Yesterday 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.
When does time begin? What does time measure? What came before the beginning? Such mind-bending questions evoke timeless truths especially relevant at this very moment in the Jewish year.
Humans measure space and time from origins – beginnings deeply rooted in history, culture and values. Moderns traveling east or west across the globe chart distance in longitude from Greenwich, England, a relic of the British Empire’s dominion. Modernity marks secular time against Greenwich Mean Time, which scientists call “Universal Coordinated Time,” as if the whole universe sets its clock by London’s lights. Spiritual time and space also chart from starting points. Jews traditionally pray toward the Western Wall in Jerusalem, as if the Temple once towering above was the center of the world, the axis mundi around which all else revolves.
Jewish time spirals from not one but four origins – four New Years, each with unique spiritual and historical purpose. Rosh Hashanah (“Head of the Year”) marks the physical creation, cycle of teshuvah (repentance), ancient tax year, and sabbatical and jubilee years. Tu Bishvat (“New Year of the Trees”) marks the agricultural birthday of trees. Rosh Chodesh Elul marks tithe years for cattle and Moses’ ascent of Sinai to receive the second tablets.
This weekend (March 20-21, 2015) marks the fourth Jewish New Year, Rosh Chodesh Nisan, origin of Jewish identity and spiritual consciousness. Two weeks before the Exodus from Egyptian bondage, “God said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt: “This month [Nisan] will be for you the first month… of your year,” a tribute to the upcoming liberation that would define the Israelites as a people (Ex. 12:1-2). This tribute to freedom – defining Jews as a people released from bondage to reach toward spiritual liberation – is the origin of Jewish time. In a spiritual sense, Jewish time exists only in relationship to our bondage and liberation.
Jewish time exists only in relationship to bondage and liberation. If not for liberation from bondage, there would be no Jewish time. As then, so now. When we are gripped by inner emotional or spiritual bondage, in a sense Jewish time stops because in bondage we stop living. Just as Shabbat reboots the weekly Jewish work cycle, Rosh Chodesh Nisan reboots Jewish time itself.
A coincidence of Rosh Chodesh Nisan helps illuminate this truth. On this day, newly freed Israelite slaves wandering the desert completed and dedicated the mishkan, ancient cultic focus for God’s indwelling presence. As the people journeyed, the miskhan was the center of their camp. The mishkan, symbol of holiness and holy living, became our forebears’ origin in space, linked to Rosh Chodesh Nisan as their origin in time. It was the mishkan to which they brought not only celebrations and triumphs to be uplifted in gratitude, but also guilt, shame and defeat to be uplifted and released. The mishkan offered ways to express yearnings for holiness, to release heart and soul from the grips of emotional and spiritual bondage.
The ancient cycle of bondage and liberation continues to this day. Rosh Chodesh Nisan marks the two-week countdown to Passover, marking the liberation from historical bondage. Each day and each moment invites us into emotional and spiritual release from inner bondage. Community and ritual – playing out in space and time – bring this drama to life on the human plane.
And now – right now, at Rosh Chodesh Nisan – is our time to begin again. Time itself refreshes and renews. We get ready for freedom anew. At long last, we welcome the radical liberation of Now.
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!”
“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.”
Jewish life is turned around – so suggests this week’s Torah portion (Terumah) about the first Mishkan (ritual focus of cultic and religious life) in the desert. This ancient narrative offers profound reflections on the denominational ins and outs of modern Jewish life.
One way to understand Jewish history is in denominational terms. Before modernity, Jews in their social, linguistic and philosophic diversity had no denominations like the streams of Christianity (e.g. Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Dutch Reformed, Evangelical, etc.). Painting with a broad brush, Reform Jewry was a late 18th century social-theological reaction to the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment). Orthodoxy was a self-protective reply to Reform. Conservative Jewry was a 19th century response to Reform. Reconstructionism evolved in the 20th century from Conservative Jewry as a reaction to social and scientific modernity. By the late 20th century, Jewish denominations established seminaries, congregational affiliation systems, dues structures, governance methods, employment eligibility criteria, prayer books, theological reality maps, and committees to apply Jewish law (or reject Jewish law entirely).
