In the great story of humanity there has always been the forces that compel us to assimilate amongst each other and those that urge us to maintain our differences. When we collapse the contours that are the map of the human family into one straight path our journey becomes simple and uncomplicated. Yet, what do we give up when we venture down the path of assimilation?
When we turn our attention to the Jewish community we find these polarizing forces very much at work. This dilemma has presented itself at numerous junctures in history. Whenever the larger environment was hospitable to Jews, the tension between blending in and maintaining community surfaced.
I would argue that the answer to this question lies between the extremes. In the 19th century European Jewry gave rise to multiple approaches to emancipation. One approach asserted that with a more tolerant society the time has come to withdraw to the most particularistic parts of our selves.
Alternatively, in the first platform of the Reform movement composed in 1885, it was declared: “We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people… and today we accept as binding only its moral laws… but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.” Similarly, the early members of Reform hopefully declared that their era was “the modern era of universal culture of heart and intellect.”
On one hand, we encounter the forces that would have us all live in complete isolation from the world and on the other hand a movement whose foundation is an embrace of assimilation. Like in so many instances the solution rests in grappling with the liminal space in between the parts.
The answer cannot be assimilation. The four millennia-long journey of the Jewish people has produced ideas worth perpetuating along with a people that can carry forward those ideas. Jews are not a people of monuments but rather a people of ideas. Our greatest contribution to the progressive development of humanity does not exist in architecture but in the shaping of the moral intellect. The very beginning of our people finds itself in a call to “go forth.” The map of Jewish experience is shaped by experiences of exile and return, of reaching the promised land only to find ourselves shortly thereafter sitting by the waters of Babylon.
The birthright of the Jewish people is the very ability to live with ideas, to grapple with ideas, to test and retest the contours of moral reasoning. It is the challenge to “go forth” and to discover a touch of the Divine in the spaces we live in and the bodies we exist within.
Yet, this need to perpetuate and grow the legacy must be counter-balanced with engagement. No community exists absent other communities. What are we afraid of? Are we afraid that a tradition that survived the tumult of nearly four thousand years will wither in the face of dialogue? Do we lack that much self-confidence in the vitality of this great experiment initiated by Abraham, continued by Moses and then the Sages and thinkers of every era? A Judaism that exists only for itself fails to exist to its full potential.
When one looks at the results of the 2013 Pew Forum study on the American Jewish community one finds, broadly speaking, two growing and competing trends in the American Jewish landscape. There is an ever-increasing rate of disaffiliation. The “universal culture of heart and intellect” that the early Reformers described has no apparent need for a particularistic identity.
The other trend is a growing rate of Ultra-Orthodoxy. This is the Orthodoxy that argues the answer to modernity is to retreat. In 2012 CitiField was filled with 50,000 members of the haredi community pledging their resistance to the Internet.
These are disturbing trends. What will be left of those who occupy the space in between the parts? What will be left of those who exist firmly planted in the ideas and traditions of Judaism while extending a hand to the world beyond our borders? I am neither a sociologist nor a prophet so the answer to that question will be revealed only by time. What I can do is declare that retreat is not the solution. That liminal space is the birthright of the next generation and all future generations of the Jewish people.
The rabbis of the Talmud have taught that the shofar must be blown with a particular intention: to sound like the wailing cry of the mother whose son we have killed in battle. In other words, the shofar is not the sound of our own pain, but the anguished sound of the grief we have caused another, even a distant, anonymous “other.” And if we engage in the mechanism our tradition offers for moving toward repentance as the New Year approaches, we submit to hearing the blast of the shofar every day of this month, confronted every morning by a single shriek, as if the universe is leaking visceral expression of the pain we have caused.
I wonder whether there isn’t a degree of gratification in being reminded that we cause pain, the pain we cause evidence of our agency in what might seem like a fate-driven life. We want to know that we have an impact on the world, that our misdeeds have consequences. The great late 18th century Chassidic master Reb Nachman of Bratslav taught: If you believe that you have the power to destroy, you must also believe you have the power to restore.
