Author Archives: Laura Duhan Kaplan

Laura Duhan Kaplan

About Laura Duhan Kaplan

Laura Duhan Kaplan is rabbi of Or Shalom Synagogue in Vancouver, Canada, a traditional-innovative spiritual community affiliated with ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Laura, also a retired philosophy professor and a faculty member at ALEPH ordination programs, has a passion for teaching philosophy, theology, and spirituality. Laura lives with her husband Charles, psychologist and musician; their two young adult children, who are active in the Habonim-Dror socialist Zionist youth movement; and many companion animals. Follow her blog at onsophiastreet.com.

Rolling My Vegetarian Eyes with Sasha and Malia

256px-Turkeys_on_pathTeenagers Sasha and Malia Obama couldn’t keep a straight face during the annual Turkey Pardon Ceremony.

Thank God for their commentary in body language!

How could anyone keep a straight face during this grotesque theater of the absurd? Two turkeys, Mac and Cheese, named sardonically for vegetarian foods, were publicly pardoned. This took place just after 45 million un-named turkeys were slaughtered for the American celebration of Thanksgiving.

Maybe the pardoning ritual is an uncomfortable joke. Maybe it is an admission of guilt. Maybe it is an awkward attempt at an atonement ritual. Logically, we know that two spared lives cannot erase 45 million deaths. But maybe the ritual of pardon has some power.

Not as much power, though, as the ritual of a thanksgiving offering of animal life.

In Nepal, this week, many celebrated the festival of Gadhimai. In gratitude to this goddess, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of buffalo were butchered. Many American animal activists criticized the foreign festival; some drew parallels with American Thanksgiving.

Jewish parallels can be drawn as well. Some Jewish writers call Sukkot the Jewish festival of thanksgiving. During Sukkot, the Talmud says, 70 animals were offered on the altar. Lest readers be outraged by such decadence, the Talmud hastens to explain its meaning. Seventy animals hint at the 70 nations of the world. Delicately put, a thanksgiving offering touches a universal chord in human nature. Less delicately, a massive sacrifice of animals brings all people together.

Maybe this explanation seems obvious to you, but to me it begs for psychological and sociological interpretation.

Many Jewish scholars describe eating meat as a “compromise.” The Torah explains this through a teaching story: The original human beings were told to eat grasses and seeds. Only ten generations later, however, people and animals were killing one another. God wiped the earth clean with a flood and restarted it with some new rules. People, who could not avoid killing, could now satisfy their impulses by eating animals.

Perhaps partaking of meat at a festival affirms our species-being. Yes, we are aggressive, the ritual teaches, but we do not need to kill one another. Together we affirm a pact: we kill only other species, and only to eat. At American Thanksgiving, we affirm this pact with family and friends; in the Talmud’s vision of the Temple, strangers from around the world affirm it together. The Temple thus becomes a centre of peace.

Of course, some contemporary psychologists would object. Some may view these extravagant meat-based festivals as bonding rituals. But research shows that people who harm animals are more likely to harm people. The manifest lessons of peaceful festivals contain subtle, subliminal messages of aggression: Us versus them. Desensitization.

When you see through the manifest content to the mixed messages, it’s hard to keep a straight face.

Maybe the U.S.’s first daughters were simply uncomfortable watching their father tell bad jokes on TV. But to suggest that would be to underestimate teens. Real teenagers see inconsistencies, ask edgy questions, and work the answers out in deep private conversations.

That’s why I have tried to see this season through fresh teenage eyes. Thank you, Sasha and Malia, for helping me take another look at festive animal offerings and ask, “Why?”

Photo Credit: Dan Smith, Wikimedia Commons

Posted on December 1, 2014

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The World’s Most Contested Religious Site

temple mount

photo credit: Laura Duhan Kaplan

“The world’s most contested religious site.”

So says the New York Times about the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, claimed as a sacred portal between heaven and earth by both Jews and Muslims. Jews say it is the site of the Temple where the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies to meet the Divine presence. Muslims say that here the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven to speak with God.

Currently the site is controlled by an Islamic charitable trust. Jews may visit, though few do. Rabbinic authorities worry visitors might accidentally trespass on the Holy of Holies. Non-Muslim visitors to the Mount are forbidden to pray there. Several activist Jewish groups contest the law. When tensions rise, as they did last week, violence and tragedy rise too.

About a year ago, amid earlier stories of tension, my husband Charles and I wondered: is the Temple Mount a place of historic resonance, strengthened by cultural stories? Or is it also a mystical place that calls people to deep connection?

We were Israel-bound, so we planned to visit.

Early on our chosen morning, we set out on foot for Jerusalem’s Old City, entering at Jaffa Gate. We paused by the information booth. The booth was not yet open but a map was posted. Unfortunately, the section that says, “You are here” was rubbed out.

