Book Review: The Rebel and The Rabbi’s Son by Yisroel Eichenstein

— Reviewed by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Sometimes a book becomes a mitzvah because it’s just what you needed to better understand how to deal with a difficult situation. My spouse and I struggle greatly with relating to our family’s baal teshuvah branch — those who have chosen ultra Orthodoxy and become passionate adherents of its stringencies as their path to self-realization. Conversely, there are those who, like Yisroel Eichenstein, autobiographical author of The Rebel and the Rabbi’s Son, are born into ultra Orthodoxy and ultimately choose to leave that path in order to attain the freedom to be themselves. This slender, courageous volume helped us to better appreciate how to relate to our very religious children and grandchildren, and the extremely important role grandparents of all backgrounds and practices may have in such scenarios.

The full review after the jump.
Early on Eichenstein reveals to what is like to be born into a family where you don’t fit in and where you incur disgrace to your family’s good name just by being yourself. No, he isn’t gay, if you were also expecting such a turn of events. It’s just that trying as best he can, life at the thriving intersection of the Zhidachov and Novominsk Chassidic dynasties can’t work for Eichenstein’s inherent nature. We were twisting in our seats with empathy for young “Izzy”, as we read of his extreme efforts at trying to please, to accept the norms of sect stringencies while being born with the very distinct disadvantage of having a curious mind, a love of sports and a serous rebellious streak. This man, a direct descendent of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hassidism, did his best to find a comfortable place in that world, but his soul was unwilling and unable to shut out the entire rest of the world around him.

The Challenge of Conformity

Reading The Rebel and the Rabbi’s Son, we soon began to appreciate some of the reasons why those of our family who have chosen ultra-Orthodoxy seem to go to such pains to ensure they and their children conform precisely to the behavioral norms of their segment of ultra-Orthodox society, and, to ensure that we don’t give the (grand)children any unacceptable ideas. Meaning, we such things as can’t take our grandchildren to science museums where evolution might be discussed, even as a theory, or art museums where unclothed human figures might appear in great art, and certainly no television, nor share our understanding of verse of Torah or Haggadah, etc.

Our first big ‘aha’ arose when Eichenstein spells out the methods used to ensure conformity: first the carrots of affection, praise and acceptance, and then a slap in the face or words of condemnation of a degree that creates toxic shame with the potential to endure for a lifetime. Ultimately, if as an adult one loosens one’s practice, the consequence becomes essentially shunning — being shut out of social loops and other vital aspects of communal support.

Eichenstein goes on to explain:

“The worst insult you can give someone in the Orthodox Jewish community is to call them apikoros, heretic. Many times I wonder how different my life would have been had my zaide (grandfather in Yiddish) been around during my lifetime. Tolerance, which he believed in, should not brand you an apikoros, as I have been branded: someone who won’t share in the world to come.”

The author’s conflicted spirit over being himself versus disappointing his parents shines through as he writes about his family with empathy and affection. While his father clearly tries to overlook his son’s need to push the limits of living in an ultra-Hassidic setting and not do battle on him, the whole weight of the family’s noble Hassidic lineages was pressing down on him. I’ve rarely seen kavod, intended to be expressed through the mitzvot (deeds) of bringing honor to God and one’s ancestors, more misused by a family than in Izzy’s childhood home and community, where not HaShem — God, but social norms are treated as the authority.

The Flexidox Zaide

We had yet another aha coming. Eichenstein reveals he was aware that not everyone was always so uptight and stringent in social norms and Jewish practice as in his childhood community. His father, perhaps out of love, planted the seed that would ultimately set him free when he tells Izzy about his zaide‘s (grandfather’s) relationship with a Reform rabbi.(OMG!)

The only reason I know about the bond of friendship between Zaide and the Reform rabbi is because my father’s conscience moved him to confide in me. I was already an adult when he pulled me aside and whispered, ‘Your brother or extended family would never acknowledge or believe what I’m going to tell you, but I was with your zaide when this happened.’

His urgent tone reminded me of a CIA operative delivering secret intelligence data.

‘I was twelve years old when my father took me with him to meet the Reform rabbi who had helped him in his early days in Chicago. The Reform rabbi’s daughter was getting married, and my father wished to give him a mazel tov (good luck). He was so grateful to this generous man that he wanted to make a public gesture.’

Can Love Prevail in the Face of Religious Difference?

Eichenstein also honestly relates some of his own parenting mistakes, replicas of schooling traumas his own parents visited upon him. Today he portrays himself as a happily married, successful West Coast industrial real estate magnate who belongs to a liberal Jewish congregation. His wife also left ultra-Orthodoxy with him; her parents seemed to have handled this far better than his. I appreciate how the author shows us that ultimately, sufficiently caring relationships with parents can be maintained in the face of such strong religious differences, disappointments and traumas. Ultimately, this book is a wake-up call to the importance of respecting the differing needs of children within every kind of family and religious community, the need for discernment in regard to the wishes of one’s parents, the probability of repeating parental mistakes along with the possibility of noticing and being able to catch and redirect oneself.

Most of all, The Rebel and the Rabbi’s Son would have reduced our families struggles greatly because of how explicit it makes the social stakes for those entering or leaving ultra-Orthodoxy — and we realize that those intent on realizing their needs and nature will brush past us to fulfill such drives. Meanwhile, the grandchildren in the “frum — very religious” branch of the family know that their step-grandmom, yours truly, is a woman rabbi and that their zaide, my sweet hubbatzin is an irrepressible free-thinker 🙂 that all came out somehow… ahem. Also, it has become clear that in our home we have different approaches to Judaism than some of those required in their home, for example, their family brings their own food during visits to us. And so, for whomever among these precious young ones will need it in order to survive and thrive — the seed is planted.

Purim: A Rite of Reversal Teaching Ways to Survive

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Difficult to date, but definitely written prior to 87 B.C.E., when it was translated into Greek, Megillat Esther appears to have been a romance novel or satire of the Persian Empire period, incorporating aspects of the Babylonian mythological goddess Ishtar, also known as Astarte, and the god Marduk. Notice how strikingly close these names are to those of the Purim heroine, Esther, and her uncle, Mordechai. So nu? Why make Purim a sacred time for Jews?

Purim is what cultural anthropologists would term a rite of reversal. Such rites, during hard times, serves as a people’s valve for letting off toxic emotional steam. The story is a political satire — where else in antiquity could Jews win at every turn? Purim is wish fulfillment within comedic relief during times of oppression — the Daily Show of its times.

