Rachel Barenblat: Poetry, Liturgy & Spiritual Practice

Rachel Barenblat: Poetry, Liturgy & Spiritual Practice
Photo of Rabbi Rachel Barenblat.

Rachel Barenblat: the interview!

I’m so delighted to interview poet and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat! We chatted about poetry, prayer, spiritual practice, and writing.

Rachel is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel (Massachusetts), a Founding Builder at Bayit: Building Jewish, and author of the blog Velveteen Rabbi.

Writing is a Spiritual Practice

Laura: You’re a life-long writer and a long-time blogger. Can you tell us a little bit about why you write? Do you see it as a spiritual practice?

Rachel: Writing is my most enduring spiritual practice. I’ve been writing my way through the world for as long as I can remember. Sometimes writing is a gratitude practice, a way of articulating to myself the things in my life for which I can honestly say modah ani, “I am thankful.” Sometimes writing offers a lens onto a tangled knot of thinking and feeling. Sometimes I look back at what I wrote and that gives me perspective on what’s constant and what changes.

EM Forster is reported to have said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” I love that. Writing, like prayer, is how I come to know myself. 

Liturgy is More than Good Poetry

Laura: You write poetry and also compile new liturgies. What’s the connection, for you, between poetry and liturgy?

Rachel: I see liturgy as a form of poetry. Both necessitate the skillful use of words and empty spaces. Both can speak new worlds into being. But liturgy is meant to be spoken by voices other than one’s own. It needs to resonate for people beyond its author. For liturgy to be lasting, there needs to be a universality to it. And yet it also needs to speak from, and to, a kernel of something specific and real.

I’ve written countless poems that aspire to be liturgy. Of them all, there’s only one that I’m fairly certain is really becoming liturgy, in the sense of “prayed by other people.” Listen Up, Y’all, a riff on the second paragraph of the Sh’ma. That was one of those poems that almost wrote itself: once I started, it poured out of me.

How to Write from Your Own Experience

Laura: One of your skills is writing an effective personal essay. Much of your blog, in fact, is short essays where you use your own experience to illustrate a more general message. How do you find such a good balance?

Rachel: I hope you’re right that I manage to chronicle my own experience while also saying something with broader resonance. 

I’ve tried to thread the needle of being real with my readers and those whom I serve as clergy, while not over-sharing. There’s a lot that I’ve chosen not to write about for public consumption. But those pieces still get written, even if they don’t get shared. The writing is an ongoing conversation with myself and with (what I name as) God.

Becoming a parent gave me endless fodder for creativity, and also circumscribed the amount of time available for writing. I thought often of the poet Bob Hicok, who wrote his extraordinary book Animal Soul in precious early-morning hours while working in an automotive tool and die shop. His example taught me that I could write poems in tiny stolen moments.

Take Time for Spiritual Renewal

Laura: Recently you wrote a blog post about the value of quiet time. A few years ago you wrote a lovely one about taking a break from social media. It really stayed with me! Can you talk a bit about why it’s so important to set aside time for spiritual practice? 

Rachel: Judaism’s deepest wisdom, I think, is found in the idea (and the practice!) of Shabbat. Our core story teaches us that God spent six days creating Creation, and on the seventh day God rested and was ensouled. (That’s my favored translation of Exodus 31:17.) There’s something about rest that enlivens the soul. It’s like the silence after the song, the white space that holds the letters of our lives. The rhythm of workweek and Shabbat, six days of doing and one day of being, nurtures and sustains us. Ideally.

Of course lived human experience doesn’t always work like that. It’s rare for me to get a “real Shabbat,” where I’m truly freed from responsibility and obligation, where I can sink into prayer and contemplative practice and song and rejoicing. But even imperfect attempts to reach in that direction can be sustaining.

Especially in these days of (US) election anxiety and pandemic “doom-scrolling,” it’s easy for fear and worry and anxiety to take over every waking moment (and some dreaming moments, too.) If we don’t take time away, we will burn out. Spiritual practice helps me see my reality more clearly, and helps me navigate that reality with more grace and resilience.

Poetry on the Mourner’s Path

Laura: Poetry, liturgy, spiritual practice and personal reflection are all woven into your new book Crossing the Sea. Can you tell us about your book?

Book cover for Crossing the Sea, a book of poems by Rachel Barenblat, with an abstract image suggesting a sea running diagonally across planet earth.

Crossing the Sea began as I was sitting by my mother’s bedside in Texas a few days before her death. I had the final manuscript of Beside Still Waters, Bayit’s volume for the mourner’s path, on my phone. I remember scrolling through the manuscript to find a version of the vidui, the deathbed prayer, that appears in that book. I whispered the vidui on her behalf, because she wasn’t awake. And then I wrote what became the first poem in that volume.

Crossing the Sea chronicles the eleven months between sitting at mom’s deathbed, and unveiling her headstone. The poems poured out of me, and I shared them with blog readers as I wrote them. (The only way to read those poems now is in the book.)

As a rabbi I’ve accompanied many people on the mourner’s. I have mourned my own miscarriage and the end of my marriage. But nothing prepared me for the experience of my mom dying. Over time, the grief work did what it was supposed to do. By the end of the year, my sharp sense of loss had transmuted into something gentler. Loss gave way to gratitude. And it became clear that my relationship with my mom had not ended—far from it.

Crossing the Sea is a deeply personal book: this is my grief journey from loss to reconciliation. And I’ve been humbled to hear from others that the poems speak to them, and speak in a voice they recognize.

I learned in rabbinical school that if I am going to lead a congregation in prayer, I need to really feel the words. Otherwise I can’t bring the community along with me into the feeling inside that prayer. That inner shift, from performing liturgical words to inhabiting them, feels to me akin to the poet’s job description. “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” Robert Frost said.

Follow Velveteen Rabbi, the blog by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat here; order Crossing the Sea, the newest book of poems by Rachel Barenblat here.

  1. Thank you, Reb Laura, for the gift of this interview/sharing with Rabbi Rachel. Your questions are arrows to the ♥️ of each issue. Rabbi Rachel’s words are a source of openings and resonance for me.

    1. Marianne thanks for this sweet comment! I’ll let Rabbi Rachel know.

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