If our misdeeds can tear the world open and expose that raw cry, maybe our repentance also matters. I think that’s why we Jews flock to the synagogue during the Days of Awe and beat our breasts, bringing that reminder of our power to both harm and heal closer to our hearts.
In beating our breasts we externalize our very heartbeats, the pulse within us that my dearly departed teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi quoted the Song of Songs in calling kol dodi dofek, the sound of our [Divine] Beloved knocking [from within]. If we put our finger on the pulse of another we feel that same knocking, the same Divine Beloved pulsing within all of us simultaneously, and we do appreciate that we are all connected as a single god-breath.
We understand that the reason we must love our neighbors as ourselves is because, bottom line, there is no such thing as a neighbor, near or far, to whom we are not connected as limbs of the same organismic whole. And this brings me ‘round to the blast of the shofar expressing, after all, not just the pain we’ve caused to others but also the pain we cause ourselves in harming others.
Surely world events bear out this truth. Wherever we stand on Israeli politics, don’t we feel the pain of the mother whose son we have killed in battle? Isn’t the retaliation against our own sons a reverberation of her pain? And don’t we feel her pain simply because we are human with human hearts? Don’t we experience the blast of the shofar as our own anguished cry?
Jolted to awareness of something greater than ourselves, raised up in awe as we confront our mortality and the underlying miracle of our lives, we might catch a glimpse of the interconnected web of humanity. In the elevated state of consciousness the rituals of the High Holidays invite, we just might momentarily achieve a birds’ eye view of all that is contained in Echad, in God’s Name as “One.” That’s the moment in which the sob of the mother of our enemy becomes our own cry. It’s a moment to pursue and savor.
Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi on shofar, Paul Horn on flute, voices of participants at a Transpersonal Psychology conference in Mumbai, 1980′s.
We rabbis often lament about how many issues divide our people. We pray differently, we keep kosher differently, we talk about Israel differently, etc. The truth is that while these topics make us debate with each other and cause us to affiliate with our own congregations and communities and organizations, they don’t change the fact that we’re all part of the Jewish people. The only issue that truly does divide us in the sense that it keeps us from uniting as one people is the issue of Jewish identity—what’s commonly called “Who’s a Jew.”
The 1983 decision by the Reform Movement (in North America, not in Israel) to consider those with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother as fully Jewish changed the rules of the game. In my first decade as a rabbi serving communities of young Jewish people (both on a college campus and at a Jewish camping agency), I’ve been asked numerous times by patrilineal Jews whether I consider them Jewish. At the end of a Birthright Israel trip a young female participant asked if I would be willing to officiate at her wedding even though her mother isn’t Jewish. As a Conservative rabbi I find these to be the most challenging questions I’m asked. My Reform and Orthodox rabbinic colleagues respond to these questions without much hesitation or difficulty. The Reform rabbi is able to cite the movement’s resolution establishing that “if the child is raised exclusively as a Jew and one parent is Jewish, then the child is recognized as a Jew in Reform communities regardless of the gender of the Jewish parent.” The Orthodox rabbi frames the answer with cut-and-dry legal wording, explaining that the definition of Jewish lineage according to halacha (Jewish law) is a child born to a Jewish mother or one who undergoes proper conversion.
Now a mega celebrity is catapulting the topic of patrilineal descent right onto our dinner tables just weeks before the High Holidays. Rabbis might feel inclined to include this issue in their Rosh Hashanah sermons this month. Gwyneth Paltrow has long been considered a Jewish actress by her fans and those in Hollywood who know that her father was Jewish. Paltrow’s mother is Blythe Danner, the actress known most notably for her roles in television’s Will and Grace and the movie Meet the Parents. Now, Paltrow has announced that she has been in the process of a conversion to Judaism since discovering her ancestors were famous rabbis. This has led to confusion among many who thought Gwyneth Paltrow was already Jewish.
