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We are a community of Hebrew Seminary faculty, staff, rabbinical students, lifelong learners, Kabbalists, scholars, spiritual seekers and kind supporters.

The mission of Hebrew Seminary is to train women and men as rabbis and Jewish educators to serve all Jewish communities, including the deaf community. Hebrew Seminary has been an inclusive and egalitarian community for the study and practice of Judaism since our founding in 1993.

We hope that within this blog you will discover moments of insight and inspiration, practical and spiritual guidance, as well as a path to further study.

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The Earth As Sanctuary

From the Pen of Executive Director Alison C. Brown

Parsha Tezaveh discusses the materials and steps necessary to perform service to God in the Sanctuary. As a metaphor, “Achieving any form of spiritual growth requires sustained effort and daily rituals.” [1] We call this avodah, service. Our intentional efforts and rituals create a space, a groove, carved into our life through practice that allows a flow of ideals into actions.

Just as water naturally flows to join its watershed, so too practiced meditation and prayer flows through our thoughtscape along God created paths of peace and purpose. Perhaps these paths run parallel to biological paths of self-preservation and bias, but meditation, prayer and ritual creates neuropathways that we can utilize to do our avodah, our service. These paths of compassion lead to doing right by others and doing right by creation. The earth is our sanctuary and so many of our mitzvoth recognize that with rituals of appreciation.

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch writes of Exodus 28:33:

“The numerous seeds inside pomegranates symbolize a life full of active duties, which are the fruit that ripen in the field of earthly life. The diversity of the duties corresponds to the diversity of life itself, and all of man’s various traits and qualities have a role to play in the fulfillment and realization of all these duties.” [2]

Our duties are as numerous as the diversity of life itself and it is life itself that we seem to take for granted. Since Tu B’Shevat, I’ve been worried that our duty to the earth will be neglected under the stress of all else that is at stake these 2017 legislative sessions. However when I recently visited my twin daughters at college in Iowa, I found front page headlines that usurped all other news and called dramatic attention to the fundamental need for reducing nitrate levels in our surface waters.

The article included a stunning photograph of the Atlantic Watershed as it flows pollution-laden into the already oxygen-deprived Gulf of Mexico.   The report read, “Momentum for improving the quality of Iowa’s degraded water peaked Nov. 8, when 74 percent of Linn County voters approved a $40 million conservation bond.” [3]  Caring for the earth is on the radar in Iowa because the voters understand how interconnected we are to the environment.

Consider utilizing your meditation and prayer flowing neuropathways to brainstorm and advocate with your legislators and friends about environmental concerns in your state. A number of agencies and hard-won regulations are on the line as you read this. The earth is our sanctuary and she needs you to nurture and protect her life-giving, God given flow.

Weaving Our Thoughts With a Wise Heart

From the Pen of Executive Director Alison C. Brown

It is said that the tabernacle described in Exodus is a metaphor for our inner realms, the way our spirit works together with our mind to negotiate life.  Parsha Terumah delineates the myriad details necessary to construct the Tabernacle.  Commentators note, “God’s presence is not found in a building.  It is found in the hearts and the souls of the people ….”   It is our spirit, soul and mind that fashions a tabernacle, a mishkan, for God’s presence.   Accordingly, our thoughts must be intentionally fashioned.

Later Torah verses describe the making of Aaron’s priestly vestments including the ephod (a short coat “girded” on over other garments).  The ephod, say commentators, protects the wearer against the dangers of idolatry and symbolizes a right relation between man and God.  Those who were “skillful” (hochme-lev, wise of heart) would cunningly “weave” (hoshev, thinking) gold with blue, purple and crimson yarns into the ephod’s fine linen.   These materials were woven with thought and a wise heart to create a relationship with God.  Our relationship with God includes our thoughts.   If my microwave is beeping to remind me of the coffee I reheated, I can either weave thoughts of annoyance because the beeping won’t stop and I’m busy or I can skillfully and cunningly weave thoughts of appreciation for the gift of coffee and offer up this moment of thankfulness to the Source of Being.  A mind, spirit and soul steeped in prayer and meditation will default to the latter.

What if we took care of our spirit as we, often without thinking about it, take care of our body?  Create a Jewish practice.  Five minutes here and five minutes there creates space for a mishkan, a place inside that is nurturing.  That is what the Torah alludes to.  “Make Me a sanctuary for Me to dwell in.”  There is a space inside of us that is dynamic, upstanding and attuned to the One-ness.  Think about that when you walk down the hall at work. There is a space inside of us that is dynamic, upstanding and attuned to the One-ness.

Learn to hear the still small Voice of God

Learn to hear the still small Voice of God.

