Honor

January 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

What does it mean to honor someone?

In our adult education course this year, we have been studying Mussar, which is a school of applied Jewish ethics. That is to say, it’s a program of study for personal improvement from a Jewish point of view, through the Mussar Institute, using Everyday Holiness by Alan Morinis. This week, we have been studying the soul-trait of honor, known as kavod in Hebrew.

The idea, expressed in the lesson itself, is that every human being, by virtue of being created in God’s image, is worthy of honor.

As we discovered in our discussion, that concept causes difficulties for a lot of folks – and it does so for two reasons.

The first reason has to do with God.

How is it that we derive our value from being created in the image of God?

For me, when I interact with people, what motivates my behavior, is a deep faith. The value that each person has as a human being is directly tied to this sense that we are all creatures of God. I try to keep in the forefront of my consciousness the sense that each of us is a reflection of what is right and good in the world.

I sense it when I am holding a baby, or when I am sitting with the dying. I sense it in my day-to-day interactions with others, with my family, and in this congregation.

Yet the objection may be raised, and rightly so, that you don’t have to believe in God to honor the humanity of others. Secular humanists, in fact, do precisely that. It would be false to claim that they could not possibly be doing the same kind of thing as I am trying to do in the context of my faith.

In other words, you can honor others and see their intrinsic value without dragging God into it. And, more to the point: if you can honor others without invoking God, then why invoke God? God, it would seem, is superfluous to this conversation.

Part of the issue here, however, is a matter of words. I suspect that they key difference that separates our positions is not a fundamental difference in the way that we see the world – though there certainly are differences here – but rather, a difference in what we name ‘God.’

If you are thinking that God is wholly and exclusively synonymous with the character in the Bible with that same name, then no, it’s not necessary to drag that guy into it. You can be a moral, upstanding person without having a literal faith in God.

I have a much more abstract way of thinking about God, one that is likely to be a lot more intelligible to those who agree with the positions of secular humanism.

There is a creative force in this world, a sense of order and joyousness that pervades all reality. It’s not blind chance. But it certainly allows for variation and chance. It seems to love us, though not in the sense we would usually use that word. But there is so much more to our lives than suffering. There is a dimension to our lives that seems, in my sense of it, to transcend matter. Perhaps it is an energy, or something else entirely. But there are times when it is as close as breathing.

Every human being, by virtue of being created in God’s image, is worthy of honor.

The second difficulty raised by this idea has to do with the question of honor itself: is every human being really worthy of honor?

What of the abusers, the sociopaths, the murderers, the hostage-takers? How can we find it within ourselves to honor these individuals? And is it not an outrage to even suggest that we ought to honor them?

It is, of course, one thing to suggest that we should give people the benefit of the doubt, or to adopt a non-judgmental attitude regarding the people we meet. But it is another thing entirely to use this approach to excuse the behavior of known killers.

This particular problem was thrown into high relief by the events in Paris. We are appropriately horrified by the murder of innocents.

But to return to the question at hand: is every human being really worthy of honor?

There were those in the class groups who argued that it is possible for a person to extinguish that holy light within, so that he or she is no longer a reflection of the divine.

Others argued that there’s always a hope for redemption, a possibility for repentance. That latter position, by the way, is very well represented in our High Holiday liturgy.

And still others argued for a distinction: there’s honor, and there is respect. It is possible to honor the humanity of a person but not respect their deeds.

Many of us, it turns out, have family members who might fall into this category: people who have treated us or others badly, who have abused their power and position to dominate others, or who have created endless drama in their lives and the lives of the ones who try to love them.

And this discussion led to a new place: the realization that honor is not the same thing as cooperation.

Sometimes the best way to honor someone is to refuse to be a codependent in the bad behavior. Sometimes the best way to honor someone is to say no: you and I both deserve better than that.

It doesn’t start out like that, however. And that’s what’s so painful when things devolve: this awareness that it could have been so much more.

What makes us so filled with awe when we hold a baby is that sense of potential, that awareness that there is something here which is worthy of honor.

That we can love others, and do so selflessly, is perhaps the best argument that I have for the existence of God.

I am quitting.

January 2, 2015 § 1 Comment

The woman ahead of me in line at the drug store asks the clerk for two packs of cigarettes, specifying her brand and the color of the package.

As the clerk turns back to ring up her purchase, the woman announces: “I am quitting.” The clerk nods dutifully.

“I am going to quit on the first of the year,” the woman continues. It is at this point that I notice the smell of cigarette smoke that clings to her clothing and her hair.

“It’s so I can see my grandchildren,” the woman continues. The clerk gives her a fixed smile, trying to be encouraging, but not really convinced. “You can do it,” the clerk says, feigning enthusiasm.

“I did, once,” says the woman grandly, “for nine months.”

Now, at last, the clerk is engaged: “what happened?”

