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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.

Along the way, let us know your thoughts!

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.

Rabbis are servant leaders and teacher students.

Rabbis make a difference and stand open to possibility.

 

Visit us and visualize your possibilities.

Spring 2017 semester begins February 12th

Sundays
Zohar

Mondays
Liturgy – Weddings
Hebrew – multiple levels
Talmud – advanced

Wednesdays
Mishnah
Prophets

Thursdays
Intro to Talmud
Hebrew

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.