Prayerbook Review: Siddur Eit Ratzon

A Powerful Companion for Your Spiritual Journey

Dr. Joseph Rosenstein, the series creator of Siddur Eit Ratzon , offers authentic, refreshing and accessible approaches to fashioning a healthy, meaningful Jewish prayer life. This isn’t a denominational publication — whatever your degree of orientation to Judaism, his approach will delight, inform and awaken. I’m giving birth to this review after nine months of praying the new Siddur Eit Ratzon collection, because I want you to know about this body of work in time to obtain copies to partner your high holiday experience.

More after the jump.
Dr. Rosenstein is a mathematics professor at Rutgers University focused on applications for K-12. Hence his remarkably articulate, conceptual ability to serve as a field guide to Jewish prayer as a spiritual journey. In his words:

You may walk along a particular path many times without being aware of its features. However a few words from a guide may enable you to see its depth and beauty. As it is with the natural world, so it is with prayer: you may have recited the prayers many times without seeing the spiritual motivation of their authors or how the prayers fit together to create an organic whole.

Dr. Rosenstein particularly reveals the helpful, holy, life-affirming experiences hidden behind the off-putting English word god and Judaism’s abundance of Hebrew blessings. He offers gender neutral G-d language, and there are many theologies in the volume, creating space for all of us on the page and in the room. He doesn’t shirk from asking the hard questions, offering diverse answers, for example:

“So if all these blessings are provided to us all the time, with no strings attached, and if God won’t give us what we ask, then what purpose does prayer serve?

The answer is simple. We have to be receptive to these blessings…When we ask God for strength, we feel strengthened. When we seek healing, we are better able to draw on our own God-given recuperative powers. When we seek guidance, when we try to discern God’s will for us, we find our way to an appropriate path…”

Then Dr. Rosenstein asks, and here we’re still only on page 1 of the user’s guide: “Is this all truth, or is it all metaphor? The answer is simply “yes.”

In many ways the text helps us to release issues with the literal meaning of the text, while inviting us to  resonate with Jewish prayer through “slow, focused, intentional, and relaxed encounters with individual words, phrases and images.” This is how we are helped to change virtually molecularly, our perspective and way of feeling alive changes through this approach to prayer. Siddur Eit Ratzon shows how to get there in clear, contemporary non-coercive ways.

The truth is that prayer is a practice, meaning taking time with the approaches to prayer offered in Siddur Eit Ratzon, months such as I have, yields the fullness of spiritual juiciness, healing and meaning for living. Too many Jews find themselves glossing over the prayers, with eyes glazed at archaic forms, barely tasting what is possible. Dr. Rosenstein warms us up, so that the prayers can melt into our souls like butter on a warm slice of challah. We know and grow as people, the value of it all begins to come clear. He positions us for spiritual growth. A somewhat different and complementary approach is that of Rabbi Dr. Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Joel Segal in their recent work Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer, as well as that of Rabbi Shefa Gold, The Magic of Hebrew Chant: Healing the Spirit, Transforming the Mind, Deepening Love.  

The Siddur Eit Ratzon series’ brilliant four column format is adopted from adopted with permission from Siddur Chaveirim Kol Yisraeil (across facing pages). From left to right you receive:

Transliteration + Hebrew Text + Interpretive Translation + Commentary.

These volumes sparkle with love and awe of the divine within our lived experience. Dr. Rosenstein views prayer as a spiritual path. Jewish tradition advocates love and awe as the two wings the soul needs to fly, to survive and thrive on life’s challenging journey. He helps us enter into prayer as soul-touching poetry and empowers us to relate to the idea of God through metaphor. For example, when considering the Amidah, he teaches us to “position God, as it were” for we are setting the stage for prayerful connection. “How do we envision God?” Recognizing that we are not the ultimate source of life, that within the Mystery of it all, the sages have selected images, God as metaphor to facilitate our well-being through prayer, Rosenstein translates and guides through the power of metaphor. For example, on page 7 of the Siddur Eit Ratzon paperback version of the daily siddur:

My soul praises You, Adonai.
Vast beyond imagination
You are robed in majesty and glory.
You clothe Yourself in beams of light,
You drape Yourself with the heavens. (Ps. 104:1-2)

How precious is Your Loving kindness, O God:
You shelter us all beneath the spread of Your wings,
You feed us all from the abundance of Your house,
You water us all from the overflow of Your springs.

