This morning I waited until the Supreme Court convened before posting here. Elation is the feeling that many of us whose marriages have not previously been recognized federally are feeling this morning. And for those in California, marriage equality can, at last, be celebrated. For sure, the work is not yet complete – 40 states continue to discriminate against their citizens. But there is no question that progress was made in civil rights and civil law today.
There is so much that could be said this morning. But for me, the blessing that I am recognizing this morning is the blessing of being seen. It is a blessing that each and every one of us, irrespective of sexuality or any other aspect of our identity, can bestow on others, understanding the incredibly powerful impact of receiving that blessing ourselves. It lies behind the central principle of all world religions, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
Each time I have filed my taxes separately from my spouse, each time I had to apply for the next round of immigration on my journey from rabbinic student to permanent resident and the love of my life was invisible … these were moments when an essential part of my self and my life was unseen. Standing in line to come through security on our way back from a trip and watching the married couple in front of us being processed together and then having a TSA agent insist that my wife and I be processed individually was a moment of humiliation that highlighted how something that is so precious to us is treated as unseen by others. And for anyone who has ever had the experience of being denied access to their loved one’s side in a hospital room, the experience of being unseen is excruciatingly painful.
As Jews, every Passover we announce how we will tell the story as if we, ourselves, personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt; we are called upon to get in touch with the experience and feelings of the journey from having lived a restricted life to entering a new world of freedom. Over and over we are reminded in the Torah to remember that we were once slaves in Egypt as we engage with others that we encounter. Our own experiences of being unseen can sensitize us to the ways in which others often go unseen too: the individual who is sitting alone in the synagogue sanctuary, the child who can’t learn in the same way as others but deserves the blessing of a bar or bat mitzvah and a meaningful Jewish life just the same, the homeless person on the street that we can always greet even when we can’t give, the person sitting in a wheelchair who would like you to look at them and speak to them directly when you are serving them in a store, the cashier in the supermarket who isn’t just another piece of the check-out machinery…
The experience of being fully seen is a holy experience. The philosopher, Martin Buber, might call it an ‘I-Thou’ moment. We often hold back from fully revealing ourselves at the deepest, soul level that truly represents who we are because we are afraid that our gift may be rejected. When another person responds in a way that makes us feel invisible, the pain that results is something that most of us, at some point in time, has experienced. But the blessing that comes with revealing our full essence and being received fully by another human being is a truly spiritual experience that brings wholeness not only to individual lives, but to communities and societies too.
For thousands of gay and lesbian married couples, today is a day when we can celebrate the blessing of being seen. May it propel each one of us to do our part to spread that blessing to all.
I’m a big fan of Julie Weiner’s blog at The Jewish Week. It’s one of those blogs that I read fairly regularly, not because I find myself agreeing with everything she writes (and I’ll admit that I, like many, tend to read people with whom I agree). Rather, I read her blog because I find that she challenges many of my borders as a rabbi in ways that are intelligently and often compellingly stated.
This week she brings our attention to a new feature at another site that provides an incredible resource to interfaith families – interfaithfamily.com. They are now hosting a parenting blog where non-Jewish parents raising Jewish kids, and Jewish parents in interfaith households, are writing and reflecting on their experiences in Jewish life, family, and community.
The presence of these multi-varied families in our communities is raising new questions and challenges that rabbis must respond to. And different rabbis will respond in very different ways, based on a range of factors that include halachic frameworks, pragmatic considerations, pastoral support, educational opportunity, and sociological reality.
In this area of my professional life, I find that I am still learning. My borders, so to speak, are shifting. Some of the kinds of questions and situations I find myself challenged to consider:
- A convert to Judaism wishes to name their baby daughter after her deceased, Christian mother in a Jewish baby-naming ceremony.
- A non-Jewish parent who has lived in the Jewish community and participated actively for over 10 years wishes to recite the blessings for an aliyah at their son’s bar mitzvah.
- A parent of a bar mitzvah student who, themselves, was raised with “both.” As an adult, they have been living a Jewish life, learning Hebrew, and studying Judaism. Can they participate in the bar mitzvah as a Jewish parent?
- A young adult was raised with “both.” They have decided to affirm Judaism as their sole religious identity, and go through the process of conversion. Now they are marrying a Christian and would like a rabbi and a minister to be part of the wedding ceremony.
- A Jewish and non-Jewish parent have a newborn son. What role can the non-Jewish side of the family play in the brit milah?
- A child is being raised with “both.” The Jewish mother brings him to a rabbi, asking for a program of Jewish study and a bar mitzvah. It is currently unknown whether a subsequent ritual (baptism, first communion, etc.) may be a further part of the child’s introduction into his parents’ faith communities.
