This week, the week our community buried the Rabbi Emet Tauber, z"l, is also the week when Aaron learns of the death of his sons Nadav and Avihu. The words that follow have been taught to me as the most important words in all of Torah. "Vayidom Aharon, And Aaron was silent/stilled" (Lev 10:3). These words echoed for me all week. In the moments after Emet died, I was sitting with his mom and sister. Naomi, his mom, said "I just feel silence and absence." Vayidom Naomi. And Naomi was silent. Our initial responses to grief and loss are infinitely varied. And yet, our tradition records, that in the case of tragic loss, there is an ineffable void.
What followed in the hours and days that followed was utterly stunning. Out of that void, there was so much life. And I found myself thanking Emet, for he once again reminded me that God is trans. I'm not quite a full believer in the capital R, Reconstructionist school of Mordechai Kaplan, God as the force that makes for salvation. But I do believe that there is a presence, a force, an experience beyond language. I believe in the God who appeared to Moses at the burning bush, and when pushed to identify, says: "אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה / I will be what I will be, I will become what I will become." God is force of transformation in our lives. I believe in the God of transcendence who hovered over the waters during the first days of creation, as it says: "Ve-ru'ach elohim merachefet al pnei ha-mayim – ורוּחַ אֱלוֹהִים מרחפת על פני המים. And the Divine Spirit hovered above the waters" (Gen 1:2). And I believe in the God of transition, the God who appeared to Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites as they crossed the sea on dry land. As we sing in Mi chamocha, "Zeh eli, That is my God" (Ex 15:11).
At his funeral I shared that Emet was Queer with a capital Q. He was also Trans with a capital T. Over the past four months he taught so many of us about how to face the greatest transition of all, with courage, honesty, and love, as he crossed over from this world to the beyond. For those who were not able to be at the funeral, here are some of the words that were shared in his honor.
I will be in New York for Shabbat leading services at a convening for trans Jews, carrying the glittery sparks of Emet's Torah forward.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
As we emerge from the frenzy and fun of Purim, we find ourselves back in the world of Leviticus. I have often joked that the book of Leviticus is a story of blood and guts by way of animal sacrifice. Thanks to Aimee Ando's recent dvar Torah at a KT board meeting, I now want to retitle the book "SALT FAT ACID HEAT", an ode to food writer and celebrity chef Samin Nosrat.
This week's parsha, Tzav, begins with a full description of the different kinds of offerings. By way of review, we have the burnt offering, the grain offering, the purification offering, the guilt offering, the well-being offering, the gratitude offering, the votive, and the freewill offering. Each offering with its own procedures and specifications. Each with its own unique combination of salt, fat, acid, and heat. I can almost hear Samin Nosrat's instructions that each vegetable needs to be roasted on its own. Her attention to the quality and coarseness of the salt and the oil. Echoed by the words of Torah, detailing handfuls of choice flour and oil.
Aimee wrote, "My gut reaction (no pun intended) to Leviticus is typically distant. What do these ancient instructions have to do with modern times? However, this week I found myself leaning into the words as a multi-sensory experience, nearly feeling the heat from the fire, nostrils full of the smoke of the burnt offering and 'the pleasing odor to the Lord.'"
Michael Pollan writes about this 'רֵ֧יחַ נִיחֹ֛חַ pleasing odor' in his book Cooked, "The fragrant column of smoke, symbolizing the link between heaven and earth, is only the conceivable medium of conveyance, and also communication, between humans and their gods. So to say this aroma is divine is more than an empty expression" (39).
I'm not sure if the rabbis were also foodies, but I do know that they understood that this holy barbecue was not unique to temple practice. They too preached the Torah of SALT FAT ACID HEAT.
We learn in the Talmud, "When the Temple is standing, the altar atones for a person; now it is a person's table that atones for them" (B.T. Hagigah 27a).
