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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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Practical Applications of Kabbalah for Your Daily Life

“Practical Applications of Kabbalah for Your Daily Life”

A ten-session class

With Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

Sundays, February 25 – May 6

12:00 – 1:30pm

Kabbalah has many important practical applications that can impact your life on a daily basis – your health, your finances, your relationships with others.  Learn how to connect with Hashem, and activate the Divine within you.  In this class, noted scholar and author Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer will focus on the fundamental principles of Kabbalah and how it can change your life for the better.  If you are new to the mysteries of Kabbalah, or want to learn practical applications of Jewish Mysticism for your life, this is the class for you.

 

Hebrew Seminary’s 2018 Spring Semester
begins February 11.

Visit Hebrew Seminary and visualize your possibilities!

847 – 679 – 4113

 

Even Adam Kvetched About the Long Winter Nights!

We all know the story of Hanukkah. But, there is another narrative that many of us don’t know. Last week, Hebrew Seminary faculty member Rabbi Daniel Vaisrub taught us a lesser known story that prominently features Adam.

The better known Hanukkah story is derived from the Babylonia Talmud, Shabbat 21b. The text tells us that the Greeks entered our Temple and defiled all of the oil in the Sanctuary. When the Hasmonean monarchy rose up, defeated the Greeks and entered the Temple they found one remaining vial of oil sealed with the imprimatur of the high priest. This vial, as expected, contained oil for only one day. The Hasmoneans lit the oil and it burned for eight days and nights. The following year an eight day holiday was established for hallel, praise and thanksgiving. This text has given rise to the widely known interpretation that Hanukkah is about the miracle of the oil, defeating oppression and celebrating religious freedom.

Talmud Avodah Zarah 8a tells an alternative Hanukkah story that portrays Hanukkah as Adam’s encounter with the winter solstice (translation from Sefaria.org.)

“ר לפי שראה אדם הראשון יום שמתמעט והולך אמר אוי לי שמא בשביל שסרחתי עולם חשוך בעדי וחוזר לתוהו ובוהו וזו היא מיתה שנקנסה עלי מן השמים עמד וישב ח’ ימים בתענית [ובתפלה]

With regard to the dates of these festivals, the Sages taught: When Adam the first man saw that the day was progressively diminishing, as the days become shorter from the autumnal equinox until the winter solstice, he did not yet know that this is a normal phenomenon, and therefore he said: Woe is me; perhaps because I sinned the world is becoming dark around me and will ultimately return to the primordial state of chaos and disorder. And this is the death that was sentenced upon me from Heaven, as it is written: “And to dust shall you return” (Genesis 3:19). He arose and spent eight days in fasting and in prayer.

We read on:

כיון שראה תקות טבת וראה יום שמאריך והולך אמר מנהגו של עולם הוא הלך ועשה שמונה ימים טובים לשנה האחרת עשאן לאלו ולאלו ימים טובים הוא קבעם לשם שמים והם קבעום לשם עבודת כוכבים

Once he saw that the season of Tevet, i.e., the winter solstice, had arrived, and saw that the day was progressively lengthening after the solstice, he said: Clearly, the days become shorter and then longer, and this is the order of the world. He went and observed a festival for eight days. Upon the next year, he observed both these eight days on which he had fasted on the previous year, and these eight days of his celebration, as days of festivities. He, Adam, established these festivals for the sake of Heaven, but they, the gentiles of later generations, established them for the sake of idol worship.

Our text makes reference to the festivities of later generations because Adam’s two observances resemble the pagan Roman holidays Calenda and Saturnalia. It could be said that the Rabbis use this opportunity to trace these “revisionist” festivals back to Adam who established them for the sake of Heaven, that is giving thanks to God, whereas the Romans established them for the sake of the stars, i.e. idolatry.

While Avodah Zarah 8a doesn’t overtly mention Hanukkah, this text ties Hanukkah to the winter solstice and Adam. Hanukkah then did not begin with the Hasmoneans, it started with Adam. We offer this lesser known Hanukkah story in recognition of the salient symbol here – the gift of increasing light. In many ways this text establishes a universal holiday. We wish you all Ramadanadawalichristmakwaanzukkah!™

 

Jacob Dreamed of Ladders & For Esau by Student Rabbi Stacey Robinson

Jacob Dreamed of Ladders

It is not the going up

that interests me,

not the view from Heaven

nor the view from Tuesday—

today is struggle enough.