For with You is the source of life,
In Your light we see light. (Ps. 36:8-10)

Six stages are identified within the traditional order of prayer that, when understood and practiced, matter most, and then he offers visualizations for them that are spread through the text. I recommend studying and engaging in these on as a regular practice — not only by yourself, also with your family, students, and in community. The texture of praying together will change and the prayers themselves will come more fully to life.

Substantial research shows the efficacy upon human health of the imagery elements within prayer. Research such as that by Jeanne Ackterberg, z”l  substantiates Dr. Rosenstein’s inclusions of visualizations such as this one in relation to the verse above: In Your Light we see light, found on page 9 of the daily siddur’s hardback version with instructions that “This guided meditation may be read aloud slowly by a leader, with 3- to 5-second pauses at the ellipses…”

Close your eyes…
Take a deep breath … and another …
  Breathing in … and breathing out … [repeat]

Picture the sun…
and imagine yourself basking in its light …
taking in its brightness and its warmth …
feeling comfort and pleasure …
   Breathing in … and breathing out … [repeat]

Imagine now that the source of that light …
is the source of all light …
that you are now basking in the radiance …
of the source of all life …

Imagine that you are surrounded
by God’s light …by God’s presence …
by God’s love … by God’s blessings …
   Breathing in … and breathing out … [repeat]

Picture the vastness of the universe …
and imagine it filled with god’s light …
light that eclipses all darkness …
light that drapes the heavens …
light that surrounds your soul …

Ki im’cha m’kor chay-yim
For with You is the source of life …
b’or’cha nir-eh or
in Your light we see light…
   Breathing in … and breathing out … [repeat]

When we turn toward Your light …
when we move into Your light …
our darkness is dispelled …
and we experience Your light …

Take another deep breath …
and bask in the spiritual light…
Take another deep breath …
and bask in the spiritual light …
of God’s presence …
In Your light we see light.

The author does leave out sections that relate to the sacrificial system. While most perhaps will not mind this at all, I find it unfortunate, because once understood, a world of powerful healing metaphors and awareness emerge from these traditions as well. He also categorically rejects the idea of a punishing God, or for that matter an absent God, declaring:

“The perspective of this Siddur is that God is always ready to receive and accept prayer — from any person, at any time — with no qualifications. When we call, God listens. Whenever we turn to God, God is there.”

And the tradition of understand “living in God’s house,” as a reward for the righteous is also transformed here. “The perspective of this Siddur is that each of us is always welcome in God’s house — as a visitor or as a permanent resident.” Kol HaKovod — all honor for taking these courageous, contemporary, neo-Hassidic stances!

Siddur Eit Ratzon is available in several versions — paperback and hardbound, daily, Shabbat and Holidays, and for High Holidays. Print and binding quality is very high and clear. Dr. Rosenstein a founder of the National Havurah Committee and its annual institute, where serious inquiry and exploration into Jewish practice is a respected norm, has undertaken a great deal of research to answer his own questions about the language, sequence, and purpose of traditional Jewish prayer. This vast body of work is a tremendous accomplishment and gift that will endure long into the Jewish future.  