These are just a handful of the real-life scenarios that I have encountered over the years. The issues they raise from a purely halachic perspective are different. Some are, actually, relatively straightforward. Others, however, will receive very different responses from different rabbis, determined by the factors above that may be more or less dominant in the approach of the particular rabbi, perhaps also informed by a Jewish denomination’s official position on the matter.
They are the reality of living in a world where we are blessed, in the USA, to live at a time when so many non-Jews choose to support Jewish choices for their children and choose to fully participate in Jewish family and Jewish community. I am reminded of a conversation I once had with high school students in our religious school program. We were beginning a course on comparative religion and I asked them to share an experience that reflected an interfaith exchange. Several students remarked that they had friends in public school who would describe themselves as “half Jewish” or even “a quarter Jewish” (with one Jewish grandparent). My students were skeptical. Having spent years in formal, Jewish education, studied for a bar or bat mitzvah, and more, they questioned the rights of these friends to lay claim to any part of their religious identity.
While I did not deny the complexities of how individuals, let alone the organized Jewish communal world, should respond to these statements of identity, I offered my students the following food for thought. We forget easily, but it was only a few decades ago that almost no-one who wasn’t bound into the Jewish community by birth would choose to identity with us. To do so would have excluded you from full participation in many strata of American society, denied access to certain clubs, and discouraged from living in certain neighborhoods. How amazing that a teenager with a relatively tenuous connection to Judaism chooses to identify with that part of their family heritage as a badge of pride!
I recently met a young woman who has had no formal Jewish education but the matrilineal Jewish line has been preserved. But she had to go back to the burial records of her great-grandparents to prove her Jewish ancestry. Both her Jewish grandmother and her Jewish mother had married non-Jews. Having attended a Birthright Israel program, and subsequently returned to Israel for a longer visit, she is now preparing to make aliyah. What an incredibly journey!
I have no easy answers to the complexities that rabbis and Jewish institutions face in navigating the new landscapes of identity and belonging that are emerging. But what I can say is this. My perspectives have shifted as a result of the conversations I have had with those who are traveling through those landscapes. I have gained a profound respect for those whose path is not straightforward. And, increasingly, I have understood my role to facilitate entry into richer Jewish life and ask myself, in each instance, how my role as gatekeeper might alter the path of the person I encounter. The answer may not always change, but the conversation most certainly is transformed.
Catching the attention of many readers of breaking news in the Jewish world today is the story of Ari Mandel and his attempt (in jest) to sell his place in heaven to the highest bidder on ebay. As reported in The Forward and Haaretz, Mandel started the bidding at 99c but, within a few hours, the bidding was up to $100,000, upon which ebay pulled the listing citing its rules that one cannot sell non-tangible goods.
As reported by The Forward, in conversation with Mandel, ebay was alerted to the attempted sale after news spread on ultra-orthodox online community sites, where great offence was taken. Mandel left the ultra-orthodox community several years ago and self identifies as a cultural, atheist Jew. His background, however, enabled him to create a posting that was peppered with yiddish and theological reference points. Even the false name under which he posted – Rachmuna Litzlon, was playful, meaning “God save us” in Aramaic.
While in many ways a trivial story, the attention it is getting today is quite fascinating. Perhaps its simply because of the chutzpah involved in coming up with the idea and posting, even as a joke. Perhaps its the fact that there was real bidding going on. I’d like to presume that the bidding, likewise, was in jest. And then, according to the above reports, there was some response from ultra-orthodox communities that demonstrated they were not amused. Apparently they are not familiar with ‘The Book of Mormon’ on Broadway and the rather good PR that the Mormon church has received from being a rather good sport about it all.
I’m also struck by the timing of this story, coming on the heels of a report this week that the Pope, in one of his daily homilies, made mention that all can be redeemed, not just Catholics. The Vatican has put out a statement since declaring that the Pope’s words should not be taken to mean that non-Catholics have a place in heaven. Rather, he was talking about a meeting ground where Catholics and non-Catholics can work together in doing good in the world.
A search for ‘afterlife’ or ‘the world to come’ here at myjewishlearning.com will give you plenty to contemplate when it comes to the plurality of thinking on what this might look like and how we might get there. Personally, I’m drawn to the wisdom of Maimonides on this topic, as he writes in his introduction to Perek Helek – a commentary on the Mishnah. He reviews a variety of beliefs held by different kinds of people about the nature of the afterlife. In summary, he suggests that all of these ideas teach us little except for the limitations of the human imagination and he proposes that the variety of ideas tell us more about what people value in this life than anything about the reality of what may lie beyond the world that we know.
