Walking a Constant Tightrope Between Vulnerability and Responsibility
by Krista Tippett, host
It feels poignant, and important, to put this conversation, “Opening Up Windows,” with David Hartman out into the world this week. Last week’s experience of the Palestinian philosopher Sari Nusseibeh evoked a bit of light and air in the present contested moment. So, too — albeit very differently — does David Hartman. Neither of these men speaks for his people, but each uniquely embodies and articulates the drama of his national narrative.
What David Hartman offers is a window into intra-Israeli searching and struggles that drive news headlines from this part of the world, but are rarely heard in and for themselves. The effect of his presence is at once humanizing, uncomfortable, and revealing.
Years ago, in the early days of creating this program, people sometimes asked me about the balance of drawing out a single voice to speak to a complex issue. The question, I think, betrays the way we’ve narrowed the idea of balance in our public deliberation of many important issues. There is certainly a place for debate between fixed, competing positions; but the biggest “issues” before us are often, as Sari Nusseibeh so acutely put it, matters of gradual human maturation and evolution. Point-counterpoint exchanges bury this possibility, but it can be heard through a single voice — in the self-examined life of a person who wrestles with complexity and change, and who continues to challenge oneself.
So, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, questions of how to define statehood and draw borders always coexist with related, but not identical, questions of how two peoples can maintain their dignity and live together. As a Jew who chose to move to Israel with his wife and five children in the aftermath of the Six-Day War of 1967, David Hartman has lived along the continuum of the Jewish encounter with all those questions in the decades since. A former congregational rabbi, he created a think tank and educational center that has brought Jews of different traditions together in unprecedented ways.
David Hartman has also been an unusual religious figure in Israeli society as a leader who challenges traditional Judaism from the inside. His daughter Tova is known as an Orthodox feminist. In part, because of her influence, David Hartman became an activist for the inclusion of women in ritual and practice, challenging traditional Jews to see the matter of women’s rabbinic ordination as a statement of nothing less than the character of the God one worships. To deny the full personhood of women, David Hartman says with characteristic forcefulness, is “spiritual suicide.”
He is frank and searching, too, on Israeli-Palestinian relations. “That’s so painful,” he says, when I ask how his discernment on God and the dignity of women might relate to the Jewish relationship to Palestinians. On the morning I interviewed him, a Jewish family, including a three-month-old infant, had just been brutally murdered in a settlement near Nablus. The weight of that news was all around us, and so too was the fear — soon to be realized — that this act of violence would yield to a new cycle of reprisal and attack, with grief on both sides. “I am constantly moved up and back,” David Hartman tells us. “When my family gets killed, and my family’s frightened to go to sleep at night, I get angry. I have a lot of anger in me. But part of my tradition is to learn how to control that anger. And I don’t know if they really want to live with me.”
It’s strange, really, that for all the human drama that is so assiduously reported from this part of the world, we so rarely hear the kind of direct struggle with anger and pain that David Hartman offers in this conversation. Both emotions are embedded in the fabric of daily life in this land, and they merge with the longer lineage of Jewish history. “[A] core meaning of the State of Israel,” David Hartman has written, “is precisely the will of the Jewish people to remain in history, despite overwhelming evidence of the risks involved.” In Israel as in the rest of the world, as he describes it, Jews walk a constant tightrope between vulnerability and responsibility — alternately powerful and weak, and both at once.
He describes the dignity he experiences of being at home in Israel as “a return to memory.” And so, he adds evocatively, “How do we deal with this memory? Narcissistically? Triumphantly? Arrogantly? Or we say, ‘Now that I have my memory, tell me about yours.’” This echoes the journey Sari Nusseibeh shared with us, of walking into a former “No Man’s Land” in 1967 and looking back at where he came from — wanting to see himself from the other side. In such images, we don’t merely experience a new way to see a painful global crisis; we feel ourselves addressed.
About the photo: Krista Tippett interviews Rabbi David Hartman at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Photo by Trent Gilliss.
Animated Shorts on the Lessons of Forgiveness and Repentance for the High Holy Days
by Susan Leem, associate producer + Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The son of an Israeli nuclear physicist, the artist Hanan Harchol moved to the United States with his family when he was two years old. And it’s his father’s accent that Harchol impersonates and argues with in these two humorous and enlightening animated shorts for the High Holy Days.
