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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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Spring 2017 Semester Begins February 12th.

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Rabbis make a difference and stand open to possibility.

 

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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.

The Possibility of Hanukkah

by Executive Director Alison C Brown
 
The darkness and the Illinois cold makes me weary. Add to that, my birthday is soon. I need light. I need intention.
 
“Light is the purpose of each Jew: that we transform our situation and environment to light,” said Rabbi Menachem Schneerson. Possibility is light. I just started a book whose premise is the psychology of possibility. Ellen J. Langer, author of over 200 research articles, writes in this book about transforming our situation. I think Dr. Langer must have written the magnet copy that my sister-in-law Joanne gave me when I turned 40, ‘If you didn’t know how old you are, how old would you be?’
 
It’s been said that we need to ‘package reality differently.’ So last night at Jazzercise I kept my mind’s eye on a 30-something woman and tried to bring that vitality into my own body. I was in the moment, mindful and attuned to my mind and body as one.
 
Unfortunately, later at home as the evening wore on I felt decrepit. I groaned each time I got up to do something. I had discarded my social conditioning regarding age, but it wasn’t an instantaneous fix! Never-the-less, it’s also a social construct that tap dance is for kids and adults can’t learn a foreign language, both of which adults can do, but it takes time and intention. Friday morning, when I go to Jazzercise again, I will hold onto the light of possibility that the more I move, the more I can move!
 
The psychology of possibility is why we light Hanukkah candles. Each candle illuminates the everyday miracles of life, the possibility that we can individually and collectively transform our environment regardless of the naysayers (especially if the naysayer is that nagging voice within!)
 
The Hanukkah story is also about imposing our culture on others. Antiochus wanted to quash Judaism and wanted all the people of his kingdom to share the same culture and worship the same Gods. Gee, this story sounds a little like the current clash of civilizations that America is experiencing. The difference is in the light. I have faith that the light is less obscured than it was back in Antiochus’ day. I have faith that humanity is indeed, for the most part, living the psychology of possibility, living with the intention of revealing the light.
 
A Haftorah we read during Hanukkah, Zech: 4:6, says, “For not by might nor by power but by My Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts.” Read “My Spirit” however it serves humanity best, but recognize it is Your spirited intention that will reveal the light, transform your situation and the environment. My other favorite magnet is, “If the people lead, the leaders will follow!”
 

Turns of Fate

From the Pen of Executive Director Alison C. Brown

The Joseph story with its many turns of fate is compelling on many levels.  The events of his life speak to us of the vicissitudes of mind, body, and spirit that we all experience.  I too have found myself at the bottom of a pit hollowed out by the loss of a loved one.  While we all intellectually understand the bittersweet nature of human existence, when there is seemingly no way out and the bitter becomes caustic it’s impossible to make sense of it.

Work as we may to focus on the sweet gifts of life, the daily news tosses us time and time again into more pits: a toddler is gunned down, terror is orchestrated in Paris, our kinsmen stabbed in Israel.  I close my eyes and find footing in the Shema.  Connecting with the One I hear myself asking, “help me keep the faith in me and in You”, You who are the One and Whole of everything and everyone.  Shaleim, whole, comes from the Hebrew root as shalom, peace.  When we are of the Whole we find peace.  Help me keep faith in my being a part of the Whole, a resourceful, loving part of the Whole — a kind and justice-seeking part of God.  Help me help.

In Gen. 37:13 Israel tells Joseph to check on his brother’s welfare.  Joseph says “hinneni”.  Rashi, who earlier interpreted hinneni to mean, “I am here, at your service,” tells us that Joseph’s hinneni includes humility as well as readiness.  Cast into one of life’s pits are we humbly ready to do whatever needs doing?  To climb out of the pit, to do what needs doing takes faith.  We need faith in our self that we will find the courage, the stamina to move through the bitter times in life.  We, like Joseph, are sometimes part of plot we don’t understand yet with intent we can play our part in support of the Whole.

My Shema moments remind me to get out of my own head, to be in communication with all of creation, all of the worlds, beyond space and time.  To move beyond what seems to be going right or wrong, easy or difficult for me.  When tested, Joseph finds his inner strength.  We too can find ours, but we have to listen.  A moment of Hitbodedut (meditation), a Shema moment, or walking in a forest preserve allows us to climb out of the pit and with humility meet the task we have been given.  Every story has elements of choice.  May we make our choices from makom shalom, from a place of peace, a place of the Whole.

