Category Archives: Torah

Patrilineal Jewish Descent: An Open Orthodox Approach

This week there has been much conversation online and offline on the Jewish status of people of patrilineal Jewish descent. My fellow Rabbis Without Borders alumna, Rabbi Alana Suskin, brought up the issue in an honest and compassionate article Wednesday that has garnered quite a lot of attention. I, too, have found this issue of status to be a vexing and complicated one.

Jewish denominations do not live in a vacuum. The actions of one movement can have profound impact on the collective Jewish community. Actions must be carefully weighed and considered. This is something that the broader Orthodox community refused to acknowledge for much of the early 20th-century American Jewish experience and is a mistake that I pray all movements from now on would seek to not repeat. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the immediate past PJewish-Star-and-questionmarkresident of the Rabbinical Council of America, in an eloquent, impassioned and moving speech to his Conservative colleagues at The Jewish Theological Seminary, stated it succinctly:

“The question before us is not simply whether we can learn to talk to each other—There is much more at stake. The real question is. “What role will we play, or not play, in shaping the story of the Jewish people at this critical juncture?” If we can’t get along, then we cannot make the kind of difference that we should.

I suppose that we could all react to this challenge in usual fashion, by blaming each other and saying, “Well, it’s really the fault of the Orthodox or the Conservative or the Reform.” After all, it’s always the ‘other’s’ fault. But the Torah teaches us otherwise, that, like the brothers, we are all at fault. If we allow this to go on, if we continue to move apart and do not find ways to act together, we will all be held culpable for the unfolding, potentially tragic fate of the American Jewish community.”

Rabbi Goldin urges us to see each other within the framework of brothers, as part of a global Jewish family that needs to work together. We can either all rise to the heights of incompetence together and bring severe havoc to our broad Jewish family or we can rise to the greatest of our potential, together, and usher in a new renaissance and flowering of Jewish life and vitality. That is our charge and our responsibility. The folks in the pews, and even more potently the folks who have long ago left the pews, are waiting for us to act maturely and cooperatively. If not now, when? If we wait too long, it may be very well too late.

It is within that backdrop that I approach the question of patrilineal descent. There are two strata of response to the question: 1. The responsibility of leadership and 2. The pastoral dimension. Both are important but it is important not to conflate them in a discussion of the issue.

Let me preface by saying that I have the utmost respect for my Reform colleagues. I grew up in the Reform movement and it is because of those formative years and the rabbis and educators that so profoundly impacted me that I became traditionally observant in my early teenage years and eventually an Orthodox rabbi. This is less to do with the individuals in the movement than the decisions movements as a whole make, in this case Reform, but in other cases other denominations.

The decision by the American Reform movement to adopt patrilineal status some thirty years ago was, in my opinion, a mistake. It was not primarily a mistake because of the outcome, that is actually the secondary issue, it was a mistake in process. Organizational experts and the best thinkers in community development have long taught that making decisions from a silo is not how to act strategically, it is how one acts tactically. It is a refusal to acknowledge the interconnectedness of movements, peoples and families; the weaving together that is the American Jewish story, and to act alone and unilaterally. It is to declare an austritt when the time has come for collaboration.

Marty Linsky, professor at the Kennedy School of Government and author of Leadership on the Line argues that leaders need to possess a “balcony perspective.” What is the big picture? Where do we want to head? How do we get there most successfully?

A balcony perspective would have shown that Reform Judaism does not exist on its own island and indeed no denomination is its own island. Reform Jews are married to Conservative Jews who are siblings with Orthodox Jews who are cousins with unaffiliated Jews. Reform Jews do not only mingle, socialize, date or marry other Reform Jews. The decision some thirty years ago was either predicated on the idea that all other movements will be coerced into going along or on the notion that Reform congregants will never need to run up against differing standards practiced by almost every other Jewish denomination and by Reform equivalent types of Judaism throughout the world. Both ideas were misguided and represented a failure of strategy.

In regards to the pastoral dimension, the situation must be handled with the greatest sensitivity and compassion. The standards of halakha as outlined by the Gemara, Rambam and the Shulchan Aruch must not be compromised in the pursuit of an expeditious conversion. Yet, nonetheless, a child of Jewish patrilineal lineage, must be respected greatly for their identification with the Jewish people, their love of Judaism and of Israel. I was inspired by a lecture by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership several years ago where he insisted that people of patrilineal descent be referred to as Jews who need to rectify their status vies-a-vie Jewish law. In other words, to understand the modern dichotomy between Jewish affiliation and halakhic Jewish status, while upholding with full integrity the halakha and the legal process.

It is my hope that Jewish professional and lay leaders learn from the experience of patrilineal descent and come to do things better: to be more cooperative, more collaborative, to work strategically, to think from a balcony perspective. Unfortunately, examples like this exist in every movement and represent moments to grow from not just for the movement highlighted but for all of us. The time has come to envision ourselves, in the words of Rabbi Goldin, as brothers and to act as a family that seeks to live together in harmony and co-existence. Rabbis Without Borders represents a powerful model in that direction and, G-d willing, we will soon see it become the dominant paradigm of doing business in the Jewish community. We will all be better for it.

