Archive for June, 2010

I’m struggling with Torah.

I remember the first time I went to shul as a seeker and not just a visitor, and it was a bar mitzvah Saturday morning service, and the Rabbi was speaking briefly and mentioned just in passing the complex Jewish relationship to its text. She said something like, “The text that we love, read, are inspired by, study, struggle with, get angry and infuriated over…”

I’ve been reading the weekly parshas mainly as an act of “living Jewishly”, but really wondering what I’m doing with this text.

I’m having flashbacks of my Mormon days, when I would pore over scripture trying to extract something meaningful or useful at all, or trying to decipher what some 2000 year dead Jewish faith-healer supposedly said, or what Joseph Smith’s imagination could have possibly wrought of worth. I have reminiscent feelings of obligation and duty, and unrequited desire for the truth.

It seems there are levels of reading Torah, some of which make me squirm with discomfort.

1) Literalist: This is a true history of God with His people. This one is not even on the table for me.

2) Metaphorical but Sacred: This I can respect and it dovetails with a very common move that many Europeans and Americans started making in liberal religion in the 19th century. But this also makes me uncomfortable because it feels to me, in my post-mormon rawness, like an effort to put humpty-dumpty back together again.

3) As a historical artifact: This appeals to my scholarly side and I have to admit that the URJ’s Torah has some fantastic notes and commentary in it that I *have* found to be intellectually engaging and interesting. But I’m not sure if historical curiosity alone for me is enough to sustain an interest in reading Torah.

4) As a cultural touchstone: Now as a Jew-by-choice, a book worm, a wannabe philologist, and a sociologist, one of the most incredible phenomena about Judaism is the 2000 year (approx.) accretion of discussion about Torah. So it’s not Torah itself, but rather diving into a 2000 year old tradition of discussing and arguing about Torah with fellow Jews. And that so much of it is written down and part of this vast incredible textual heritage of Judaism, from Talmud, to Midrash, to philosophers and modern thinkers. In this way, the text of Torah has grown to stunningly immense proportions, far bigger then the Torah itself.

5) As literature. This appeals to me. With two lit degrees (one in English and one in French), and having been a heavy fiction reader growing up, there’s something comforting and also really stimulating about talking about literature and its meaning. Treating the characters of Torah as characters in a novel, talking about motivations, psychologies, etc.; imagining them as real people; and trying to understand the authors and their motivations and politics. Seeing the Torah as aesthetic, though, is also problematic for me, because I come at scripture with a deep mistrust about the truth-claims that are made about it, which can sometimes block me from seeing it as a beautiful product of human imagination.

6) As mystical text. One of the two main branches of jewish mysticism focuses on Torah study, where Hebrew, its letters and words, are themselves vehicles to a mystical communion with God. Here the words, letters, and language themselves convey meaning that is deeper than the surface. I’m fascinated by this practice, but don’t yet have the skills to engage it.

7) As a vehicle for social interaction: Arguing about Torah with other liberal Jews could be (I don’t know, but I think) could really be a great way to engage in larger discussions about the life, ethics, morality, social justice, the sacred, etc., and the anchor of important social bonds. So Torah could serve as an anchor for present social group cohesion. It definitely does that on a large scale for Jews (and Christians and Muslims); but I mean for small, intimate intellectual and spiritual social bonds as well.

In the end, I still have two blocks: First, my religious past makes me emotionally distrustful of the text itself and especially of the way religious groups use of scripture; and second, I’m a trained social scientist and I know the history and scholarship about the production of the text which has demystified it.


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A colleague and new-found friend of mine, and one of my guides on this Jewish journey, has responded to an Arthur Green quote I’ve had in my sidebar for a few weeks (see the end of the post for the original quote). I thought this would be a good place to think more carefully through some of the issues she raises. Also, you should read her blog which is an awesome exploration of memory, anthropology, identity, and family (I hope she doesn’t mind me advertising it a bit).