Amidst these denominational fault lines, we can forget that Jewish denominationalism is barely a blip, just two centuries over a span of millennia. What’s more, the denominational tide is going out. Now-mainstream seminaries of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the Academy for Jewish Religion-New York, the Academy for Jewish Religion-California, and Hebrew College arose to ordain rabbis outside denominationalism, preparing clergy to serve increasingly fluid, porous and diverse Jewish communities. The Internet is democratizing access to Jewish learning and resources, fueling continued rise of independent synagogues and chavurot. Denominational synagogues, in turn, are bucking “mother ships” on dues structures, guild limits on who may apply for pulpits, and centralized policies about Jewish status. Initiatives like OHALAH (the trans-denominational rabbinic association for Jewish Renewal) and CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders testify to the porousness of modern Jewish life, and the boundary-challenging experiences that are their primary organizing forces.
This counter-denominational trend is re-shaping Jewish demographics. The 2013 Pew Study found that fully 22% of U.S. Jews – and 32% of Jews born after 1980 – reject all labels on their religious identity. Today fully 30% of U.S. Jews actively practicing Judaism claim that their Judaism has no denominational label. Second to Reform, which claims allegiance of 35% of U.S. Jews, today’s largest denomination in active U.S. Jewish life is no denomination at all. This trend is quickening, and denominational leaders know it. Among the many social and economic causes of denominational decline, waning denominational identification is top among them. Partly as a result, the number of Conservative congregations declined by 25% since 1985; in the 2000s, the Reconstructionist Movement merged its synagogue arm and rabbinical college.
We are witnessing the retrenchment of denominationalism in U.S. Jewish life. The question isn’t whether it is so, but what we make of it.
Enter this week’s Torah portion. To build the Mishkan as a focus for the Indwelling Presence of God, Torah recounts that Moses was to receive gifts from everyone with willing hearts (Ex. 25:2). Their gifts were radically diverse in content, composition, color and style (Ex. 25:3-7). The purpose was to build a sanctuary from their diversity, so God could dwell b’tocham – not within “it” (the Mishkan) but within “them” (the people) (Ex. 25:8). Together these images evoke a collectivity in which everyone shares diverse gifts to establish the immanence of God among us – with no barriers of denomination, tribe, race or caste to divide the people.
To put a fine point on it, the Indwelling Presence (Shechinah) dwells not amidst any subgroup but among the entirety. So wrote the Sfat Emet in 1870: “Shechinah dwells among all the Children of Israel together.” So teaches the Zohar (3:202a): “The whole of the people are the vessel for Shechinah.” Spiritually speaking, the modern blip of denomination is entirely besides the point.
Even more telling are the kruvim (cherubim) atop the Mishkan, which in this week’s Torah portion faced each other (Ex. 25:20). In pre-exile Jerusalem, however, the kruvim faced not each other but the Temple (2 Chron. 3:13). Talmud’s rabbis noted this inconsistency. They reasoned that when the people behave well and honor God, the kruvim face each other; but when the people behave poorly and dishonor God, the kruvim face the Temple (B.T. Bava Batra 99a).
In modern spiritual terms, we ourselves are the kruvim. Our calling is first to face each other, not any dogmatic structure. When we face each other – inclusively, making room for all, accepting everyone’s heart gifts – we honor Torah’s call to build a Mishkan for the immanence of God to dwell among us. When instead we face first a denominational or dogmatic subgroup, we re-trace Talmud’s definition of poor behavior that dishonors God and defies our spiritual purpose. The Jewish sense of God can only dwell amidst our entire collectivity: no mere part will do.
