About Rabbi Kari Tuling, PhD

I am an HUC-ordained rabbi with a PhD in Jewish Thought. I serve a reform congregation in Plattsburgh and teaching at the State University of New York.

Losing my religion

by Kari Tuling

Like all Jewish professionals, I read the recent Pew study with great interest: what does it have to say about our Jewish future?  What can we do to ensure continuity?

I also read it, however, in the context of my own life history. At the age of sixteen, I was deeply involved in my church and the president of my church youth group. At the age of seventeen, I left the church for good, vehemently disavowing anything having to do with religion.

What happened? What caused such a shift in attitude? And what insights might we gain from this experience, particularly as they relate to the Pew study?

Like many children, I had a best friend at school and we were inseparable. When we were eleven, just before my sixth-grade school year, her brother accused us of being lesbian lovers. I say ‘accused’ because this was a conservative community in the mid-eighties. There was, in that context, no worse crime to be committed.

We were of course much too young to be lovers in any sense of the term, so in retrospect it’s odd that anyone listened to him, much less believed him. But he had hit upon a partial truth: my friend was in fact a nascent lesbian. His mother panicked in response to his ‘outing’ of his sister and pulled her from our public school. She also forbade her from ever seeing me again, as if that would change anything (it didn’t).

Not only was I left to face the school year alone, bereft of my best friend, but also her mother’s rash actions only seemed to confirm the rumor. Scandalized, my fellow classmates pretended I didn’t exist. I was suddenly, inexplicably rendered completely invisible to my peers for an entire school year. They would ignore my speech, walk into me in the hallways, talk past me in the classroom. I was utterly, absolutely, completely invisible. I cannot even begin to convey the loneliness of that year.

That year, however, I did have two places of refuge: my family and my church. The teachers and youth group advisors would not let that behavior continue within the confines of our classrooms and lounge. There I was fully visible and known. There I could escape the choking loneliness of my school experiences.

Eventually, when our elementary school fed into the larger junior high school, the ban against talking to me was lifted and I made some new friends. By the time I was sixteen, I was ready to try and talk about my experiences in theological terms. I started asking questions in confirmation class – the pesky questions of a brainy and intense teen. I started looking for answers, and challenging some of the things that my pastor told me.

I suppose that, in my pastor’s defense, he probably did not know what had happened. I suppose that, in his defense, he was not aware of how hollow his theology sounded.

Regardless, his answers came up short, far short. He thought that it was fine to revile homosexuals, as they were sinners. They deserved what they got. And there were other issues as well: he didn’t seem to take my theological questions seriously. Or, for that matter, he didn’t seem take any females seriously. He spoke of infinite love – but then make it clear that this love was only available if you were the right kind of person. I didn’t dare tell him that I had been accused of being a homosexual. I didn’t dare tell him I found that accusation itself really confusing, as I didn’t think it was true. I didn’t dare tell him that I couldn’t see why it was such a problem if it were to be true. I just gave him a wan smile and looked for the door. Get me out of here.

Why did I have such a negative reaction to his answers? His worldview didn’t give me room to exist on my own terms. I had lost my best friend and become persona non grata, yet he seemed to think that such collateral losses were acceptable – necessary, even. I either had to reject what he was saying or reject my own life-experience. I chose to renounce my religion rather than renounce my life.

Eventually, I made my way to Judaism, to find a Reform congregation that was clearly committed to equality and compassion. I found a community that I could trust. I found a home. I found a community that would acknowledge that sometimes life goes wildly differently than expected, that would understand how trauma could haunt you, and that would affirm that life was worth living nonetheless. And eventually I was able to heal.

How does my story relate to the results of the Pew study? When congregants, religious school parents, and students make excuses and talk about how things like soccer practice or tap lessons keep them too busy to participate in the synagogue, they might not be telling the whole truth. It might not be that the programs or services are boring or inconvenient or any of the other excuses that are given.

What they might really be saying is: you are not talking to me about my real life and my real concerns. You want to teach me about ritual and dogma without explaining how it relieves my existential loneliness, or helps me find my way back to my family, or addresses my fear of dying without having found a guiding purpose for my life. And you appear to be blind to the ways in which your theology harms those who are marginalized.

Perhaps we might scoff and say, ‘there is no way that this family is thinking in those terms’ – but are we really, wholly certain we are taking them seriously? It could be that they are not meeting our criteria for a ‘real’ concern. It could be that they are not meeting our criteria for a ‘real’ Jew. If so, that’s our weakness, and not theirs. We should listen for the question within the question, the hidden assumption, and the closeted fears.

What I am suggesting here is something more than relational Judaism. Yes, relationships are a key part: whole-hearted participation in a community takes place in the context of trust, and trust presupposes a relationship.

But it’s not enough that the congregants know each other’s names – though that is indeed a good start. The synagogue needs to be a place of profound trust, where it is possible to talk about the really important parts of life: the difficulties and the triumphs alike.

In other words: the issues we face won’t be resolved through programs and initiatives. What we need is to focus on the core questions: Why are we here? What is asked of us? And before whom do we stand?

Rabbi Kari Tuling, PhD, serves Temple Beth Israel in Plattsburgh, New York and teaches Jewish studies courses at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh campus. She converted to Judaism in 1994 and was ordained by the Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in 2004. She received her PhD in Jewish Thought from HUC-JIR in 2013. She lives in Plattsburgh with her husband and her son.

 

Dear Miley Cyrus

You certainly received a lot of attention for your VMA performance this past week, which was undoubtedly your intention. It is likely that you think of this event as a rousing success. And the backlash against the explicit sexuality of your performance is probably a bonus, from your point of view, because we are all now talking about you. Even bad publicity is good publicity, right?

It is indeed unfair that most of the discussion has centered on you rather than Mr. Thicke, highlighting the double-standard with regard to female sexuality. But that is not even remotely the most pressing problem here. It is, in fact, merely a distraction to keep you and all of us from noticing the real problem.

Here is the real issue: You had a fan base of millions of young girls who looked up to you and pretended to be you. They had your likeness on their bedroom walls. They sang your songs into their hairbrushes.

Cyrus portrayed singing at the top of the moun...

Cyrus portrayed singing at the top of the mountain in the music video to “The Climb”. This setting is similar to that of the music video for “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” by Britney Spears. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And then you became an adult and that role no longer fit you. Tired of your old image, you shaved off your hair. Good for you.

So you were standing there with your hair cropped, all eyes on you, a brand-new adult. Imagine what would have happened then had you turned to that fan base and said, ‘girls, you do not have to be pretty or sweet in order to matter in this world. Cut your hair if you want or leave it long – that’s not what’s important. Who you are is what matters most. Choose your own path, and find your own voice.’

