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Oakland, CA
USA

 My name is Ariel Root Wolpe. I am a Jewish musician, artist, and community organizer. I love figuring out spiritual community and transforming people's hearts through music.

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Follow me through community projects, Jewish experiences and artistic creations.

The Mitzvah of Tefillin and Shema

Valerie Wolpe

In the 21st century, after thousands of years of Jewish, adult, able-minded men adhering to an evolving halakha, the Conservative movement declared that women were equally bound by all the halakhic obligations. For the first time in history women were required by Jewish law to wrap tefillin and pray the Shema. Although I was raised in an egalitarian, religious conservative household, I was never taught how to wrap tefillin. My bat mitzvah training didn’t include teachings or instruction on tefillin, and although I received a tallit, the other physical mitzvah one fulfills during prayer, tefillin was never mentioned. Either no-one thought I would wear it, or it was still seen as a man’s obligation. 

When my Zadie, Rabbi Gerald Wolpe zikhrono livrakha, passed away in 2009, I inherited my first set of tefillin. I  treasured it as my heritage and connection to him, but didn’t know how to use it, or feel moved to. The next time I took it out was the first day of rabbinical school. That morning in shacharit, every woman around me davened with tefillin on her left arm and between her eyes. I realized I was missing out on something I didn’t understand, and I went home, learned how to wrap, and the next morning I prayed with tefillin for the first time in my life. In that moment I sorely wished that my Zadie, or my father, had taught me how to wear tefillin, instead of a youtube video. Since then I’ve craved a deeper connection to tefillin, an intimate awareness of its power and place in prayer, and of its history. I decided to explore the halakhic role of tefillin in praying the Shema, hoping it will bring me one step closer to a meaningful relationship with a beautiful custom and halakhic obligation. I will share with you a bit of what I’ve learned. 

In Hilchot Tefillin, Rambam, a 12th century rabbi who wrote the Mishna Torah, begins the chapter by teaching us:

Four passages [of the Torah], Kadesh Li and V’hayah ki y’viacha Ado’nai  in the book of Exodus (13:1-10 and 13:11-16) and Shema and V’haya im shamo’a (Deut 6:4-9 and 11:13-21) should be written separately and covered with leather. They are called tefillin. They are placed on the head and tied to the arm.”(Hilchot Tefillin 1:1)

ארבע פרשיות אלו שהן קדש לי והיה כי יביאך יי' שבספר ואלה שמות ושמע והיה אם שמוע הן שנכתבות בפני עצמן ומחפין אותן בעור ונקראין תפילין ומניחין אותן על הראש וקושרין אותן על היד.

Rambam goes on to explain that tefillin is such a sacred mitzvah that when one wears tefillin, she must be fully attentive to the mitzvah: if she is unable to concentrate, she is forbidden from donning them. Wrapping tefillin is powerful sign that Jews are bound to God in history, love and law, we must be conscious of that. Each tefillin contains the above passages in the order in which they appear in the Torah, passages which represent the everlasting covenant between God and Jewish people. Since the latter two are found in the Shema prayer, it makes sense that there is a powerful connection. Rambam tells us:

Our sages declared “whoever recites the Shema without tefillin is considered as if he is giving false testimony. (Hilchot Tefillin, Halacha 26)

אמרו חכמים כל הקורא קריאת שמע בלא תפילין כאלו מעיד עדות שקר בעצמו.

So it seems I’ve been missing out - and according to some, transgressing by praying without tefillin.  Others say it isn’t a transgression, you just haven’t fully fulfilled the mitzvah of the Shema. The Sefer Ha-Chareydim writes that when one says during the Shema, “and you shall love the Lord” she should introduce the love of God into her heart, so that she speaks the truth. (Mishna Berura, Tefillin 25:4) To me, this means that it is important that our intention motivate our actions, and also that our actions symbolize our intention. We mean what we say, and we act out what we mean. 

The Mishna Berura gives us a beautiful explanation of the state of mind one should have when donning tefillin, and the way to lift our consciousness of the Creator when fulfilling this mitzvah:

When one dons tefillin, she should have in mind that the Holy One, Blessed be God, who commanded us to place the relevant four passages which contain the uniqueness of God’s Name and the Exodus from Egypt, on the arm opposite the heart and on the head against the brain, so that we should remember the miracles and wonder which God performed for us…In view of this, one will subject to the Holy One, Blessed be God, both the soul, which is situated in the brain, and also the heart, which is the root of the desires and the thoughts. In this manner one will remember the creator… (Mishna Berura, Tefillin 25:5)

יכוין בהנחתם שצונו הקב"ה להניח ארבע פרשיות אלו שיש בהם יחוד שמו ויציאת מצרים על הזרוע כנגד הלב ועל הראש כנגד המוח כדי שנזכור נסים ונפלאות שעשה עמנו שהם מורים על יחודו ואשר לו הכח והממשלה בעליונים ובתחתונים לעשות בהם כרצונו וישתעבד להקב"ה הנשמה שהיא במוח וגם הלב שהוא עיקר התאוות והמחשבות ובזה יזכור הבורא וימעיט.