And I am downright fearful

of going down,

with its trickster promise of return

and illusion of solid ground.

Down is done backwards, after all,

the last step always more question

than answer.

In truth I am terrified of ladders,

of their rickety rattling restless motion,

of the balance they require,

the perfection.

Easier—

infinitely easier—

to wrestle with myself

on the ground.

For Esau

Thief!

Liar and thief!

Despite all you stole,

I loved you still.

I would have given anything

if you’d asked.

Instead your shadow

smothered my birthright,

my heat.

Thief!

You stole the light of heaven,

the love of our mother,

even our father’s faulty eyes.

You took it all and left me—

what does one call a shadow

of a shadow?

Of betrayal you made a nation

numberless as the sand and stars.

Because you knew God,

you were blessed and cursed

and beloved.

You knew God,

but I learned forgiveness.

And so I bless you and curse you

and love you more still.

Toldot & Thanksgiving

by Alison C. Brown, Executive Director

Fear not, while it currently feels as though some of our world leaders have purposefully severed our ancestral roots, I suspect every generation feels that way.

Parashah Toldot is a Jewish narrative about our ancestral roots and serves as another installment in the guide to being fully human. Together with the many Jewish texts redacted and commented upon over the millennia, there is no misconstruing the values that bind us.

Our ancestors live within us. We connect with and build upon the consciousness of previous generations. To borrow an image from science, we need only connect to the stardust of which we are all made. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev taught a general principle that wherever we go, we go to our roots. Pull the camera out to include contemporary times: we may move or change jobs, but our roots accompany us. To access our roots for decision making we need b’hirut hasaichel, clarity of reason. Through prayer, meditation and mindfully being in the present moment we experience an unchanging awareness and clarity of reason that is divine. We can practice and learn to experience rehovot, spaciousness. Rabbi Shefa Gold writes that, “The well of our ancestors becomes a fountain connecting the dark depths of our human story with the wide skies of awareness.”

Not to get off topic, but the Buddhists are right, life is suffering. The human story includes dark depths. Some of them stem from severed roots. We find our way back through the breath and faith. In Psalms 150, verse 6, our ancestors teach, “Let all that breathes praise the Lord. Hallelujah.” Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer adds, “The action of breathing in and breathing out indicates the continuous Presence of God in our life.” In the Jewish narrative darkness is balanced by the light. Hallelujah!

In the ancestral narrative of Toldot, “Isaac’s servants dug in the valley and found there a well of living water.” The well symbolizes, Rabbi Norman Lamm suggests, “the great well of personality and being that beckons us to access what we might learn from its depths.” My well of being is sometimes muddy. I feel weighed down by tons of earth. I have so many things I want to do and need to do. When I move the stone to access the living waters I am distracted by thoughts of list-making and judgement. To escape this suffering of my own making, I must begin my day practicing rehovot, spaciousness. A well of clear living waters can later reveal b’hirut hasaichel if we make time to intentionally be in the present. In the flowing, the breath and the stardust we coexist with our ancestors and the divine.

Our ancestral roots offer fundamental beliefs to guide our behavior. Judaism also invites us to question these beliefs. “Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt”, wrote renowned therapist Dr. Rollo May. “To every thesis there is an antithesis, and to this there is a synthesis. Truth is thus a never-dying process.” When we live or legislate with severed roots, truth dies. James Joyce wrote, “Welcome, O life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” In my interpretation, consciousness is forever evolving within each of us and the smithy of my soul coexists with my ancestors and the Divine. Welcome, O life!

In 2017, we encounter the ancestors of Toldot just before Thanksgiving. This American holiday makes me think of the Amidah. During the Amidah, we bow before and after Avot, the blessing of the Patriarchs, and before and after the berachah of Hoda’ah, a prayer of thanksgiving to God. Rav Kook wrote that bowing our head, “signals an attitude of deference and humility.” In bowing, as in breathing, we acknowledge and give thanks to God and our ancestors.