Conversion is an option for patrilineal Jews who wish to remove any genetic doubt about their heritage, but it can also be an insulting suggestion. We are now facing the inter-denominational challenges that have arisen from the Reform movement’s 1983 resolution as the children of that era are now of marriage age and are having their own children. Gwyneth Paltrow will likely go through a mikveh conversion to formally (and halachically) become a member of the Jewish community (and remove any doubt that she’s 100% a Jewish celebrity), but that resolution won’t work for every man or woman who grew up thinking they were unequivocally Jewish. The mere mention of a conversion process can be taken as an insult to an individual who grew up as an active member of the Jewish people. So what are we to do for the thousands of Patrilineal Jews who don’t want to convert? Maybe we just need a big name celeb like Gwyneth Paltrow to bring this issue to the fore.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
I am emotionally fatigued by all the heartbreak of this past summer. I am drained by the tragedy of the bloodshed spilled in Israel and in Gaza. I am exhausted by the constant reports of slaughter and barbarism from ISIS, the civil war in Syria, and the separatist fighting in Ukraine. I am overwhelmed by the suffering of those stricken with Ebola in West Africa or with grief and anger in Ferguson. It seemed impossible to turn on the news this summer without some moral travesty dominating the headlines.
But with Rosh Hashanah rapidly approaching, I don’t want to stay focused on tragedy and heartbreak. I want to usher in the New Year with hope and optimism. And that is why I am joining thousands of other Jews in heading to the People’s Climate March in NYC on September 21st.
My wife recently asked me, “why do you care so much about climate change, when there are so many pressing issues that need to be addressed?” My initial reaction was to explain to her that I agreed with her that there were many issues demanding our national attention: from immigration reform to the minimum wage; from armed engagement with ISIS to fixing our failing schools. But of all these issues, none poses the existential threat of climate change. Rising sea levels, ferocious storms, and devastating droughts threaten billions of lives. The sheer enormity of the consequences requires us to prioritize climate change.
While true, I don’t think this answer does justice to the cause. There is something deeper, more amorphous, and less scientific that I believe animates me to care so much about climate change: its universalism. The climate doesn’t care if you are a believer in climate change or a skeptic; if you are religious or secular; wealthy or poor. It impacts all of us. And, conversely, climate change is not something any of us individually—not even the President—can remedy. It will take a movement, not unlike the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, the Women’s Rights Movement of the 70s, or the Gay Rights/Marriage Equality Movement of the 00s to galvanize a resistant and inert populace to change. The solutions to our warming climate are fairly simple—we need to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, notably coal, and increase our usage of renewable sources of energy. But we have run out of time to do so one Prius at a time, one solar panel at a time, one LED lightbulb at a time. Climate change cannot be just a political or technocratic issue. We need to sound the proverbial shofar to alert us to the moral repugnancy of our present energy policies. We need to create a groundswell of righteous indignation!
Finally, as a rabbi, I find environmental advocacy to be theologically profound. My basic running theology is that God wants us to act as partners in bringing about the world God envisions. Perhaps nowhere is this relationship made more explicit than in Genesis 2:15, when God took Adam “and placed him in the Garden of Eden, to work with the land and to protect it.” God entrusts us to be the stewards of the created world, so climate change advocacy, to me, is a sacred duty we dare not abdicate.
This brings us back to the People’s Climate March. Religious leaders from multiple faiths, along with secular environmentalists, labor leaders, and others, have convened what may well be the environmental march in history. The March will precede a critical UN summit on the climate crisis, and the hope is that if enough world leaders are overwhelmed by the power and passion of those at the March that they will be willing to take courageous action to sign a new climate treaty. But even if this doesn’t happen, even if no treaty emerges from the UN, we still can succeed. Through moral suasion, through “praying with our feet,” as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, we can make climate change into the next great transformative movement. May God grant us the wisdom and courage to make 5775 the year the world finally turns from stagnation to action. I hope to see you on the 21st!
Generally speaking, much of history is about war, territory, and the exploits of kings. Traditionally, kings have a motive for celebrating themselves. They have the funds to write, publish and circulate stories of their successes and, occasionally, their distresses.
The books of Bamidbar and Devarim do style themselves as historical texts, narrating events and offering snapshots of legal traditions. Some academic scholars credit the early Israelite kings for commissioning and overseeing the books. Perhaps that accounts for the books’ preoccupation with war and its philosophical justifications.