More after the jump.
The social order is turned topsy-turvy. Jewish women weren’t likely to become queens to the conquering kings or emperors. The bad guy is made look like a dunce and dies for his evil ways. Esther, our nice Jewish girl, is pimped by her uncle into the palace. Esther decides to play the seductress to win the day, the opposite of modesty mitzvahs for sure. And she intermarries with the king who presumably follows Zoroastrianism, the religion of the region. In the end, the king permits the Jews to do whatever necessary to defend themselves against the evil decree, including killing his troops. Riiiight.

A Surprising Hebrew Root of the Word Purim

The root of the word Purim is the Hebrew word “hafarah,” which can be translated as disruption or annulment. (Things have changed since they taught us it was “purs” — “lots”, as in casting lots in Hebrew School, eh?) Hitler outlawed Purim by name. Why? Purim isn’t just some Hebrew School activity, it is an intentionally subversive festival, where, by analogy, we mock our oppressors and inculcate the belief that the people can triumph over evil, “even a woman” can save the day. And, one wonders, at times what were we sharing besides sweets when visiting each other to deliver nosh presents known as mishloach manot?

Jewish holidays are each a mitzvah in their own right, composed of sequenced spiritual practices, many mitzvot, that, when taken seriously, thicken with meaning and memories as we mature. Dressing in costume for Purim, for example, might at first seem like a way to engage the interest of children. But it can also serve as a jumping-off point for discussing what you might hope to do if placed in the position of Queen Esther. She had to choose whether to attempt to save the lives of her people with serious risk to herself involved.

Will We Have Had Esther’s Lifesaving Chutzpah If Needed?

Purim is a time to step into Queen Esther’s shoes and discover where God is to be found in this story. That’s right, God is not a character in this megillah, never named or apparently mentioned. Our sages do cleverly find G*d in Megillat Ester by pointing to Deuteronomy 31:18. Listen to the sound of the Hebrew words as you read them aloud: Ah’noe’hi ha-stehr ahsteer, “I will hide my face on that day.” Can you hear how ahsteer sounds like Esther? So, on Purim, G*d is also wearing a mask, that of Esther. Every day, you, a stranger, your teacher, a partner, your neighbor, your enemy — each has the potential to realize that s/he is in the Esther position — able to unmask and bring a mitzvah-centered consciousness into difficult circumstances. The choice belongs to the individual; the consequences belong to all. There, in each of us, he’ester, is hidden inside the soulspark of Esther’s courage and determination to make a difference. She used every asset she had, including her gender and sexuality. It’s a good conversation to have: was how she acted actually kosher from our contemporary point of view?

Social Justice Advocacy and Purim Options

On the evening of February 23 or before Sunday on February 24 of this year, when Purim arrives, consider bringing a life-saving agenda with you and dress in Esther’s persona for the Megillah reading. Step out in front of the crowd to raise consciousness (I can see your Esther now dressed with props to promote gun control, or to raise awareness about the trafficking of women and children, for example). See if your own people will raise the scepter of their own Purim norms and embrace your courage. It’s up to us. We are the starter dough, the baking powder in the cake of creation.

Book Review: Rav Hisda’s Daughter


— Reviewer: Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Fascinating reading and learning surprises await those who dive into the vividly depicted world of Babylonian Jewry in Rav Hisda’s Daughter, Book I: Apprentice: A Novel of Love, the Talmud, and Sorcery by Maggie Anton who earlier brought us the remarkable historical fiction series Rashi’s Daughters. Anton succeeds brilliantly in drawing us into the formative period leading up to the Talmud. This was a time when most in the third century Persian culture — men, women and children, sages and commoners, Jews and gentiles – wore amulets, incantation bowls and spells for protection from demons and disease, and in hopes of fertility, healing and good fortune. Yes, this is all well documented right in the Talmud, a typically 37 volume work that emerges after the time of this story, aspects of which are elegantly embroidered into the Rav Hisda’s Daughter‘s narrative. Anton also incorporates Jewish ownership of slaves during this time, rabbinic laws and customs re menstruation, along with betrothal and marriage law by means of the engaging tools of good fiction.

More after the jump.

What is the Talmud? Redacted memories, stories and teachings on Jewish laws and customs. Components are the Mishna, quoting sages who lived from about 100 BCE to 200 CE called the Tanaim. The Gemara surrounds the Mishna, with interpretations and debates from 200 CE to about 500 CE and these sages are known as Amoraim. Also on most Talmud edition pages are sages known as Rishonim and Tosefta/Tosafot, 1,000 C.E. until 1,500 C.E. There is both the Jerusalem Talmud (Yerushalmi) and the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli) reflecting shared, although sometimes differently remembered teachings, as well as unique topics and stories.

Anton helpfully contextualizes aspects of the Talmudic record that appear heretical and discomforting when viewed from the contemporary practice of traditional Judaism. She shows us a century when people, Jews and their non-Jewish compatriots believed in demons as they died like flies of plagues, infections and the absence of lifesaving antibiotics and other essential medications. These were times when a women’s primary apparent value to society was her ability to reproduce amply and run a household. Anton’s redemptive thesis reveals how what we would view as magical thinking and behavior would, or could, have been a form of prayer and much sought-after professional community service. For example:

“Inscribing an amulet is like praying?”
Kimchit stared at me with her small, beady eyes. “Exactly. Once you’ve met the clients and heard their sad stories, you’ll want to help them,” she said. “As you write the protective spell, you pray with all your heart that Heaven heed your words, so your compassion imbues the amulet with healing power.” [Page 84]

Anton goes on to document the validity for pious Jews of such an activity as amulet making by citing the Talmudic words of the famed male sage Abba: “…What is a reliable amulet? One that has cured three people.”

The incantations provided are the richly fascinating ones, for example:

“Health and guarding and sealing from Heaven from Ahai bar Mevrat and Kimota bat Horan, their house, possessions, sons, daughters, and fetus. By the ban of Bugdana, king of shaydim and satans, ruler of liliths, whether male or female, I adjust that you be struck in the membrane of your heart by the spear of Tikas the Mighty…..sealed with the signet ring of Solomon ben David, King of Israel. Amen. Amen. Amen. Selah.” [Page 154]

Incredibly strange, isn’t it?-given that the Torah outright prohibits the practice of witchcraft! A few examples:

“You shall not suffer a witch to live.” Ex 22:17 <blockquote>
Mekasefa is the word for witch used in this verse, a term which Anton draws on throughout the volume.

“You shall not eat any thing with the blood; neither shall you use enchantment, nor observe times.” Lev. 19:26

This phrase meaning an auspicious conjunctions of constellations, i.e., astrology is retained in the Shehecheyanu prayer.

“There shall not be found among you any one that … uses divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer, for all that do these things are an abomination unto the Lord.” Deut. 18:10-12

Jewish Witches after the Biblical Period?