Va-neitzei, and We Left

On November 8th, we left home base as we each knew it. We left with a variety of feelings as Republicans and Democrats, just as Jacob left all that he knew in Be’er Sheva. Jacob was on the border of his future, just as we are today, fearfully or gleefully. Jacob was accompanied by angels. We are bombarded by social media and newscasts (they are, by the way distinct, if not mutually exclusive, sources of information) that agitates some and overwhelms others.

At the threshold between his past and future, Jacob fell asleep. Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that the angels found Jacob, “sleeping in the very place that was meant to awaken within him a higher awareness of his mission…” As you recall, Jacob’s social reality was very complicated. It feels to me as though our social reality is at best very complicated. There is no sleeping for any of us right now. As Jim Kenney, Executive Director of Common Ground in Deerfield, Illinois writes, “The time of evolutionary crossing – and choice – has, for better and for worse, arrived. Chaotic change and vanishing certainties have produced identity crises and challenges to existing power structures. Various forms of extremism, pseudo-populism, neo-nationalism, and demagoguery are clearly emerging. And, to be sure, they will make the crossing even more turbulent.”

Rebbe Nachman reminds us that we have the spiritual task of interacting with this world as potential possibilities that make up a whole. The whole precedes and contains all possibilities. The whole is God. Today we stand at a place that requires a higher awareness of our mission. Our mission is to participate in the writing of a new American story. Like the Rabbis of the Mishnaic period, we need to anchor our new story in the old one. For 240 years, we Americans have agreed, for example, that all our countryman have the right to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. We all champion this story. In the telling of this our colonial story, our countryman were motivated by a myriad of blended needs, hopes and dreams.

Our new 21st century story continues to be about your family, my family and the blended breath of all American families. The blend of narrations is perhaps broader today and more faceted. This broader blend of needs, hopes and dreams brings with it greater innovation, greater strength and awareness. We live in a world where the “butterfly effect” is a harder truth than its lovely image suggests. If I only look out for myself, or my people, it will effect how the world (and indeed the earth) supports and welcomes me.

Following Jacob’s spiritual encounter bamakom, “he lifted up his feet” (Gen. 29:1). Rav Hirsch wrote, “Instead of saying ‘And he left’, it now says ‘Ya’akov lifted up his feet.’ A person is not led by his feet, the body does not lift the spirit; rather, the person lifts up his feet, the living soul in the person lifts and bears his body. With such an attitude, Ya’akov goes forth to meet his future.” So too, we go forth to meet our future, knowing that we are at an evolutionary crossing. Together, today we lift up our feet.

 

Toldot – Hunger and Desire

From the Pen of Hebrew Seminary President Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

I am currently supporting a number of people with my Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund.  I thank God that I have this fund so that I might be in a position to help people overcome their hunger pangs. I am just an instrument delivering generous gifts that people give to my fund. And in this year’s economy, we need to help one another.

And yet, in my mission, helping families overcome their awkward situation in life, I am faced with a conundrum. Because I see that at times, being hungry is helpful.  How is being hungry helpful?   In this week’s Torah portion, Toldot is not focused on actual hunger, but on the daily feelings of desire and extreme desire that bring us to a lot of pain and suffering.  In Toldot, Esau experiences not actual hunger, but a deep feeling of craving that seems to bring him a lot of pain and suffering.  Esau experiences a type of hunger that causes him quite a bit of suffering and one day, as he comes home from walking in the fields, he insists that his brother Jacob give him porridge to mitigate his tremendous feeling of hunger. Esau is so hungry that he accepts Jacob’s exchange of a third rate meal in exchange for his birthright.  In Genesis 25:32, Esau exclaims, “I am about to die.  So, why do I need this birthright?”

It wasn’t that Esau faced death.  I am confident that he had eaten the day before.  But Esau felt what many of us feel. Esau felt what so many people who visit me in my office feel – a deep emptiness, a void at the center of their being, a hunger that all the porridge in the world can’t fill. Esau feels a terrible sense of loneliness. I see this, and pray with people who experience this. People who have lost a child or a spouse or a best friend. This can be so painful. Each one of us knows someone who has suffered such a loss.  Rather than steal his birthright, each one of us should try to be an empath, to understand and relate to this person. This is why it is so important for us to feel hunger.  You know what it is to have lost someone very important to you. Visualize that feeling. Don’t bury this hunger that you once experienced in your life—but bring it to the forefront and stay hungry for a short while.  Remember what it felt like to be alone.  I know how loneliness feels.  I was 35 years old, and I was all alone. I didn’t even have a small cat. And so, I prayed to God for a wife. And within half an hour, I met the perfect woman.

