First Post from Israel: Parashat Chukat and Finding Balance

It’s funny how quickly circumstances can change. I’m writing this in the apartment I’m sharing with a Russian woman in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem. I have been in Israel now for a little more than three weeks.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Chukat, is uncannily relevant to my current situation. I’ll get into the details in a bit.

This is my first trip to Israel, and I will be here for (at least) a year. I say “at least” because I will be applying to rabbinical schools in the coming months, and may need to stay in Jerusalem for the first year of the program to which I am accepted. I am planning to go back to the States at some point, so please don’t worry.

To everyone who is reading: This means there will be a lot of opportunity to save up and come visit me : )

Living and studying in Jerusalem for this year will hopefully serve as a bridge between the education and work I did to get to this place – physically, emotionally, spiritually, Jewishly – and the type of Jewish leader I want to become.

Unfortunately, because I will be here for a year, I had to make some sacrifices to make this happen. I left my jobs at Congregation Brith Shalom and the security of having a regular, stable income. I left the community, city, and people I loved. I had to leave Pickles with friends. I sold or gave away many of the things I had accrued for myself during the last three years in Houston. Everything I own that I didn’t bring with me is in boxes in a friend’s house.

At this point, some of you will probably be thinking, “Classic Branden.” What can I say? I like to keep things interesting.

Since arriving, I have experienced a lot of emotions and personal revelations. Although Israel did not play an important role in the formation of my Jewish identity during my conversion and in the two years since, I knew that coming here would be an important milestone for me. I wanted the full experience, so I booked my flight through El Al. I had three security checks in JFK before I could board. The couple sitting next to me recited psalms during takeoff. I loved watching groups of religious men praying in the galleys of the plane. I cried when we landed at Ben Gurion.

During the last three weeks, I have traveled to so many places and seen so many things: Tel Aviv, the Jaffa Port and its Old City, Tel Aviv Pride, the Mediterranean Sea, the Old City of Jerusalem, Yad Vashem, Masada, the Dead Sea, Beit Shemesh, Haifa, Beit She’arim, and now all around Jerusalem. I have prayed in unaffiliated outdoor spaces, in Conservative spaces, in Reform spaces, and in Orthodox spaces. Most significantly, I have prayed twice at the Kotel (the western retaining wall of the Temple Mount), once by myself and once with students and faculty from my yeshiva. In the Jewish tradition, this is the closest we can physically come to God’s presence in the world. It was the perfect place to recite Kaddish for a friend’s father who recently passed. I wept for so many reasons, many of which I can’t even name.

My program right now is immersive Hebrew language study, followed by volunteering in the afternoons. I am volunteering at the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, the city’s only LGBT community center. It is in an incredible place that does wonderful work in Jerusalem and throughout Israel. I have the privilege of working on two major projects. One is conducting interviews of older lesbians who live or lived in Jerusalem. We are going to compile their stories into a book to distribute at next year’s Pride, which will celebrate and honor older LGBT people. The other is creating an English-language welcome and resource guide to Jerusalem for visitors and new immigrants. And I’m helping with some smaller research projects when I can.

I have also made some incredible friends. People from all over who have come to Israel to learn and take their experiences here out into the world and transform the Jewish community. I look forward to having them as my classmates and colleagues in the years to come. The only unfortunate part is that we aren’t currently in the same program. But I hope that will change. Tonight a group of us are going to a protest outside the prime minister’s residence to demand action on the Kotel agreement and respect for the rights of progressive Judaism in Israel.


Now, back to this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Chukat. In perhaps one of the most confounding descriptions found in the Torah, this parashah describes that of parah adumah, the red heifer. The ashes of the heifer were used in purification rituals, and were only applicable while the Temple still stood in Jerusalem. These laws fall into a category that can be simply described as, “Do it because God said so,” like many of the dietary laws, which don’t come with a rational explanation in the Torah.

In her commentary on Parashat Chukat for, Rabbi Vered L. Harris writes about the space between the extremes of “religious practice must be rational” and “Do it because God said so.” She writes: “Finding balance in Jewish life is an exercise in appreciating the golden mean. […] The concept is simple: do not live in the extremes.” To help us achieve this goal, she suggests we ask, “Why not?” when considering our ritual practices. This allows us to bring our Jewish practice into alignment with our core values. If we have a values-based reason for refraining from certain forms of ritual or observance, then we have a rational approach that allows us to create a meaningful personal practice that still reflects our Jewish values. There is balance that is stronger than relying too heavily on one aspect or approach. There is also flexibility and room for change over time.

I converted in the Reform movement, but moved away from it in favor of the more traditional Conservative movement. I find myself, however, taking a more Reform-minded approach to my personal practice since arriving in Israel. In this approach, where personal choice is vitally important, the goal should be to come close to the golden mean: a practice that is inspired by a rational, meaningful, values-based understanding of religious practice and its role/influence in your life.

As I begin to internalize these concepts - with the added freedom of being in a place (Israel) where I can experience and experiment with every level and type of observance there is - I can start asking some of those clarifying questions that will help me focus my education and the nature of my rabbinate.

At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned that it’s funny how quickly circumstances can change. I was originally only supposed to be in Israel for part of the summer. Then I received a Facebook message with an offer I couldn’t refuse. I had plans for the fall, for the coming year, and thought I knew exactly what was going to happen next.