And let us together pray privately:

Talmud Berakhot 17a

By Lawrence Kushner (translator)

May you live to see your world fulfilled,
May your destiny be for worlds still to come,
And may you trust in generations past and yet
to be.
May your heart be filled with intuition
and your words be filled with insight.
May songs of praise ever be upon your tongue
and your vision be on a straight path before you.
May your eyes shine with the light of holy words
and your face reflect the brightness of the heavens.
May your lips speak wisdom
and your fulfillment be in righteousness
even as you ever yearn to hear the words
of the Holy Ancient One of Old.

Hebrew Seminary Ordains New Rabbi

 

SKOKIE, IL, November 6, 2017 – Tirtzah Israel, from Chicago’s West-Englewood Community, was ordained by Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer on October 29th at Hebrew Seminary Rabbinical School for Deaf and Hearing. Growing up, Tirtzah’s grandmother role-modeled a personal and meditative connection to HaShem that both perplexed and inspired her. As an adult Tirtzah was introduced to Jewish meditation through the works of Aryeh Kaplan. His meditations and focus on introspection resonated with her. “The genome of Jewish Mysticism found in the records of the Near East culture,” says Tirtzah, “has its origins on the continent of Africa.” As she continued to study Kaplan over the years she learned that Hebrew to English translations differ and it is important to read Jewish texts in the original Hebrew language.

Tirtzah recognized that she needed a teacher, “a person who could help me achieve what I secretly longed for; a true understanding about healing and balance as a divine connection.” We are honored and proud to say that Tirtzah found this guidance and teaching at Hebrew Seminary from Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer and his faculty of scholars.

Rabbi Tirtzah plans to teach Jewish mysticism, meditation, Kabbalah and their application to serve people longing to reconnect to God. “I refer to the God that dwells, and has always dwelled within each of us,” notes Rabbi Tirtzah. “I do not want to leave this world of existence without having made an attempt towards restoring tikkun and teshuva for a people whose ancestors had been so brutally violated, stripped of their humanity, yet struggled to survive to this very day,” Tirtzah adds.

Hebrew Seminary graduates serve in a variety of roles – as pulpit rabbis, educators, and chaplains. Graduates also perform public service and serve those with special needs, including the deaf community. Hebrew Seminary has been an inclusive and egalitarian community for the study and practice of Judaism for 25 years. Our program encourages the highest commitment to traditional scholarship, such as Talmud, Bible, and Hebrew, as well as the spiritual discipline of Kabbalah. This teaches our students to be scholars, educators, and leaders, as well as spiritual guides who can hear and share the voice of God with members of their communities.

Information about upcoming Hebrew Seminary classes can be found at www.hebrewseminary.org. To make arrangements to visit our program contact Alison Brown at 847/679-4113.

Go Forth To Your Deeper Self by Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer

Lech Lecha, Genesis 12-17:27

The opening scripture of this week’s Torah portion Lech Lecha, “Go forth from your native land, from your kindred, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” (Gen. 12:1) has a number of different translations and meanings.  In the literal translation of the text, God calls Abram (this takes place before his name is changed to Abraham) to drop everything, leave his family, leave his friends, leave his community and to wholeheartedly trust in God’s call, because God is leading Abram to a chosen country that God wishes for Abram and his descendants.  The Ma’or Vashemesh reads the expression “Lech Lecha” (Go Forth) as a call addressed to every person to penetrate beyond the more external aspects of the Self to his deeper, inner self, which can be identified as an aspect of the Divine.

In this text, we are privileged to see two interpretations of this Divine verse:  one that is behavioral and one that is psychological.  When God tells Abram to “pay attention to Me for your own benefit,” God is teaching him that he should understand and pay attention to the way he travels and does things. Hashem loves Abram so much that He teaches him to focus on his behavior, as a father does with his son.

But. Hashem also wants Abraham to examine his spiritual state and elevate it.  When we internalize God’s loving commands, we recognize that these two interpretations depend on one another. Our behavior, when we improve it, inspires in us a higher spiritual awareness. And a higher spiritual awareness inspires a higher spiritual behavior. When we understand the relationship between spirituality and behavior, we know that this is no ordinary text, but it is indeed a book given by God, inspired by God and even written by God.  How blessed are the people of Israel.