Book Review: The Rabbi Rami Guides

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Each of the four Rabbi Rami’s Guides from Spirituality & Health Books is a keeper. Rich in refreshing touchstones for meaningful daily living, each pocketsize volume of the Rabbi Rami’s Guide series offers a roughly 120 page essay. His contemporary theologies are liberating and inclusive and he offers us specific actions that make the world a better place in sometimes subtle and delightfully surprising ways. The first three titles are Parenting; Forgiveness; and God, and the fourth begins with a commentary on Psalm 23 which then informs the author’s understanding of two of our best know mitzvot, in fact the two cited by Jesus as most important, which Rabbi Shapiro uses as a starting point for creating a lovely interfaith learning opportunity booklet. (See Mark 12:28-34, then Deut. 6:4-5 and also Lev. 18:19)

More after the jump.
Parenting

Who am I? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What am I here to do? Why? For those who wonder, or raise children who wonder, the Rabbi Rami Parenting Guide offers lively and livable parental approaches to these five primary questions. He also offers a powerful critique of the range of stories available for reading for children:

An unhealthy story is a story that leaves your children feeling superior to others, or frightened of others who are different from themselves. An unhealthy story is one that excuses violence, exploitation, the dehumanization of people, or inhumane treatment of animals. An unhealthy story is one that places your children in a world of perpetual conflict where friendship is rare if not impossible, where love is limited, where race, religion, creed and ethnicity determine the value of a person rather than what she does, where collaboration is dismissed as starry-eyed idealism…..”

Rabbi Shapiro then contrasts two Shel Silverstein stories The Giving Tree and The Missing Piece to show how even a great author’s work bears reflection and screening.  The second half of the volume weaves his clear-eyed parenting philosophy with specific stories from a variety of traditions, as well as of his own construction, that he recommends as holy and healthy. Each is brief and affords great opportunity for meaningful family discussion.

Interfaith

Rabbi Shapiro has a long and distinguished career in the pulpit, founding innovative Jewish organizations that teach meaning, spirituality and menschlichkeit (Yiddish the state of being an honorable, ethical person), as perhaps the first rabbi to have a website when the Internet was founded, and more recently he both teaches Bible at Middle Tennessee State University and directs Wisdom House, a center for interfaith study and contemplative practice in Nashville, TN. So it is not surprising that the Rabbi Rami series also pilots a fourth, dual volume of essays, Psalm 23 & Jesus’ Two Great Commandments. While I see great interfaith study and dialogue potential in this volume, this is his expected audience for this book:

I suspect that most readers of Matthew and Mark, and most readers of this Guide, are neither rabbis nor even Jews. And because I think this is true, I fear you may overlook some of the deeper insights Jesus meant to teach when he chose these two mitzvot as the chief commandments of the Torah and his touchstone texts. It is my wish to make plain the deeper meaning of his teaching by placing it in the Jewish context in which it was spoken by Jesus and heard by his fellow Jews, and in this way enhance your understanding of Jesus’ message.

I can only begin to imagine what an eye-opener study with Rabbi Rami must be for students of all faiths. For example, his explication of a verse in Psalm 23, “I shall not want”:

…does not mean, “I shall not desire,” but rather, “I shall not lack.” The Hebrew verb echsar (Lack) is in the future tense, suggesting that freedom from want comes only when you realize that God is your shepherd. Why? Because it is then that you realize your desires, endless and endlessly satisfied, are a distraction seducing you from your true calling and trapping you in the narrow and lifeless worship of the next big thing.

With God as your shepherd, the chains of idolatry are severed. You are now free to be what God is calling you to be: a source of blessing and liberation for the world…..you will have everything you need to fulfill God’s desire-that you will have everything you need to become a blessing to others by liberating yourself and them from narrowness.

Rabbi Rami channels the Good Shepherd in ways healthy and holy; he appreciates that spiritual development is a process of awareness and personal growth. In his commentary on the Psalm 23 verse “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures,” Rabbi Rami Shapiro takes to where we may not all have gone before: “The first step is to rest, to lie down, because the way to blessing and liberation isn’t simply an outer journey, but an inner one as well.”

For “He restoreth my soul”, Rabbi Rami transduces the text to reveal another of its infinite possibilities for the non-dogmatic reader:

What does it mean to be a breath-bearer? It means to breathe life into the world as God breathed life into you. This is what the Torah reveals when she tells us, “The ineffable One placed the earthling in the Garden of Eden to till it and protect it’ (Genesis 2:15). The garden is the original state of creation but without you, the earth grows hard and lifeless, incapable of birthing plants or herbs (Genesis 2:5)…

And in regard to “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His names sake…”:

David…is not saying that God acts for self-aggrandizement, but that God acts on behalf of all reality, for God is all reality….A path is righteous if walking it breathes life into life, if it blesses and benefits creation, and if it fosters love, justice and compassion.

