Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Getting this party started

Today was the second day of orienting our new summer interns. I'm so excited about how its going.

This new orientation also represents the first step on a new journey for me: This summer will be my first opportunity to supervise Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) students, and as such is my first step on the challenging road towards becoming a certified supervisor of CPE students.

We have four seminarians as our summer interns: three from the Lutheran Seminary in nearby Philadelphia and one from Yale Divinity School. I am very impressed with them -- and their motivation to serve others.

I am also very pleased and excited about how the orientation is going. Me and my supervisor have been talking for some time now about the best way to orient people to the training and work they will be doing by serving as a student chaplain in our hospital. A few basic principles have arisen:
  • To try and reduce as much as possible the amount of information and pure classroom time involved in the orientation.
    • (The thinking behind this is that folks are usually completely overwhelmed by the amount of information thrown at them in a CPE orientation. The result is not only that they (become bored and) really don't learn as much as you want, but that their anxiety about the work before them goes up).
  • To instead focus on two things
    • Getting as much of the orientation (out of the classroom and) onto the floors where the students will actually be working. (We call this Teaching in Context.)
    • Making as much of the classroom time as possible about orienting the students to the general culture and values of our department and the specific tasks and competencies in which we are engaged.
  • To engage in a team approach to orientation. That is, to engage every member of our department (as well as other people from the medical care team) in orienting our interns, instead of having it done almost entirely by their supervisors (as I was oriented in my first unit of CPE). (The team approach also helps support the relationship-building goal I discuss below.)
  • Finally, to keep in mind two guiding goals throughout:
    • "It's all about relationship" -- that is, we want our interns to learn to trust our staff (ie, form relationships with them) and to know that they are available to them when they need to seek consultation or need support.
    • Anxiety-reduction -- Anxiety is the number one barrier to effective pastoral care. It is the number one barrier to learning in the clinical educational setting. You cannot learn in the pastoral clinical setting unless you are willing to take risks and to make some mistakes. The best way to address the unnecessary anxiety (and to encourage risk taking) is the relationship building I talked about above -- when the student trusts that someone cares about them and their learning (and knows that that person or persons will be available when needed) that emboldens them to go out and take risks.
The reason I am so happy about how things went, today, is that I feel we did an excellent job of putting these principles into effect. The subject today was the business of documenting our work in the patient's chart. This is typically one of the most anxiety provoking parts of an orientation ("what if I write the wrong thing in the chart!??!?! Will a doctor yell at me?!?!?"), as well as a part that causes the most glazing over of the eyes (translation, it's boring).

We decided to address these challenges by starting off with a discussion about the purpose of documenting our visits. We asked folks (most of our interns have quite a lot of life experience in previous careers) to recall previous uses of documentation in their lives. One student brought up an example (which surprised me!) that had some excellent parallels to why and how we document in a hospital -- his use of contact managment software as a manager of a team of salespeople.

Here are some of the principles we identified from the student's example for why we document:
  • For our own learning (that is, to help us understand what we have done so we can become better chaplains).
  • To help us care better for an individual patient (by, for example, being able to easily recall important details from our previous contact with an individual patient -- if there's a family member they're worried about for some reason, for example).
  • To help us communicate with the rest of the care team (about the work we're doing with a patient and what needs that patient has that we might have identified).
  • For management/oversight of our own work -- so our managers can have a picture of what the work is that we are doing and they can use that to make administrative decisions to help us improve the quality and quantity of our patient care.

After we had laid out the principles in the classroom, we moved on to the next step -- the actual details of how we document in our hospital. In the old days that would have meant everybody sitting around a classroom table while we handed around copies of the forms and tried to explain how they are used as the confused new students furiously take notes.

But, today, we instead did Teaching in Context. Each intern was paired off with one of our staff chaplains or an experienced chaplain resident. They went out onto the floors where the intern shadowed the experienced chaplain on a patient visit. This, by the way, helped reinforce the basic elements of pastoral care visitation that we had emphasized in day 1 of our orientation. But, it also provided an opportunity for the intern to witness exactly how we do documentation in the actual setting.

We closed the day with a group debriefing of the day, which allowed us to take opportunities to underscore for the interns how their experiences out on the floors related to the broad principles we had focused on in the morning.


I, by the way, was fascinated by idea that there are strong parallels between sales contact software and the chaplain's work of documentation. I know that there are a good number of very advanced sales contact software programs that are available off the shelf. Even if using one of these actual software packages might be inappropriate for the chaplaincy setting, there may be great opportunity for learning here -- the "business world" does indeed have a good deal to teach to us folks who work in ministering to people (at least when it comes to the how of it . . . I think we clergy types should keep our claim to be the best why people around!).


