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RLI Reflections – Winter 2018 in Jerusalem

Rabbis in the Rabbinic Leadership Inititiative VI cohort wrote about their Winter 2018 retreat in Jerusalem.

Reflections from Rabbinic Leadership Initiative Participants – Winter 2018

RLI VI participants at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, Summer 2017

These rabbis in the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative VI cohort wrote about their Winter 2018 retreat in Jerusalem.

Productive Discomfort: Shabbat in Ein Gedi


Last month, as part of our Hartman fellowship, members of the Rabbinic Leadership Initiative spent Shabbat in the foothills of Ein Gedi, between the Dead Sea and the Judean Mountains. The exquisite setting was the perfect backdrop for a meaningful Shabbat of learning and prayer.

A Shabbaton like this was a first for the Hartman Institute. Rabbi David Hartman z”l would encourage people to go into the hallway if they wanted to pray, feeling both that the Institute existed exclusively for learning and that the obstacles to prayer in a pluralistic setting were insurmountable.

Healthy organizations innovate, adapt, and grow, and Machon Hartman is no exception. Rabbi Hartman was fond of citing the “Oven of Achnai” story, in which a group of rabbis essentially overrule the Kodesh Baruch Hu. What was the Almighty’s response? God laughs and says, “Nitzchuni banai! My children have defeated me!” (Talmud Bava Metzia 59b). I like to think David Hartman may have reacted in a similar way, looking down from heaven as Hartman fellows of multiple denominations found enough common ground to daven together.

The expression often used to describe feelings associated with organizational or institutional change is “productive discomfort.” Indeed, the planning committee for our Shabbaton did an excellent job ensuring all of us were sufficiently uneasy.

For the Reform rabbis, full matbeah tefilah (traditional form) was challenging. For the Renewal rabbis, there wasn’t enough meditation or chanting. For the Conservative rabbis, having two Torah services (an egalitarian and non-egalitarian one) was hard, as was the expectation that only men could lead certain parts of the service and the liberal movements’ alterations to certain prayers.

The Orthodox rabbis, meanwhile, had to abide our adding the imahot (matriarchs) when I led Maariv, and a Reform colleague led Shacharit the next morning. And while there was a mehitza (gender barrier) in the back of the room, it was our Orthodox colleagues who had to stand behind it, so as to separate themselves from the mixed group in the front. One male colleague described how uncomfortable and isolating it felt to have to stand behind a curtain in the back!

I don’t want to give the impression the experience was a negative one. While each of us was challenged, none of us regretted having participated in the experiment. In fact, the davening was some of the most authentic and joyous I’ve experienced in some time. Voices soared, and the desert sky seemed to open up and receive our harmonies and heartfelt supplications.

We each learned new melodies and gained a new appreciation for one another’s practices. And because each of us came to minyan with a full heart (lev shalem), I left with a renewed sense of hope in the Jewish people.

It’s no small thing that on Shabbat Yitro 5778, a group of rabbis from across the globe found a way not just to learn together but to talk to God together. If we could ask the great Yiddish author I.L. Peretz whether, from the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth, our prayers were able to ascend all the way to heaven that day, he might respond: “If not higher!”

RLI VI members, Micah Goodman (center, in green polo shirt) and Lauren Berkun (left of Micah in white jacket) Kibbutz Ein Gedi, Winter 2018

Grappling With Prayer


In this week’s Torah portion, God asks the children of Israel to donate gifts to build the mishkan, a magical place where God will dwell among the people. The portion then goes on and on with details of materials and instructions for exactly how the tabernacle should be constructed. Some of the materials requested – such as dolphin skins –are seemingly impossible to find in the desert. So what’s the point? Why were these details included? 

Jews spend so much time praying and grappling with prayer.  For thousands of years, from the time of this Torah portion until now, we have been trying to figure out exactly how to commune with the divine. That’s the hidden meaning in the construction of the mishkan.

For the past two weeks, I have had the pure pleasure of traveling to Israel and to Washington DC. In Israel, as part of the Rabbinic Leadership Institute through the Hartman Fellowship, the winter session focused on prayer. 

Before the prayer retreat, Rabbi Berkun, the director of this program, sent out a survey to all the participating rabbis asking us questions about our prayer practice: our thoughts feelings and theological struggles. From the moment I received this survey, I was ‘meh’ about the topic. After living through a natural disaster, watching our beloved community struggle, it’s difficult to get excited about having deep theological conversations. After answering the survey honestly, I proceeded to forget about the topic.

Then Rabbi Berkun asked me to participate in the Shabbat planning committee. Because the Hartman Institute is a Zionistic, pluralistic think tank, they have never before attempted to have their participants pray together– prayer is not what unites us. In fact, it’s just the opposite – it divides us–in our theology and especially in our practice. But, for the first time ever, the institute was going to have organized prayer as part of the program.