Experience the ease of your Greater Mind.

It takes practice.

Be inspired to practice.  In his online video course, Enriching Your Life Through Kabbalah, Hebrew Seminary President Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer will teach you how to access higher levels of consciousness and draw on the energies found there.

The course is free!

Registration and related course information about this remarkable online 4–part, self-scheduled video is available at HebrewSeminary.org.

For more information about Hebrew Seminary
call 847/ 679-4113.

Heavenly Opportunity

By Hebrew Seminary President Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

Our Torah portion this week, called Mishpatim, identifies the theory of reincarnation in many of our Judaisms. Our Torah portion begins, “These are the judgments that you shall place before them. “  According to the Kabbalah, and the Divine Rabbi who wrote the ZOHAR , Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai,  this verse means “This is the order of judgments and laws and rewards and punishments, that dictate the reincarnation of souls.”  Every individual receives the appropriate GILGUL or incarnation, corresponding to the life he previously led.

When a person is born, he receives the first part of his soul, Nefesh. If he does good deeds and meditations and practices Torah all his life, his Nefesh soul will develop two more parts – Ruach and Neshoma.  IF he does indeed receive all these three parts of his soul – Nefesh and Ruach and Neshoma—she does not need to reincarnate.

But he goes back to the world of souls at the time of his death in this world. But if a person does not achieve Nefesh and Ruach and Neshoma, they may need to reincarnate over a number of lifetimes.

Each person goes down to earth several times in different reincarnations, and the purpose of these reincarnations is to correct all the harm and injury that he has created in his lifetimes. And so, sins originate from a person who was born with bad attributes at birth. This does not mean we believe in Original Sin – just the opposite.  Each person has the right and responsibility and opportunity to correct the sins of his previous lifetimes and then, when he succeeds in this, he is given the opportunity to go to heaven. That is why souls come down again and again, through reincarnation.

Earth is the school for souls. Each one of us learns how to be a better person through our incarnations or our gilgulim. And just as earth is a school for souls, heaven is the graduation that is offered to each one of us. And many of our Judaisms do believe that we do visit with family members once again after we leave this earth.

Over the years, people have come to me for an exorcism. They feel that their husband or child has been possessed. And, they wonder if I could exorcise the demon from within them. Do we Jewish people do exorcisms, similar to the Catholic priest?

Yes, there is a form of reincarnation which is called a dybbuk. It is referred to as “being possessed.” This means that a person’s soul becomes possessed by another person’s soul or by an evil spirit. This dybbuk is a separate soul that never becomes unified with one’s own soul, and when a person is possessed by this other soul, he feels there is something external to his own life, living in his body. The Torah calls this Ruach Ra’ah, an evil spirit. We see this In the Bible, when the first king of Israel, King Saul was suffering from great depression, and the Torah says, “A spirit of the Lord which is evil troubled King Saul.”  In the Bible, this phenomenon was called Ruach Ra’ah, a Demon. But in later years, in the 18th century onwards, this was called a dybbuk.

Once upon a time, there lived two friends—both wives became pregnant.  “I promise, if your wife has a boy and my wife has a girl, they will marry.”

Later on, one of the friends and his wife, went on a business trip out of town.  There was an accident on the road, and the husband was killed.  The wife, subsequently gave birth to a boy, and moved to another town.  The other wife gave birth to a beautiful girl.

But the vow was forgotten.

The boy grew up and he came to study in the college of the same town as the girl.  HE even stayed as a guest in the home of that girl. He didn’t know it.  The boy and girl fell in love.

The girl’s stepfather—who didn’t know about the vow that had been made—said, “You are not rich. You cannot marry my stepdaughter.”

But the girl loved the young man.  AND he loved her. But the boy understood that they could not marry.  And with a broken heart, the boy died.

The girl’s parents found a rich suitor and arranged for their marriage. Before the wedding, the girl visited the boy’s grave and begged his soul to break through from the worlds above and come to her wedding.

As the girl cried at his grave, the soul of the boy entered her body as a dybbuk. She began acting like him, speaking like him.  The rabbis tried to do an exorcism but failed.

In the end, the girl died, in love with the soul of her beloved boyfriend.

This type of experience occupies a place in Jewish literature, because it reflects the spiritual history of our people.  Reincarnation, exorcism, dybbuks have played a part in Jewish spiritual history.

I do believe that we experience reincarnation. I am sure that some of you have experienced déjà vu.  Déjà vu is so real, and at times so powerful that, while having this experience, we think “I know this man. I’ve met him before.  Oh my God. I have experienced this exact same experience. I just can’t remember where or when.”  Anyway, I do believe that déjà vu is just another way of expressing this week’s first line in our Torah, which teaches reincarnation.