Whether via ebay, or homilies from the Pope, we humans continue to have a fascination with what may come next, and who deserves to get there. I tend to be a pragmatist (and maybe a realist) on matters of life after death. I take great comfort in the thought of an ongoing existence in the form of energy or soul, although I recognize that I’m living in the realm of ‘I don’t know’ on this one – how could I truly claim otherwise? I don’t need to know the details, as I don’t believe I have a great deal of control over the outcome. My desire to try to do good and contribute positively to this world is not related to any concept of reward in the next one. Perhaps that’s what the Pope was trying to convey – doing good in the here and now is what matters, however you get there. And perhaps that’s why, while it was a cute joke, I have little interest in taking someone else’s place in whatever the hereafter looks like, or in the idea that such a place can be acquired at all, whether through bidding or through some other quantifiable set of parameters.
During my first year with a new congregation, I’ve been offering a creative service slot once a month. Borrowing the term from Rabbi Hayyim Herring’s book, ‘Tomorrow’s Synagogues Today’, our ‘Ritual Lab’ Shabbat lets congregants know to come expecting the unexpected for that particular service. Over the course of the year, some services have been more experimental in format than others – more or less similar to the flow and musical styles of our regular Shabbat worship – but each have had a specific goal in mind.
My ‘training’, such as it was, for shaping these creative services came from the Jewish Renewal movement, having spent many years praying with these communities and creating prayer services in that context prior to my formal rabbinic studies. There, one of the terms coined is ‘interpretive davenning‘ – a way of entering the prayer experience in an interpretive mode so that there is a sense of narrative and conscious spiritual journeying that accompanies the flow from one prayer in our liturgy to the next. Different modes may be explored to accompany particular prayers in a way that helps to peel back the layers of history, poetry, and other aspects of meaning found in each prayer. Each of these modes helps to uncover something of the meaning of the prayer, or highlights an aspect of personal spiritual reflection that a prayer might help to highlight. Sometimes it is the mind that is engaged, and sometimes it is something more experiential that helps us see the words of prayer as vehicles for getting beyond words; in many ways this can be the deepest experience of prayer. Such modes can include meditation chanting, movement, dance, study/discussion of a prayer text in pairs, juxtaposing traditional prayers with other kinds of texts to create new readings and meanings, and more.
I so often hear congregants say that the words of our traditional liturgy get in the way of being able to find spirituality in the Jewish communal prayer experience.This is partially because we lack the tools in our spiritual toolbox to unpack the layers of meaning and possibility found in those prayers. But it is also because the sheer amount of words can be overwhelming so that we cannot possibly derive significant meaning from all of them in every service. Of course, not everyone enters into prayer with this expectation – for those who pray in a more traditional mode, it is the overall ritual and rhythm of the familiar prayers that provide the vessel for taking time out to enter into a different mode that is the primary experience. But for many Jews, and certainly in what has been, historically, the more rationally-focused Reform movement’s approach to prayer, the perceived lack of meaning gets in the way for many individuals seeking a spiritual practice that truly touches and transforms them.
In our ‘Ritual Lab’ services, typically two things happen simultaneously; the prayer service becomes a vehicle through which we can attach a learning experience on an infinite number of topics and, at the same time, the materials or experiences we weave into the service brings a new sense of meaning to the individual prayers that have always been there. The next time we pray our way through our traditional liturgy, we bring the insights from these interpretive experiences with us, and they forever change our understanding of and relationship to these traditional prayers.
So, for example, the Shabbat of Thanksgiving weekend, we held a drumming worship service, juxtaposing insights from Native American spiritual traditions with Jewish ideas and writings that resonated with similar insights. During Pesach we held a ‘Song of Songs Shabbat’ that raised awareness of the Song of Songs being read at Pesach, introduced Jewish mantra chanting into the worship experience, explored the mystical roots of Kabbalat Shabbat and the connections to Song of Songs, and highlighted the nature imagery in our traditional prayers and our own spiritual experiences in nature. Sometimes I’ve been intentionally provocative. For example, there is great ambivalence in the Jewish world about acknowledging Halloween in any way in our Jewish community. I personally don’t feel that this is a useful battle to pursue, given the place of this day in American popular culture and the families and children who delight in the modern expressions of dressing up and going trick-or-treating. Instead, the Friday night closest to Halloween became a time to weave teachings about Ghosts, ghouls and demons found in Jewish folk and mystical tradition into the fabric of our service, demonstrating how some specific prayer and ritual traditions that we still have today may have their roots in these stories and beliefs.