Like the golden mean, finding balance and comfort in the vast gap between certainty and uncertainty is unsettling but liberating. My goals have not changed. I still want to be a rabbi, to get married, to have children. It’s hard not to see the hand of the Divine at play in my life right now, as reluctant as I am to say that. However, as I am reminded every so often: Man plans, and God laughs.

Shavua tov.

My D'var Torah on Parashat Ha'Azinu

On Saturday, October 15, 2016 - my 32nd birthday - I celebrated becoming a bar mitzvah and gave the d'var Torah (or sermon) during the mussaf service. If you would like to read the text of the sermon, please click HERE.

Posted on October 19, 2016 .


The "Shehecheyanu" blessing. Photo courtesy of

The "Shehecheyanu" blessing. Photo courtesy of

We are now in the month of Tishrei, the seventh month of the Jewish calendar, and the time of the High Holy Days. Though not as immediately recognizable as Hanukah, even many non-Jews can name at least one or two of these holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and maybe even Sukkot. But if we really want to understand the breadth of this period, we have to look back several weeks to the beginning of the sixth month of the Jewish calendar, the month of Elul.

Taking this view, the order of the holidays looks (broadly) like:

  1. 1 Elul

  2. Selichot

  3. Rosh Hashanah

  4. Shabbat Shuvah

  5. Yom Kippur

  6. Sukkot

  7. Shemini Atzeret

  8. Simchat Torah

That’s a lot, and it all occurs over nearly two months. Out of these, the three most-observed are Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. They are the New Year (for people), the Day of Atonement, and the Festival of Tabernacles (Harvest Festival), respectively. Now, you may ask yourself, “Why would the new year come in the seventh month of the calendar?”

Here’s where we see one of the major themes of the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah, literally the “head of the year,” comes in the seventh month, echoing the Sabbath, the weekly day of rest and renewal, and the most important day of the week.

Yesterday was Yom Kippur, the most important day in the Jewish calendar.

Although I have observed Yom Kippur several times in the past – 25-hour ritual fast included – this was by far the most meaningful for me. Until recently, I didn’t know that Judaism traditionally has five daily prayer services. Now, Yom Kippur is the only day of the year on which we observe the fifth service, known as “Neilah” in Hebrew, which means “closing,” and refers to the closing of the gates of Heaven.

Neilah is the most intense part of the Yom Kippur service. The Ark is opened, and remains open for the duration. Those who are able must stand until the shofar is sounded. It is an uncomfortable, emotional, plaintive service. It was an intensely spiritual experience.

And now that Yom Kippur has passed, we are nearing the end of The High Holy Days. I am also approaching the end of my conversion process. On Thursday, October 15, 2015 – my 31st birthday – I will officially convert. I will go before the beit din, then dunk in the mikveh, then have a small celebration with friends and family.

As part of my conversion, I have the opportunity to choose my Hebrew name. There are, of course, various ways to go about this substantial and important task. I had some ideas, but I started by looking at the Torah portion for the week of my birthday/conversion. It is the story of Noah, told in Genesis 6 – 9.

Although an (arguably) righteous man, I wasn’t particularly moved by Noah’s story. However, the story of Noah did present another option, one that had already been on my list. One of the most well-known symbols from this story is the dove, known in Hebrew as “yonah,” a common male name in Hebrew (read: Jonah in English). This brought me to the story of the minor prophet Jonah, who is known for being swallowed by a large fish (or whale, depending on the translation used).

Jonah is a complicated character, and the Book of Jonah is read as the haftarah portion during the Mincha (afternoon) service on Yom Kippur. The central theme of the story is generally understood and accepted as being about the power of repentance, which is the primary theme of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

The Book of Jonah is, to me, an example of one of the things I love most about Judaism. Although it is about sin and forgiveness, it leaves us with more questions than it answers. Jewish scholars have wrestled with the meaning of the story for centuries. The Sages chose this book as the haftarah on Yom Kippur in order to assure us that God’s primary relationship with humanity is one of mercy, kindness, and love.

But even more so than this, the book speaks to me on a profoundly personal level. Many people believe that Jonah flees his prophetic task for fear of failure. Or worse, a fear of not knowing what would happen were he successful. For many years, this was what concerned me about my decision to convert to Judaism. What if I didn’t make it? What would people think? And what if I did make it? What then?

According to “Machzor Lev Shalem,” the service book we read at my synagogue during the High Holy Days, “At times we want to flee from responsibility, because the task is difficult. Like Jonah, we can learn to trust enough to love – and allow ourselves to be loved” (p. 368). In so many ways, I have found my home, and a loving community that inspires me to tackle the difficult tasks ahead.

From a young age, I was surrounded by positive Jewish role models. They weren’t just adults, but also fellow students in classes and in extracurricular activities. I believe that they were there for a reason, in some sense; that they were there to support me – whether directly or indirectly - in my journey to this point.

