Re'eh -- Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17

American naturalist-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson once remarked, "Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God's handwriting."

Emerson’s 1836 essay, Nature, expresses the belief that everything in our world – even a drop of dew – is a microcosm of the universe. This transcendentalist notion is not foreign to Judaism, especially its more mystical streams. We open ourselves to such transcendence through the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes and, in so doing, daring to see beyond ourselves so that we can develop new relationships to all texts, even sacred texts of nature. It's all a question of how we see ourselves in relation to the text and its sacred inspiration.

So when Moses says to the Children of Israel, "See I place before you today a blessing and a curse," they enter an important stage of maturity in their covenantal relationship — that of responsibility. Seeing the consequences of our actions is a sign of growing responsibility. These are proclaimed on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal as the Israelites are crossing over into the Holy Land. In establishing a Temple, we made a place where the Divine will dwell in essence and Name. This will become the new central address for sacrifices, and in keeping with the overall theology of Deuteronomy, no offerings can be made to the divine outside this locale. Laws of tithing are discussed in detail, including how the tithe is given to the needy in certain years. Here, we encounter one of the first iterations of charity as an obligation devolving upon the Jew to aid those in need with a gift or loan. But all such loans are forgiven on the Sabbatical year and all indentured servants are freed after six years of service.

The theme of seeing concludes Parashat Re'eh. Listing the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Pentecosts (Shavuot), and the Feast of Booths (Sukkot) as times when the pilgrim goes to see and be seen before the Divine in the precincts of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the parsha demonstrates that encountering the Divine in our lives is indeed a "seeing into our nature" with fresh eyes. This "seeing" provides hope for such sacred encounters throughout our lives.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by mystical visions. It features a stylized eye with retinal ganglion cells and filaments of muscle radiating outward. Of his transcendent experiences, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "All mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me." His peer Walt Whitman described himself as part of a universal weave of "threads that connect the stars, and of wombs and of the father-stuff." Rabbi Arthur Cohen writes of being pressed "to the limit where thought cannibalizes itself in despair, where knowing ceases, where the emptying of the self is undergone and the fullness of God may commence." Mystics, be they American transcendentalists, Hasids, or academics, are not lunatics; their practice is an enthusiastic response to the world as it is – radically interconnected, with each individual indivisible from everything else. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Pesach – Day 5

Facebook_CoverDesign_Pesach5777"Roots, man — we’re talking about Jewish roots, you want to know more? Check on Elijah the prophet. … yeah — these are my roots, I suppose. Am I looking for them? … I ain’t looking for them in synagogues … I can tell you that much." — Bob Dylan, 1983

Is the Messiah a person or a process of redemption?

In my forthcoming book on Bob Dylan’s gnostic theology, God Knows Everything Is Broken, I argue that the Hibbing bard fell prey to the allure of messianic personhood one night in a Tucson hotel room, as he described his own experience: "I felt my whole body tremble. The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me up." Months later, Dylan again found himself alone in empty arena sound-checks. Through these solitary communions, he worked up a new song, "Slow Train," which served, amid larger questions with ineffable answers, as his own journey through a messianic process.

Meanwhile, many of his Jewish listeners turned a deaf ear to his next three albums. That's unfortunate, because they are necessary listening if you want to hear how Dylan’s "conversion songs" are inextricably linked to his ongoing, post-conversion work.

Following a few short years of "conversion," Dylan, in 1983, released "Infidels," a virulent self-critique, embarking on "a very personal battle to construct a world view that retains [his] faith in both God and humanity." Around this time, Dylan even recorded an album of Hasidic songs (the bootlegged out-takes are called "From Shot to Saved"). It is through the outreach of Rabbi Manis Friedman that Dylan found his direction home, and Chabad legend has it that the Hibbing bard prayed in a hoodie at the Crown Heights headquarters. During Dylan’s first appearance before the late Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson at his farbrengen, a traditional Hasidic gathering, the latter did not acknowledge the former because of his apostate status – only after Dylan immersed in a mikvah to return to his Jewish self would the rebbe smile at him at the next farbrengen.

While this "re-conversion" story is kept under wraps, Dylan’s public return to roots was still misunderstood as a returning of a secularist, or nonobservant Jew. Perhaps their singing spokesperson accepted the darkening spiritual awareness that "everything is broken." Yet the return to his Jewish roots, for Dylan, was more radical. Importantly, he returned not as a zealot, which "Infidels" rejects, but as a Jew devoid of Orthodox ideology. In his perennial reinventions, Dylan’s pendulum swings — not merely from one orthodoxy to another — but from orthodoxy to heterodoxy. Already wobbling into heterodoxy in 1985, Dylan remarks: "Whether you believe Jesus Christ is the Messiah is irrelevant, but whether you’re aware of the messianic complex, that’s … important … People who believe in the coming of the Messiah live their lives right now, as if He was here …"

Unlike the medieval Jewish mystic Abraham Abulafia, who aborted his messianic meeting to convert Pope Nicholas III in 1279, Dylan’s modern messianic mission with Pope John Paul II in 1997 was met with equally dubious reception as the Vatican called him "a false prophet." Did Dylan believe his messianic search had evolved from personhood to process, to then dissolve the differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?

