Among the reasons that Jewish yoga and chant cultivate loyal followings is their focus on the body as a spiritual portal. After centuries of Jewish focus on matters of the mind (study) and spirit (prayer), we are rediscovering the spirituality of embodied corporeal life. Passover – especially the last day, when tradition celebrates the trek through the Sea of Reeds – calls us so deeply into our bodies that we can experience joy and freedom even in our bodies.

The slaves of the Exodus, whose bodies had toiled almost unto death, were ejected from Egypt in great haste, with no time to prepare or even think of the body’s basic needs (Ex.12:39). As Reb Nachman (1772-1810) taught, Passover’s first day is about transcending bodily limits. Passover’s last day goes even further. On this day, the fleeing slaves reached the Sea of Reeds, blocked at the water’s edge but pursued by Pharaoh’s army. Trapped between them, the Haggadah recounts that Nachshon ben Aminadav walked into the water, and only when he went so far that the water reached the face, threatening to overcome him, did the waters part.

The Slonimer Rebbe (1911-2000) taught that Nachshon’s spirituality was the most exquisite form we humans can achieve, such a quality of loving faith as to empower the body to leap into the sea, confident even in our bodies that the waters will part. What would it be like to feel spirit so deeply in our bodies that our “walking into” can become a “walking through” by force of faith? What if spirit so infused our bodies that song were to flow out of us as freely as breath (Ps. 35:10)? How would this kind of liberation feel in our bodies – not a faraway faith, not just a mindful conceptual understanding, but a freedom so giddy that our whole bodies resonate with joy?

It doesn’t matter what our bodies are like, whether we’re young or old, however able our bodies may be. Passover reminds that our spiritual journeys from narrowness to expansive joy call us forward not only in heart, mind and soul, but also in body – the real corporeal lives we actually lead, each in our own way. As we journeys through the narrows this season, may joy penetrate even our bones so that songs of liberation can flow through us and into the world.

Rabbi David Evan Markus

Ideas to Make Your Passover Seder Great 

By Johanna Potts       

Reduce the Passover Seder stress with these ideas on how to make your Seder great.  In fact the Seder within its own structure gives you some direction.  For example, the point of reading about four children and their approaches to the Seder is to say to Seder leaders that all who are at the Seder are supposed to get the message of Passover in a way that is meaningful to him/her. For some it is the songs, for some it is the food, for some it telling and thinking about the story year after year. The challenge is to make it feel fresh and familiar at the same time.

Some ideas to make your Seder great will incorporate some unexpected activities (to everyone else).

1.      After karpas (parsley or celery) serve a salad with carrots and lettuce – after all you have said the blessing for things that grow in the ground.

2.       Incorporate some traditions not your own – if you are Sephardi, add something Yemeni; if you are Ashkenazi, try something Sephardi, etc.  For example, participants at a Sephardic Persian (or Iranian) Passover Seder will simultaneously chant the Passover song “Dayenu” and hold bunches of either celery, chives, leeks or scallions in their hands and lightly beat each other on the back and shoulders to symbolize the sting generated by the whip of the Egyptian taskmasters. A variation of this custom with Sephardic Persian Jewish families will have participants at the Passover Seder table take turns being an Egyptian taskmaster, lightly beating another person with the celery, chives, scallions, or leeks.

3.      Make puppets for all of the characters in Had Gadya and assign roles and sounds

4.      Pick a theme and imagine a new symbol for it, let guests know the theme and send out discussion questions ahead of time.  For example: Freedom from the Electronic/Information Age.

5.      Use a popular TV show or movie as a framework for the Seder

6.      Do part of your Seder sitting on cushions/pillows on the floor;

7.      Assign different parts of the Seder to people ahead of time and ask them to find/write a reading and lead that part

8.      Find time to include an important family story as part of the Seder

9.  Write your own Haggadah. Some On-Line Resources are:

1.      https://seder2015.org/  from University of Washington Communication and Leadership and an interactive firm Civilization

2.      https://www.rac.org/pesach-themed-haggadot from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

3.      https://ajws.org/what_we_do/education/resources/from_the_sources/fts_pesach_5771.pdf includes many readings and even a children’s book

4.      https://www.haggadot.com/ open source haggadah sections and haggadot from diverse orientations.

by Rabbi David Evan Markus as posted in My Jewish Learning on March 19.

When does time begin? What does time measure? What came before the beginning? Such mind-bending questions evoke timeless truths especially relevant at this moment in the Jewish year.