In my studies during the last couple of years, I have found new ways to incorporate Judaism into my daily life. These changes weren’t drastic, life-altering changes. They were things that I had wanted to focus on, and through Judaism I was able to connect them to a deeper meaning and value that motivated me to make a change. I wanted to make these changes not out of fear for my soul or fear of punishment, but because I want to lead a meaningful life that can be an example for others. Above all, I want to have a rich, meaningful relationship with God

The best example I can think of is the project I worked on with Rabbi Kahn, called “Challah Back Kitchen”. Through this project, I explored aspects of Jewish history through food traditions, and learned about kashrut. Beyond my own education, the experience of working on this project has helped me connect in new ways with friends who were unfamiliar with Judaism. I hosted a couple of dinner parties in which we had lively discussions about kashrut, the challenges faced when deciding to keep kosher, and why it’s important (to me). I was also able to expose people to new rituals, such as Havdalah, and the blessings over wine and bread.

I will appear before the beit din and go to the mikveh on Thursday, October 15. This will also be my 31st birthday, which adds to the emotional weight of the experience. Though it is the end of my formal preparation for conversion to Judaism, it is just the beginning of a lifetime of Jewish living and learning. I have been studying the High Holy Days recently, preparing myself for the marathon of Tishrei. One of the most important themes is the cycle of the year. How it both ends and begins at this moment in the calendar. How Judaism values the energy to start anew that is born from an ending.

I feel Jewish and have felt Jewish for a long time now. When I lived in New York City, I met with Rabbi Rachel Weiss at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah to discuss studying there for conversion. During our conversation, I explained to her my connection to Judaism and how I had gotten to that point. She shared with me that there is a belief in Judaism that sometimes Jewish souls are born into non-Jewish bodies, and those who convert are uniting the body and soul.

When I attend services on Friday evening or Saturday morning, I feel a deep connection to the words in the siddur. I have never been moved in the same way as I am when I hear Hashkiveinu, or when I hear congregants around me reciting the Mourners’ Kaddish. These words and verses speak to my soul, and while I may not yet have every piece memorized, I believe that God recognizes the intention and I feel connected to Him and to the Jewish people.

I have created a Jewish home for myself, which will hopefully one day include a partner and children who will share my love of and passion for Judaism. I will likely cry a lot on October 15. Not tears of sadness, but of pure joy. It has taken a lot for me to arrive at this point and, similar to the way we pray for rain after the harvest to help begin the natural cycle again, the tears will mingle with the waters of the mikveh to prepare me to start my Jewish life.


Posted on September 24, 2015 .

Cycles of Time: Judaism, Renewal, and Celebration

The ancient Rabbis said: "Who are wise? Those who learn from every human being."

This Commentary post is long overdue. However, it is coming at just the right time, really, as it deals with cycles. Judaism is oriented in several cycles, each of which complements the others, and adds to the depth of its rituals, festivals, and history.

Before committing to the decision to convert to Judaism, there are a lot of questions one must ask. One of the first and, depending on the potential convert, most important will be: How long does it take? There is no standard but, according to one of the rabbis I worked with in New York, it requires at least one year. But why so long? It's in order for the person converting to experience the full cycle of the Jewish year.

What is the Jewish year? Well, this is a pretty substantial topic by itself. So, I'm going to skim over the general organization, then focus on where we are right now because we are coming up on the New Year (Rosh Hashanah), the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and Sukkot (the harvest festival). It is the most important part of the Jewish year, and there is much to be done to prepare.

But, I digress. Back to the big picture. The months of the Jewish calendar are based on the cycles of the moon, so they do not sync with the Gregorian (or Western/Christian) calendar. The months, including important festivals, are as follows:

  1. Tishrei: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Sh'mini Atzeret, Simchat Torah;
  2. Cheshvan
  3. Kislev: Hanukkah
  4. Tevet
  5. Sh'vat: Tu B'Shvat (new year for trees)
  6. Adar: Purim - there can also be an Adar 2, depending on the moon cycle
  7. Nisan: Pesach, Yom HaShoah
  8. Iyar: Yom Ha'Atzmaut, Yom HaZikaron
  9. Sivan: Shavuot
  10. Tammuz: Fast of Tammuz
  11. Av: Tisha B'Av, Tu B'Av
  12. Elul: The Month of Reflection and Preparation (Cheshbon HaNefesh)

 We are currently in the month of Av. In the list above, I included some important holidays that I will discuss in more detail below. They are the Fast of Tammuz, Tisha B'Av, and Tu B'Av. The period that begins with the Fast of Tammuz and ends with Tisha B'Av is known as The Three Weeks.

From Michael Strassfeld's "The Jewish Holidays"

From Michael Strassfeld's "The Jewish Holidays"

The Three weeks are a period of mourning. It begins and ends with a day of fasting. Historically, many of the most significant offenses committed against the Israelites/Jews occurred during this period. Primary among them: The destruction of both Temples, first by the Babylonians and then by the Romans; the expulsion from England in 1290; and the expulsion from Spain and Portugal in 1492.

As I wrote previously, in the time between Pesach and Shavuot, we count the Omer. There are echoes of the themes of the counting of the Omer in The Three Weeks. We move from birth to death. From destruction to rebuilding and renewal. We sacrifice and celebrate.

During The Three Weeks, Tisha B'Av in particular is a solemn holiday. It's like a minor version of Yom Kippur. During the first nine days of Av (The Nine Days), we are supposed to eschew the consumption of meat and wine, except on Shabbat. It was interesting to me that we entered Av as I had been contemplating the role of meat in my diet. To a certain extent, not eating meat makes ritual observance easier. Before beginning the fast for Tisha B'Av, observers usually eat a light meal typical of those in mourning - hard-boiled eggs, fruit, vegetables.