But, these illustrated videos mining a deeper understanding of the Jewish concepts of teshuva (repentance) and slicha (forgiveness), Harchol says, weren’t inspired by a personal sense of devotion or religiosity. Just the opposite, in fact. The requirements of the project stipulated that he immerse himself in the texts, and through studying them he reevaluated the essence and spirit of Jewish teachings he had ignored or rejected for many years:
“I spent my life gravitating towards, and making, narrative art that explores the human condition from a psychological, philosophical, and existential perspective. While Judaism offers thousands of years of wisdom on the human condition, I avoided it as a source because of what I perceived to be its preachy, judgmental, and shaming tone.
Then, in 2009, I was commissioned to create a short artistic animation that interpreted the eating of bitter herbs during Passover. As part of the project, I was mandated to participate in a monthly Jewish study group under the leadership of a dynamic and brilliant rabbi named Leon Morris. To my surprise, I discovered that the human themes we were discussing and wrestling with in the study group were precisely the kind I had always been exploring in my personal artmaking. Even the process itself of sitting around a table, debating and wrestling with these human concepts (a process I did regularly with my friends and in my artmaking) proved to be a fundamental part of the Jewish study and learning process.
I became filled with questions about how much my Jewish heritage had influenced how I was raised, how I behaved, how I thought, and even who I was as a person and an artist. What I discovered was a wealth of wisdom. Within the Jewish texts were crucial teachings and lessons that applied as much to our contemporary lives as they did when they were written. By avoiding the Jewish writings because of their religious nature and tone, I was missing out on thousands of years of deep thought and study on the human condition itself. I had thrown the baby out with the bath water.”
T’shuva: Recognizing Holiness
by Laura Hegfield, guest contributor
I was watching the gathering clouds and their shifting shadows on those familiar mountains for quite a while. I saw you, but it wasn’t until I turned and took a step that I could truly see you.
With an intake of breath, my heart expanded in awe, recognizing yours, so perfectly formed.
How many others had passed by without noticing? What if I had not turned that afternoon, had not taken a step?
Gratitude awakened, witnessing this mirrored image of sacredness balanced on the mountainside.
You. Me. God.
Standing as One in this single moment of grace.
I love this tree. I love remembering the feeling of awe that filled me when I looked through the viewfinder of my camera and realized that the branches and leaves grew into a perfect heart shape. But I didn’t see it right away; it took a while until I was standing in just the right position to be aware of what was in front of me the whole time.
The form was there, the core essence of holiness was present all along, but I had to orient myself properly in order to recognize it. I think the same can be said for the holy essence that resides within each of us.
During the month of Elul, leading up to the Yomim Noraim, the Jewish High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is a Jewish spiritual practice to make t’shuva — to turn, return to our goodness, our godliness, to God.
We turn inward. We look in our hearts and examine closely the mountains of mistakes we have made. We turn towards those we have hurt and ask for forgiveness. We promise to do better — at the very least to try to be kinder and more thoughtful in the year to come. We do what we can to repair what we have broken. We make a conscious shift from where our hearts were positioned when we were intentionally hurtful or simply not paying attention to our words and actions. We return to God awareness, remembering that it is when we forget our own divinity and that of others that we inflict harm.
We choose to change, to grow. Like the micro-movements of alignment a yogini must make to settle into vrkasana (tree pose) with strength, firmly rooted, balanced, open, present, we readjust our inner stance until we can see beyond the misdeeds, harsh words, insincerity, apathy, judgment and wounds to discover our own holy hearts, beautifully formed, strong, rooted, balanced, open and fully present; silhouetted before the jagged background of those mountains. The dark clouds move aside, our holiness shines brilliantly. It was always there. Here. We forgive ourselves; perhaps the hardest step of all. We have returned.
Laura Hegfield is a daughter, sister, wife, mother and lover of life with an artist’s soul. Diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis three years ago, she is no longer able to work outside her home. She stays engaged with the world through photography and shares her journey on her blog.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Finding Refuge in the Month of Elul
by Carly Lesser (Ketzirah), guest contributor
(photo: Love Fusion Photography by Kelsey/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)
It’s Jewish tradition to read Psalm 27 daily during the month of Elul, which falls during August and September. In this month of Elul, we have no holidays. It’s the month where we are supposed to turn inward and prepare for the High Holy Days: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. It always seems like this month should be one of quiet reflection, but it never is for me.