Hesitantly, I agreed. And, honestly, I anguished over these conversations. For Shabbat, we would be in Ein Gedi, a place with no alternative service options beyond the services that our 27 rabbis would create. In Jerusalem, everyone can find a comfortable space to pray for Shabbat. Everyone can retreat to a comfortable “corner of the ring” and re-unite afterwards for dinner or lunch or even an afternoon activity. But when we were taken away and given the task to work together, the conversation got real. 

This could never have happened during our first year together. But, at this time, and probably only with our specific cohort (or, as I would like to believe), most of us felt so connected to one another that we were all willing to be uncomfortable for the value of the group. These planning conversations among reform, conservative and orthodox rabbis were tense. We had to discuss the Torah service at length: Would women be allowed to read from the Torah? (Would we really have to sit through a service that didn’t allow us to read from the Torah?) Who would lead the “most important” prayers? Would there be a mehitza, a curtain between the men’s and women’s sections? Would there be a mixed seating section? How would the room be set up? How would Halacha, Jewish law, be interpreted? My fear was that we would be adhering to the frum-est, most observant, common denominator and I would feel marginalized. 

Surprisingly, the services were absolutely delightful. We were led in Kabalat Shabbat by two women rabbis, one reform and one conservative, mixing the melodies of both movements. Afterward, a conservative male rabbi led the Mariv or evening service and, the next day, a conservative female rabbi led Saturday morning services. Then we separated into two rooms for the Torah service: an egalitarian service, where women were allowed to read Torah, mini d’var torahs were given after each aliyot and only a section of the parsha was chanted and an non-egalitarian service, where all the Torah readers were men and the full parsha was chanted. Both services were lovely; afterward, we came together for closing prayers. 

The mehitza compromise was very important to me. I deeply believe that the basis of mehitzas and their use today are laden with intentional or unintentional misogyny. Sometimes, when I go to services in Jerusalem, I opt for an orthodox service because of the music and sit in the women’s section, but then it’s by choice.

Our cohort values pluralism and each other’s comfort, so we needed to have split sections for prayer. So we had a men’s section and women’s section split and next to each another in the back of the room, with a mixed seating section (the majority of the room) in the front. This fulfilled the halachic requirements without making our mixed-seating participants feel like second-class citizens. Ideally, we would have liked all three sections to be parallel, but the shape and size of the room was not conducive, and, secretly, I think this worked out better. 

I loved these services. For the first time, my Hartman colleagues and I danced during the songs, just as I do here. I knew most of them and didn’t feel alienated or marginalized. We were all uncomfortable during parts, but we loved being together.
 After this experience, everyone wanted to participate in the debrief I led. Some loved the experience and some were deeply uncomfortable and would have liked to see changes, but everyone really respected the process and the people. One of the conservative male rabbis shared that he entered the Shabbat experience with a lot of baggage, decades worth. It was beautifully articulated and a feeling shared by all. An orthodox colleague was deeply affected by sitting behind a mehitza in the back, an undesirable section. It gave him a lot to think about in terms of the women’s sections in his shul. If nothing else, this experiment was one of the most worthwhile experiences I have ever had. For the first time, I saw my orthodox colleagues flex and stretch and really reach across the aisle (metaphorically) to value clal Israel, which translates to “all of Israel”, over their strict adherence to the halacha. It was a beautiful feeling, so much so that during this week an orthodox colleague offered to lend me his tfillin and teach me to wrap it!!! The bonds we have made are amazing. 

This prayer experience was only a section of the week of learning, which was carefully crafted with textual study on how and why we pray, theological conversations about whom we pray to, practical conversations about innovations in prayer spaces, services and music, and workshops on personal prayer and meditative practices. There was enough for a semester-long course on prayer! And the entire week was filled with deep learning and wise colleagues.

Unlike that of my colleagues, my experience was colored by the October fires in Sonoma County. I can’t have a theological conversation about prayer without grappling with the unatana tokef prayer: who will live and who will die? In Israel, I meditated for the first time and discovered I really needed that space and that practice. 

After this transformative week, I traveled to DC to meet up with 18 of our CST teens to help them lobby for social justice, a completely different type of prayer. Juxtaposed to the Shabbat services in Israel, in the services in DC, nothing was unfamiliar (yet, I loved both). There was no separate seating, a woman song leader sang every tune, and the entire service was egalitarian (something no one thought twice about). The fervor in that room with excited teens ready to pray with their hearts and their feet was electrifying!!! I am still ruminating on two such different experiences next to one another, both beautiful expressions of the heart. 