The woman laughs an easy, raspy laugh, a smoker’s laugh. “My niece and nephew came to visit,” she says, “and took me out drinking. And they smoke. So there you are.” Aha.

The clerk smiles again, but this time she means it: “Maybe this time, then.” And the woman nods; “yes, maybe this time.”

On one hand, we all know that her chances of actually following through on this New Year’s resolution are not that great. According to a 2013 University of Scranton study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, only about 8 percent of the New Year’s resolutions that Americans make for themselves actually stick.

On the other hand, hope springs eternal. We want that she should be successful. She should pick a date and stick to it. It’s what anyone who has ever successfully quit has done. Pick a date and stick to it.

Change is indeed difficult, because it means changing how we understand ourselves and our world. It means giving up something that has brought us pleasure in favor of something we do not yet know. These things are difficult.

From a practical point of view there are, of course, several things that each of us can do to be more successful when changing our behavior. I can, for example, name three things that will certainly help:

First, one should identify what is driving the behavior. Is it loneliness? Boredom? Addiction? Physical need? It is better to pull at the behavior from its roots.

Second, one should make a plan. What are the times and places of greatest vulnerability? What situations make caving in more likely? What are the greatest obstacles? Identify where things are likely to go astray and make a plan for addressing them.

Third, one should visualize success. The best way to see yourself as capable of change is to visualize exactly what that change looks like. Picture in your head what it feels like, tastes like, sounds like. See yourself living your life differently.

These three actions, taken together, provide practical advice: this is what you can do to change your life. These are things that can be done in the realm of action: identify the roots, make a plan, and visualize success.

But there is another realm as well, a spiritual aspect to the things we do. You can ‘do’ everything right yet still find yourself struggling.

Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous understand this aspect of change particularly well. In fact, one of the key steps of the twelve-step program is giving yourself over to a high power.

But that kind of language can be difficult for Jews, since it sounds sort of Christian. AA is not a Christian organization, but its founders were from that tradition, so its language is written in the Christian idiom. Think about it for a moment: When do I ever, in a sermon or a class, speak of giving yourself over to God? It’s not how we, as Jews, normally speak about theology.

So let me speak to you in our native tongue: the language of the Torah.

In this week’s portion, we see Joseph and his brothers many years after he was sold into slavery, many years after he tested them and revealed his identity. We see that in his relationship with his brothers, there is still a current of mistrust, for in the period after their father dies, the brothers appear before Joseph and beg for their lives. They make up a story, convinced that he has been waiting for this moment to exact his revenge.

They think that he is still the same kid who would tell them his dreams and brag about how he would one day rule over them.

As the text relates, “His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, ‘We are prepared to be your slaves.’”

They do so because they are truly afraid. The kid that they knew once upon a time would have taken revenge. That kid would tattle on them to their father for lesser crimes. Of course he would be waiting to take advantage of their weakness!

But Joseph is not offended or bothered by their assumptions. He has changed.

And so he tells them: “‘Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.’ Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”

In other words, he tells them: What you had intended for evil was transformed by God into good. The jealousy that led you to sell me into slavery ultimately became the catalyst for saving a population from starvation.

And on this basis, he forgives them.

Notice that he does not say it was God’s will. Notice also that he does not argue that things had to happen this way. Notice also that he does not pretend that the brothers had good motives, or that their actions were any less destructive than they actually were.

Rather, he has created a theology that allows him to heal and forgive, by assuming that God has transformed all the negatives into something positive.

Even in the darkest depths, he says, it is possible to remake the situation into a lasting good.

And what are we to learn from Joseph?

If you want to change your life, you need to have faith. You need to have the faith that it will work out for the good, that it is possible to change, and that you are worthy of it.

In other words, what undermines our New Year’s resolutions is not so much a lack of planning but a lack of faith. All the nicotine gum in the world won’t help if you are convinced that you are unworthy. The smoker in front of me at the drug store will succeed in quitting only if she thinks that she is indeed worthy of seeing her grandkids. That she might be found deserving of this goal.

You must have faith that you are created in God’s image and that you are worthy of love. You must have faith that you are worthy of what is good and right and wonderful in this world.

Because you most certainly are.

Am I a good person?

November 13, 2014 § 1 Comment

How do I know if I am a good person or not?

Most of us take an all-or-nothing approach: if I can name one or two bad things I’ve done then I must be a bad person. And if I can name one or two good things I’ve done then I must be a good person.

But our tradition has a more nuanced view.

Let’s consider, for example, Maimonides, one of the great thinkers of our tradition. In his view, virtuous or moral behavior is established through repetition and training.

In other words, any one deed by itself is not what determines your fate.

We are rewarded or punished not for isolated events, but rather for our pattern of behavior. It is not any one event that determines whether you are a good person or not.

So what might that mean for us, in this context?