In our Shacharit service, each morning, we pray, “V’ani T’filati lecha YHVH, et ratzon.  As for me, my prayer is for You, my dear God. May it be for you a time of desire.”

I felt a deep emptiness, a place where no love could reach me. I reached out to God and instead of porridge, I found Peggy 35 years ago, and we are married happily to this day.

Godcidences & Giving

November 29th is Giving Tuesday, a worldwide holiday that encourages giving back to our communities.  With one voice, non-profits reach out on Giving Tuesday to ask for our time, skills, and dollars to make a difference in other people’s lives.  Giving back to the community is a long-standing Jewish tradition.  Isaiah 32:17 says, “and the work of tzedakah shall bring peace.”

I asked Hebrew Seminary professor, Rabbi Daniel Vaisrub, to share a “Giving Tuesday” teaching with us.  Rabbi Vaisrub agrees that Tzedakah speaks to something greater. 

My favorite teaching on the obligation to support people in our community comes from Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Book of Agriculture, Rules of Gifts to the Poor 10:1:

“We are obligated to be careful with regard to the commandment of tzedaqah to a greater extent than all [other] positive commandments, because tzedaqah is an identifying mark for a righteous person, a descendant of Abraham, our patriarch, as [Genesis 18:19] states: “I have known him, because he commands his children… to perform tzedaqah.”

“The throne of Israel will not be established, nor will the true faith stand except through tzedaqah, as [Isaiah 54:14] states: “You shall be established through righteousness [tzedaqah].”

“And Israel will be redeemed solely through tzedaqah, as [ibid. 1:27] states: “Zion will be redeemed through judgment and those who return to her through charity [tzedaqah].”

Note how Maimonides enumerates [and thus connects] four seemingly disconnected ideas, all through tzedaqah:
1. Personal righteousness
2. Proper governance / political stability
3. True faith proper religious belief
4. National redemption

In this rule, Maimonides is NOT merely teaching us why tzedaqah is important: any one of the reasons he enumerates would more than suffice, so why waste ink and parchment?

Rather, Maimonides teaches us how tzedaqah binds these different aspects of people’s lives together: the personal, the social, the religious, and ultimately the redemptive. In a particular way, acts of tzedaqah, which encompass justice and kindness, create individuals, and communities, and religious movements, and ultimately a nation, capable of actualizing human potential. Tzedaqah is thus the glue that ultimately binds people together, which speaks to its power to transform the world, micro and macro, physical and spiritual.

Rabbi Dr. Goldhamer wants to add that it is a Godcidence that we celebrate Giving Tuesday, during the same week that we read Parshat Toldot, the scriptural reading for this week.  The essence of this parasha is good and evil. Jacob represents good and his twin brother Esau represents evil.  I believe this simplistic understanding misses the point. What is evil?  In Kabbalah, evil is selfishness.  We are all concerned about our own welfare. We are all concerned about how to improve our own lives. We all do things to benefit ourselves. This is considered evil in Kabbalah.

Everyone is created with a desire to receive for oneself alone. There is a difference between receiving for yourself and receiving in order to share. The second form of receiving is considered good in KabbalahKabbalah comes from the root word meaning “to receive.” But Hashem wants us to receive in order to share and do tzedakah. And so, our Kabbalistic tradition teaches us to receive in order to share.

Nothing is wrong with accumulating millions of dollars and becoming wealthy. As a matter of fact, it’s a good thing to accumulate wealth–but we need to accumulate so that we can share what we accumulate. This is the essence of the teaching of this week’s parasha.  We need to receive in order to share.  When we receive and we do tzedakah, we are doing a high mitzvah in Judaism.  This is the essence of this week’s teaching of Toldot and Giving Tuesday.

For Giving Tuesday, Hebrew Seminary is asking that you donate food and/or funds to  Congregation Bene Shalom’s The Brian Glassenberg Food Pantry at Congregation Bene Shalom, 4435 W. Oakton Street Skokie, IL 60076 or call 847/ 677- 3330.

 

Finding Possiblity In Bad News

By Executive Director Alison C. Brown

We look to Abraham to teach us advocacy. Last week we read of God’s plan to destroy the city of Sodom. The story teaches us to argue with the powers that be when lives are at stake. Abraham teaches us to argue for the rights of all people and there is no doubt that we need to step-up our advocacy here in America. Allow me to share some examples of why we need to put ourselves out there and allow me to offer Jewish teachings that may inspire us to do so. I do believe God is with us every move we make. I believe in a God of love and possibility. I do not accept impossibility.