One thing I thought we might have added to our morning documentation overview session was some kind of in-class exercise. For example, we could have described a patient contact for the students and asked them all (individually) to write a short free text note of how they might have documented the experience (and used the documentation guidelines we suggested for them). Then we could have asked the students to share and compare what they had written.

One guideline we offered them, by the way, went something like this:
  • What the patient said (I'm so alone).
  • What the chaplain did in response (helped the patient identify resources of support that have helped them feel less alone in the past).
  • Result (patient appeared cheered as a result).
I, however, tend to aim more for what I think is the basic form of the three-part division that shapes just about every discipline's notes in a medical chart:
  • Contact (just the facts -- patient had a fever)
  • Impression (the assessment of the professional making the note -- patient may have a new urinary tract infection)
  • Plan (do cultures to determine if infection present; use antibiotics if/as indicated)

The day Redmond died?

Google today introduced the product that may finally bring an end to the now-decades-long stranglehold the folks in Redmond, Washington, have had on most of our computer desktops.

In case you've missed it, over the last year or so, Google has started a revolution by introducing free software applications -- especially Google Docs -- that do the same work as Microsoft applications like the word processors (MS Word) and spreadsheets (Excel) that can cost hundreds of dollars. But these new applications have had one major limitation -- you have to be connected to the Internet constantly for them to work. The new product -- called Google Gears -- puts an end to all that. It allows you to run the same applications (all of which run inside your Web browser) even when you're not connected to the Internet.

The whole thing, admittedly, is in its infant stages (Gears, for now, only works for one product, Google Reader). But the potential is clear and exciting: a future where you will only have to install one application on your computer -- the Web browser. Everything else will just run -- without the hassles of having to install (and pay for) countless updates and security changes -- inside that browser. And it will all be free.

So, why should a rabbi care about this? Well, I'll just conclude by quoting from a previous post I wrote on an interesting Google product:

The answer is because it's religious and non-profit organizations -- which tend to be small and cash-strapped -- that stand to benefit most from these developments. Google Docs, for example, allows people to seamlessly collaborate in writing things like grant proposals in a way that used to only be possible inside organizations that could afford to spend millions on networks. It's power to the people! And that's always been exciting for an ol' justice lover like me.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Personal Midrash

Over the recent holiday of Shavuot, I helped a friend of mine to put together a workshop on Personal Midrash at a synagogue in Las Vegas. It was an effort that I am very excited about and it went extremely well.

Midrash is the ancient rabbinic practice of interpreting the Bible. The text of the Bible can often be extremely terse, giving few details of events and sometimes refraining from explicitly describing important elements. The rabbis who created the ancient Midrash, loved to fill in these gaps with highly imaginative descriptions of what they thought might have happened. Sometimes they did this to explain things that seemed troubling or inexplicable otherwise. Sometimes they did it to enhance the spiritual meaning of the text for them.

A wonderful example of this process is a midrash on the Akeidah (the sacrifice of Isaac by his father Avraham). The text (Gen 22:2) says that God told Avraham to "take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah; and sacrifice him there as a burnt offering." And, then the text says, Avraham promptly got up early the next morning to perform this deed. No objection is recorded

But the ancient midrashists were not satisfied with this. And so they imagined an entire conversation between God and Avraham, where Avraham expressed objections and disbelief. In this way, the midrashists gave the text a richer meaning for them and helped it live spiritually.

It's worth pausing to consider something peculiar about the way the Rabbis added meaning to the text. They did not, for example, say, 'this is the meaning of this passage' or 'this passage is the Bible's discussion of this abstract concept'. (An abstract concept would be something like obedience or free will or grace.) Instead, they added meaning by adding concretes to the text. That is, they added meaning to the story by telling another story. They added another layer onto it that shifts what it means to us.

This adding stories to the story is a fascinating way to create meaning. The question for us is, can we do the same thing with our own lives?


We generally think of texts as something written down on a piece of paper. But our lives are texts, too. They are full of stories and experiences. They are rich and varied and complex. Just as the Rabbis put an intense focus of examination and imagination on the biblical text in their attempt to find meaning in it, so too can we find spiritual meaning by doing a midrash on our own lives. And this meaning, just as it is with the Bible, can be taken to the next step -- we can use it to find insight and wisdom. Insight and wisdom that can lead to action that can transform our lives for the better and can give us a better understanding of what God wants from us.