Imagine what would have happened then.

You were, in a word, dangerous. Whole industries would suffer if these girls become empowered. Who is going to buy all this lip-gloss and mascara? Insecurity is what sells product. And more: imagine you had a real message, something deeper and more profound than the simple exhortation to ‘find yourself,’ and that you too had been encouraged to find your own voice. What would you have said then? I really wish that we knew.

Instead, your handlers convinced you that the best way to break out of your candy-coated shell is to start pole dancing, stripping, and twerking.

Let me tell you a dirty little secret: strippers and pole dancers have no power. Absolutely none. In fact, they don’t even use their real name. They are intended to be nameless, faceless, and voiceless.

You gave up your ‘Destiny’ to become ‘Miley,’ the smiley girl. You have been reduced to a smiling mouth with a suggestive tongue.

Perhaps you disagree? Perhaps you think you have been liberated, able to act like a man? Here is an exercise for you: imagine, for a moment, that you had gone out there on the VMA stage without a microphone that night. Imagine the exact same performance, but without a sound. Would you have garnered the same attention? Yes, absolutely yes. Would we be saying the very same things about you this week? Oh yes, definitely.

You know what that means? You have been effectively silenced. Your voice was not heard. You were merely there as eye candy, and not as a singer. You are now replaceable with a topless dancing girl.

In other words, it’s no accident that the most widely distributed photo of your performance has you bent over and submissive, practically naked, clearly silent as you are licking your lips, while Mr. Thicke stands over you, clearly dominant and fully clothed, holding a microphone to his lips.

Who are we listening to now?

Your God-given talent will eventually want to make itself heard. If you continue on this path, it is going to take more and more drugs to silence it. Your handlers will see to it that you get them. They will be there, ready to go, even before you ask. And then they will tip off the paparazzi regarding the publishable antics of the latest ‘hot mess.’

And when you are no longer useful as a brand, you will be unceremoniously deposited at rehab. Perhaps you might be in the same wing as fellow child-stars Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, both of whom were cut down when they discovered that their talent had its own voice. Get angry, dear, get angry.

In the meantime, I wish all the best to you. I hope that you eventually prove to be better than all of this. I suspect that you are.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Dr. Kari Tuling

Rabbi Dr. Tuling serves Temple Beth Israel in Plattsburgh, New York where she lives with her family and two cats. In her free time, she likes to read weekly journals of cultural anthropology, such as US Magazine.

Our Sisters, May we become Thousands of Myriads: Reflections on the First Ordination of Yeshivat Mahara”t

IMG_0897-1-1by Jacqueline Koch Ellenson

It was a beautiful Sunday and a perfect day for an ordination. The hall was crowded, and everyone joyfully hugged and wished each other a mazel tov. There was a ritual, some spirited singing and clapping, giving of documents, speeches, and of course, food. Just like every other ordination I’ve been to.

But this one was special. On this day, at this event, Rachel Kohl Finegold, Ruth Balinsky Friedman, and Abby Brown Scheier, the three women who were graduates of Yeshivat Mahara”t, were ordained. Three women who are Orthodox. Three women who will be working in Orthodox synagogues and communities are each called now “Manhiga hilchatit ruchanit v’Toranit” or Mahara”t.  They were ordained by Rabbi Avi Weiss, senior rabbi at Hebrew Institute of Riverdale and founder of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Daniel Sperber, halachic posek and professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University, and Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, their Rosh Yeshiva.  As they were ordained, the women were each  “found worthy and granted authority to teach and determine halachic rulings for the Jewish people, and has been ordained as a spiritual leader and a decisor of Jewish law.” With these words, the three women were authorized to render halachic judgements for the community.  Rabba Sara Hurwitz, the Yeshiva’s dean and Rabbi Weiss’ first ordinee, who blazed the path to this day, called up each woman by name, and blessed each one under a banner embellished with the blessing “At hayi l’alfei r’vava”- “Our Sister, may you become thousands of myriads.”

Each ordination was followed by standing ovations, cheering, clapping. As each woman spoke, with the joy and light of Torah streaming from her soul, all present were carried into the reality and power of the moment. Blu Greenberg presciently spoke of this possibility. And we were there, to see, to witness and to celebrate.

As a Reform rabbi, I found myself wondering about my fascination with this moment, about the reason for my own tears, about the sense of witnessing history in the making. Accompanied by David and with our trailblazer Sally Priesand sitting just a few seats away, I could not help but reflect on how our world and our community have changed.  I found myself wishing that I had been present for Sally’s ordination, even though I was a 16 year old girl who knew nothing about the historic events unfolding in Cincinnati in 1972.  But even though I have been present to witness the remarkable emergence of women’s rabbinic leadership in the Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Renewal movements, even though my work brings me into daily contact with the reality of the lives of women Reform rabbis, even though women rabbis may not be seen as something new or innovative in the liberal Jewish community, I still felt the profound historical power of the day.  I felt deeply that I was witnessing something that for so long and for so many had only been a distant and unattainable dream. Rabba Sara Hurwitz herself said it, “Halom halamti-I dreamed a dream.” Many have dreamed this dream and most of those dreams have not been fulfilled. Many wish they could have become a mahara”t.

Yet, on Sunday, I witnessed women, Orthodox women, taking their rightful place as religious, halachic and spiritual leaders in the Orthodox community. On this day, many dreams came true.

After the ceremony a friend mentioned that she thought the day would soon come when this ceremony wouldn’t be seen as so significant or so filled with history. I had to disagree. I still marvel at the reality of 686 women ordained as rabbis at HUC-JIR in the past 41 years. I don’t ever want to forget how amazing it is, how radical a reconceptualization of Judaism and of leadership it required.  But I do think that one day, we will know that this is normal; that women in religious leadership, no matter what movement they may belong to, are an essential and vital expression of our community’s values.  I don’t ever want to forget the struggles of individuals who blazed the trails in order for me to become a rabbi. But I do want to insure that women rabbis are an integral, integrated and recognized part of the landscape of Jewish leadership, that they claim their rights and responsibilities as legal and religious leaders, that they and their communities see their work as sacred work, that their presence in the religious sphere will have an immeasurable impact on current and future generations. No, I don’t ever want to forget how revolutionary the ordination of women as rabbis and mahara’ts is.  But I do want them to be completely normalized, accepted and celebrated.

I celebrate the rabbis and lay leadership who brought the dreams of this yeshiva and the possibility of women’s ordination into reality, who contributed their halachic and financial resources to create this innovative seminary.  I rejoice in the ordination of Rachel, Ruth, and Abby, and in the fact that all three of them have positions within their communities, and two of them will be working as part of a clergy team in Orthodox synagogues.