Humans mark space and time from origins. Moderns traveling east or west across the globe chart distance in longitude from Greenwich, England, a relic of the British Empire’s dominion. Modernity marks secular time against Greenwich Mean Time, which scientists call “Universal Coordinated Time,” as if the whole universe sets its clock by London’s lights. Spiritual time and space also chart from starting points. Jews traditionally pray toward the Western Wall in Jerusalem, as if the Temple once towering above was the center of the world, the axis mundi around which all else revolves.

Jewish time spirals from not one but four origins – four New Years, each with unique spiritual and historical purpose. Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”) marks the physical creation, cycle of teshuvah(repentance), ancient tax year, and sabbatical and jubilee years. Tu B’shevat (“New Year of the Trees”) marks the agricultural birthday of trees. Rosh Chodesh Elul marks tithe years for cattle and Moses’ ascent of Sinai to receive the second tablets.

Tomorrow night (March 19, 2015) begins the fourth Jewish New Year, Rosh Chodesh Nisan, origin of Jewish identity and spiritual consciousness. Two weeks before the Exodus from Egyptian bondage, “God said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt: ‘This month [Nisan] will be for you the first month… of your year,” a tribute to the upcoming liberation (Ex. 12:1-2). This tribute to freedom – defining Jews as a people released from bondage to reach toward spiritual liberation – is the origin of Jewish time. In a spiritual sense, Jewish time exists only in relationship to our bondage and liberation.

Jewish time exists only in relationship to bondage and liberation. If not for liberation from bondage, there would be no Jewish time. As then, so now. When we are gripped by inner emotional or spiritual bondage, in a sense, Jewish time stops. In a real sense, in bondage we stop living. Just as Shabbat reboots the weekly Jewish work cycle, Rosh Chodesh Nisan reboots Jewish time itself.

A coincidence of Rosh Chodesh Nisan helps illuminate this truth. On this day, the newly freed Israelite slaves wandering the desert completed and inaugurated the mishkan, the ancient cultic focus for God’s indwelling presence among the people. As the people journeyed, the miskhan was the center of their camp. The mishkan, symbol of holiness and holy living, became our forebears’ symbolic origin of space, linked to Rosh Chodesh Nisan as their origin of time. It was the mishkan to which our forebears brought not only celebrations and triumphs for gratitude, but also guilt, shame and defeat to be ritualized and released. The mishkan offered ways to express yearnings for holiness, to release heart and soul continually from the grips of emotional and spiritual bondage.

The ancient cycle of bondage and liberation continues to this day. Rosh Chodesh Nisan marks the two-week countdown to Passover, marking the liberation from historical bondage. Each day and each moment invites us into emotional and spiritual release from inner bondage. Community and ritual – playing out in space and time – bring this drama to life on the human plane.

And now – right now, with Rosh Chodesh Nisan – is our time to begin again. Time itself refreshes and renews. We get ready for freedom. At long last, we welcome the radical liberation of Now.

by Rabbi Evan Krame

Moses hands off spiritual leadership to his brother Aaron and Aaron’s sons in Parashat Tzav (Leviticus Chapter 8 : 2 – 5) in a very public ceremony,   He becomes a facilitator for Aaron and his sons to assume the priestly roles, thus signaling a profound change in leadership structures.  At first I wondered why Moses was not to be high priest, finding this development unfair and out of order.  Upon reflection, the discomfort at the leadership shift was all mine.  The Torah and the lead actor, Moses, once again exhibited the finest of political and management skills as Moses relinquishes spiritual leadership duties to demonstrate that religious growth will come with decentralization of authority.

The Torah instructs that it is a mistake to bundle up political, spiritual, military, judicial and economic roles in one person.  Previously, in parashat Yitro, Moses learned to share judicial power with the elders.  Military control is given over to Joshua in phases as the Children of Israel prepare to enter their new homeland. In this particular moment there comes a spiritual leadership reassignment.

But notice how the change is finessed.  It is both public and expansive.  First, God instructs Moses and then Moses gathers all of the people together at the tent of meeting to bear witness to the anointing.  To insure a successful sharing of spiritual access, Moses makes certain that the entire community is engaged as witness to the shift.

Second, Moses had a relationship with God that was as if friends were speaking face to face.  The priestly rituals, focused on offering sacrifices, demonstrate another and less direct line of connection to God.  While both representational and derivative, the priestly rituals expanded access to the Divine beyond the private line between God and Moses.

The modern technology of communicating with God is vastly different from the time of the Exodus.  No one has singular access to God.  No goats die for the sake of our connection as prayers and meditation have supplanted priestly processes.  Yet, the shifting of power and introduction of new rituals in this parasha makes for a poignant message.  Today’s religious governance should be inspired to share spiritual leadership and expand access to God.   As per God’s direction, the change must be public and inclusive.