Clinical Pastoral Education -- a type of chaplaincy education I am deeply involved with these days -- is based on a process that is something like this. Its founder, Anton Boisen, taught us to think of our patients as being "living human documents" -- that is, as texts -- from whom we can learn. We engage in an intense examinations of these "documents" by holding seminars where we talk about our encounters with our patients in great detail. From these seminars comes a greater sense of the meaning of the encounter and what was spiritual about it. And we also gain wisdom and insight that helps us take actions in the future that can allow us to better serve our patients.

During the course of my own training in Clinical Pastoral Education, I was introduced to a fascinating book (The Art of Theological Reflection by Killen and De Beer) about how Christians can find meaning and direction by going through a process of finding meaning through a way of intensely examining events in their own lives and then reflecting about it. My effort to create a path to Personal Midrash owes a debt to Killen and De Beer's work.

They postulate that there is an observable pattern to the way people form insight that changes their lives (page 31):
When we enter our experience, we encounter our feelings.

When we pay attention to those feelings, images arise.

Considering and questioning those images may spark insight.

Insight leads, if we are willing and ready, to action.
I will explain how I understand and use this process as we go, but I want to start by focusing on the question of experience. What Kileen and De Beer propose is akin to a core theology of mine (and, I believe, to an important part of the theology of the branch of Judaism to which I belong, the Conservative Movement) -- that God's transmitting of God's message to us did not just happen at one place and time.

Rather, this revelation happens constantly, in every generation. It happens through our various efforts to connect with the Holy. It can happen through study. It can happen through prayer. And it can also happen through our meditating on the moments in our lives that had the most meaning for us and attempting to reenter those experiences to find meaning in them that we might have missed the first time. Just as Jacob was surprised (
Genesis 28:16) to realize that God was in the place he was but that he did not see it (until he dreamed), we often miss the full presence of God on our first look, even when we feel deep meaning on that first look. Like Jacob, we need to dream.

The way we make ourselves dream is by reentering our experience. But we do not do that alone. Because we need God to help us find true meaning. And the way we bring God in is by bringing God's word -- Torah -- in. It is one of the arrogances of the modern mind to imagine that we can find true spiritual meaning without God's help. In our search for meaning, we must do as the ancient Midrashists did. They read the Bible intertextually. That is, they understood one part of the Torah by reading it as if it was intimately related to another part, no matter how far away in the narrative the two parts might be.

We must take this same bold spirit to the task of rereading our own lives. We must read our lives as if they are part of the Torah and as if the Torah's story was our story. This is the essence of the central command of
Pesach -- to explicate the verse "a wandering aramean was my father" (Deuteronomy 26:5) in a way that is in accordance with what the text of the haggadah states: that "in every single generation one is obligated to look upon himself as if he personally had gone forth out of Egypt."

And, so, to do our own Personal Midrash on our own lives, we cannot abandon the text of the Torah -- we need it to bless our lives with a link to Eternal Meaning and Wisdom (that is, to bless the 'text' of our lives with a link to God). Nor can we abandon our lives and have only the text. This would make the Living Torah a dead thing. It would be a desecration.

Here is how we do it. We reenter our Holy experiences by slowing ourselves down. We must perform a kind of Tzimtzum -- withdrawal -- to purge our minds of judgments. Our judgments are our opinions that we have already formed. They block us from seeing things anew -- from singing a new song (a Shir Hadash) from our experiences. We must withdraw from them. We must purge our mind of them, and get back to just the event itself.

We do this slowing down and this withdrawal by retelling the story (it is best to do this with a group). But we must retell it with this discipline -- no judgments. No how's and why's. Just the facts, as they used to say on Dragnet. Just the things you can recount with your five senses. What your eyes saw. What your hands felt. What your ears heard.

[This process of clearing the judgments you created from your mind in order to try and get closer to where the Divine was in the experience reminds me of one of my favorite Heschel quotes: Things created conceal the Creator.]

When you're done with this, you can move onto feelings. Feelings, like experience, are neither judgments nor opinions. Feelings tend to be something that has resonance in our bodies. 'I felt tension in my shoulders.' 'I felt excitement as my breathing sped up.' Feelings, then can lead us to come up with images in our heads.

It's here -- with images -- that the wisdom of Torah can come back into the Midrash process. We (and, again, a group is helpful here) try to read our lives along with the Torah. Are there stories from the Torah that resonate with the images we have conjured up? Does an image of being visited in our sorrow remind us of Avraham greeting visitors from his tent door at the Oaks of Mamre? Does a feeling of emptiness we had remind us of the pain of Sarah when she thought she was barren? Can we use these connections to conjur up new stories to add onto the stories of our lives?

