Bo -- Exodus 10:1–13:16

Insofar as it relates to modern life, religious scholars have cast the role of ritual in a certain light, understanding how it forms and informs our human societies and cultures through that preferred lens. In her renowned study, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (1992), the anthropologist of religion Catherine Bell challenges some of the assumptions that guide most religious scholarship. Bell suggests an approach to ritual activities less encumbered by assumptions about how ritual embodies dichotomies of thinking and acting; instead, she turns her focus to disclosing the strategies by which ritualized activities "do what they do," how and why they continue to stir us and remain relevant.

Every American Jew can attest to the power of ritualized activities "doing what they do" from generation to generation — think of the ubiquity of the Passover seder celebrations and its popularization with the Maxwell House Haggadah! Clearly, Bell is on to something here; the power of Exodus resonates to this day.

This section in the reading of Exodus serves as one of the main moments for the etiology of Pesach – to "passover" the marked homes of the Hebrews when the Angel of Death comes to smite all firstborn children. The roasted Paschal offering is to be eaten that night together with the matzah and bitter herbs. Of all the plagues, it is the smiting of the firstborn which breaks Pharaoh’s recalcitrance, so the Israelites depart hastily [b’hipazon], not leaving time for their dough to rise, which results in unleavened bread. The commemorative seder celebrated to this day incorporates elements of this narrative through the Haggadah, which is composed of: telling the story of redemption to the next generation [magid]; consuming matzah at nightfall; eating bitter herbs of maror; enacting the plagues by spilling drops of wine. The last three of these ten plagues spilled are in memory of those visited upon the Egyptians: locusts swarm the crops; thick darkness envelops the land; firstborn smitten at the stroke of midnight on the 15th of Nissan.

It is telling at this moment of liberation that the Israelites are commanded to restructure their understanding of time through the establishment of a monthly rebirth by the lunar calendar. The Israelites are also instructed to bring a Passover offering as a slaughtered lamb or kid, with its blood sprinkled on the lintels of every Israelite home. In addition to the annual commemoration of Passover, reminders of the Exodus abide daily with the donning of phylacteries on the arm and head which symbolize the ongoing human-divine covenant.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Exodus 13:9: "And it shall be to you as a sign upon your hand and as a remembrance between your eyes, in order that the law of the Lord shall be in your mouth, for with a mighty hand the Lord took you out of Egypt." Many of our grandparents and great-grandparents discarded their tefillin and other Jewish ritual objects when they arrived in the United States. Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin writes that "if skin divers dove into New York harbor, they could dredge up an underwater mountain of tefillin. As the boats carrying our great-grandfathers passed by the Statue of Liberty, they literally kissed their tefillin goodbye. Religious observance was for another land and another place." Today, many of us even outside of Orthodoxy have reclaimed ritual objects and practice. Laying tefillin is a powerful ritual and a daily reminder of the moment we hearkened to freedom. In every ritual act, there is liberating psychological potential. 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.

Bo -- Exodus 10:1–13:16

Facebook_CoverDesign_Bo"No more exploitation of the weak, racial discrimination, or ghettoes of poverty! Never again!"

So declared Pope John Paul II in 1999. He called for a different way of living in keeping with his religious ideals, and he argued that the Church should not achieve these goals through partisan politics or by revolutionary violence. The purpose of religion was bringing about the Kingdom of God, not about creating a Marxist utopia. So how does our traditional-egalitarian Jewish community read this week’s call for liberation in the Exodus story?

This section in the reading of Exodus serves as one of the main moments for the etiology of Pesach – to "passover" the marked homes of the Hebrews when the Angel of Death comes to smite all firstborn children. The roasted Paschal offering is to be eaten that night together with the matzah and bitter herbs. Of all the plagues, it is the smiting of the firstborn which breaks Pharaoh’s recalcitrance, so the Israelites depart hastily [b’hipazon], not leaving time for their dough to rise, which results in unleavened bread. The commemorative seder celebrated to this day incorporates elements of this narrative through the Haggadah, which is composed of: telling the story of redemption to the next generation [magid]; consuming matzah at nightfall; eating bitter herbs of maror; enacting the plagues by spilling drops of wine. The last three of these ten plagues spilled are in memory of those visited upon the Egyptians: locusts swarm the crops; thick darkness envelops the land; firstborn smitten at the stroke of midnight on the 15th of Nissan.

