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The Power of the Tongue

11/01/2018 03:25:58 PM


Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”

So it is written in Proverbs, 18:21. And it’s true. Speech has the power to create and to destroy, to heal and to hurt, to incite, to convince, to deceive, to ruin a reputation, to inspire and to shape the future.  With words we bless and with words we curse, with words we condemn and defend.  Words can outlive generations of human lifetimes.  Language is a power both human and Divine.  What we say matters.

This past Sunday evening as we gathered to find comfort and strength in the wake of the Pittsburgh tragedy, words helped us to heal.   We turned to words from our most ancient sources. Ner Adonai Nishmat Adam, God’s lamp is the human soul, Proverbs 20:27 greeted us in the lobby as those entering lit candles.  We passed around a stone carved with the word, “ometz,” courage in Hebrew, that I brought home from Jerusalem a couple of years ago.   People spoke and heard spontaneous words from the heart.  The words of Kol Ha’Olam Kulo, Eli Eli and Esa Einai have never resonated more deeply.

Words can heal, but words can also hurt.

For this reason, both American and Jewish traditions have extensive laws and norms about language – a topic I have been thinking about with a sense of urgency in the past two years.

The First Amendment States:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Jews have a unique relationship to the first amendment in this moment.  On the one hand, the first amendment protects our freedom of religion.  It is the foundation upon which American Jewry has built a relatively safe and prosperous life for centuries in this place.  Laws stemming from the first amendment are among those violated by the Pittsburgh shooter.

On the other hand, all too often in recent years, the first amendment has been used as a shield for hate speech and incitement.  Activists who claim to be defending the first amendment, have used its protection to create enclaves for false conspiracy theories, and platforms to spread fear and xenophobia.  The President has made incitement to violence a cornerstone of his rallies and his rhetoric – calling for the crowd to beat up outliers and naming his political critics “enemies of the people.”

The freedom of speech is a right designed to protect journalists who expose unflattering truths about those in power.  It is designed to nurture an educated citizenry who can think critically with access to multiple sources of information.  The first amendment was never meant to enable leaders to lie with impunity.  It was never meant to foster social and digital spaces where bigots and fanatics can validate one another and spread false conspiracy theories that lead to murder.  The first amendment was never intended to provide a path for our leaders to call others to violence and then deny responsibility.

As a Jew, I would never want to weaken the first amendment.  Its protection is essential to my religious freedom.  But nor do I accept that the first amendment is itself a guide to ethical speech. Those who use the first amendment as a shield for hate claim a false moral high ground.  In America’s rights-based system, the first amendment protects sacred freedoms, but it also protects morally repugnant and dangerous language.  In the absence of some other moral or ethical code, we are left with a system that allows the abuse of language in the name of protecting language.  That’s where I turn to the Jewish teachings on the ethics of speech.

Judaism has always recognized the profound power of language.  For that reason, the first chapter of Genesis imagines God creating the entire cosmos with nothing but words.  In practical terms, Jewish tradition has an enormous set of guidelines for the proper use of speech.  Through careful analysis and case study over centuries, our ancestors have considered many values with which to guide our speech – for example, Truth and Kindness. They have thought about what to do when these values come in to tension. The best known work on Jewish speech ethics, the Chofetz Chayim, written by Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, synthesizes it all and concludes that the ultimate test for ethical speech is the potential for harm.  For speech (or silence) to be ethical, it should ideally be truthful and kind, but most of all, it must not cause harm.

As we head into the final few days before a fateful election, I pray that our leaders and pundits can learn from the painful week that has passed and finally stop the inflammatory rhetoric and the spread of false conspiracy theories which have caused immeasurable harm.  For those who are not capable or willing, I pray that their supporters will awaken and stop their support.  But most of all, I pray that the good people who have been opting out of our Democracy will see that we need them to stand up and speak in a very important way right now — through the ballot box.  Just as words can do harm, so can silence. Right now, voting is the most important way we can use language to transform our world for the better.  May our words be words of peace bringing hope and healing to a world in need.  Ken Yehi Ratzon – May it be so.

Shmini Atzeret and Political Anguish

10/05/2018 10:00:29 AM


Around 1 in the morning Monday night, I awoke to the sounds of it.  The soft pattering quiet I had not heard for a season.  Unmistakable.  Rain.  The first rain of the season soaking the bamboo roof of my Sukkah.

