Turning suffering into compassion

Woke up. Got ready for a long walk. Placed a key in my pants pocket. Looked for my wallet. Where’s my wallet? Not where I usually keep it. Not anywhere to be found. I walk and meditate with a friend on Mondays and it was time to leave and walk up to Mt. Davidson. I had time to think about how I was feeling – trying to keep the panic down. I’m getting ready to travel and need my credit card, driver’s license, and medical card. The fear of not being able to replace these in the next three days is manifesting in real physical symptoms. My heart is racing. My stomach feels tense. I feel that hand tingling sensation that comes with anxiety.

I don’t cancel my walk. We walk and talk over Skype. My walking partner is in the UK. She tells me her news. I raptly listen. I tell her my news. Then we commence our 30 minute walking meditation. Ordinarily my walking meditation includes just sensing, feeling, and being. If I find myself thinking I just take a big breath and think the words: “sensing, feeling, being,” but today, there was just thinking, thinking, and more thinking. What if I can’t find my wallet? What an idiot I am to feel this bad about a mere wallet. What sort of person am I? Maybe I could use this sensation to have more empathy for others who are suffering, for whatever reason. If I feel this bad about a wallet, how do people feel when they are given a grave medical diagnosis? when they have a panic disorder? when they are grieving? unsure? scared? Use this time. Use this sensation to understand others’ suffering. Remember how you are feeling. Don’t forget.

I returned home, emptying drawers from my dresser, looking in my suitcase, going over and over the same areas of our two room living space. I go through a travel bag for the fourth time and find a zipper that I forgot to unzip, and voila! There was my wallet. What a relief. And what a lesson!

Sentient Being? Human? Jew? Shabbat Keeper?

This blog series is called “Musings of an Agnostic Rabbi.” Lately I’ve been musing about what it means to be a Jew these days. I know – that is a ridiculous question. Perhaps the question should be “what does it mean for me to be a Jew at this point in my life?” I find inspiration in many places, including Zen Buddhism, Mindfulness Meditation, Sufism (mainly poetry by Rumi), Secular Humanistic Judaism, the Middle Way Society, and Christianity. I just re-read Gilead by Marilynn Robinson and I still think this novel is profound, and thoroughly Christian.

There are several activities that keep me in the world of Jewish. We have a family Shabbat meal together every Friday night. We sing and light candles. I disconnect from media on Saturday and mainly read and walk and spend quality time with my husband. I’m a member of an online community called secularsynagogue.com and am especially inspired by those within the group who are Jews by choice.  I’m in a Torah study group with people with all sorts of points of view. I read a page of Talmud a day along with over 9000 other people. A page is called a daf and the practice is called Daf Yomi. We write our comments on Facebook. Much of what we read is irrelevant to my life. For example, lately we’ve been reading page after page about how long to sequester the priest before he goes into the Holy of Holies within the Temple on Yom Kippur. This Temple has not existed since 70 C.E.! Yesterday, someone asked about why God wants us to do what is being described in these dafs. From my own perspective, this was a strange question. Maybe the question should be “why do the sages think we should do this?” I find the discussion to be interesting historically and if I find any inspiration at all, it’s in the sages’ patience with argumentation and recognition that a final decision about whatever is being discussed is often not attainable. There are just too many variables to consider, though they consider quite a few! Maybe, to be a Jew is to be comfortable with not knowing.  Maybe, to be a Jew is to accept a middle way perspective, modeled even by our ancient sages!

Recently I re-read Irwin Kula’s book, Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life. In the chapter on creativity he talked about the Israelites inability to see forward when they were in the desert after leaving Egypt. They looked back to their old ways and wanted a golden calf to worship as they had in Egypt. Maybe, for some of us, the ancient laws of Judaism are our golden calf. Maybe, we have to take in new ideas and embrace those old ones that still have some relevance to create a new way forward. The world is smaller than it was. We’ve been exposed to Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, secular humanism, so many points of view! We have learned to think critically and respect science. Because of the pandemic, we have never been more connected to everyone in the entire world than we are now. Where will we take this connection and knowledge? What will be our way forward? Will we work to save the planet? Will we respect each others’ differences? Will we shrink and build a golden calf by clinging to old beliefs? The sages were not afraid to argue about how to go about making decisions about what to do. Maybe, at the very least, we can use their example to recognize that the struggle is worth having, and that we may embrace the sacred messiness of it all. Maybe that’s what being a Jew is for me. Ask me next week.