Current events are heavily focused on war, too. Governments, resistance groups, and advocacy organizations publicize sympathetic accounts of their successes and distresses, too. When we read about unfolding events, however, we recognize and try to respond to urgent needs for relief. Thus it seems appropriate, ethical, and results-oriented to focus on war – not odd at all.
As Torah attempts to tell a religious history, its focus on war seems to present war as a religious experience. Sociologist Max Weber theorized about the roots of this view. The spiritual covenant we prize, Weber argued, was not originally an agreement between the Israelites and God. Instead, it was a confederation agreement between the twelve Israelite tribes to support each other in times of war. But the army’s leader, figurehead, and supreme general could not be recruited from any particular tribe. The leader was God, Commander of Commanders. Thus, worship of a warrior God was important social glue in ancient Israel.
Weber’s contemporary, philosopher Hermann Cohen, saw the exact opposite. The true nature of the Israelites’ God, he wrote, was and is peace. God authorizes the priests to place the Divine name upon the people. This fifteen-word name, known now as the priestly blessing, concludes, “May God lift the Divine Face towards you, and place within you shalom” (Numbers 6: 24-26). For Cohen, God’s true face and most accurate name is “peace.” An essential, fundamental, spiritual yearning for peace holds us as we stumble through war’s posturing and politics.
Two views: war and peace as fundamental religious experiences. Sure, depth psychologists would say, both war and profound peace are numinous experiences. Unearthly and otherworldly, they yank us out of ordinary consciousness, showing us a different order of reality. No wonder some people speak of war as a religious experience, and others speak similarly of peace.
A midrash teaches that during the month of Elul, “the king is in the field,” i.e., God is especially close to us. Perhaps this month we can deliberately focus on our own inner tendencies towards war and peace. Where and when, in your relationships, do you find yourself poised for conflict? Where and when do you find yourself yearning to make peace? Both can be done with intention, grace and justice. And both should begin with reflection, consultation, prayer, and planning.
To adapt Worf’s words slightly, “The true warrior, and the true peacemaker, begin the work within.”
Years ago, I faced a summer’s end with a series of five deaths in the tiny congregation I served as a young rabbi. High Holiday preparations that year were especially difficult. I remember the funeral director observing that deaths seemed to cluster around holiday times.
Liminal moments are fraught. Indeed, my own father and my brother each died within two weeks of Rosh Hashanah, both at a young age. Life and death are on my mind at this time of year.
This year brings a heightened consciousness of life and death. The barbaric beheadings of two American journalists terrorizes us. Massacres of thousands of innocents by fanatical Islamists are incomprehensible. How could this death cult come from a religious tradition?
David Brooks, (NY Times, 9/4/14) reflected, “By going beneath even the minimal standards of modern civilization, the militants in the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria…show contempt for us and our morality.” They terrorize us by their “unbounded violence,” denying our common humanity. Brooks observes: “ISIS will get inside our heads in the darkest way” because a beheading is “a defacement of something sacred that should be inviolable.”
At the New Year, we pray that the quality of our lives will align with our hopes and dreams through repentance. One High Holiday prayer, Unetaneh Tokef, written during dark times of violent persecution, imagines a heavenly court judging us on the New Year. It voices a deep fear that we may fall victim to a terrible fate or die with unfinished business. But it proclaims that “repentance, prayer and tzedakah” (righteous acts) can “avert the evil decree.”
We know that life is fragile; any day could unexpectedly be our last. We pray that we can complete our soul’s mission before we die. We yearn to be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life for good. We yearn for life. We have the power to shape the quality of our living, to fulfill our soul’s purpose.
Why does murder specifically by beheading make us so sick? David Brooks wrote, the “infusion of the spiritual and the material is mysterious.” For Jews, the human body is a “transcendent temple worthy of respect.” These murderous zealots violate our basic belief that life is good. “The truest version of each Abrahamic faith revels in the genuine goodness of creation.”