It’s amazing that through the centuries, Jews have continued to grapple with prayer. Who, how, what, when, why are only the beginnings of the questions. In this week’s parsha, why include the detailed description of the building of the tabernacle? Why even have a tabernacle? And why make one of the first locations for prayer out of seemingly impossible materials?

Rashi tells us that many centuries earlier, Jacob planted trees in the desert, anticipating the needs of his progeny who would build the tabernacle. The Talmud suggests that the “dolphin skins” are not really dolphin but some mythical unicorn that only existed for the very purpose of covering the Tabernacle.

It seems as if the rabbis go to great lengths to explain the odd material choices. I wonder if the instructions for the “perfect prayer space” with mythical unicorns was to show us that there isn’t one way. There isn’t a unified perfect place.

So today as we grapple with exactly how to construct our prayer spaces, our service rubrics, our melodies, our mood lighting, we need to realize that the only way we find dolphin skins in the desert is by opening our hearts and letting the true prayers pour out.

A Taste of a More Just, Caring Society


The Torah portion of Mishpatim deals with the attempt by the Israelites to create a society in which we are to treat each other with justice and fairness.

Coming out of a slave society like Egypt – a cruel society, an unjust society – God gives them not only the Ten Commandments, but a whole law book of commandments designed to create justice and fairness and decency. That is the portion of Mishpatim.

Maybe in our day and age, when justice and fairness are under constant attack, Mishpatim is the most important portion of the Torah. In the 11th century, a thousand years ago, a rabbinic text called the Yalkut Shimoni declared, in times to come, when there will no longer be an altar and a holy temple in Jerusalem, building a just society will be the equivalent of bringing sacrifices.

This past week, I had a taste of what it could be like to build a more just, caring society. I had a chance to see what could happen if people of very different opinions and different world views could come together in mutual respect and mutual consideration.

I was in Israel as part of program that I was invited to take part in two years ago. This program brought together 25 rabbis from all over North America – Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform, men and women, gay and straight, to study together at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, one of the premier educational institutions in Israel.

For two years we have studied together, had meals together, spoken together, and lived together, but the one thing we never did was pray together. Why? Because for Orthodox Jews and non-Orthodox Jews, praying together is impossible.

Orthodox men may not sit with women without a barrier called a mehitza that separates them. And non-Orthodox rabbis will not accept separation of men and women.

A woman may not lead worship for an Orthodox man, because a woman’s voice is forbidden to lead prayers, and a woman is forbidden to read from the Torah. But half of our participants are female rabbis. Are they to be silenced?

Women are not counted in a minyan in Orthodoxy, and there were not enough Orthodox men to create a minyan for worship. Orthodox prayers are lengthy and traditional, while Conservative and Reform prayers have often been shortened and changed.

Praying together was impossible.

But this past week, it was decided that we would try – try to do something that to our knowledge had never been attempted in the State of Israel. Namely, for Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis to spend an entire Shabbat together, praying together.

Now this is radical in Israel; it is simply not done. At the Western Wall, violence has broken out when women have tried to lead worship or read from the Torah. We knew that for this to happen, every one of us would need to make compromises and show respect to the others.

The first part of Friday night services was led by Reform women, the second half by a Conservative man. Rather than putting women in the back of the synagogue behind a mehitza, the Orthodox men agreed to sit behind a barrier at the back of the synagogue – the men, not the women.

Kiddush was led by a Reform woman, but Orthodox men were permitted to make their own kiddush if they wished.

In the morning, the first part of worship was led by a Conservative woman, the second part by a Reform man. And then for Torah readings, we divided into two groups, those that would do an Orthodox-style reading of the entire Torah portion – read only by men, and those that would do a Conservative/Reform-style of only a third of the Torah portion, read by women and men. To do this, some of the Reform men, me included, agreed to participate in the Orthodox reading to make a minyan and to read Torah for the other men.

The afternoon service was led by an Orthodox man and havdalah by a Reform man and a Conservative woman.

Many of us roomed with people of a different denomination, and I roomed with a Conservative rabbi who is shomer Shabbat.

Now of course, observant Jews cannot turn on or off light switches on Shabbat. So, the only request made of me by my roommate was, “Please Doug, leave the bathroom light on.”

So, what was the result of our revolutionary experiment?

With apologies to all of us here, it was the most beautiful Shabbat service I had ever attended. The commitment to creating a just community, the commitment to one another, was greater than the commitment to the rules of Orthodoxy and Reform.

Were there complaints? Of course. We are Jewish, after all, and there are always complaints. But in general people agreed that this Shabbat was a tremendous success.

This week in Israel taught me many things. I learned kabbalah, Bible, Talmud, and philosophy. But most of all, I learned what can be learned from the Torah portion – namely that it is possible to create a just society, a good society, a caring society – a society that respects the rights of all, provided that good will and understanding prevail over argument, conflict, prejudice, and discrimination.


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