For some of our more regularly attending worshipers, these services have become a highlight. They tell me that the format offers a way for them to be exposed to different kinds of spiritual practice and ways to pray that are accessible and can be internalized, while also providing a forum for learning in a setting other than an adult learning class. The feedback tells me that these creative services are fulfilling their purpose. I look forward to another year of experimentation in our Ritual Lab.
Yesterday, Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu posted a thoughtful and heartfelt prayer by our colleague, Rabbi Aaron Weininger in response to the attack at the Boston Marathon. I appreciate the words, and those of other colleagues who have created and shared words of prayer these past 24 hours. I will, no doubt, share some of those words with my own congregation this coming Shabbat. But, I must be quite honest, today I don’t feel much like praying. Today I feel angry.
Yesterday was my first time being up close to the proceedings of a marathon in this country. A number of years ago, while I still lived in the UK, I spent several years volunteering with a first aid organization, the St. John’s Ambulance, and had the opportunity to assist at the London Marathon. But this year, with my step-daughter volunteering as a guide to a participant with cerebral palsy, racing in a chair, we took advantage of the fact that we live just 5 miles from the starting line to cheer them on for the earlier parts of the race.
We arrived in Hopkinton early enough to spend some time with the Achilles team as they warmed up and prepared. It was nothing short of inspiring to see racers in chairs make sure that the custom-made works of art that they race in were reading for action; others have the use of prosthetic legs. Many are war veterans. I, whose crowning physical achievement was to build up to a 5km run for charity a couple of years ago, was humbled by the determination and dedication of the men and women racing, and their volunteer guides who enable those who need additional support to participate as equals.
We watched the first few waves of starts take off from Hopkinton, cheering on our team and many of the other mobility-impaired early starters. Then we made our way to Natick and were lucky enough to get another moment of cheering in as my step-daughter’s athlete and his team came by at around the 9 mile mark. We didn’t progress any further down the track, knowing that it would be challenging to get into Boston. I was in my car listening to NPR when I got the first news of the attack close to the finishing line.
I cannot stop thinking about the family waiting to cheer on a father, whose 8 year old son is never coming home. Mother and daughter are still contending with serious injuries. I cannot stop thinking about the spectators who were cheering on these inspirational runners one moment – many of whom have dedicated hundreds of hours as volunteers to support teams that raise thousands and thousands of dollars for charity – who today are dealing with the trauma of a lost limb. In a split second the world has changed for these people. Yes, the world changes for many others too – the ones who were close by, the ones who waited with baited breath to hear from loved ones who might have been there. We are shaken too. But we are the lucky ones.
I am angry. I am incensed that someone or some group has caused such devastating harm. Is this different from any other act of terror, or violent attack that kills and injures innocent bystanders? Perhaps not. Perhaps it is on the heels of watching Senators play politics in the aftermath of the Newtown shooting that I find myself in a different mood this time around. I’m not interested in gentle words or prayers. I remain inspired by those who helped in the moment of need, just as I was inspired by the athletes I met at the start of the day. But I don’t simply wish to express my thanks for those who made a difference in the face of terror. I wish to express radical indignation that such random acts of callousness are committed by those who have the gall to believe they can justify turning the lives of others upside down.
I’m noticing these feelings arise, and I am not trying to keep them down today. From what place do we garner strength and energy to act? Sometimes from prayer. But perhaps sometimes we need to get in touch with the anger, and we need to be willing to turn toward the images of torn limbs and bloodied bodies because this, too, can re-energize us to act differently. To truly treasure each day, to treasure each human interaction, to foster more caring and do even more in all the ways we live and act, because we have to counter hate with as much lovingkindness as we can.
And I pray, deeply I pray, that the authorities catch those responsible and bring the full weight of justice upon their heads.
A couple of weeks ago, Yair Rosenberg wrote a thought-provoking article in the online Tablet Magazine, entitled ‘America’s Anti-Gun Theocrats: Should rabbis and other clerics engage in politics? Only, it seems, if they support liberal policies.’
The starting place for the article is a reaction to the lack of critical commentary to a group of clergy going to Washington to bring attention to National Gun Violence Prevention Shabbat. Imagine, Rosenberg asks, if a group of prominent religious leaders went to Washington to promote a campaign advocating against abortion. There would, he contends, be an outcry from liberal commentators and politicians about such a religious encroachment on national politics. And yet there did not appear to be any such outcry to the clergy speaking out against gun violence, and the legislative demands that went with it.
Rosenberg goes on to examine what he sees as a double-standard in public response when religious conservatism is expressed in the public square vs religious liberalism. He argues: “In truth, however, there is little functional difference between the activities of a conservative evangelical pastor affiliated with the Christian Right and a liberal rabbi at the Religious Action Center. Both individuals seek to bring their deeply held values to bear on the political process. Substantively, the contents of their views are vastly different. But the way their faith informs and affects their advocacy is the same.”