It was an ordination like so many others I’ve been to. And it was an ordination like none I’ve ever seen.  It was the ordination of women rabbis, something so regular and normal. And it was the ordination of Orthodox women as Mahara”ts, remarkable and innovative.  I remember how revolutionary, radical and controversial our ordinations were at the time. I remember how hard my predecessors worked to pave the road for me, and I know how hard my contemporaries and I worked to pave the road for our younger colleagues.  There is still much to do, but we have also accomplished so much. But I take none of it for granted. It has all been a dream.

But it’s real.

And that’s why I celebrate.

Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson is the director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network.

The Ten Commandments for Smalls

by Kari Tuling

Having served six different congregations that were each under 100 families, I have become something of a small congregations expert. Based on that experience, I thought I would share the 10 commandments for successful small congregations:

  1. Stop apologizing. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect that your membership will be in the triple digits – but why should that be a problem? A congregation of 1,000 member units will have certain advantages (for example, the ability to run three targeted programs at once all in the same building) but you have your advantages as well. It’s possible for your rabbi to know everyone by name. It’s possible to tailor the religious school around a child’s individual needs. It’s possible to have the entire congregation attend a shiva minyan. And so on.
  2. Enforce turnover in your leadership. What is the fastest way to kill a congregation? Allow certain members to sit on the board indefinitely. You absolutely must – and I cannot stress this enough – create a mechanism for turnover and see to it that your newcomers are able to cycle through the leadership positions. Otherwise, three things will happen, to your great detriment: (a) newcomers will leave because they will see that they have no hope of being heard (b) the ‘perma-members’ on the board will eventually veto any and all new ideas (‘we tried that before and it didn’t work’) and (c) if someone persists and actually tries implementing a new idea, doing so will create an old-guard/new-guard split. New blood is necessary to the health of the congregation.
  3. Decide whether you are a havurah or a congregation. A havurah is a collection of families and/or individuals who come together to pray regularly and observe the holidays. It has a loose structure, without significant dues requirements. Usually, it is entirely lay-led. A congregation, on the other hand, offers a fuller range of community services, such as a calendar of religious education and support for lifecycle events. A congregation requires a much greater commitment of time and money to be successful. And a congregation requires a rabbi, even if it’s just for a handful of times a year, to do lifecycle events and provide expertise for your educational program.
  4. If you are a congregation, your biggest regular line-item expense should be the rabbi. This is true regardless of whether it’s a High Holiday pulpit or a full-time position. The quality and quantity of rabbinic time that you are able to offer your community will also define the quality and quantity of the education that you are able to offer. So, if you are spending more each month on the building than the rabbi, it’s time to sell the building.
  5. Consider splitting your treasurer in two. Have one person balance the accounts and another write the checks. It’s easier to recruit someone for half the job (eliminating the perma-treasurer problem) and you are much less vulnerable to embezzlement. You might think that your accounts are too small to be worthy of embezzlement, but you’d be surprised – I remember hearing of one case where the treasurer of a high school’s band booster club stole $20,000 over the course of six years. It can happen.
  6. You will need to hire someone to keep track of the office work. At minimum, the clerical aid sorts mail, checks messages, and copies things for the rabbi.  It does not need to be a large allocation of time or money, but you need someone to do it. But you should not rely entirely on volunteers to take care of the clerical needs of your congregation. This is true for the same reason you don’t rely on volunteers to clean the toilets – you need to keep these things on a regular schedule or else they start to stink.
  7. Do not allow your rabbi to do clerical work. Your rabbi is your biggest expense and your greatest resource. Do not waste that big money expense on something a high school senior can do. Every moment the rabbi babysits the copier is a moment the rabbi is not in front of a class or next to a congregant in the hospital – so insist that this resource be used well. While you are at it, also be sure to create a system for answering the office phone that does not rely on your rabbi.  One possibility is to have an answering machine or voice mail with a number that may be called in case of emergency. Another option is to hire an answering service, like what physicians use – these services are surprisingly inexpensive. 
  8. Establish regular office hours. Even if it’s only once a month, it is useful to have a clear time and place for doing Temple business. Have both the clerical/administrative person there as well as the rabbi. For example, I serve my congregation on a full-time basis; my assistant and I are both in the office four weekday mornings each week, for a total of 12 hours. The outgoing message specifies when the office is open and informs callers as to the timeframe in which they might reasonably expect a return phone call. 
  9. If your rabbi is part-time, then your president will need to run interference. Most people have an idea in their head as to what the rabbi does. But that image may or may not line up with what you have actually hired your rabbi to do. The demand is infinite whereas the supply is quite limited – and people who are hurting and in need of pastoral care might act out in strange ways. So your president’s first priority should be to protect the rabbi from unreasonable expectations.
  10. Identify potentially major donors in the community, create a defined vision for your congregation’s future, and go and ask potential donors to help make it happen.  Chances are there is someone in your community who has the kind of money to be a game-changer for your congregation. You must overcome your shyness and inexperience in asking for money and go ask in person for a staggeringly large amount. I’ve worked for communities where they have a significant endowment and for communities that do not. There is a world of difference between the two.  If you want to create continuity in your community and ensure a Jewish future, then first you need to learn how to go and ask for big money.

Kari Tuling serves full-time as the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel, a small congregation of about 70 families located in Plattsburgh, New York. She also teaches at SUNY Plattsburgh, thanks to a congregational endowment.

Behar-Behukotai

by Kari Tuling

Does God reward good behavior?

When we read this week’s Torah portion, we encounter one of two sets of blessings and curses specifically related to the performance of the commandments.

First, if you do what is good and follow God’s commandments, then all will go well for you. But, if you reject God’s commandments, then a litany of curses will be upon your head. Many of them are quite graphic; they are intended to be frightening.

Specifically, the blessings are as follows:

  1. Fertility of the land (verses 4-5);
  2. Peace in the land (v. 6);
  3. Victory over external enemies (7-8);
  4. Divine individual providence, increase of the population, coupled with economic prosperity (9-10);
  5. The dwelling of the Shekhina in the midst of Israel.[1]

The Shekhina, by the way, is the indwelling presence of God, which during the wandering in the desert is represented by a pillar of fire or cloud. Though the Shekhina represents the spiritual realm, it is indeed a physical manifestation of God. The Israelites can see the Shekhina as it travels with them.

It could be said, in fact, that each of these blessings are a form of material reward.

And some of the commentators have had a genuine problem with that fact. It makes no sense to them. How can we gain material goods by doing what is right? How can it be that piety is rewarded with free stuff?