“The Lord is my light and my salvation…”
I started to adopt this practice a few years ago, and found that the words of the Psalm were exactly what I seemed to need to get through the month, which seems to have become a time of trial in my life each year. This year, like so many recent ones, seems to be following this pattern.
“Though a host should encamp against me, my heart shall not fear;”
I’m conscious of not only my own personal trials and tribulations this year, but also our societal ones. So far this month, there have been hurricanes and floods on the East Coast and terrible droughts and fires in the South and West. We’ve also had bad economic news and the beginning of the remembrances of the tenth anniversary of the attacks on September 11th.
“Hear, O LORD, when I call with my voice, and be gracious unto me, and answer me.”
When I read the words of Psalm 27, it resonates deeply within my body. It doesn’t matter which translation I read. The words feel like mine. They feel like my cry for help to deal with a world that seems to be spinning out of control, whether personally or globally.
“Teach me Thy way, O LORD; and lead me in an even path,”
Each day as I read the Psalm, I’m aware that I am one day closer to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the days of remembrance and judgement. I think of the imagery we use: the gates of heaven open on Rosh Hashanah and close on Yom Kippur. I think this is sad to think that the gates of divine blessing can only be open to us during this short nine-day period of time.
“If I had not believed to look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living!”
Then I think, ‘Maybe this is why Elul is always so hard. Maybe the infusion of divine energy that is opened to the world so fully at Rosh Hashanah is fading out? Maybe thousands of years of this pattern has ingrained itself so fully on the world that we all feel it? Maybe what we need to do is be extra kind to each other and the world during this time, not for “repentance,” but rather because we need to support each other?’
“Wait on the LORD; be strong, and let thy heart take courage; yea, wait thou for the LORD.”
I believe in the cycles of time. I believe in mythic calendars that move our souls. I look to the “land of the living” to see the beauty, wonder, and mystery of G-d/dess, but it is hard to see in the fading light of the year. I will be strong. I will use these ancient words to remind me of my priorities and to sooth my fears. I will take refuge in Psalm 27 during this time of twilight because I know the sun will rise again and we all will be renewed and refreshed.
*Note, the translation of Psalm 27 is from the JPS 1917 edition of the Tanach.
Carly Lesser (a.k.a. Ketzirah – קצירה) is Kohenet, celebrant, and artist whose passion is helping Jews who are unaffiliated, earth-based, or in interfaith/interdenominational relationships connect more deeply with Judaism and make it relevant in their everyday lives. She is an active blogger and prayer leader on PeelaPom.com and PunkTorah.org.
We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.
Estranged on the High Holy Days
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
A 2008 Tashlikh ceremony is performed on the banks of the Mississippi River in St. Paul, Minnesota. (photo: GSankary)
We’re now on the other side of the Days of Awe — the ten-day period starting with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur. This year I participated in a Tashlikh ceremony for the first time since my childhood Hebrew school days. Tashlikh (also referred to as Tashlich) is a ritual of reflection and repentance where people throw shards of bread gather into a flowing body flowing water, symbolically casting off their sins from the previous year.
On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, as joggers and power walkers streamed by, I gathered with a few others by a lake in Minneapolis to recite prayers and sing songs including one of my favorite melodies, Avinu Malkeinu. Later that evening, a larger group of mostly strangers assembled for a Rosh Hashanah potluck featuring sweet kosher wine and home-baked challah. I learned about both of these events online and decided to show up even though I didn’t know anyone. With my family back on the East Coast, I didn’t want to experience the High Holy Days alone.
To break the ice, we introduced ourselves along with the name of a Jewish food that shared the first letter of our first name. When my turn came, I couldn’t think of anything. The group rescued me with “noodle kugel.” I wasn’t the only one who got stuck. A Unitarian woman needed the group to brainstorm a Jewish food for her too.
The experience of these rituals surfaced a mix of emotions. It was nice having a place to go on Rosh Hashanah where I was received with openness and warmth. And yet, I didn’t feel exactly at home. In theory, I feel like I should experience a meaningful bond with other Jewish people based on the fact of our shared Jewishness but, in practice, it’s not necessarily enough.