Denominations bring scholarship, investment, organization and purpose. Klal Yisrael needs those benefits, and denominations continue to be vital vehicles for them. For those reasons, Jews outside denominationalism do wrong to glibly demonize denominations as inherently corrosive of Jewish spirituality. By the same token, denominations do wrong to diminish or disenfranchise Jews and Jewish leaders whose spiritual or community affiliations grow outside denominational structures. The Mishkan needs their diverse gifts no less. Our failure to learn these lessons risks turning each other into Others, turning the spiritual kruvim away from each other, turning Jews away from our collective spiritual calling.
For the ins and outs of denominational life, the upshots are clear. Denominations must drop bans on which legitimate seminaries’ rabbinic ordinees may apply for pulpits: Jewish community is a spiritual body, not a collection of protectionist mercantile guilds. Jews are voting with hearts, minds and wallets against exclusivist denominational strategies, and denominational leaders must evolve accordingly. For their parts, non-denominational Jews must drop their “ugly stepchild” narrative of exclusion and subjugation. Denominational successes aren’t affronts to chavurot, independent communities and unaffiliated seminaries. Non-denominational leaders would do well to learn the denominations’ wise use of organizational tools to enrich the collectivity of Jewish life.
Learning these lessons will help us turn toward each other anew, like the kruvim atop history’s Mishkan. Perhaps by turning toward each other in these ways, we can build a new Mishkan worthy of that name – a collectivity fit for the Indwelling Presence of God among us all.
Several years ago I went to visit one of my daughters in Israel. She was attending a summer program and had one Shabbat free in Jerusalem. Friday afternoon several families took their daughters to Ben Yehuda Street (it is an outdoor mall in the heart of the city) to prepare for Shabbat.
As a group we were beset by beggars asking for money. Some would give a few “shek” (worth about 25 cents) or like me, they would turn away. One young American male, dressed all in white (he was a Bratslaver Chasid), persisted. I finally asked him, “Why are you asking for money?” He answered, “I have nothing to eat for Shabbat.”
Immediately that changed the entire dynamic. According to Jewish law, when a person specifically asks for food, their needs must be met. I told him I would not give him money but would buy him his three meals for Shabbat. He left, to return ten minutes later with his roommate. To the consternation of the other families and the utter surprise of these two boys, I took them to the nearest “take out place” and bought them three meals for Shabbat.
When they were about to leave, laden with their food (and beer), one asked me why I spent so much money on them. I told him that since he had asked for food I was not allowed to refuse. He had never heard of that law, and asked me to educate him.
I replied, “I am a Conservative Rabbi, I know that you will not accept Jewish law from me.”
He answered, “But you know about the laws of Tzedakah (Charity).”
I smiled and said, “Now I know the Mashiach (Messiah) is near. When a Bratslaver Chasid asks a Conservative Rabbi to teach him Torah, the Mashiach must indeed be coming.” Perhaps for his own reasons, he heartily agreed.
Our tradition downplays the importance of intention in favor of action. You are , and you are judged by what you do, not what you intend to do. There are exceptions to this rule, one of them is Tzedakah. At first glance Tzedakah seems simple: someone gives money to someone else. However, Tzedakah is not only what you give, but how you give it as well.
There are many issues in our world today. There are many causes that grab and hold our attention. There are also myriads of hungry people all around us. They should not be forgotten.
On January 11, 2015, I received rabbinic smicha (ordination) from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Six years of academic study, spiritual formation, pulpit experience and chaplaincy service culminated in a moment of transformation unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Assuming the traditional posture, I leaned back into my teachers’ hands as they intoned ritual words that changed me forever into a rabbi. In that magic moment, I became the most recent link in a chain connecting teacher to student, generation to generation, century to century, and epoch to epoch – harnessing history while reaching toward a future we yet can scarcely imagine.
Now that I’m officially a rabbi, both legally and spiritually empowered in my religious acts, now is an ideal moment to ask perhaps impertinent if not subversive questions: Why? Why be a rabbi? Why do Jews need rabbis? Better yet: do Jews need rabbis? If Jews do need rabbis, what kind of rabbis do Jews need?