We approached a police officer. “How do we get to the Kotel (Western Wall)?” we asked, knowing that the Temple Mount entrance was there. “It’s closed now,” he said. We knew he was jokingthe wall is open 24/7but we did not laugh.

At the Kotel Plaza, the normally overcrowded women’s section was empty. So, I asked Charles for five minutes. As I ran in, my right hand ripped a corner off a notebook page. My left hand fumbled for a pen. I scrawled a very short prayer to press between the stones: “?”

Just past the plaza, a long line of people stood by a weathered wooden bridge leading upwards and into a wall. “Announcement and warning! Entering the Temple Mount is a violation of Torah law,” proclaimed one sign. “No religious artifacts or symbols allowed,” proclaimed another. Conveniently, a locker with no lock stood waiting to hold anything deemed inappropriate by the guards.

At the metal detector, the security guard checked our American passports. “Yoush?” he asked. Perhaps he was making conversation; perhaps he was asking, “Are you Jewish?”

We had read about the site’s hours in advance: the Temple Mount is open to visitors four hours a day, ending at 10:00 am. At exactly 10:00 am, guards outside let the last visitors in. And exactly at 10:00 am, guards inside ask all visitors to leave.

That day, Charles and I were the last two people allowed to enter.

We crossed the wooden bridge, walked through a narrow indoor gate and WOW!

Everything opened onto a hidden expanse: a huge open-air park with two mosques, an olive grove, paved walkways, and broad steps. We glimpsed the splendor of the original Temple. We felt the holiness vibe; a funnel of light flowed down from heaven. We merged into the sky.

The magic lasted about 90 seconds.

A man waved his walkie-talkie at us. In heavily accented English, he said, “You have to leave.” He said it again and again, as if it were the only English phrase he knew. No one could argue with him; his only response was, “You have to leave.”

People paused by the gate. A few left, but most lingered. A feral cat hopped out of the wall.

We joined a Spanish-speaking tour group that seemed to have permission to stay. With them, we meandered respectfully along the courtyard’s back wall to another gate. No one wanted to leave. Everyone lingered.

“Exit!” said the guide, in Spanish. “It’s time!”

Through and just outside the gate’s narrow tunnel, the guide paused his group, describing Jewish-Muslim tensions on the Temple Mount. We walked through the circle of people; out to Via Dolorosa; then we took a right, a left, a right.

And found ourselves completely lost in the Old City streets. Sunlight did not reach these cobblestone alleys, but local shoppers didseeking socks, phones, toasters, and conservative Muslim-style dresses, in bright colors with fashionable details. Deep in this maze, we were the only tourists.

Suddenly, we grasped the magic of the Temple Mount from below. Out of a crowded, dark web of city life, eleven hidden gates open onto the mountain’s light. The Temple Mount is a numinous place. One ascends through the fabric of every day life to a different consciousness, to the spacious possibility of divine-human encounter.

Back home, we prayed:

May Jerusalem’s factions find a way of multicultural co-existence. It could be one shared answer for all, or a compromise that makes space in different ways, and at different times, for different claims.

May this holy space not be seen as a symbol for all political tension. Rather, may it be known as a place charged with spiritual energy; one that calls out to seekers, and is big enough to welcome all who come in good faith.

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Posted on November 3, 2014

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Sukkot, Our Interfaith Hippie Re-visioning Festival

Oseh Shalom SukkahOn Sukkot, it’s customary to read Chapter 14 from the prophet Zechariah.

Have you read it? I mean, really read it?

If you have, you’ll know that Zechariah was an unusual thinker.

Zechariah hoped Sukkot could be an opportunity for shared healing after regional war. “The survivors of every nation,” he wrote, “will ascend to Jerusalem year after year, to worship the God beyond all armies, and to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot” (Zechariah 14:16).

Camping together, making music, cooking food, sharing customs and creating new ones at an annual week-long interfaith festival: that was Zechariah’s visionary plan for regional healing. We don’t begin with political dialogue, theological comparison, or even shared stories of hurt and joy. Instead, we simply practice together in joy, one week a year.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l picked up on Zechariah’s cue. “A dialogue of theology is mostly futile,” he said. “Theology is the afterthought of a believer. It begins with what we should finish with. How do you get to the primary stuff of belief? You show me your way that works for you, I’ll show you mine, and we can share!” (Deep Ecumenism workshop, 1998)

Of course, learning by mutual “showing” is not really that simple. In fact, it’s pretty easy to see right past what we are shown, because we wear many lenses of preconception over our mind’s eye.

We may generously see every religion as a way of approaching Godas we define God, that is.

Using our best compassionate psychology, we may imagine we know the full catalogue of existential questions that faith answers.

We may speak idealistically of “universal” human themes, while unconsciously limiting the universal by gender, age, race, or nationality.