For most people, the source of their greatest regret is usually one of those moments when they have lacked the courage to do what is right. They could not bear to admit to themselves the full truth of the matter and papered over their guilty conscience with small lies: it didn’t matter. It didn’t hurt. It wasn’t that bad. No one knew.

The consequences that flow from that kind of mistake are what hurt most, sometimes excruciatingly so.

So let’s look at that. Let’s say you once did something stupid and lied about it. It was an error in judgment large enough that it could cause a huge rift in a relationship.

That error is a serious thing. You need to go back and fix it: admit the error, pay for anything that you damaged, acknowledge the hurt and experience the anger that you have caused. If you don’t do that, you’ll create several more errors.

For example, holding on to the sin and keeping it secret only allows it to fester: that’s a second mistake.

Lying to keep others from discovering the truth: a third mistake. And so on.

The pattern of behavior is what determines your character and defines who you are. Can people count on you? Are you reliable? Do you do what you say you will do?

I can tell you this: being honest, reliable, and trustworthy matters quite a bit. It defines whether or not people believe what you say and believe that you are worthy of their love and respect. And we all want those things to be true of us. And if it has not been true of you, it is in your power to fix it.

So let’s go back to Maimonides and look once again at what he had to say:

In Maimonides’ view, virtuous or moral behavior is established through repetition and training. Any one deed by itself is not what determines your fate.

In other words, we are rewarded or punished not for isolated events, but rather for our pattern of behavior. It is not any one event that determines whether you are a good person or not.

So, what do you think: are we punished for our sins?

Maimonides would say yes – but not in the way you might think. In Maimonides’ view, when the Bible speaks of God’s punishment, it refers to the impersonal actions of Providence.

What is Providence? It’s God working through the natural ways of the world. Providence punishes us, he says, by causing things to turn out badly for us. It punishes those who turn their attention away from God and those who cater to the desires of the body, particularly when they do so repeatedly. In his view, these are the natural consequences of sin.

It’s not that God has some kind of elaborate adding machine that keeps track of your sins. Rather, your sins have some very natural consequences.

In the context of the Exodus narrative, for example, it might seem that God is actively changing Pharaoh’s heart, but that is not what happens. Instead, the outcome should be understood as the natural consequence of the Pharaoh’s decisions.

God does not intervene – that is to say, God is not actively causing the heart to become resistant to change; rather, the Pharaoh’s repeated refusals reinforced his resolve and led him to become increasingly resistant to Moses’ requests.

Most of us are not Pharaoh – most of us don’t sin on that grand of a scale. But I think that Maimonides might have a good point here, beyond his efforts in explaining a particularly troubling passage in the Torah.

If you lie to someone, you might not be found out.

But let’s say this one lie causes you to think it’s okay to lie – after all, nothing happened – and as a result, you start inserting small lies into your everyday encounters.

‘Oh, I didn’t get your message,’ you say, instead of ‘I got busy and forgot to respond.’ Not such a big thing, right? Except that it allows bigger things to happen. And what can happen from there is you start lying to yourself.

Addiction, in particular, feeds on this kind of small untruths.

The addict says, ‘I had to work late’ instead of ‘I was out feeding my addiction.’ The addict says, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ instead of ‘I took that money to feed my addiction.’

Addiction is not the only sin that involves lying:

The cheater says, ‘I had a business meeting,’ instead of ‘I am involved in a relationship with a co-worker.’

Interestingly, however, cheating and addiction often go hand-in-hand. They are, in fact, related phenomena, for they involve lying to the ones you love. And these sins have grave consequences, for they can tear families apart.

So far, we’ve talked here about minor sins like lying leading to larger ones like addiction or cheating. What about the bigger sins, the ones that by themselves are nearly unforgivable, even when they occur within an otherwise praiseworthy lifetime?

Grave sins can also create a barrier to repentance because they are so large.

In those cases, Maimonides says, the sinner must acknowledge so much wrongdoing and make such great changes in his or her character that the goal becomes nearly unreachable.

But here’s the most important point. If you get nothing else out of the High Holidays, you should consider this and take it to heart: repentance is always possible.

The magnitude and multitude of a person’s sins might work to prevent repentance; the pattern of behavior may have become nearly too ingrained to renounce. You have a lot of work to do in that case.

But if you let them go, you can be forgiven. Repentance is always possible.

God waits until the very last moment, to the very end: ‘turn back you sinners, turn back from your sins. Turn back and repent.’ You will be forgiven.

As we read in the liturgy: Lord, it is not the death of sinners you seek, but that they should turn to you and live.

So what do you need to do, you ask? How do you achieve this forgiveness? The answer is both very simple and very difficult.

You turn to the person you have harmed, look them in the face, admit what you have done, and say that you are sorry. You repair what can be repaired, you replace what can be replaced, you repay what can be repaid.

And what happens if the person won’t accept your apology? You are asked to try to mend this relationship three times. If, after the third attempt, they won’t accept your apology, you are off the hook. It’s their problem at that point.