Under halacha (Jewish law), most routine Jewish matters don’t “require” rabbis. A shaliach tzibur (prayer leader) can be a layperson and still fulfill all practical, emotional and spiritual prerequisites of an effective prayer service. Young adults become bnai mitzvah automatically at the appointed age, or by rituals of Torah and prayer – neither of which requires a rabbi. A m’sader kidushin (wedding officiant) need not be a rabbi (but in most jurisdictions, civil law reserves to clergy or specified public officers all power to solemnize marriages). In these and other seemingly ubiquitous rabbinic contexts, Jewish law does not require a rabbi.
And yet, each year ALEPH and other seminaries together ordain several hundred rabbis, belying alarmist predictions after the 2013 Pew Study that synagogue life is retrenching. Maybe a more apt conclusion is that Jewish life is evolving – shifting beyond synagogues and youth programs to include community centers, schools, retreat centers, health care settings and social action contexts. As a result, rabbis are finding their way to serving in all of these environments. As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies recently observed about this trend, modernity still “values Jewish learning, and recognizes that the difference between a moribund and a dynamic institution can be having a rabbi at the helm.”
Sure. But what makes a rabbi moribund or dynamic?
A rabbi is Chief Spiritual Officer, but isn’t necessarily the most visible leader. Rather, an effective rabbi attunes hearts, minds and souls in whatever context the rabbi serves, then uses tools of Jewish culture and spirituality to nourish, inspire and deploy them for collective good. Sometimes a specific setting relies on a rabbi’s title, what Jack Bloom famously calls a “symbolic exemplar” of sacred authority. To Bloom, the rabbi as “symbolic exemplar” evokes transformation because the rabbi’s words effect change by their mere utterance. (“I now pronounce you husband and wife.”) The ideal rabbinic role, however, is neither symbolic nor titular: rather, the rabbi is a dynamic capacitor modulating the flow of individual and collective spirituality.
Understanding the rabbi as energetic capacitor shifts our question about what Jews need in rabbis. A new kind of answer emerges: Jews most need rabbis to the extent that rabbis fulfill their energetic functions. Critically, a rabbi’s title, learning and visible leadership do not alone discharge these energetic functions. After all, instinctively we know if a rabbi is dynamic or moribund, charged up or low on juice, well wired internally or short-circuiting. We know if a rabbi touches us, changes us or bores us. We know when a rabbi is inwardly real.
It follows that we must ask an even more potent and refined question: what makes for a dynamic, charged up and well-wired rabbi? In my 10 days as an ordained rabbi, I won’t pretend to corner the market on answers to this question. But as I embark on my own rabbinic journey, I offer five aspirations for my own rabbinate, reflecting the ways I believe that rabbis can best serve the deepest needs of 21st century life:
- Rabbis must model our own authentic inner lives. A rabbi who isn’t going anywhere can’t take anyone along. A rabbi stuck inside can’t move anyone. Rabbis must be seekers in our own right, boldly undertaking our own authentic spiritual journeys. In turn, rabbis must cultivate contexts in which it is safe for us to express, in appropriate settings, natural human emotions commensurate with our inner lives. Only as we ourselves recognize and spiritualize our own occasional fear, hurt, grief, doubt, anger and other foibles can we liberate others with permission to do the same.