Unfortunately, to take a brief pull-quote from an entire book is to necessarily distort and simplify what is a book-length argument. I’m not sure it would be very productive to defend Green, because it’s not as if I agree with him on everything. But I have found someone who is walking down a particular path that I find intriguing and, yes, meaningful. So this is all I will say for Green: He makes a much more sophisticated and subtle argument in his book, although perhaps not as rational as my friend would like. Here what I’d like to do is address my friend’s criticisms from my own position, to engage with her and her ideas as I think about my own position on these ideas.

My friend wrote:

So. Arthur Green. The fallacies. His depiction of evolution is as if it is directional — a very 19th century view of from the simple to the complex. Evolution is not directional. It is not a progression leading ‘up’ to “the great complexity of the human brain.” In fact, it’s not about ‘us’ at all — except in the sense that it is us studying the process.

I’m not sure that Green actually thinks that evolution is teleological, given other things he says in his argument. Regardless, I can affirm with you that evolution is non-linear, random, and the opposite of teleological. However, I think a discussion of “what evolution is about” is a bit more complex.

On one hand, thinking scientifically, there is no goal to evolution. The mechanism of Natural Selection merely “chooses” (the language here is difficult, because humans tend to impute intention into non-intentional processes) the individuals who are suited to their environments and they get to reproduce. Combine that with the phenomenon of genetic drift—the population-level movement of traits over time within a population for purely random reasons—and you end up with the opposite of teleology. In a very real sense, then, evolution has no meaning. It is simply a description of what happens, how organism-populations move and change over time.

On the other hand… Whereas I agree completely that evolution did not proceed in order to achieve the human brain; and whereas I agree that humans are not the end of evolution nor its apogee, but merely one species in one particular geologic moment; and whereas we don’t know where evolution is leading (in my darker hours, I think that we’re heading for extinction); I do believe that the brain we have is a product of selective pressures, and one of its key traits is that its consciousness demands meaning.

Whether or not evolution has been working toward the goal of producing human brains (it has not) is beside the point altogether. What matters at a human, existential level is the fact that this brain, this set of traits and capabilities, is where natural selection has landed us right now, and this brain wants meaning. [I could go on and on about the evolution of the human brain, but I will resist the temptation to get onto one of my hobby horses.]

Let me now clarify what I mean by meaning. I tend to use the idea of “meaning” in a much richer way than it is usually employed. I do not mean a Hallmark card version of meaning, where you clutch your pearls, your upper lip quivers as you wipe away a tear, and you feel a warm feeling in your heart. Nor do I mean the banal meaning derived from the endless self-referential linguistic cycle of a dictionary definition. Rather, I use meaning in the sense developed by a small group of American Pragmatists, which is a layered, accretive affair. One piece is certainly linguistic, as humans tend to talk about and work through meaning using the symbolic tools at their disposal. Another piece is the entire set of interactions that members of a given group have around a particular object (here, an object can be a physical object or even an idea or a concept, in the case of this blog post, the concept of “evolution” is an object of meaning). And a third piece are the range of possible “uses” of that object within that particular group. This kind of layered, complex sense of meaning is part of the evolutionary heritage of being human; for modern scientists (who view these three pieces as separate cognitive functions) these are important survival traits allowing behavioral adaptation to an environment.

Here’s the upshot: We evolved to generate meaning (there’s that tricky language problem again) as a survival trait—in fact it’s the key to our massive adaptive flexibility. And I would argue, indeed, that we are impelled to create meaning. Whereas evolution has no meaning, no end, no will or intention; humans can (and often must) make their world meaningful, and when looking at evolution, it’s a normal and potentially beautiful human affair to discover, generate, or create its meaning. (We can talk about beauty another time.)

As the knowers of evolutionary processes, we are also those who give it meaning. In fact, in the broader sense of meaning I have given, my friend’s reaction to Rabbi Green’s language, and Rabbi Green’s book itself are both actually part of the communal production of the meaning of evolution (all meaning production is always-already social, another piece of our evolutionary heritage).

And then, without a blink of the eye, he baldly states, “There is a One …” (my italics). As if such a definitive statement makes it so. A statement rooted in the same capital T Truth of any Orthodoxy around the world. A knowing — without evidence — the dreaded F-word: faith. Can you feel me shudder? Ugh.

And takes it further, “and that One is Being itself.”