Here in Rav Hisda’s Daughter, what we have is the work of a master craftswoman set upon repairing a major gap in Jewish literature and understanding of our own past. Maggie Anton is forging a repair that goes even deeper than history, for her story gives insight into how to approach contemporary encounters with what Phyllis Trible dubbed religious “Texts of Terror” against women (Texts of Terror:  Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives  (Overtures to Biblical Theology)). In pre-modern Judaism any collection of these include “You shall not allow a female witch to live,” and also famously:

‘R. Simeon ben Shetah hanged eighty witches in Ashkelon, these being women who had lived in a single cave and who had ‘harmed the world.’ [Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Hagigah 2:2; by context we infer these were not Jewish witches, though others in the Talmud are.]

An on-line article by Meir bar Ilan makes an excellent study complement to Rav Hisda’s Daughter, it is based on his book Some Jewish Women in Antiquity and demonstrates the Biblical and Talmudic magical actions and books of Jewish men. In fact, two “how-to guides” became available:

“The books of witchcraft of the Talmudic era, Harba de Mosheh and Sefer HaRazim, are attributed to males, and many of the examples in the Talmud deal with men (including some who were titled Rav) who were involved in witchcraft.” [Ibid.]

Bar Ilan notes that the great Amora (scholar of his times), Amemar sought out the counsel of a known kesefa, according to the Talmud Bavli Pesachim 110a and, in 111a, the men of the Talmud easily described such practices, for example:  

“If two women sit at a crossroads, one on this side and the other on the other side, and they face one another – they are certainly engaged in witchcraft.” [Ibid.]

In the Babylonian Talmud [Gittin 45a] girls are cited in patrilineal format: “The daughters of R. Nachman stirred a (presumably boiling) pot with their bare hands…they stirred the pot with witchcraft.” [Ibid.] Meir bar Ilan further includes a worthwhile, extended study of Sota 22a where “a maiden who gives herself up to prayer, a gadabout widow and a minor whose months are not completed – these bring about the destruction of the world.” The sin here? The thirteenth century Rabbinic commentator Rashi is emphatic: “witchcraft”. [Ibid.]

Among the many examples of occult practices by Talmudic sages that we studied in rabbinical school, one finds the Talmudic story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai performing an exorcism by removing a spirit which had entered into the body of the emperor’s daughter [Talmud Bavli Me’ilah 17b], and in another text, he places an evil eye on his opponent and turns him into a heap of bones [Talmud Yerushalmi Shevi’it 9:1, 38d]. In the words of bar Ilan:

“If R. Simeon bar Yohai carried out actions beyond the realm of the laws of nature, that was a miracle, but if a woman carried out the same action, that was witchcraft. Similarly, if Moses threw a staff and it turned to a snake, that was a miracle and a sign from God, but if a non-Jew did that same action, it was witchcraft. It thus follows that, in ancient times, the boundary between the miracle and witchcraft depended not only on the person’s religion, but also on the person’s sex.” [Ibid.]

Drawing on such distinctions, the persecution of women as witches was carried from Judaism into Christianity, only to result in Salem and other witch burnings. As is well-known, tens of thousands of women were killed based on allegations of witchcraft, and very few men, within a two hundred year period.

Revisiting the times that contributed to such misogynous terror crimes is hard and holy work. What a blessing for Anton to be born in the age of computerized key word searching of the 63 Talmud tractates (approximately 6000 printed pages)! Looking for women who are mentioned or quoted in the Talmud is the needle-in-a-haystack task many women rabbis took up starting way back in the challenging days of organizing notes handwritten on index cards. Anton’s field notes list consultation with topic rabbinic and doctoral scholars in the field.

Who Was Rav Hisda? Why His Daughter?


Map from Parshablog

After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Babylonian Jewry established major academies of learning at Nehardea, Sura and Pumpedita, in the region today known as Iraq. Sura, where Rav Hisda primarily lived and taught, would have been just south of today’s Bagdad. Benjamin of Tudela reported that when he reached Sura in the 1170s he found only ruins, but that a significant Jewish community then remained in Pumpedita (A History of the Jews).

Hisda is known for being one of the sharpest sages of his time, as well as for his appreciation of the “power of leniency” when interpreting Jewish law and applying it (Heavenly Torah: As Refracted through the Generations). In the Talmudic tractate Shabbat, [folio 140b] we also find a passage where Rav Hisda teaches his daughters the art of sexual foreplay.

So it is both fitting and wonderful that this story of Rav Hisda’s Daughter focuses substantially upon Anton envisioning her apprenticing to a woman who makes amulets and incantation bowls. While the story line’s resolution is disappointingly obvious from the get-go and Jewish holidays seem more described than experienced for their spiritual force, Anton effectively opens the times to us through a pleasurable texture similar to the details of dreams that unfold wonders. This is ever so fitting, since Rav Hisda famously observes: “A dream not interpreted is like a letter unread.” [Babylonian Talmud 55a]

The Pergamon Museum in Berlin, Germany, houses the original, massive cerulean and gold tiled gates of King Nebuchadnezzar; it was his forces that captured the Israelites’ First Temple. Those who have witnessed those astonishingly beautiful gates will be afforded heightened appreciation for Anton’s vivid, almost tactile written descriptions of the arts of the period. Nebuchadnezzar’s forces massively slaughtered Jewish families and then exiled survivors to Babylonia in 586 BCE. Turn to the Book of Lamentations, Eichah, to appreciate the excruciating pain of the first wave of exiled ancestors. Later descendants of these Babylonian Jewish exiles would come to live and prosper under the tolerance of the Zoroastrians. By contrast, those Judean Jews who remained behind would live under the Roman Empire, the Second Temple would be destroyed, Rome would become a Christian land called Palestinia, and Jewish power, though not presence, would be extinguished there until our own times.

The Early Sages–Initially, a Legend in Their Own Minds

Curiously, as Anton reminds us, contemporary scholarship teaches that academies like the one at Sura, were minor enclaves with little influence on the dominant Judaism of the third through fifth centuries CE. Yet their discussions, redacted into generations of material within the Talmud, would come to be foundational to the evolution of Judaism up to this day. Anton agreeably positions a number of traditional Jewish legal debates and principles within the family life of Hisda’s Daughter, allowing her to sit in and have us listen-in through her experience. Here is an example of how she incorporates the norm that during this time anyone who incurred debt might well have to sell themselves into slavery until having paid off that debt, even into the home of a prominent Jewish sage:

“I stared at the circle of maidservants sitting in the courtyard, grinding wheat in time to the songs they sang. It was grueling labor, twisting pestle against mortar from before sunrise through midday, until there was enough flour for all that day’s bread. Thought I had already thanked Elohim in morning prayers for not making me a slave, I thanked Him again.