- Rabbis must be in regular peer supervision, spiritual direction or counseling. As rabbis can wield substantial influence and bear considerable emotional and psycho-spiritual stress, rabbis must have contexts in which to refine ourselves accordingly. Clergy can become inured to or blinded by our roles – unwittingly hiding behind title, influence, power, privilege, control and social deference. The result can be blind spots, inward self-defense and spiritual bypass. Every life faces these dynamics – rabbis aren’t exempt – but rabbis especially must model ways ways to address these dynamics for two reasons. First, what we ourselves cannot do, we cannot help or encourage others to do. Second, precisely because of our roles, we are perhaps even more likely to need assistance seeing ourselves clearly. As Talmud notes (B.T. Berachot 5b), “A prisoner cannot release oneself from prison.” For that reason, for everyone but especially for rabbis, there is no need – and no wisdom in the attempt – to go it alone. Consistent peer review, spiritual direction or counseling can give clergy the reflective space and tools to keep ourselves as fitting vessels for others’ emotional and spiritual unfolding. As a corollary, it follows that rabbis mustn’t be stigmatized for seeking these confidential, supportive and therapeutic professional relationships. In many instances, these aren’t grounds for concern but rather, signs of wisdom and strength that rabbinic employers and Jewish communities should encourage.
- Rabbis must consistently feed the flames of our own learning. A stale rabbi is a stuck rabbi. Rabbis must continuously learn something new and challenge our own skills and assumptions. Ideally rabbis should combine individual study with structured chevruta learning. It’s a shame that, to date, no seminary or movement has adopted the ongoing learning standards of the Alliance for Continuing Rabbinic Education. They should.
- Rabbis must cultivate spiritual leadership beyond ourselves. Says Pirkei Avot (4:1): “Who is honorable? One who honors others.” The rabbinic role is not to monopolize spiritual or pastoral authority, but to cultivate it wisely in others. The rabbinic role is a mentoring role – to lift others up, encourage them, teach them, and then engage in personal tzimtzum (self-contraction) by gracefully making space for others to evolve into leadership appropriate to their own aspirations, gifts and skills.
- Rabbis must remember what business we’re in. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi zt”l (of blessed memory) used to say, “It’s okay for a synagogue to be a business – but be sure you know what business you’re in.” The modern rabbinate has become a profession, but like other ethical endeavors, first and foremost the rabbinate is and always must remain a calling. After all, history’s rabbis viewed their rabbinic functions as acts of service, finding earthly remuneration in secular pursuits. Hillel first was a woodchopper, Yochanan ben Zakkai was a businessman, Rav Huna was a cattle farmer, Ravs Chisda and Pappa were brewers, Maimonides was a physician, and Rashi was a vintner. Perhaps times have changed: remuneration, getting and keeping a rabbinic job, and climbing whatever ladder of influence and achievement may call to a rabbi, all can have their proper places. Remaining unchanged, however, is the ethical calling of the rabbinate – the core of the rabbinic heart and soul – that beckons the heart and soul. This is the rabbinic “business” that always must come first, at any expense.
Among my teachers’ most enduring words in ordaining me were these: “Herewith we ordain you … to clarify and pronounce truths in way that make a tikkun (repair) for the Shekhinah (indwelling presence of God). We hereby appoint you as delegates and emissaries, just as those who appointed us delegated us and sent us to be rabbis.” In essence, my teachers proclaimed that tikkun is the existential reason for a rabbinate. In the words of Isaiah 58:12, a rabbi must be a “repairer of the breach, restorer of paths to dwell in,” and conduit for spiritual flow in whatever context we serve.
That’s a path worthy of a rabbinic calling and life of service. That’s the rabbinate that Jews most need today.
On January 4, my family and I were privileged to attend the final Broadway performance of the revival of Pippin, one of Stephen Schwartz’s wonderful musicals. I had not seen it before. It’s the story of a well-educated young prince who, after university, embarks on a search for a meaningful life. He tries being a soldier and being king, and he tries living on a farm. None of it seems to work. He finally realizes that it is the mundane life on the farm with a woman he loves, and her young son, that is the meaningful life.
The day after we saw Pippin, David Brooks published a column discussing the modern search for meaning, and asserting that “Meaningfulness tries to replace moral systems with the emotional corona that surrounds acts of charity.” He says today’s seekers of meaning are looking only for a feeling they call meaning, and contrasts them with those who lived meaningful lives in the past, who “subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time.”