Like every SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) seeker so allergic to setting foot in a synagogue, Dylan eventually returns home to the root of his soul. Being "aware of the messianic complex" demarcates the theology of Dylan’s songbook and enables its rapid shift, from the apocalyptic songs to those affirming a personal sense of gratitude for his redemption. This struggle to clarify the source of messianism emerges in many lyrics, for example, in "Pressing on to a Higher Calling" (from the 1980 album "Saved"), which points to the shift from personhood to process. Such a journey, especially when it is frustratingly circuitous, is only possible by struggling with messianism as a process.

So for Pesach, don’t leave home! Rather stay attuned during the seder. Open that door at home for Elijah and see there is really an internalizing shift taking place, from messianic personhood to process. It is an opening to that "kind of sign [each and every one of us] need[s] when it all come[s] from within"!

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer
(This piece originally appeared in J. Jewish News of Northern California, April 7, 2017).

Artwork note: This week’s illustration depicts the Korban Pesach, or "sacrifice of Passover." Also referred to as the Paschal lamb, it figures prominently in Christian rhetoric, where Jesus Christ is portrayed as the ultimate sacrificial lamb, or Lamb of God. The illustration seemed a fitting accompaniment to Rabbi Glazer's examination of Bob Dylan's messianic search. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Dance The Pain Away

DancingHasidsIt's easy for us to shirk our Jewish responsibility to wrestle with the more challenging and anachronistic aspects of our tradition. In a few weeks, when we read Parashat Vayikra, we'll reconsider the ancient Israelites' sacrificial practices, which seem quite alien to us today. Yet the psychological distance imposed by time and social change doesn't relieve us of our duty to parse and digest the rituals.

Evan Wolkenstein, Director of Experiential Education for American Jewish World Service (and a teacher at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay), writes,

"Nearly 2000 years have passed since the last turtledove’s blood was wrung against the altar walls, and we are still forced to acknowledge that, interesting as they may be, these verses are relevant almost exclusively through creative hermeneutics. We may look to Vayikra for inspiration. We may find its details somewhat disturbing. But no matter our potential discomfort, one thing is certain for all of us—we would never remove these passages from the Torah."

We would never remove the passages because, as Wolkenstein puts it, "none of us is better off by forgetting any part of the past." To the contrary, the past should inform and improve our present; earnest discourse about (and with) the past makes us better Jews and better human beings. Such soul-searching, though, is often uncomfortable, and few Jews outside of our clergy make a regular habit of it. Those who do and who elect to share their ruminations are too often criticized or ignored.

Case in point: every year, a handful of Jewish writers point out that the Purim story has a "a dark and dangerous underside." Invariably, these voices are lambasted and labelled "self-hating" or "naive." In fact, it is the reactionary critics, those who refuse to reside in the uneasy and uncertain space of Purim, who do a grave disservice to our tradition and, importantly, to our future. Lest this seem like a partisan broadside, however, the Jews at the other end of the spectrum – those who refuse to observe or celebrate Purim because they've written it off as a politically incorrect tale of "bloody revenge" (and even attempted genocide by Jews, not of Jews) – are no less misguided.

Two years ago, writing in The Forward, religious studies professor Shaul Magid, allowed as how "Purim is essentially about the celebration of violence." But he doesn't stop there. He doesn't suggest that Purim should wither on the vine or be reduced to a Disney-fied carnival, an intellectually impotent combo of Halloween and Mardi Gras. Instead, he suggests a way forward by sharing a story. How very Jewish of him.

"If you want to approach Purim with a spirit of open-mindedness this year, I’ve got an idea of how to do it. There is a story about blotting out Amalek told in the name of the Hasidic master Zvi Elimelekh of Dinov (1783-1841). I heard the story from Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (z"l). During the Purim feast, Zvi Elimelekh suddenly stopped the festivities and said, 'Saddle the horses and get the carriages, it is time to blot out Amalek.' His Hasidim were petrified. 'What could the master mean?' Being obedient disciples, they got in their carriages and followed their rebbe. He rode into town to a local inn where the Polish peasants (the Amalekites of his day?) were engaged in their own drunken bash.

The rebbe and his disciples entered the inn. When the peasants saw them, they stopped dancing. The music stopped. Everyone circled around the rebbe and the Jews as they walked to the center of the dance floor. The room was silent. The rebbe looked at one of the peasants and put out his hand with his palm to the ceiling. Silence. The peasants looked at one another. Suddenly one of them stepped forward and took the rebbe’s hand. They slowly started dancing. The musicians began playing. In a matter of minutes, all the Hasidim and peasants were dancing furiously with one another.