 

Kabbalistic Services: Saturday Morning Supercharger!

Our lab school, Congregation Bene Shalom invites you to join them for Saturday morning Kabbalistic services.  These services are quite wonderful in that they offer not only scholarship in Jewish meditation but Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer also makes every effort to compare Jewish meditation with other meditation systems.

All are welcome!  Saturdays at 10:30 am:
February 25
March 11
March 25
April 8
April 22
May 13
June 10
June 24
Congregation Bene Shalom
4435 West Oakton, Skokie, IL
www.beneshalom.org 847-677-3330

A prayerful, joyful, spiritual experience led by Dr. Rabbi Goldhamer, Rabbi Chen, and Cantorial Soloist Charlene Brooks

We Founded Hebrew Seminary on the Principles of Inclusion and Equality, by Douglas Goldhamer and Tom Giller

We founded Hebrew Seminary on the principles of inclusion and equality. We at Hebrew Seminary join with other Jewish religious institutions throughout the United States in condemning President Trump’s executive order suspending immigration from seven Muslim countries.  We find discrimination against any religion to be antithetical to our Torah and to the beliefs of our founding fathers.

In 1779, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison proposed the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, which would be the basis of the First Amendment to the Constitution.  When certain devout Christians wanted to substitute the words “Jesus Christ” for “Almighty God” in the opening passage, they were overwhelmingly voted down, because Virginia’s representatives wanted the law “to comprehend within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahomedan (sic), the Hindu and infidel of every denomination.”

In August, 1790, President George Washington, wrote “The government of the United States, gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no tolerance, and requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens….” These words were written by our founding president, after visiting the first Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. Prior to this time, President Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson also showed their support and compassion to the Roman Catholics by attending services at a Roman Catholic church, whose parishioners were not warmly embraced by many Americans at that time.

There is no religious obligation more important in Judaism than the protection of the refugee and the immigrant.  “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:20)  The Torah admonishes us at least thirty six times to treat “the other” with fairness and compassion.  In this country, “strangers” have added greatly to making us the strong, diverse land that we are today.

According to the Talmud, “he who saves one life, saves the entire world.”  It does not say “one Jewish life, one Christian life, one Muslim life.”  It says “one life,” because all lives are equal before Hashem.  We applaud those who have protested President Trump’s attempted ban, and we are grateful for the wisdom of the Federal judges that have stayed the ban.  We are especially grateful to our Founding Fathers for their brilliance in establishing our system of checks and balances.

Let us not fear the stranger but let us have faith in God that He will inspire these strangers and our citizenry to come together to form bonds of friendship that will enrich all our lives.  As Jews, we must remember the horrible consequences of closing U.S. borders to those facing persecution, and speak up to prevent that shameful history from repeating itself.

Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer, Ph.D., D.D.
Hebrew Seminary President

Thomas Giller, J.D., L.S.W.
Hebrew Seminary Chairman of the Board

 

Under the Wings of the Divine Presence

From the Pen of Executive Director Alison C. Brown

We read in Midrash Tanchuma Yitro, “However, Yitro heard and was rewarded.  He had been a priest of idolatry, yet he came and attached himself to Moshe, and entered beneath the wings of the Divine Presence.”

The cozy, safe, loving image of v’nichnas tachat canfei HaShechina, entering beneath the wings of the Shechina, invites me to eschew the earthy pleasures and distractions that, by all indications, I so worship.  Netflix for example.  My life was crazy, as most everyone’s was, from this past November until the first week of January.  Afterwards, I settled in.  My house was warm. I had a list of television series touted by my friends.  I escaped into Netflix as often as I could.  I forgot those pesky New Year’s resolutions, forgot the books I was so excited to read, and forgot that when the house was quiet I could meditate myself v’nichnas tachat canfei HaShechina.

Netflix certainly offers opportunities for growth.  I’ve learned addiction to prescription drugs can ruin your life.  I’ve learned that English midwives are dedicated, adorable game changers.  I’ve learned that a pretty Italian seamstress can make a clever spy.  And now, I am SO rested.

I am ready to ascend the mountain again.  I have texts to study and people to befriend.  I want to be aware and motivated by God, the Source of All who creates me anew every moment.  I want to turn off the t.v. and walk past all the other so accessible idols that beckon me – including the lovely cellophane wrapped brownie cookies that caused me pause at the grocery store.  In every moment I am face to face with God.  Al panai, before me, interpreted in the Mekhita de Rabbi Ishmael as a reference to both time and place.  We are always in God’s presence, we all stand at Sinai.  And, on occasion we need refueling.