Rabbi Geoff Mitelman responded last week on this blog, discussing the way Judaism’s moral system and meaningfulness go together. Rabbi Mitelman, like me, lives mostly in the religiously liberal Jewish world, and he mentions in his piece how important it is, for liberal Jews especially, for their religious practice to be meaningful to them.
I teach my congregants that, as practitioners of Reform Judaism, they are obligated to observe the ethical commandments of Jewish law, but are not obligated to follow the ceremonial or ritual commandments. However, it is incumbent on us to learn about the latter types of commandments, and take on those that we find add meaning and holiness to our lives.
The challenge of this is that some practices could potentially bring holiness and meaning to people’s lives, but do not do so the first time one tries them. It can take years of, well, practice, before a practice like meditation or communal worship feels meaningful. Some activities may feel initially awkward or difficult, and therefore may not feel meaningful immediately, like visiting the sick or paying shiva calls, or the hard work of social action (these would qualify as mandatory commandments for Reform Jews). If we are searching for meaning, it is worth our while to commit to a moral and ethical system, and to practices, that others have found meaningful, even if they don’t feel meaningful to us at first. We might seek out people who seem similar to us in temperament or spirituality, and engage with some of the practices that work for them. Then we need to trust that the meaning will eventually come.
In other words, searching for meaning in each experience may not be the most effective way to find meaning. Perhaps we need something that is discussed far less in most liberal Jewish circles than meaningfulness: faith. We need to have faith that some of the morals, ethics, and practices that have led to meaningfulness for others can do that for us too. We need to have faith that if it doesn’t feel meaningful today, it can someday, if we keep with it. Then, like Pippin, we may find that the meaning we’re searching for comes through our day-to-day work to improve the world, and through our rituals, routines, and relationships.
A few days ago, David Brooks wrote an article entitled “The Problem of Meaning.” In our society today, and especially in more liberal Jewish circles, “meaning” has become a high value. We want our prayer services to be “meaningful,” we want our social justice activities to be “meaningful,” we want our text study to be “meaningful.”
But, as Brooks notes, meaning can potentially be very self-centered. It is often less about making our world better and more about making ourselves feel better. As he says,
If we look at the people in history who achieved great things — like Nelson Mandela or Albert Schweitzer or Abraham Lincoln — it wasn’t because they wanted to bathe luxuriously in their own sense of meaningfulness. They had objective and eternally true standards of justice and injustice. They were indignant when those eternal standards were violated. They subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time.
In other words, “feeling good” is not enough to drive our lives — and Judaism would agree. Our goal in life is not simply to feel warm and fuzzy inside, it’s to repair our world. If that’s the case, morality, not meaning, should guide us.
The challenge is that while meaning is certainly subjective, morality is also not completely objective, either. Different people place different priorities on different values. So what are we to do?
Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger, in his book Our Religious Brains: What Cognitive Science Reveals about Belief, Morality, Community and Our Relationship with God, suggests the following:
There must be a best way to construct human morality, though people may never fully agree what that way is…To guide our lives we must rely on some specific cultural synthesis. We “hop” to Judaism or Christianity…believing that in the process we can live largely moral lives. Lest we be paralyzed by uncertainty and indecision, we live as if our set of moral values captures absolute right and wrong, knowing, though, that as a human system, a cultural expression, it may at best come close to that ideal.
So even if we don’t know with certainty what “the right thing to do” would be, we still have to live by principles. And if that’s how we look at morality, that’s where meaning can come back into the equation.
Meaning, at its core, is how we make sense of the world. It allows us to figure out what our lives and our world “mean.” If we view meaning in this way, then our morality, even if it is imperfect, truly is a form of “meaningfulness.”
Yes, meaning can be fluff — or, as Brooks phrased it, “the NutraSweet of the inner life.” But it can also be the driver to a more just and more peaceful society, because it is what allows us to discover how we can best bring our gifts and talents in the service of our world.