Posted on August 16, 2013

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

On Becoming Empty Nesters

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This morning my wife and I drove our youngest daughter to the airport as she left for a year of study in Israel to be followed by university study in New York. I think we are now official empty-nesters as our older daughters have established residences of their own. While you never cease being a parent (or a child for that matter), this does usher in a new time in our lives with the usual challenges, but we are both looking forward to this next period.

But what does it mean the nest is empty?  We are in constant communication with our children through cell phones and other electronic means.  The nest may be physically empty but access to it exists in the digital world. Is there a Jewish lens I can use at this moment to make sense of this experience?

I am going to quote 2 verses and the somewhat long (at least for a blog post) commentary of Rashi. It is worthwhile to study the texts first and only then read my thoughts on them.

1. Genesis 1:2

Now the earth was astonishingly empty, and darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the water.

Rashi

and the spirit of God was hovering: The Throne of Glory was suspended in the air and hovered over the face of the water with the breath of the mouth of the Holy One, blessed be He and with His word, like a dove, which hovers over the nest.

2. Deuteronomy 32:11

As an eagle awakens its nest, hovering over its fledglings, it spreads its wings, taking them and carrying them on its pinions.

Rashi

As an eagle awakens its nest: He guided them [Israel] with mercy and compassion like an eagle, which is merciful towards its own fledglings and does not enter its nest suddenly. [Rather,] it beats and flaps its wings above its young between one tree and another, between one branch and another, in order that its young should awaken and have the strength to receive it.

hovering over its fledglings: [The eagle] does not impose its [whole] body upon them. Rather, it hovers above them, touching them and yet not quite touching them. So too, is the Holy One, Blessed is He. [As in the verse:] “We did not find the Almighty great in power” (Job 37:23). When He came to give the Torah to Israel, He did not reveal Himself to them from one direction [thus concentrating His power at one point, as it were], but rather, from four directions, as Scripture states, “The Lord came from Sinai, and shone forth from Seir to them, and appeared from Mount Paran” (Deut. 33:2). [This accounts for three directions.] The fourth direction is referred to in [the verse], “God comes from Teman” (Hab. 3:3). – [Sifrei 32:11]

spreading its wings, taking them: When it [the eagle] comes to move [its fledglings] from place to place, it does not pick them up with its feet, as do other birds. Other birds are afraid of the eagle, which soars very high and flies above them. For this reason, it [the other bird] carries them with its feet because of the eagle [above them]. The eagle, however, is afraid only of an arrow. Therefore, it carries its young on its wings, saying, “It is better that an arrow pierce me, rather than pierce my young.” So too, the Holy One, Blessed is He, [says]: “I carried you on eagles’ wings” (Exod. 19:4). [I.e.,] when the Egyptians pursued [the children of Israel] and overtook them at the [Red] Sea, they cast arrows and catapulted rocks [at Israel]. Immediately, “The angel of God moved… [behind them… and the pillar of cloud] came between the camp of Egypt [and the camp of Israel]” (Exod. 14:19-20) [for Israel’s protection]. — [Mechilta 19:4]

The Hebrew word for hovering, which Rashi sees as associated with the image of  a mother bird hovering over her nest, is used twice in the Torah.  Rashi appears to have taken the nest image from Deuteronomy and used it in Genesis, although the bird shifts from an eagle in Deuteronomy to a dove in Genesis.  God hovers over the world just before creation and God hovers over the Jewish people.   Rashi’s image in Deuteronomy of the eagle hovering: “touching them yet not quite touching them”, is a striking description of God’s paradoxical relationship and presence with Israel and the world.

But in the context of Deuteronomy 32, this description only applies in the desert wanderings of the people before they cross over into Israel.  Once Israel leaves the nest of the desert, the pillar of cloud will cease and Israel will have to make choices without the guarantee of God’s protection. For the rest of Deuteronomy 32, these will be most unfortunate choices.

The image of the empty nest is then this capacity to choose.  We hope and want our children to make the right choices.  Yet, I would suggest that according to Rashi we do not have to lose the experience of the nest entirely. It is always recoverable, even if the protective, almost miraculous elements of it are no longer accessible.

The image of the eagle hovering over its young is the image of Sinai.  God’s presence in Torah is the moment of “touching them yet not quite touching them”.   We can always return to Sinai textually.  The miracles of the desert may no longer happen, but the call of Sinai remains. The nest beckons both parents and children to pursue this relationship of “touching them yet not quite touching them” to God and each other.

Posted on August 15, 2013

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World Cat Day: A Jewish Perspective

world cat dayTraditional Jewish thought sees the whole world as a laboratory for learning. On the one hand, everything has value in and of itself. On the other hand, everything points beyond itself to teach about something else.

Including cats.