This is really a place where Green has built up a language with definitions and ideas and layers over pages that are cut out of the pull quote. Again, rather than speaking for him or falling into weak apologia, let me offer my perspective (which does actually dovetail with Green’s larger argument). There is a human capacity to know, to be aware of its place in the universe. There is an awareness of existence itself, and there is, clearly, an awareness of mortality. The size and scope of the universe, and indeed of the meaninglessness, the ruthlessness, the un-teleologicalness of it all can also be apprehended. In the current understanding of both physics (origin of matter) and evolution (origin of life), there can arise a sense of oneness of existence, or Being, itself. It is the deep apprehension of one’s connection in the grand flow over which one has no control, will only know and experience an infinitesimal piece, and, for those who experience it, the awe that such an apprehension can bring. This is not an empirical or scientific truth claim about the nature of the universe; rather, it is an observation about the experience of knowing what science has discovered so far and an effort to make the experience of that knowledge meaningful (in my sense).

Now, one of the things that I have a big problem with in Green is his god language. He spends a good deal of time explaining why he, as an agnostic, or a “post-naïf” as he calls himself, can possibly gain or mean by employing the word god or what I call “god language” generally. Because he is a Rabbi, speaking in a religious mode, and because he is self-consciously employing the terms and frames of Kabbalah, I’m willing to give him some lee-way. But only so far. It still makes me uncomfortable, probably because I’m more or less an atheist and because I’m concerned that god-language obscures the larger rational project that I think we should all be about and can lead (in our world) to some dangerous places, not least of which, the reconstruction of a supernatural agent who does not, in fact, exist (at least so far as we have evidence right now).

Which doesn’t mean anything at all. But I guess it sounds good. To somebody. Maybe to most people. But what on earth does it mean? And maybe it’s not meant to mean anything, but to feel right, feel comfortable or comforting, though I’m not sure why this nonsensical statement would or could bring comfort to anyone at all. And how did ‘revelation’ become a mechanism of evolution? My friend who posted it, should know better than find this comforting. Although perhaps in his struggle to explore Judaism, he posted the quote in order to enter the argument, play with the words, have at Arthur Green in some fun, dynamic way. In which case, I applaud.

Well, again, in the context of the whole argument he’s making, “Being itself” is quite meaningful and somewhat different than my friend has framed it: It’s the conscious awareness, the apprehension of existence, which for some people can lead to the experience of the holy. From my scientific point of view, that qualia of holiness—that is, the experience of ineffability—is a measurable product of our brain’s cognition, and interestingly seems to be rather similar across cultures and peoples and languages (although what triggers it across cultures can be quite extremely different). [I’m functioning on a deep reading in the neurology and evolution of religious cognition and behavior, here, but I don’t want to bog this down more than I already have.]

To be perfectly honest, I did post the quote in earnest, rather than as an intellectual exercise, mainly because I found in the first two chapters of Green’s book a way to marry my rationalism with my lived experience of the sacred. I do not believe (nor does Green, by the way), in an external, agentive, intentional power outside of human minds. But I do believe quite firmly in the human capacity to experience “the sacred” (acknowledging the vast and astounding diversity of ways that humans get there in their religious practices) and I personally enjoy the communal, shared, social experience of “the sacred”.

For me, this is not at all about finding comfort (other than the relief of finding a framing device that I found useful). I made my peace with mortality and the singularity of human existence many years ago. It is rather about making that singular existence meaningful, in the broad, deep, and social sense I gave above. And for me and my foray into Judaism, it’s about finding a community to experience the sacred and create its meaning with.

Now I have left open and unanswered many questions and issues here, but I think that it’s a beginning. I still don’t know what or how to talk about god, or if such a language can ever be meaningful for me again, and I fear the misunderstandings that all god-language seems to carry with it, given the literal (naïve?) religious understandings of most of my fellow humans. I do not know how to deal with the contradiction in the fact that I find a deep love and resonance with judaism, despite being social-scientifically critical (i.e., I know its history and can explain its social dynamics, etc.). I further don’t know what to do with this thing called Torah (I hope that my friend and I will have many discussions to come about that topic), because I understand it as a piece of ancient literature and a historical touchpoint for people identifying as jewish across millennia, but not, in itself, as sacred (its sacredness can only be constructed in community (even if that community is between a living person and the midrash of the past). And finally, I don’t know how to meld this newfound interest in a religious tradition with my critical brain, the fact that I’m politically and sociologically aware and find problems in every community (religious or secular) that I could potentially become a part of.