I didn’t grow up reciting prayers or regularly attending services (or even eating noodle kugel for that matter, although my mother makes a mean matzoh ball soup). I’m embarrassed by my hazy recollections of the rituals and prayers and my inability to read Hebrew, much less make out the transliterations. I know that no one is judging me, but it’s difficult to feel estranged in situations that should be like a kind homecoming.
One Voice in a Jewish Spiritual Renaissance
by Krista Tippett, host
At the beginning of my conversation with Rabbi Sharon Brous and again at the end, we discuss a seminal prayer-poem of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Unetaneh Tokef. It is a recital of commonplace mortal perils of the year to come:
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die…
Who shall be at peace and who shall be pursued,
Who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low…
Our culture — human nature magnified — denies frailty and finitude with a million devices. This religious ritual, more realistically, stares them in the face and asks us to make sense of our lives in and because of them.
Our show “Days of Awe” (listen in the audio above) evokes so much that I love about Jewish tradition — like the fact that it is supremely attuned to human nature’s messiness as well as its nobility. It comprehends the fact that we turn a phrase like “living like there’s no tomorrow” into a cliché, an excuse for froth or license. And so, by the calendar, cyclically, Jews both secular and devout are stopped in their tracks by the long blasts of the shofar and rituals of the High Holy Days that cleanse, humble, deepen, anchor, and refresh. In long hours of prayer, liturgy, and fasting, worshipers name and reckon with the transgressions and omissions of the year past — both individual and communal — and wipe the slate clean for the moment in time ahead.
We wanted to find a way to explore the Jewish High Holy Days for years, and we might have interviewed any number of wonderful guests who would have provided myriad windows into the themes and meaning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But as we researched this show, my imagination was caught by Sharon Brous. She is a rabbi in the conservative school of Judaism but spent a number of actively disaffected, secular years doubting the validity of faith in a modern life. She now leads an urban community she helped to found in Los Angeles in 2004 named IKAR — after the Hebrew word for “essence,” or “core.” Her congregation is bursting at the seams, mostly with people in their 20s and 30s. IKAR calls itself both progressive and traditional. Alongside social justice engagement, their Yom Kippur worship will include the ancient spiritual posture of full-body prostration.
Solemn words like “repentance” and “atonement” define the Days of Awe, though these English translations of Hebrew words are resonant culturally with their Christian appropriations. More importantly, they don’t capture the poetic and visual nuances of the Hebrew. Yet Sharon Brous embraces them intellectually and kinetically. In the deepest spirit of Jewish tradition — of midrash and Talmud, of reverent yet imaginative interpretation of text and practice, of sacred and fearless conversation across generations about them — she fills them with new connotations for her generation.
There is a new Zeitgeist that she embodies, and that intrigues me. Sharon Brous could not be more different from other younger guests I’ve had, such as Shane Claiborne or Eboo Patel, but she reminds me of both of them. They are all thoroughly modern, deeply thoughtful, spiritually wise beyond their years — at once fully engaged in modern life and rooted in ancient spiritual soil. They are fierce about making their traditions relevant and as passionate about transmitting the beauty and wisdom their faiths have revealed across the ages.
In one moving part of our conversation, Rabbi Brous speaks about teachings in Jewish tradition that grieve her, as a woman in particular. But she adds that “the wisdom that comes from this text comes from the same place as the excruciating pain that flows from it.” And even the tears she cries over the pages of Talmud or Torah, she insists, become part of the mix of the living tradition that she carries forward into a new year.
Eat, Listen, Ask: Learning from Students
Aaron Spiegel, guest blogger
“Next to being the children of God our greatest privilege is being the brothers of each other.”
We in the religion world use the word interfaith much too often. And in my opinion, most of what passes for interfaith dialogue is not dialogue at all — it’s a lecture about why I’m right and you’re wrong. It’s not that we’re all religious zealots, but most often the forum for these dialogues are set up to create division rather than civil discourse. Put simply, we’re much better at talking than listening.
I recently had a chance to experience real interfaith dialogue. Butler University students from Hillel, a Jewish student organization, and Muslim Student Alliance decided they wanted to organize a dinner and conversation around Eid and the High Holy Days. The two organizations have collaborated in the past couple years on similar events and have a great working and social relationship.
The students formulated the agenda, which was brilliantly simple — let’s each give the very basics of our holiday and then ask each other questions. Let’s eat together, listen to each other, and ask each other questions.