“On November 20, hundreds gathered for an anti-hate rally at a vandalized Brooklyn park named in memory of the late Beastie Boys singer Adam Yauch. The rally Sunday at the Adam Yauch Park in Brooklyn came after the park was defaced with swastikas and the message ‘Go Trump.’” (Jewish Telegraph Agency)

An Anti-Defamation League report issued in October identified 2.6 million anti-Semitic tweets between August 2015 and July 2016 with an estimated reach of 10 billion impressions, which the task force believes “contributed to reinforcing and normalizing anti-Semitic language – particularly racial slurs and anti-Israel statements — on a massive scale.”

As an introduction to its “Hate Crime Statistics 2015” report released this November, the FBI wrote: “Earlier this year, a Florida man pled guilty to threatening to firebomb two mosques. A Virginia man was charged with assaulting a gay victim. And an Iowa man was convicted of stomping on and kicking the head of an African-American victim.”

I do not accept this foreboding news. Let us bring about a prevailing wind of kindness. Let us be upstanders, people who speak up even to their peers when a wrong is being perpetrated. Humans are social and prone to group think. We need to conspicuously role model mutual respect, act for social justice and unequivocally leave no one to fend for themselves. Wherever you fall on the political spectrum, each and every person has a piece of the truth. When Rav Huna would eat a meal, he would open his door and say, “Whoever is in need, let that person come and eat.” (Ta’anit 20b) In our communities, many read the newspaper and simply put it down. Children fallen in the street are set aside. The Wisdom of our Fathers, Pirke Avot 2:5, echoes through the house: “Hillel said, do not separate yourself from the community.”

Think about what it means to be inclusionary. When we are open to everything and everyone, we don’t define ourselves or make decisions based on subconscious fears. We draw back when demagogues venomously tell us what to think. We sit with our initial response to a choice or a person different than ourselves and witness it. Being with our fears and prejudices allows them to dissipate. Then we can be open to possibilities. Then we can be open to being our best self. Snap judgements close countless doors. Grudges epitomize the certainty of only one possibility.

Psychologist Erich Fromm believed that God is a metaphor for our best self. He theorized that we believe in and seek to connect with our ideal self. Fromm was searching for meaning, a way to respond to the inevitability of change. The definition of time is change. We often don’t know why things change, we can only weigh change against what is the most good for the most people. As a rabbi once said: “We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers.”

Philosopher John D. Caputo beckons us, “The religious sense of life has to do with exposing oneself to radical uncertainty and the open-endedness of life…. The Scriptures are filled with narratives in which the power of the present is broken and the full length and breadth of the real open like a flower, unfolding the power of the possible, the power of the impossible beyond the possible, of the hyper-real beyond the real. … faith, hope and love are what we need to keep up with what is really going on in the real beyond the real ….”

I believe that the possible, my ideal self, love, and the hyper-real beyond the real are all different names for The Source, The Name, HaShem. I am assured and inspired by the words of Kabbalist Kedushat Levi, “Now He is giving His people life!” The creation of man into Yesh (existence) happened in the past tense and is happening right now. God is continually creating us and we are part of Her creative activity here on the physical plane.

Each and every moment of our lives, God gives us possibility. These possibilities exist for everyone equally and we are responsible to recognize and actualize those possibilities for our self and all fellow human beings. We thank God for our gift of possibility by assuring that our brothers and sisters, all of them, can actualize their gifts. We show our gratitude by assuring equal rights for all, which opens doors to meeting the basic needs of food, shelter, health care and education, which opens an inner door toward our ideal self.

Acceptable Norms & A Vision of Oneness

After each and every General Election, and during the intervening years, we need to let our elected officials know what norms or standards we will accept and won’t accept.

We look to our Jewish tradition for these values and boundaries. Remember, we are all connected: “When Adam was first created, he was pure. His purpose was to raise the system of worlds – Assiyah, Yetzirah, and Briah — to their highest root in Atzilut, and ultimately into Adam Kadmon, which serves as a bridge to the infinite Ayn Sof. But instead of drawing the transcendent light of the Ayn Sof into these worlds, Adam chose to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Before disobeying God, Adam and Eve lived in a world where everything was one. All the worlds were one. All the animals, Adam, Eve, God were connected. But after eating from the Tree, Adam and Eve embraced a duality of birth and death, good and evil, light and darkness, happiness and sadness. This disconnected them from the Creator, with the result that the soul of Adam HaRishon was disconnected from the Spiritual world and shattered into many fragments, called individual souls. The Kabbalists call this ‘the breaking of the soul of Adam HaRishon.’ The soul fragmented into 600,00 root souls, which broke down into six billion individual souls.