For example, Rabbi Yitzhak Abravanel (born in the 15th Century in Spain) asks the question directly:

“Why does the Torah confine its goals and rewards to material things…and omit spiritual perfection an the reward of the soul after death – the true and ultimate goal of [hu]man[kind]? Our enemies exploit this text and charge Israel with denying the principle of the soul’s judgment in the afterlife.”[2]

And he has a point. This issue has long been a point of attack by those who have sought to discredit Judaism. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant, for example, argued that Judaism is not properly a religion because the Jewish Bible makes no mention of an afterlife. In his view, only those traditions that promise a reward in the world to come can make a claim to being a true religion.

What are we to make of this? We have a couple of possibilities here.

Manuscript page in Arabic written in Hebrew le...

Manuscript page in Arabic written in Hebrew letters by Maimonides (12th century CE). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first possibility is that God really does reward us in our observance of the Torah. The great thinker Maimonides (who was born in the 12th century in Spain) takes this position:

“…These matters are to be understood as follows: The Holy One, blessed be He, gave us this law – a tree of life. Whoever fulfills what is written therein and knows it with a complete and correct knowledge will attain thereby life in the world to come. According to the greatness of his deeds and abundance of his knowledge will be the measure in which he will attain that life.”

The more that you know, the greater your reward will be. Maimonides was, admittedly, an elitist. But he continues, arguing that you will reap material rewards as well:

“The Holy One, blessed be He, has further promised us in the Torah that if we observe its behests joyously and cheerfully, and continually meditate on its wisdom, He will remove from us the obstacles that hinder us in its observance, such as sickness, war, famine, and other calamities; and will bestow upon us all the material benefits which will strength our ability to fulfill the Law, such as plenty, peace, abundance of silver and gold.”[3]

In other words, following the Torah will indeed make things go better for you, both in the material world and in the world-to-come.

How can that be? From Maimonides’ perspective, the Torah is the product of God’s overflow, distilled into human language. Its purpose is to provide guidance in response to the daily decisions that arise in the ongoing challenge of ethical living.

The best choices, of course, are those that are founded on a true understanding of the world.  For Maimonides, the Torah is the source of that knowledge, for the structure of Jewish law corresponds exactly to the very structure of creation. So, that’s why it is true that if you follow the Torah, all will go well for you.

But the problem with this point of view is twofold.

First, if God’s providence could be counted on to rigidly assign suffering to those who had committed the most grievous sins, then perhaps problems like extreme poverty would not be a problem. Such suffering could be rationalized as deserved punishment for wrongdoing. But that is not how the world works.

We know of people who are deeply knowledgeable about Torah who have seen sickness, war, famine, and other calamities. We know righteous people who have suffered.

Second, we know of problems within the Torah text itself that have caused difficulties. For example, one of the precepts of this week’s double portion is the law of the jubilee year:

“You shall count off seven weeks of years — seven times seven years — so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years… and you shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to his holding and each of you shall return to his family…”[4]

On the face of it, this suggestion sounds like a great idea. The jubilee year would prevent permanent debt and see to it that no one would lose his or her family’s ancestral home. However, in practice, the problem was that in the years leading up to the jubilee, loans to the poor stopped. Why make a loan if it will be forgiven shortly thereafter, without receiving payment?

And the problem with that approach is one we understand: if no one can get credit for activities such as buying and selling land, then even greater harm is caused to the poor. So the rabbis enacted a takanah – a fix – that would see to it that these kinds of problems would be avoided.

So let’s consider our second possibility: this series of blessings and curses is a kind of covenantal language. In the Ancient Near East, covenant agreements would be enacted with a series of ritual gestures. It is a way of guaranteeing that each side of the agreement – in this case, us (the descendants of the Israelites) and God – will follow it.

To give an example, when I was a teacher, I enacted an agreement with my students who had been facing a difficult situation. Their teacher had left midyear and I was asked to take over the classroom. They were unnerved by the changes and needed reassurance. So together we created a covenant that specified what they would do and what I would do. We identified witnesses to our covenant – in the case of the covenant with God and Israel, it is the heaven and the earth that serves as witnesses. In our case, it was the Principal and Vice-principal. And we had blessings and curses. They were really more like incentives and punishments, really. Good behavior was rewarded at the end of semester with cake (their suggestion) and bad behavior was punished with an extra assignment (my suggestion).

The advantage of the covenant model is not that we can predict how life will unfold for us if we follow the commandments. Rather, the purpose of this structure is to remind us that the world does make sense, at the core of it, even in the midst of chaos.

Shabbat Shalom.

Kari Tuling is the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel of Plattsburgh and an adjunct instructor at SUNY Plattsburgh. She will receive her PhD from Hebrew Union College in June.


[1] Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra, Behukotai II” (Jerusalem, Haomanim Press), p. 580.

[2] Ibid., “Behukotai I,” p. 572.

[3] From Hilkhot Teshuvah 9, 1, translated by Isadore Twersky, as quoted in Leibowitz., pp. 577-8.

[4] JPS translation.

To be commanded

The language of autonomy that has dominated the Reform movement’s discussion has been a distraction from our core principles, from what has been the driving force of our religious self-understanding.

Yes, to be sure, we allow for individual choice. And yes, that should continue. It just isn’t the sum total of our religious commitments, however. Somehow we have put the emphasis on the least important part. Rather, we are indeed commanded, in the fullest religious sense.

More specifically: we are commanded to respect human dignity in all its forms. And this commandment amounts to something much deeper, grander, and more pervasive than Kant’s philosophical ethics. Kant teaches ‘treat everyone as an end rather than a means to an end.’ He also teaches the need to universalize ethics. But where his ethics really falls short – and where the Reform movement fundamentally parts ways with Kant – is regarding the question of feeding the poor.

In Kant’s view, if you have done what is right, and have attended to all of your moral duties, it is possible to walk past someone who is hungry without a thought. A sense of pity, in fact, is a moral weakness, for it might distract you from the rational calculation of your duties. As long as you yourself have not done something directly that was immoral to cause that person’s poverty, you have met your moral obligations.

We Jews say no. To the contrary: a person who is hungry is indeed a person. And leaving that person to remain hungry is to profane the very name of God.  You must act. You are commanded to act. The commandment to practice tzedakah – righteousness – that is, the commandment to engage in righteous living, to respond righteously to the challenge of hunger is a fundamental pillar of Jewish practice and belief. We differ as to the best ways to go about doing that, but you must act. You are commanded to act in response to this person, created in the image of God.

This commandment is a point of agreement across all streams of Judaism. Where the liberal movements part ways with the Orthodox, however, is on the question of extending that sense of human rights beyond the challenge of hunger. We Reform Jews take that commandment so seriously that we extend its reach: we are also commanded to treat persons with dignity in all other areas of life, which (among other things) means offering an equal opportunity to participate in the community.