Hopefully the person injured is able to turn and face you and say: I forgive you. It hurt, what you did, but I forgive you.

And having gone through this process, having admitted what was wrong about your behavior, you can ask for God’s forgiveness and then maybe also forgive yourself.

The last step in this process? If presented with the opportunity to sin in the same way again, you refuse.

So, to return to my original question: how do you know if you are a good person or not?

A good person admits it when he or she makes a mistake.

A good person asks for forgiveness.

And a good person avoids the temptation to sin again.

Come anyway

October 27, 2014 § Leave a comment

Sometimes, when I meet people, I am asked: ‘Is it necessary to believe in God to participate in congregational life? Can you join the Temple, for example, if you don’t believe in God?’

Sometimes it is phrased as a statement: ‘I don’t participate because I don’t believe.’

That’s fine, I say, come anyway.

You might think that I say ‘it is okay’ because I am an easy-going sort by nature. You might think that it’s my personality, my outlook, my approach to welcome everyone regardless of belief.

But it is actually a profoundly Jewish point of view.

Whenever I teach Introduction to Judaism at the university, the students are always a bit surprised when I explain that it is entirely possible to be a Jewish atheist. The reason for their surprise lies in the fact that we live in a Christian culture, where religion is defined as ‘belief in God.’ If you do not believe in God, then you are not religious. That is the Christian view.

Judaism is a more complicated subject. Defined in Christian terms, it might not make sense: By all means, we say, participate if you don’t believe in God.

Why? Because Judaism is much more than a belief in God.

As a matter of fact, we have had a number of movements or groups within Judaism that were explicitly or implicitly atheist. For example, the early political Zionists were not religious in the Christian sense of the word – they were avowedly secular. They were seeking to create a nation like all other nations. They were not interested in waiting for God’s redemption. They were interested in forming a state with their own hands, their own effort.

And, similarly, there have been a long line of union organizers and socialists in this country, particularly at the time of the sweatshops and tenements in New York, who were not believers in God. They were not motivated by a sense of commandedness when they worked for social justice. They were, however, very much moved by the lessons of the prophets who decried taking advantage of the poor.

And in the most recent Pew Report, a significant percentage of Jews cite their sense of humor as a key part of what makes them Jewish. For many, a Jewish sense of humor is more closely tied to their self-understanding as a Jew than a belief in God.

Which would explain why, as a rabbi, it really helps to have a sense of humor.

But Judaism is indeed more than a belief in God. To a large degree, in fact, Judaism favors the belief in the power of community over belief in the power of God.

But let’s think about that for a minute: if a belief in God is not absolutely necessary to be Jewish, then do I tell people to come to services anyway? Why should we gather here in this manner, with these books and these songs?

Let me give you a sense of context.

For the early Israelites, belief in God was not an abstract concept. For them, ‘God’ was an experience, and ‘worship’ meant doing something. Their holidays and celebrations were expressions of the natural order of life: of harvest and planting, of birth and dying.

As they became a people, many tribes rather than a singular tribe, they told stories of their foundations to cement their unity.

Their stories related how they encountered God in grand historic terms, redeeming them from slavery, conquering their foes, and revealing the commandments amidst earthquakes and fire. They experienced God as a pillar of fire, something intense and powerful and otherworldly.

As they settled down, and ceased to be nomads, God’s presence continued to be conceptualized as a form of energy – like a lightning bolt in its intensity – that could create life and death. So the Temple would hide that presence, envelop it, and create a process by which it would be encountered.

The rituals that grew up around this Temple dwelling-place were in fact organized around a desire to manage this energy, to keep it holy – to keep it separate – so that it was not chaotic or destructive. God commanded them to create a structure, a process, and a ritual, that allowed them to live in proximity to this energy, and to organize their community around it.

After the destruction of the First Temple, their religious self-understanding became more sophisticated. Contact with the great empires increased the range and depth of abstract thought.

What had been an overwhelming divine force encountered either in moments of grand revelation or as a terrifying pillar of fire was then living in community with the people of Israel, among them, joining them in exile and rejoicing in their return, like a character in an epic play.

They thought of God in terms of covenants and obligations, using the language of diplomacy and statecraft. Holidays and celebrations included the remembrance of significant historical events, moments in the nation’s history. Stories helped keep the culture alive, waiting for the moment of return to the land.

Then, returning home from exile, the stories become more formal, and more structured: they become a defined heritage, a cultural memory. Eventually, they become canonized, to form the literature we know as the Hebrew Bible.

Rabbinic Judaism, the form of Judaism we know best, developed in response to the destruction of the Second Temple, after the return from exile.

It is, in fact, the product of the second exile: the rabbis were working out, over the course of multiple generations, how to live in the wake of this new tragedy. Whether they were standing before the ruins of the Temple, or studying in an academy dispersed far from that place, they felt keenly the loss of the nation’s center-point. The Temple’s sacrifices would occur no more; the central practice of the nation’s worship could no longer be performed. The rabbis sought to answer the question: How do you rebuild, then, after the worst has happened?