The Mishna said that if a bride provides only one slave as her dowry, that slave grinds grain, bakes bread, and does laundry instead of the bride. And if she provides two slaves, the second one cooks and nurses the children. Apparently women too poor to bring even one slave as a dowry didn’t marry.

But Father told us that this Mishna was contradicted by a Baraita, which taught that a wife is only for beauty and for having children, and thus not for tasks like grinding and baking that could mar her appearance. I was surprised that he’d made no attempt to resolve the contradiction between the Mishna and Baraita, for if a wife was only for beauty, what happened to the women who brought less than four slaves as a dowry?” [page 24]

Finding and Creating Names for Jewish Women of Antiquity

Anton does us the mitzvah of zachor in creating Rav Hisda’s Daughter — researching, reclaiming and “re-membering” the little-recorded lives of Jewish women and girls retroactively into our people’s history. The volume title illustrates how even the names of those of female gender were rarely recorded in sacred text by the sages of patriarchal times; instead they were generically female–“daughter”–and labeled by paternal descent (unless only the mother’s line was known, such as due to rape in war).

Hisda and his wife or wives had two daughters and seven sons. So, one might wonder, which daughter does the Talmud mean when it offers the line upon which Anton hangs her tale of a girl who, when asked which of two young men she wants to marry, oddly answers “both.” Anton chooses to position both girls into our historical awareness by fashioning diverse destinies and personalities for each.

Maggie Anton (pictured to the left) provides evocative imagery, such as the “smell of boiling pomegranates,” the color and texture of silks, the tiling of mosaics with, yes, women’s images on synagogue floors, the fragrance of love, the scent of fear and the hormonal surge of having your feet washed by the one to whom you are betrothed, which brings us fully into each moment of the life of Rav Hisda’s daughter, whom Anton names Histadukh. In a cool bit of interpretation of the incantations and signage on bowls that were placed upside down to capture demons on the street in rabbinic times, Maggie Anton points out in her notes that the term “dukh-daughter” is appended to the name of the father to yield female names on these items and so dubs her main character, Rav Hisda’s daughter — Hisdadukh. This idea can also be bolstered, perhaps, by the practice found to this day in Iceland, where children’s last names go by the mother’s first name, e.g., Adam Goldieson, Karen Gertsdottir, etc. The Talmud itself offers an approach to naming females in an intra-textual commentary on the story of three types of women said to bring devastation to the world, where one alleged witch is named: “Yohani daughter of Retibi” (Maenads, Martyrs, Matrons, Monastics: A Sourcebook on Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World).

Rav Hisda’s Daughter joins the annals of great historical fiction beside Jewish examples such as Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent: A Novel, and Deena Metzger’s What Dinah Thought; the novels of Hayyim Grade also come to mind. Expect authentic period depth and delights when reading a work of historical fiction by Maggie Anton. Let’s hope the next in the Rav Hisda’s Daughter series comes through soon.

Ethiopian Jews Arrive, Receiving, Bringing Beautiful New Traditions


Recent olim from Ethiopia celebrate as they dance at a “Hachnasat Sefer Torah” ceremony at The Jewish Agency for Israel’s Ibim Absorption Center. Photo: Ofer Baram, The Jewish Agency for Israel.

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Imagine making aliyah, moving to Israel during incoming missiles from Gaza. The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reports that yesterday, more than 500 new Jewish immigrants to Israel from Ethiopia transformed trauma into joy by welcoming a Torah scroll donated by Charles and Ariela Zeloof. Those at the Jewish Agency’s Ibim Immigrant Absorption Center had spent much of last week in bomb shelters.  

In honor of the arrival and courage of these new immigrants, here is a beautiful story from Ethiopian culture that is creatively retold in Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning by Montreal’s Rabbi Israel Bernath.

“It was the summer of 2001, and I was finding my seat on an Egged bus headed to Tzefat. To my left sat an elderly Ethiopian gentleman; the morning sun protruding from the window cast shadows on his face. His cane leaned against his leg, and a broad smile welcomed me for the next three or so hours. I returned the smile.

“So,” which seemed like a good way to make conversation, “maybe you have a story you can share with me?”

“A story?” He was clearly puzzled, unsure how to stereotype the young, red-bearded, black-hat-wearing rabbi sitting beside him.

“You must have a story to share with the next generation.”

Like an enlightened philosopher, his eyes lit up and his words began to flow:

The story follows the jump.
There was once a king who was growing older in years, and he couldn’t figure out which one of his three children would be the one to assume the throne and rule the kingdom.

His eldest son was strong and brave, a warrior and leader. His middle son was brilliant, quick and witty; he could outsmart just about anyone. His youngest child, his daughter, was young, very young. He loved them all equally and wanted each of them to take over the throne.

He thought and thought and finally came up with an idea. In the middle of the picturesque royal garden, there sat a small shack.

“Whoever can fill the shack to capacity,” the king exclaimed, “will take over my throne.” Each child would have seven days to fill the shack with anything they chose.

The oldest child decided to go first. His siblings watched as he lugged stones and rocks of all shapes and sizes and tossed them into the shack. Day after day he carried the heavy loads. When there was no room left, he filled the cracks and crevices with small pebbles, to fill the room to capacity. At the end of the week, the king walked down the winding, narrow path that led into the garden and reached out to open the door of the shack.

“My son,” the king said as he smiled, “you have filled the shack to capacity; you may be the next king.” He then ordered his servants to empty the shack.

The middle son, the smartest and fastest, took his turn to try to outwit his brother. The others watched as he ran back and forth from the chicken coop to the shack, carrying bags and bags full of feathers, dumping the feathers into the shack, time after time. When there was no room in the shack, he jumped on the feathers to make room for more. Before long, the entire shack was filled to capacity with feathers and so was the rest of the garden.

At the end of the week, the king came walking down the winding, narrow path that led into the garden. The entire garden looked white as snow. The king reached out his hand and opened the door.

“You have surpassed your brother,” the king exclaimed. “With the rocks there were still little holes left over in the crevices. With the feathers, however, you have managed to fill the room to capacity. You may be the next king.”  Once again he ordered his servants to empty the shack.

It was now the youngest child’s turn. The brothers pleaded with their father not to let her compete or at least to wait until she was older.

“She doesn’t understand, father. This is the whole kingdom on her shoulders,” they declared.

The king would not hear of it.

“You each got your turn; now it’s hers.”

The first day passed, and the shack was empty. The second day, the shack was still empty. The third day, still nothing had changed. By now the townspeople had heard of the competition and began crowding around the palace, wondering what the princess had planned.

The fourth day passed, and the shack was still empty. The brothers continued to plead with their father.

“She is making a mockery of the throne.”

The king just waited.