It is telling at this moment of liberation that the Israelites are commanded to restructure their understanding of time through the establishment of a monthly rebirth by the lunar calendar. The Israelites are also instructed to bring a Passover offering as a slaughtered lamb or kid, with its blood sprinkled on the lintels of every Israelite home. In addition to the annual commemoration of Passover, reminders of the Exodus abide daily with the donning of phylacteries on the arm and head which symbolize the ongoing human-divine covenant.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by the tenth and final plague. "It came to pass at midnight, and the Lord smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who is in the dungeon, and every firstborn animal." (Exodus 12:29) Because contemporary readers are so familiar with the story, we too often ignore or diminish the horror of this plague. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Rabbi's Message: 7th Day Passover 5776

CoverDesign3_PartingSeaNow that the seders are over, where is Passover leading us? What is the spiritual texture of the journey that leads us onwards as we reach the seventh day of Passover?

The seventh day of Passover is a time for reimagining what our world would look like — without Pharaoh, without the Angel of Death. It is a messianic moment on the journey to the Promised Land. We invite you to join us to explore the nuances of this spiritual texture!

This Friday at 9 a.m., Rabbi Moshe Levin and congregants from Congregation Ner Tamid will join our community in the Gronowski Family Chapel for a frielich celebration of this messianic moment (with some water surprises!) followed by an enhanced lunch together as joint Conservative communities.

The journey then continues on Saturday morning, with Zohar and meditation at 8:30 a.m. in Makom Shalom. I will share contemplative teachings from the Zohar on the secret of the seventh day of Passover followed by festival services and Yizkor. (This secret concerns a calving doe and a snake…)

This coming Shabbat of Passover offers many opportunities for us to delve deeper than the matzah meal into the heart of the matzah ball itself as we embrace the splitting of the Reed Sea, birthing a new spiritual reality. In our ongoing journey for freedom of the spirit, we will cross the narrow passages of our personal Egypts and emerge more passionate about Jewish communal life together, exploring what Job asked: “Can you really see the calving of does?” (Job 39:1).

Come join us on this spiritual journey and fall in love again with Judaism truly lived.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: The artwork that accompanies this post is an abstract representation of the parting of the Reed Sea. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

HAGGADAH

Announcing HAGGADAH, a new CBS exhibition opening in the Kahn Gallery on Sunday, April 10, 2016, at 5 p.m.

4_11x14
Passover, perhaps more than any other holiday, is steeped in tradition and ritual. Fortunately, we have a wonderful, step-by-step guide through the seder – the Haggadah.

The CBS Rabin Family Library has dozens of Haggadot that you can peruse and borrow: The Maxwell House version that many of us grew up with, the beautiful Shahn, Baskin, or Szyk. There are Haggadot aimed at children, interfaith families, or vegetarians, others that focus on the Holocaust, and still more that are animated, illuminated, or just plain fun.

The Kahn Gallery of Congregation Beth Sholom, behind the Gronowski Family Chapel, will be showcasing Haggadot from our own library! Come see the show, HAGGADAH, learn about the Haggadah, and join us for a “Taste of Passover” reception. You will also have the opportunity to "sponsor" one of the framed photographs to help defray the cost of the show!

HAGGADAH is curated by Rosemary Rothstein and Eva-Lynne Leibman.
25_18x24 Image information:
Top, the metallic cover of Arthur Szyk’s Massadah and Alumoth Jerusalem Tel Aviv Haggadah, from 1967
Bottom, unidentified accordion-format Haggadah

Strangers Like Us: The Syrian Refugee Crisis

SyrianRefugeeA core message of Pesach (Passover) is that the Israelites' status as "strangers" in Egypt, the foreigners who were mistrusted, despised, and mistreated, serves as a lesson to us, their spiritual descendants: to be a Jew is to be forever a "stranger." With that permanent "otherness" in mind, we are commanded to be ever welcoming of "strangers," in every place and age. That's no mean charge, as we're seeing today. There is no better time than Pesach to reflect on how our ethical aspirations inform our everyday actions and politics.

Working with Dr. Lindsay Gifford (Assistant Professor of International Studies and Anthropology, University of San Francisco) and Vlad Khaykin (Associate Director, Anti-Defamation League's Central Pacific Region), CBS created a Pesach seder table Haggadah supplement to encourage Jews everywhere to wrestle with the Syrian refugee crisis.