Too often, we employ what philosopher Paul Ricoeur called a “hermeneutic [interpretive lens] of suspicion.” Because we believe we know what truly drives all religious expression, we are suspicious of superficial differences. We look at differencesand sometimes right through differencesjust long enough to confirm our theories.

It is much more difficult to practice what Ricoeur called a “hermeneutic of recollection”to immerse ourselves in a practice, side by side with believers, and get a feel for what they receive. It’s difficult to let go of preconceptions, and it’s difficult to let go of fears.

The fears are big, and they are not mere fantasies. What if I see God their way, feel called to convert, and lose my entire family? What if I am overpowered by groupthink, and join a cult doing activities I will later condemn? What if joining a new group means I am supposed to despise the one that raised me?

Perhaps the fears would be lessened if we shared our practices within a structured ritual formatlike the one Zechariah envisioned for Sukkot. One week a year, we would gather in regional groups for interfaith campoutdoors at a campsite, if weather permits. Working side by side, we would negotiate the meals; schedule ritual prayers for all open to all; share musical traditions, children’s games, and daily camp tasks. We would agree on rules against evangelizing within or after camp. We would allow each regional gathering to develop its own unique flavor, its own signature traditions for this special week.

Yes, Sukkot Camp does sound a bit like a hippie festival, and maybe Zechariah, with his dreamy visions, was the 6th Century BCE equivalent of a hippie. However, this epithet might be a plus, if you think of the successful 30-year old Burning Man festival, and the smaller spin-off gatherings created by energetic communities around the world.

Hippie or not, Zechariah’s radical visions are celebrated in our tradition. Perhaps we could try to implement just one of his visions, creating a mini-multicultural city of Sukkot with intention and good faith, as we bypass ways of thinking that constrain us, and lay seeds for cooperation and peace.

Thanks to the Intention Gathering, and to Rabbi Arthur Waskow. Image by Oseh Shalom, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Posted on October 6, 2014

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The Warrior Within

Synagoge,_Enschede,_Mozaiek“The true test of a warrior is not without – it is within.”Lieutenant Commander Worf, Star Trek: The Next Generation

Current events, recent readings in the yearly Torah cycle, and the inner work of preparing for Rosh Hashanah,the Jewish New Year, come together in this famous literary quotation.

The books of Bamidbar (Numbers) and Devarim (Deuteronomy) talk a lot about war: how to wage it justly, how to win, and how to march under the Divine banner.

Generally speaking, much of history is about war, territory, and the exploits of kings. Traditionally, kings have a motive for celebrating themselves. They have the funds to write, publish and circulate stories of their successes and, occasionally, their distresses.

The books of Bamidbar and Devarim do style themselves as historical texts, narrating events and offering snapshots of legal traditions. Some academic scholars credit the early Israelite kings for commissioning and overseeing the books. Perhaps that accounts for the books’ preoccupation with war and its philosophical justifications.

Current events are heavily focused on war, too. Governments, resistance groups, and advocacy organizations publicize sympathetic accounts of their successes and distresses, too. When we read about unfolding events, however, we recognize and try to respond to urgent needs for relief. Thus it seems appropriate, ethical, and results-oriented to focus on war – not odd at all.

As Torah attempts to tell a religious history, its focus on war seems to present war as a religious experience. Sociologist Max Weber theorized about the roots of this view. The spiritual covenant we prize, Weber argued, was not originally an agreement between the Israelites and God. Instead, it was a confederation agreement between the twelve Israelite tribes to support each other in times of war. But the army’s leader, figurehead, and supreme general could not be recruited from any particular tribe. The leader was God, Commander of Commanders. Thus, worship of a warrior God was important social glue in ancient Israel.

Weber’s contemporary, philosopher Hermann Cohen, saw the exact opposite. The true nature of the Israelites’ God, he wrote, was and is peace. God authorizes the priests to place the Divine name upon the people. This fifteen-word name, known now as the priestly blessing, concludes, “May God lift the Divine Face towards you, and place within you shalom” (Numbers 6: 24-26). For Cohen, God’s true face and most accurate name is “peace.” An essential, fundamental, spiritual yearning for peace holds us as we stumble through war’s posturing and politics.

Two views: war and peace as fundamental religious experiences. Sure, depth psychologists would say, both war and profound peace are numinous experiences. Unearthly and otherworldly, they yank us out of ordinary consciousness, showing us a different order of reality. No wonder some people speak of war as a religious experience, and others speak similarly of peace.

A midrash teaches that during the month of Elul, “the king is in the field,” i.e., God is especially close to us. Perhaps this month we can deliberately focus on our own inner tendencies towards war and peace. Where and when, in your relationships, do you find yourself poised for conflict? Where and when do you find yourself yearning to make peace? Both can be done with intention, grace and justice. And both should begin with reflection, consultation, prayer, and planning.