The fifth and sixth days passed and the shack remained empty. On the seventh day, the king slowly walked down the winding, narrow path that led into the scenic garden. Only this time he was not alone. Scores and scores of people followed behind him, wondering and waiting for what would be.

The king reached out his hand to open the shack. People pushed and shoved to try to get a view. A stillness passed over the crowd.  The door opened…and the shack was empty. Yet before a word could be uttered, the young princess passed under the arm of her father the king and headed straight into the shack. She knelt down, reached into the folds of her robes and revealed a small candlestick. She reached back into the folds of her robes and pulled out a candle. She proceeded to light the candle, and the entire shack was filled to capacity with light.

The king smiled. “You, my child, will take over my throne.”

The crowd cheered. The brothers also cheered. They all lived happily ever after.

As the sun sets on Friday evening and I watch my wife light the Shabbat candles and utter the brachot, I think of that bus ride and this story. The Shabbat candles-they fill our homes, our lives, our souls with light. The Shabbat candles-they fill the world with light.”

Yisroel Bernath is a graduate of Central Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim and a Hadassah-WISO diplomat in Structural Cognitive Modifiability. Rabbi, Jewish educator and author of three titles, he has entertained worldwide. He was the liaison responsible for Jewish Cultural Programming in Montreal public schools. His hands-on Hanukkah experience, Maccabees, was visited by over 10,000 children. Yisroel creates quality Jewish children’s entertainment, thus far with Shazak, Inc, Big Bang Animation, Realtime Jewish Media and Young Avraham. Spiritual Director of the Jewish Monkland Centre-Chabad NDG and Loyola Campus. He lives in Montreal with his wife, Sara, and children Chaya, Zalmy and Leiba.

Book Review: Fugitive Colors


Composition VI by Vassily Kandinsky (1913)

— Reviewer: Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Fugitive Colors by Lisa Barr offers a sensuous and stunning entry into the art scene in Europe during World War II. This work of profoundly engaging historical fiction delves into the passion and peril of those artists who were then in the thrall of creating a wide array of modern art genres. Entartete Kunste — “degenerate art” is the term the Nazi spin doctors created to justify prohibiting, destroying and also secretly hoarding some of the works of emerging avant garde masters such as Klee, Mondrian, Munch, Chagall, Kandinsky, Nolde and over one hundred more.

The full review after the jump.
Barr’s riveting scenes sear with the heat of in-the-moment abstract expressionist innovation, in contrast to many earlier grand masters who would stand at easels carefully placing each stroke. She reminds us of how magnificently radical these artists were in their time, how outsider their ways in contrast to classical realism and even their Classical Impressionist forebears.

Rene began to caress the wall with midnight blue pigment, lightly dragging his brush across the white plaster, creating an undulated effect. He then added in light dabs of orange, and the texture changed completely. Julian had never seen anything like it. As the music picked up, Rene’s body began to twist as he painted. He swept from left to right, blending in various shades of yellow, green and red into the blue… His full lips were parted, his breath was heavy, his eyes opened and closed rapidly as if surprised. His neck muscles seemed to be bursting through his skin. Rene looked at once monstrous and inhumanly handsome. He did not paint. He was the paint.

This insider-styled story can’t help but fascinate. The action is given over through the eyes of Julian, a young Orthodox Jewish American who abandons his difficult family in service of his essence — drawing, painting-art.

When he spotted Ernst Engel’s work, he had to make a conscious effort to keep his hands at his sides. He leaned forward and read the plaque: “Women Bathing.” It was gorgeous, sensual and forbidden. The colors were shocking. The lake was pinkish, the sky golden, the naked bodies free-flowing with burgundy and splashes of indigo. Julian yearned to touch the painting, to feel the depth of the texture against his fingertips…

Julian may yearn to paint, but trysts and jealousies between artist friends and Nazi horrors steadily intrude with vicious intensity. The ethical dilemmas he will face yield important questions for contemplation and discussion, particularly whether to put your life and integrity at risk for a friend, or lover, or for the sake of saving works of art. Today, just over 60 years after the Holocaust, incredibly, it is not so difficult to imagine art being stalked like a fugitive. Here in America numerous fundamentalists attempt to prevent various forms of art and books from appearing in public institutions. The wielding of degenerate Nazi power is well and extensively articulated by Barr:

  “Hartt,” began the Baron, “you will compile the lists of artists whose work we will confiscate and the museum directors who refuse to cooperate with us. They must be dismissed from their positions immediately. Start with Berlin’s Nationalgalerie, particularly the Kronprinz-Palias, it should be purged of all its modern art. Dismiss everyone who works there, effective immediately… I expect a full-scale plan on my desk at the end of this month…
  “Exactly how far can I go?” Streibel piped up.
  “Far enough,” the Baron answered. “The key to our success is to spread fear. Once there is real fear out there, I promise you it will perpetuate and do the work for us…”

Have you, for example, perhaps viewed Emil Nolde’s surviving light and life-filled color-full canvases? 1,052 of his works were taken by the Nazis, most were slashed or burned. While Fugitive Colors focuses on the evolution of Abstract Expressionism, art forms declared “degenerate” also included: Bauhaus, Fauvism, Cubism, Impressionism, Dada, New Objectivity, and Surrealism.

The Nazis exhibited the works they stole in an Entartete Kundst exhibit in Munich, featuring over 650 paintings, sculptures, prints, and books by 112 artists from July 19, 1937 until November 30 before taking the show to eleven other cities in Germany and Austria. Famously, on the night of July 27, 1942 in the gardens of the Galerie National du Jeu de Paume in Paris, works by Miro, Picasso, Ernst, Klee, Leger and Picasso were destroyed in a bonfire. According to Stephanie Barron, author of Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany, 16,558 works were expropriated during this time. A good number of works were secreted away by Goebbels and other Nazis leaders in hopes of future appreciation in value. Some that were found buried after the war are thought to be among the substantial collection in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia. Major museums in Paris, Munich and New York are among those with significant collections open to the public.

Lisa Barr’s Fugitive Colors is more than good reading; it is an important form of honoring the legacy of the abstract expressionists. She advances our appreciation of this genre of painting by creating readable sensations of the sort usually reported by synesthetes — where the senses switch places — tasting a color, seeing a sound, hearing a touch — a rare accomplishment.

Powerful pacing, well-developed characters, expert twists of the plot and the capacity to effectively convey genuine human and artistic sensibilities informed by in-depth period research result in a book that is hard to put down. This work of historical fiction won the Hollywood Film Festival’s manuscript “Opus Magnum Discovery Award.” Fugitive Colors by Lisa Barr is a book you won’t be likely to forget.