Let me give you a concrete example, drawn from my own experience, to highlight this point. The first time I walked the synagogue doors, I was a lapsed Methodist engaged to a Jew. I was there, in fact, to ask the rabbi to officiate at my wedding.

Twenty years later, I am an ordained rabbi, serving in this most wonderful congregation, scheduled to receive my PhD in Jewish Thought this June.

How did that happen? When I entered the Reform synagogue that first time, the rabbi did not treat me like an uninvited guest. From him I received instead a warm handshake and a flyer for the Introduction to Judaism course.

And it was that act of kindness that allowed me the space to move past a dogmatic insistence that religion is nonsense, in order to learn, really learn, the full range of Jewish thought and to fall in love with our grand tradition of scholarship. In a Reform congregation, all of those annoyingly penetrating questions by nosy brainy outsider girls are welcome. Encouraged, even. Pull up a chair; we’ll set a place for you.

In a community where everyone knows their place, however, or more specifically, in a community where it is not possible to change that place, my story cannot take place. I am a woman. I was born an outsider. And in Orthodox circles, because of those two facts of my birth – things that I simply cannot change, not ever – I will never be an insider to them. Modern Orthodoxy is now, indeed, ordaining women one at a time, and there are indeed provisions for conversion. So a woman rabbi is not completely out of the question, nor is conversion out of the question. But you certainly cannot do both. My presence is disruptive and dislocating; I should not, to that way of thinking, even exist.

A friend of mine, a Jewishly knowledgeable man, has taken a right-ward turn in recent years and is now a member of an Orthodox congregation. In his heart of hearts he believes that is the ‘real’ Judaism and that what I practice is a pale imitation. And I think to myself: that is all well and good for you, and I am glad that you have found your spiritual home, but you should know this: I cannot follow you; it is not a possibility; I am not wanted there. I want to ask him: Why should it be necessary to write me off, and people like me off, as necessary casualties in the pursuit of authenticity? Why is it that this exclusion does not trouble you?

If you are going to take the text literally, why not take literally the injunction, ‘do not oppress the stranger, the widow, the orphan, for you were strangers in Egypt’? The stranger is the one who seeks to convert; the widow is the woman who determines her own fate; the orphan is the person without a Jewish family. Do not oppress them.

I am a woman. I am a Jew. I am a rabbi. These last two facts are not delusions but rather the fundamental pillars of my core identity. This is who I am; I have more than earned both of those titles through twenty years of study.

As our world changes around us suddenly, irreversibly, my life-experience (and the life-experience of those who are like me) will become emblematic of our age. This is the way forward: welcoming the stranger and inviting them to learn.

Rabbi Kari Tuling serves a congregation in the northernmost part of New York State and has just heard that ‘this year is the year’ with regard to her graduation. She will receive her PhD in June.

According to the laws of Moses and Israel

A little while back, I had a conversation on Facebook with a friend of mine that lasted for most of a week. He and I went to elementary school together; his father was one of my math teachers in high school. He is a fundamentalist Christian; from his perspective, in the Bible the narrative of Adam and Eve teaches us that marriage should only be defined as one man and one woman.

I am not intending to discuss here the political or social aspects of single-gender marriage. Rather, I would like to focus more narrowly on the Biblical question: Specifically, is my friend’s view correct? Does the Hebrew Bible solely advocate a one-man/one-woman love match?

Based on my studies of the Bible, I think that he is quite wrong. I would like to explain why.

In the midst of the Joseph story, we hear of Judah and his three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah. Judah arranges for his oldest son to marry Tamar. When he dies because he has displeased the Lord, Judah arranges for Tamar to marry the second son, Onan. And he, too, dies for the same reason: As the text states directly, he also displeased the Lord.

By the logic of the Biblical culture in which Tamar lives, she should then marry the third son, who would provide her with the male heir to her dead husband’s estate. She needs this heir to be properly cared for in her old age. This arrangement, called a ‘levirate marriage’ also figures prominently in the story of Ruth. After the woman produces an heir, the pair never engages in relations again.

But, when the time comes for Tamar to marry the third son, Judah balks. He withholds his youngest son, sending her back to her father’s home with a vague promise that he will arrange the marriage when his son is older. But he never gets around to doing so. Perhaps he thinks that she is killing the sons; perhaps he believes that she is bad luck; perhaps his youngest son has begged him not to go through with it. So he continues to stall.

Judah’s other option, of course is to release her from his family. That is, he can cut her free from the obligation to marry the youngest son, so that she might marry someone else. The ritual for that release involves the removal of a sandal and making a declaration in front of the elders at the gate. But that is a dishonorable thing to do in his culture, because it means that his first son, her first husband, will never have an heir. That particular outcome is in fact so unwelcome that it is used as a curse: May you die without heirs.

Stuck, Judah does nothing: He condemns her to the lengthy wait and denies her the ability to move forward with her life.

But Tamar is not one to wait. She tricks him by wearing a veil and pretending to be a woman of ill repute. And when he falls for the trick, she takes his rod and staff as pledge for payment, and then disappears.

Months later, the fruit of her deception becomes known: Word gets back to Judah that Tamar is pregnant. Indignant (and perhaps relieved that he may be rid of her) he demands that she be burned. She was promised to his third son – it was an engagement, after all – and her pregnancy during this period of engagement qualifies as adultery.

But when she appears, she provides him with his rod and staff, and explains that the owner of these items is the father of the child. At that point, seeing his own symbols of power handed back to him, he exclaims, “She is more righteous than I.”

Why does he say that? Filtered through our modern lens, we assume that his declaration has to do with his own infidelity.

But in context, the real infidelity is his unwillingness to allow her to provide an heir for his first son. This question of lineage is of paramount concern to the Biblical writer, and Judah simply has not provided sufficient attention to his family’s line. Tamar understands this situation much better than he does. She also realizes that Judah himself is also able to fulfill the duty of providing an heir, and sets a process in motion by which that might happen.

And here we see one of the ways marriage has changed since the time of the Bible: Tamar had indeed operated within the bounds of the Biblical law. Her actions were not only legally acceptable, but also morally appropriate in the context of her culture.

And she is not the only one in the Biblical narrative to engage in this kind of levirate marriage arrangement, achieved through less-than-obvious means. In the story of Ruth, for example, we see a similar kind of situation; when Ruth is in need of a levirate marriage, she creeps in quietly in the darkness of night to lay herself down and cover herself with the cloak of Boaz as he sleeps on the threshing-room floor. He is the man who can redeem her and provide her with a much-needed heir to support her and her former mother-in-law Naomi. After their encounter, he fills her apron with grain, and she waddles home to Naomi with a rounded belly, an apron full of seed.