To adapt Worf’s words slightly, “The true warrior, and the true peacemaker, begin the work within.”

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Posted on September 8, 2014

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Holy War: What Would Moses Do?

dove-gloveJoshua, Moses’ trusted assistant, has exactly three spoken lines in the Five Books of Moses, a.k.a. the Torah.

After the revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai, Moses and Joshua climb the mountain. From below, they hear the sound of people worshiping an idol, the Golden Calf. Joshua says, “The sound of war is in the camp!” (Exodus 32:17). “No,” replies Moses, “That’s the sound of people singing.”

When Moses asks God for help with spiritual leadership, God gifts 70 people with the ability to prophesy. When a young servant reports to Moses and Joshua that people are prophesying in the camp, Joshua says, “Jail them!” (Numbers 11:28). “Don’t,” replies Moses, “If only all God’s people could be prophets!”

When the twelve scouts return from assessing the habitability of Canaan, ten scouts report that fearsome giants control the land. But scouts Joshua and Caleb say, “Don’t be afraid if they fight us; they are undefended!” (Numbers 14:9)

If the Torah were a movie, those three lines would convey Joshua’s character. His eyes see the discipline of war everywhere. So it’s no surprise that in the sequel (i.e., the next book of the Bible) The Book of Joshua, he leads the people to war.

The Biblical Joshua is no ordinary general. He is a deeply spiritual person. He has a gift for creating ritual, which he uses to design a ceremony for crossing the Jordan River (Joshua 3:1-17). He facilitates miracles: when he asks God to make the sun stand still, God complies (Joshua 10:12-14). He is a stickler for the ethics of just conduct in war, punishing soldiers who violate them (Joshua 7:1-26). Perhaps a spiritual frame helps him shape and contain war’s terrifying adrenaline overload.

But peace is not part of Joshua’s spirituality. He accepts a peace treaty only when tricked into it (Joshua 9:1-27). He considers his war to be a holy war, commanded by God.

On these matters, he completely reverses the teaching of his mentor Moses. For Moses, a divine command to do battle should be questioned. A peace treaty should be offered, proactively.

In Deuteronomy, Moses reports that as soon as the Israelites had raised a strong army, God told him, “I have delivered into your hands Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon…engage with him in battle.”  Instead of engaging, however, Moses says, “I sent messengers to Sihon with words of peace” (Deuteronomy 2:24-26).

Moses is generally a critical thinker par excellence. When he has an adrenaline overload, he stops to reflect. When he hears God talking from a burning bush, he says, “What is your name?” (Exodus 3:13). When an angry God later tells him, “I’m going to wipe out my disloyal people,” he explains logically why that is not a good idea (Numbers 14:13-16).

Occasionally he does lapse; for example he loses his temper after his sister Miriam dies, insulting the people and ignoring God’s instructions (Numbers 20:1-13). But for the most part, he does not accept either violence or spiritual experience uncritically. He does not unreflectively use spirituality to make sense of violence.

Jews, Christians and Muslims revere Moses as a prophet and a leader. Four out of five books of Torah focus on his story. New Testament quotes his Deuteronomic speech 32 times. Qur’an mentions him more than any other individual. Please, world, when we are tempted to use God’s name to justify war and religion, let’s follow our inspirational leader.

What would Moses do? He would think, question, and try to craft peace.

Posted on August 11, 2014

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Rabbi Laura’s Day Off (or: Outreach Happens)

Intention smallerOur 21 year old daughter has invited her parents to The Intention Gathering, a “self-sustaining, all-ages, ethnically diverse superfragilistic-art-dance-creative community.”

We have absolutely no idea what that means.

But we are delighted to spend three days away from leadership in our Jewish community, three days of play without work, three days of anonymity. We pack camping gear appropriate to three days of summer rainforest weather. Without any clear mental image of our destination, we ride the ferry to British Columbia’s Sunshine Coast.

A short drive in our battered van brings us to a makeshift registration tent in a meadow at the foot of a wooded hill. Volunteers welcome us warmly, but no one seems to know exactly where we can park or pitch our tent. Still, we manage to unload. We set up our tent in a gorgeous wooded spot between a waterfall and a line of fellow campers. Then we join 150 friendly strangers, age 2-70, in the meadow for a communal dinner cooked by volunteers.

At opening circle, volunteers welcome us, waving smoke from aromatic sage smoldering in oyster shells. The circle’s leader invokes qualities of the four directions. Accompanied by drummers, we walk two by two to the main activity area, pausing at four lovingly hand-decorated outdoor altars, evoking earth, air, fire, and water. Everyone holds hands as announcements are made about respectful behavior, responsibility towards children, sharing of water resources, and jobs that still need volunteers.