Thursday August 8 was World Cat Day. Sources say that the International Fund for Animal Welfare inaugurated the holiday in 2002, but I can’t find anything about it on the IFAW website. However the holiday came about, it’s badly needed to raise world awareness of cats.

World Cat Day is especially needed to raise Jewish awareness of cats. If I asked you to tell me, off the top of your head, where cats appear in Jewish tradition, you would probably giggle and say, “Nowhere!” But if you were to search MyJewishLearning.com for information about cats, you might revise your answer.

Ordinary house and barn cats are revered as hunters, seers and teachers. Big wild cats evoke the King of King of Kings.

Every year, during the Passover Seder, we celebrate the cat whose bold hunt set history in motion. Yes, the cat that ate the kid that my father bought for two zuzim, chad gadya. The cat who teaches about the persecution of Jews, the folly of revenge, or the omnipotence of God – depending on how you interpret the Chad Gadya poem.

The Talmud honors cats as teachers of virtue. “Rabbi Yochanan observed: If the Torah had not been given, we could have learned modesty from the cat” (Eruvin 100b). Rashi says R. Yochanan praises the cat for its delicate habits of eliminating waste, but I myself learn modesty from the cat’s thoughtfulness. From its hiding place, a cat can observe a situation in careful detail, before finally leaping out to make a bold, intelligent and successful move.

In Perek Shira, the “Song of Nature,” cats teach the world humility by embodying a prophetic verse. “The cat says, ‘If you rise up like a vulture, and place your nest among the stars, from there I shall bring you down,’” (Obadiah 1:14). No one, no matter how high or powerful, can escape the claws of a determined cat. Often, the vulture is a metaphor for imperial power. Through the cat, God teaches that even the most militarized empire is vulnerable to rebellion and decay.

In Hebrew Bible, big wild cats express divine power. Lions appear in Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly beings attending God’s Presence. The Lion is the symbol of the tribe of Judah, lineage of King David. Members of the royal courts describe their kings as lions. Honoring a lion honors a king; honoring a king honors God.

Lions have been in the news recently. This month’s National Geographic Magazine includes a story about the life of African Serengeti lions. The writing is realistic and balanced; lions are fierce predators, competing with one another for territory and family leadership. (No wonder they symbolize royalty!) When people fence off lands for farming or livestock grazing, they come into conflict with local lions, who attack livestock and their human ranchers. Sharing land responsibly requires balancing many factors. In Africa, many government agencies and private conservations groups are pursuing that balance.

Some factors, however, are out of balance themselves. For example, Friday’s New York Times showcased an article about lion poachers in Africa. Not surprisingly, illegal terrorist organizations raise money through illegal activities. Activities include illegally hunting lions and selling their body parts.

Happy World Cat Day – not.

Of course you can argue that “terrorist” is a pejorative term for organizations that might be fighting a just cause. But still, something is wrong here. Human beings are taking animals and dragging them into our quarrels. We use them as as tools when we should revere them as teachers.

Cats can teach us never to attack without fully assessing the potential damage and to temper our political goals with humility. They can remind us that every creature has value in and for itself; that using any animal as a tool is intrinsically wrong; and that honoring animals honors God.

This year, World Cat Day coincided with day two of the Hebrew month of Elul. Elul is the month of self-reflection. How perfect.

Have we used others without their consent? Have we spoken badly of someone in order to gain advantage? Fired someone without due process? Profited financially by offering lies or partial truths?

Where could we have benefited from modesty and humility, or from ethically assessing a situation before acting?

Learn from our teachers.

Happy World Cat Day.

Image: facebook: black cats

Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.

Posted on August 11, 2013

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

Researching God

boy researchTheist? Atheist? Agnostic?

Don’t answer until you’ve done some rigorous research.

That’s right, research: with a method, literature review, experimental design, data collection, analysis, conclusions, and proposals for future research.

Last week, I conducted a mini-study, and here is my research report.

Method: For a study of opinion, a phenomenological (experiential) method is best. Thus, I explore my subjective response to two different God concepts.

Literature review: This study explores two concepts found in Jewish sources: God as king and God as energy. Each concept offers a way of understanding Genesis Chapter One. Here God says, “Let there be light!” and light comes to be.

Readers in the Talmudic era (200-500 C.E.) pictured a King with a staff of thousands, quietly leaping to fulfill his every command, beginning with the creation of light.

Kabbalistic philosophers (c. 10th century) pictured an energy underlying all creation, in the way that breath underlies speech. Passed through a body’s cavities, breath becomes sound. Passed through God’s designs, divine energy becomes familiar ideas and objects.

Experimental design: The familiar Jewish practice of blessing is the technology used to explore the two concepts.

Talmud teaches that the world belongs to God the King. We inhabit it at the pleasure of our Divine landlord. We should pay rent at the rate of 100 expressions of gratitude per day. Each time we notice something extraordinary, we should say, “Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’olam…Blessed are you, LORD our God, King of the Universe who ___________________.”