We can then ask ourselves what we have learned from bringing the text into our own lives. Has it increased our insight and understanding? Has it deepened our sense of the spiritual meaning of the experience? Do the actions of our foremothers and forefathers with whom we have now connected give us new paths of action that we did not see before? How have we grown through this process? This is Personal Midrash.

I would call this "Midrash on Ourselves -- the search for meaning, the search for God. Letting Torah be our guide." It means anything but Midrash being anything we want it to be. It's a dialogue with the tradition and its texts. The texts give our lives meaning and our lives give meaning to the text.

In the coming weeks, I hope to have time to compare this process with some other things that are already out there, especially Bibliodrama. I am only just beginning my journey of learning about Bibliodrama, but I understand that it understands itself as starting from the text. Personal Midrash, on the other hand, starts from the individual's experience. But, I am sure that the two must have a great deal in common as well.

In Las Vegas, by the way, we imagined the workshop having a little different order than what I outlined above. We talked about something like this:
  • Introducing the topic of finding God by focusing our attention on our experiences by
    • Talking about Jacob's realization that God was in that place, although he did not know it (Genesis 28:16).
    • Holding a discussion asking people to reflect on what kind of experiences are ones people find most meaningful.
    • Asking for a volunteer willing to recount such a meaningful experience.
      • Requiring him or her to do it by sticking to describing it according to the concretes of their senses.
    • Then the volunteer is asked to step aside and quietly observe while the group carries out the next steps in the process:
      • Reflecting together on what feelings were sparked by listening to the story.
      • Reflecting on what images came to mind from these feelings.
        • These should not be complete thoughts, but should arise almost out of a stream-of-consciousness process -- whatever just pops into your mind.
      • Coming up with links between these images and "Holy Writ". These can be stories from the Bible and the Jewish tradition, but they could also be from film (Woody Allen movies are particularly rich for me) or novels or poetry.
      • Finally, the group is asked what spiritual meaning this reflection has sparked for them.
    • And as a last step, the volunteer is brought back into the circle and is asked to reflect on what it felt like to hear people talk about his or her experience like this, and what new insights he or she might have gained from it. Do they now understand the event differently or more richly?
    • #*#

Friday, May 25, 2007

Learning journeys

You might have thought that once the people Israel had received the Torah at Mt. Sinai that they would have been ready to enter the land promised to them. But after Sinai, their wanderings would continue for nearly another four decades. The Book of BeMidbar/במדבר (or Numbers), which we began reading last Shabbat, recounts the story of those wanderings. These wanderings were full of triumphs, but also at least as many false steps and disasters. More than once, the people Israel lost their faith. More than once, God became angry with them and despaired of them.

But, in the end -- as we all know -- the people found God's favor and were allowed to enter Canaan and to begin the process of building themselves up from a band of wandering former slaves into a proud nation with a great City, Jerusalem, at its heart. They would become a nation that would inspire the entire world with their faith. They would become a light unto the nations.

This past week, I had the privilege of watching some dear friends -- especially now Rabbi Carrie Benveniste and now Rabbi Valerie Joseph -- end their long and sometimes trying journeys towards joining me as a rabbi. It was a profound joy to be at their ordination in Los Angeles and see these compassionate, strong, intelligent and determined women begin the next great steps in the journeys to serve the people Israel. We will all be enriched by their great works.

And, I too will be beginning my own new journey in my own work of rabbinic service. This coming week I will begin the path towards becoming not just a chaplain, but an educator of chaplains (and other clergy as well) -- I will, for the first time, co-supervise a summer unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). Four seminary students will be coming to our hospital and spending an intense 11 weeks with us, walking the halls of our nursing units, visiting patients in their distress and then coming back to the seminar room to discuss the powerful spiritual experiences they will have with those patients. From those discussions, will come their learning. And that learning is what will help them to better be there for their patients and their congregants in the future.

The path for these new students will not always be easy. Like the people Israel, at times they will be wandering. They may doubt their faith. They may despair and want to quit. They will struggle.

But it is from these struggles -- as it was for the people Israel -- that will come their strength and the gifts they will have to give to their people and to the world.

May it be the will of the Blessed Holy One that their -- and my -- learning will be great this summer. May their patients be comforted. And may Rabbis Carrie and Valerie -- and the rest of the new Ziegler school ordinees -- be a gift to the people Israel in everything that they do.

Shabbat Shalom.