Then the electronic dance music, broadcast from a covered DJ stage, begins: techno, trance, dub step, and more. We—two middle-aged parents—dance a while on the grassy outdoor dance floor, then go to bed. Zipped into our tent, we listen to the sounds. Here we are, camping in a magnificent forest, but instead of water and nocturnal insects, we hear far-off psychedelic music. We laugh ourselves to sleep.

Morning gives us a clearer sense of the gathering. We realize that we are witnessing, firsthand, a gathering of people unaffiliated with religious organizations who actively seek transcendence, spiritual growth, and community. So I start interviewing people about why they participate in this gathering. A handful of answers comes up over and over again.

“Community.” “Co-creating something from scratch.” “I got tired of raves and wanted a place where I could dance all night drug-free.” “You can just be yourself here.”

And, in a way, you can just be yourself. Dress is funky: bright colors, ruffled skirts and leggings on men and women alike, animal hats, all-day-pajamas, costumes. Conversation is easy: people talk freely about where they live, how they work, why they came. The atmosphere is fluid: nothing is quite on schedule, hula hoops and giant bubbles are always available, everyone plays with the children, and anyone might start dancing at any moment to the music that blares most of the day.

Workshops, however, are serious explorations of community, creativity and self. The “Rainforest Walk” workshop is an education in ethno-botany and habitat preservation, led by two scientists. “Breathwork” is an opportunity for release of tension, led by two experienced bodyworkers with a strong psychological grounding. “Empathy and Vulnerability” is an invitation to public speaking and performance, co-led by an acting coach and an executive coach.

Nighttime is less structured. We work a shift at the peer support tent. We sit at a shadowy picnic table discussing Plato’s Republic with a new young friend. Around the firepit, we discuss gender, sexuality and neurobiology with other new friends. We move to the dance floor, laughing and playing with other dancers.

By the third day, we—my spouse and I—really are ready to be our whole selves. We talk freely about our professional work in religion and psychology, about the Jewish Renewal movement, about our social and political ideals.

One woman hears us singing Hebrew songs in the forest. She approaches us, explaining that she has drifted away from her Jewish upbringing. She is surprised and delighted to learn that our synagogue, Or Shalom, is both liberal and spiritual.

Another woman, missing 3G access to the news, tells us that she worries every day about Israel and Palestine. Relieved to learn that we do too, she cries.

One man, a labor union activist, says he heard vaguely about a radical socialist Jewish movement whose young adults work in both Israel and Canada; do we know how he can connect? We refer him to our daughter, a former Habonim-Dror camp counselor.

A woman speaks about Shabbat with great joy, but tells me that she left her synagogue a decade ago over its marginalization of gay and lesbian participants. I tell her about the many Jewish groups that do active LGBTQ outreach and she is encouraged.

So much for our three days away from Jewish leadership, work and our everyday identities. Our mental image of the trip, unclear as it was, did not include Jewish outreach work. Yet we met several Jews yearning for transcendence, spiritual growth, and Jewish community. All were surprised to learn that Jewish community might welcome them, as it has us, even if we love camping, dancing, playing, forests, indigenous traditions, socialism and queer perspectives.

At this gathering, I learned some things about Jewish outreach without really trying. We met people who avoid Jewish organizations; no program at a synagogue, no matter how creative, would have attracted them. Instead, we met them in their own space. We came to the gathering out of genuine interest, not as teachers or leaders. We came as ourselves. We connected through friendliness, playfulness and shared interests. These simple qualities began to create Jewish community.

Sometimes outreach just happens. And sometimes random chance teaches more than any controlled experiment.

Image: Photo of Hillary Kaplan at Intention 15.5, courtesy of Charles Kaplan

Posted on July 21, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

A Special Person at a Special Time: Reb Zalman’s Jewish Renewal

Leningrad_Codex_Carpet_page_eLast Thursday, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, passed away, leaving his bodily existence for…well, for whatever comes next.

Reb Zalman, a creative and challenging teacher with a twinkle in his eye, was a tremendous pastoral presence for many people, who adopted him as a spiritual father or grandfather. His influence is reflected in our approaches to tikkun olam, prayer, study, meditation, music, gender equality, spirituality, environmentalism, interfaith outreach and more.

When people ask me to summarize the Jewish Renewal movement al regel achat, (literally, “while standing on one foot,”) i.e., in one sentence, I usually say, “It’s liberal Judaism with an emphasis on spirituality.” Fifty years into our founding, we have more than forty affiliated synagogues, in North America, South America, Europe, Australia, and, of course, Israel. We have a seminary, a retreat center, a rabbinic association, a publishing project and more. Our umbrella organization is the ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Reb Zalman was an extraordinary individual who appeared at an extraordinary moment in time, and helped shape a response. In many ways, all of Judaism today is a renewed Judaism. We are only 70 years—less than one lifetime—past the end of World War II, only 70 years past the murder of six million European Jews, only 70 years past the destruction of a huge cultural infrastructure: Jewish schools, libraries, printing presses, synagogues, social centers, towns and neighborhoods where parents passed on traditions to their children simply by practicing them together. Or, to put it positively, we are 70 years into the project of renewing Judaism.