We Don’t Paint with the Ashes of Our Dead


— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Judaism Editor

Old wounds were opened for Holocaust survivors and those who care about them when art gallery owner, Martin Bryer, placed on show a painting made of ashes of the Holocaust victims’ murdered at Majdanek extermination camp. He initially claimed his decision to have “no moral flaws” but ultimately succumbed to world-wide pressure to withdraw the painting from exhibition. This is the letter that I sent to him:

Dear Mr. Bryer:

In the 1980’s in Vineland, a New Jersey Holocaust survivor went back to Auschwitz on a pilgrimage to visit the ashes of her entire family and reflect upon her experience. While sitting, her hand stroking some loose earth, she came upon a significant piece of jawbone. Distressed to the extreme, she put it into her pocketbook. Back in the states, she came into my office, when I was serving as a Jewish Federation executive, saying she’d not meant to remove it from the site, but in her distress had done so. She placed it on my desk asking what to do now.

Letter continued after the jump.

Our community had the jawbone checked to find out if it was a human or animal remains. Human. I then invited the local Holocaust survivors in for meetings to discuss what to do. We decided to hold a ritual for “the unknown survivor” in the Jewish cemetery and to create a grave for the bone and a monument to be placed there.

I will never forget the initial meeting and our profound weeping – for some it could have been a family member’s jawbone, for others it was the purest of all symbols of those lost in the Shoah — often family whom they remember every day. Did they speak of their own suffering in the camps as we sat there? No. They remembered their children and siblings, parents, grandparents and friends in life.

A process began to unfold. Those attending the ritual planning meeting took assignments to contemplate which prayers to say, to consider who might make a casing to hold the bone for a burial with dignity, who to invite to the ritual, how to word the invitation. Our process was the opposite of yours, Mr. Bryer. Had you witnessed our survivors opening up, many for the first time – only one of the Holocaust oral history archives existed at this time, then maybe you would possibly understand and begin to appreciate how healing and holiness happen. The historic Alliance Cemetery in rural southern New Jersey overflowed on the day of that ritual.

If you, Mr. Bryer, and the artist Mr. von Hausswolff, who is quoted as saying, “The ash has followed me, always been there…  as if the ash contains energies or memories or souls of people… people tortured, tormented and murdered by other people.” wish to speak with me after reading this article, I’d like to gently help the artist work through his dilemma — the pain he’s carried that now is surely amplified through his decisions and those of the gallery owner. And, with his permission, a proper ritual for interring the work can be created so that healing can be renewed.

First though, kindly donate the painting to Jewish community in Lund, Sweden for interment. We Jews neither exhibit, nor sell our dead — with our love and prayers we return any and all bodily remains to the earth from which we all came.”

Kabbalah Salon Rocks Philly Fringe

Rabbi Geela Rayzel Raphael and her musical and movement troupe transformed an Elkins Park Mansion into an interactive musical theater Kabbalah Salon Saturday night. Her goal:

“To educate interested seekers and artists about the Jewish esoteric tradition of Kabbalah in an entertaining manner… Shechinah, the Divine Feminie of the Kabbalists has been my path and my muse and her guiding wisdom is the inspiration behind this theatrical performance.”

More after the jump.
She didn’t disappoint, every toe was tapping. The audience was very diverse in terms of religion, ethnic group and Jewish affiliation. When Rabbi Raphael brought out her Shechinah Oracle Cards along with an integrated Havdallah Ceremony to transition from Shabbat (the Sabbath) into the week, the multi-textured audience involvement was very meaningful and effective. People shared about Teshuvah, the transformation theme for life-realignments triggered by the Shechinah Oracle Cards. We were all touched.

Full disclosure, Rabbi Rayzel is a friend. She didn’t know I was coming. The combination of scholarship and art just blew me away. Her script is brilliant, in my opinion. Her is an excerpt:

Narrator: Kabbalah — l’kabel — to receive, to inherit an ancient tradition
Wisdom that has passed orally from master to student studied in hidden circles
A system built on layers of our people’s treasured teachings.

Voice: A new form of Midrash, legendary revelation

Voice: A new explanation and interpretation of an ancient text

Voice: A way that allows human beings to affect the Heavenly flow of blessing into the world

Then, in the most clear and user-friendly way, the essence of authentic Kabbalah is introduced — the creation theology, the Four Worlds, the Sephirot, the role a spiritual relationship to the metaphor of Shechinah can effectively serve in our lives.

Troupe members of Kabbalah Salon in addition to Rabbi Raphael are: Kohenet Ellie Barabash, Kohenet Shoshana Bricklin, Rinah Shechinah, Linda Silverman and Peggy Smith. For more information and to bring Kabbalah Salon to your community: www.shechinah.com.

Mourdock’s Magical Thinking

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Mourdock said ‘when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” That is magical thinking. If I (or anyone) put sperm and eggs together enough times in a test tube, a conception results, that was my will, not God’s. A matter of intention, and compatibility of pH and DNA, sperm motility and many other clearly identifiable factors. Mourdock’s infantile thinking (pardon the pun) demeans God, and as a woman I find his statement to be a form of religious terrorism.

More after the jump.
I once walked through an anti-abortion rally with a clip board respectfully asking for people to sign up to adopt the fetuses and raise them when they are born, or to at least fund orphanages for them to be raised in – 3 people signed up to adopt, fewer than $100 were raised from some 1200 in attendance. Most said something to the effect of: “Oh, I never thought about the consequences of finding money to raise, feed, clothe and educate them…oh dear…well, I’m sure the government will take care of them.” Gotta love “small government” hypocrisy, no?

Rape aside, those who want millions more births of children with no one to care for them had better be prepared to fund those lives to the tune of billions of dollars per year, and that’s only the first year. Even since the advent of birth control, according to UN statistics, 50 million legal induced abortions have been performed in the United States since 1973 and world wide, there have been over 1,260,000,000 abortions performed. Now imagine birth control freely available, lower costs and lots less suffering all the way around.

Now imagine that many unwanted children and finding funding to raise them. Plus, it has been recently demonstrated that the state of mind/spirit of a mother carrying a fetus can impact its ability to function in life, no less how destroyed the life of a mother forced to conceive an unwanted child tends to be. So add lots of mental health funds on top of normal costs of raising a child. Not to mention the ruined life of the mother. Could it be that we are given minds in order to discern when we are ready to become parents and with/by whom?

I just returned from teaching in Europe and there visited a number of magnificent cathedrals, some Templar sites. Notations indicate that those very knights, as instructed by church leaders followed “God’s will” to murder babies in towns being ransacked. They would stack the infants on skewers like human shish kabobs and then parade proudly through the streets bearing them aloft as “holy” conquerors, and then threw them to roast upon flames as “sacred” offerings to God. Was it God’s will for those fetuses conceived by loving parents, to be born and then murdered as infants by those claiming to “know God’s will?”