This weekend, I have a perfect example of two potential meanings for “Lech Lecha” (Go Forth). On Saturday morning, at our Kabbalistic Shabbat service at Congregation Bene Shalom, we will practice meditations created by the great Hasidic master the Baal Shem Tov.  We will “go forth”-into ourselves. We will dig deep into our own souls.  We learn in the Zohar, Sitrei Torah 1:66b, that the Neshoma or Divine Soul is identified with Abram. The Baal Shem Tov, embracing this Zohar, taught that the Neshoma is not happy to come down to this material world of change. The Neshoma enjoys the spiritual realm, where it lives at One with God. In Keter Shem Tov, the Baal Shem Tov teaches that the Neshoma is afraid of the uncertainties of the material realm, but God insists that the Neshoma leave heaven to come down to perfect the body and the entire world. Therefore, God commands the NeshomaLech Lecha, Go to yourself,” which the Baal Shem Tov, teaches as “to yourself, for your own tikkun or perfection.”

And on Sunday, October 29, we wll celebrate the ordination of Tirtzah Israel from Hebrew Seminary.  Our seminary is now celebrating its 25th anniversary, and I am very proud to ordain Rabbi Israel.  She has been an outstanding student—who has gone forth from her physical persona of an African-American hard-of-hearing woman—and she has gone forth to discover her spiritual connection to God and to her Jewish identity and her connection to the Jewish community. After Sunday, she will physically go forth to embrace a new life as a leader of the Jewish people.

From the second verse of this week’s parasha, we learn an even more inspiring bit of wisdom.  In Genesis 12:2, God says, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, … and you will be a blessing.”  In the first verse, God’s name is expressed as YHVH, which gives the connotation of a God of love and blessing.  In the second verse, God’s name is expressed as VHYH.  According to the great Kedushat Levi, this text proves that our actions can bring joy and great blessing to the Holy One. This gives us humans great power, since God’s response to our action, is the gushing forth of Divine blessing (shefa) and joy.  This reciprocal blessing has greatly improved the world and the relationship between God and mankind.  Abraham was the first person to reverse the flow of blessing from below to above, reflected in the word “VHYH” which is the inverse of YHVH.  Because of Abraham’s actions, we have one of the great spiritual laws of the Universe:  Our good actions necessarily cause God to send blessings down to us.

It took the power of Abraham’s kindness to arouse God’s blessings from above and to inspire the Israelites’ blessing from below; that is, the Hebrew letters of the Tetragrammaton inspired the Israelites love from below to above. From the time that Abraham arrived as God’s great prophet and patriarch, there was arousal of the Shefa.  This is an amazing gift that God gave to the Universe.

When I sit down with my class and discuss with my students the amazing texts that God lays before us, asking us to govern our lives with these commandments, I feel so blessed and so honored to be one of the world’s teachers of Torah.

So  often students will ask me if spirituality is an integral part of our religion.  I can only answer with a smile on my heart, saying that spirituality is not only an inintegral part of our faith, but it is the most essential part of our teachings. And we are enormously blessed to have this teaching from this Torah.

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

 

Rosh Hashana – Taking Root With You!

Sefer Assiyah
The Book of Making

September 2017

Recently, on an extraordinarily mild and sunny day in Chicagoland, I went to a nature center with my son and grandson. We peered and searched through aquariums, terrariums and pools of water — home to local critters. We spent a lot of time with the turtles – who knew they were such adept communicators when stressed out with their roommates?!?!

We also walked the boardwalks and trails strewn with half-eaten acorns. I did not see my grandson’s pockets full of them! Yes, I can pretend minor infractions like ‘don’t pick the wildflowers,’ don’t really count, but we were nearing fall. It was Elul and Rosh Hashanah’s accounting was approaching.

Rosh Hashanah is like an acorn upon the ground. It awaits the coming year in the cycle of life. Its growth depends on rain and microbial rich soil, just as we water our hopes and nurture our souls in anticipation of our dreams establishing roots in the coming year.

The Talmud says, “On Rosh Hashanah, all the inhabitants of the earth stand before God, as it says in the Thirty-third Psalm, ‘[God] fashions their hearts as one, and discerns all their actions together.’” Rosh Hashanah brings the choice of all choices – did I actively choose to learn and grow towards becoming a better person and what will I do with the opportunity to walk the earth in the coming year?