After the Holocaust, it took several decades just for survivors to come back from the brink: to count their losses, to find their way, as many did, to the newly established state of Israel, to North America and South America, and to build new lives in alien cultures. The re-establishment of our cultural institutions has fallen largely to our generation. Many of my age-peers (I’m in my fifties) have been asking, “How does one practice Judaism? How do I reconnect with my historical traditions?”

Many answers have been offered, and here I will contrast only two of them. Yes, of course it is an oversimplification, but perhaps one that will provide helpful categories for understanding contemporary Judaism and the Jewish choices each of us makes.

Some religious leaders have said, “How does one practice Judaism? Here are the guidelines. Follow this checklist of holidays, prayers, foods, clothing, and more.” Many people find it reassuring to have a clear set of guidelines; they buy guidebooks, learn from teachers and peers, and they practice with passion. This is a popular path. Jewish Orthodoxy is on the rise.

Some religious leaders give a different answer to the question, “How does one practice Judaism?” They say, “Awaken your spirit! Ask your questions, share your yearnings, and find out how traditional teachings and practices can speak to your deepest needs.” This is a more challenging path. After inter-generational trauma, it may not be easy to open to spiritual questions. Yet we know that when a person is ready, this opening is a gateway to healing. The Jewish Renewal movement emphasizes this second path.

Reb Zalman taught that the two paths are not mutually exclusive. Both are traditional. And both are needed to activate the whole human being. Drawing on kabbalistic language, Reb Zalman spoke often of four worlds of human consciousness. Simultaneously, we are involved in action, feeling, thought, and spiritual being. Ritual practices ground us in action; recognition of our yearning for meaning activates our emotion; intellectual study shapes our questions; God answers by moving us spiritually.

Sometimes Jewish movements argue fiercely over which approach will best renew and re-establish our religious culture. But for me, the best conclusion is Reb Zalman’s: each individual is unique; we need to reach all souls, at all levels; and every entry point is a holy one.

Rest in peace, my teacher and spiritual zayde, and travel with joy.

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Posted on July 7, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Can Jews Unite?

shutterstock_159077903The prayer book Siddur Eit Ratzon includes a contemporary prayer for Israel. “We affirm that it is possible for Jews and Arabs, for Palestinians and Israelis, and for Jews and Jews, to work together to build a shared future.”

“Jews and Jews”—that line catches my attention. Anyone who is active in Jewish community, or part of a Jewish family, knows how profound our inner rifts can be. Anyone who speaks about politics with Israelis has heard the opinion, “The Palestinian issue will be solved. But differences between Ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews might destroy our country.”

Last week I attended a local Canadian prayer service in support of the three Israeli teens kidnapped in the West Bank, Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Sha’er. Three rabbis, representing Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform synagogues took turns at the podium. One of the speakers, an Orthodox rabbi, told us about his personal connections with the yeshivot the boys attended. I was moved to see how personally shaken he was. He described the leaders of the school as visionaries, and of Gush Etzion as the heart of the Jewish goal to return to the land. Yes, Gush Etzion was founded legitimately in the 1920s and some of my closest childhood friends live there, so this should not push my buttons…but did he have to identify an Orthodox movement as the core of the Jewish state?

He went on to speak about the unity of the Jewish people within the diversity of the Jewish state. He described the yeshiva movement’s emphasis on learning as the salvation of the Jewish people. This, he said, does not diminish the work of the secular Jews who serve in the army. Both groups must work together, weaving together the two great visions for the state of Israel.

On the one hand, he simply told it like it is: despite the complexity of Israeli life, political discourse tends to polarize people into two groups. On the other hand, his telling made me uncomfortable. I wondered: Are the two visions really equal? No, I thought. Is studying Torah and transmitting the culture as much a praxis as guarding borders, and mobilizing in response to civilian emergencies? No. Is learning religious Judaism within a fairly closed community as valuable as learning about one’s country by working together with a diverse group of young fellow citizens? No. Suddenly, I realized that my negative reaction to his version of Jewish ideology was so strong, it led me to feel protective of the army, forgetting the many criticisms I have of Israel’s extreme militarization. And then I felt even more uncomfortable, realizing how I was swept into the very dichotomy the speaker criticized.