Hasidic teachers (c. 1700-1800) use Hebrew etymology to recast the blessing as an appreciation of Divine energy. Baruch, traditionally translated as “blessing,” is from a root that also means “fountain.” Adonai stands in for YHWH, the Ineffable One. Elohim often refers to “God as revealed in creation.” Melekh shares a root with malchut, a kabbalistic synonym for Shechinah, God’s intimate maternal presence. The root of the word olam also means “elusive.” Thus, each time we see something extraordinary, we should say the Talmudic words, and mean, “You are flow, beyond concepts, yet revealed in creation, intimately close, yet elusive and infinite, present in this ______________________.”

Data Collection: On two summer days, I walked outdoors, taking ten minutes each day to notice extraordinary things. On the first day, I marked each thing noticed by saying in English the Kabbalistic interpretation of the blessing. On the second day, I did the same with the Talmudic interpretation. Each day I recorded my observations, thoughts and feelings.

Day One:

“You…are present in this abandoned spider web.” Weather has frayed it into two kinds of tissue. The small, decaying thread opens onto potentially infinite information about the life form that produced it.

“You…are present in this dried-out maple seedpod.” The veins in its leaf are secret pathways, feeding it, just as the membranes hidden in the human body feed us. Many life forms have many common structures. Does a single molecular code structure us all?

“You…are present as my phone rings with a missed call, but no message is left.” My anxiety over lost information is insubstantial and yet overwhelming. What does its presence tell me about myself? Negative emotions are an opportunity to learn.

Day Two:

“Blessed are you…who created this flower.” As I get close to a glowing, yellow buttercup with an intricate center, I feel as though I am in a royal garden. The world seems incredibly lush.

“Blessed are you…who caused this seed carrying hair to float and land.” What a wondrous mechanism. My respect for the designer increases, but I do not speculate on how the designer operated.

“Blessed are you…who caused this crow to cross my path.” Why, the crow must be one of the King’s servants!

Analysis: “God as energy” brings my mind to familiar scientific and psychological questions. “God as King” helps me understand famous Jewish teaching stories about courtyards and angels of the king.

Conclusion: I believe in God as energy. This belief is consistent with my philosophical education. I do not believe in God as King. However, I find it a powerful metaphor.

Question for further research: Perhaps if I had more exposure to monarchy, I would take that metaphor literally as well.

You might be drawn to replicate this research project in your own life. Or you may think it would not be an authentic approach for you. By sharing the project, I invite you to research the God question on your own, drawing on tools of Jewish tradition. Practice responsible theology: research before believing. Over and over again.

***

Image: discussions4learning.com. Sources and Inspirations: Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams on Tractate Berachot, Jerusalem & Babylonian Talmuds; Rabbi Marcia Prager, The Path of Blessing; Catherine Marshall and Gretchen B. Rossman, Designing Qualitative Research. Cross-posted at On Sophia Street.

Posted on July 28, 2013

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

Zimmerman Verdict: Reflections on Justice and Dialogue

justice

George Zimmerman has been found “not guilty” in the murder of Trayvon Martin. The trial was high-profile and symbolic, and thus the verdict was quite upsetting to anti-racist activists. Jewish activists, moved by this upset, are in a good position to reach out to African-American communities, if we are willing to take the time.

Do I wish Martin had not been murdered? Yes. Torah says, “Do not murder.” (Ex. 20:13). Torah teaches that a human being is created in the Divine image (Gen. 1:27). Murder is not just a crime against a person; it’s a crime against creator, against a bottom line for any society (Gen 9:6). Talmud teaches that taking a life is like taking away an entire world: a person’s future, his descendents, and all their futures (Sanhedrin 37a). Trayvon Martin, by many accounts, was a typical teen, poised to mature into a young man. One can observe the terrible bereavement of his family; one can never know for sure the potential good lost to the world.

Do I wish Zimmerman and other Americans were less poisoned by racism? Yes. Torah says, “Do not hate your brother in your heart” (Lev. 19:17). “If a foreigner lives among you, do not oppress him. An immigrant shall be to you like a citizen; love him as you love yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33). George Zimmerman, by many accounts, was not a sophisticated thinker, took his job as a security volunteer beyond its limits, and spoke of African Americans in offensive ways. Negative emotions overtook him; he could not sit still, and thus he pursued when told not to, with tragic results.

Do I wish Zimmerman had been found guilty? No. Torah says, “Do not pervert justice or show partiality” (Deut. 16:19). The jurors took the judge’s instructions seriously. They were asked to determine whether the prosecution proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt. They were not asked to determine whether Martin deserved to live or whether Zimmerman was a racist.

Do I hope the family will bring a wrongful death suit in civil court? Yes – if they are not too exhausted to do so. Torah says, “an eye for an eye…one who strikes an animal will pay damages; one who strikes a person will be executed” (Lev 24:2-21). After respectful debate about the Biblical context of this teaching, Talmudic scholars decided that, in their world, financial compensation for injury would replace revenge. True, they did not have murder in mind, but contemporary opponents of the death penalty take seriously some of their arguments regarding injury. A second ruined life does not console or compensate for a lost life. But financial compensation for suffering, health care, lost wages, and legal fees can make a concrete difference.