Mourdock is the only newest manifestation of such nightmare thinking, if anyone even wants to dignify him by even calling it thinking.  

URJ’s New Jewish Science and Technology Camp

The Union for Reform Judaism is proud to announce new directors for its two specialty camps. Eric Lightman will direct the new URJ 6 Points Science and Technology Academy and Alan Friedman will oversee the already highly successful URJ 6 Points Sports Academy.

More after the jump.

Both camps aim to attract a new cohort of campers, who, were it not for the sports or science components of the programs, would probably not enroll in a Jewish camp. Funding for both URJ 6 Points Academies is made possible by the Foundation for Jewish Camps (FJC) Specialty Camps Incubator grants, jointly funded by The Jim Joseph and AVI CHAI Foundations.

“The URJ is thrilled to have both Alan Friedman and Eric Lightman as new members of our team,” said Director of URJ Camping and Israel Programs Paul Reichenbach, “They are leading the effort to grow and establish specialized camping for young people who want camp experiences in sports or science and technology, that are filled with fun, friendship and skill acquisition, but that are also intentionally and joyfully Jewish. Alan and Eric join an exceptional group of URJ camp professionals who are creative and entrepreneurial leaders in their field.”

Lightman to Head 6 Points Science and Technology Academy

Eric Lightman, a long-time camping professional with an impressive background in computer science, will become founding director of the URJ 6 Points Science and Technology Academy, to open near Boston in summer 2014. The camp will serve upwards of 600 campers entering grades 6-10 and will build on the growing interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to attract unaffiliated and currently unengaged Jewish families.

URJ 6 Points Science and Technology Academy will not only engage campers’ curiosity about the world through hands-on scientific exploration; it will immerse them in a vibrant community filled with Jewish experiences and connections to Israel. Judaism will infuse all aspects of the camp experience through song sessions, blessings at meals, Shabbat celebrations, and the presence of Israeli staff. Campers will develop meaningful Jewish friendships and create shared Jewish memories.

Lightman is an experienced Jewish communal professional who was a long-time camper and staff member at Capital Camps in Maryland. He has a degree in computer science from the University of Maryland and worked as a software engineer for MicroStrategy, Inc., an international business intelligence firm. Lightman participated in Project Otzma, a 10-month volunteer and learning experience in Israel, and served as teen services director at the Weinstein JCC in Richmond, VA. He received the prestigious JCC Association Graduate Scholarship and the Taub Foundation Fellowship, which enabled him to pursue graduate studies at New York University in public administration and Hebrew and Judaic studies. Most recently, Lightman was the director of the 2012 JCC Maccabi Games in Rockland County, New York.

“I am incredibly excited to begin work on the new 6 Points Science and Technology Academy, which will require tackling not only the logistical challenges of running a summer camp, but also the task of crafting a program that melds Judaism and science into a single, cohesive experience,” said Lightman. “I look forward to sharing these meaningful and impactful experiences with hundreds of Jewish teenagers each summer.”

Friedman to Direct 6 Points Sports Academy

Alan Friedman, the former director of a leading sports camp and a thriving Jewish residential camp, will assume the helm at Six Points Sports Academy, a Reform Jewish sports camp in Greensboro, NC. At 6 Points Sports Academy, Jewish children entering grades 4 to 11, participate in top-level sports training alongside the beloved traditions of Reform Jewish camping.

Friedman was active at Camp Mah-Kee-Nac, a private boys’ sports camp in Lenox, MA, since he was 12 years old – first as a camper and then as a CIT, group leader and finally director. In 2006 Alan took his passion for informal Jewish education and summer camping and became the executive director of Camp Mountain Chai, a Jewish residential summer camp and year-round retreat center in Southern California, where he grew the camp from 125 to 550 campers. Friedman was active in NFTY throughout high school and spent ten years working as senior youth group advisor at four Reform congregations in the northeast. He earned a degree in Communications and Business Management from Ithaca College and has had a successful advertising career.

“I am excited to join the 6 Points Sports Academy team,” said Friedman. “I look forward to building on the huge success of the past three years as we continue to offer campers the unique opportunity to develop athletic skills while being part of a caring Jewish camp community. I will ensure that 6 Points Sports continues to be a special place where campers and staff can become the next generation of proud Jewish athletes.”

URJ Camp and Israel Programs serve more than 11,000 young people each summer. Responding to demand, the overall URJ camping program has dramatically expanded in the past few years. For morinformation, visit their website.

Book Review: God’s Prayer: The Sacred Task of Living

The focus of God’s Prayer: The Sacred Task of Living by Michael Kagan, is to inspire effective co-existence and collaborative care for the planet among members of three faiths: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. This slender volume packs a unique punch because of the author’s ability to weave, intelligently and respectfully, core metaphors, principles and teachings from the three Abrahamic faiths. At the same time, it reprimands and exhorts each equally to reframe perspectives and behavior toward the greatest good for all that lives. The material affords a novel stimulus for interfaith study and has a number of components that might be productively integrated into religious services within each faith. The raging tenor of the text renders it best utilized by selecting pieces for specific occasions.

More after the jump.
The author, Michael Kagan, is an interfaith peace activist, author of the Holistic Haggadah (Urim Publishing), entrepreneur and inventor. For example, he created strips for the food industry that highlight when a product’s expiration date is approaching. The introduction of this book explains how the text came to him in a stream of consciousness after meditative prayer. Kagan writes that he filled eight notebooks with rapidly penciled writing; we receive them in ninety-three pages of printed verse in the tone of the prophetic tradition.

Endorsed at the beginning of the volume by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of Jewish Renewal, Reverend Richard Cizik of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, and the Nazarene Sufi Sheikh Ghassan Manasra, Michael Kagan’s vision coalesces most clearly by drawing on a shared mystical metaphor — the Tree:

A triad of faith was formed,
the three strands intertwined.
From the trunk, three great branches spread
Roots deep in the heavens.
Sap flowing from above,
The light of my Prophets from below.
The Holy Tree restored,

A place for all to worship in its shade.

The text succinctly states the problem:

The branches of the Holy Tree are intertwined:
they fight each other for the light,
They compete for the juices of life,
They poison each other and crush each other…

The Courage to Vent Toxins and Voice Opportunity

God’s Prayer: The Sacred Task of Living engages in extensive and inspiring, equal-opportunity exhortation, using prophetic voice.  Here is a small sample regarding contemporary Muslims:

Followers of the Messenger,
I call upon you to heed this message.
Release the bound!
Free the enslaved
Make Jihad (Holy War) against unholy extremes
Temper yourselves, and put down the sword.
The infidels are no longer,
Only brothers and sisters remain.

