first, that will not sustain them in a lifelong pursuit. So, too, intellectual challenges may interest a person for a while, but if it doesn't have real spiritual content, folks are just going to move on to another (non-religious) intellectual challenge. Only a leader -- or a movement -- that has both can be successful in a making it our own kind of project.

I call the project of preserving the Jewish people a making it our own project because the great challenge before our people is the seductiveness of the surrounding culture (just as the Zoharists faced the seductive challenge of their surrounding culture).

We live in our own time where our people are being seduced away by the surrounding culture. Endless words have been written in universities and on the op-ed pages of Jewish newspapers about the decline in the number of Jews affiliating with Jewish organizations. We are afraid of disappearing.

Our response has to go back to the same Jewish religious genius -- the genius to make things our own -- that the Zoharists used to help sustain and renew our people.

This, of course, leaves us to ponder what it is that is so seductive about the surrounding culture and what parts of it we might make our own. I don't know the answer to that, but I think one thing we have to think about is the way people -- especially young people -- play with their identities these days. The anonymity of the Internet, for example, has created a possibility for folks to safely try on different "faces" and folks seem to do it often. How can we bring that into Judaism?

One obvious answer is Purim, that holiday where we turn things "upside down" and where wearing costumes and masks is common. Purim was certainly put forward as a "solution" at the Oraita retreat, especially because of its miraculous nature, and the potential that miracles and wonder have to attract people. But more on that another day.

May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that you should find great teachers in your life, teachers of both rigor and spirit. Teachers who can help you find your own path to making the things before you your own.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Fall!! (and leaves and leaving)

One of the (many) treats of being at the Oraita retreat this week in New Hampshire is that the leaves moved from just-starting-to-change to approaching-their-height during the week. On the drive home to Pennsylvania, the first stretch down through New Hampshire and Massachusetts was really spectacular. . . . I love fall!!!

This week the Torah reading is Parsaht Lech Lecha (Genesis 12:1 - 17:27), which tells the story of Avraham leaving his homeland and his father's house to begin his great journey to fulfill God's will (and found a nation). This week of study for me was also an attempt to find a way towards fulfilling God's will. And I had to journey from my home and its comforts to take on this task.

May it be the will of the Holy Blessed One that we shall always be ready to hear the Blessed One's call and be willing to leave our homes when that call demands a journey of us.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Al HaTzadikim (about Art Green)

The great difference between traditional Jewish prayer and prayer as Christians know it is that Jewish prayer is scripted: Instead of composing prayers for ourselves in our own heads, the emphasis is on reciting words written in a prayerbook that was composed hundreds and thousands of years ago. On weekdays, for example, the tradition demands that we say the exact same 19-blessing prayer three times a day.

The words of this central prayer -- called the Amidah -- are not left to us to change. But there is no limit on what we can think or feel when we recite them. And what I love so much about the familiarity of the Amidah is that each of the 19 blessings can all of a sudden become an unexpected opportunity for a sudden, deep outpouring of a certain kind of emotion. It's as if you drive past a beautiful lake every day. Most days you might notice it and its beauty, but seeing that is really no big deal. But every once in a while, for some reason, it strikes you just how truly incredible is the vista of this blue water with the light playing upon it and something incredible rises up in your heart that would never have happened if you did not drive past this lake every day.

Yesterday afternoon it happened on the blessing that we call על הצדיקים/Al HaTzadikim -- "about the righteous". Many times I just run through this blessing quickly, reciting its words without thinking much about them. But when I came across the words "about the righteous", yesterday, an image of Art Green came into my head. It has been, as I wrote recently, a dream of mine for so long to have the privilege of studying at the feet of this גדול הדור/Gadol HaDor ("great one of the generation"). And this week -- amid five days of learning with other rabbis here in the woods of New Hampshire -- I have had that opportunity.

I especially thought of Green when I came across the words על פליטת סופריהם (about the remnant of their scribes), which my prayerbook explains as meaning "about the wise ones who remain in Israel." This concept of a "remnant" runs strong in Judaism. There is a sense that -- amid our long and tortured, often deeply painful history -- so much has been lost. And, that it is our wise ones -- our Sages -- who remain with us that perform a great Holy task by helping preserve that which makes us "us" despite those loses.