I love this metaphor - imagining the soul in my head, and my desires stemming from my heart. It is amazing to see these ideas articulated over a hundred years ago. Here, the focus is on remembering - binding ourselves with tefillin is like a physical chain, a connection with that that has happened before.  Therefore when we pray, we feel the touch of our stories and our ancestors on our skin.  In such an intellectual tradition, it is a blessing to have the kinesthetic mitzvah of binding our arms and heads to ground us into our bodies as we pray. In such an intellectual tradition, it is a blessing to have the kinesthetic mitzvah of binding our arms and heads to ground us into our bodies as we pray.

These passages of halakha on tefillin and Shema teach me a beautiful truth about the Jewish tradition: that of humility before action. As we read the Shema, the Gemara instructs us to accept the “yoke of heavenly sovereignty", to surrender ourselves to the abundant love of God and accept our dependence in this world. The tefillin is a symbol of our bond to God and to the world, as well as the spirit world, and helps us remember the miracles in our history, to let the God’s love and power enter our beings through a physical metaphor. And in return, we must take responsibility for our intention and how we act that out for ourselves and the world. 

I look forward to what else I will discover as I continue the practice of wrapping myself in the words of the Shema, and watching women around me do the same.

Happy Hannukka,

Ariel

Beginning Rabbinical School

Valerie Wolpe

This sunday I will start my first year at rabbinical school at Ziegler, where over the next five years, I will study to become a Conservative rabbi. I am filled with gratitude and awe when I consider how the years have brought me to this junction. And when I look at horror occurring in the middle east and Furgeson and across the world, I feel called all the more to strengthening my mind and heart through the Jewish tradition. 

As I uprooted my life to begin a rabbinic path, my rabbis transformed from teachers into promises. I watched their arguments and pleas about Israel and Gaza in the news, and my sources of insight, guidance and comfort were suddenly accompanied by intense expectation and instruction. Every time I read a rabbi’s Facebook post, I asked myself: How will I carry the responsibility of publicly denouncing injustice? How will I respond to anti-Semitism and unfair standards? What will I face from the Jewish people and wider community for voicing my opinion? How will I ensure to represent the Jews as an ethical and compassionate people? Should I express any unsureness in what is right, if people are looking to me for answers? When should I hold back my political opinions, and when should I shout them from the rooftops?

Luckily, I have five years to explore answers to these questions, and a growing community of rabbis to learn from. If I am to become a spiritual teacher to others, I must become sure in myself, my beliefs, and my tradition. As much as religion has accompanied bloodshed throughout history, I believe it is the most powerful way to bring people together in loving community if done with an honest heart.  Every person, every moment, is filled with divine light - the question is, how can we make it shine the brightest?

One way I try to lift other peoples spirits with mine is through my music. I expect my art will transform alongside my mind as it gets filled with Jewish learning and a religious life. 

The journey begins!

Ariel

Chants from Passover

Valerie Wolpe

Over Passover, I went on two vision quests during a festival run by Wilderness Torah, called "Passover in the Desert". It took place in the serene Panamint Valley near Redwood National Park, miles away from any industrialization. Thanks to the beautiful guidance and the strong intention of the questers and community, I had a series of transformative experiences. I wanted to share two songs that I received during these quests. Here are the demo tracks "My Teachers" and "Spirit World" if you want to take a listen. You should be able to free download them if you like it!

I am recording an album this summer and will be including a professional recording of 'My Teachers.' I'm planning on selling this album to help raise money to pay for my first year of rabbinical school at American Jewish University in the fall. I look forward to sharing this album with you and staying connected as I begin my new journey!

"Portal" Released!

Valerie Wolpe

After many months of writing, singing, playing and practicing, my partner Jon Mitchell has just released "Portal," an amazing music album that a number of friends participated in creating. I am grateful to be the female vocalist on the album and lead singer on "Root: waking up with you." You might be able to guess who that song was written about...