About this, Aimee concludes, "There is much commentary that relates to all of these manners of sacrifice as pleasing to God primarily because God set forth a series of commandments and God's people carried out God's will. My read may be off, but I wonder if it is something more. I cannot help but wonder if those who spent time in those ancient, figurative open-air kitchens - often the women - up until now, carefully attending to every detail of preparation no matter the labor or time needed, interpreted the opening of Leviticus as I did this week - as a cry from God to offer our earthly ingredients as if preparing and sending up the finest meal possible with love, intention, and integrity. God knows the transformative and healing experience of sharing food."
Wherever you find yourself this Shabbat, at your table or someone else's, may you know that the meals you share on shabbat are in and of themselves a sacred offering, drawing us closer to each other and to Holiness in our lives.
Rabbi Ari Lev
Purim is by nature destabilizing. Costumes and coming out and the idea that nothing is as it seems. But add to it the commandment to drink and that just feels outright dangerous. In practically every chapter of the Megillah, someone is imbibing heavily at a drinking party. And the scroll concludes with Mordecai's instruction to the entire Jewish people to celebrate these days as "yemei mishteh v'simchah, days of drinking and rejoicing" (Esther 9:22).
So let's start with the question, how drunk is one really supposed to get?
We learn in the Talmud:
"Rava said: It is one's duty levasumei, to make oneself fragrant [with wine] on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between 'arur Haman' (cursed be Haman) and 'barukh Mordekhai' (blessed be Mordecai)" (Megillah 7b).
But what degree of drunkenness is meant by this? The word levasumei is from the same root as besamim (fragrant spices, like those that are smelled during Havdalah). Minimally, one should "be fragrant" - drink enough that others can smell it on your breath. And maximally, one should get sloshed, so to speak.
And if this makes you at all uncomfortable, you are in good company.
The rabbis are nervous too and tell this tale of caution:
Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira got together for a Purim Seudah (the feast on the afternoon of Purim). They got very drunk, and Rabbah got up and cut R. Zeira's throat (literally, Rabbah butchered him). The next day, Rabbah prayed on R. Zeira's behalf and brought him back to life. A year later, Rabbah asked, "Would you like to have a Purim Seudah with me again this year?" R. Zeira replied, "One cannot count on a miracle every time" (Megillah 7b).
Purim is dangerous, and the rabbis knew it. Getting dressed up, getting drunk, turning things upside down, insisting that nothing is as it seems, blurring boundaries - these are all best done with care and caution. Not only because of the threat of physical injury or death, but also emotional and spiritual safety. I have been to many Purim parties where I felt uncomfortable. Humor is funny until it's not.
If Yom Kippur - is Yom K'Purim - the day that is like Purim, then Purim is also somehow like Yom Kippur. It is its calendrical corollary, its spiritual underbelly. Much like fasting on Yom Kippur, the purpose is not the consumption of alcohol in and of itself. So if you are sober or on medication, pregnant or nursing, or for any other reason do not drink, please know drinking is only one medium for attaining a spiritual state of looseness where we can see the ironic, sometimes painful, and true interconnectedness of all things.
Purim is dangerous, but it is a portal into magical realism. And drinking is only one of the four mitzvot of Purim. The full verse quoted above from the Megillah reads, "They are to observe these as days of feasting and gladness, and for sending delicacies to one another, and giving gifts to the poor" (Esther 9:22).
Accordingly, we are instructed to hear the Megillah, give goodie bags to our friends and give tzedakah. Whether or not you plan to attend the Purim Party Fundraiser tomorrow night, I want to personally invite you to participate in the Purim mitzvah of matanot l'evyonim/giving gifts to those in need - to give as generously as you are able to La Familia Centeno-Delgado. We have raised $43,000. We need to raise $8,000 more by Purim.
This Purim, may we hearken to the wisdom of both Rava and Rabbah. May we have the courage to soften and sparkle, to let our hidden light shine. And may we have the wisdom to do so in such a way that does no harm to ourselves or others.
Rabbi Ari Lev
There is a folk legend that King Solomon once posed the following riddle: "What can you say to a happy person to make them sad, that will also make a sad person happy?"
King Solomon took a gold ring from his pocket upon which were engraved three Hebrew letters: גז"י – Gimel, Zayin, Yod. They stand for 'גם זה יעבור gam zeh ya'avor,' this too, shall pass.