Heart’s hope for new year

My close friend, Laura, sent me this poem today. It was written by a man whose family suffered after the establishment of the state of Israel. In this poem, called Revenge, he humanizes his enemies. The protagonist of the poem loses his father to war, and yet . . . well, please read the poem. We, who perceive enemies across the political divide can learn from Ali:


by Palestinian poet Taha Muhammad Ali (translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, and Gabriel Levin)

At times … I wish
I could meet in a duel
the man who killed my father
and razed our home,
expelling me
a narrow country.
And if he killed me,
I’d rest at last,
and if I were ready —
I would take my revenge!

But if it came to light,
when my rival appeared,
that he had a mother
waiting for him,
or a father who’d put
his right hand over
the heart’s place in his chest
whenever his son was late
even by just a quarter-hour
for a meeting they’d set —
then I would not kill him,
even if I could.

Likewise … I
would not murder him
if it were soon made clear
that he had a brother or sisters
who loved him and constantly longed to see him.
Or if he had a wife to greet him
and children who
couldn’t bear his absence
and whom his gifts would thrill.
Or if he had
friends or companions,
neighbours he knew
or allies from prison
or a hospital room,
or classmates from his school …
asking about him
and sending him regards.

But if he turned
out to be on his own —
cut off like a branch from a tree —
without a mother or father,
with neither a brother nor sister,
wifeless, without a child,
and without kin or neighbours or friends,
colleagues or companions,
then I’d add not a thing to his pain
within that aloneness —
not the torment of death,
and not the sorrow of passing away.
Instead I’d be content
to ignore him when I passed him by
on the street — as I
convinced myself
that paying him no attention
in itself was a kind of revenge.

April 15, 2006


During the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and on to the next year and beyond I dedicate myself to learn to grow and nurture a generous heart such as Taha Muhammad Ali’s. May it be so.

Making sense of all this

MTDAVIDSONI belong to an online synagogue. Someone posed a question to all of us to write in five words or less what we’re looking forward to this week. I wrote “Making sense of all this” which leads me to attempt to write this piece that you are now reading.

How do we “make sense of all this?” Do we look at the angst of being locked down to avoid causing others’ or our own deaths? Do we look at the new opportunities we have for re-orienting ourselves and take it as a transformative moment? Do we try to derive some meaning from the situation? Do we learn to bake sourdough bread? Are there answers as varied as there are people? Honestly, all I can do is speak from my own vantagepoint.

Savoring the special moments

I find that my answers vary from moment to moment. The intensity of our restrictions has led me to savor the special moments more than I have done in the past.

I love having more time with my husband. We’ve been together for 52 years and slowing down my busyness outside of the house has been a gift for our relationship. Also, having combined households after quarantining I have the special moments with my almost six-year-old grandson, drawing together, doing theatre exercises, watching the Marx Brothers doing the mirror sketch and trying it out ourselves, just hearing his take on the world right now, his sweet voice (when he’s not being a dinosaur). I love the brief moments of holding my 3-week-old granddaughter, watching her fleeting smiles and hearing her sweet sounds. Our joint family Shabbat dinner Friday night has a new intensity and meaningfulness, especially after our months of having to be apart.

Hiking, while masked, of course, to the top of Mt. Davidson each day reminds me that in spite of all this angst, there is the beauty of nature – the trees blowing in the wind, the birds singing, the view of San Francisco from the top of the mountain, the fresh air, sometimes misty and sometimes clear.

BREADYes, I am baking sourdough country loaves and English Muffins and challah. I don’t think it’s an accident that so many of us are baking bread right now. Whether your yeast is store-bought or created, yeast grows – it’s alive, it’s kneaded and needed, and it helps to create a beautiful, delicious food that feeds the body and the soul.

Becoming more conscious of social justice issues


The seriousness of our situation across the entire planet seems to have opened our hearts more. I don’t think it’s an accident that white people are finally on board with the Black Lives Matter movement. Our avoidance because of discomfort is not an option and we are finally aware of this. Society will change because of this pandemic!

Learning to pay attention to science

We are being made even more aware of the contribution of scientists to our well-being. Maybe more people will take global warming seriously after realizing that our lives depend upon the skills being applied worldwide by epidemiologists and virology experts.