This past Shabbat, by the way, I celebrated with Rabbis Carrie and Valerie at a synagogue that has great meaning to all of us -- Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, CA, led by Rabbi Dan Shevitz. Rabbi Dan pointed out that there is something in the parsha that is particularly appropriate around the ordination of new clergy. Verse 3:31 lists the things that the family of Kohat (of the tribe of Levi) will be in charge of in the Tabernable (Mishkon in Hebrew):

And their charge shall be the ark, and the table, and the lampstand, and the altars, and the utensils of the sanctuary with which they minister, and the screen, and all its service.

The Hebrew for what is translated here as "utensils of the sanctuary" is כלי הקודש/kli hakodesh, literally the Holy Vessels.

This term kli hakodesh is the closest thing the Hebrew Bible has given us to the English word "clergy". As Rabbi Dan pointed out, a vessel is something that is hollow -- that is, it is something that must be filled. It is the Holy acts of our congregants that makes a rabbi a kli kodesh. We only provide the space and structure to help bring that holiness to light.

One element of the Jewish calendar is the weekly Torah reading, or parsha. This past Shabbat's reading was BeMidbar, Numbers 1:1-4:20. The parsha is concerned with the counting of the people Israel in their tribes as they prepare for their march through the wilderness on the way to the promised land of Canaan.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Sour milk

I recently spoke with a Christian chaplain about what it might be like for a Jewish person (like myself) to work (and study) at his hospital. He kept saying things like “it’s absolutely no problem” or “we really value diversity here” or “we’ll respect any religious need you have.”

I don’t in any way mean to devalue this chaplain or to deny his sincerity and earnestness. But, basically, he just wasn’t getting it.

I take a lot of the blame for our failure to more fully communicate here. I have trouble explaining the incredible complexity of the interfaith issues a Jewish chaplain can face. Step one in making it possible for a Jewish chaplain to function in a predominantly Christian environment is the kind of simple respect this chaplain was showing to me. But, it is only the first step. The next step is learning to confront the complexity of it –- and to admit that no one will ever be able to completely accommodate my needs (and still be themselves).

Anyway, here’s my attempt to try and explain some of the complexity of this – the metaphor I use is that of “sour milk.”

Imagine you’re incredibly thirsty. And that you’re a lover of cold, fresh milk. You come across a glass, and amid your thirst you start gulping it down. It is only when it is already halfway down your throat that you start to taste it, and then you begin to realize that it’s turned disgustingly sour. You try to cough it up, but you can’t get rid of all of it, or its horrible taste.

This is the way I felt once when I was I’m listening to a prayer offered by a Christian at the beginning of what was labeled as an interfaith social justice event. I listened to what he was asking God for. And I agreed strongly with every bit of it. And I kept saying “amen to each part in my heart. I kept drinking it down.

And then he ended the prayer in the name of Jesus.

I was sick. I had been halfway to saying “amen” before I even realized what he had said. I wanted to cough up every bit of this prayer, but I couldn’t. I had said all those amens, and I couldn’t take them back.

This is not to say that I think any Christian should in any way be ashamed of their love of and faith in Jesus. This is not even to say that I don’t think that a Christian could talk about that faith –- and how it has played a role in inspiring them to become involved in fighting for social justice. But when you offer a prayer that asks everyone in the room to join you in agreeing with its sentiments, you must show great care about not including theological elements in it that will be unacceptable to some people in the room.
And there are few things more theologically unacceptable to a serious Jew than the claim that Jesus was divine. For countless generations, it has been refusal to accept Jesus as divine that has most distinctly separated Jews from Christians. It is a line we do not cross. Countless Jewish lives have been lost over this. To not uphold this distinction would be to spit on their graves. . . . . And when I drank this “sour milk” offered by this Christian, I felt as if I was spitting on their graves. Desecrating them.
If all that were involved here were asking people not to end their prayers in the name of Jesus in an interfaith setting, then the “sour milk” problem would not be so complex. But, in fact, “sour milk” issues come up almost constantly in this kind of setting.

An example: One very important thing my (Christian) supervisor has passed onto me is the idea that we (as chaplains) can only lead through service. That is, all the authority that we may have in the hospital comes from the fact that we think of ourselves as being servants to those we seek to lead. Nurses, for example, accept our efforts to inspire them to provide compassionate and spiritual care to their patients because we have showed them compassionate and spiritual care when they asked it of us. I have drunk the “milk” of this idea from my supervisor quite deeply. I have been convinced of its wisdom and truth for some time now.

But, it was only incidentally that I recently found out where in his Holy texts that my supervisor finds the teaching for this. It is in a book whose authority I most certainly do not accept. The book of Mathew in the New Testament.