The Torah instructs, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — if you and your offspring would live — by loving the LORD your God, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast to God.” (Deuteronomy 30:19 – 20)
How will we cope this trauma and our fears this holiday? We will choose life, through repentance, prayer and tzedakah/righteous acts. Indeed, we will celebrate goodness and the potential for godliness. Our antidote to the cult of death is a life of faith in goodness.
Images of horror, most pointedly the public beheadings of two American journalists in a matter of weeks, have ensured that the days leading up to the Season of Awe will continue to be stained with cruelty and violence. What hope can there be for a month already so tragic trailing a summer marred by war, rising Anti-Semitism globally and fatal injustice in the streets of St. Louis. And yet, this month on the Jewish calendar is Elul, not only the last month of the waning year but a special occasion in its own regard. Elul is the month in which G*d is everywhere. G*d is everywhere? What can that mean? On one hand its obvious, a kind of theological tautology because being everywhere is kind of in G*d’s job description. On the other its preposterous—if G*d was everywhere would the world be so messed up? Could G*d really be there when a young man gets shot down, when a war of necessity demands such a great human cost, when hatred broils in the streets. Could G*d really be there when the knife is wielded by the murderers of James Foley and Steven Sotloff?
But the idea that G*d is everywhere during Elul is understood in our tradition as neither self-evident nor grotesque. Instead we regard Elul as a time of special focus on G*d’s nearness, a period even more suited to connect meaningfully with G*d then the High Holy Days themselves. According to beautiful teaching, while G*d can be thought of like a King who sits upon an exalted throne on Rosh Hashana, during Elul the Sovereign can be found walking through the fields. And we, following the call of the Prophet Isaiah, are to make the most of this opportunity to “Seek G*d as G*d is found, call when G*d is near” Isaiah’s words may seem strange. Shouldn’t the time to send out a search party for G*d be when G*d is far away or hidden?
But Isaiah’s words are the secret to Elul: G*d’s presence is not the answer to a prayer, but the impetus to search. Our heightened awareness of the closeness of G*d is not an invitation to leave the practical and material world behind, but an inspiration to do better, to dig deeper, to take seriously the challenge of making the world a place marked by compassion, justice, and peace. Not to forget or ignore the places far away, but also to bring our attention to our relationships with those close by and the reality of our own lives. Where G*d is also found, right at this moment. Because G*d is everywhere. Really.
Most moderns live life on the run. You probably don’t need any reminder, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American claims just 17 minutes per day to relax and think. If you’re like most Americans, you’re running out of time just reading this post.
Modern life has traveled far from the perhaps mythic ideal of Talmud’s sages, who set aside distractions for fully an hour before thrice-daily prayer (Talmud, Berachot 30b). Plainly they didn’t live at the pace of iPhones and split-second commodity futures trading. Ancient mystics who sat for hours in meditation never sat in rush hour traffic, late for a meeting, perilously low on fuel, while desperately needing a bathroom.
Spirituality and mindfulness, we’re told, need the spaciousness of time – yet precisely in all our society’s collective wealth and productivity, most multitasking moderns feel starved for time. Is it any wonder that spiritual wonder sometimes seems so elusive?
The upcoming High Holy Days challenge us to ask: Where is God at the speed of life? Maybe even more importantly: where are we at the speed of life? Where are we when we race – whether literally in body, or in our minds? How can we answer these questions if we don’t bask in time-intensive prayer or regular meditation?
We fast-paced moderns can indeed answer these questions – and, for our spiritual survival and sanity, we must.
The Psalmist wrote, Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid – “I will keep God before me always” (Ps. 16:8). Centuries earlier, Moses encountered God in a common thorn bush (Ex. 3:2). Later, Moses was recorded to teach that ein od milvado – “There is nothing else but God” (Deut. 4:35). These teachings all offer a common promise: awareness of holiness “always” is in our reach “everywhere,” even in “common” contexts. Whatever we may believe or sense in our frenzied pace, tunnel vision, distraction or religious predilections, the God of “always” and “everywhere” must mean God also – even precisely – at our speed of life.