This lockdown has encouraged me to meditate more and to be more contemplative. Yesterday I read the recently published in English book, Yes to Life in Spite of Everything. Viktor Frankl helps me to make sense of everything. In the prologue, Daniel Goleman reflects upon Frankl’s perspective about how we find meaning no matter what our circumstance. Here he is talking about life in a concentration camp, surely a more angst-ridden condition than what we are experiencing, yet . . . (bold, italics mine)

“Despite the cruelty visited on prisoners by the guards, the beatings, torture, and constant threat of death, there was one part of their lives that remained free: their own minds. The hopes, imagination, and dreams of prisoners were up to them, despite their awful circumstances. This inner ability was real human freedom; people are prepared to starve, he saw, ‘if starvation has a purpose or meaning.’ The lesson Frankl drew from this existential fact: our perspective on life’s events—what we make of them—matters as much or more than what actually befalls us.

– Frankl, Viktor E.. Yes to Life (p. 17). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.

How do you make sense of this? I’d love to hear your perspective.

Letting the light in


The crack is so wide open that the light is pouring in.

Like all of you, I’m confined and waiting for the COVID 19 virus crisis to end. The world has been shaken and the response has been profound.

Weeks ago we were simply stewing about political differences, even raging about our political leadership. Some people were escaping into various activities and pleasures. Some were engaging in debates on social media. Some were simply in a routine, not thinking a whole lot about what they were doing, or overworked, they were just thinking about getting a good night’s sleep before beginning the next day.

I haven’t been writing much lately. For quite a while, I’ve been working on a self-improvement project, trying to be more loving, trying to offer service to the community, trying to be political without being overly judgmental and righteous, trying to slow down and be more aware of my surroundings and more aware of what I need to change in myself to be more in sync with those around me.

Beware what you wish for.

Here I am, wiping my tears after hearing from the person doing my shopping (I have to order food from stores because I’m over 60 and have been advised not to go out). The shopper from the shopping service writes to me that the line at the store is very long and it will be a while before she can begin to choose items from my list. I write to her to please take her time and stay safely 6 feet behind anyone. She responds, “always.” I cry. This person who I don’t even know is risking her life to pick out groceries for me. She needs this job and she is there, standing in a long line, waiting to choose grocery items so I will be able to cook meals.

This crisis has cracked my heart open. I’m thinking about my friends and family more. I’m thinking about the caregivers and all those people working to fill others’ basic needs. Even watching the starter dough rise each day and fall before I feed it makes my heart swell. Life force.

So here we are. Forced to slow down. Forced to pay attention. My world will be different when this is over. Hopefully, yours will, too. Sending love, light, and hope.

Science / Talmud

scienceTomorrow I get to experience two learning experiences. First, the middle way in science, starting with a reading by Richard Feynman about the uncertainty of science. Then comes the first day of Talmud study, Daf Yomi, a 7.5 year one page per day excursion into the Talmud. What do these seemingly opposite fields of study have in common? Way more than you would think! Here are a few bullet points that both have in common:

  • Uncertainty
  • Doubt
  • Dialogue
  • Discovery
  • Continuation through time
  • Commitment

TalmudWhat is different about these endeavors? The obvious answer is that one seeks to understand nature. The other seeks to understand what humans should do. There is no instruction in science about what the effects may be of science. Think about the nuclear bomb, for example. This is the obvious answer, and there is much truth to this, but maybe we should ask ourselves what the effects of Talmud discourse have been on women, for example. The men who wrote the Talmud clearly did not know that the role of women would be quite different in modern times than it was when they were writing. Some would say that Talmudic discourse might have been used to keep women in their place. So the effects of both science and Talmud are not always predictable.

Why even discuss this comparison?

We need to know how to fix the planet (science).

We need to know that it’s our task to fix the planet (Talmud).

We need to learn to hear each other (science and Talmud).

We need to learn to speak to each other (science and Talmud).

We need to know that how we conduct ourselves scientifically and conscientiously will have an effect now and in the future.

That is all.

Street Shrieks

the screammuni bus stopI saw the bus stand, a place with four individual seats for those who wanted to sit while waiting for the bus. This was rush hour. The seats are usually filled by the time I get there, but today there were three vacant seats. I soon learned why. The person sitting in the far left seat was loudly shrieking every 10 seconds or so. I sat in the right-most seat. My ears could take it, and I hate standing to wait for the bus. I started thinking about what would happen if I talked to the person who was shrieking. Would I help him to temporarily break the spell of his madness? I didn’t ponder the question for a long time because a young woman stepped up with her 3-year-old son. She sat him near to the fellow who was shrieking, with only one seat between them. Soon, they are making cute little noises at each other. First, the child, and then the man made a soft sound, back and forth, repeatedly. These two, the noisy man and the 3-year-old were basically cooing at each other, and smiling. The spell was broken, at least temporarily. I had my answer.