On Tisha B'Av, we read from the Book of Lamentations, known as "Eichah" in Hebrew, meaning "How" or "Alas". Its authorship is generally attributed to Jeremiah, a prophet who prophesied the demise of the Kingdom of Judah. Eichah is comprised of five poems about the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and the Temple. The liturgy takes on a different character for the holiday, one that is more somber and plaintive. The destruction of the second Temple marked the end of temple service, the end of Jewish sovereignty, and the beginning of the Exile - "galut" in Hebrew - that, arguably, continues today. There is some debate about the necessity of this holiday after the establishment of the State of Israel, but that is another, much larger conversation.

Of note, many people yearn for the construction of the third Temple in Jerusalem, which would be on the Temple Mount (the location of the al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock, a very important holy site in Islam). Liberal Jews mourn the loss of the Temple without wanting it to be rebuilt. We recognize the flaws in the world and our duty to repair it; however, we also understand that the Temple is no longer central to that process.

After Tisha B'Av, we celebrate Tu B'Av, the 15th of Av. Shabbat Nachamu, which we just observed on August 1,  begins the cycle of seven weeks of comfort leading up to the renewal of Rosh Hashanah (the "head of the year"). The month of Elul, which follows Av and precedes Tishrei, is known as the period of "Cheshbon HaNefesh", or accounting of the soul.

Elul embodies the process of courtship between us and God. On Shabbat, we welcome the Sabbath Queen - the "Shechinah" or divine presence that dwells among us. Some people believe that the name "Elul" refers to the well-known phrase from the Song of Solomon:

During this time, we prepare for the High Holy Days, when we ask God to include us in the Book of Life for the coming year. We do this every year.

And this brings us back to the centrality of cycles in Jewish life. The Jewish holidays, specifically, fit together into a coherent whole that ebbs and flows through the seasons. The holidays themselves relate to nature, history, and our inner spiritual lives. They connect us to each other, and to God through the very essence of Creation. In the words of Arthur Waskow, in his book "Seasons of Joy", "[The holidays are] intended to teach us how to experience more fully the profound patterns of the world."

Long ago, it was believed that celebrating in and engaging in the cycle would help it continue. This would create a spiral that would culminate in the arrival of Messiah. Modern liberal Judaism generally rejects the idea of Messiah. But we can still see the importance of the holidays in that they honor the Unity that underlies all life. The Shema, the defining statement of Judaism, proclaims the unity of Creation:

The name "Yisrael", or Israel, means "to wrestle with God," and is a description of the relationship between God and the Jewish people. As Arthur Waskow writes: "What is wrestling? It is a close grappling that has some elements of fighting and some elements of embracing in it, at the same time and in the same process." It is our responsibility as Jews to wrestle with the past and the present.

In my journey, I am constantly confronted by new experiences and new ideas. Things that challenge my notions of Judaism, the importance of ritual, of observance, and how those things connect with me personally. Understanding the importance of cycles in Judaism helps a great deal. Waskow writes: "If we read and think about the text, perhaps we will uncover [deeper] meaning, or create it for ourselves in a way that helps us live and grow."

Historically, Jewish students have participated in "shylah" and "teshuvah", or question and response. The modern Jewish Renewal movement is centered on the notion that the historical process of Torah is Torah; that is to say, that there are layers to the law that reveal themselves over time and in different contexts. This is both inspiring and encouraging to me. One of the reasons I have felt so welcome within Judaism is that it is a living religion. It changes with time, and adapts.

Cycles have been very important in my conversion experience. I started when I was 14 or 15, and over the years my interest in converting to Judaism has come and gone , but never left. It is a constant that challenges me to engage, to question, to grow. Although that may imply that when I do stand before the Beit Din it will be the end of something, in reality, it will only be the beginning of a lifetime of learning, growing, and passionate devotion.

Thank you.

Posted on August 2, 2015 .

On Kashrut, Vegetarianism, and the Ethics of Food

I recently hosted a "kosher-style" dinner. Why was it "kosher-style" and not simply kosher? That was one of the many topics of discussion during the meal, one which is of endless fascination and increasing relevance to me personally. When I made the decision to convert - and to start this project about Jewish food - I knew I would have to learn more about kashrut - we'll define some important terms below - and think about how I would apply it to my life, if at all.

It's no coincidence that the Hebrew word "kashrut" sounds like the related word, "kosher," with which we at least have a passing familiarity. Hebrew is a language based on consonantal roots, each one of which is composed of three (or sometimes four) letters. When we look at the words "kashrut" and "kosher," three sounds appear in both: K, Sh, and R. The letters in Hebrew, named "kaf," "shin," and "resh," respectively, form a root that means "fit" or "proper". This root is used to create the words "kashrut," which refers to the laws governing food; "kosher," or foods that are deemed fit for consumption; and "kasher," which is a verb meaning to make something fit for use.

Some common foods have the word kosher in the name, but are not in fact kosher (because they don't need to be). Kosher salt, for example, is extra coarse with larger crystals than table salt, and is used to drain blood from meat as part of kosher slaughter. Kosher dill pickles are called such because they are made in the style of New York delis, which were and are still often owned by Jews.