Ultimately, Rosenberg calls for more honesty and consistency when talking about the role of religion in politics. He makes a good point. As someone born and raised in the UK, where there is no constitutional separation of church and state and yet the country as a whole is far less driven by religiously-based interests, I have always been struck by the extent of religious presence in the public sphere in the USA. Presidential candidates are examined for signs of an authentic religious life, and this seems to matter in political commentary. Over time, I have come to understand the importance of my contributions to public conversation on many issues that have a political dimension – I believe that to abstain from all of these issues is to render ourselves irrelevant.
Legislation is one response to shaping the kind of society we want to live in, but to abstain from bringing one’s religious heritage and wisdom teachings to that conversation is to present Judaism as having nothing to say about daily communal life. And Judaism, especially but not uniquely, has always been a religion that embraced life holistically, with laws and wisdom on how we do business with each other, how we take care of the vulnerable in society, as well as how we pray and celebrate Jewish festivals.
But Rosenberg isn’t arguing for abstention from the political realm. He’s simply asking for equal treatment of those who draw on their understanding of religious wisdom to present more conservative viewpoints as those who present liberal ones. I agree with the general premise – surely we should allow all contributions to stand on their own feet in the public square? And I think they do. That also means that we must be willing to hear all of the responses that we will hear when we voice these opinions. There is no organized cabal that is critiquing one set of religious viewpoints but not another. The kinds of responses we hear tell us something about the society we live in, and the other competing perspectives that are being brought to bear on the same core questions of life and community that clergy, politicians, social workers, teachers, journalists, and private corporations are all addressing in very different ways.
But for me, there is another component to consider when I think about how and when I draw on my understanding of our faith-based wisdom to offer commentary on matters that are currently being debated in the political realm. And here, I believe, there is often but not always a difference between more conservative and more liberal religious voices that shines a light on the juxtaposition of religion and politics in a different way. It is often the case that conservative voices, by their nature, advocate for a more restrictive perspective on a range of issues – a more limited definition of marriage, a more limited view on when life begins and, being conservative in nature, tend to lean toward preserving the status quo.
As a more liberal leaning rabbi, I often find myself asking two different questions: 1) does my faith tradition have wisdom to offer on how I and/or my faith community should act in this situation? 2) what kind of framework in my secular society enables me to achieve 1)? So, for me, I’m going to speak out against more conservative positions on abortion that deny me the right to make choices based on Jewish wisdom. However, the existence of more liberal laws on abortion in this country do not prevent someone, guided by a more conservative faith, from making more restrictive choices. I, personally, guided by Jewish wisdom, am against assisted suicide. But when legislation in the state of Massachusetts was brought up at the last election that considered a way of permitting some form of this, the study and conversation that I had with my congregants both shared and explored the ideas behind Jewish teachings on this topic yet also raised the question of whether our choices based on our beliefs should lead to legislation that limits everyone else in our State to our religiously-informed position.
If someone truly believes that aborting any fetus is murder, and that preventing this is more important than all other considerations, then they will feel compelled to advocate for national, secular laws, that prevent such as act. I can understand why this belief leads to this outcome, but I can also understand why they will face powerful opposition from a large proportion of Americans who do not share their belief. And this, I believe, is where Rosenberg’s call for fairness in treatment is too simplistic. Depending on the issue at stake, a position that makes restrictive choices for all in national legislation demands a different level of scrutiny than a position that is less restrictive (but still allows for individuals to make more restrictive choices).
Another element that plays into these debates, independent of whether a position is liberal or conservative, is whether the issue affects individual freedoms or the community as a whole. And this one is much more complex. In fact, what we often see played out in the political sphere is the framing of an issue in different ways that emphasize these different frameworks. For example, a proponent of gun rights is likely to emphasize their individual rights according to the constitution. A proponent of gun control is likely to argue that some of those individual rights have to be restricted when the effect of exercising them leads to the deaths of innocent victims – a communal framework. Proponents of gay marriage emphasize the civil rights of individuals within our society. Opponents draw on arguments that emphasize their perception of the changes it will bring to society as a whole. In a country that, culturally, heavily emphasizes individual autonomy, political positions that emphasize individual rights tend to play better in the public square. When they don’t it is because the case for the greater good has been powerfully made.
Where does this leave us as clergy contributing to these debates in the public sphere? Ultimately, I believe it leaves us as offering the wisdom that we have gleaned from our faith traditions as useful and legitimate input to the public square. Self-awareness and, perhaps, some humility, will enable us to discern how best to use our voices and understand the larger landscape of which we are just a small part.