If you'd like to print these for distribution, please click here to view a high-resolution file. The image below is relatively low resolution.

SyrianRefugeeHandout Lead image credit: Petros Giannakouris, AP

Bo -- Exodus 10:1-13:16

Chagall_MosesAccording to American statesman, lawyer, poet, and Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish (May 7, 1892 – April 20, 1982):

There are those who will say that the liberation of humanity, the freedom of man and mind is nothing but a dream. They are right. It is the American Dream.

Liberation powers the Exodus story, and it continues to resonate to this day.

This parsha serves as one of the main moments for the etiology of Pesach -- to "pass over" the marked homes of the Hebrews when the Angel of Death comes to smite all firstborn children. The roasted Paschal offering is to be eaten that night, together with the matzah and bitter herbs. Of all the plagues, it is the smiting of the firstborn which breaks Pharaoh’s recalcitrance, so the Israelites depart hastily [b’hipazon], not leaving time for their dough to rise, which results in unleavened bread. The commemorative seder celebrated to this day incorporates elements of this narrative through the Haggadah, which is composed of: telling the story of redemption to the next generation [magid]; consuming matzah at nightfall; eating bitter herbs of maror; enacting the plagues by spilling drops of wine. The last three of these ten plagues spilled are in memory of those visited upon the Egyptians: locusts swarm the crops; thick darkness envelops the land; firstborn smitten at the stroke of midnight on the 15th of Nissan.

It is telling at this moment of liberation that the Israelites are commanded to restructure their understanding of time through the establishment of a monthly rebirth by the lunar calendar. The Israelites are also instructed to bring a Passover offering as a slaughtered lamb or kid, with its blood sprinkled on the lintels of every Israelite home. In addition to the annual commemoration of Passover, reminders of the Exodus abide daily with the donning of phylacteries on the arm and head which symbolize the ongoing human-divine covenant.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: "Moses spreads the darkness over Egypt," by Marc Chagall, 1931

Julia in Israel: Passover in Tel Aviv

Birthright trip

Last Thursday, I waved goodbye to many of my birthright friends and watched them load the bus, my pseudo-home for the last 10 days. It was emotional to see them go, but I felt fortunate because my time in Israel had not come to a close. Birthright participants have the option to extend their stay for up to three months! A little less than half of our group decided to stay - either to visit family, go back to certain cities they felt a need to explore more, or just to spend more time with their new friends.

The morning after birthright had officially ended, we all had a weird sense of reclaimed freedom. Birthright was incredible for so many reasons, but you really lose your agency to make personal decisions, and as an adult, it is a strange regression to undergo. All of a sudden we could sleep in as late as we wanted, we could go to the Carmel market for 10 minutes or 2 hours, we could walk to the beach unattended, and go to bathroom without notifying our trip leader. The opportunity to explore Tel Aviv on our own time, felt very special to me. My friend and I walked for hours, with no clear destination and felt truly immersed in the life. I felt like a real local, when Israelis would speak Hebrew to us, of course, they quickly realized we were American when we replied, "slicha, ani lo medaberet ivrit." (pardon the loose transliteration).

Our second day in Tel Aviv, fell on the first day of Passover and we spent part of the day preparing for our group seder. We were assigned to make the charoset! Without a recipe on hand, we went to the open air market and bought the essentials - apples, dates, walnuts, cinnamon, and red wine. We were ready to wing it and it really paid off. That evening, we walked to our friend's airbnb apartment in Jaffa and began our seder. I was so impressed by the commitment of my birthright friends and their effort to make this experience a special one. Our extremely clever friend made brisket without an oven, matzo ball soup without a large pot, and the most delicious Passover dessert - banana fritters. Everyone contributed in their own way, they cooked roasted veggies, bought matzo, wine, and a seder plate. They downloaded a haggadah on their iPhones, and even made Kippas out of napkins! The seder was certainly less traditional, but it felt so fitting for our group. We told the story of Passover, asked the four questions, spoke about the significance of the seder plate, sang every Passover song at least once, and truly enjoyed our last night together. I will hold my memories from that evening very close to my heart. We concluded the evening, not with "next year in Jerusalem" but rather, "this year in Tel Aviv!"