Surely, my goal is to find, as Rabbi Green says, a way to understand and incorporate what has been for me a life-long dance with the sacred to my intellectual and rational integrity.

Whereas I’m pretty sure at this point that Judaism is my new spiritual home (whatever might constitute “spiritual” for me), I do not know yet how to incorporate or integrate all the various pieces of the social construction of the sacred, my religious practice, the desire to belong to a community of seekers, and my intellectual objections to patently false truth-claims.


We would understand the entire course of evolution from the simplest life forms millions of years ago, to the great complexity of the human brain (still only barely understood) and proceeding onward into the unknown future, to be a meaningful process. There is a One…and that One is Being itself, the constant in the endlessly changing evolutionary parade. Viewed from our end of the process, the search that leads to discovery of that One is our human quest for meaning. But turned around, seen from the perspective of the constantly evolving life energy, evolution can be seen as an ongoing process of revelation or self-manifestation. We discover; it reveals. […] Our task … is not to offer counterscientific explanations for the origin of life. Our task is to notice, to pay attention to, the incredible wonder of it all, and to find [the Eternal] in that moment of paying attention.”

—from Arthur Green, Radical Judaism

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Sha’ar Zahav has added its own special high holiday to the ritual calendar, Pride Shabbat, the shabbat before Gay Pride weekend. Tonight was my first experience of this tradition, and I was moved in a way that surprised me. More than 11 years after I came out, sitting in that room, I found myself lifted up in a way that I never thought possible in my former religious life: An evening celebrating the holiness of being queer.

One of the privileges of being gay after the 1960s is that we can choose from a range of meaningful gaynesses, from a very limited and narrow gayness, perhaps where it is nothing more nor less than a sexual desire, to an expansive and thorough-going gayness, where one’s sexuality infuses every other aspect of one’s life. The work and sacrifice and toil of our post-war pioneers in the 1950s and 1960s set the stage for a world within which we could work out a meaningful queerness for ourselves.

Although I have had personal experiences of the holiness of my sexual orientation, brief moments of awareness of connection and insight, I had never expected to experience it as a communal celebration. From the reading of the blessing on queer elders; to the Communal Remembrance where we mourn the countless queer people through history who have been oppressed, driven to madness and suicide, beaten, killed, massacred; from the Queer Amidah and the Pride Shabbat Hallel; to the Adon Olam sung to the tune of “I Will Survive”, I felt like I was in world I had never known was possible.

A part of me is sheepish that I’m not out and proud enough to stand free of such outside affirmations. But the religion I was raised in would never in a million years celebrate my or any one of its children’s queerness. And the fact is, like many gay men, I still have internalized homophobia and fears and self-hatred deep down. And I really do need to be seen and understood by others, not just myself. As the rabbi said tonight at the end of service, “It’s so much easier to do it together.”

Tonight with a couple hundred fellow queers and allies, I got to recite and feel for the very first time:

God of Oneness
infinite, eternal
How queer of You to have created anything at all.
God of queerness
in whom are united all separations
we stand before You now
queer ourselves
made of heaven and earth
day and night
female and male
all of us
within Your awesome oneness
(Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, pp. 269)

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I just started a new book today which consists of an interchange between a Reform and an Orthodox Rabbi. The first chapter is about the nature of truth and whether or not there exists absolute truth. As might be expected, the Orthodox Rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Reinman argues not only that there is such a truth, but that it can be found in Torah. Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, of the Reform movement, argues that truth is a moving target and that few human phenomena are more dangerous than the belief that one possesses the absolute truth.

In the course of this discussion, Rabbi Hirsch attempts to explain the search for truth as an end-in-view and as a worthwhile life-task, and he makes the claim that Judaism is at its best a frame for such an end.