To succeed in our work, we need to recover our Vision. We need to see again that the 600,00 root souls in the Universe are spiritually connected. We need to see that each of the millions of cells that comprise a root soul has its own mission and service to perform for the Creator and must come into a life all its own.

Each of us has long been a piece in a shattered puzzle that was once a single common soul. Now it is time for correction, tikkun, to regroup, reintegrate the pieces. This is the function of our world in this time, according to teachings of Kabbalah.” — Healing With God’s Love, Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer, PhD, DD, with Peggy Bagley

Lech Lecha, Go to Your Authentic Self

 

From the pen of Hebrew Seminary Executive Director Alison Brown

First thing every morning my mind begins its chatter. What is the order of my day? What needs doing at work? What needs doing after work? In my mind tasks skirmish for priority. On the occasion that I disengage, I pat myself on the head with compassion. The mind works loves to conjure up problems and solve them. We are master puzzlers! It is no wonder that we are drawn to the practices of meditation and mindfulness.

People need space. We need space to Lech Lecha, to “go to yourself” in the words of Genesis 12:1. Jewish practices can support this effort to get in touch with our best self, our piece of the divine truth, to then go forth moment-by-moment, interaction-by-interaction to make a better world, if only through kindness. I hope to get in touch with myself so that I can act as often as possible from no-self.

Chaim Vital wrote that, “Every person must search and discover the root of his soul, so he can fulfill it and restore it to its source, its essence. The more one fulfills himself, the closer he approaches his authentic self.”

Our authentic self can be radically free and empty. In this state of consciousness there is no me and you. I am you.

After school yesterday my daughter shared something of her workload with me. Sometimes, having practiced lech lecha, I am able to listen from my authentic self. If I spoke from my chattering self, I would proceed to direct my daughter. When you get home do this, don’t take a break until you get this done, be sure you get plenty of sleep, so on and so forth. Speaking from my authentic self, my empty and full of wonder self, I empathize and offer the thought that she be compassionate with herself. I am confident that she will be her best self. She has no need for my chattering self.

A wise man knows nothing – well, maybe one song — Ikkyu

 

 

 

Speak Out Boldly and Strongly

From the Pen of Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

“Then God said to Noah:  leave the Ark…then he took some of the clean animals and some of the clean birds and offered sacrifices on the altar.” (Genesis 8:15, 20)

The Sitrei Torah is a text that is part of the Zohar.  It asks how did Noah feel when he emerged from the Ark after the flood? And why does he offer sacrifices after he emerges from the Ark? Is he giving thanks that he has been saved? How did God respond to Noah when he had left the Ark, saw the world destroyed and began to cry?  Noah said, “Ruler of the Universe, You are called merciful.  Why were You not merciful to Your creatures?”

God responded, “Foolish shepherd!  Now you say this! Why didn’t you say this when I said to you, ‘For I have seen that you are righteous before me.’ (Genesis 7:1) Or again, when I said, ‘Look, I am bringing a flood of water.’ (Genesis 6:17)  Or when I said, ‘Make yourself an ark of gopher wood.’ (Genesis 6:14)  At any point I could have delayed and said to you, ‘I will refrain because you asked for mercy for the whole world.’  And as a result of this decision, the world could have been saved by your repentance, but it never occurred to you to ask for mercy for the entire world.  If you did so, I would have saved the world, but now that the world is destroyed, you complain and you weep.”

When Noah perceived this, he brought sacrifices and burnt offerings.  “Then he took some of the clean animals and some of the clean birds and offered sacrifices on the altar.” (Genesis 8:20)

In this passage, Noah’s anger is once again directed toward God. I often see anger directed toward God – for example, at God’s alleged indifference to the Holocaust. How could God allow such evil to occur? The answer is clear – why didn’t Noah take responsibility for his world.  That might have averted the catastrophe.  Why didn’t the nations of the world fight to admit Jews into their countries? Why didn’t we work harder to save our fellow Jews around the world? Noah’s anger and our anger is misplaced.  It should have been directed against himself and ourselves. The sacrifices Noah offers are intended to assuage the guilt he bears for his failures. The task of the righteous is not merely to pray or to yell at God, after things go wrong. It is our responsibility to do as Noah should have – to speak out boldly and strongly and to recognize that hundreds of thousands of people being displaced from their homes is highly immoral and cannot continue, with our indifference.  We are facing an ecological catastrophe, potentially every bit as dangerous as the flood Noah faces in the Torah. We would do well to bear this in mind.