You want to blot out Amalek? [...] Reach out your hand. And dance. That is how you blot out Amalek. Crazy? Ask Zvi Elimelekh of Dinov. That is what it means to take Purim seriously.
"

Put another way by David Bowie (z"l),

"Let's dance -- put on your red shoes and dance the blues
[...]
Let's sway -- you could look into my eyes
Let's sway under the moonlight,
this serious moonlight.
"

This year, maybe, we can dance with one another (and with our tradition), warts, disagreements, and all.

From Tiberias With Love

Facebook_RobertsWe're pleased to announce From Tiberias With Love: Letters of Spiritual Direction from 1777 Community in Eretz Yisrael, a four-session mini-course that will meet at 8 a.m. on Thursdays in March (2, 9, 16, 23), immediately following morning minyan.

Scroll down to register now!


Does distance really make the heart grow fonder? What would you do if your spiritual leader and core community left your diasporic home to return to Eretz Yisrael? How would you continue your spiritual journey in the diaspora while remaining committed to your teachers and colleagues now settled far away?

These questions resonate as we reconsider the neglected history of Yishuv Aliya, the immigration of Hasidim in 1777, which consisted of several hundred people who arrived at the same time. At its head were four Hasidic leaders of White Russia: R. Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, R. Abraham of Kalisk, R. Zvi Hirsch of Smorytzsch, and R. Israel of Plock. The caravan set out in March 1777 from Eastern Europe and arrived in Eretz Yisrael, via Istanbul, in September of the same year.

Historians have different opinions about the causes of this immigration, but there can be no doubt that this conscious community was seeking an intimate experience of egalitarian fellowship built upon unique approaches to Torah and tefillah that can inspire our own search.  Of special interest then are fifteen igrot, or "Letters of Love," penned by R. Menahem Mendel of Vitebsk and R. Avraham haKohen of Kalisk that served as long distance spiritual direction primarily to Hasidim in Eastern Europe. By examining this ongoing correspondence as a form of spiritual direction, we will explore the creative spiritual tensions between mind-centered techniques (HaBaD) in relation to heart-centered techniques (HaGaT) of the spiritual life in community.

Bi-lingual texts will be distributed. No prior knowledge of Hebrew or Hasidism required; the syllabus will be made available to those who register.

Image credit: Detail of "Tiberias, looking towards Hermon," David Roberts (Scottish, 1796-1864), First Edition Lithograph

Acharei Mot -- Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30

CoverDesign_AchareiMot"After the ecstasy, the laundry!"

This insight by renowned author and teacher of meditation, Jack Kornfield, co-founder of Spirit Rock in Woodacre, California, encapsulates the challenge of daily spiritual practice. In his bestselling book of the same title, Kornfield offers a uniquely intimate understanding of how the modern spiritual journey unfolds — and most importantly, how we can prepare our hearts for awakening. Kornfield argues that the enlightened heart navigates the real world of family relationships, emotional pain, earning a living, sickness, loss, and death.

Commentators have long been puzzled by the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Were these two brothers and young Turk priests focused on ecstatic religious experience to a fault? The ecstatic enigma first seen in Shemini (Leviticus 9:1–11:47) here returns to the sobering lesson behind this episode. Perhaps Nadav and Avihu offered a "strange fire" at an unscheduled time and were punished for transgressing the law of the sancta. Or perhaps their spiritual merits exceed even those of Moses and Aaron? This latter possibility is embraced by later Hasidic commentators, who locate in Nadav and Avihu echoes of their own intense pursuits of ecstasy within religious practice. As Kornfield sagely warns, however, sometimes such ecstasy comes at a price.

And the question remains: once the peak experience of ecstasy has been tasted, how does one remain living in the real world -- the one with our laundry? No matter how high the peak experience, we Jews are tasked with living in the world, even if not of it. The expectation of the Tzaddik in Judaism (just like that of the Bodhisattva in Buddhism) is to return from a state of enlightenment to share that light with others.

Understood from the Hasidic perspective, the fatal flaw of these two remarkable spiritual seekers, Nadav and Avihu, is their choice to withdraw from rather than engage in the real world, to return with the fruits of their peak spiritual experiences. The only person authorized entry into the Holy of Holies and grounded enough to process the experience is the High Priest, and even he may only enter once a year to offer the sacred incense of ketoret.

Another aspect of atonement is described through the casting of lots over two goats so as to determine which to serve as a divine offering and which to designate for sins (the scapegoat) and send as an offering to Azazel in the wilderness. How fitting then that this reading is reserved for the High Holiday of Yom Kippur, serving as a perennial reminder of this challenge of grounding our peak, ecstatic experiences into a daily living of our spiritual lives that includes doing the laundry!