Spiritual leadership paradigm change is necessary for the future growth of Judaism.  It is time for us to figure out what the next transfer of spiritual Jewish leadership should be. Our challenge is to select new spiritual leaders to inspire and guide us through to the new paradigm.

Rabbi David Evan Markus

The opening of Torah’s middle book, Vayikra (Leviticus), asks a hidden question that is perhaps the most important question in Jewish spiritual life.

Torah’s story of liberation and wandering goes on hiatus, shifting to our ancestors’ ancient cultic rites.  Before relaying that narrative, Torah begins: “God called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” (Lev. 1:1).  The rabbis wondered, “Why does Torah say that God called to Moses?  Shouldn’t it be enough that God spoke to Moses?”

Rashbam (Shlomo ben Meir, 1085-1158), grandson of Rashi (Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105), observed that in Exodus, God “called” to Moses from the Burning Bush that Moses could approach no closer (Ex. 3:4), and “called” to Moses from within Mount Sinai where Moses could not penetrate (Ex. 19:3).  Similarly, Moses couldn’t enter the Tent of Meeting amidst God’s presence (Ex. 40:35), and now God “called” Moses from the Tent of Meeting.  Rashbam concludes that God “called” Moses from the very places Moses couldn’t go: God “speaks” from anywhere, but “calls” from places that are off-limits.

But the “call” itself isn’t off-limits.  The Hebrew root kra, as in Vayikra (“God “called”), also means “cry” – an emotive act that draws in and reaches out.  In Kriyat Torah, we don’t just “read” Torah: we “cry” Torah – we call it out, drawing holy wisdom and ourselves into each other.  In like fashion, maybe we can understand God “calling” as a crying out, bridging the distance between us and a quality of holiness that otherwise might seem off-limits.

In this way, Vayikra asks: From where does God call today?  How do holiness and spiritual wisdom call to each of us in our own lives, and how do we respond?  We long ago left Sinai and outgrew the Tent of Meeting, but as Rashbam wrote, God kept calling along the way – first from the Burning Bush, then from Sinai, then from the Tent of Meeting.  Why not also from our own holy places – synagogues, dinner tables, nature hikes, museums, yoga mats, salons – wherever we gather with the intention to connect?  Maybe God is calling you right now, maybe from the very place that seems most off-limits.  If you stopped to listen, what might you hear?

We speak of sacred time and sacred space as if they exist on their own. But they don’t – their sacred nature is an attribute that we impose or imbue them with. We can easily ignore Shabbat and treat it like any of the other six days in the week – there is nothing inherent in the seventh day that compels it to be responded to in a different way. It is because we have been told to do so, that it takes on a sacredness, it is our awareness of a connection to the spiritual that it becomes sacred.

In this double portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei, Moses convenes the whole Israelite community and the first thing he says is that the seventh day is to be set aside, sacred, for Y-H-V-H. There are two ways to mark this day as distinct from other days – in contrast to the other six days, no work is to be done as it is to be a complete rest and no fires are to be kindled. The previous parsha begins the Shabbat description but is interrupted by the building of the Golden Calf.

Does this interruption in the narrative reveal something about our ability or inability to let go of our plugged-in lives, full of busy-ness? Is it idolatry, a devotion to something other than the spiritual, that interferes with our willingness to set aside time? The juxtaposition of the details of building the Tabernacle and the ark to hold the tablets with both the golden calf and shabbat, serves to emphasize the value of sacred time. Even the construction of the sacred mishkan is paused for Shabbat. Abraham Joshua Heschel refers to Shabbat as a cathedral in time. As Jews, we attempt to construct a calendar of values, focusing on freedom, responsibility, justice, forgiveness, communal joys and communal sorrows.

As we approach the holiday of freedom, may we all think about what enslaves us and how to enrich our lives the gift of Sacred Time.

JoHanna Potts

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, founder of CLAL and interpreter of Judaism as a Modern Orthodox Rabbi, recently gave a “State of Judaism” talk in San Francisco.  After assessing the problems, including that nearly 90% of Jews in the Bay area have no Jewish affiliation, his advice was the following:

1.  We must re-articulate the Jewish narrative.  We must offer religious and moral experiences that are as powerful as other choices people have in the non-Jewish parts of their lives.

