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.

Horseradish Harvest: A Passover Gathering

Helen HorseradishYesterday at Or Shalom Synagogue in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, we harvested horseradish from our synagogue garden. We are an urban synagogue, with only a few garden beds on our property. Still, we pulled from the earth enough horseradish for about twenty Passover Seder gatherings.

Our spring harvest was part of an afternoon gathering we called the “Interfaith Garden Cafe.” A group of fifteen Jews and Christians gathered to explore the spirituality of gardening. Together we set our intention, offering ideas from our shared Biblical creation story. Humanity was placed in a lush garden, filled with every kind of tree. Humans were encouraged to eat — and also instructed to care for the garden. The message? The earth’s produce will support you, as long as you support it.

Of course, once we put our shovels to the bed, the horseradish was ambivalent about supporting us. The roots demonstrated admirable principles of tenacity and community. Roots from several mini-colonies of radish had grown together. To remove even one, we had to remove all.

Inspired by these roots, we talked about how gardening can bring people together. One American person’s strawberry patch fed an entire neighbourhood, including possums, cats, and children from the daycare across the street. One Canadian person’s quest to clear space for a small urban garden brought forty apartment-dwelling strangers together. One African person’s childhood included groups singing and gardening together, many hands turning work into play.

We also talked about the spirituality of growing food. Encountering insects and plants in the garden makes us appreciate the diversity of life forms, and wonder what their consciousness might be like. If each reflects a facet of the Divine mind, that mind must be amazing indeed.

For human beings, food is a major life theme, present to our awareness every day. Food makes possible a life of the body; it invigorates heart, mind, and spirit; its particular qualities change our consciousness. For example: during the Passover Seder, as we speak of slavery, one bite of horseradish (maror) can make us shudder at its bitterness and bring tears to our eyes.

After the farmer plants, and while the farmer tends, the farmer also waits for forces beyond her control to do their work. Growing food is a tremendous leap of faith. Before we parted, we acknowledged that leap with two Hebrew prayers. One celebrated our active planting: Shehecheyanu (thank you God for bringing us to this time). The second celebrated our hopeful waiting: Birkat Hashanim (thank you God, who brings the dew and rain that make a good harvest possible).

Here in Vancouver, our Judaism is influenced by local culture. Our city is built between mountains and lowlands, surrounded by rivers and seas, a short hop from forests, fjords, and cliffs. Despite a century of oppression, Indigenous culture is powerfully present. Its teachings about how our land shapes us are inescapable. Its perceptions of local animals as both respectfully real and magically mythological are verified every time an orca, bald eagle, or raven appears.

Every sunrise reminds us that Canada’s natural resources are its bounty, and that Canadians must take leadership in greening our planet. Leadership includes citizen initiatives; initiatives include greening our city; and a green city includes small, sustainable gardens everywhere. Even Jewish Family Services cultivates a garden, sharing its produce through the Food Bank.

Both these local themes make Passover more immediately present. The first brings slavery into a modern context. We find ourselves learning from another culture that has endured trauma, and works actively at self-preservation and acceptance. The second reminds us that our spring holiday celebrates renewal of the seasons, the earth, and hope for ecological healing.

Our sages teach that Passover must be immediately present to us, as if we too are experiencing the Exodus. How is Passover present in your local community?

Photo credit: Laura Duhan Kaplan. Thanks to my co-leaders of the “Interfaith Garden Cafe,” Tristin Chapman of The Small Church, and Carol Konkin, gardener at Or Shalom Synagogue. Thanks to our co-sponsor, Iona Pacific Inter-Religious Centre at the Vancouver School of Theology.

Posted on March 23, 2015

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God is Coming and She Brings Hope

ducklings mom safetyFor forty-eight minutes, Father O’Neal was dead.

As he crossed over into the next realm, he saw God.

Forty-eight hours later, he was well enough to speak about his vision: “She had a soft and soothing voice and her presence was as reassuring as a mother’s embrace.”

His Archbishop intervened quickly, issuing a press release stating that Father O’neal had suffered hallucinations linked to a near-death experience, and that God is not a female.

Just forty-eight hours after publication, the story was revealed as a hoax.

Still, it inspired our family to a great forty-eight minute discussion. We discussed images of God, authority, and creed in our own religion of Judaism.

“You can have any image of God you want,” said my husband, “because all of them are right!”

He was referring, of course, to the proliferation of metaphors for God in the Torah: eagle, consuming fire, spirit of compassion, mother bird.

“You can have any image of God you want,” said my son, “because all of them are wrong!”