The timing seemed supernatural.  The next day was Shmini Atzeret, the little-known holiday at the tail end of Sukkot whose primary ritual act is to pray for rain.  Twice a year, the liturgical calendar asks us to switch out a tiny phrase in the Amidah prayer, traditionally said three times a day.  Usually for me the line is a semi-conscious blip in the course of a service.  Sometimes it lifts me up into an awareness of seasons and the preciousness of water.  Twice a year, it expands into a beautiful poem of hope and vulnerability as we acknowledge the Earth’s cycles and our human dependence on rain and dew to feed our bodies.

Eloheynu v’Elohei Avoteynu v’Imoteynu – Our God and God of our ancestors: 

B’gishmei orah ta’ir adamah — With raindrops of light, illuminate the Earth,

B’gishmei bracha, t’varech adamah — With raindrops of blessing, bless the Earth,

B’gishmei gilah tagil adamah — With raindrops of rejoicing, give joy to the Earth…

The prayer is an acrostic, moving through the Hebrew letters and praying for every kind of goodness to wash over us as the rains begin.  Then it introduces the phrase which will be said in the midst of the Amidah until the end of Pesach as the season shifts again.

She’atah hu Adonai Eloheynu rav lehoshiah, mashiv haruach u’morid hagashem – for You are Adonai our God, whose power to save is great, the One who makes the wind blow and the rains fall.

This morning, a few days after Shmini Atzeret, as I obsessively checked for news, I had all but forgotten the Earth and its seasons shifting around me, the powers of the planet and its rains and winds.  Caught up in the pain of the moment, the outrage and disillusionment happening on our human scale, I had completely given in and cut myself off – running my life by the cycles of headlines and scandal rather than the cycles of prayer, water and sun.

Painful as it is – I am glad to be awake.  I know that for the sake of my children, and God willing their children’s children, I need to pay attention to the politics of our moment.  I need to remember what I committed to on Yom Kippur for the sake of the world.  I need to do more than I did in 2016 when that consequential election loomed. Actions like making calls, giving to campaigns and getting out the vote not only make a difference in the world, they also (more selfishly) make a difference to my distressed inner state.

I also know that all of our human structures of government, technology and community are built on a foundation of Earth.  In Hebrew, the first human beings are called Adam – from the word Adamah, Earth, that features so much in the prayer for rain above. We are formatively and linguistically — creatures of the Earth.  And that quality reminds me that there is a frame here beyond the momentary dramas on the political scale.

I find myself longing for grounding.  For perspective.  Yesterday I sat with a family who was planning to bring a 101 year old great grandmother to attend a Bar Mitzvah service.  I mused about how I would love to ask her how she sees our moment.  I wondered if she feels it is as unusual and troubling as it seems to me – or if it is just another cycle, far less worrisome than others she has lived through.

Not all of us have access to clear-minded elders who have lived through a century of human craziness.  But all of us do have access to the Earth and the Sky and our own community gatherings.  In our part of the world, we even have access to the ocean.

As these next weeks of political intensity unfold, we will all no doubt be tempted to cut ourselves off from our Earthliness, and our fellows humans, losing ourselves in hours of screen-time, reading every update.  But I hope in the midst of this tumult, we can all find times to connect with our spirits, with one another, and with our Earthliness.

I trust in that. I do.  It’s not just that I run to a shabbat service or the outdoors as an escape.  It’s that I know good things come when I take time to ground myself in the prayers of community and the natural world.  Clarity, peace, insight, inspiration: these are not just luxuries to seek in the redwoods or a room of singing voices when the fight is won — they are qualities we can find and bring to the struggle as we go.  May our voices joined together and our beautiful Earth remind us of who we are and what it’s all for, and may this season bring us much needed raindrops of hope and transformation.

Prayer Thoughts from a Rabbi Mom on her son’s prayer book dedication sticker…

06/21/2018 09:59:19 AM


Prayer is …

More than the words in this book,

though these words will guide you, and teach you,

if you let them.

Prayer is …

Time out of time — to notice

in the silence, in the distracting thoughts, in the still small voice within,

Change and stillness,

Knowing, and heartbreak

Remorse and forgiveness

Hope and resolve

Gratitude and compassion

Prayer is not …

a spectator sport.

It is not passive,

though it can be effortless.

The recitation of words can be rote, thoughtless and unconscious –

or it can be Practice — inscribing words on your heart.

Sometimes, a phrase suddenly jumps out of the stream and glimmers in new light.

This happens especially, as you learn to understand Hebrew.

[Oy, and then there are more challenges — when the Hebrew is not just a                                 meaningless mantra, and the words are not ones you would choose to say –                         curses on enemies, songs of victory, endless strings of lavish praise upon a                           God you don’t believe requires or desires those particular phrases                                           — that kind of thing.

Don’t get confused.  Still you can pray in your own words, or in silence.