“Why,” continued the speaker, “did God choose these three boys to be kidnapped?” I found this question jarring, and absolutely alien to my theology. I do not believe that God directs daily events, tweaking here and there to meet a Divine goal, using us as puppets in the plan. Nor do I believe that God chooses specific people to be harmed in order to bring about a mysterious greater good. Instead, I believe in free will, knowing that many people use it badly, harming others intentionally and unintentionally. I believe that God has gifted us with intellect and imagination, so that we may see the results of our actions, and create positive alternatives. As I reflected on the speaker’s question, it began to dawn on me that, while we share a religious tradition, we do not share a theology.

The speaker answered his own question. “God chose these boys in order to bring about the unity of the Jewish people. All over the world, Jews are gathering to pray for them. It doesn’t matter to us if they are someone else’s children; we will pray for them as if they are our own.” His good intention spoke to my heart. Yes, I thought, even if we don’t share religious beliefs, we are part of an ethnic group, a single nation spread across the globe, and we must work towards unity.

Then we prayed and sang. Together, we prayed for the boys and their families, and we sang Hatikvah. We did not pray explicitly for peace in the Middle East. We did not pray for Palestinian boys incarcerated in Israeli prisons and separated from their families. Perhaps some in our gathering felt drawn to support their fellow Jews, or preferred to narrowly focus the prayer on the issue at hand, or—most likely —did not even notice the omission. But to me, steeped in the human universalism of my favorite Biblical prophets, the omission was glaring.

As we were leaving, people thanked the organizers personally; offered words of appreciation to the speakers; and helped the young volunteers collect the leftover psalms handouts. Rabbis from all the streams of Judaism greeted one another in friendship. Truly, I love my local Jewish community. Despite our political and theological differences, we create the personal relationships that make us whole.

Still, I am haunted by the Talmud‘s pronouncement that the second Temple was destroyed in the year 70 CE by sinat chinam, senseless hatred. Having read the works of Josephus, I know that the Jewish political parties did not work together until the Romans breached Jerusalem’s walls. I fear that, despite our inner work and outer friendships, my colleagues and I share these faults.

I pray that these fears are misguided. I pray for the safe return home of Naftali, Eyal and Gilad, and of young adults, in Israel, Palestine, and all over the world. I pray for peace. May all those whose pain drives them to conflict find healing. May we thus build new worlds instead of allowing ourselves to destroy this one.

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Posted on June 23, 2014

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The Talmud Says: Embrace the Selfie

MabelNormandWe are the “selfie generation.” Don’t let the epithet unsettle you. According to leading sociologists, we are not the first to be self-obsessed.

American “baby boomers,” born from 1946 to 1964, are the “Me Generation.” Old surveys of eighteen-year-old boomers reveal that their most important goal was to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life.” They created a “culture of narcissism,” said sociologist Christopher Lasch, obsessively consuming self-help books and seminars. Instead of looking out for others, they looked inside. To me, this seems a wee bit over-critical. If you were born right after millions of people killed each other for no good reason, wouldn’t you wonder about life’s meaning?

More recently, American “millennials,” born 1982 to 2004, have been called “Generation Me.” On comparable surveys, eighteen-year-old millennials identify “being very well off financially” as their most important goal. Sociologists criticize them for valuing money, image and fame over concern for others. In their defense, if you grew up at a time of successive world financial crises, wouldn’t you hope for personal financial stability?

We can’t help but be shaped by our time. We are, after all, historical beings, born into cultures. Spiritually, the historical self is our starting point. Our search begins with the concerns of our society. In that sense, we are all part of a “me” generation.

The famous revelation at Mount Sinai, articulated in the Ten Commandments, starts with the word “I,” anochi. At Mt. Sinai, says a famous midrash, the Israelites heard that first word “anochi” – and promptly passed out. No one but Moses heard the rest of the commandments we find in the Torah. What’s that about?

According to philosopher Franz Rosenzweig, God personally connected with each individual consciousness in the fullness of love. That connection was the revelation. All the ethical rules represent Moses’ interpretation of his experience of Divine love, in light of his concerns as a nation-builder. Divine love is available to every generation; they articulate its meaning through their historical concerns.

The surveys I’ve cited, from the American [College] Freshman project, are a snapshot of one demographic: college-bound young adults at age eighteen. Respondents are just beginning to know the historical “me” out of which a responsible life mission might arise.

For seventeen years, I taught philosophy to college students, including baby boomers, Gen Xers, and millennials. Yes, in keeping with the temper of the times, I used a “me” approach. What experiences made you say “wow”? Which of your life stories hold your most meaningful moments? How will you earn a living with integrity? Through journals, group discussion, and listening with a fullness of connection, we explored these concerns. We approached timeless ideas through personal perspectives and, in so doing, broadened our perspectives.