Teshuvah and Forgiveness

In the Rabbi Rami Guide to Forgiveness, the term takes on an expanded meaning grounded in the author’s training in Buddhism, life experience and psychology. Pratityasamutpada is “co-origination. It means that everything is connected to everything else and happens altogether.” Although he doesn’t cite it, those who study Kabbalah recognize the related teaching of the Hebrew term for stone, ehven.  “If a soul is like a ben (ven), son/child, cleaved from the av (ehv), father/parent…can you picture that God would separate a part from God’s essence?” No, I can’t.  Can you? This is why the Budda’s conceptualization rings helpful on this topic.

Deftly wielding the language of living at the level of soul, Rabbi Rami doesn’t have us wait for others to confess how they’ve hurt us. He shows us how to heal ourselves through specific questions that restore us to living in the moment. This approach to removing toxic encounter hangovers is useful, and in my opinion, sufficiently only as a complement to the Jewish practice of teshuvah. Teshuvah, in brief, is where we return to those we’ve hurt, own up, are received with respectful listening and the necessary time is taken to process and restore relationships to good health. What do when teshuvah takes quite a long time? Rami’s volumes are subtitled “Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler,” let him show you the way.  

In Praise of the Physical World

Leonard Gontarek’s Spiritual Poetry at the Public Library

A week before both Passover, when we commemorate both freedom and slavery, remembering always, that as long as anyone is oppressed we are all still slaves in Egypt, I had the pleasure to begin the week at the Philadelphia Public Library Monday Poets Reading Series, now in its 16th year. Run for fifteen years by Michelle Belluomini, the new director of the series, Kay Wisniesskik, explained that “Philadelphia has a lot of creative people.  This venture is special as we feature local poets who have published books and have often won prizes.  We want to expose people to the excellence of the Philadelphia poetry scene.”  

More after the jump.  

On April 2nd, at 6:30 pm in the stunning Skyline Room of the Parkway Central Library, poet Leonard Gontarek read from new work for about 40 minutes that held the audience, comprised of about 40 people, captivated.  Gontarek’s poems are filled with both praise and melancholy, both images of rebirth and death.  “Truth is very subtle like a thief in the night.”   In poems that sampled from the Bible and Bruce Springsteen, from Gilgamesh and Zen Buddhism, Gontarek writes, “everyone steals a glimpse, because it is spring.”

Gontarek is the author of four collections. His poetry collections include Déjà Vu Diner (2006) and St. Genevieve Watching Over Paris (1984). His poems have also been featured in Joyful Noise: An Anthology of American Spiritual Poetry (2006) and in Best American Poetry (2005). Gontarek’s honors include several Pushcart Prize nominations and two fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.   His new work is written in numbered sections, often consisting of one line of verse, which draws attention to the poetic line.  In an incantatory poem about masks and identity in a fragmented, post-modern world, Gontarek writes: “it’s all shadow and we wore many masks.”  

Where many modern and post-modern poets shy away from the word God or any hint at spirituality or transendence, in Gontarek’s lyrical, erotic, playful poems the physical and metaphysical are inextricably connected: To praise Buddha without belief “is cereal without milk” he writes.  From a poem about a $69 hotdog, that is a sensuous celebration of the physical world, to melancholic poems about “the math of sadness” Gontarek’s poetry provides a precise questioning of the world, never reducing its complexity but paying close attention to its paradoxes.

The evening ended with Gontarek paying homage to the poet Adrienne Rich, a Jewish lesbian poet, who died last week at the age of 82.  He read her poem “Perspective Immigrants Please Note” an apt selection.  Rich writes: “If you go through/ there is always the risk/ of remembering your name.”  Gontarek welcomed us to go through many doors with him on this Monday night in April.  