Jewish or not, the feel of his passage resonates deeply with me, as one who has found through rigorous academic study and hard personal experience that life holds no ultimate answers, only more questions. This dovetails beautifully with pieces of Buddhism and even scientific inquiry as well.

You don’t always have to have an explanation. Keep trying to find an answer. The process is good for you. It makes you a better person—more sensitive, more compassionate, more discerning. If you don’t find the answer, keep going. This is certainly what the Jewish people and the Jewish journey characterize.

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As I learn and study about Judaism, I have inevitably come up against the complex set of practices and laws that constitute a Jewish life. I will treat my study of mitzvot (the obligatory deeds or acts of Judaism) and my reactions to specific mitzvot in a later post. Here I want to explore the general body of laws, legal interpretations, and the ongoing (more than 2000 years) argument about how and why to obey the mitzvot. This body of law, both oral and written, and expounded through the Talmud and later midrashes, is called halakhah. [I have readers who are unfamiliar with Judaism, and I am also trying to anchor ideas in my head; so apologies to my born-Jewish and expert readers if some of this feels elementary.]

I find that on one hand, halakhah is what I’m looking for in a spiritual home: A set of organizing practices and central values, a frame from which you can have deeper, more meaningful conversations. On the other hand, having been raised in a rather legalistic religion myself (how many times did I have to sit through a discussion about whether or not you could drink Coca-Cola, and if you did, would God’s spirit leave you?), I find myself wary, suspicious, and critical of religious rules generally, and efforts to draw in/out boundaries based on adherence to rules specifically.

History, Part 1: Reform Halakhah

In Jewish tradition, halakhah is the body of laws and interpretation of Torah. It’s traditional, derived from the “Oral Law” (if I understand correctly) and constitutes the rulings on Jewish practice vis-à-vis the Torah and the Mitzvot (obligatory deeds). One of the key innovations of the Reform movement (and by extension the Conservative movement and later the Reconstructionist movement) in the early 19th century was to historicize the Torah**, read it critically, and to rethink Jewish practice in light of the Enlightenment. Everything from Kashrut (dietary) to conversion, from dress to music in services were transformed, a process which continued in the United States. The Conservative movement was a reaction against nearly 100 years of radical changes in the Reform practices, and although they kept the historicized reading of the Torah and a politically liberal ethic, the Conservative movement sought to re-attach itself to traditional living and practice.

From what I’ve been reading about the Reform movement, it too has undergone a swing back to more traditional practices, although it remains open and diverse. One of the authors I’ve been reading suggests that the acceptance of converts and the increasing number of converts has put a kind of awareness into these liberal denominations, as gerim seek to understand Judaism it has pushed Reform synagogues to reexamine their laissez-faire attitude toward Halakhah since the early 1960s. In other words, she argues that the enthusiasm and practice of gerim are what have actually pushed the Reform movement to more traditional practice, which is an interesting sociological hypothesis (see Diamant.) Surely, services at my Reform synagogue, Sha’ar Zahav, don’t look or feel like the Reform services that I’ve been reading about, without kippot, with an organ and choir, etc.

Because halakhah has become more central to the practice of Reform judaism, I feel a need to understand it more deeply and to figure out what my place within it would be.  Because I’m someone much more attracted to meaningfulness and “soul” of a tradition rather than its rules, I wonder what halakhah would look like for me and my Jewish journey.

History, Part 2: Social Strategies of Survival

One of the key ways that cultural groups identify themselves is through their practice (using that word now in a sociological sense, not a religious one). How they act and behave in view of others and how they interact with others is the way that groups build social boundaries. In Jewish history, this sociological phenomenon becomes salient during Babylonian captivity. As is commonly noted by religious historians, one of the great innovations of the Hebrews was that during Babylonian captivity, they decided that they could carry their god with them. The universalization of god alone, however, would not have been enough for the preservation of group integrity.