Webbed: Finding Community

Once upon a time I lived in a tight-knit, somewhat parochial community. It was probably a little bit more diverse than some Jewish communities. We were on the South Side of Chicago; but our synagogue, affiliated youth groups, and families were the main centers of our concern. I moved on, went to college, broadened my horizons, became an activist – I’ve talked about that before. Right now, though, I’ve been reflecting about my human connections outside of family and realize that I am webbed!

What do I mean by webbed? The word is best explained by example. The other night, my husband and I finished a TV series called Shtisel, a show available on Netflix, but filmed in Israel. We were moved in the way one is moved by a good novel. I looked and found a Facebook page of people who like to discuss this program. In a day, I was part of the Shtisel community. The questions that people pose on this site are often deep and meaningful. It’s a pleasure toshtisel have a dialogue with the diverse group of people who love this show. I am Shtisel webbed!

I’ve been trying to find a local Jewish community with shared values, not always an easy task for a humanist Jew, such as myself. I want to start an in-person community that meets on Shabbat for meditation and singing for anyone, independent of belief, but I also want to connect with other like-minded Jews and friends of Jews who share a humanist perspective. As you know I joined SecularSynagogue.com and each week I realize that a great choice this was. The sharing, the camaraderie, the inspiration from our rabbi, all make it a great community. I am SecularSynagogue webbed!

secular synagogue logo

I meditate weekly on Skype with the Middle Way Society, and attend classes and meetings with other members. I’m Middle Way Society webbed!

There are activist, Buddhist, education, parenting; so many web-based communities out there. I am grateful to those who created them.

There is much talk lately of the crimes of the Internet; the influence of Russia on the U.S. election, the trolling, the fake news, and other problems with social media. But I would hate to paint a totally negative picture about the Internet when I have been so successfully webbed! People control the Internet. Let’s web ourselves together in real communities. Who knows? Maybe we’ll influence each other to help change our current situation. We’ll give each other the courage and strength to move forward.

Looking for Jewish Community

You know you’re a Jew when you hear about anti-Semitism and you want to join with other Jews in community. Although a small percentage of Jews in my part of the U.S. are already affiliated, most of us are not. Recently I heard about a person who is about to convert to Judaism questioning whether to go through with it in these troubling times. My reaction goes in the opposite direction. I feel an affiliation pull in my gut in spite of all of my tendencies to want to be an independent, unaffiliated individual. Perhaps you are feeling the same way.

I have at least temporarily resolved my conflict about Jewish affiliation after several years of learning with a group called The Middle Way Society. There I found a roadmap for integrating opposing desires; the desire to be independent and the desire to be affiliated.


These mules represent opposing desires. In the top three pictures you see the mules straining – one pulls toward one side and the other pulls toward the other side. Each side represents an absolute belief. For myself, one mule represents being a strong independent individual separate from Jewish community. The other mule represents being affiliated with other Jews and friends in community. I try to explore my underlying belief for each of these desires.

If I sit with my thoughts and try to understand the underlying beliefs that fuel the absolute idea that I should be independent of affiliation I find that I have a prejudice about Jewish tribalism. Even though the Jewish group I have affiliated with in the past is open and welcoming, I have an old association from past experience of Jewish exclusiveness.

When I sit with my thoughts about wanting to be affiliated I uncover beliefs that I thought were long buried. The world is dangerous and people, even well-meaning people, can quickly become anti-Semitic. I need to cleave to my people and keep us alive, as others have done in the past. We have a long history of persecution and yet we still survive. I need to be involved in ensuring our survival. Also, there is much wisdom to be found in Jewish texts, and the creative interpretation of these texts can be rewarding in many ways.

I needed to reframe the beliefs that accompany my desire both to be independent/assimilated and Jewish/affiliated.

With some thought, I could integrate both desires. I can be an independent thinker and be in Jewish community. Being in Jewish community does not require that I be tribal. Being an independent thinker is perfectly acceptable within the secular humanistic Jewish community where I was ordained as a rabbi.

You may want to try this exercise with the mule metaphor also. My description of integrating desires is a “nutshell” explanation. Please explore the Middle Way Society website if you want to go into more depth.

There is great satisfaction in integrating our desires. We each have our own story, with competing desires and beliefs that need to be explored. If you find that you also are feeling the pull towards affiliation, and if you, like me, are uncomfortable in traditional synagogue settings where you have to say words you don’t believe, here are some ideas.

Society for Humanistic Judaism (SHJ)

From their website:

If you believe that cultural Judaism is important to a contemporary Jewish identity and that cultural Jewish communities and an organized Humanistic voice enhance the Jewish experience for secular and Humanistic Jews, then SHJ is for you.