Around this time of year I often find myself fielding questions about what haggadah to use, and how families can spice up their Seder rituals at home. There are so many choices these days, and the answer may depend on who will be at your Seder, the age of the children, and the relative value you place on nostalgia vs creativity or innovation, among other factors.
But the one element that I have found to be a game-changer when it comes to how Seder night is experienced is an element that is often completely overlooked: Logistics and lay-out. This is one of the most overlooked elements of the Seder but one that I have come to appreciate as crucial. While not every home has the space to accommodate some creativity in this department, we have found that sitting on sofas, cushions and chairs in concentric circles around a coffee table in a living room to be much more conducive, at least for the pre-meal part of the Seder, than sitting still around a formally-laid table. Young children can get up and move around more easily without being a distraction, and the atmosphere engenders more conversation and interaction between the adults too. At our Seder we often hang colorful fabrics in the room to create the feeling of sitting under a tent. Some homes are large enough to move people to tables for the meal, but going for a more informal buffet and continuing to eat in the same space as you’ve gathered for the ritual can be just as good an option too.
In truth, while I highlight logistics and layout as the game-changer because it is so often not even considered as a player in the creation of a great Seder, there is another element to our family Seder that has been just as significant a game-changer in the Passover experience. At our Seder, we have taken to inserting different freedom-related themes each year, as we invite guests to add their own midrashim – in the form of news articles, photos, videos, and more. In our home we compile these images into a powerpoint presentation ahead of time and project the images for all to see and to discuss during the Seder, but a household that doesn’t want to use technology in this way on a festival night can achieve the same kind by simply handing around printed copies. And so, when we get to the maggid section of the Seder (the telling of the story), we often depart from the Rabbis’ retellings from centuries ago embedded in the pages of our various haggadot. In each generation we must experience the exodus from Egypt as if it were our personal experience. When we add our own stories and images, we can dramatically engage each other in meaningful conversations about the nature of freedom that can be viscerally felt at a deeper level.
Take a look at my posting on Maggid 2.0 where I reported on our first year of taking this approach at our 2011 Seder, for an example of this visually-rich and conversation-stimulating approach to Passover.
Many blessings for a wonderful, engaging, meaningful Passover!
I’ve just started teaching a new course at my congregation on Jewish mysticism. There are many ways to engage with this sizable topic: we could focus on the intellectual history of mysticism from Ezekiel’s vision of a holy chariot through Merkavah mysticism, the Zohar and Kabbalah, Lurianic Kabbalah and Chassidism, to name just a few eras and genres of literature. But I have found that the theory can get in the way of what really draws people to want to learn more about mysticism.
Mysticism, in its essence, is about the experiential. It points to direct experiences of that which others have then sought to do the impossible with – to put those deeply felt and powerful experiences into the limiting vessel of words. We need words to try and convey something to someone else. But words will never enable another to truly get inside the experience.
Take the biblical account of the Burning Bush. I don’t know if I can believe in that account in a literal manner. A bush that burned with fire yet was not consumed. And a voice spoke from out of the bush. But here’s what I absolutely do know from the story that is recounted. And I don’t mean ‘know’ in the sense of historical accuracy, but rather in terms of what the essential message of that moment in the story conveys to me. Moses, who had left his people and could have spent the rest of his life tending sheep and living among the Midianites, has a life-course altering experience. He is ‘called’ to do something else with his life. So powerful is the tug that he is willing to go back into the lion’s den, so to speak, to confront Pharaoh and lead his people with whom he has had so little contact. Perhaps it was the earlier interaction that he had had with a slave driver that weighed on his conscience for all those years until he could bear it no more, realizing that he had a responsibility to change the situation for the enslaved. Perhaps it was a dissatisfaction with his simple life and the question that had gnawed at him as he wondered what his purpose on earth truly was. But out in the wilderness with his sheep he had a mystical experience that caused him to entirely change the direction of his life and, with it, the history of our people.
How do you explain that to someone else? How do you express in words the power of such a transformative moment? There is no question that the image of the burning bush is a powerful one that conveys not only the extraordinariness of the moment, but also conveys that this is a God experience. Whether it actually happened that way or not is almost irrelevant – the transformative power of the moment is undeniable.
When I started my Jewish mysticism course this past week, I asked attendees if they could think of personal moments when an experience was so deeply felt that it seemed to point toward the existence of something beyond the here and now. A moment, if you like, when you ‘peered behind the veil’ of material existence, if only for a moment. The examples shared were not hard to find. Personal experiences of healing, or working with the sick and the dying, were particularly prevalent, perhaps because at these moments of greatest vulnerability we are more likely to let down our own defenses and be open to something larger than ourselves. And, as people shared, there was an emotion that came with the sharing; that lump in the throat and the tearing up of eyes as, through re-telling about the moment in words, the power of the original experience was felt all over again.