It was these ancient rabbis who created our prayer services, a great leap of faith. It took courage to decide that words – and words alone – would be good enough to suffice as prayer.

They were wrestling with the greater problem of meaning – which is why our services bear witness to their questioning. You should know that the assertions of God’s sovereignty are not as certain or as absolute as our inherited liturgy makes them sound. Their literature is marked with a relentless search: why, God, why?

Their life-work is our inheritance, and we are left to wrestle with their texts. Our Father, Our King, we pray: why is our language so lopsided? Why is it so hard to break out of authoritarian and dictatorial images? Why do we feel so distant from You? It’s difficult, always difficult.

In these services, in these printed pages, we are attempting to address what is inchoate and unmanageable in ways that are familiar and engaging. We are here to address the fundamental existential loneliness that we all feel in ways that are real and lasting.

And these traditions, this inheritance, together serve a definite purpose: It’s hard to make up that sort of thing all by yourself, to find something that extends past your own lifetime and your own circle. You need something transcendent.

Sitting here with a prayerbook in your lap, looking out the window at the darkened sky, you join 4,000 years of restlessness, of genuine unease, in the presence of the holy. You are not alone.

What we offer here is a taste of redemption, in the form of a community.

And it is powerful stuff. If you have not been here in a while, perhaps now is the time to come back. Even if you don’t believe and you’re not sure it’s important, and you don’t really know anyone: Perhaps now is the time to come back.

If you find that the words of prayer are not moving you – if you simply hate sitting in this sanctuary and reading responsively – then do something else: Pray with kitchen towels and dish soap. Pray with classroom attendance and fundraising. Pray with your hands and your feet. Be the one who sets up the oneg and moves the chairs; be the one who shows up with a hot dish after the funeral; be the one who cuts the fruit and arranges the seder plate. Come on a Friday night and read in the library until it’s time to eat cookies. We won’t judge – especially if you help clean up afterward.

We’re glad you’re here.

You don’t believe in prayer, you say? That’s fine, I say, come anyway.

Talking to ghosts

October 23, 2014 § Leave a comment

There is more to this world than meets the eye.

It is possible, of course, to have an empiricist view of the world, in which the only things that are possible are the things that can be seen and measured.

But when one spends enough time in this unique space, helping families and individuals make the transition from one kind of life-stage to the next, one starts to become aware of how much energy there is that goes unseen but is indeed felt.

In my own experience, I am most aware of this reality when in the presence of the dying.

In the last stages of the process, a dying person appears to be able to negotiate both realms at once: they speak to persons living and dead, often in the same conversation. It can be difficult to watch, but it also seems somehow holy.

Wave it off as projection if you wish, but there is certainly more here than meets the eye.

You learn, actually, that folks seem to have some control in those last weeks as to when to let go. They will wait for the daughter to fly out from California, or the last cousin to arrive from downstate. Some choose; they wait for the right time; others hold on to every last moment.

And in that liminal time – that holy time between worlds – it seems like they are able to negotiate with both sides at once. They speak to peoples living and dead, as if they were all present in the room.

Personally, I believe that there is some way in which we hear from those who are departed. My grandmother, of blessed memory, died a decade ago. And over that decade, different family members have heard from her – in the sense of hearing her response to things going around us. She comes and goes; we don’t hear from her all at the same time; it’s like she is visiting each of us for a while.

That sort of thing makes the empiricists and other rationalists roll their eyes, if not outwardly, then inwardly. Really? They ask: You want me to believe that you hear from your dead grandmother on an ongoing basis? The dying are hallucinating when they are talking to the dead. And you are projecting your grandmother’s voice.

You don’t have to believe that I hear from her. You can reject it outright if you would like. It may be a pleasant illusion.

Many of us find it difficult to think of the world as having any kind of metaphysical aspect to it at all. But if that’s the case, then there’s no room for God if the empirical world is all there is. And if that is the case, then why should we pray?

Consider the Sh’ma, for example. It is a Biblical text that we recite in each of our services: Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord Your God the Lord is one. That’s what it means – it gets called the ‘watchword of our faith’ in the old Union Prayer Book, because it’s a foundational text for us. If you don’t believe in God, how can this statement be meaningful to you?

There is a way to approach it even if you don’t want to adopt a grand metaphysical view of the world. Let me explain.

The first word is often translated as ‘Hear’ – but it could also be translated as ‘Listen’ or ‘Pay heed.’ That means: don’t just hear it, but put down your phone or your magazine, stop thinking about something else, and really listen. This is important. Are you fully present? Are you fully engaged?

‘Sh’ma Yisrael,’ it says. Listen, Israel. The Lord, your God.