Just keep rising, level after level.]


Be careful not to dismiss, judge, or otherwise miss the value of where you are and what has been given to you from your people.

Be careful not to become spiritually complacent, arrogant, stubborn, stuck.

Don’t give up when it’s hard.

Music is important.

Singing with others together,

lifting voices,

generating joy,


holding silence,

finding harmonies,

creating beautiful sound.

Words are important.

Moving the heart.

Teaching across time and generations.

Silence is important.

Making space to listen, to receive.

Prayer is…

interactive and solitary

Paradoxical — Revolutionary

Prayer is a gift you give to your soul.


From Rabbi Katie on Israel’s 70th anniversary

04/18/2018 03:41:17 PM


What should a rabbi say as we greet Israel’s 70th birthday this week? Some will stay silent because it’s too divisive to speak about the topic at all. Some may toe the line of one narrative or another -- Praise for a Modern Miracle!, or Condemnation of a so-called Apartheid State. To me, neither of these approaches is complicated or careful enough to be true to the place I know and what it means to the Jewish and Palestinian people. It’s a tough time to find hope for peace and justice in Israel and Palestine. Heck -- it’s a hard time to find hope for the future of Democracy, even in our own United States! And yet, if you go beyond headlines and start meeting real people, you cannot deny the tremendous goodness and resilience you find, face by face, conversation after conversation. I have not given up hope for either the US or Israel to transform for the good in my lifetime. I do not believe it will be easy, but I owe it to my children and their children to try really hard. And I also owe it to them here and now to remember gratitude and joy and to stop the dark hard push for justice from time to time and to revel in the freedoms and abundance we do have now, to celebrate what we can, even while we commit to spreading that abundance to others.

I hope that you will join me in exploring Israel and Palestine in the years ahead. Next year we will be creating many opportunities to learn about this complicated place with depth and nuance and in June of 2019, we will be taking our first ever Or Shalom trip to Israel and Palestine! There is no better way to understand a place or to find hope about its future than to go in person and meet the real people who are doing good work there. I hope that you will hold the second half of June 2019 on your calendars and come to our informational meeting Wednesday evening May 23rd to learn more about our trip. In the meantime, I offer some words that I found inspiring from my friend and colleague, Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, who sent this message on behalf of Rabbis for Human Rights this week…


From Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman writing on behalf of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel

I write this on the eve of Israel’s 70th birthday. This is super-charged period in the Israeli calendar. Days after Passover we observe Yom Ha-shoah Ve-ha-Gevura (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and a week later Yom Ha-Zikaron (Memorial Day) for our fallen soldiers and victims of terror. Then it is a breathtaking turn around to Yom Ha-Atzmaut (Israeli Memorial Day).

So much of the national ethos is captured by having these days of memorial lead up to Independence Day. It reinforces the precarious nature of our national identity.
interwoven with a terrible sense of victimhood and sacrifice. It should be no surprise that we Israelis are a little crazy. We live with a constant sense of power and powerlessness. On Yom Ha-Atzmaut I celebrate, and I invite you to celebrate, the messy miracle we call Israel. Yes, it is a miracle. Who could have imagined that a little more than seventy years after the Holocaust the greatest challenge facing the Jewish people would be how to handle the enormous military power we possess? Oy! We make so many mistakes- but I would not prefer the alternative of being powerless.

It sounds strange but I believe that to choose powerlessness would be immoral in its own way.
So on Yom 
I will celebrate this wonderful, complicated, tragic, exhilarating and messy miracle – the State of Israel. None of these complications absolve us of the responsibility for making this the most moral and just Jewish state possible. … to continue to teach our young people the connection between human rights and Judaism, to pursue justice for the poor and marginalized among us, and to protect the rights of the most vulnerable peoples in our midst, including Palestinians who continue to live under military occupation. We will not apologize for the need for a national Jewish homeland, nor we will we shirk from trying to make it worthy of the most enlightened and holy Jewish values.



OS Blog

03/20/2018 04:48:48 PM


Welcome to the Or Shalom Blog!  We have so many wonderful things on the horizon, starting with Rabbi Katie's Mussar Series - a 7 week class on your 'soul curriculum'.   After that we have our Community Seder, our Member Meeting and Retreat.  

The office is very excited to bring the full power of Shulcloud to its members.  With it, you have full access to your member account and payments.  Please take some time to update your contact information or other details.  Coming soon will be an Or Shalom App which will allow you to access the calendar, membership directory and other features directly from your phone.  

As always, let the office know if there is anything you need.



Administrator, Or Shalom


Mon, December 10 2018 2 Tevet 5779