That’s the experience that we need to pay attention to. So often, we get caught up on the ways that others have defined God for us. We get caught up in philosophical debates about whether God is all-powerful or all-knowing. We may find the intellectual exercise an engaging one but, ultimately, it will not bring us any closer to truly understanding the nature of God. The most we can hope for are the brief glimpses that emerge in the fabric of our everyday lives. And we can learn, through awareness and spiritual practice (meditation in particular, but not uniquely) to pay attention to these moments and let them teach us and guide the path of our lives.
A number of years ago, I was at a Purim party and a male friend attended wearing a dress, make up, and jewelry. Knowing how thoughtful he always was with regard to everything he did, I commented on how spectacular he looked, and what a great combination the look was on him… I knew that there was a story to hear. Why a story? Surely it was just Purim – the one day of the Jewish year that cross-dressing is permitted; perhaps even encouraged? All in good fun, right?
He looked me in the eye and said, ‘this holiday is a very important day in the year for me. It is the one day of the year when it is officially ok to wear clothes that make me feel most like me. Who I really am. Without it being a big deal. Without being ridiculed, or worrying about whether I’d be fired for wearing these clothes.’
I understood what he was saying. For some people, part of the fun of Purim is dressing up, and sometimes in the clothes most commonly associated with the opposite gender. And, in that context, we usually call that ‘cross dressing’, although ‘drag’ is probably the more accurate terminology for someone who is intentionally wearing the clothing associated with the opposite gender, but doing so in an over-the-top, performative kind of way. But that’s not how my friend was dressed. His clothing was not a covering over of identity for the entertainment of others, but a deeper and truer expression of inner identity – cross dressing as an expression of self.
Through my own experience, I’ve come to believe that some of our deepest spiritual insights come from within – from getting in touch with our deepest sense of self. Perhaps this is the only thing that we can legitimately label ‘true’ in this life. So what do we do when we find something within Jewish tradition that appears to be a God-given statement that is counter to our inner truth?
In Deuteronomy 22:5 it states: ‘A man’s attire shall not be on a woman, nor may a man wear a woman’s garment’. The rabbis of past generations made an exception for Purim as a festival when reality is intentionally turned on its head. Rashi, (c. 1040-1105 C.E.), explains the verse to apply to a specific context: “Kli gever, a man’s item should not be on a woman: That she should not appear as a man so she can go out among men, for this is only for the purpose of adultery.” Perhaps it was simply a lack of imagination that led to the conclusion that the only possible reason for a woman to try and infiltrate a group of men was to be able to conduct an affair with another man! We need only think of the story of Yentl to know that the desire to study as an equal with men is just one of so many more explanations we could consider.
But, more to the point, what both the Torah and later commentaries fail to recognize is the way that genuine gender expression, which can be independent of sexuality, may lead a person to truly desire to wear garments that are not traditionally associated with their gender in their particular cultural context. We may have socially constructed gender in binary terms, but we are learning from those who are living a different truth that it is more complex than that. And why would that be so wrong?
We cannot truly do justice to the question without pausing to reflect more deeply on cultural understandings of male and female. From the moment a child is born, one of our first questions is ‘boy or girl?’ In cases where the answer is not immediately evident, anxiety often follows and physicians have often made decisions based on outer physical signs to designate a child in one category or another. As we have come to slowly understand transgendered identities, we are learning that gender cannot be so easily defined in this way.
But the picture is more complex than that. We immediately color-code and dress-code children to conform to the gendered labels they have been given. A baby girl dressed in blue may cause confusion. What is also clear from the evolution of gendered codes of dress over time, at least in our Western culture, is that there is much more social acceptability and comfort with women wearing garments also worn by men than the other way around. So it is that women wearing pants are a common occurrence in this day and age, but a man choosing to wear a dress or a skirt is not regarded as normative in day-to-day activity. For many this causes anxiety and uncertainty. We don’t know how to ‘read’ them.
In this instance, I find the Biblical instruction wanting. If my friend finds his religious tradition to inhibit the deepest expression of his true identity, then I find it failing to do the job that religion, in its highest moments, can do by giving expression to our deepest sense of self as we uncover the image of God in which we were uniquely made.
And so, a proposal for a radical re-reading of the Purim tradition. Let us consider what it takes to truly have the courage of Esther and reveal our true selves. Let us express that essence of self in how we dress and present on this festival day. When we speak to our children, let them not feel pressure to conform and dress like all the other children – the girls in their princess outfits and the boys in their superhero costumes. If those are true expressions of who they wish to be at this moment in time, of course! But if we see signs that there is another expression that they yearn for, how powerful it could be to nurture and support that.