A 20 minute Q & A followed with the audience asking questions about craft and composition.   This was the last in the 2011-2012 series which will resume its Monday Poets Reading Series in the Fall.  There will be an open mike at the end of the readings “so local poets can get over stage fright” Wisniesskik explained.  

Monday Night Poetry Series. 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the Skyline Room of the Parkway Central Library, 1901 Vine Street. Copies of the Featured Poets’ books may be purchased at the readings. For additional information, please call the Free Library of Philadelphia’s Literature Department at 215-686-5402.

A Soul is Like a Play: New Jerusalem at the Lantern Theatre

  • All we get is the poetry of a Jewish fruit peddler and a heap of vanishing figs.  — Baruch Spinoza
  • You will be greater than all of us, but not as a Jew. — Rabbi Mortera


Reminiscent of intellectual dramas like Copenhagen, New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656 is an ambitious new drama by David Ives, known for his evenings of one act comedies called All in the Timing and Time Flies.  Playing through November 6th at the Lantern Theater Company, this heady play directed by Lantern’s Artistic Director Charles McMahon is based on true events in the life of the philosopher Baruch de Spinoza.  This recent off-Broadway hit challenges traditional political and religious thinking with passion and wit.  

The production’s action takes place in the Amsterdam synagogue where the 23 year old stands trial for his revolutionary thoughts about God, nature and human life.  Sam Henderson’s Spinoza, donning a black leather bomber jacket, (costumes beautifully designed by Maggie Baker with lighting by Shon Causer) is arrogant but humble, witty and rakish.   The favorite son of the rabbi’s heir apparent, (played by David Bardeen) Spinoza refuses to remain silent about his revolutionary thoughts, and is accused by political leader and Calvinist Abraham van Valkenburgh ( played by Seth Reichgott) of heresy.   The audience becomes part of this trial as we witness Spinoza refuse to silence his radical beliefs, denying the divine origin of the Torah which sits in the Ark of the Covenant, that provides the effective and sparsely designed backdrop for the action (designed by Nick Embree).

More after the jump.
Accused of atheism, Spinoza protests, “I know a few things about God no one else does.”    Accused of loving a Christian woman, Clara van den Eden (played beautifully by Mary Tuomanen) Spinoza insists she tell the truth when she is questioned, for her “essence will not allow her to lie.”  His petty and vengeful half-sister Rebekah de Spinoza, (played by Kittson O’Neill) who early in the play betrays her brother, marks one of the weaker plot points as later in the play she professes great loyalty.  Her kvetching (from the audience where she glares at her accused brother on trial to be excommunicated) while intended to provide some comic relief, strikes one of the few false notes of the evening.  

The most convincing and moving relationship we witness is that between the Head Rabbi of Amsterdam, Mortera, and Spinoza, whom he considers like a grandson.    While Spinoza is intoxicated “by God and mathematics”, the rabbi must think about the community of faithful Jews whose religious freedom is being threatened.   Will the Rabbi remain faithful to his most gifted student or will he turn his back on him for the sake of the Jewish community’s survival?  

Ives manages to write an engaging courtroom drama full of complex philosophical ideas from Descartes’ dualism to the Mishneh Torah.   If questions like: is there immortality, is there a God, what are the moral implications of a world without God, interest you — you will spend two riveting hours at the Lantern Theater Company.   Remember, when Albert Einstein was asked about his belief in God, he responded, “I believe in Spinoza’s God.”   To find out what he means by this go see New Jerusalem at the Lantern Theater Company.

On Saturday, October 22nd at 2 pm there will be a Panel Discussion on the Lantern Main Stage called Out of Order! Courtrooms as Theatre, Courtrooms in Theatre featuring Vince Regan, Assistant Chief District Attorney of Philadelphia, Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham.  

New Jerusalem runs through November 6th.

  • Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen’s Theater
  • 10th and Ludlow Streets, Philadelphia, PA 19107
  • Adults: $20 – $36, Students: $10 – $26, $10 student rush tickets available 10 minutes before curtain with valid ID; cash only. Special discounts are available for seniors and groups of 10 or more.
  • Phone: (215) 829-0395