He was referring, of course, to the Zohar’s teaching that the best metaphor for God is Eyn Sof, infinity. All other images say more about what people need to believe than about Divinity Itself.

“You can have any image of God you want,” said my daughter, “as long as you light the Shabbos candles in just the right way!”

She was referring, of course, to the view that some religious traditions are defined by practice, rather than faith or credo.

We, as a family, are glad to see this view recognized. Calling religions “faith traditions” seems to elevate one religion, Christianity, as the standard for all. Faith defines Christianity: in 35 C.E., the Apostle Paul declared it the key. Two hundred and fifty years later, the Council of Nicea delineated what Christians should believe.

Our Jewish family does not believe that faith is the key, and we certainly don’t agree on who God is. Instead, we agree to disagree — on God, and on whether Judaism has a credo.

Stephen Prothero writes in God is Not One, that “Judaism has no real creed.” Instead, he says, a key motif shapes our thought: exile and return. Losing connection with God, splintering of human communities, suffering unanswered — these are all states of exile. We constantly seek return, through Shabbat, ethical behaviour, and tikkun olam.

Still, as Reb Zalman z”l writes, this constant seeking does add up a to a doctrine: the doctrine of hope.

A fierce doctrine, to be sure, but also a soothing, reassuring one. A doctrine that is always available — as we imagine our ideal mothers might be. Not coincidentally, the prophet Isaiah sometimes describes God as an ideal mother. “Though a human mother might forget her children, I could never forget you,” says God to Isaiah (49:14). I could never forget you, because after exile comes return. If this is the structure of reality, hope is always an option.

Maybe images of God do say a great deal about what people need to believe. All around me, I see people invoking images of warrior Gods, meeting their needs to fight for liberation or dominance. Without a balance, I begin to despair. If a nurturing God brings hope in troubled times, I, too, need a vision of her reassuring presence.

Photo credit: Tony Alter, wikimedia commons. Caption: “The baby mallards were all over the creek, but within 10 feet of mom, but when I stepped on the bridge they all rushed to mom’s side and she took them to safety under the bridge.”

Posted on February 23, 2015

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Real Religious Differences

Burning_Splash_over_Dried_Mud

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Every year, I laugh out loud at this week’s Torah reading, the crossing of the Red Sea.

There Moses stands, so close to his goal of guiding the Israelites out of slavery, when suddenly everything goes wrong. A body of water blocks the group’s path forward. An advancing army blocks them from behind. The people begin to melt down, yelling that they prefer slavery to death.

What does Moses do? He says, “Shut up everyone, God is going to save you.”

God, however, has a different idea. “What are you calling on me for?” God asks Moses. “You’re the leader! Speak to the people and tell them to go forward! Lift up your magic staff, point it at the sea, and divide it!”

Moses raises his staff, God whips up an east wind, the sea parts and the Israelites cross. And Moses becomes such an enthusiastic leader that his father-in-law has to teach him to delegate.

Some Hassidic Biblical commentators say the moment transforms everyone. At the Red Sea, the Israelites share a profound mystical experience, uniting them into a nation.

It’s a funny interpretation, however, as the Torah itself suggests they had many different experiences. Multiple descriptions of the crossing of the Red Sea sit side by side in the text. God blows a puff of wind through the Divine nostrils. God fights for the people. Moses redirects the water with his magic wand. Moses reasons with the people, and they move forward, displacing the water. Windy weather, a happy coincidence, works in their favour.

Some Israelites see a miracle; some see human psychology at work; some see basic science. They aren’t having a shared mystical experience at all. In fact, they are all over the place in their faith and their experience of God. And yet somehow, without that spiritual unity, they move forward to save themselves and each other. A delightful message.

This year, however, I am not laughing.

Our whole world, one might say, is standing at the shores of the Red Sea. As anger over economic inequality erupts through dangerous religious conflicts, we cannot see a safe way forwards. The prophet Zechariah might have promised a day when God would harmonize all religious conflicts, but such a day seems far off. Instead of laughing, I am frowning, anxious and metaphorically paralyzed.

Then I remember the Torah’s teaching about the psychological reality of standing at the sea. Moses is unskilled. The Israelites agree on little. Yet, Moses takes leadership and the people move forward. They do not permanently abolish injustice or change Pharaoh’s mind, but they do move forward.

How do we move forward in a world torn by religious differences? Following author Stephen Prothero, we first recognize that the differences are real. Religious traditions ask different questions, and create cultural practices around the answers. Jews ask, “How can we heal broken human communities?” Christians ask, “How can we forgive and be forgiven?” Muslims ask, “How can we be aware of God in every moment?” Hindus ask, “How can we see through illusions of materialism and egotism?” Buddhists as, “How can we learn to minimize suffering?” Indigenous traditions ask, “How can we live in awe of the land that sustains us?”

