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At the Intersection of Spiritual Practice and Poetry

At the Intersection of Spiritual Practice and Poetry

A Conversation with Ten Minutes of Torah Commentator Rabbi Paul Kipnes

Rabbi Paul Kipnes hold a lulav and an etrog while standing under a sukkah and teaching a group of young children

Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes, the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA, is a graduate of Trinity College in Hartford, CT, and of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

He is a blogger and a commentator for Ten Minutes of Torah. With his wife, Michelle November, he co-authored Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness (Jewish Lights, 2015). We caught up with Rabbi Kipnes as he was preparing for the High Holidays. Tell us about your growing up Jewish and decision to become a rabbi.

I grew up in Chelmsford, MA, where we belonged to Congregation Shalom, then a small Reform Jewish community of about 30 families. For Judaism to exist there, you had to show up – so we showed up for everything. My most powerful Jewish memory is building a sukkah on the side of the synagogue with my mom and dad. To this day, when we build a sukkah in our backyard, we wait until my parents and in-laws arrive so we can make it a multigenerational experience.

I am also a product of Temple Emanuel and Temple Sinai in Worcester, MA (now merged into Temple Emanuel Sinai), where Rabbis Stanley Davids and Gary Glickstein took youth work very seriously and guided me become active in NFTY [the Reform Jewish youth movement] and to attend URJ Kutz Camp, where I learned from other exciting, dynamic rabbis and scholars that Judaism can be a source of creativity and force for justice. I also spent a year in Israel on a Reform leadership program.

All these experiences led to my becoming a rabbi. 

What do you do to further your own spiritual practice today?

Today, I walked on the treadmill because being within my body clears my mind. I also spend time meditating, which allows me to recognize the distractive games and crazy stories my mind invents, and also helps me refocus.

I practice sitting silently, which gives me time to think. I also write, which helps me understand what’s going on in my heart, mind, and soul. When writing, I’m fascinated by the things that were on my mind I didn’t realize were there.

I say the Shehecheyanu – “Thank you God for bringing me to this moment” – multiple times a day. Looking for Shehechiyanu moments in the regularities of life offers a window into holiness.

During the month of  Elul, wherever I go inside and outside the synagogue, I carry around a small shofar, as a reminder that we are each called upon to do something higher.

When did you start composing and delivering sermons in “spoken word poetry”? What led you to adopt that form of communication?

I was asked to write a prayer at a haircutting party for a dear friend who was about to begin chemotherapy. As I wrote the prayer, I heard sound repetitions in the words “having hair” and “being here” (in my Bostonian English, they sound alike). The prayer I wrote took the form of spoken word poetry, a way of communicating that harkens back to the poems I wrote to my wife when we were dating.

I’ve found poetry to be more intense than prose because people open themselves up when they hear it, perhaps because the message hits them in unexpected ways.

In your Ten Minutes of Torah commentary on Genesis, you ponder the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden in spoken word poetry:

We rushed out of the Garden
For what lay beyond…
To live life
In its fullness
To face death
So mysterious
To live on nonetheless
In the face of it all
To make babies
And mistakes…
Searching out our divine purpose
With each breath that we take

Then you raise the question: Was ours the first world God created? How do you connect these ideas?

The Torah says: “And there was evening and there was morning.” It doesn’t say: “Let there be evening.” Evening was already there, preceding the six days of creation. It also says that the spirit of God hovered over the waters, but God hadn’t yet created the waters. So the waters too were already there.

Rabbi Abahu surmised that God was creating and destroying worlds until God created one that God deemed good. I think God kept destroying worlds because we stayed as children, staying in Eden, not going out into the world to struggle and create. Once we left the garden, we could become partners with the Divine.

I love this idea in Jewish mystical teaching that God is evolving and needs humanity as helpmates. God learns from us.

What are the essential attributes of a good Jewish leader?  

Having empathy: the ability to sense and to try to feel and understand what others are going through.

Embracing youth: seeing them as authentic growing beings in their own right.

Having courage: taking on difficult issues in innovative ways that allow each person to be heard.

Sign up to recieve Ten Minutes of Toirah, daily emails on topic of Jewish interest, at Rabbi Paul Kipnes will be writing Monday's weekly d'var Torah throughout the Book of Genesis.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism’s editor-at-large. He is former editor of Reform Judaism magazine (1976-2014) and founding editor of Davka magazine (1970-1976), a West Coast Jewish quarterly. He holds an M.A. and honorary doctorate in Jewish education from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His books include Jagendorf’s Foundry: A Memoir of the Romanian Holocaust (HarperCollins, 1991) and Jews: The Essence and Character of a People (HarperCollins, 1998) with Arthur Hertzberg.

Photo credit: Rose Eichenbaum

Aron Hirt-Manheimer
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