There, Jesus instructs his disciples that they should lead in a way different than the kings of Rome. The rulers of Rome rule by lording it over their people/servants. But . . .
It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant,
and whoever would be first among you must be your slave;
even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life. --Mat 20:26-28

And, so, what do I do now as a Jewish person? Am I forced to reject my supervisor’s teaching (since I know I must reject the text he uses to underpin it)? Do I simply accept the teaching and say I have no need for a Scriptural basis for it? Do I look within my own Holy texts for a text that teaches the same thing?

These are complex questions. And they are questions that I face all the time. Right now I am reading an excellent book on theological reflection (The Art of Theological Reflection by Killen and De Beer; I hope to write more about it soon). I am inspired very much by what I’m reading. But it is also very much a book by Christians for Christians. It, for example, often talks about the need of a person to have ways of understanding their proper path as a Christian.

You might say that the solution for me here is easy, that I merely need to replace in my mind every occurrence of the word “Christian” with “Jewish” and every occurrence of “Christianity” with “Judaism.”
Oh, only if it were so simple. For, laced in with the universal things that the authors have written are countless occurrences of things that are specifically Christian. They’re ubiquitous and hard to see. And, so, to retain my authenticity as a Jew – and to avoid drinking any “sour milk” – I must constantly evaluate everything I have read and try and discern what of it is “fresh” and what of it is “sour”. This is hard work. Hard work that a Christian does not have to do. Hard work whose existence the chaplain I spoke to was not able to see (or that I was not able to adequately explain to him).

In any CPE program led by a Christian (as nearly all are) I would constantly have to engage in the same task – constantly examining everything I was taught and asking myself what of it arises distinctly out of that person’s Christian tradition (and would thus be unacceptable to me) and what arises from something more universal – something that is part of the universal and essential part of CPE. I need anyone I am working with to acknowledge that this hard work is a part of what I need to be able do to work with them.

And it's not just me. I have a Christian colleague from Asia who is wrestling with his own version of this -- trying to filter out what part of CPE is universal and what is irreconcilably in conflict with his non-Western culture. He, like me, is constantly searching for, and evaluating, the hard-to-see assumptions in so much of what he is being taught.

I am mightily inspired by his effort and have learned so much from watching him engage in it. This is the reason it is worth all the hard work of dealing with diversity in CPE, as uncomfortable as it can be. It teaches us so much about ourselves and about others -- and gives us invaluable insights into understanding the experiences of our patients and of our students.

It is so, so worth it.
Shabbat Shalom.

City of Angels, People of Torah

Yes, I have arrived in Los Angeles, where Monday night I will be attending the ordination of some of my dearest friends (and former classmates at the University of Judaism). It is so gratifying to see people of character and faith who have worked so hard (and whom I love so dearly) finally becoming rabbis. What a simha!!!!!

May their Torah be a gift to the people Israel and a source of hope, inspiration and healing to all the people of the world.


The person featured in the picture on the right, by the way, is the dean of our school -- Rabbi Brad Artson. And in the back, on the right, you can see me!!! Yes, you guessed it, this is a picture of my graduating class ('04). I'll try and post pics of the new ordinees soon.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

End of an era?

Jerry Falwell is dead. The New York Times obit says that he was the one who made the religious right a political force that was indelibly linked to the Republican party:

Mr. Falwell went from a Baptist preacher in Lynchburg to a powerful force in electoral politics, at home in both the millennial world of fundamentalist Christianity and the earthly blood sport of the political arena. As much as anyone, he helped create the religious right as a political force, defined the issues that would energize it for decades and cemented its ties to the Republican Party.
Now, we live at a time when -- in the wake of the Iraq war debacle -- that the Republican party stands in a greater degree of disarray than at any time since the 70s and neither of the top three Republican presidential contenders enjoy strong support among the religious right.

Is the indelible link finally over?

The corporate iPod?

I have become a huge fan of Google products over the last year or so (especially Google Docs, their free word processing and spreadsheet package). Unlike the hugely expensive products out of Redmond, Washington that have come to dominate so much of our computer lives, Google's software products have simple, elegant, intuitive user interfaces. And they are reliable and powerful.

But I just heard that Google is moving beyond software into selling hardware. The product is called Google Mini and like Apple's hugely successful iPod it endeavors to be a product where the hardware and the software are intimately integrated with one another (that is, you buy an iPod neither because it is the best hardware value or because it has the best software; you buy it because its combination of those two things is the best _and_ because the combined package works right out of the box without your having to read complicated manuals or pay somebody to help you).

The Google Mini, however, is not about music. It's about search. That is, giving a company of any size a robust way of offering its employees or customers ways of searching through its data without having to hire a small army of network technicians to set it up and maintain it. I think it's very exciting.