We need entertainment too.  Movies, music, dancing, and yes t.v.  But I also want to grow into some version of my best self.  I am reading Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari.  He explains that large scale human cooperation is based on myth.  Change the myth, tell a different story and you can make large scale change.  While I’m open to all stories, I most appreciate the Jewish story.  I like having the opportunity to partner with a divine source who inspires me to think and do from Mochin de Gadlut – from a Greater Mind.  The change I want to see, that I want to be, is a world where problems contain within themselves a myriad of solutions.  Acting on them however, entails getting off the couch.

Zoning out with idols is easy.  Rabbi Arthur Green says that living a meaningful life requires creativity and moral action.  He learned this from our story.  This is why Yitro said, Exodus 18:11, “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods.”

Tu B’Shvat – Sing Praise, Happy Birthday, Then Back to Work!

“From the mystical perspective, reality is always both broken and perfect all at once,” Rabbinic Pastor Estelle Frankel says in an allusion to Isaac Luria’s Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World.

This week we celebrate Tu B’Shvat, which in contemporary times signifies the birthday of the trees.  Even here in Chicago in February there is potential for spring, for becoming, as tree sap begins to rise with the fluctuating temperatures.  The trees express their perfection even as the earth heats up to record highs for the third year in a row and regulations protecting God’s creations are rolled back by the government.  Ask the Artic, African and even Miami’s communities what this means on the ground.

In the air, circling the trees and the plants are the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee.  These pollinators create seeds and fruit.  Tu B’Shvat asks us to pause and be thankful for this Bee not only as a keystone species that contributes to healthy ecosystems, but as part of nature’s perfection.  On January 10th of this year, 2017, the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee was listed as an endangered species.  The US Fish and Wildlife Service casts this dire news in terms that must speak louder than the fragile web-of-life that we are co-dependent on: “The economic value of pollination services provided by native insects (mostly bees) is estimated at $3 billion per year in the United States.”

On Saturday, February 11th take pause. “Ask what you can do for your country,” was coined by John F. Kennedy and yet the foundation of our union is just the opposite. Our government is supposed to serve us.  When it doesn’t, when it doesn’t serve to honor and protect the perfection of God’s creations but rather chooses to break it, whether through ignorance or greed, it is time to be a Jew.  Jewish theology and thus ideology asserts that our mission is to improve life and we act in partnership with God to do that.  We have responsibilities as Jews.  As Americans, with our individualist vision of people with rights, not so much some would say.

But I am heartened by our country’s taking to the street and working together to right the wrongs that are especially salient today.  Tu B’shvat further reminds us to not forget the environment.  Our responsibilities weigh on a multitude of fronts.  ‘Wake up and smell the roses’ means wake up to reality: reality is both broken and perfect and we are responsible for it.

“We are an amalgam, an entity consisting of the outside world and the body/mind.  Like trees whose roots branch down and outward and those whose topmost, thinnest branches reach up and outward, we too are it all.  Air, water, electrical current, the planet itself, and our body/minds, all built as an interrelated living organism.  We didn’t arise from the universe.  We don’t even merely express the cosmos.  We are it.” Robert Lanza , M.D.

Here’s one thing you can do to offset climate change: https://www.arborday.org/takeaction/carbon/offsetting-with-trees.cfm

And here’s one thing you can do for the bees:
http://pollinator.org/guides

You can do these things at your own home and/or volunteer to do them at a senior center, a park or for a neighbor!

For more information on Tu B’shvat:
http://www.aish.com/h/15sh/mm/Tu-Bishvat-Past-and-Present.html

Other blog sources:
Dorff, Rabbi Elliot N., To Do The Right and The Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics, (2002: Philadelphia,JPS).

Lanza, Robert M.D., Beyond Biocentrism: Rethinking Time, Space, Consciousness, and the Illusion of Death, (2016: Dallas, BenBella Books Inc.), 184.

Medicine for the Soul and Body

By Hebrew Seminary President Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

Our God has many names. In his great philo-mystical text, Otzrot Chaim, Rabbi Chaim Vital writes that there arose “a desire” within the center point of the Ayn Sof. This desire of the Ayn Sof was that He wanted to be called by “His Names.” As Rabbi Vital says, “How can God be called “The Merciful” if He has no one to whom He can show mercy?” This is so with all the other names by which the Creator is known. And so, Rabbi Vital maintains that the purpose of creation was for God to bring into actuality the names that only potentially existed in the Ohr Pashut of the Ayn Sof.