2.  Our infrastructure needs to respond to where people are.  They won’t come to us.

3.  We need to engage Jews in a way that is simultaneously deep and distinctive, but that is not bigoted and tribalist.

If this were truly a State of the Union address, there would have been thunderous applause and a few standing ovations.  In the meantime, the Jewish Studio is doing its part to follow much of that advice.  Stick around – perhaps our own State of Judaism address in the coming years will speak of how we articulated, responded and engaged!

by  Rabbis Evan J. Krame & David Evan Markus

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright famously said, “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.”  Construction trades tend more to concern gutters and girders than God, but Wright proclaims his connection with divinity, constructed in and through nature.  This week’s Torah portion (Ki Tisa) agrees, and offers us key reminders about how we can build Jewish lives meaningfully. 

Detailing plans for the Tent of Meeting, last week’s Torah portion laid out in exquisite detail the structure, fixtures, vessels and ritual objects that are to be crafted with great flourishes and artistry.  The purpose was to build a physical place to remind that God, ever the Creator and Redeemer, will meet with the people and dwell among them.  The “amen” to the blueprints wasn’t to stand back and admire: rather, the people – all the people – contributed raw materials. Now Torah appoints Betzalel – essentially the Frank Lloyd Wright to build the Tent of Meeting in all its enumerated splendor (Ex. 31:1-11– and Torah’s next instruction is to honor Shabbat, to stop building one day each week so that we can know holiness through God (Ex. 31-13-14).  The work of our hands may be divinely inspired (Ps. 90:17), but we build holiness not for the sake of an actual place but to immerse ourselves in relationship with the power and splendor we call God.

In that spirit, it’s no surprise that some of us more deeply experience spirituality outdoors in nature than indoors in houses of worship.  Mountains, oceans, dazzling sunsets and star-studded skies evoke wonder, awe and transcendence.  Despite Torah’s detailed instructions to build a house of God, we still seek temples of sky and cathedrals of towering trees – which is why Frank Lloyd Wright’s most well-known structures seamlessly glide between the human and natural, open to vistas and seeming to leap out of landscapes.  What’s more, Judaism’s holiest temple isn’t a place of space at all but rather, as Abraham Joshua Heschel famously taught, a “palace in time” we call Shabbat – a day of grandeur designed precisely not to build anything at all.

The ancient Tent of Meeting is long past into history, but places to meet holiness still abound.  They are our physical prayer spaces, our synagogues of sky, our temples of tall trees, and our Shabbat palaces in time.  Whenever and wherever we give our heart to build awareness of wonder, awe and transcendence (in Hebrew, “build” and “meditate” share a common root), there God dwells among us.  There we can build a Jewish life dynamic as any Frank Lloyd Wright’s design, timeless as the mountains, deep as the oceans.  What a mobile spiritual gift we inherit, capable of being sparked anew anytime and anywhere we join together for that purpose.

by Rabbi David Evan Markus

Ask 100 American Jews where they feel most Jewish, and three answers are most likely to emerge: synagogue, home, and Israel.  Synagogue is a communal space for ritual expression of Jewish identity.  Home is a private space that we sometimes open for others to join our celebrations of Jewish space and time.  Israel is an ancestral portal for collective history, yearning and building a dynamic society unique on earth.  All of these make sense.  But our Jewish sense of place can (and must) be more than synagogue, home and Israel.  That’s part of what The Jewish Studio is about, and here’s why.

Except for the most traditional Jewish neighborhoods, the modern ethic of separating the spiritual and secular tends to divide space into the publicly Jewish and everything else.  Spaces that aren’t overtly Jewish (e.g. synagogue, Jewish Community Center, kosher restaurant, mikveh) thus become secular, implying “not Jewish” – but it wasn’t always so.  Medieval courts and public courtyards once were centers of Jewish culture and commerce.  The Haskalah (European Jewish Enlightenment) of the 18th and 19th centuries flourished in heady salons where thinkers, movers and shakers mingled as if at a combination cocktail party and “open mike” night.  Bakeries across the Pale of Settlement were places to plug into the latest news (and famously confuse one family’s cholent pot for another).

Jewish sense of place used to be flexible and porous, not rigidly separated between overtly Jewish and everything else.  Flexibility and porousness are exactly Jewish tradition: we’ve made a Jewish sense of place wherever we’ve gone, wherever we’ve gathered together to do Jewish.  If so, then we can ask: where can we make today’s equivalents of history’s courtyards, salons and bakeries?  Why not also parks, museums, culture clubs, test kitchens, beaches and studios? How exciting to project a Jewish sense of place as open as our imagination and as close as the local farm stand.  How vital, vibrant and real our Jewishness could be.

Stay tuned.