As much as I would like to bask in the sun and hibernate in a womb of soil as the seasons turn, more is expected of me. The gift of consciousness gave me the blessing and the curse of seeking more to life as well as the awareness that there are sacred parameters and goals – i.e. God, as best as we can intuit Her. As Rabbi Alan Lew wrote, “The central imperative of Judaism, I believe, is to recognize and manifest the sacred in everything we do and encounter in the world.” I’ve often wondered how I can live with the grace and confidence of an oak tree, an orchid or a heron. I think this Jewish imperative is the way.

“Ethically speaking, these Days of Awe picture us standing in the full light of God’s scrutiny and wondering if we have remained true to the purpose for which we were created,” writes Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman. “Have we taken proper responsibility for the world, or has our selfishness overcome our altruism?” Looking the other way as one stuffs their pockets full of acorns is a metaphor. Yes, there’s a line between unfaltering, holier than thou rightness and holding life lightly aware of its sacredness. One approach separates us and one embraces us all. On Rosh Hashanah God fashions our hearts as one. This is the world’s birthday. We are Adam Kadmon. We are all one soul and responsible for each other. We are a collective species; a collective holographic universe of Five Worlds.

And what stands between us? Rebbe Shapira writes, “’And I stand between God and you’ (Deuteronomy 5:5.) The Baal Shem Tov explained this to mean that the ‘I’ – the ego, the sense of selfness that we feel and that drives us to seek only our own selfish needs – is what stands between God and one’s true self – the soul. But how do we get past the barrier imposed by the ego-self? Only by mutually nurturing relations with other human beings – you cannot do it by yourself. This is also alluded to in the verse ‘And I stand’ – when I stand by myself, then there is the barrier ‘between God and man.’”

I am a cup in the Friend’s hand.
Look in my eyes. The one who holds me
is none of this, but this that is so filled
with images belongs to that one who is without form….

— Rumi

Just as we can’t picture God, we can’t always picture our best selves, but I believe that I am good, just as you are.

It takes people like you and me,
working to make ourselves kinder and more loving,
to produce positive change in the world.

— Londro Rinzler

 

http://www.wikihow.com/Grow-an-Oak-Tree-from-an-Acorn

L’Shana Tovah!

Alison

Hebrew Seminary’s Inaugural Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer Scholarship Award

“Being the child of two Holocaust Survivors, it is extremely important to me that families have comforting funeral services for their loved ones. I realize this is a calling for me,” writes Charlene Brooks Clinkman, recipient of the 2017-2018 Hebrew Seminary Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer Scholarship Award. Student Rabbi Charlene is a cantorial soloist and professional singer. She also uses sign language to accompany many of her liturgical songs and prayers. Charlene’s repertoire additionally includes Kabbalistic prayers and meditations which she often teaches as part of Congregation Bene Shalom’s Saturday morning Kabbalistic services in Skokie.

The Rabbi Dr. Douglas Goldhamer Scholarship Award is made available through funds established by the Golder Family Foundation and the Hebrew Seminary Board of Directors and Advisory Board. Hebrew Seminary students are eligible to apply after completing at least one year or full-time course work, or its equivalent. The application deadline for the 2018 – 2019 school year is July 23, 2018.

Rabbi Goldhamer will teach, “Chassidic and Kabbalistic Literature,” beginning October 22nd as part of Hebrew Seminary’s Fall semester. This class, on Sunday afternoons through January 21st, is open to auditing students. For information about our 2017 Fall Class schedule, please visit www.hebrewseminary.org. To make arrangements to visit our program contact Alison Brown at 847/679-4113.

Hebrew Seminary graduates serve in a variety of roles – as pulpit rabbis, educators, chaplains, in public service and serving those with special needs, including the deaf community. Hebrew Seminary has been an inclusive and egalitarian community for the study and practice of Judaism for 25 years. Our program encourages the highest commitment to traditional scholarship, such as Talmud, Bible, and Hebrew, as well as the spiritual discipline of Kabbalah. This teaches our students to be scholars, educators, and leaders, as well as spiritual guides who can hear and share the voice of God with members of their communities.