‘The Lord’ is actually a euphemism. We are avoiding saying what’s literally written there. The text says Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh, which is the unpronounceable name of God. It’s God’s first name, if you will, and only the High Priest may say on Yom Kippur. Otherwise, we say Adonai in place of that unpronounceable name. So, Adonai is our way of addressing the transcendent divine creator – the God of everyone – in the context of our own uniquely Jewish relationship.

But you could also think of it as the name for the creative force in the world, the energy that drives evolution forward, that allows chemical reactions to become life. You could decide to say ‘my Lord’ instead of ‘blind chance.’ You are naming a process here; it does not have to be a person.

The Lord is one.

When we say that the Lord, Adonai, is one, echad – what does that mean?

The point of saying echad is the idea that God is singular. By singular we mean unique, unlike anyone or anything else. Extraordinarily different. Transcending time and space, beyond our definitions of it, more than our imaginations allow.

This might not seem like a particularly important point, but it is actually most crucial. When we try to define God – when we try to tame our God-concepts so that they might be comprehensible – we imagine things that are not God.

It’s like creating a small box and then asking God to step inside so that we might carry it around with us like a good-luck charm.

God is so much bigger, and grander, and wilder than our charms and incantations. What most folks call ‘God’ is just a subset of the whole.

What do you do, then, if that’s a bigger statement than you want to make? Is it necessary to take it literally?

Perhaps you might think of it this way: every human being is created in the image of God.

Imagine, then, that it says, ‘Listen, O Israel: every human being, your fellow-humans, every human being is singular.’

Take that message to heart and act upon it.

In other words: if you find it too much, to grand, to foolish to contemplate God, the universe, and everything in the macro scale, then think about God in the microcosm. Value human life, each individual you meet. Listen carefully when people talk. Put down your phone, and stop thinking about what you are going to say next, and listen. Every human being is singular, created in the very image of God. Listen.

If you listen long enough, eventually you might see that person as an individual, rather than as an example of a category. A person rather than a stereotype.

I want to be clear: this isn’t humanism that I am suggesting here. I am not saying that humanity is all there is; I am not saying that humanity is necessarily the most important part.

I am saying, rather, that if you want to know God, then humanity is a good place to start.

In other words, if you are not sure how to love God with all of your heart and all of your mind and all of your being, then direct your attention to the individuals around you, find what is godly in them, and love them for it.

And then you will find that there is more to this world than meets the eye.

Faith

September 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

Faith is not a constant thing: life can be wounding when you least expect it: an unforeseen tragedy, an unforgivable betrayal, or an unwelcome diagnosis can waylay the best of us.

And when that happens, we find ourselves doubting the existence of God.

That’s when we stop coming to services, when we stop participating in the holiday celebrations, when we let go of what we thought was important.

I remember, for example, going on a youth group trip with my home congregation in California. We visited Fremont, in northern California, and enjoyed home hospitality among the congregants there. I was staying with a woman who had all sorts of questions for me, once she heard I was about to go study to become a rabbi.

She explained to me that she no longer lit the Shabbat candles every Friday night because her mother had died. So long as her mother was living, she could believe that God loved her and cared for her. But when her mother died, her closeness to God died as well: how could God love her yet take her mother from her?

And, newbie that I was, I did not know precisely what I could say to her that would make everything okay again for her.

‘How can we believe in God when bad things happen to us?’ I wondered. ‘And what can I tell her that will restore her faith.’ Yet there is no magic formula that makes faith possible. Rather, faith is the product of a long process of wrestling.

What I learned in rabbinical school, in fact, is that faith is a very old paradox, one that every generation has faced at one point or another.

For example, we each find that we would like to make the following assertions regarding God:

1. God is good
2. God is all-powerful
3. Evil is real

But those three assertions, taken together, simply do not work. Any two of them together are fine; it’s when you put all three side-by-side that you run into trouble.

Most of the attempts at working on the problem of evil will deny one of those three. Usually, the denial will be that God is all-powerful, or that evil is real – though some will deny the ‘God is good’ but reinterpreting what is meant by ‘good.’

For example, in the wake of the Holocaust, there has been a line of thought that God is perhaps not all-powerful. We find images of God suffering alongside us in the rabbinical literature – the idea that God went into exile with the Jewish people, suffering from the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. One could argue, therefore, that (for whatever reason) God cannot prevent these tragedies from happening. That is one possibility.

Or we affirm that God is all-powerful but deny the reality of evil. Much of Hasidic thought, such as CHABAD, takes the position that evil is merely an illusion. The world is a veil that obscures the view of the Divine. The suffering we experience is not actually real.

Except that it feels real.

I have a friend who lost her child to cancer this year. I am not about to tell her that her suffering is not real, that it is merely an illusion obscuring the view of the Divine.

When you are in acute mourning, it is the pain that feels real; it is the rest of your life that appears to be a dream.

