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! (#*#)


Relighting the fires -- next week at Oraita

On Sunday I will be making the long drive to Northwood, NH, to take part in an exciting new program from Art Green and the other folks at Boston's Hebrew College, which has made a mark in recent years as one of the most dynamic institutions for educating Jewish leaders.

The program is called Oraita, which is the Aramaic word for Torah. But the word means more for me here: with the flames rising from the Alephs on either side of the logo above -- along with the sound "or" at the beginning of the word Oraita -- I very much think of the Hebrew word or, which means a light or a candle flame. And it is for flame that I am heading out to the New Hampshire woods for a week.

I, and the 15 other rabbis who will be there from across America, are coming in search of the flame that we know is in Torah, the flame that we need to light our heart and our spirits. The flame that is best found from studying together in pairs and in groups in the room we Jews like to call the Beit Midrash, or The House of Inquiry. In that place we can find like-minded souls and minds to inquire after the flame, together.

For us rabbis who are "out in the field" this kind of community can be very difficult to find close to our homes. And that is why a place like Oraita is so important. Our communities count on us -- us rabbis -- to help them light the flames in their own souls and to help them connect with their passion for Judaism and for the Jewish people. But if our own flames are not burning -- if we have not done the "self-care" necessary to keep our own spirit fires alit, we will have nothing to give our communities. And, so we go to places like Oraita not just for ourselves, but for our communities and for the Jewish people as a whole.

But, for me, Oraita is not just any retreat. For me it will be -- God willing -- the culmination of a long-held dream: the dream to study with Arthur Green. I have admired him -- and the great minds he gathers around him -- for many years, but have only had a chance to hear him speak once. Green is one of those rare folks (Dani Matt is another) who are able to bridge the worlds of 1) academic excellence and 2) spiritual inspiration. The project of bridging those worlds is one that is particularly important to me. One way I think of that now is to say that who I really want to be becoming is both a "Talmud Scholar and Spiritual Healer". Put another way, I want to live up to the words that my colleague and dear friend Rabbi Shawn Simon spoke about me when he introduced me at my ordination a little more than three years ago:

[I]n the book of Jeremiah we learn that the voice of the Lord is like a hammer shattering stone. In Talmud Sanhedrin this verse is explicated: Just as the hammer splits rock into many shards so too one biblical verse can project multiple meanings. Take the verse –split it, carve it, shape it – this is the rabbinic enterprise. Bamidbar Rabba idealizes a student who successfully derives 49 meanings from each verse studied. This Midrash concludes that the student himself is a chip off of Mt. Sinai. From this we learn that it is not an object we received but rather a process. In essence, what was received at Sinai was the obligation to constantly study text.

Tonight I am presenting someone who embodies this ideal. My own studies greatly profited from having learned with Alan in hevruta. Our sessions always distinguished themselves by being both intellectually vibrant and passionately religious. His approach posits that text study: is both a critical source of knowledge for personal and communal development and our most reliable interface with God.

Who could ask for more than a Hevruta who envisioned each and every session of our studying as an opportunity to renew the Sinai experience!

It is my prayer that it will be the will of the Blessed Holy One that I should have the privilege of having the flames of Torah kindled brighter in my heart and soul as I learn with my colleagues and blessed teachers at Oraita. And that this learning will move me closer to upholding the promise of the above words about me.


It is, by the way, an important time for me to focus on the part of me that is about finding inspiration in Torah study. The last month and a half or so has been an intense and exciting time for me in my work (and the intensity of that has been one reason I have not posted here much, the other being that with so many Jewish holidays over the last month there were many less days available to me when I was permitted to write).

The excitement has been about our chaplaincy students here at the hospital. We have four full-time residents who started at the beginning of September and four part-time interns who we started orienting in the middle of September. My passion for the work of spiritual care -- and for assisting others in taking this work upon themselves and building their skills at it -- has been alit by my interactions with these students, and that flame has been burning bright, oh so bright, for me over the recent weeks and days. It's been a great time, but caring for myself and my ministry means maintaining a balance. And so I'm off to the woods of New Hampshire! :)