Do I wish that Jews would be more proactive about realizing these teachings: all human beings are created in the image of God, do not hate your brother in your heart, and do not pervert justice? Of course. As individuals living in a multicultural society, I think most of us do realize them. Many white Jews who live in racially diverse areas work, dine, volunteer and socialize with African-Americans. If we are at all reflective, we reflect on the dynamics of these relationships as we do with any other.

Do we use our professional and personal contacts to re-open dialogue between two communities who, a few decades ago, worked as allies in the civil rights movement? Not often enough. My mind is drawn back to the 1995 book by Michael Lerner and Cornel West, Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion and Culture in America. Lerner and West ask each other difficult questions. For example: When Congress seems more sympathetic to Jewish concerns about Israel than to Black concerns about economic inequality, and Jews fail to criticize this, do Jews understand the ill-will it causes? When Black Christians affirm the Exodus narrative but don’t reflect critically on anti-semitic elements of the Christian narrative, do they understand the racist perspectives they internalize? These are difficult questions to discuss without simply becoming defensive.

Both the American Jewish and Black communities are self-protective, and with good reasons. But there is strength in numbers, in coalitions, and in asking serious questions. Even if justice, in its strict procedural definition, was served in court this weekend, we know that social justice was not. Perhaps we, as leaders or members of small segments of the Jewish community, can use our personal contacts to initiate deeper dialogue between groups. Torah says, “Justice, Justice pursue!” (Deut 16:20)

Posted on July 14, 2013

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

Who Is God? Seeking a Middle Ground

Michelangelo Buonarroti, God the Father with Lady Wisdom creating Adam detail, Cappella Sistina, Vatican, 1510God is real.

A great conversation starter, isn’t it?

These days, in public debate, it seems to be a great conversation stopper.

Perhaps you are now thinking, “Yes, there is a creator, lawgiver, compassionate friend, and universal energy holding us!” Perhaps you know exactly who God is and how God operates. You’ve read the texts and you’ve experienced the faith. The fundamentals are real for you.

Or perhaps you are thinking, “Ridiculous! There is no invisible supreme being.” You know that this entity does not exist independent of anyone’s hopeful imagination.

In today’s North American public debate about religion, no middle ground between these views seems to exist.

Usually a theist will describe God as creator, moral legislator, wish-granter, and redeemer.

Then an atheist will explain why one of those descriptors is false. For example: Species change through evolution, so God is not a creator. Human beings can figure out morality through social learning, so we don’t need divine command. My prayers to end war and cure cancer were not answered, so no God is listening. Despite promises of redemption the world is as messed up as ever. So the whole concept is silly, naïve and self-serving.

Liberal religious people who are not fundamentalists must find this stalled debate rather frustrating. I do; I often find myself wanting leap up and offer an educated Jewish perspective. Judaism – even the religious part – doesn’t require people to hold a specific view of God.

This week I get to do leap up! Today I’m on my way to teach a course called “Who is God?” at the ALEPH Alliance for Jewish Renewal Kallah.

The course description says: We speak of finding the Divine within. But who or what are we looking for — energy, witness, conscience, inner parent, or higher mind? Jewish tradition does not require us to choose only one. Torah, Jewish philosophy, and Kabbalah all make multiple faces of God available to us. Our task is to find the faces that call to us.

We’ll begin the first class by asking ourselves a simple question: “What do we expect from God?” Perhaps we expect God to measure up to the fundamentalist description; perhaps we will be deeply disappointed if God does not. We would not be the first Jews to have high expectations; our Biblical ancestor Jacob set the tone. Even after a mind-blowing numinous dream of a ladder stretching up to heaven, and a personal introduction from a God-figure, Jacob says, “If you feed me, clothe me, and bring me home safely, I’ll believe that you are God.”

At the second class, we’ll learn that Jacob’s view of God the provider isn’t the only classical view. The five books of Torah offer five different portraits of God. In Genesis, God has simple, easy relationships with people. In Exodus, God self-reveals with great ambivalence. In Leviticus, God is an impersonal force that must be tended. In Numbers, God is a highly emotional being. In Deuteronomy, God is a universal force, personally accessible to all human beings.

At the third class, with great philosophers as our teachers, we will talk about experiences through which people claim to perceive God. Maimonides reaches for God by pushing his intellect to the limits of what he can conceive. Emmanual Levinas finds traces of God in the faces of people. Franz Rosenzweig finds God in love.

At the fourth and final class, we will look at spiritual practice. If you know the experience that makes God seem real for you, how do you reach for it in spiritual practice? Would you use music, social action, prayer, meditation, or intellectual reflection? We’ll explore our personal answers by responding to a few short Hassidic texts. Finally we’ll ask each other, “How have these explorations helped you find a definition of God you can work with?”