Another response is to interpret tragedy as God’s will. God is punishing us, or God is teaching us a lesson. For example, there are folks who will say, in response to a tragedy, ‘God only gives us what we can handle.’

The rabbis like this line of thought: they argue that the many difficulties that Abraham faced were tests, God-given tests, to demonstrate his character and faithfulness.

Except, of course, that one of those tests was the near-sacrifice of his son. Was that a test of his son, too? And did God already know that he would succeed?

The problem with these kinds of frameworks is that it makes God out to be quite cruel. This point, in fact, is the force of the story of Job: God makes an idle bet with ha-Satan, the accuser, and lets ha-Satan ruin Job’s life just to prove a point. They take away his fortune and his children and his livelihood and his house and his health, just to settle a bet. It is breathtaking in its cruelty, if you think about it.

Another problem with this God-concept is that it makes cruelty seem to be okay. If God does it, then we should be allowed to be cruel too. And I don’t think that helps our basic problem in any way. If anything, it makes it worse.

Maimonides has his own answer, of course. Ever the rationalist, he has an explanation.

In Maimonides’ view, there are three types of evil that befall humanity, some of which is in our control and some of which is not:

1. The first is the evil associated with being made of matter, which is changeable and subject to decay. This evil is inherent in the way humanity is made, and cannot be overcome.

2. The second kind of evil is the result of “tyrannical domination” of some people over others. Usually, it is limited to an isolated individual outrage rather than a constant threat, except in times of war.

3. The third kind of evil is that which an individual brings on himself or herself. These are our bad habits and personal vices, large and small, which account for much of our misfortune. This third kind of evil (i.e., the most common kind) is the product of our own doing.

I like this framework because it allows for the possibility of randomness in the system. But this answer is only partially satisfactory, in my view. He has a confidence that it all works out neatly, a confidence that I don’t quite share.

Specifically, he believes that if we’re smart enough we can transcend much of the evil of this world. We can, ultimately, become like the stars, ageless and contemplating.

That structure does not quite work, however, not just because the science behind his assumptions is suspect.

We often blame ourselves for not being smart enough to see trouble coming, but the reality is that it can blindside us. The illusion that our intelligence will protect us from most things is a comfort to us, but it does not work in practice.

Rather, I believe that God created a world that allows for chaos. It is what allows for change and growth, for new species and new traits to arise, for artistic expression and for new ideas. But that same chaotic space also allows for unwanted mutations, cancerous tumors, destructive events, and natural catastrophes. It is built into the very structure of this world, which is why God does not intervene to change it.

It means that we live in a world where 8-year-olds can die of cancer.

It also means that we live in a world where there are 8-year-olds.

We are given no guarantees: we are all vulnerable, all of us. None of us know the bounds of our life or the bounds of the lives of our loved ones.

In the context of this realm of chaos, the laws of science reign; we can use the laws of cause and effect to predict what might happen next.

There are, of course, novelties: there can be new mutations or new ideas that develop that change the very notion of what’s possible. But it still takes place within a basic framework.

Beyond that framework is a kind of energy that we are able to feel, even if we are not able to name it. It is the energy that is present at weddings and ball games, the electricity that you find in group events and some kinds of prayerful encounters.

It is present in the hospital room of a dying person when you hold his or her hand and sing. It is the divine energy, the same energy that makes you cry at weddings and marvel at the fine sweet scent of babies. When we sing the mi sheberach prayer, it is precisely that kind of energy that we are trying to harness.

Belief in that source of energy takes a leap of courage, because it is the belief that these events have real meaning. It is the belief that they are connected in a deep sense.

This is what I want to say: things can be better than what you have known, what you have grown up with, what you might believe to be the case. In that sense, then, hope is real, and necessary and good.

Having worked with people across the spectrum of practice and belief, I can also tell you this: Life can be exceedingly difficult at times, even overwhelming. And we all know that, objectively speaking. It offers no guarantees. Nonetheless, those times when you feel the least religious are also the ones when you need religion most.

Somehow life is better – even the awful parts – when it is shared.

In other words, you don’t need perfect faith. What you need is the courage to try, and the support of a group willing to make the journey with you, step by step.

Counting my blessings

September 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

I think that I may have told you this: when my son was very young, he could not eat soy. It was an inability to digest soy protein, similar to an allergy, more serious than an intolerance. And, as I discovered, soy is in everything.

He could not eat fast food, chain restaurant food, frozen prepared foods like pizza or pot pies, ice cream products, most snack crackers, most cereals, most breads — and so on. We learned quickly which places prepared their own food and which ones had it trucked in pre-prepared.

It was a royal pain, and as a working single mom and a full-time graduate student, I did not really have the time or money to stop and make every single one of his meals by hand. That was the curse.

But, like any parent, I did what was needed to be done. I simply had to. I had known how to make a few dishes prior to that point, of course, but like most folks I leaned on the prepared foods as well. In response to this changed circumstance, I learned how to cook.