The primary themes of Purim are a corollary to King Solomon's teaching: ונהפוך הוא / V'nahafoch hu. What is true in one moment can turn upside down. The Megillah is replete with examples. Queen Esther, who first appears as a closeted Jew, ends up saving the Jewish people by standing up to King Ahashverosh. Haman's evil plot to wipe out all the Jews of Shushan leads to his own demise. And the Jews of Shushan, once powerless subjects, become powerful actors, able to control their own destiny.
And so we will read in Esther 9:1:
"...When the king's command and decree were to be executed, the very day on which the enemies of the Jews had expected to get them in their power, the opposite happened [v’nahafoch hu], and the Jews got their enemies in their power."
With a heaping helping of heavy handedness (and an overindulgence in revenge), the Megillah reminds us just how topsy-turvy the world can be. In the words of my teacher Rabbi Benay Lappe, all stories ultimately and inevitably crash. V'nahafoch hu. Purim is a celebration of subversion, inversion, and transformation.
So much so, that the rabbis of the Mishnah took the time to warn against thinking v'nahafoch hu applies to reading the Megillah backwards, a practice they ruled does not fulfill one's obligation on Purim (Megillah 2:1). In classic Hasidic fashion, the Ba'al Shem Tov turned the Sages' caution inward by adding, "one who reads the Megillah backwards" is a person who only reads it in retrospect and neglects to pay attention to how its spirit is alive in their own day.
As the seasons change and the days grow longer, we seek out levity and instability, allowing the brittle interface of reality to loosen its grip on our souls. To remind ourselves that anything is possible, in our selves and in our world. On this Rosh Hodesh Adar II, may the promises of the rabbis come true and may the sliver of this new moon increase joy in your life.
Hodesh Tov and Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
Every year as we read of the building of the mishkan in all its ornate details, I think to myself, Beztalel (the artist of the Torah) must really have been a flaming gay man. Who else would have such attention to color, fabric, and gemstone?! As someone who does not feel gifted with interior design skills, I am in awe of the Torah's artistry. This week, I am feeling so grateful to be part of a community where I can openly share this totally ridiculous queer reading of Torah.
It is my sense that what binds Kol Tzedek together as a community is the desire for each of us to be wholly ourselves. This is why I start every service with what has become somewhat of a creed, that you are welcome here just as you are. While this seems obvious on so many levels, it is hardly the normative experience of religious spaces and religious movements.
I am grateful that for so many of us, Kol Tzedek is a refuge; a place to reimagine family; a place to truly be our full selves; a place to connect to something beyond ourselves. We are healing from the Judaism of our childhood or the religion of our childhood. In particular, we are healing from homophobic and transphobic sentiments of our childhood denominations.
For all of these reasons and more, it was painful to witness this week when the General Conference of the United Methodist Church voted against LGBTQ inclusion, maintaining that "Homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity." This vote was the culmination of years of exclusion and hurt, and decades of organizing momentum trying to make the church's insides match its outsides.
I have spoke with Pastor John and members of Calvary United Methodist. They are heartbroken and grieving. The future of the denomination, the building, and the community is uncertain. This is a very tender moment for our neighbors and spiritual housemates.
Certainly this vote did not happen in isolation. It is part of the right-wing backlash that is emboldened by our current administration. It is also helpful to understand that the Methodist church is a global denomination with more than 12 million members. So this is not necessarily a barometer of US sentiments. Having said that, it is painful to even be adjacent to the indignity of religious voices. I can't imagine what it feels like to be inside of it. And I can imagine that for some of you and your family members, this touches you personally.
As the United Methodist Church integrates this new reality, I have had many instincts and responses. I share this article to encourage us to be helpful and not harmful allies to Calvary United Methodist. Knowing that there is not unanimous queer support in all Jewish communities and denominations, I invite us to send love to them and ourselves. To know that we are all called to build sanctuaries full of flamboyant beauty, justice, and love.
In the words of Adrienne Rich,
I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.