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's artwork is inspired by the scapegoat ritual. Azazel's goat is led into the remote desert and set free, roaming unseen in the wilds of our psyche and burdened with our missteps and failings. Past deeds, for good or for ill, are not erased by primitive magic; even ignored or forgotten, they inform our actions in the present. The scapegoat's eyes are always on us, and we are not called upon to be perfect (nor to deny our imperfect pasts), but instead to strive to better ourselves and to make the world better through action in it. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Mystics of Mile End Book Talk

Sigal headshot (1)On Monday, April 25, author Sigal Samuel will present a book talk about her acclaimed debut novel, The Mystics of Mile End, which tells the story of a dysfunctional Jewish family obsessed with climbing the Kabbalah's Tree of Life.

Brother and sister Lev and Samara Meyer live in Montreal's Mile End — a mashup of hipsters and Hasidic Jews. They have a fairly typical childhood, other than that their father is distracted, their mother is dead, and down the street Mr. Katz is trying to recreate the biblical Tree of Knowledge out of plucked leaves, toilet paper rolls, and dental floss. When their father, David, an atheist professor of Jewish mysticism, is diagnosed with an unusual heart murmur, he becomes convinced that his heart is whispering divine secrets. But as David's frenzied attempts to ascend the Tree of Life lead to tragedy, Samara and Lev set out — in separate and divisive ways — to finish what he's started. It falls to next-door neighbor and Holocaust survivor Chaim Glassman to shatter the silence that divides the members of the Meyer family. But can he break through to them in time?Mystics of Mile End book cover

Sigal Samuel is an award-winning fiction writer, journalist, essayist, and playwright. Currently opinion editor at the Forward, she has also published work in the Daily Beast, the Rumpus, BuzzFeed, and Electric Literature. She has appeared on NPR, BBC, and Huffington Post Live. Her six plays have been produced in theaters from Vancouver to New York. Originally from Montreal, Sigal now lives in Brooklyn. The Mystics of Mile End is her first novel.

The cost of attendance is $18 and includes a copy of the novel. Given that the book retails for $16 on Amazon, this is a wonderful deal! RSVP early as we are limited to 30 books. Refreshments will be provided.

CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS.

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THIS BOOK TALK WAS RECORDED. LISTEN TO AUTHOR SIGAL SAMUEL IN CONVERSATION WITH ARTIST ELYSSA WORTZMAN BY CLICKING THE "PLAY" BUTTON BELOW. [audio mp3="http://bethsholomsf.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/MyticsOfMileEndBooktalk_April2016.mp3"][/audio]

An Overview of Rabbi Glazer's Israel Trip

From Sunday, December 20, 2015 - Sunday, January 3, 2016, Rabbi Glazer will visit Israel to present some of his recent research, give book talks, study with renowned Israeli scholars, and participate in a program for college students.

7911984On December 24, he will teach in the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem's Winter Break study program, Ta’amu U’r’u – Taste and See. His session is titled “Beginnings Forever After: How do we understand the depths of beginning a relationship to Talmud Torah according to Kabbalah & Hasidut?”

Rabbi Glazer will also give book talks at two Masorti communities -- Neve Schecter, in Tel Aviv, on December 24, and the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem on December 31. His talk, "Is Jewish Thinking Possible After Auschwitz?," interrogates the (im)possibility of Jewish thinking -- and serious metaphysical thought at large -- following the essays of philosopher, pianist, and aesthetician Theodor W. Adorno. These two talks occur in conjunction with the Hebrew-language publication of Rabbi Glazer's A New Physiognomy of Jewish Thinking: Critical Theory After Adorno as Applied to Jewish Thought (Resling Press, Tel Aviv).

"The Zohar: East and West" international conference takes place December 28-30, with two days of sessions at Ben Gurion University, Be'er Sheva, and the final day at the Yad Ben Zvi Institute in Jerusalem. Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 3.52.39 PMCelebrating the culmination of Daniel Matt’s Priztker Edition translation of the Zohar, Rabbi Glazer will present his research on Tiberean Hasdisim's usage of Kabbalah. His presentation will be drawn from his paper, “Between Quietism of the 'Still Mind' & Merging in 'Ecstatic Kisses' In the Holy Land: Zohar as Hermeneutics of Contemplation in Tiberean Hasidism," which explores how the spiritual practice of quieting the busy mind can allow the practitioner to be more fully present and self-actualizing in their interactions with others. In particular, Rabbi Glazer considers how these ideas are expressed in the 18th century spiritual community of Tiberias and its application of the Zohar?

We wish Rabbi Glazer nesiyah tovah (good travels) and fruitful teaching and learning while abroad!

If you need pastoral services during Rabbi Glazer's absence, please contact the CBS offices; we have emergency clergy available in case of birth, death, or serious illness.