To describe foods that are not kosher, i.e., do not conform to the laws of kashrut, we use the Yiddish word "treif/trayf". What foods are considered treif? Most people immediately identify pork (or anything from a pig), and shellfish. Those are the two most recognizable examples, but they are by no means an exhaustive list.

Richard Schwartz, writing for Jewish Vegetarians of North America, summarizes the primary laws of kashrut as follows:

"(1) which foods may be eaten: Animals that may be eaten are those that part the hoof and are cloven-footed and chew the cud, such as cattle, sheep, and goats. Animals that do not meet the criteria, such as the pig are forbidden. Sea creatures that have fins and scales are acceptable. Most non-predatory fowl, such as chickens, most species of duck and geese, turkey, and pigeon, are permitted. Only eggs from kosher fowl may be eaten. It should be noted that all species of fruits and vegetables are kosher.

(2) the method of slaughter (the laws of shechitah) by a trained religious person, known as a schochet. These laws do not apply to fish or invertebrates.

(3) the method of preparing meat and poultry (known as kashering), which primarily involves removing as much of the blood as possible.

(4) a prohibition against cooking or eating dairy products along with meat (fish is excluded from this prohibition), based on the Biblical law prohibiting boiling a kid in the milk of its mother (Exodus 23:19, 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21). This prohibition was extended by the rabbis so that religious Jews have separate sets of dishes, pots, and utensils for meat and dairy dishes. They also wait a number of hours (the amount depending on the tradition of the individual) after eating meat (again fish is excluded) before consuming any dairy product.

(5) the prohibition of certain foods during the festival of Pesach (Passover)."

Kosher foods are broken up into three categories: Meat, Dairy, and Parve (neutral, neither Dairy nor Meat). What we see in the rules described above is that kashrut doesn't simply tell us what foods are or are not fit for consumption, but it also tells us how to prepare foods that may be eaten, and which foods may not be eaten together. So if a person says she keeps kosher, she's making a lot of conscious choices regarding the food she eats and how it's prepared, not just what she can or can't eat.

Which brings us back to my journey and where kashrut fits into the narrative. According to, "The act of eating should be a means of bringing sanctity into our lives." To elaborate, "From the Jewish perspective, activities that present themselves as mundane - eating, sleeping, conducting business, relationships, etc. - are part of serving God, no less than the ritual observance of prayer, study and giving charity." As you can tell, food is important to me, and something I spend a lot of time thinking about. It's been that way for a long time, though the considerations have changed as I've gotten older and started cooking for myself and others. It's one thing to grow up simply consuming food that's prepared and served to you by others, and quite another to prepare it yourself.

When I was in high school, I was vegetarian for a couple of years. Back then, I did it because I was concerned about animal rights and welfare. While that concern hasn't diminished since then, it has become more nuanced, and taken on an additional spiritual aspect. There is actually a common belief in Judaism that God intended for humans to be vegan, based on B'Reishit (Genesis) 1:29: "Behold, I have given you every seed-bearing herb which is upon the surface of the entire earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; it will be yours for food."

But how did we go from being vegan to having a system of laws that dictate proper slaughter of animals and preparation of meats for consumption? According to Chabad, it began after the great flood, when God told Noah in B'Reishit (Genesis) 9:3: "Every moving thing that lives shall be yours to eat; like the green vegetation, I have given you everything." The flood was a turning point. From then on, eating meat served a higher purpose and became a way to fulfill mankind's responsibility to the divine on earth. And that is exactly the purpose of kashrut: To act as a guide to how to prepare our food (specifically meat) in a way that brings sanctity into our lives.

Judaism also prohibits causing unnecessary pain to animals, known as "tza'ar ba'alei chayim". clearly details some of the specific prohibitions with citations of relevant texts. Again, here we see another piece of the framework for kashrut: practices established to prevent otherwise prohibited activity, which is, in this case, causing unnecessary harm to animals.

Since the Industrial Revolution and the enormous population growth of the 19th and 20th centuries, we have become increasingly separated from our food sources. Many of the foods we eat now are not even whole foods - they are mass-produced compounds of various preservatives, colorants, antibiotics, etc., including most of the meat we find at the grocery store. They are designed to be cheap, accessible, and long-lasting. In this type of environment, how can one hope to keep kosher, when we don't even know where our food is coming from, or what might be in it?

Fortunately, there are trusted organizations that make packaged foods, including meats, according to kashrut standards. When you see certain symbols, called "hechshers", like the ones below, you know their preparation has met the standards for being certified as kosher.

Most people think that kosher food has to be blessed by a rabbi, but that's not true. A rabbinic blessing does not bestow kosher status on food. Unfortunately, human systems are never perfect, and there can be problems, even with products from kosher-certified organizations. They are, however, generally reliable and the best way to ensure you are buying kosher products (in the diaspora).

During the last 50 years or so, there has been a growing movement of people advocating for ethical food production from the perspective of our consumption's impact on the environment. There is no question that modern food production, especially that of meat and seafood, is unsustainable at best, and environmentally devastating at worst (and in fact). Understanding that the most sacred relationship in the deepest origins of Jewish life was that with the earth, there has been an effort to expand the scope of kashrut to include restrictions or guidance based on ecological considerations. This is known as Eco-Kashrut.