What costume would you wear to reveal a deep truth of your innermost essence, sense of self, and identity?
Last week I was following the dialogue and reflections of two of my Rabbis Without Borders colleagues on the topic of the ‘Christian bar mitzvah’. Jason Miller first shared the story of the episode of ‘The Sisterhood’, a reality show on TLC, that featured the decision of two Christian pastors to give their son a Christian bar mitzvah. The father was born Jewish, but converted to Christianity prior to his marriage. Rebecca Einstein Schorr subsequently wrote about her reactions to the segment and had the opportunity to discuss the issue with the couple on Huff Post Live.
Last night, I had the opportunity to share part of the Huff Post Live interview with my 10th grade students in Chai School. As students, aged 15-16, who had their own bar or bat mitzvah just two years ago, I was interested to hear their take on the debate. They were not at all receptive to the idea of a Christian bar mitzvah. They raised many of the same issues that my colleague, Rebecca, had raised during her interview. In particular, they completely understood and supported the idea of creating a coming-of-age ceremony within the context of another religious tradition, and the thought that this might be inspired by Jewish practice. But using the term, ‘bar mitzvah’ indicated to society a specific Jewish ceremony in a Jewish context, so they did not approve of using the same label.
My students were also comfortable with the idea that a father who was Jewish might wish to share his heritage with his son by educating and exposing him to that Jewish heritage and educating him in order to have a Jewish bar mitzvah. They were less concerned and interested in some of the ‘who is a Jew’ debates that Jewish organizations and leaders sometimes engage in. If someone wanted to claim their Jewish heritage, they were cool with that. What they were not cool with was the co-opting of that heritage and blending it with a different religious belief system, namely Christianity. They listened to the pastor’s explanation of how they understood Jewish heritage to be an integral part of their Christian identity and practice, but they did not agree with it.
My class included students who had one non-Jewish parent. But when I investigated further, these students were happy to have participated in the family celebrations of that parent when Christian holidays came around, but they were very clear about their own religious identity and they appreciated that their parents had maintained a clarity and distinctiveness around their respective religious traditions – it seems that they appreciated the individual who followed the path of one faith tradition – they saw an integrity in that decision.
I found myself playing devil’s advocate to better understand to what extent we were coming from a place of gut reaction or whether there was a consistent logic being applied to my students’ thinking. This class will end the year with Confirmation. I asked them if they knew the history of the Confirmation ceremony. They understood that the Reform movement had borrowed the term from Christian communities. The difference, they felt, was that the content of our ceremony was 100% Jewish – we had not borrowed the rituals or forms of the Christian ceremony. And the word ‘Confirmation’ they recognized as an English term that is commonly used and was an appropriate term to describe the confirmation of one’s religious identity and practice.
So then I tried them on weddings. What about weddings where one person is Jewish and one person is Christian and they want to blend rituals and practices from both traditions in their ceremony? Isn’t the potential end-point of that a Christian bar mitzvah for their son down the line? ‘No’, my students told me. If two people who identify with different religious systems want to get married, it is appropriate that they draw on the practices of their religion when they create their wedding ceremony. Each of them is being authentically connected to their own heritage. For my students, that was different to imposing a mix of two religious systems – systems that they did not see as being integrally compatible with each other – on a third individual – a child.
Now, I have read plenty from people who consciously identify as ‘both’, or have decided to raise their children with two faith heritages. I have heard them explain those choices in ways that have their own integrity to them. So I am not seeking to dismiss that choice. There is also plenty of commentary out there on the increasing number of people in American society who reject any specific religious label, but who are mixing and blending from many places to construct their own, personal spirituality. We see the beginnings of new seminaries and new communal gathering places that celebrate the ‘interfaith’ and the ability to draw from multiple traditions in the search for spiritual wisdom and practice. So I recognize that there are many alternative ways that individuals are choosing to navigate the path that my students described, even while my own practice and understanding is most similar to my students.
I’m not surprised that some of these more contemporary trends were not voiced by my students. The fact that they are in our Chai School program and preparing for Confirmation makes them more likely to strongly identify with the wisdom heritage that we have shared with them all of these years. But the deeper insight that I gained from listening to them articulate their arguments was the value that they saw in traveling one’s spiritual path using just one vehicle for the journey. While most progressive faith traditions do not make ‘truth’ claims that elevate them above other faith traditions, there is something to be gained from choosing just one path and diving deeply into its wisdom teachings and practices as one develops a personal faith and spirituality. This was the approach that my students chose. I think they are ready for their Confirmation.