Enjoy the portal, everyone: www.jonmitchell.net/music/portal

My Concept of God

Valerie Wolpe

I am currently applying for a rabbinical program at American Jewish University, and have to answer a number of essay questions for my application. I want to share this piece of an essay with you, and would love your thoughts and feedback on it. The questions is, what is my concept of God?

I use many names for God, depending on what I am doing or who I am connecting with. In music, I praise God through the names El, Shadai, Hashem, Adonai and invent metaphorical titles like the Gardener and Sweet One. In explanations of my visual art, I often refer to God as The Source, The Divine Presence, and Shechina (which I specify as feminine). These terms unlock different faces of God, and using the right term can do wonders for opening someone to experience God through conversation, music or art. “God” is a hard word for many people to swallow because the term is often weighted by Christian associations, political aggression and images of a male ruler. Some Jews hold the opinion that the term God is unredeemable, that it should be replaced in siddurim with new titles like “The Source of Life”. While these names may be more palatable in some ways, I know that it is possible, is in fact beneficial to re-understand the word God, to assign God the personal meaning and experiences that make divinity relevant and powerful.

It took years of frustration and seeking to re-understand God in my life. It was most difficult during prayer, when instead of opening my heart to wisdom and love, I was having irritated reactions to the written and spoken word God. After services at a Jewish retreat I finally became fed up with the defenses that were robbing me of truth and nourishment in the Jewish prayer service.  I found a large piece of paper and wrote at the top “God is…’ and began drawing pictures of anything that came to me.  The page filled up with images of Jewish people, nature, Torah, feminine and masculine figures, images of love and fights and birth and death, and individuals holding hands across a globe. These concrete concepts helped me redeem the term and uncover where I truly believe G-d is found: in relation.

I believe that G-d is found in relation between people, between people and the external world, and between individuals and the internal world. Like Martin Buber explains in I-Thou, it is difficult to have an honest, authentic encounter with another and with the world, because we have biological impulses that are selfish, and live in a society and that value relationships for personal gain. These can obscure the beauty and divinity found in each being, in each piece of earth. Even when we look inside and try to understand ourselves, judgment and shame keep us from encountering the delicate world of our true self. It is in superseding these insecurities and unhealthy values that God emerges in our every interaction. And it is in seeing God that we are able to deeply love.

Freedom Workshop

Valerie Wolpe

I recently ran a workshop themed on freedom. The attendees and I sat in a circle, and I began with a meditation, which evolved into breath based vocalizations. It was amazing to see and feel what a simple exercise can do for us: we were all cast into serenity, eyes closed, breathing evenly. When I stopped I couldn’t move onto the next section for many minutes, everyone needed to just soak into the new atmosphere we had created. Finally I started playing my song Dragon’s Egg, in which the singer, a bird, relinquishes her freedom of flight in the sun-filled world to care for an egg she knew would soon bring her joy. She knew this because she saw it in a dream, and despite her bird instinct and her troubled community, she followed her dream into darkness.

It is so hard to relinquish our freedom to pursue a passion that will limit us in the moment. But we are always far more limited when we hold back, and it is this lesson I am constantly re-teaching myself. To relinquish myself to the challenging visions of my mind that wants to change the world through action, to my heart that yearns to heal the world through love. To get up the courage to expose myself in unfamiliar territory. Thank you to everyone who came to my workshop and created this experience: the journey was so beautiful.

Welcome!

Valerie Wolpe

Hello friends! Welcome to my spanking brand new website, arielwolpe.com. I am excited to have things to share with you and a digital place to share it. 

What are these new things that have inspired me to launch a site? Well, there are a few. First are my new cell phone covers, which I began hand painted this year. I started out just making one for myself, and not very well either - I only gave it a thin coat of fixing spray, and carried it everywhere as acrylic paint chips littered my bag. Despite this, it got a lot of attention every time I answered a call in front of a group, and I began receiving requests. I have since perfected the art of creation, which requires multiple layers of coating to protect the paint. It takes a bit of time but the results, I find, are really beautiful.

My other exciting project is a new album, for which I am currently recording demos. This album will be original music, some acoustic, some with a full band, and will include various themes that have emerged within the last few years of my life. I will also be including some niggunim (wordless melodies) in the album, either interspersed or as a corresponding track list. I am excited about how this album dances in and out of my tradition, stepping into biblical hebrew phrases in one track and twirling with a west coast love story in the next.

As the holidays are approaching, I hope to get my cell phone covers into some gift boxes for your mother/father/sibling/parter or your own self! Please share my page with your family and friends. 

B'shalom,

Ariel