So, you ask, why would a rabbi or chaplain care about such things? Is this just my old "geek freak" coming out?

The answer is because it's religious and non-profit organizations -- which tend to be small and cash-strapped -- that stand to benefit most from these developments. Google Docs, for example, allows people to seamlessly collaborate in writing things like grant proposals in a way that used to only be possible inside organizations that could afford to spend millions on networks. It's power to the people! And that's always been exciting for an ol' justice lover like me.

No One Dies Alone

Our new No One Dies Alone program is profiled in an article today's Reading Eagle (that's me, in the sport jacket and with the tie in the photo at left of us holding an orientation session for our latest group of volunteers).

Here's what the article says about the program:

Berks County, PA - While death is clearly solitary, it doesn’t have to be lonely. Yet for thousands of patients in hospitals across the country it is a lonely experience. Sometimes the family is estranged; sometimes there simply is no family or friends left alive. Sometimes there is no one available to stroke a forehead or squeeze a hand as life ebbs.

But thanks to Lynn Schiavone, that’s not the case at Reading Hospital.

Schiavone is both the catalyst and the coordinator of the No One Dies Alone program that began at the hospital in November. It uses hospital employees and volunteers to sit with patients who are dying, offering the simple comfort of their company.

“A lot of them have outlived their families,” Schiavone said. “Or they’d moved a distance away. I had read about this program and I thought it would be right for this hospital.”
I am so proud of the work the volunteers are doing and of all the folks who came together to set up the program. They are truly blessed!

Today's hospital meets 19th century Russia . . . and the Bible

There is a fascinating article in the New York Times this week about how one physician uses the great literature of 19th century Russia to teach Harvard undergraduates about the profound impact illness has on people's spirits and psyches. Writes Jerome Goopman (author, also, of the recent, How Doctors Think):

Medicine engages life’s existential mysteries: the miraculous moment of birth, the jarring exit at death, the struggle to find meaning in suffering.
That is, what some might call life's Big Questions -- what is life? what is the meaning of life? why do the good suffer? what is death? -- are the stuff of daily life at the hospital (and are the reason why hospitals are a natural setting for chaplains -- people trained in engaging the big questions!). But, as Groopman points out, the daily grind of hospital work can quickly desensitize people to the grand nature of what is happening around them. And one way to re-sensitize folks is to engage other sources of the big questions. Few in history have more dramatically and directly engaged these questions than the great authors of 19th century Russia, like Tolstoy, Chekov and Dostoevsky, who wrote in an environment where an entire nation was engaging those questions as it stood on the brink of its cataclysmic and incredibly rapid transition from feudalism to Communism.

Not surprisingly, then, one of Tolstoy's works -- his novella, "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" -- stands at the center of Groopman's course. Some clinical pastoral education programs have also used this work as a means to spur discussion among aspiring clergy and chaplains. In an article in the winter 2006 issue of The Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling, Paul Steinke gives an extensive bibliography, including The Death of Ivan Ilyich, of works he has used in teaching his students. Many others have been doing this kind of work. I wrote here, recently, about a similar course at U Penn. [And here is a syllabus, including a bibliography, for a similar course at U. Colorado.]

But what I really like about Groopman's piece is that he links modern works like Tolstoy's to a very-much-not-modern book that still remains the greatest of all time for engaging the big questions:
Whether read as revealed truth or as a literary work, the Bible is a sourcebook of human psychology and an enduring inspiration for authors trying to capture the drama and dilemmas of medicine.
As Groopman points out, one way to find the Bible's encounter of the big questions is to read modern literature, carefully -- so many references to the Bible are in there if you look for them. Certainly, Tolstoy refers to it, often.

Another thing I liked about Groopman's piece is the sharp critique he makes at the end of some of the most popular "spiritual" New Age success books out, today. Groopman points out that they are full of some very damaging -- and antiquated -- notions about why bad things happen to people; in effect, they blame people for their own misfortune:

Later in the semester we shift to New Age writing, examining the message of books like the surgeon Bernie Siegel’s “Love, Medicine and Miracles” and, new this spring, Rhonda Byrne’s “The Secret,” the runaway best seller that asserts you can solve all your problems, including “eradicating disease,” by correctly aligning your thoughts and aspirations. . . . Both Siegel and “The Secret,” for example, suggest that even cancer arises from anger, resentment and other “negative” emotions. Miraculous cures occur when sick people fix their disease-causing psychology.