Marriage in the Biblical context is a legal and economic agreement, for the purposes of securing the orderly transition of land from one generation to the next, and for the purposes of seeing to it that all grown women are assigned to a man’s care. You don’t want it to happen that a widow is vulnerable to being cut loose from the estate without any means of support. Loose women, after all, are trouble.

In the case of Ruth, the narrative bestows upon her a very high honor: she gives birth to a son, who in turn becomes part of the lineage of the house of David.

In the case of Tamar, the narrative bestows upon her an even higher honor: she gives birth to twin sons. And one of those sons, in turn, becomes the other grandfather in the lineage of the house of David.

In other words, the Biblical world actually approves of their illicit affairs – a situation that is a far cry from the one-man/one-woman life pairing that the Bible is supposed to be teaching us. The institution of marriage has indeed changed since the time of the Bible.

Our current understanding of marriage – the idea that it is created on the basis of a love match between two people who share their hopes and dreams together, who build a life on the basis of mutual respect – that particular concept of the nuptial union is entirely foreign to the Biblical world.

That is not to say that the people of the time of the Bible were indifferent to love. To the contrary, the union of Isaac and Rebecca is an example of how it might be possible to create a marriage out of two people who are very much in love.

But recall also that their marriage was arranged even before they had met.

Recall also that their son Jacob married two sisters who were also rivals. In his household, the sisters engaged in a protracted baby war, using concubines and their own fertility as weapons in the struggle for dominance. And Jacob went along for the ride.

Our idea of romantic love has its roots in the medieval period. Prior to that point, marriages were made on the basis of a negotiation between two men; in the Biblical world, that negotiation would take place between the potential suitor or his representative and the girl’s father or brother. I say ‘girl’ because marriages were arranged young, just at the point that the girl is able to bear children herself.

And marriage could even be arranged in the wake of violence – such as when a man took a woman as a captive – in order to see to it that she was not cast aside after he had damaged her reputation. The father or brothers might then negotiate with her captor to arrange for her marriage, to provide for her future. They might then overlook the fact that he had done violence to her. He could indeed marry her against her will.

Marriage, in that time and place, established who had responsibility for whom. Its rules saw to it that no one should be left out in the cold. It saw to it that widows had a way to gain title to the land, and that every child could be assigned to a specific household. It also arranged for the woman to be given a significant sum of money if she were to be divorced. The people of the Biblical world accomplished this set of goals in a very public way, in a formal ritual before the elders at the gate, so that none of it could be disputed. For those cases that would fall through the cracks, they had the Biblical decree that you must care for the widow, the stranger, and the orphan. No one should be left on the streets.

Marriage was one ritual among many that established who was responsible for whom.

So, yes, I am indeed happy that our definition of marriage has changed; I am not so sure I would have wanted my brother to be in charge of my dowry. And I have indeed found a loving partner in my husband. And I am rather glad that I do not have to share him with another wife.

But beyond the question of marriage, there is something else of great interest here: Much of the narrative of Judah and Tamar invokes imagery of seeing/not-seeing, of being veiled and of being revealed, of the appearance of reality and of the reality of appearance. Even the location of the action – Petach Enayim – means ‘the opening of the eyes.’

Up until Judah’s declaration, he had not thought of Tamar as a person in her own right. She was a problem to be resolved, just another one of the many people under his care. He does not ‘see’ her. He is not aware of the burden of waiting, of the suppression of desire that she must endure, of the uncertainty of her future. Her full reality – the lived experience of her life – has no meaning to him.

It was not until she confronted him with the tangible evidence of his not-seeing-her that he realizes his blindness: She has achieved something of great value to him without his cooperation. She wears a veil before her eyes, yet he is the one that does not see; he is the one who may go out and visit the wide open places, yet she, cloistered in her tent, is the one with the foresight to see what is on the horizon.

The experience of the one who is suppressed – in this case, the woman who has no power in her own right – is not visible to the one who controls the situation. He is not able to see the effects of his decisions (or lack of decision) on her daily life, and he is not able (at least at the outset) to feel empathy for her plight. All is well in his world; why would it not also be so in hers?

But sometimes what is most needed in order to effect change is the tangible proof of oppression. In this narrative, Judah suddenly ‘sees’ her, in her full humanity, and renounces his power over her life, and frees her.

In that sense, the story of Tamar offers the hope that the force of the dominant power might suddenly give way to genuine understanding. What was once invisible is now seen. Not just seen, but acknowledged as fully human and fully righteous, and deserving of care and concern.

So, we should ask ourselves: Who are the veiled ones in our community, the persons who are not fully seen? Whom in our society do we treat as if they were one more problem to be solved rather than persons deserving of empathy and respect?

In other words, despite all of the condemnations of same-gender relations in the Bible, and despite the historically-inaccurate claim that the Bible only supports a one-man/one-woman view of marriage, I think that a much stronger case can be made that the Bible fundamentally cares about the needs of the silent, the invisible, and the oppressed. In my view, the Bible advocates that we see the silent suffering and respond to their distress.

I do believe that the Bible is divinely revealed, but not for the usual reasons. The Bible is deeper, wilder, and stranger than we might suspect. It loves contradictions, seeks out tensions, and resists our desire to collapse it into neat categories. Where we might want to write a nicer, smoother account of humanity, it is aware of our full range of existence. It can certainly be misused, but I cannot shake the sense that it is the truest word of God when it tells us: Do not hurt one another.

You should know the heart of the stranger; you, too, have been found hurting and strange. Empathize and respond.

Kari Tuling serves as the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Plattsburgh, New York where she lives with her husband, son, and two cats. She has recently taken up snowshoeing.

Opening your heart to prayer

The man before me is a professor of Jewish studies at a major university; he is scooping out bites of ice cream between his words.  Despite his studied indifference, he is more than casually interested in the conversation.  We are at a reception at the college and he knows that I am a Reform rabbi and is hoping to bring some clarity to an issue that has nagged at him.

“The other day I went to a bar mitzvah at a Reform congregation,” he says to me, “and it had all these guests and the kid’s friends from the soccer team, and all the usual trappings.  But I’d have to say that it was a very alienating experience for me.”

“Why was that?” I asked him.

“It seemed spiritually dead to me.  I didn’t like the prayerbook and the whole thing seemed like it was a performance.  Why is that?”

I took a swallow of ice cream to give myself a moment to think.

“You’re a member of a regular prayer group, right?”

“Right.”

“So you know from your own experience that the people who are there to pray create a kind of positive energy.”

“Right.”

“And people who are there to just to watch the prayers – they’re negative energy – right?”

“Right.”

“Well, if the positive energy is outnumbered and surrounded by the negative energy, there’s not a whole lot that you can do.