Humanistic Judaism embraces a human-centered philosophy that celebrates Jewish culture without supernatural underpinnings. Humanistic Jews value their Jewish identity and the aspects of Jewish culture that offer a genuine expression of their contemporary way of life. We believe in the human capacity to create a better world.

If you like to learn about groups through videos, there are quite a few on YouTube – just type in Society for Humanistic Judaism.

Judaism Unbound

judaism unbound logoI have been religiously listening to Judaism Unbounda podcast that supports American Jews to “re-imagine and re-design Jewish life in America for the 21st Century.” From their website:

Judaism Unbound values the ways that you choose to connect to Judaism, whether through rituals steeped in millennia-old traditions or through entirely new paradigms that ancient Jewish texts never dreamed of; whether your Judaism includes participation in Jewish communal organizations or not; whether you live and breathe Jewishly 24/7 or you just want to connect once or twice a year; whether you think of yourself as Jewish, half-Jewish, Jewish-and-X, partly-Jewish, not-Jewish, or Jew-ish. 

During a recent gathering to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, a panel of humanist rabbis were interviewed by Daniel Libenson for Judaism Unbound. Be on the lookout for this episode!

Past episodes have included an interview with Rabbi Adam Chalom, leader of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in Lincolnshire, Illinois, and an interview with Rabbi Judith Seid, Rabbi of TriValley Cultural Jews in Pleasanton, California.


secular synagogue logo

I’ve recently joined Rabbi Denise Handlarski’s online community. The purpose of SecularSynagogue.com is concisely described on the website:

Together we are co-creating a community online for Jews and those who wish to hang out with Jews, with inspiration, resources, challenges and discussion. The purpose of this group is to enhance our spiritual lives and foster personal growth and communal connection. The ultimate goal is two-directional: we will become our best selves and, bringing our best selves, we will make a better world.

And, one can enjoy being part of this community from your couch! Rabbi Handlarski explains her purpose in forming this group on Judaism Unbound, Episode 165.


Humanistic Judaism and SecularSynagogue.com share a Middle Way approach, especially in regard to avoiding fixed beliefs and being open to experience. My Jewish path will be paved with stones from The Middle Way Society, The Society for Humanistic Judaism, Judaism Unbound, and SecularSynagogue.com.

In spite of the rise in anti-Semitism I don’t think there has ever been a better time to be Jewish; the choices are many.

Making Ordinary Life Like a Vacation – New Years Resolution 2019

img_8158Can ordinary life be like a vacation? What do we do differently that makes a vacation enjoyable and a return to home less than wonderful? I’ve been thinking about this because we just came home from living in Rome for most of December. The return has been difficult, not just because of jet lag and a bad cold, but because my consciousness has switched to home mode when it could very well be in Rome mode. How, you may ask?

There are two ways that define my general manner when I’m at home. One is that I tend to hurry. I am in the habit of being quite busy so I rush to get things done. I even rush to brush my teeth in the morning; rush to make breakfast; rush to read through the paper and even hurry to finish the crossword puzzle.

The other is that I am often thinking about something else when I move about, including when I’m outside going somewhere. What should I cook tonight? When is the next meeting at my house? Have I sent the email to remind people? I allow so much mind banter that I don’t see anything around me. I find myself on my way to a class without having seen anything from house to bus to train to other bus, even though there is so much to see!!

What are the two ways that defined our stay in Rome?

First, we moved slowly. When we were in Rome I didn’t feel rushed in the morning. I slowly put the coffee in the Italian coffee maker, put the contraption on the stove under medium heat and waited for the characteristic hiss and bubbling that let me know the coffee was ready. I didn’t look at the clock – time to go to the gym for Tai Chi . . .time to go singing . . .no, just sat back and waited for the appropriate sounds from the coffee maker.

img_7148Second, I always noticed the beauty all around me, from the sky to the old ruins and colorful buildings; the old churches, a few with their Caravaggios or spectacular mosaics; the piazzas, the restaurants, the pizza places; the fountains, the trees, the birds, the people – everything. I was alert and saw what was around me. I wasn’t in my head thinking about what I needed to do next.

Now, San Francisco is not Rome. Rome has more to see than almost anywhere I’ve ever been, but, the sky is the sky, trees are trees, birds are birds, people are people, vistas are vistas. There is beauty everywhere if you allow yourself the time and attention to see it.

My New Years resolution this year is to slow down and experience my surroundings without being distracted by busy thought. Thank you, Rome!