Personally, the deeper I delve into Judaism and develop my own Jewish identity, the more kashrut resonates with me. I have given up pork, bacon, ham, etc. I am considering giving up shellfish, though I have been craving shrimp something awful this week. I also consider going back to a vegetarian diet with regular frequency. I enjoyed being vegetarian, and I think it would be more enjoyable now as an adult who is responsible for his own food. I can be creative with it, explore new ingredients and preparation methods, and be more considerate of the seasonality of food. On the other hand, as long as I buy from kosher sources, I can do the same things with a diet that includes some meat.

For me, the challenge of keeping kosher, especially in a place like Texas, is exciting. One of the goals of observing kashrut is to focus on the intentions of our food choices. Being more engaged in the choices I make about food, and understanding the significance of those choices, is a big part of this project, and a big part of my personal Jewish practice. I can't say yet that I am committed to kashrut, or what that commitment would look like for me. However, it is an important part of my journey, and one that challenges me to engage with Judaism in a way that deepens my appreciation for and love of the tradition. 

Thank you.



Posted on June 25, 2015 .

HaMotzi: The Blessing Over Bread

Photo courtesy of Artistic Embroidery Design

Photo courtesy of Artistic Embroidery Design

Call me old-fashioned, but one of the things I find most meaningful about Judaism is its emphasis on blessings and rituals. There is a blessing (and often an attendant ritual) for almost anything. It can seem a little daunting and cumbersome to feel compelled to recite a blessing before any action, but there are very good reasons why we do it, and why new blessings are created as social conventions and cultural modes change.

Let's start by going back to the land of Israel at the beginning of the Common Era, around the middle of the first century. This was when the Temple - the center of Israelite religious life - was destroyed for a second and final time. In the absence of this central element of worship, festivals, and pilgrimage, the Israelites turned to what had been a growing practice of developing educated communal leaders to carry out the duties of the priests and other religious leaders in far-flung communities. These leaders were the predecessors of what we now know as rabbis.

As Rabbinic Judaism developed, it codified two forms of Torah (which means "teaching" or "instruction" in Hebrew). They are the written Torah (the five books of Moses) and the oral Torah, what was written down as the Mishnah. The Mishnah makes up the first part of the Talmud and focuses on legal topics. It is followed by the Gemara, which adds more commentary and discussion to the Mishnah and Torah.

When speaking of the Talmud, people are generally referring to the Gemara, though it can also refer to both the Mishnah and the Gemara. These two volumes comprise the teachings and opinions of thousands of rabbis recorded over many hundreds of years. Subjects of the Talmud include Halakha (Jewish law), ethics, philosophy, customs, history, lore, etc. An example of how we might understand the role and importance of the Talmud today: The holiday of Chanukah is not mentioned in the Tanakh - the Jewish Bible that includes the Torah, the Writings, and the Prophets - but was instead created by the Sages in recognition of the destruction of the Temple. Its history and the customs associated with the holiday come from the Talmud.

Now, what does this have to do with the subject of this post, the HaMotzi blessing? Well, as we just learned, the Sages developed the customs, rituals, and blessings we use today in the Talmud, including those we say over food. They believed that "one should not derive benefit from this world without first reciting a blessing."

I was taught that when we recite a blessing in Judaism, we are asking God's permission to access it, understanding and respecting that, to paraphrase Psalms 24:1,  "[...] the world and everything in it is God's." We use the Hebrew word "kadosh," which literally means "sacred" or "holy". But in this context, we have to see its larger meaning: To separate this thing from all others and designate it for a specific purpose. We are imbuing the mundane task of eating, in this case, with a spiritual awareness and appreciation. That's deep.

Taking this concept to the next step, we can apply it to pretty much anything we do in our daily lives. But for the purposes of this project and in keeping with its theme, we're going to focus on the blessings we recite before eating and drinking, starting with HaMotzi, or the blessing recited over bread.

First, let's look at the blessing itself:

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Now, when we think of bread, we think of a loaf of challah, or a French boule, or a baguette. And that is the type of bread this blessing refers to. When we enter a bakery, there will always be bread ... But more often than not there are also pastries and other confections. Believe it or not, the Sages determined we would need a different blessing for those items, which we will discuss at another time.

HaMotzi refers to bread made from the five species of grains identified by the Sages: Wheat, rye, barley, spelt, and oat. During Passover, we recognize and abstain from these grains and foods made with them, collectively known as chametz. This is why you will not say or hear HaMotzi during Passover. In addition to the use of these five grains, to be considered bread the product must have water as its primary liquid ingredient, and it must also be baked. Dough that is fried or cooked, however, such as pasta, is not considered bread.

Part of the ritual associated with HaMotzi is washing our hands before reciting the blessing and partaking of the bread. Eating a piece of the bread is also an important part of the ritual, as it is the completion of the act. If you attend Shabbat services on a Friday night, usually the rabbi or cantor will lead those assembled in reciting HaMotzi over the challah that will be shared at the oneg. 

If bread is present in a meal, we can recite HaMotzi, which will "cover" all of the foods in the meal, except for dessert and wine, which receive their own special blessings. If you forget to say HaMotzi over a meal with bread before partaking, you can recite the after-meal Grace, which will "cover" everything that has been eaten. The Grace consists of four separate blessings, composed by different people at different times.

For other foods, there are other blessings, which we will learn about at another time.

So, how does all of this tie together? How do we get from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem to the Sages and the Talmud to the challah at your table on Friday night? How are they connected?