Nice words, but do “always” and “nothing else” really help at the speed of life? Panentheists like Rabbi Art Green offer that everything is part of God: we, our iPhones, traffic jams and everything are part of the unfolding of evolutionary Being, all of them flowing with the potential for holiness. But even if we can imagine it cognitively, few find panentheism especially moving (and I know none who even say “panentheism”) while going nowhere fast in traffic.
For me, the power of “always” and “everywhere” is less in theology than empowerment. By definition, “always” includes now and “everywhere” includes here – no exceptions. If so, then heightened awareness beckons not despite but precisely from daily life’s rough and tumble. When we forget – and we all do – it’s not because cosmic reality changed, but because we stopped paying attention.
As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently wrote, how we focus our attention can invest even the most routine daily experience – even sitting at one’s desk, or getting one’s teeth cleaned – with the power to elevate the seemingly ordinary. This is the high potential of “now.” Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid: “I will keep God before me always” – even in the dentist’s chair, even in traffic.
The lyricist of “Hello, Dolly!” knew that “It only takes a moment to be loved a whole life long.” It only takes a moment to find our breath, notice a sunrise, smile at a passerby, or count a blessing. It only takes a moment to reclaim “now” – but make no mistake: this isn’t easy spirituality. Claiming a moment (then another, then another) is the teshuvah (spiritual return) to which we re-commit at Rosh Hashanah. Tools of spiritual life – prayer, study, meditation, reflection, good deeds – empower us to make Godly moments “always” and “everywhere.” What would the world be like if we all made a whole year of holy moments like that?
Try it next time you’re stuck in traffic.
“Where there is faith, there are fewer beliefs. You use beliefs to shore up opinions, rather than a relationship with the cosmos… Faith is the function – the deep, deep function. So when you use the word ‘faith’ as a noun, it doesn’t work. ‘I should have faith so, nu, I should go to the grocery store and see if I can buy some faith.’ It doesn’t go that way. So what is faith? Faith is a ‘faith-ing’; it is a verb, it is an activity, it is a function. And it goes like this: ‘I open myself up the Central Intelligence of the Universe so that I might live for the purpose for which I was made.’”
These words come from an interview with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z’l, from a documentary film still in production, Beyond Belief. As I prepare myself for the High Holy Days this year, I’m spending more time than usual with the specific liturgy that occupies the prayer services of the season. We are preparing some draft material from the Reform movement’s forthcoming (2015) High Holy Day machzor, Mishkan haNefesh, and so I’ve been paying close attention to how some of the contemporary material has been selected to complement and, depending on how it is used by the prayer leader, sometimes to replace the traditional liturgy.
During my own youth I struggled enormously with what appeared to be the predominant themes of the High Holy Days; worshiping a “King” who sat in judgment over us and decided between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur whether we would be written in the Book of Life or the Book of Death in the year to come. Actually, struggle is the wrong word. I outright rejected that set of images. And, for a long time, I had nothing to replace them with. I was able reestablish a real love for Judaism when I learned how to approach the breadth of our tradition more as a cultural anthropologist. Then much of it became a thing of great beauty – ancient ideas that fulfilled important purposes that were still meaningful today, if only we translated some of these ideas into a more contemporary language; if we understood the difference between the form and the purpose.
Today, the only Book of Life I think about is the one in which I’m writing the pages each and every day. The High Holy Days becomes a time for some introspection to see if I’m living in alignment with who I think I want to be and what I think I should be doing or refraining from doing. I do my best to engage in the spiritual practice that Reb Zalman called “faith-ing.” Beliefs, he acknowledges, can get us into trouble, especially if we read the humanly-constructed words, stories, laws, and theologies of our religious traditions in fundamentalist ways.
That doesn’t mean that I’m going to do away with the particularist practices, prayers, teachings and rituals of Judaism. Once I’ve freed them from the shackles of belief, I’m able to appreciate and enjoy them as part of a rich, cultural heritage. I’m able to explore and probe them to try and uncover the questions, aspirations, concerns, and values of those who came before us and upon whose shoulders we stand. I have come to appreciate that the prayers we recite and the rituals we perform over the High Holy Days provide the scaffolding for the faith-ing work that I need to do for myself. Without them I might never take the time to engage in this important work of the spirit. There would never be the right day or the right season; there would always be something more pressing to do. And the different parts of the liturgy, and the many images and ideas embedded in them become a stepping-stone for my own inner contemplations, guiding me through different states and activities, from gratitude to remorse, to questioning, to realigning and rededicating, so that I can give myself the best shot at entering a new year renewed.