“It’s not the prayerbook’s fault,” I told him, “nor is it the rabbi’s fault, nor is it the bar mitzvah kid’s fault – rather, you need to have an excess of positive energy in the room in order for prayer to be meaningful.  If the majority of people are there to be entertained, real prayer cannot take place.

“You can ‘save’ that kind of situation, but only if you find some way to bring the observers in, so that they feel they have a genuine connection to what is going on.  In the context of a bar mitzvah, the best approach is to tap into the love and concern they have for the child standing before them.

“But if they are there to measure his performance, well, then, there’s nothing you can do.”

It seems odd, of course, to be speaking in terms of positive and negative energy, as if the activity in the room creates its own kind of current that might somehow be sensed by the persons seated there.  The interesting thing, however, is that our tradition does speak in such terms.

That is to say, our tradition argues that there is a world of the spirit that announces itself to us, which makes us cry at weddings and baby namings, which brings up that feeling that our little heart would just overflow.  It is the source of our strength, and the tap root of our existence.  It is the energy that animates our prayers.

Its most common name in Hebrew is shefa, but it goes by many others as well – it denotes the indwelling presence of God.

Prayer is more than a meditative device for the purposes of achieving inner serenity.  Prayer is also more than just emotion.  According to Abraham Joshua Heschel, prayer specifically invokes God’s presence.  As Heschel writes,“feeling becomes prayer in the moment in which we forget ourselves and become aware of God.”  The very mark of prayer is this experience of self-surrender.

What we are seeking in prayer is to let go of our self-concern so as to be able to view the world from God’s perspective.  Then we are able to put our own cares aside for a moment and recognize how our own selfishness might cause us to act in ways contrary to the will of God.  We are able to engage in self-criticism, to mend our ways and take up God’s aims.

Prayer, however, is not an intellectual act; we are not affirming a philosophical God-concept nor are we reviewing the rules of ethical living.  Rather, as Heschel writes, “the purpose of prayer is to be brought to His attention, to be listened to, to be understood by Him; not to know Him, but to be known to Him.”

If we let God’s will take over, if we truly view the world from God’s perspective, then we cannot walk past people who are starving without taking action.  We cannot allow the kind of imbalances we see in this country between rich and poor.  And we cannot allow discrimination, fanaticism, or hatred to rule our decisions.  It is in the prayerful encounter with God that righteousness is born.

The urgency of this task explains why we need the community to stand and pray next to us: the surest way to let go of our self concern, to stop striving long enough to hear that still small voice within, is to pray in the context of a community – to participate in that electric feeling of communal prayer.  It is so much easier – and so much more effective – when you don’t have to try to do it all alone.

Which brings us back to our professor, and his prayer.  The gathering that came to watch the bar mitzvah that morning was a group of disinterested strangers, evaluating the performance of a thirteen-year-old reciting long passages of Hebrew.  What he was seeking, however, was a community of prayer.

But how is that kind of community created?  What should you do if you would like to become part of a community of prayer?  Three things:

First is the regular cultivation of the habit of prayer.  A friend once confided in me that he stopped going to services on any kind of regular basis because he felt alienated from God, and alienated from prayer.  And in the course of that long conversation, one of the things I told him was this: you are not going to move past this point if you are elsewhere while your community is engaged in prayer.  Go and be silent if you must – eventually your soul will catch up to what your body is doing.  If what you are seeking is closeness to God, then seek closeness to your community first.

Second is the recognition that prayer does not require perfection.  It is not a problem if you’re not the best at meditation, or your Hebrew is nonexistent, or you sing off-key.  What is needed is that you are there, truly there, in that moment, then.  Not at work, not reviewing your to-do list, not in the midst of an old argument replayed once more in your head.  Just try to be truly there.

Third is the openness to the transformative power of prayer.  It is not something that happens right away, but rather by degrees, in small amounts.  Just like dancing, there will come a point when you stop counting time and just do.  And when an entire community engages in that dance – that moment is electric.  It is in that moment that you will know in the very center of your soul that you’re not alone.

Kari Tuling is the rabbi at the lovely and prayerful community of Temple Beth Israel in Plattsburgh, New York, where she lives with her husband and son and two cats.

Having it all

English: Fall Maples in Nara, Japan Português:...

English: Fall Maples in Nara, Japan Português: Bordo Japonês (Acer palmatum) durante o outono em Nara, Japão (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

by Kari Tuling

Tuesday being my day off, I took the opportunity to go pick out plants for my backyard landscaping project. I bought a Korean maple – one that looks like a Japanese maple, but with green leaves that turn rather than continuously-red leaves – and a bunch of grassy perennials. Today, Wednesday, the nursery will be delivering the tree along with 60 cubic feet of slate rock and 45 cubic feet of cedar gravel. I am going to make a Zen-garden-like dry riverbed that winds through a grassy flowerbed. Because I like to dig.

Tomorrow, of course, I will return to the office and do all the usual rabbi things: teach, attend meetings, set up events in the community, write a sermon. I am hoping that I might have a break in between meetings and picking up my son from school to dig a very big hole for the tree – but the project could end up waiting a few days if something comes up that demands immediate attention. Even so, I am not worried; now that the High Holidays have passed, I should be able to get back to it.

My life here is like that: an intermingling of rabbinic meetings and hole digging; of representing the Jewish community by giving a prayer at the Kiwanis club meeting and then being a mom while explaining the High Holidays to my son’s teachers. In a town of this size, my full persona is on view: not just my congregation, but also the whole community knows if I walk the walk.

Lately we have seen much in the way of discussion about women and having it all. There are genuine problems facing women who wish to take on challenging, interesting, and high-paying positions. The assumptions surrounding these positions are built up around the assumption of a worker who can commit everything to his or her position, relics of the days when positions were rigidly assigned by gender. Really, we could choose to structure these things differently. It is not necessary to insist that only people who work incessantly can be successful.

And there are those folks – there are many in my generation (Gen X), for example – who choose walk away from these assumptions, wishing to find a different path, one that is more humane in its structure. But that act of walking away is seen by many as a loss, as a less-ambitious approach to a career. It appears that there are no paths back to the fast track once you make your exit.

But is it necessary to define success in these terms and these terms only? What about those careers where the human touch is most valued? What, for example, qualifies as a successful rabbinical career?

One known and accepted career path is to take an assistantship at a large congregation right out of school, then move or get promoted to take on an associate rabbi position or a solo position at a mid-sized congregation, and keep moving up in size and scale until the summit is reached: senior rabbi in a truly large suburban congregation. A select few then move on to accept national positions within the movement itself, which is no small achievement.