As Jews, we recognize Shabbat, the weekly day of rest, as the highest of the holidays. Many Jews today cannot be in Jerusalem or Israel for Shabbat. Many people do not attend services regularly, where they can partake in the ritual as part of a group led by a rabbi. If we are at home, celebrating Shabbat around our own tables, then we have to turn our tables into altars. We still have to be able to offer our best to God. This is what the Sages accomplished when they created the custom of reciting HaMotzi before a meal.

Understanding this history is part of what makes the ritual, and the blessing, so meaningful to me personally. It's part of what inspires my love of Judaism.

This Friday evening, wherever you are, wash your hands, recite HaMotzi, sprinkle some (kosher) salt on your challah, and savor the blessing of Shabbat.

Thank you.





Posted on June 2, 2015 .

The 47th Omer

We have almost reached the end of the period of counting the omer. Although I haven't been writing about it each day, I have been studying the attributes and reflecting on my actions and intentions during the last seven weeks. Let's start with the blessing over counting the omer:

At nightfall this evening, May 20, 2015, we will count the 47th day - or six weeks and five days - in the omer. For this day, we add the following:

The attribute of the 47th day in the omer is Hod of Malchut, or Humility in Nobility. What could that possibly mean? This refers to our sovereignty. If we believe in a higher power that created us and gave us free will, we should humbly acknowledge that this was a great gift.

Each of us has unique, individual characteristics and special qualities that make us who we are. But how we use those qualities is important. Do they make us humble or arrogant, and do we truly appreciate them?

I try my best to use the skills and experience I have to improve the world and inspire the people around me. I am humble enough to admit that it may not make much of an impact or a difference, but I'm also hopeful, and thankful that I am in a position to do so.

Posted on May 20, 2015 .

Wanderings: Challah, Pesach, Sefirat HaOmer, and Shavuot

The first in-depth Commentary post, which you are reading right now - Hey, look at you! - is going to be a long one, as we have a lot of ground to cover. I would like to begin with a reflection on my first serious observance of Pesach (or Passover), then talk a bit about the period of Sefirat HaOmer, and end with a look forward to Shavuot.

Pesach is one of the most important festivals on the Jewish calendar, and with good reason. As many Jewish people will tell you, the major holidays can be succinctly summarized with nine words: "They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat." And no holiday better embodies that than Pesach.

The centerpiece of the Passover celebration is the seder. In Hebrew, the word "seder" means "order", and refers to the structure of the meal. The length of each seder varies, with some being as short as 30 minutes, and others stretching over several hours. The important part of each seder is that it includes 15 parts that "make it different from all other nights".

I was privileged enough to attend three seders this year: one at a friend's parents' home with their extended family and friends, one at my shul, and another with friends from Keshet Houston.

As most people know, bread - gluten, really - is prohibited during the eight days of Passover in recognition of the Israelites' quick escape from Egypt. They had to leave in such a rush that they couldn't even wait for their bread to rise. (Though, if you've ever made bread - challah especially - you know that letting dough rise actually takes a while.) However, having to flee your home with less than a few hours' notice would probably be difficult for most people in any time period.

I think this is an important place to recognize that this is not the only time this type of mass exodus has occurred in history. In fact, it's going on in different parts of the world right now, for a variety of reasons. When thinking back on my Passover experience, I think one of the most important aspects of the seder was the opportunity to reflect on this reality, think about what role we play in it, and how we can commit ourselves to the act of repairing the world.

In the absence of gluten, we eat matzoh. I do not find it as objectionable as many people do, but it really does make you miss real bread. This was the first time in my life that I was completely gluten-free, and it was a struggle at first. Not being able to eat bread during this period of observance of one of the most important Jewish holidays was especially poignant because it separated me from one of my earliest and most important connections to Judaism: challah.

It may sound silly, but my love of challah is part of the foundation of this project. Without challah, there would be no post-service oneg on Friday night at shul. Which means I wouldn't have met many people who, like me, were converting or had converted, and encouraged me to stick with it. I wouldn't have won over my rabbis in New York. And I would not have followed my tastebuds down the rabbit hole of Jewish food.

So, choosing to observe the Paschal prohibition against gluten was a challenge for me, but one that was well worth it, as the experience reinforced my love of the other parts of Judaism that also brought me to this point.

Starting on the second night of Passover, we begin counting the omer, something I have been discussing in other posts, so I won't go into much detail here. The period of 49 days between the second night of Passover and Shavuot - the celebration of receiving the Torah - is a time of reflection and preparation to become a free people.

The culmination of Sefirat HaOmer is the holiday of Shavuot, which means "weeks" in Hebrew - a reference to the period of seven weeks of the omer. Shavuot commemorates the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and serves as a renewal of our acceptance of the commandments handed down that day. The word "Shavuot" can also mean "oaths", referring to the commitments made between God and the Israelites.

Shavuot is known as "the dairy holiday". Kashrut, the collection of Jewish dietary laws that were included in the commandments received at Sinai, mandates that meat and milk/dairy can not be eaten together. After the Israelites received the Torah at Sinai, their pots and cooking utensils were not yet kashered - made fit according to kashrut - so they ate only dairy. White is also worn on Shavuot to represent purity.