This is how it works: we get to know big ideas through our little consciousness. The inner life of the soul is our only gateway to higher perspectives. We start with self to transcend self. So says the Talmud, in a poetic comment on Psalms 103:5:

About whom did King David [author of the Psalm] say five times “Bless the Lord, O my soul” ? He said it about the Holy One of blessing and about the soul. As the Holy One fills the whole world, so also does the soul fill the whole body. As the Holy One sees and is not seen, so also the soul sees and is not seen. As the Holy One sustains the world, so also does the soul sustain the body. As the Holy One is pure, so also is the soul pure. As the Holy One dwells in the innermost chambers, so also does the soul dwell in the innermost chambers. Let the one who has these five things come and praise the ONE who has these five things (B. Berachot 10a).

Go ahead, says the Talmud, embrace the selfie. A snapshot of you is a fine starting point. Knowing your self leads you to know God. So, study your self well. Recognize your generation’s concerns; know that they will shape the religion and spirituality of your time. Explore the way you personally reach for spirit; see your lens, and see through it. Do it all with an attitude of praise, i.e., with humility, gratitude, and wonder.

Posted on June 10, 2014

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Does Interfaith Dialogue Work?

1024px-Concert_"Flamenco_et_Soufisme"_(IMA)_(4431396219)I ask this question often, in one form or another. And often, people answer with a cynical “No.”

A business leader exclaimed: “How can groups of different religions dialogue, when denominations within the same religion won’t talk to each other!”

A good will ambassador said sadly: “I’ve been attacked many times for my views.”

An activist declared: “Talking about our views and doing nothing together is a waste of time.”

A rabbi complained: “Usually, we just talk about our commonalities, and gloss over the important differences.”

A Holocaust survivor said with a heavy heart:  “The ones who want to dialogue aren’t the ones we need to worry about.”

Call me idealistic, but I think interfaith dialogue can save lives. My favorite example comes from the memoir of Zivia Lubetkin, the only woman on the command staff of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In 1940, Lubetkin and fellow youth leaders took in the orphaned teens arriving in the Warsaw ghetto. In response to dehumanization of Jews, they organized underground schools for their teens. In response to scarcity, they organized work permits. When scarcity progressed to starvation, they put the teens to work in soup kitchens. When they learned of the death camps, they armed the teens, fought alongside them, and helped survivors escape. At every step on the way, they worked with contacts outside the ghetto: their friends from interfaith summer camp.

Why am I so idealistic when others are so cynical? Why do I hold out high hopes when others lose faith in dialogue? Perhaps it’s partly my open-ended view of what counts as interfaith “dialogue.” Dialogue is conversation, communication, an exchange of speech. Speech comes in many forms, some nonverbal; communication can come simply through shared experience.

Reflecting on the many modes of dialogue, I am reminded of the Kabbalistic concept of four worlds of consciousness. Simultaneously, we live in worlds of action, feeling, thought, and being. Under the rubric of interfaith dialogue, I have participated in projects touching all four worlds.

In the world of action, Ahavat Olam, a Vancouver havurah, has organized a Muslim-Jewish Feed the Hungry project. Together, Jews and Muslims serve meals at a Christian-sponsored homeless shelter. Discussion of religious differences is not the point. Instead, participants focus on the familiar comfort of working with the same people month after month. Communication about shared values happens in the doing.

In the world of feeling, our regional Christian seminary, Vancouver School of Theology, hosts an annual concert “Musical and Sonic Landscapes in Islam.” Contemporary Islamic composers lead the students in exploring the role of sound in spirituality. Students move, sing, speak – and are surprised by their own confusion, laughter, and mixed feelings. Emotions are aroused, and their meanings discussed. Music communicates by stimulating emotion, which in turn stimulates conversation. This, too, is dialogue.

In the world of intellect, the local Ahmadiyya Muslim community organizes interfaith dialogue panel discussions. Religious teachers and leaders representing Jewish, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Buddhist groups speak to a deep existential question, such as “How does my religious tradition address suffering?” During the Q & A that follows, attendees ask questions in the language of their own tradition. Sometimes this mismatch of language is strikingly odd, requiring presenters to re-frame teachings most familiar to them. This awkward conversation, too, is dialogue; thoughts are stimulated, and curiosities sparked.

In the world of being, the Vancouver Multi-Faith action society recently hosted an ecstatic “Sacred Earth Celebration.” This interfaith service raised awareness about a shared human concern: the health of our planet. Its intent was not, like so many interfaith services, to declare each community’s commitment or show how each community prays. It was to unite us for an evening into a single community, brought to heightened awareness through music, poetry, images and food. No information about different religious traditions was shared, though elements of all were woven into the service. Just being together in altered consciousness was a kind of soul-to-communication; this, too, was interfaith dialogue.

I agree with the cynics, just a little bit: if you try to reach people by speaking only to one dimension of their experience, you may well find ill-will, ignorance, inaction, fear and disunity. But if you reach out on every level, sharing action, feeling, thoughts and being—as many youth do at summer camp—you just might find one harmonic convergence that grows into a reliable connection.

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Posted on May 26, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy