Return from Brigadoon (Report from Rabbi Land)

(For Congregation Ner Shalom, January 16, 2016)

I just got back from Brigadoon. That’s how I’ve begun to think of the annual Ohalah conference. It’s the winter jamboree of Jewish Renewal rabbis from around the world, and also a destination for many Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis and cantors who want the particular flavor of learning and community that this week typically offers.

It was my second year there, my first as an insider, now being a student in the Aleph Ordination Program. The week felt like being at a yeshivah, not of the old kind, but a yeshivah as you might imagine it in Olam Haba, in Paradise. Rabbis and students of all ages and genders. All of them with a hand in the old texts and an eye on the future of the planet. Progressive people, creative people, mystics and musicians.

I call it Brigadoon after the town in the Lerner and Loew musical that disappears into the mists and comes to life only once every 100 years. To the townspeople if feels like the next day. And I got that sense here too: that this Ohalah week is just such a village. It appears, and the pilgrims come, and after a week it disappears back into the mists to reemerge a year later as if it were the next day. There are loving friendships that happen only in this place and at this time, and they go into a state of suspended animation for the rest of the year.

The conference is always held in Boulder, CO, where Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, lived in the last years of his life. “Little Tzfat” I heard it called. The conference, with its prayer and music and meditation, gets pretty high. But it starts high too, at an elevation of 5400 feet. We all arrive breathless amidst the snow-capped peaks. The conference is juicy, but the air is dry, and the ritual practice of the week has come to include the frequent application of lotion and a near-incessant hocking to drink water.

Yeshivah in Paradise

I thought about you all while I was there, because I wanted to bring you with me, your spirits, your energy. And I also wanted to bring Ohalah back here to you. I want you to know how it felt. So what highlights can I tell you about?

Let’s see. I finally met many of my classmates and teachers whom I’d only seen in my online classes, where our living faces are arranged in a checkerboard, like the cast of The Brady Bunch, like pigeons roosting in a dovecote. At last I met them in the flesh. I already felt close to them, bonded from our shared study, even though I was almost invariably wrong about their height, gait and what they looked like from the back. It felt very rich to at last sit next to them in real time and real space, cooing together at beautiful teachings or music or just something delicious to eat.

And yes, to anticipate your question, I wore my skirt of course. Shabbat morning. I had to. I had worn it last year when I attended to scout out the program and community. I had worn it because, as you know, the skirt is often part of my Shabbat practice, at least at home. And I had wanted to see what the reaction and conversation around it would be like, figuring it would give me a sense of how I would or would not fit into this rabbinical program.

Now last year on that Shabbat morning, I nearly lost my nerve. I stood in my hotel room and hesitated. Ultimately I decided to read my predicament as literature and apply the principle of Chekhov’s gun. That is, if a gun appears in Act I it must go off in Act II. Therefore, if a skirt is packed in Act I, it must be worn in Act II. I left my hotel room tentatively and stepped into the elevator. An older, bearded rabbi stood there, brow furrowed, staring at me, silent. My heart sank. Fail. All of a sudden he looked up with a huge smile and said, “I’m sorry, we haven’t met. I’m Rabbi So-and-So…” And I realized he’d either been thinking about something else or processing the moment. Either way, it was what I’d hoped for.

So then this year, I couldn’t not wear it. Because even though it had been a test, I didn’t want people to think it was only a test. Plus, it was me, an element of who I am. So I wore this very skirt last Shabbat. There were many smiles and compliments. Later in the week, I think Tuesday or Wednesday, Reb Eve Ilsen, Reb Zalman’s widow, bumped into me and said, “It’s the first time all week I’m seeing you without a skirt!” Truth is, Reb Eve had seen me once in a skirt in 2004, one day last year, and one day this year. No more than that. But I realized how much a simple unexpected act can fill the imagination. And, I also realized that while I live in pants in this physical world, my aura wears a skirt, and those who are empathic pick that up.

A side story. The nervousness about being on display was something I felt equally on my way home yesterday. I’d been wearing a kippah all week, and I’d really loved being garbed Jewishly 24/7. I didn’t want my Ohalah experience to end, and taking off the kippah felt like it would be the final button to the scene. So I held off and eventually there I was at the airport, with the kippah still on my head, without any plan for when I would take it off. Because now that I wasn’t in a Jewish environment, I was feeling conspicuous, and I didn’t want to get caught yanking it off my head and stuffing it in my pocket. What would the gentiles think? Meaning, what would I think? So I kept it on, through boarding, through the flight, through baggage retrieval. I went in and out of conscious awareness that I was marked as a Jew, not knowing what it might raise in others, what false assumptions they might make about my politics, my observance, my sexuality, my life. It was on the moving sidewalk in SFO Terminal 3 that I had to laugh when I saw someone else with a kippah and our eyes met with what I thought was relief and solidarity and recognition, only for him to turn around and in the process reveal that he wasn’t wearing a kippah at all; I’d simply misread his bald spot.