When I peeked at my class list, I recognized a few names; I saw diehard atheists, spiritual seekers, and committed theists, all ready to start a badly needed conversation.

Cross-posted at onsophiastreet.com.  Image: Michaelangelo, earthshinegreenliving.blogspot.com.

Posted on June 30, 2013

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

God, Our Parent: Father’s Day Reflections

my 8th birthday partyWhen I was about twelve years old, I opened my younger brother’s textbook, just out of curiosity. This textbook from Orthodox Jewish Day School was a Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, summary of a code of Jewish law. The edition was prepared specifically for children.

Rule One was, “Honor your father and mother because they are God’s representatives on earth.”

In what way, I wondered, are parents God’s representatives? Are parents sent on a mission to earth, because God can’t get down from Planet Heaven? Are they really authorized to be such unjust lawgivers?

Forty-two years later, I am still wondering.

But now I know the textbook was not simply summarizing a rule.

The textbook was presenting a profound statement about psychology and theology.

Father’s Day is a good day to explore this statement. And Father’s Day, for me, is a good day to remember how precious my late father, mother and aunt are to me.

Sure, they were people fueled by their own aspirations, stresses, successes and failures. And they did not hesitate to bring their full selves into parenting. But there is no other way to be a person in this world and, all things considered, they were a good trio.

And they continue to surprise me by how large they loom in my consciousness. Much of my wisdom came from them; so did my blind spots. Their daily routines still find expression in the way I wash dishes, seek a parking space, talk to my own children. Their presence is subtle, indefinable, and yet it’s everywhere.

Just like one well-known experience of the ineffable God.

With my kind, supportive parents whispering constantly in my consciousness, I feel the universe holds me with unconditional love.

Had my parents been stern and critical, I might hear a different daily message. Perhaps I would be keenly aware that I am judged by a power greater than myself. A power with standards I can never fully meet, who calls me to continuous self-improvement.

Had my parents been harsh and unpredictable, I might feel the universe as a chaotic or frightening place. And much of my spiritual seeking might be for a grounding in inner peace.

Parents are one of our interfaces with God. Parents reveal God; parents conceal God; God-images are partly drawn from our relationships with our parents. We collect images from different phases of these relationships. The mature images don’t fully supersede earlier, equally powerful ones. All help us grasp what people have meant by “God.”

Personally, I have not fully let go of my pre-teen image of God as an unjust lawgiver, nor of my suspicion of the lawgiver’s representatives. I still wonder: how can teachers claim to know the correct modern interpretations of God’s laws? From whence comes their authority? Who says we should all do things “by the book” in an Orthodox way? What about the Reform principle of autonomy? Or the Reconstructionist principle of local peer group decision? Or the Renewal principle of identifying and fulfilling the existential-spiritual need driving the law?

These different approaches to Jewish practice also represent different developmental moments. We move from following parental authority to peer group authority to personal authority to growing self-understanding — and back again as needed. Each of these approaches represents a different relationship with our parents. And perhaps, by analogy, they represent different interfaces with the Divine.

Each interface is needed, and used, at different times, by all the modern Jewish movements. Perhaps their philosophies are not as irreconcilable as they claim to be. Perhaps, on this Father’s Day, we can think of ourselves as a single family, with an ever-shifting set of relationships between us and our metaphorical Parent.

Sources of inspiration: William James, Varieties of Religious Experience; Anna-Maria Rizzuto, Birth of the Living God; Adin Steinsaltz, Thirteen Petalled Rose; Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents. Image: My 8-year old birthday party. Mom and Aunt Sylvia laugh as I cry because Daniel L (also laughing) blew out my birthday candles. Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.

Posted on June 16, 2013

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

Should Jews Care About Government Monitoring Our Phone Calls?

The NSA knows who you called last Tuesday at 8:00pm—should you care?

512px-Telephone

From an American civil liberties perspective, we have seen and heard a cacophony of reaction ever since news broke last Thursday, June 6, that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been given access to millions of our phone records, emails, and other personal information. Some see this as the unfortunate but necessary reality of living in a post-9/11 world in which the government needs greater access to information to combat terrorist threats. Others see this as a Constitutional violation of our privacy rights. Others, especially younger Americans who grew up with Facebook and Twitter, seem somewhat indifferent to the idea that the government is monitoring their communications. As the New York Times columnist Gail Collins recently put it, “After all, we live in a world where you can e-mail your husband about buying new kitchen curtains and then magically receive an online ad from a drapery company.”

The key to this issue, I believe, is whether we can trust our government to use Big Data appropriately and judiciously; whether government can exercise self-restraint given the powerful technological tools at its disposal. Given this context, I think Judaism has a lot to say about how we ought to respond to the NSA story. Specifically, I suggest that both Torah and Jewish history urge us to towards a cautionary and skeptical approach to this type of governmental expansion of power. The historical argument requires little explanation here. Jews have been subject to the whims of governments for millenia. As but one example, much of the medieval history of European Jewry—whether in Spain, Portugal, England, France, or Italy—is simply the history of Jewish communities first being welcomed and then expelled. There were often reasons for optimism during the “Golden Years” of expanding opportunity and tolerance, whether in 13th century Spain or 19th century Germany. But government overreach into Orwellian states of horror were not that far away. And we, as a people, continue to have a moral imperative—both out of self-preservation and out of a desire to be a light among nations—to speak out against contemporary instances of government overreach. (Are we also allowed to kvell about the fact that the reporter who broke the story is a Jew named Glen Greenwald?)