If we are looking to better ourselves and our world, morality might be more important. But meaning might be more effective.
Girl 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.
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
“Merry Christmas,” we’ve heard for weeks.
For Jews living in predominantly Christian societies, Christmas evokes responses ranging from joy to alienation. Some Jews encounter Christmas as a civic winter holiday for all, when grace and good cheer help sooth the social soul. Others experience the Christmas season as a time to tolerate excess consumerism, or feel that society’s adoption of this Christian holiday leaves Jews at the curb. Some Jews feel about Christmas much like Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “Bah humbug.”
So what’s a Jew to do? Some write music: half of the top Christmas carols were composed by Jews. Others honor “Jewish tradition” of Chinese food and a movie. Even more traditional is recourse to humor. Spoof codes of halacha (Jewish law) now explicate the tradition of Chinese and a movie; a whole Hilchot Christmas arose to guide Jewish life amidst mistletoe-laden office parties and Christmas consumerism. Naturally for Talmudic exegesis, these fake legal codes have competing versions and even more competing versions.
Healthy humor aside, occasional Jewish humbug at Christmas is no laughing matter: it’s worthy of serious reflection.
The birth of Jesus is for many Christians the purest form of divine grace: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us … full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). While in Christendom Jesus’ birth evokes “grace and truth,” to some Jews the idea is foreign (God becomes incarnate), alienating (recalling history’s proselytism and forced conversion), and threatening (recalling condemnation as “Christ killers”). On the other hand, many modern Christians embrace Christmas only with the loving and angelic hope of “Peace on earth, good will toward all” (Luke 2:14).
Grace, truth, peace and good will – what could be bad? What’s more, these Christmas values are no less Jewish. Atop Mount Sinai, Moses heard God speak Thirteen Attributes of divinity, firstly that God is rachum v’chanun (merciful and gracious) (Ex. 34:6). Shalom v’rei’ut (peace and good will) are traditional blessings for newly wedded Jewish couples. The Amidah liturgy of Sim Shalom evokes all of these values: “Grant peace everywhere, goodness and blessing, grace, loving kindness and mercy to us and all Israel, Your people. Bless us, our Father, all of us as one, with the light of Your countenance. For by Your light You have given us a Torah of life, loving kindness, righteousness and blessing, mercy and life and peace.”
Grace, truth, peace and good will – Christmas values, and also Jewish values. So if core values of Christmas beckon the Jewish heart, why kvetch over Christmas? If a Jew feels left out of the Christmas party, then what’s a Jew to do?
Modernity’s leading apostle of inter-religious understanding, Raimon Panikkar, teaches that religions are reality maps whose symbolic stories, while particular to individual faith traditions, embed spiritual functions that are transcendent. When we identify a spiritual function common to different religions, we can better navigate another religion’s reality map using the spiritual compass of our own. In Panikkar’s thinking, the function of divine grace on the Jewish reality map is much the same one that inspires Christmas for Christians, even if its dogmatic setting and language are different. Thus, even if some Jews don’t resonate with the Christmas narrative of God made flesh, Jews can intuit the spiritual function of grace – using how Jewish tradition embeds grace – and in that way journey authentically with Christians celebrating Christmas. Jews and Christians can use this same approach to intuit how purification and renewal serve similar spiritual functions on the Christian reality maps of Good Friday and Easter as they do on the Jewish reality maps of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Traditions and holidays are not interchangeable – a Jew is a Jew, and a Christian is a Christian – but spiritual functions of these traditions are mutually intelligible. That’s no accident: transcendence is the aim of all religion and spirituality. In Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s words, “Religion is not reality, but only a pointer to the infinite … Don’t confuse the pointer for the point.”
Today’s pointer happens to be Christmas – but the point is grace, truth, peace and good will for all.
So to Christian readers, may grace and peace enfold you as you gather with loved ones for traditional Christmas celebrations. And to Jewish readers, may grace and peace enfold you as you gather with loved ones for traditional Chinese and a movie.