Anyway, it was a week of wonderful teaching. Its theme was Deep Ecumenism, and there was much attention given to how we stand in dialogue and respect with other religious traditions. Many people repeated Reb Zalman’s view that Gaia, that this Earth, has many organs, and our traditions are those organs – each different, each essential to the wellbeing of the whole. There were interfaith workshops and panels. Rabbi Marcia Prager gave a beautiful teaching on the Lord’s Prayer, in which we tracked the source of each line to its source in the Hebrew psalms and liturgy, and realized just how Jewish “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name” is. Especially once you hear it in Aramaic: Avun dibishmaya, nitkadesh shmekh. And then you begin to appreciate Jesus the rabbi and liturgist, embedded in his time.

There was much attention paid to how we relate to the Earth. Rabbi Art Green, the director of Hebrew College in Boston, shared a practice of his. Every day after davening he reads in B’reishit (Genesis) the story of the Creation of that day. For him, as it could be for us, it is an exercise in planetary awareness. So on Tuesdays his mind is always drawn to the waters of the planet. And on Thursdays to marine life and bird life. So that over the course of every week he invites into his consciousness everything that is at stake in our decisions in this world. He carries that awareness with him in his teaching and his learning and his conversations and his activism. It is a practice that keeps him from living in a bubble.

What else? There was Torah reading and Torah talk. About last week’s portion and this week’s too, which is called Parashat Bo, the third portion of the Book of Exodus. It’s the grim bit that tells of the last three plagues on Egypt: locusts, darkness and the death of the firstborn. Pharaoh repeatedly relents and God repeatedly, mystifyingly, troublingly, hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Or does something to Pharaoh’s heart. The words used in Hebrew include hikhbadti – I have made his heart heavy. And chizakti – I have made his heart strong.

The Torah portion begins with the phrase, Vayomer YHWH el-Moshe bo el-Par’oh. Which is nearly universally translated as “God said to Moshe, go to Pharaoh.” But in Hebrew it actually says, “Come to Pharaoh.” And some commentators have explained this saying that God was already somehow present and manifest at Pharoah’s side, and was speaking to Moshe as if from a distance. “Come to Pharoah, for I’ve made his heart heavy.”

But I’ve always read bo el-Par’oh as an invitation into Pharaoh. Inviting Moshe or us to identify with him. That is to find ourselves in Pharaoh and Pharaoh in us. What is it that causes us to harden our hearts? What is it in us that says “no” to freedom, to new life, to vision, to possibility? What is it that causes anyone to say “no” to the needs of others – of immigrants, of Muslims, of the homeless, of the planet. How did our human hearts get so heavy? How did our muscle of resistance get so strong? How does that happen, without our even noticing it, as if God were pulling the strings, not us.

What’s more, we, or our leaders, say “no” to change, even when the evidence stares us in the face. Pharaoh’s councilors say to him, “Let these people go! Can’t you see that Egypt is lost?” But no. We continue to dig in even when it’s clear that what we’re doing isn’t working.

So how do we say “yes?” How do we help our representatives or our corporations say “yes?” Maybe we have to bo el-Par’oh. “Come, enter into Pharaoh.” It is not enough to try to persuade others by hammering away, full of arguments and reasoning. If we identify a Pharaoh, we must place ourselves inside Pharaoh’s head. What is it that frightens Pharaoh so? We must speak to the frightened Pharaoh in others and in ourselves if there is to be any hope.

So let’s see. There was more Exodus talk and planetary talk. In a teaching on Tuesday, venerable rabbi, longtime rabble-rouser and founder of the Freedom Seder, Arthur Waskow, talked about the plagues of Egypt, painting them as an image of the Earth out of balance, or our relationship with the Earth out of balance. Or even more creatively: the Earth fighting back against Pharaoh’s entrenched hatred. A planet under stress acting out against its oppressors.

Rabbi Waskow, in the same teaching – and it’s hard to convey this in few words – also gave us a vision of a healed planet. He pointed to Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs, as an example of right relationship with the Earth. In contrast to our Pharaoh story, about unyielding global hostility whose consequence is calamity, Shir Hashirim is about lovers. There is equality between them, and for them, the gardens and orchards are places of love, of Eros. The darkness, far from being a plague, is the setting of romance. Rabbi Waskow made the room smile when he called Shir Hashirim Eden for grownups.

So that about sizes it up. Learning. Torah. I wanted to bring some of our Ner Shalom music into this world, and I will next year. But in the meantime, I came away with so much beautiful music, some of which you’ve heard tonight.

At the end of the week I left and felt the mists close back around Brigadoon. Such magic in that place! It was palpable everywhere. Visions! I thought about a moment earlier in the week, when I was officially initiated into my studies, in a ceremony that also honored the nine senior students who later in the day would receive their smichah as rabbis, cantors and rabbinic pastors. During the initiation ritual I suddenly saw my parents, grandparents, even one set of great grandparents, standing with me in the room, clear as day, enjoying the moment and the music. As the singing in the room welled up, I began to feel self-conscious of all this other-worldly attention, so to get out of the hot seat, I encouraged them all to dance. It was a waltz that was being sung, and my parents began to dance together easily, like I would sometimes catch them doing in the living room of my childhood, with Frank Sinatra on the radio. And my grandparents began to dance also. And my immigrant great grandparents, who certainly did not grow up with mixed dancing, looked at each other and, laughing, gave it a try.