What about Torah? It turns out that the Torah portion this week, Parashat Hukkat, has something to say about governmental overreach in times of crisis. In Numbers 20, mid-way through the portion, the Israelites lack water and complain to Moses and Aaron about their conditions. It is the latest in a litany of grievances offered up by the Israelites since they began their journey from Sinai. While Moses has been patient with them up till now, even interceding with God on their behalf when God grew wrathful with their complaints, this time Moses loses his cool. God tells Moses to take his rod, assemble the community, and order a rock to yield water for them to drink. Instead, Moses takes his rod, yells at the Israelites, and strikes the rock with his rod. Water pours forth and the community drinks, but Moses and his brother Aaron get punished by God for failing to follow the correct procedures. God tells Moses and Aaron that “because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12).

How could Moses, who so punctiliously followed God’s commands, screw up such a simple one? I suggest that, in the heat of the moment, Moses chose expediency over virtue. He had a problem, was angry that the people’s grumblings continued to persist, was given access to a technology that would resolve the problem by creating water, and acted on it.

This preference for expediency over virtue is precisely why we should be worried. If the greatest leader our people ever had, Moshe Rabbenu, was susceptible to using his power in a less than ideal way, then how much the more-so should we expect today’s leaders to overreach?  “National security” has become one of the only bipartisan issue there is today, with both Democrats and Republicans sanctioning increased aggregation of power and spending of resources in response to every new threat or crisis.  It is at times like these that the wisdom of our tradition, both textual and experiential, should compel us, as Jews, to speak out.

Posted on June 10, 2013

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

Inclusion is a Jewish Imperative

Why do you try to be so inclusive? It’s OBVIOUS that you are liberal because you care about these marginalized groups! Why do you have to be politically correct all the time?

These questions and more are often posed to Orthodox rabbis and individuals who care and advocate for the full inclusion of all Jews in organized Jewish life. Regardless of whether the advocacy is on behalf of people with differing physical and mental capabilities, women, LGBTQ Jews or others invariably there will be those in the community who label those actions of inclusion as gestures of political correctness and/or secular liberal values.

Mt_SinaiI would argue though that there is a deep underlying Jewish value for the full inclusion of all Jews in Jewish life that does not depend on someone being politically correct or solely motivated by secular liberal values. Indeed, full inclusion is an imperative that serves as a prerequisite for meaningful Jewish life for anyone and its roots are at Sinai:

“In the third month of the children of Israel’s departure from Egypt, on this day they arrived in the desert of Sinai. They journeyed from Rephidim, and they arrived in the desert of Sinai, and they encamped in the desert, and Israel encamped there opposite the mountain. (Exodus 19:1-2)”

“Moses ascended to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, ‘So shall you say to the house of Jacob and tell the children of Israel…’ (19:3)”

“Moses came and summoned the elders of Israel and placed before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. And all the people replied in unison and said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we shall do!’ and Moses took the words of the people back to the Lord. (19:7)”

The Torah in introducing the moment of Sinai emphasizes that all the people were present for the episode of the great theophany. The liberation from Egypt and the journey through the desert were for this experience. The people were forged into a nation through the servitude of Egypt but only at Sinai did they become a nation with destiny.

Rashi, the great medieval commentator, offers the insight quoting the early midrashic work Mekhilta, that the people were as “one person with one heart.” The exceedingly large, disparate and diverse group of Jews encamped in the desert wilderness became unified in heart and soul. Each person valued intrinsically every other person in the community. No one person saw another person as an instrument towards a greater goal or, the reverse, as an impediment towards a desired outcome. Every member of the community was valued. Every member of the community was welcome. Every member of the community was powerfully present.

During the holiday of Shavuot we carve out a single time in the year where we attempt to recreate the experience of revelation. Many people have the custom to stay up all night studying in anticipation for the first rays of light of the revelation. We declare in our prayers that Shavuot is the “time of our receiving of the Torah.” The truth is that while Shavuot is a specially designated time for recreating the Sinai experience, we are called upon to approach God and the Torah anew every day. Every day is a new opportunity to meet God in a revelatory experience through prayer, study and sacred interactions. The aspiration of the synagogue prayer experience is to encounter Sinai anew again every day.

However, the Sinai moment cannot be recreated, the mountain cannot be gathered around and God cannot be heard unless every member of the community is present just as they were at the first Sinai moment in the desert wilderness. The religious life of every Jew and the religious life of the entire community is deficient when not everyone is able to be present. That is why it is so fundamentally important that historically marginalized groups are treated with dignity, respect and honor just like anyone else in the community. When the barriers towards inclusion and access are removed and every member of our community — not just those who already have a seat at the table — are fully present then we will have restored the community to a point ready to encounter Sinai.