Shavuot is a very important holiday, though not as popular or familiar as some of the others. For me, I feel a particular affinity for Shavuot because of a combination of lovely traditions my rabbi told me about. Firstly, it is believed that sometimes Jewish souls are born into non-Jewish bodies. When those who choose to convert complete the process, they are making themselves whole once again. Additionally, the Sages, influential Jewish philosophers of the past, believed that every Jewish soul - past, present, and future - was present at Sinai for the receiving of the Torah. 

So, when we stay up all night studying Torah on the first night of Shavuot, we are going back to the source of Judaism, honoring those who came before us and committing to creating a better world for those will come after us. To me, it's a beautiful reminder of the importance of community in the Jewish tradition. It also makes me feel welcome, safe, and confident in my choice to convert.

Though anyone who knows me well knows that staying up all night to study will not be an easy task.

Posted on May 5, 2015 .

The 31st Omer

I have been bad about keeping up with writing about counting the omer daily. Sometimes life gets in the way of the things on which we want to focus our attention and energy. Of course, this is one of the things we are supposed to be reflecting on and working toward overcoming during the period between Pesach and Shavuot. But nobody's perfect. So with that in mind, I'm going to jump back right back in.

First, the blessing for counting the omer:

If you're following the omer calendar, then you know that today is thirty-one days, or four weeks and three days of the omer. For this day, also known as Tiferet of Hod or Compassion in Humility, we recite this blessing:

As with other Jewish festivals or holidays, including shabbat, we start the observance at sunset. So, although I am writing this on May 5, it is still the 31st day of the omer. Jewish tradition says that each day begins at nightfall, citing the Book of Genesis (B'Reishit) as the source: "And it was evening, and it was morning; day one." 

For Tiferet of Hod, or Compassion in Humility, we are once again drawn to reflect on whether our thoughts and actions are compassionate. But this time we consider it in terms of our humility. Am I humble or proud? Am I awkward and anti-social? How do these affect my ability to show compassion toward others? Humility and compassion are complementary, with one often leading to the other.

My humility has often been expressed in an awkward, consuming lack of self-confidence. This is an extreme, to be sure. As I've gotten older, it has become more balanced, but I think there is still room for improvement. 

Posted on May 5, 2015 .

The 24th and 25th Omer

I was traveling all day yesterday, which is no excuse, but that means I will cover two days of counting the omer: The 24th - Tiferet of Netzach, or Compassion in Endurance, and the 25th - Netzach of Netzach, or Endurance in Endurance. Remember that the primary attribute of the fourth week after Passover is Netzach, or Endurance.

First, we start with the blessing over the counting of the omer:





Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer.

Day 24 - Tiferet of Netzach, Compassion in Endurance: This theme invites us to reflect on our determination. If it is healthy, meaning it leads us to replace bad habits with good, then it should help us cultivate compassion for others. But our determination, and our egos, can interfere and compromise our ability to empathize with competitors, causing us to act disgracefully when successful. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in my own thoughts that I ignore the needs of the people around me, and I think this is universal.

As I was sitting in the airport on this day (Monday, April 27), lamenting my bad fortune as yet another flight was delayed several hours, news of the riots in Baltimore was playing on the TV at the boarding gate. Watching the drama unfold reminded me that complaining about inconveniences that are beyond my control is a privilege, and that there are serious issues affecting many communities that need our attention - people who need our compassion and healthy, positive determination.

Day 25 - Netzach of Netzach, Endurance in Endurance: This theme invites us to confront inconsistent, erratic, or unreliable behavior. This one is very important for me because I often find myself unwilling to commit to things. I make plans and then quietly let them pass unfulfilled, or make excuses about why I can't follow through with them. I have created an unhealthy capacity for endurance of negative habits. This just creates frustration and pain.

This theme is meant to challenge us to develop new, positive habits. Which is why, despite being very tired, I committed myself to writing a new post tonight. I spent a lot of time thinking about and talking about doing this. Now that I've committed to it, I want working on this to project to become a healthy, positive routine.

Posted on April 28, 2015 .

Coming Soon

The first official Commentary post, coming later this week, will feature:

  • A reflection on this year's Passover
  • The significance of Sefirat Ha'Omer (counting of the days between Passover and Shavuot)
  • Food traditions during these holidays and observances

Until then, tonight we mark the 23rd omer. In Hebrew, the word "omer" means "a measure," and refers to the traditional offering of the first of the new grain harvest, which was brought to the Temple on the second day of Passover. The Torah commands that there be seven weeks between the offering of the omer and Shavuot (the celebration of the receipt of the Torah at Sinai).

Jewish mystical tradition posits that there are "seven basic emotions that make up the spectrum of human experience." They are: Loving-kindness, justice and discipline, compassion/harmony, endurance, humility, bonding, and sovereignty/leadership. Each week between Passover and Shavuot is dedicated to one of these attributes, as is each day within each week. So on each day, we count an omer that represents two attributes for personal reflection.

The 23rd omer, also known as Gevurah of Netzach, or Discipline in Endurance, requires us to reflect on the focus of our endurance in pursuing goals. Are our goals positive or negative? Do they help us develop good habits and break bad ones? Personally, I'm reflecting on my tendency to procrastinate and how it negatively affects my ability to focus and be productive.

When counting the omer, we start with this blessing:





Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer.


Posted on April 26, 2015 .