The verse above shows how this tract takes ideas from triumphalist scriptural readings war and inter-group prejudice and turns them on their heads. When he addresses those who find their way to experiences of Divine awareness through Christianity, Michael Kagan, a pious Jew, also finds holy ways to enter into the sacred metaphors of Christian tradition:

How could you have erred?
The cross became the sword!
Didn’t you understand?
Didn’t you hear?
The sword should have become the cross!

Jews are addressed with equal honesty and somewhat more anguished frustration, in language both personal and harsh:

Now hear this:
you have become arrogant…

Power is corrupting you.
Out of the depths of darkness you have arisen,
But you are off.

You are no longer in your hearts,
You are no longer in your heads.
By the sword art thou ruling.
All that you have learned has passed like a cloud…

You are worshiping false gods…

The language of the verse evokes at the same time the exhortative prophetic tradition and the vernacular of the modern lament. A geshrei is not always an elegant combination.

Potentially Meaningful Applications

One can imagine a version of this book with parallel translations beyond the English and German versions that are now available. This might be a best means to advance use of this work – particularly if were available in French, Arabic and Hebrew. The text lets us skip over one of the most awkward steps of interfaith dialogue by setting out on the table a number of each group’s foibles and dreadful acts; we can then get on with the hard work of confronting assumptions, projections, fears and dogmas. Hebrew and Arabic parallel translations would also further the mystical possibilities of the text.

Further, by way of applications, many years ago I was asked by Rabbi Miriam Senturia, then a member of Philadelphia’s Dorshei Derekh congregation, for an idea of how to bring women’s ways into the weekly practice of chanting the haftorah — chapters from the Prophets at Sabbath morning services. My idea was to commission capable women to create new Haftarot reflecting contemporary, inclusive Jewish values, to be rotated into the sacred sequence. Many such Haftarot were created, whether designed for chanting and or reading in Hebrew or one’s native language. God’s Prayer: The Sacred Task of Living would fit naturally into such a genre.

Speaking of the Feminine

A rather sudden shift of focus comes in the text’s expression of high hopes for the balancing potential of the Divine Feminine. It proclaims this in a full chapter that declares:

“For the time has come for the moon to shine,
for the Queen to arrive, for the sisters to unite,
for the healing to begin.”

Herein men are termed “Brothers of Blood,” while women are deemed “Daughters of Light.” Clearly, the text provokes much discussion. While the balancing value of fully empowered women and welcoming of the Divine Feminine in the text are most appreciated, the expectation of these being distinctly healing forces seems more grounded in early feminist idealism than current reality. Let’s be honest, traditions and energies derived from Shechinah, Mary and Rachel, among other maternal figures, fuel the interpretive fires of all camps. The aggressions among and between women in communities are very real. Some women are like niche fish, which dart out to block anyone approaching their turf; others like to help women climb up beside them, to create a menorah of talent and inclusive possibilities. It is a thin line between being hopeful that restoring women to equal roles in society can make a huge positive difference and a Pollyanna vision.

The meta-vision in God’s Prayer: The Sacred Task of Living, does not account for the different stages of civilizational development in sovereign states and cultural pockets worldwide. Every generation bears the capacity for fundamentalist flares that create regions, minds and hearts where modernity doesn’t enter. Terrorist passions are then concentrated, exported, and cycles of persecution travel throughout all time. The text provokes questions: Are these dynamics endemic to the human condition? How much power do we have? Can a text like this, if well disseminated, help us to buy enough time for the “evolution of the possible human,” to borrow a phrase from Jean Houston?

New Age or Real Experience: What Is a Channeled Text?

The experience of “automatic writing,” is well-documented in Jewish tradition and many others. This is where we feel the text has been dictated to us from beyond our current dimension of being. That inner voice is known as a maggid or “teller.” An extended discussion of this form of maggid, inner “storyteller,” is described by several Kabbalists and can be found in comments by Hayyim Vital and Luzzatto’s disciple Yekutiel Gordon regarding Yosef Karo. Similar experiences are reported in Hassidic and Jewish Renewal communities today. Even I have had this happen in my own writing. Things happen that we cannot explain.

In truth, God has gotten quite a bit more awesome in the 21st Century where multiverses and trillions of light years are within sight. God’s Prayer: The Sacred Task of Living reads less like a God’s-eye perspective, than a resonance of Michael Kagan’s soul. It echoes our own lament, or crie de coeur, at yet another apocalyptic downturn in the global capacity for mitzvah-centered, rather than self-interest based, living.

The mitzvah primarily fulfilled by God’s Prayer is that of yirah l’tatah, action emerging from the awe and fearsomeness of impending consequences. Kagan also directs us to the inspirational mitzvah of yirah l’malah, the possibilities that derive from appreciating God through the lens of transcendent awe:

This is a time for a new song,
A new breath.
Look around and see.
Is it not clear?
A new gate has opened.
It beckons you in.

What’s Missing?

Most humans realize that we can’t really know the Mind of the Big Picture (so to speak); that form of humility is really not evident in this work. The seemingly prophetic stance of the language may leave some readers yearning for the leavening effect of the mystic’s intoxication with God’s love which appears only on the last few pages. Further, this is not a text that comes from a transcendent respect for the destructive and constructive inherent forces of creation. It is not an expression of “tzuri v’lo avlata bo-You are my rock and in It [God] nothing is out of alignment.” It does not ride the roller-coaster of human nature that the Psalmists do so well – appreciation of God as “seter li – my hiding place,” and, as the Adon Olam conveys both intimately with “b’yado afkid rukhi-Into Its hand I entrust my soul” and cosmically: “v’acharei kikhlot hakol, l’vado yimlokh norah, v’hu haya, v’hu hoveh, v’hu yikhyeh v’tifarah-after the end of it all-on Its own It will govern awesomely, It was, It is, It will be glorious.” Missing is the Kabbalists’ Godsense of “maayan raz-the Wellspring of Mystery.” God’s Prayer is primarily a holy rant, railing against the misappropriation of religious values and an attempt to set a healthier course.

God’s Prayer is also not a prayer. We know that sustainable change requires the language of support and not exhortative accusation – in either direction. Humanity doesn’t get a chance to answer back in the text “Dear God, this amygdala that provides protective aggression is excessive – can’t we evolve more quickly towards coexistence?!”

In Conclusion

Like the Prophets in their attachment to earth, land and embodied experience, in God’s Prayer: The Sacred Task of Living, Michael Kagan gives full voice to the fears the majority of our souls are screaming, while painting the highest hopes of many into a unified, multi-faith expression. Lu y’hi, may it be so, bimheyrah v’yameynu, quickly and in our time.