Friday, July 27, 2012

Turning your laments into prayer: thoughts -- and voices -- for the 9th of Av

The 9th of the month of Av -- Tisha B’Av -- is the most mournful day on the Jewish calendar. It marks a host of calamities for the Jewish people -- all of which are said to have occurred on the 9th of Av -- including the destruction of both the first and second great Temples in ancient Jerusalem. Yet it can be hard for the contemporary Jew to approach Tisha B’Av as a spiritually meaningful day of mourning. After all, Judaism as we know it -- rabbinic Judaism -- only emerged as a result of the loss of the Second Temple and the exile of the Jews from Jerusalem. And, as much as we might yearn deep in our souls for a messianic redemption where all the people of the world acknowledge our God as The One, few of us are interested in working practically for a rebuilding of the Temple and a reestablishment of the sacrificial cult with its bloody burning of offerings on the altar.

But -- in a lecture as part of the chaplaincy training program I’m teaching in this summer at the Jewish Theological Seminary -- Professor David Kraemer helped me see that Tisha B’Av is not just a day of mourning -- neither in contemporary nor in ancient times. Kraemer’s genius is to step back and look at the ritual practices in our tradition without all the overlays of meaning we have associated with them over the centuries. By looking at the practices afresh, we are able to get new insights into their meaning, he teaches us.

Regarding Tisha B’Av, Kraemer compared its core ritual practices -- like fasting and avoiding washing -- to the core ritual practices from two other key elements of the tradition: one that is clearly about mourning -- shiva (mourning practices after the death of a loved one) -- and one that is not so clearly about mourning -- Yom Kippur (or the Day of Atonement). From this comparison, it became clear that although Tisha B’Av is partially about mourning (as it shares practices like a ban on Torah study with shiva), iit also has practices -- like fasting -- that link it more closely to the themes of atonement.

That leaves us with the question of what the nature of atonement -- and its central practice of fasting -- really is about. I’m reminded of the Talmud’s entire tractate about fasting  when there is a drought (תענית/taanit). That bit of Talmud makes me think fasting is not just about atoning for sin, but also about praying for release and relief. In that sense, fasting is anything but a mournful act -- it is a hopeful act of prayer for better times. But, nonetheless, mournful lament is indeed also clearly part of Tisha B’Av. Perhaps the one is not possible without the other. That is, perhaps one must first lament -- to cry out in pain to God -- before one is ready to ask for release and relief.

I am reminded also of the incredible lessons of the work Minna has been doing writing  Songs of Laments with mental health patients and others. She shared some of this incredible work with some chaplaincy students from our program and others last Thursday. You can get a taste of it too! Just watch this video excerpting the highlights of the workshop she did. It was truly an incredible experience.

May your fast be easy, may your Tisha B’Av be meaningful . . .  and may it be the will of the Holy Blessed One that you should find your way through lament to be able to pray with hope.

And may your prayers be answered.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Coney and back!

Minna loves her work as a congregational rabbi, but it is the nature of her work that sometimes unpredictable and intense experiences interrupt one's normal schedule -- especially one's schedule of "rest and restore' time. That's what it's been like lately with multiple funerals in her congregation. So we both felt that this noninterrupted scheduled day off had to be made to really 'count' as fun and relaxing. Well, I am happy to say that I think we really did succeed in making it count, today. We rode our bicycles from a place we're staying at in Soho to Coney Island and back. Our approximate route of some 32 miles is displayed on the left.

It was a fun time that twice included the thrill of being high above the East River on the Brooklyn Bridge (and the non-thrill of having to dodge throngs of tourists up there) as well as a trip to the Coney Island aquarium.

Here's Minna when we got to Coney Island:

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Won’t it just happen again? -- silence, Penn State and the exclusion of Jews in CPE

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be one of the powerless dwelling among the powerful. At Penn State, Jerry Sandusky was among the powerful. When accusations of him abusing powerless children started to surface, his fellows among the powerful at Penn State spoke about the accusations only in whispers. They wanted to handle it quietly without risking a public discussion. And, so, amid the secrecy, the abuse went on for years.

Silence stifles change and perpetuates damaging uses of power. Dialogue and discussion make change and healing possible. Leaders have an ethical obligation to hear the voices of the minorities among them -- not just in private, but in public forums so all among the majority and minorities can participate in a dialogue.

I am proud to be a member of the ACPE -- the Association for Clinical

Pastoral Education. We are the leaders in educating clergy and chaplains about how to provide spiritual care and comfort for the ill, suffering and dying. It’s holy work sustained by holy values. But we are not living up to those holy -- and ethical -- values when we exclude a minority among us from the table.

That is what the ACPE has done by scheduling its next annual conference on the holiday of Shavuot -- it has excluded Jews from the table by making it impossible for many of us to attend the conference.

And this exclusion is not some isolated error. It is a repeated event: Three out of the last seven conferences have conflicted with Jewish observance.

And -- perhaps most egregiously -- the ACPE proposes to deal with this violation without dialogue. They have sent out a statement that essentially says, we apologize and now let’s just move on. There is no invitation to dialogue about this, either with with the Jewish members of the ACPE or among the wider ACPE membership. Nobody came to talk to us -- us Jews -- before this statement apparently ending the matter was issued.