That’s when I learned how to cook Indian food, in fact: realizing that vegetarian meals might be cheaper, I went to the local Indian grocery in Cincinnati and asked the clerk for a recommendation for a cookbook. He called his auntie to come and help me and she selected a copy of ‘Indian Vegetarian Cooking’ for me – “it’s what we give all new brides,” she said. I’ve made just about every dish in that cookbook.

For four years straight I made everything from scratch, in large batches, and froze individual portions in little plastic containers. Everything he ate was made by me. Everything. Because he would be violently ill if it wasn’t.

And that was a blessing, actually. In those same years, it would have been very easy — and quite reasonable — to pick up a serious fast food habit. The dollar menu is cheap and easy and it makes kids happy. But it would have been profoundly distructive to my own health.

Sometimes a curse is a blessing.

But it is very difficult, of course, to see how the curses in this week’s portion could ever be transformed into a blessing. They speak of famine and want, of starvation and degradation. And all this for ignoring God’s commands.

It seems wildly vindictive: how could such activities be punishments if God is just? There are times when we go astray, but why should God be so harsh in punishment?

So let me try and explain what’s really going on here.

According to the text, “Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of the Lord your God: Heed the Lord your God and observe His commandments and His laws, which I enjoin upon you this day.”

That is to say, Moses is about to explain the terms for the covenant with God. You are about to join in a covenant, he says, let me explain what that will mean.

So, to turn back to the text:

“Thereupon Moses charged the people, saying: After you have crossed the Jordan, the following shall stand on Mount Gerizim when the blessing for the people is spoken: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. And for the curse, the following shall stand on Mount Ebal: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphthali.”

In other words, this particular reading of blessings and curses is not a theological statement of what God will do to you if you don’t behave. Rather, this passage is explaining a ritual action, one taken in order to join in a covenant with God.

So what does that mean, exactly?

Our relationship to God is structured as a covenant, which is a very particular type of agreement. In the Ancient Near East, the great powers would enter into agreements with weaker nations. The powerful one would pledge to protect the weaker nation, and in return the weaker one would pledge fidelity to the powerful one.

Thus, the ritual that is enacted here parallels those enacted among nations in the Ancient Near East. In both cases, witnesses are needed: in the case of God and the people Israel, the witnesses are heaven and earth. And, in both cases, a list of blessings and curses are read out loud before the assembly: blessings if the covenant is kept, and curses if it is broken. Here we have a record of the blessings and curses being read aloud, as is appropriate for a covenant ceremony.

As a final step, a ritual action is taken in which something is split into two parts to symbolize the ‘cutting’ of an agreement. Usually it’s an animal. Here, though, the people are split into two parts, so that one half is on Mount Gerizim and one half is on Mount Ebal.

For the record, I suspect that this particular ritual is actually a projection backwards: it’s written after the first exile, as an explanation for what has happened to the Israelite people. There are two reasons why I make this suggestion: first, this ritual is heavy on the spoken word and light on the blood sacrifice, which would suggest a later date for its provenance. Second, the nation did split into two, the northern and southern kingdoms, with half of the people in one and half of the people in the other. So this passage might be a projection backwards, to make the case that the exile was part of God’s plan.

Now you might ask: why do they think in these terms? Why would these images of conquest and subsequent covenant appear here?

Some of it has to do with the ancient belief that there were a multitude of gods that were each assigned to protect a particular territory. That’s the context for the narrative of Jacob’s ladder: Jacob dreams of angels going up the ladder – these are the angels responsible for the territory he is in now – and angels coming down the ladder – these are the angels responsible for the territory he is about to enter. The dream is the realization that God transcends borders. The story teaches: if you must believe in local protective spirits, these might be conceptualized as angels guarding you in a particular territory. But God transcends all.

And that was a revolutionary concept. The common assumption in that time and place was that when one nation would conquer another, the newly-conquered peoples would take on the worship of the conquering peoples’ God.

The covenant ceremony, therefore, is a form of resistance: just as we might sign a treaty with the powerful nation that conquered us, it is also possible to sign a treaty with the power that is our ultimate ruler. And that power, Our God, demands our fidelity. Losing on the battlefield, therefore, does not mean that the other peoples’ gods have won as well. We remain loyal to our God.

In other words: the blessings and curses here are not a tit-for-tat litany of what happens to you if you sin. They are, instead, a statement of defiance: even if we become a conquered people, even if we experience exile, we will remain faithful to our God and our culture. We don’t just believe in God when good things happen to us; we have faith when things are difficult and all appears to be lost.

And that’s a more mature faith: it is moving past an idea that God is like Santa Claus and moving toward an understanding of the world that is much more nuanced and appreciative of all that does go well in our lives. And in that sense, it’s an important lesson for us as we move toward the holidays.

So I will pronounce a blessing upon you: May you be inscribed in the book of life.

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