Those who see the work of inclusion as a concession to political correctness or some outside values that do not stem from the Torah would do well to hearken to the story of revelation. The story of how a diverse and large group of former slaves found a way to stand next to a mountain with respect and dignity for all paved the way for the chasm between heaven and earth to have been bridged and the Torah, the book that lit the world with Divine meaning and purpose, to be revealed is not just a narrative to be revered but an imperative to strive towards achieving that level of inclusion in our modern communities today.

Posted on June 7, 2013

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Circumcision: Whose Initiation?

alarm clockYou may know the contemporary arguments for and against a brit milah, ritual circumcision of infant Jewish boys.

For: It’s traditional. It affirms a family’s connection with the traditions of Abraham. It’s a tangible marker of Jewish identity. If the boy grows up in a Jewish cultural setting, he will want to look like other boys, and be acceptable to his mate. If he is raised without religious guidance, and chooses as an adult to be Jewish, he will not have to choose circumcision surgery as an adult. Research shows circumcision reduces transmission of the HIV virus to partners. Men circumcised as adults say it increases sexual pleasure. Ritual circumcision is gentle, compared to hospital circumcision.

Against: It’s primitive. It’s not needed to make a child Jewish; Jewish identity is the birthright of anyone born to a Jewish mother. Circumcision marks the child as a member of a Jewish minority, which can lead to ridicule and bullying. It directs a child’s religious identity before he has had a chance to learn anything about religion. Research on circumcision and HIV is flawed; it’s confined to populations in three countries. The foreskin has nerve endings; removing it reduces sexual pleasure. Elective surgery on a newborn is barbaric, and some traditional mohelim (circumcisers) don’t follow modern health protocols.

Sometimes expectant Jewish parents find themselves caught in a stalemate as they try rationally to reconcile these two parallel but incompatible sides. Sometimes they are deeply reflective. “We want to initiate our son into Judaism,” they say. “But this physical initiation seems like a big decision to make for him.”

Sometimes it’s helpful to discuss initiation. That, experientially, a brit milah is not an initiation rite for the baby. It’s an initiation for parents. Over the years, parents will be making many life-directing decisions on behalf of their child. Choosing brit milah is a leap into that responsibility.

Sometimes it’s helpful to let go of the ping-pong of rational debate, and enter the symbolic world of Torah, in itself a gateway into powerful teachings about unconscious human dynamics. Two Torah stories, interpreted psychoanalytically, give us hints about circumcision as an initiation into parenthood.

In Exodus 4:24-26, Moses is on his way to Egypt with his wife Zipporah. Along the way, he nearly dies. Zipporah quickly circumcises their infant son. She touches her husband’s feet with the foreskin and says “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me…because of the circumcision.”

Freudian psychoanalyst Karen Horney speaks of the enviable power of a mother’s role: to give birth, nurture, and raise children. Historian of Judaism Lawrence Hoffman says that even to men in the Talmudic era, women’s power seemed wild and natural. Through menstrual cycles and the sometimes bloody secrets of giving birth, women take an active part in creating life. Through procreation, women have a natural covenant of blood with God. Male circumcision creates an analogous covenant through the procreative organ. It is, however, a tamer covenant, in which only one drop of blood is shed, and on only one occasion.

In this story, Zipporah the birthgiver is already initiated into parenthood. Moses, however, needs to let his old self-image go, and fully take on this new role. When Zipporah touches his feet with his son’s foreskin, she declares, “You and I are partners in this sacred covenant of creating a new family.” She initiates Moses, communicating that the responsibility of procreation belongs to both parents.

In Deuteronomy 10:16, elderly Moses encourages the Israelites to open themselves to personal, unmediated relationships with God. “Circumcise your hearts,” he says. Perhaps this is shorthand for, “You did the physical ritual; now take its meaning seriously.”

Jungian scholar Anne Maguire describes an ancient Near Eastern myth about a powerful patriarchal God, who appears as a hooded figure. His true nature and spiritual power are hidden by his cloak. He represents male procreative power and human creativity in general. These powers are normally hidden; to receive their infusion, we must be receptive at the right times. In this spirit, Moses teaches, “Allow your heart to be open when God’s presence opens to you.” Circumcision expresses a commitment to be open to spirituality, creativity, and procreation. And, in the case of procreation, to new responsibilities that call.

This digression into psychoanalytic Torah helps deeply reflective expectant parents find a wider lens for making a decision. It shifts the question from “How can we do something so irresponsible?” to “How can we recognize the sacred responsibility landing in our lives?” And from “Which side of the argument makes better points?” to “What deep fears, worries and yearnings are at play here?”

Sometimes this shift itself begins the spiritual initiation.

Image: wikipedia. Cross-posted with www.onsophiastreet.com

Posted on June 2, 2013

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

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