Nobody came to talk to us. Nobody came to talk to us about what it means to us to have a conference scheduled on one of our Holy Days. Nobody came to us to ask us what Shavuot is or how we observe it.

The statement (which I have included in full, below) seems to indicate that its writers think they know what Shavuot is about. They write:

For this particular time of Shavuot we are thankful for the revelation of the Torah and the Moses Sinai experience.  We are also grateful for the rich lessons afforded to us at the readings about Ruth and the reciting of the Ten Commandments.

If somebody had come to talk to me -- a Jew, a rabbi ordained in the Conservative movement, a certified full ACPE supervisor and the designated convener of the Jewish Supervisors Network in the ACPE -- and asked me what it meant to have a conference scheduled on Shavuot, I doubt I would have mentioned Ruth or the Ten Commandments. It is, frankly, deeply insulting to see others reducing a holy part of my tradition to a few things one could have found out simply by doing a Wikipedia search.

If they had come to me, I probably would simply have expressed shock that the conference had been scheduled in a way that I could not attend. In no way is it a salve to my hurt to know that the majority religious culture knows I also have the Book of Ruth and the Ten Commandments somewhere in my tradition. Following ancient practice, I am one of the Jews who -- as a central part of my spiritual practice -- does not travel or perform work on Shabbat or biblically ordained holidays. When you schedule a four-day conference hundreds of miles from my home that conflicts with three days of holiday and Shabbat then there is no way I can be there. It only adds to my pain for you to say that my holy tradition provides some “rich lessons” related to Ruth and the Ten Commandments.

The Jewish Supervisors Network has written a letter to the ACPE leadership expressing outrage and asking for action. The letter asks for a meeting with the ACPE leadership, and, perhaps more importantly, that the leadership share the letter with the full ACPE membership. We need to have a discussion about where we want to be as an organization. Are we living up to our values? What do these repeated dynamics say about us? Do we really practice multicultural competency when we fail to ask the ‘other’ about his or her own experience, beliefs and practices? Are we following our founding doctrine of treating the ‘other’ as a living human theological document?

We Jews are a very small people. In the entire world, there are only maybe 13 million of us. We are small, but we share many ideas and texts with two very large religions, one of which -- Christianity -- is very much the majority religion in the United States. Our shared links with Islam and Christianity can be a source of pride for us, but can also a source of anxiety. There always lurks the possibility of supersessionism -- the possibility that the majority culture will take some elements of our tradition, make them their own and then claim there is no need for the Jews to remain as a distinct people and faith. My fear of being swallowed up by the majority was raised by the ACPE’s statements about valuing the lessons of Ruth and the Ten Commandments. I am not just a source of lessons for you. I am an individual. I come from a particular faith tradition. I am among those from my faith tradition who are committed to preserving it as a distinctive and particular religious expression and community -- even as I seek dialogue, engagement and fellowship with other people of faith.

I am sure that some who read this may think it was a stretch for me to mention the Penn State abuses in this blog post that is primarily about the experience of Jews in the ACPE. But I underscore again what the point of connection is -- silence is what allows oppressive power structures to continue. It -- whatever “it” is -- is just going to happen again and again if we do not have broad discussions about the uses of power and the role of minorities and the powerless. I certainly do not accuse any leader in the ACPE of intentionally oppressing the Jews -- but I do want to bring to the broader awareness of the full ACPE membership that this is indeed what the result of ACPE policy and practice is.

The leadership claims the meeting -- a full 10 months away -- cannot be rescheduled. Really? Isn’t making it possible for the Jews to attend worth it? Or are you just going to acknowledge the role of the absent Jews by reading the Ten Commandments at the beginning of the meeting?


Here is the full text of the ACPE statement, which went out to the membership by email on July 11:

Dear ACPE Community--particularly our Jewish ACPE Members,

The National Conference Committee of the ACPE has just been alerted to the fact that our annual meeting to be held in Indianapolis during May 15-18, 2013 has been regrettably scheduled during the Holy period of Shavuot.  It is with great sadness that this has occurred.

Year in and year out we work with multiple dates and multiple schedules of hotel availability all the while doing our best to avoid sacred dates and other holidays. We then field bids from the hotels before deciding on a site. This particular conflict during the 2013 meeting slipped by us.  The sincerest apology to our community is not enough.  We hope to learn from this unintended mishap and be better persons and planners going forward.

While we cannot at this time change our mistake, we are hopeful that we can draw positive attention to this particular religious holy day and to accentuate other holy days when they come into close proximity to our meetings.  Religious traditions are the roots of our movement.  We enjoy the rich blessings of growth and support because of the courage of others to bring holy living into our cultures.  For this particular time of Shavuot we are thankful for the revelation of the Torah and the Moses Sinai experience.  We are also grateful for the rich lessons afforded to us at the readings about Ruth and the reciting of the Ten Commandments.

For this upcoming meeting and going forward the National Conference Committee will redouble our efforts to make religious traditions a critical center of our activity and where we can, we will become even more sensitive to the needs of our community in relationship to religious schedules.


Robin and George