With this in mind, we gain a deeper insight into the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion Va’era, especially Chapter 6:2, “And God spoke to Moses and said, “I am YHVH. Now I have appeared to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob [by the name] El Shaddai, but by my name YHVH, I was not known to them.”  Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polennoye, in his famous Hasidic text Toledot Yaakov Yosef, writes in his commentary to Va’era, “I heard from my teacher [Baal Shem Tov} that the tzaddikim are emissaries of the Matrona [the Matrona is a kabbalistic name for the Shechinah, the Feminine Presence of God].  Because of their own lack, whether of food or clothing, the tzaddikim recognize that there is a corresponding lack above.  They pray for this lack above to be rectified.  They do not pray for their own benefit.”

The Toledot Yaakov Yosef maintains here that human needs are projected onto the Shechinah, and thus prayer is not self-serving, but for the purpose of removing the Shechinah’s need or suffering.

We also learn in Talmud Sanhedrin 46a, when a man suffers punishment, the Shechinah responds, “My head hurts, my hand hurts.” The man will then pray to alleviate the Shechinah’s suffering, thereby banishing his own suffering.

Kabbalah teaches that there is a direct correspondence between the Shechinah and the community of Israel.

The name Shechinah is derived from the Hebrew root “SHACHAN” which means “to dwell.”  Through history, the Shechinah became the wandering Divine Presence.  She resided in the tent in pre-temple times, in a dwelling that was not permanent, but temporary and ready to move. After our temple was destroyed in 586 BCE, the Shechinah meant the dwelling and immanent Presence of God.

Philosophically, the Divine Presence which informs all things is a light and an energy flow vitalizing and sustaining everything. The Shechinah is a Divine Presence, unifying everything. We, the community of Israel, know this Feminine Presence by dwelling in Her. In meditative prayer, we pray and do kavvanot or meditations, to dwell in Her Presence. The Shechinah is the aspect of God that is intimately connected with the souls of the community of Israel.  All Jewish souls are bound together as one single being.

Much of the work I do is meeting with members of my congregation and praying with them for healing.  I do this regularly many times every day, with individual families, who have been hurt by disease.  I often work closely with their physicians, combining Kabbalistic modalities with biological treatments that are managed by their doctors.

You see, when someone is ill, she or he feels a tremendous sadness or even depression. This causes the person who is suffering disease to feel alone, separated, and even in exile, like the Shechinah, who is said to  be dala va-anya, “needy and poor.”  But just as the Shechinah is the community of Israel, every member of my congregation, indeed every Jew, is intimately connected to every other soul of Israel. We are one. We all dwell in the Shechinah.

I share with my parishioners how the Shechinah suffers, together with those who experiences a certain disease.  When we focus on how the Shechinah suffers together with us, when we identify our pain with Hers, we are no longer alone. When, through mystical meditations, my parishioner becomes aware of the Oneness of everything, the Oneness of the Ayn Sof, he or she begins true healing, true physical healing.

When we see not only ourselves suffering, but when we see all those who suffer a dreadful disease as one collective group, and we pray for the well-being of others who are hit with this disease, and do kavvanot or meditations, that are taught by the great Jewish Kabbalists.  I have seen people with terrible diseases begin physical healing. When we pray this way, we are also praying for the Shechinah, because we are intimately connected with Her.  And so, in our healing prayers, we ask Hashem to heal us “for Your sake.” We pray for the Shechinah. In this way, we become a vessel drawing in Divine Light and Healing, for ourselves and others. Not only does good health and prosperity inspire us to discover divinity, but suffering also helps us greatly in finding God and in achieving healing.

Clearly, healing does not instantly come about when we recognize all of this. But when we understand these insights, by the Toledot Yaakov Yosef, and apply specific spiritual exercises related to these insights, on a regular and daily basis, we can see great healing take place.  I have seen this with the members of my congregation. When we learn to pray “for Your sake,” amazing results take place.

Naturally, this involves regular daily prayer and meditations and the great input from contemporary medicine—but the results are phenomenal. The opening verses of this week’s Torah portion are medicine for the soul and body. All truths are found in this remarkable book, the Torah that God has given us. He truly is a loving, caring compassionate healing God. Amen.

Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer is senior rabbi of Congregation Bene Shalom, Skokie  and president and professor of Jewish Mysticism at Hebrew Seminary, Skokie.

Spring 2017 Semester Begins February 12th.

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Visit us and visualize your possibilities.

Spring 2017 semester begins February 12th

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Hebrew Seminary welcomes auditing students.  Hebrew Seminary has been an inclusive and egalitarian community for the study and practice of Judaism since our founding in 1993.  For more information, call Executive Director Alison Brown at 847/ 679-4113.