Once upon a time, of course, all of these positions were held by men who were the primary wage-earners, who were married to women who was the primary home-keepers. So, much of what constitutes success in these roles is defined in those terms: success is measured in the size of the congregation, the size of the paycheck, and the size of the community. Bigger, of course, is better.

Similarly, rabbinical job listings are posted by size: to apply to congregations of X size requires Y number of years of experience.  As the congregation gets larger, so does the number of years required. It is indeed a convenient way to organize the information. But perhaps it also gives the impression that one should necessarily move up in size as one gains in experience. To choose to be small – would that not indicate a less-ambitious path?

If measured solely by size, then I suppose my current position could be viewed as ‘less than.’ I am in a small town, with a small congregation. Our school is small, our building is small, and our budget is small.

But that kind of assessment misses so many things. Specifically, it misses that this congregation has an active, educated, and involved population that gives the rabbi respect and autonomy. It misses that this congregation sits next to a major university campus, and that ideally the rabbi here should be willing and able to engage in genuine and sustained academic study. It also misses that this particular position requires that the rabbi be a community rabbi in the fullest sense – that is to say, the rabbi must be fully comfortable with the pervasiveness of the role itself, and that role requires a lot of emotional intelligence and interpersonal poise.

And it misses that this position offers extraordinarily rich non-monetary compensation in the form of time and flexibility.

In other words, I don’t just get to be a rabbi; I get to do that while also having time to think. And, of course, time to dig up my yard.

I have not always taken this view. At one time, before I became a rabbi, I had the impressive title (“Senior Manager of Marketing Communications”) and the impressive car (BMW 318ti) and the impressive address (Laguna Niguel, California).

Yet somehow, in this most lovely small town with a long winter, I feel so much more successful here. Why? Because I am living on my own terms, according to what it is that I value most: I have found a position with time to think, time to be involved in my family life, the opportunity to really make a difference in a community, and the opportunity to write.

Impressive? Perhaps, perhaps not. Satisfying? Yes, in the deepest sense.

Rabbi Kari Tuling serves a most wonderful small congregation in Plattsburgh, New York, where she is also working on her dissertation, learning to play piano, and digging up her backyard lawn. Not necessarily in that order.

I wonder

Status

 

by Kari Tuling

 

[This blog post is also cross-posted as 'Blogelul #16: Wonder' -- a series of blog posts created and moderated by my colleague and friend (and rabbinical school study partner), Rabbi Phyllis Sommer. Her wonderful blog, "Ima on (and off) the Bima: Real-Life Jewish Parenting," may be found at imabima.blogspot.com]

 

_________

 

It has happened to me more than once in my lifetime that a person will come to me and tell me something about what will happen next. It is usually a very specific bit of career advice from someone I know but not well; it is normally not someone I would seek out for counsel. And every time it is the same thing: the person will see me out at a social gathering – often at a gathering in which it was not a given that I would be there – and announce to me ‘I have a message for you,’ as if they had just listened to a voice mail addressed specifically to me.

 

When that happens, I know to listen: the person will invariably tell me something that I need to know about what will happen next.

 

The most recent example occurred right as I started my job search last fall. At a Halloween party, an acquaintance came up and told me the following: “You will leave here; there is a move in your future. It will be some place – like Texas – that you’ve never considered before.”

 

“Texas?” I ask, wondering. “Why Texas?” As a matter of fact, I do have a list of ‘places where I would not want to live’ in my head, and ‘the plains of Texas’ is a location high on that list. As far as I am concerned, they call it ‘plain’ for a reason.

 

She shakes her head: “It’s not Texas specifically; it could be Texas or it could be somewhere else; I can’t tell you where exactly. But it’s a part of the world that you have never considered before. They need you and you need them. They need to hear what you have to say, and you need to have them hear it. You will both benefit.”

 

Okay.

 

At that point in the process, I had not even mapped out what precisely I wanted to do. So I took her comments under advisement.

 

A month (two months?) later, I had come to the (somewhat surprising) conclusion that I really wanted to go back to congregational work. I love academics, of course, but I realized that I missed that element of transcendence that hovers over the work of a rabbi.

 

So I called the Director of Placement and told him that I was thinking of returning to congregational work. After he quizzed me about my general background and interests, his first question regarding my search was: “Have you ever considered living in Texas?”

 

Okay.

 

“Texas is fine;” I tell him, “I am open to living in any location.” Yes, even the plains of Texas. Perhaps I would find something to love about the wide-open spaces.

 

As it happened, the place where I went to work was not Texas; it turned out to be a small congregation in a college town in northern New York.

 

Obelisk in downtown Plattsburgh, NY, by the Sa...

Obelisk in downtown Plattsburgh, NY, by the Saranac River where it flows into Lake Champlain. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

And I love it.

 

I cannot give you a good reason why this phenomenon takes place; I simply cannot explain it. I can tell you that the Bible records several instances of a person – ‘ish’ – who appears mid-narrative with instructions as to what will happen next. Joseph, for example, finds his brothers after encountering such a person.

 

The person’s instruction is not necessarily one that makes the road smooth; rather, it is an announcement of what needs to happen next. And it has happened enough times now that I heed its call.

 

How does this relate to the month of Elul, and the concept of wonder?

 

Our perception of the world involves the interplay of presence and absence, of articulate speech and of silent wonder. But we do not capture its fullness; in truth, we simply cannot. As Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:

 

We are able to exploit, to label things with well-trimmed words; but when ceasing to subject them to our purposes and to impose on them the forms of our intellect, we are stunned and incapable of saying what things are in themselves; it is an experience of being unable to experience something we face: too great to be perceived.[1]

 

I am, of course, an academic as well as a rabbi; I am nearly finished with a PhD; I value highly the work of the intellect. But, as Heschel reminds us, this emphasis on our capacity to name and categorize might at times push us away from apprehending the truth.

 

There are times when we best encounter meaning when we drop our categories and our names and simply abandon ourselves to wonder.

 

So, in this month of Elul, stop for a moment and listen; let an ish come and tell you what happens next. Maybe, the ish will tell you, it is time to let go, to forgive, and to move on. That is usually – maybe even always – the larger message to grasp, even as it is conveyed in these small, concrete steps: ‘you will leave here; there is a move in your future. It will be someplace you’ve not considered before.’

 

As I said: I cannot tell you why it happens, any of it; I can only stand in wonder.

 

Kari Tuling serves as the rabbi for Temple Beth Israel, in Plattsburgh, New York. Plattsburgh is in northern New York, not far from Montreal. Located on the shores of Lake Champlain, at the foot of the Adirondack mountains, it is also home to SUNY Plattsburgh. Kari plans to learn how to snowshoe and cross-country ski, two activities she had never considered before.

 


[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (New York: The Noonday Press, 1994), p. 36.