Green is definitely one such great Tzadik of this generation, and it was such a pleasure to finally have a chance to hear some of his wisdom. One piece of that is what was chosen as the topic of this retreat: It's been about miracles, miracles and the wonders of that which God creates.

But this has been anything but an abstract discussion. It's been clear from the beginning that we're talking about miracles and wonder because of their potential to help sustain us through the challenges of our work as rabbis, especially the work of accompanying people amid great grief and loss. In other words, we've been talking about how our faith can be an element of self-care that can sustain us and allow us to keep caring for others.

This emphasis on the importance of self-care -- and the pursuit of ways of doing it from within our holy texts and tradition -- is so important, but so often neglected. It's a sign of Green's wisdom that he is willing to put so much energy into this pursuit. And, so I felt such gratitude yesterday afternoon when the image of Green came into my head. What a gift from God to bring such a Tzadik in the world and then to actually arrange things such that I should have the opportunity to learn with him! I hope it is the will of the Blessed Holy One that Green should have yet many years of teaching before him and that many students can bathe in the light that he brings us.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Torah as self-care -- can the miracles sustain us?

We had a great day of learning here at Oraita, yesterday, including an amazing tour of the local woods where our guide Tom Wessels, opened our eyes to a new awareness of the complex web of human and natural systems that had gone into shaping that seemingly simple and ordinary landscape.

The tension between developing awareness and of seeing things as ordinary (ההרגל/hahergel in the language of the Kedushat Levi we reading the day before) has become a central theme of this retreat. Yesterday, we started to talk about how these themes apply in a very real way (I'm intentionally, _not_ using the word, practical, here) to our lives as rabbis. Art Green asked us what it is that sustains us as rabbis in the face of the challenge of working with people amid death and pain and suffering? How are we able to keep ourselves -- and our spirits! -- from being destroyed by all of that?

There is, of course, no one answer to this difficult and challenging question (of self-care). But the most common thing that people said connected directly to the texts about miracles (נסים/nisim) and (פלא/peleh) that we have been reading -- that it is cultivating an awareness of the "miracles that daily attend us" (in the language of the siddur) that sustains us.

For me, another way of saying this might be to think of a river (take a look a the imagery of Ezekiel 47). That is, my religious and spiritual life has cultivated in me a sense of life and the world as one unified thing that is flowing (creating, being created, renewing, dying). And that one thing is so beautiful . . It is so amazing. It fills me with awe, and I know it is the work of the Blessed Holy One.

And, so, when I see a thing floating in this river that is not beautiful to my eyes -- something that might even cause me deep pain to see like the unfathomable suffering of parents who have just lost a child -- I still have the river. I still know that somehow it is part of the river, that it is somehow part of that incredible thing that flows around me. . . . . The irony is that these can be for me the moments of the greatest awe at the greatness of God. I stand there before a person's pain and I say (in my heart, not my head) that I experience a profound acceptance that this, too, is part of God's design of the world. And it is part of the incredibleness that makes up the river.

But, it is certainly not everyday that I can both see the pain of a person (and feel a genuine sense of injustice about that) and the beauty of the river. In fact, most days I cannot. It takes work to be able to do that dance. It takes spiritual work. And that spiritual work is a form of self-care. And it's why I'm here at Oraita -- I'm here to let the waters of Torah, as presented to me by my teachers, wash over me, and (may it be the will of the Blessed Holy One) heal me.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Surely God is in this place, but I did not know it -- seeing the miracles

The most famous case in the Bible of someone realizing the possibility that the Great Holy One can be right before you and still you might not truly see that incredible Holiness is when Jacob awakes from his "Jacob's ladder" dream (Genesis 28:16). But it is not just Jacob who has this kind of experience. All of us face this possibility all the time. We live in a world full of amazing wonders -- the mere fact of the existence life itself is an incredible miracle. And, yet, we can easily go through the normal routine of our days without a single awareness of the "miracles that daily attend us."