Of course these are inexact generalizations, based in spiritual teachings that become distorted through political manipulations. Still, they are challenging questions, interrogating our own and each other’s cultural practices. For example, Christian-based cultures may heal rifts through forgiveness, but how do they respect the land? Jewish culture may successfully create a transnational community, but how do we see through illusions of materialism? Muslim cultures may excel at spiritual awareness, but how do they reduce suffering?

These questions, left unanswered, erupt in bursts of violence. We must ask them of ourselves and each other In our more rational, peaceful moments. And by “we,” I mean all of us.

Few of us are presidents, prime ministers, kings or queens, but all of us have spheres of influence. All of us can reach out across difference and allow ourselves to be challenged. If we don’t who will?

Because, as God says, “You’re the leader!”

Adapted from my sermon at Cloverdale United Church, for Vancouver School of Theology‘s “Theology Sunday” January 25, 2014.

Posted on January 26, 2015

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Forty Shades of Ecumenism

lipsticksGirl About Town. Toxic Tale. Heroine. Flat Out Fabulous. Sweet and Sour. Stunner.

Unchanging. Gospel. Zen Rose. Love Temple. Divine Choice.

Tribalist. No Faux Pas.

Up the Amp.

Lipstick colors at the Mac Cosmetic kiosk, where I watched my daughter try forty different shades.

Bored, I looked around, hoping to people watch. A middle-aged Woman About Town caught my eye, and said, “I have a Mac Gift card. Would you like to use it?”

Intrigued, I asked for more information. And heard a Toxic Tale. Just completed a Ph.D. $40,000 in debt. Received a gift card, but can’t justify expensive makeup. Since I was shopping at Mac, would I buy the card for cash?

Sure, I said – an easy way to be a Heroine.

I asked about her Ph.D. thesis, and sympathized with the long process.

“Are you an academic?” she asked. Yes, I’m a Jew teaching at a Christian seminary.

Did I know about Rabbi Shapira, a charismatic Israeli Messianic Jewish teacher? Hundreds come to hear him speak. After all, Jesus appears throughout the Old Testament, she said, referring to the Christian practice of “typology” — identifying veiled hints to Jesus in the Hebrew prophets.

Ah! She thought I was a Christian Jew.

For her, an awkward financial transaction had become a Flat Out Fabulous spiritual encounter.

And, though I am not Christian, I did not correct her, because I also liked the feeling of our encounter.

Even though, really, this was a Sweet and Sour moment. Sweet: because two spiritual seekers connected. Because she felt we reached towards the same God. Sour: because the language she chose assumed that her theology is the one we share. For her, all religions express a universally human hope for Christ’s kingdom on earth.

This was also a Stunner of a moment: because I realized that I make a similar assumption.

My theology is Kabbalistic. God is “Eyn Sof,” infinite Divine Energy, a single substance expressed in everything a person can experience: matter, emotions, and ideas. Religious ideas, too, express the one Infinite God. All religious ideas point to this One God. All religious people want only to feel God’s presence everywhere.

For me, interfaith encounters are easy to accept, as long as I can translate them into my theology.

Am I really a Girl About Town? Maybe not.

The next day, I sought help from the Journal of Inter-religious Studies (vol. 13, Feb. 2014). Nine articles list many ways interfaith dialogue can go wrong. People who know little about their own religion’s teachings can try to discuss, defend, and compare. Teachers with local religious education can misrepresent a living global tradition by presenting a single, official theology. Highly learned theologians might teach patriarchal views, ignoring the lived experience of women. Any person of good will can assume that all religions are fundamentally the same – the same as theirs, to be precise.

Yes, I’ve been guilty of them all. Limited knowledge, denominationalism, unwitting sexism, reductionism.

But now I get it. Forty shades of Mac, forty shades of religion. Don’t be a Tribalist. No Faux Pas, please.Up the Amp lipstick

The synchronicity is unbearable. Unchanging. Gospel. Zen Rose. Love Temple. Divine Choice. You can’t reduce these to a single colour. Even if you, personally, can only wear one.

My task is to be more like my shopping daughter. Note each colour. Put it in context. Observe carefully. Realize it takes time.

It’s time to Up the Amp on my ecumenism. Which, coincidentally, is the lipstick shade I bought.

Photo credits: Hillary Kaplan and Laura Duhan Kaplan

Posted on December 29, 2014

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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