On the surface, the conversation seemed light and conversational. Yet, the exchange was profound. These young Jews and young Muslims genuinely shared with each other. There was no attempt at making nice; they genuinely liked talking to each other. There were no overt attempts at finding commonality; it was inherent. They recognized the humanity in one another. They learned about, and from, one another in ways that are lasting and powerful. I’m sure it will influence how these young adults see the “other” in their lives. I know it’s influenced mine!
Rabbi Aaron Spiegel is campus rabbi for Butler University.
Awe-some Music Inspired by the Jewish High Holy Days
Colleen Scheck, Producer
If you’ve never listened to the SOF Playlist that accompanies each program, I highly recommend checking out the list for this week’s show exploring the meaning and sounds of the approaching Jewish High Holy Days, “Days of Awe.” You can hear full-length tracks of each song played in the program.
As we were preparing this program for rebroadcast, I was struck by the beauty and diversity of the music Mitch compiled, which is inspired by this sacred time. I looked a little more closely into the background of some of the songs, discovering some interesting history and modern context. Here are a few examples:
“On Rosh Hashanah”
Bassist David Chevan’s 10-minute rendition of “On Rosh Hashanah” is a contemporary jazz composition that fuses Jewish and non-Jewish musical influences. Chevan, the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, grew up in a Conservative-Egalitarian synagogue where he led services from the age of 10. He’s melded sacred music with jazz for years, and he currently performs with an ensemble called The Afro-Semitic Experience. Their compositions blend a wide range of music influenced by both Jewish and African-American traditions, from 18th-century cantorial works to the music of Sly Stone and Mahalia Jackson. In this 2002 NPR profile of Chevan and Afro-Semitic pianist Warren Byrd, they describe how the point of their collaboration is to address differences and commalities among faiths and races in America.
“On Rosh Hashanah” is from Chevan’s 2003 album, The Days of Awe: Meditations for Selichot, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur. A review of the album called it a “groundbreaking work if only because it is the first time that a jazz musician (or any instrumental musician) has ever made a recording solely devoted to the music of the Jewish High Holy Days.” ”On Rosh Hashanah” features Chevan, The Afro-Semitic Experience, and trumpeter Frank London. Like many of the works on the album, it’s based on a 1907 recording by the famous early 20th-century cantor Josef “Yossele” Rosenblatt.
“Rivers of Babylon”
Rabbi Sharon Brous sent us this version of Psalm 137 (expressing the yearnings of the Jewish people in exile following the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem) as one example of “the vibe of services at IKAR.” Originally recorded for an IKAR Shabbat CD, she says it is also used for High Holy Days, and she calls it “one of the most soulful compositions” she’s ever heard. It’s based on the 1972 version written by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of The Melodians — a 1960’s Jamaican rock-steady reggae trio. It first appeared in the sound track to the 1972 movie The Harder They Come — a film based on the life of Ivanhoe “Rhyging” Martin, a Jamaican criminal who achieved fame in the 1940s. Many other musicians have covered it, including Boney M, Sinead O’Connor, the Neville Brothers, and Sublime.
As in her conversation with Krista, the influence of the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel on Brous surfaces again in this quote from IKAR’s Web site: “Heschel taught that music is the only language that is compatible with the wonder and mystery of being.”
The lead female voice on “Rivers of Babylon” is Jessica Meyer, a former IKAR member who taught prayer music to children and sang at services. A former actress (she was in Roman Polanski’s The Pianist), Meyer gave up a burgeoning Hollywood career to become a cantor. She recounts what drew her to IKAR:
“I was a Hebrew School dropout. Disgusted with the Judaism ‘Lite’ espoused by the Conservative synagogue of my childhood, I went in search of a spiritually vibrant, politically engaged Jewish community committed to a culture of Jewish learning and prayer. I did not find it until I came to an IKAR service…
The music of prayer at IKAR is electrifying. The melodies range from Ashkenazi old school to Carlebach, to one inspired by a Sufi chant! The people who lead services are not performing, they’re praying. (It is amazing how much closer people can come to a prayer when they have the freedom to explore for themselves – when there isn’t a someone performing it for them.)
It took me many years, and three continents to find Ikar. It is a blessing to be a part of this community.”
Check out the “Days of Awe” play list for other songs by Leonard Cohen, the BBC Symphony, and Barbara Streisand. Which ones resonate with you?