Magical thinking is a common malady as we strain to find moral or metaphysical explanations for why, say, some cells mutate and grow abnormally. But there is not a shred of scientific evidence to support the enduring view that patients bring such events on themselves through incorrect thinking. While the Bible contains the seeds of this idea, later religious thinkers like Maimonides, who was deeply influenced by Greek and Roman physicians, drew sharp distinctions between magic and empirical medicine. The New Age writers confuse them anew.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Allegations of religious descrimination at Iowa VA hospital

Yesterday, the Military Religious Freedom Foundation alleged that a Jewish veteran had been subjected to anti-Semitic treatment by a chaplain and others at an Iowa hospital. Read more here.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Future rabbis of America

The Forward has a little special section on Rabbis this week, which features advertisements from rabbinical schools touting themselves and their soon-to-be graduating classes (as I learned when I was a journalist the whole point of a "special section" is to sell highly targeted ads!).

I was somewhat stunned to see that the Reform movement is graduating over 60 new rabbis. My alma mater, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, in contrast, is ordaining 10 rabbis this year (my graduating a class a few years ago was only six!). Of course, Ziegler is just one of the two Conservative movement seminaries in North America. I don't know how many new rabbis that other institution (which is another of my alma maters!) -- the Jewish Theological Seminary -- is planning on ordaining, but I'm sure the Conservative movement total is far shy of 60.

I was sorry to see, by the way, that neither of the Conservative institutions took out ads in the Forward's section. Admittedly, advertisements are only one of the many ways to recruit candidates to a rabbinical school. But I think the Forward's readership probably includes a lot of the kind of bright, creative and deeply committed Jews who don't know yet that the rabbinate is going to turn out to be their personal path to serving their people and their highest values. So, I'm sorry to see my movement not taking this opportunity to raise our profile here.

But, I am looking forward very much to the upcoming ordination at Ziegler. Some of my dearest friends will be ordained, and I am going to be there to share the simha with them! One of my former classmates was profiled in the Foward section.

There were other rabbinical schools who took out ads in the section, by the way, including the unaffiliated Academy for Jewish Religion (ordaining four) in New York, Yeshiva University, Hebrew College (in Boston), the RRC (ordaining 11) and Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Coming home

On my way driving home today from the Rabbinical Assembly's annual convention in Boston, I decided to take some time off from the drive to enjoy the spring day. The natural wonder that is the waterfall I captured here with my cameraphone is not in some isolated pastoral place, as you might think. Almost miraculously, its splendor appears out of the dense, urban grime -- and squalor, I am very sorry to say -- of Paterson, NJ.

Here, by these falls, the Passaic River finally ends its long course northward and at last finds a way through the wall that is the Watchtung Mountains to reverse course and head south, first to Newark Bay and finally to the Atlantic Ocean. It is called the Great Falls of the Passaic River. Here are some more pictures I took of it.

The stone of the sheer cliffs by which the river runs here reminds me of the great cliffs of the Palisades. As I was heading down the West Side Highway to the George Washington Bridge, today, I felt blessed that it was sunny and that it was early spring -- late enough in the season that the trees have budded enough that their beautiful green was everywhere in my sight, but still early enough that the trees by the road had not become that denseness of full summer green that would have blocked my view of the Palisades on the other side of the mighty Hudson River. . . . And, when crossing the bridge, I was able to get in the right lane on the upper deck and take in the view to the north as I passed. . . Ah, the mighty Hudson. You can always take my breath away. . . . It's something that people often don't realize about New York City -- that its physical setting (the cliffs, the hills, the islands, the rivers, the marshes, and, most of all, the harbor) is nothing short of spectacular. If a great city had not arisen there, it still would have been a place that people would have been sure to visit.

Paths to redemption?

NEWARK, May 2 (AP) — James E. McGreevey, who resigned as New Jersey governor in 2004 after saying that he had had an extramarital affair with a man, has become an Episcopalian and wants to be ordained as a priest in that faith, according to a published report.

BOSTON (AP) -- The popular MIT admissions dean ousted when officials learned she lied about her college education on her resume actually earned a diploma from a small Catholic college [but had claimed on her resume to have degrees from other institutions].
These two news stories have been very much on my mind, lately. It's so challenging to our spirits when someone we look up to -- or who holds a position of great trust and responsibility -- turns out to have lied or engaged in some kind of misconduct. The question often becomes when and how might should that person be accepted back into positions of trust and responsibility?

Another important questions is whether their Torah -- the teachings and wisdom that they gave us and that we held dear -- is still good Torah, or do we have to reject that, too, when we reject their misconduct?

The Jewish tradition -- especially the stories of "Aher" -- has much to say on these issues. I hope to have time to share some of that with you in the coming days.