I’m looking forward to being able to pray with a new machzor that, through the diversity of language, theology, sources and teachings, helps us all to see that the ancient images do not describe a literal reality, but are simply doorways into the inner world of the soul, and the work that we are all invited to do at this season.
Rabbi Gurevitz is posting about individual texts and prayers from the forthcoming Mishkan haNefesh on her own blog, ‘Raise it Up’ throughout the month of Elul.
Does the synagogue you attend speak your language? If you are not a synagogue goer, might you go if the folks there spoke your language? By language, I don’t mean Hebrew, English, French, Spanish, etc.
One of the central purposes of religion is to make sense of the world around us. “Religion,” from the Latin word “religare” means to restrain, to tie, to bind. Related to the word “ligament,” religion “binds” our ideas and experiences together into a cohesive worldview. Religious language is valuable only to the extent that your personal, most existential questions are dealt with, and in a manner that speaks to you.
Remember this scene of young Alvy Singer from Woody Allan’s Oscar winning Annie Hall?: Alvy Singer’s mother has taken nine year old Alvy to the Doctor.
Alvy: The universe is expanding.
Doctor Flicker: The universe is expanding?
Alvy: Well, the universe is everything, and if its expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!
Alvy’s Mom scolds: What is that your business? (To the doctor) He stopped doing his homework!
Alvy: What’s the point?
Alvy’s Mom: What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!
Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson points out that while science has made great strides in increasing human knowledge on matters of the human scale, certainty about what we know decreases when we consider issues much larger or smaller than we have been evolutionarily conditioned to reckon with. He writes:
“… We are limited to an intuitive sense that pertains to our range of size and our durations of time. For size ranges vastly larger than our own (planets, galaxies, space-time) or vastly smaller (molecules, atoms, atomic particles, and quanta), human intuition and logic is not reliable…[T]he only effective system of human relation and expression (constrained by our scientific knowledge) is the Four M’s: Math, Metaphor, Music, and Myth. Each provides a syntax and narrative to link our consciousness and existence to those realms of reality vastly larger or smaller than our own size range, or vastly shorter or longer than the time frames we are evolved to recognize and intuit.” – Ba-Derekh: On the Way – A presentation of Process Theology
Math, Metaphor, Music, Myth – Each of these four M’s is a language that can be used to discuss that which is much grander or much more minute then the everyday experience of humankind. Each language (each of the 4 M’s) can operate “religiously” by connecting what we cannot fully fathom to an expression that is more familiar and meaningful to us. And while each language helps us understand our place in the universe, we must acknowledge a lingering lack of certainty of the truths, or partial-truths, that each language helps us uncover.
I think it might be the case that each of us is hard-wired to have preconceived preferences among these four languages of meaning. I have students who prefer the language of math and logic. But, with imaginary numbers (such as infinity) and thanks to pioneering mathematicians such as Godel, even certain aspects of math, once considered the epitome of logical language, can be understood as limited, or merely theoretical. I have family members whose spiritual lives are fed by music. For me, I am focused on the lyrics, captivated by metaphor and myth (“all we are is dust in the wind”), rather than the notes or tones. For them, the harmonies and unexpected chord progressions thrill them to the point of goose bumps.
Religion as a Verb
What language do you religion in? Each of the four M’s has power to uncover partial truths. Each of us may prefer Math, Metaphor, Music, or Myth over the other three, but are we missing something vital when we ignore the other languages?
The Mishnah teaches, “Who is truly wise? The one who learns from everybody.” There is wisdom here, but a question lingers. If your synagogue (or the one you don’t go to) does not speak your meaning-making language, should you go elsewhere? Or, should you push yourself to find a bit a meaning in a foreign language?