Yesterday, the great scholar Art Green shared with us at Oraita a great teaching on miracles from the Hasidic master Kedusaht Levi. Writing about Hanukah, the Kedushat Levi tells us that we need spiritual "exercise" in order to help sensitize us to the נסים שבכל יום -- t the miracles that are in the "every day." Building on the work of the great Medieval Bible and Talmud commentator, the RambaN, the Kedusaht Levi says there are two types of miracles:
  • נס נגלה -- Miracles that are revealed. That, is miracles that are obvious because they involve obvious changes in the natural world (eg, the splitting of the Red Sea).
  • נס נסתר -- Hidden miracles. Miracles that do not involve any supernatural change in the natural order (eg, the wonder of the leaves -- for no apparent reason -- turning brilliant colors before they fall from the trees or the softening of a heart that was so hard that one could never imagine it ever softening -- a miracle I see often in my work as a hospital chaplain).

This final category, he divides into two types
  • A hidden miracle that is purely God's work (here, he cites the miracles of the holiday of Purim).
  • A hidden miracle that does have human involvement in its success (here, he cites the miracles of the holiday of Hanukah, where humans made their involvement when the Jews fought their war against their Greek oppressors).

What the Kedushat Levi is suggesting about this hierarchy of miracles is that the the obvious miracles like the splitting of the Red Sea and the hidden miracles that have some human involvement help sensitize us the the kind of miracles that are truly the most amazing of all -- the "little" ones that we can not go even one step in our lives without coming across.

In terms of my own development as a Jewish person developing a practices as a trainer of chaplains and other spiritual caregivers the significance of this is that it helps me develop a Jewish language for things like spiritual training and development. The importance of this should not be minimized. So many Jews -- and this described myself as well not so long ago -- are repelled by spiritual development (or Clinical Pastoral Education) because it feels Christian. Being here at Oraita -- and learning with a great mind like Green -- is helping me find my own Jewish way forward. And it is giving me the tools to share that with my own Jewish students going forward.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

"What critically ill person needs above all is to be understood"

That was the line that jumped out at me when I was listening tonight to Fresh Air's Terry Gross read from Anatole Broyard's book Intoxicated by my illness. I transcribed the whole quote (see below), which strikes me as a particularly powerful and succinct expression of how the visitor with the best of intentions can actually alienate an ill person. And the quote also states wonderfully what it is that an ill person often actually needs. Here's the whole quote (which Broyard wrote about his experience with terminal prostate cancer):

All my friends are wits, but now that I'm sick I'm treated to the spectacle of watching them wear different faces. They come to see me and instead of being ironical and making jokes, they're terribly serious. They look at me with a kind of grotesque lovingness in their faces. They touch me, they feel my pulse almost. They're trying to give me strength and I'm trying to shove it off. The dying man has to decide how tactful he wants to be. What a critically ill person needs above all is to be understood.
I intend to get this book. It sounds like will be an excellent part of literature readings for CPE students, especially after reading the very positive annotation it was given at the Litmed database.

The interview, by the way, was actually with Broyard's daughter, Bliss Broyard, and comes from the 9/27/07 podcast (at about 18:50).

Friday, October 12, 2007

Honey, I stretched my bicycle!

Last night I took my new Xtracycle out on the road (and to the supermarket!) for the first time. It was a blast!

The Xtracycle (see photo, below) is a kit that stretches your bicycle frame about 15 inches, making room for super-big bags on the side that allow you to carry much more cargo (eg, groceries) than you could otherwise. Buying one is part of my long-term dream to be kinder to the earth by becoming as car-free as possible.

After I loaded more groceries on it than I've ever put on a bike before, I was amazed last night by how stable the bike felt. It was just like the promotional materials had promised -- the Xtracyle bags allow you to carry your cargo unusually close to the ground. This means a lower center of gravity. The Xtracyle bags also center the weight laterally by keeping the cargo close to the wheels, and this adds further stability.

Something else stretched

But, it hasn't been all peaches and cream. The project of properly installing the kit has really stretched the limits of my bicycle-mechanic expertise (and my set of bicycle tools!). I still haven't managed to connect any of the rear cables, so I have no rear brakes (not as dangerous as most people seem to think; front brakes are more effective than rear brakes if you use proper technique) and only three working gears (on a bike designed for 27!). The lack of proper gearing has contributed to not one, but two chain breaks so far. The completion of this project will have to wait until I am back from Oraita.

I really hope that having this kind of bike available will help me to keep riding reliably throughout the fall and winter. I'm very excited about it! (#*#)