Living within a majority, oppositional culture, the pressures were probably great (scholars speculate here) for assimilation into Mesopotamian culture. And indeed, we know now that much of what today we call “Jewish” was in fact borrowed from the Babylonian religions around them (e.g., Noah). But the Babylonians served simultaneously as a foil against which to build a separate ethno-religious identity, what today we would probably recognize as Jewish (e.g., rejection of certain practices that were seen as unclean (see Leviticus)). To further complicate matters, when the captive Jews were released (thanks to Cyrus the Great) and returned to Palestine++, they encountered Hebrews who had not been a part of the cultural innovations they had made in Babylon, and a battle for cultural authenticity began, which has never ceased among Jews (see today inter-denominational struggles, Israel vs. diaspora struggles, and inter-racial and inter-cultural struggles among the diaspora, with Jews inhabiting Palestine often having a de facto claim to authenticity).

That gives us two environmental dynamics within which Jews were reacting and living historically: 1) being a minority, more often than not beleaguered and oppressed; and 2) identification with other Jews who are problematically different from each other in tradition, language, dress, food, etc., because their traditions emerged in vastly different contexts, ranging from Kazakhstan to Alexandria, from Rome to Toledo, and from Mecca to Warsaw. These two dynamics gave us an emergent, ever-unfinished Judaism always in dialectic with itself and with often hostile goyim. It is this dialectic that produced, in my newly forming opinion, halakhah as it is understood today, especially in its historic and sociological contexts.

Halakhah as ‘Separation’

From this history and from Jews’ real, experiential effects of a carefully monitored religious practice within a highly surveilled and often ghettoized community—and from my sociological perspective—halakhah has come to mean separation. From what I can see, there is a long philosophical tradition of explaining the meaning of halakhah as separation. In the more liberal books I’ve been reading, this is often expressed as sacrilization, making something or a stretch of time or an act sacred.

In Mircea Eliade’s terms, this is the great division that religions make between the sacred and the profane, where the sacred becomes the locus of the real, the true, the universal. This split is mainly enacted, that is to say, it is not an intrinsic quality of the world (or its objects or people), but rather something that is created by the people who make it sacred through their acts. A child and convert (?) learn of the sacred through experiencing its meaning as the people around them make it.

But there is another piece which seems to come from the history of Jewish people as embattled minorities, which is a separation of Jewish people from everyone else. Now clearly, there are reasons for Jews to embrace separatism historically, so as a sociologist, my response is “of course.” There are clear reasons why an oppressed people would have a deep sense of “chosenness” (another idea shared with Mormonism that I always found ethically disturbing; I will return to the idea of chosenness in Judaism in a later post).

In Orthodox thinking, separation is a key and integral part of Jewish theology and thus of Jewishness. David Gelernter spends an entire chapter extolling the virtues of Jewish separation from the world in ways that I found not only problematic but deeply unethical. There are passages in his book that read like an early 20th century eugenics tract against race mixing. Gelernter works his philosophical acumen for all its worth to make the act and state of separation itself into something sacred, but when you read a passage like this—”as [Jews] marry Gentiles and do as Gentiles do, and sink back (with a well-earned sigh of relief) into the muddy ocean of mankind”—if you have any post-Shoah, post-Jim Crow, post-Stonewall, post-pogrom sensibility at all, you cannot help but gasp at the ethical blindness of this idea (see Ch. 2 and pp. 51).

Gelernter fears the dissolution of Jewish distinctiveness in the face of an accepting and relatively free social and cultural context for Jews in the United States. He makes empassioned arguments against conversion and especially against “mixing of blood” between Jews and Gentiles. To be frank, reading this chapter in his book felt so anachronistic, so unethical that I almost gave up my decision to explore Judaism (his was the first book I read, back in February).

But the context he fears is a real one: In the United States and much of the world, Jews find themselves at a new cross-roads historically. While there still is anti-semitism afoot, it is not the dominant paradigm that governs legally, socially, or culturally. In other words, in the U.S. (where most of the world’s Jews live), when there is no real outside pressure (Jews are, in my opinion, fully integrated into U.S. culture), what does it mean to be a Jew?

For a non-believing Jew, who does not believe in separation as an ethical position, and who finds the panentheism of Kabbalah more resonant than the sacred/profane dyad—that is, for a Jew like me—what should halakhah mean? Can it be anything more than a mere expression of identity?

Toward a Humanistic Critique of Halakhah

Sociologically, I understand both the historical need for “separation” of a minority people in dangerous circumstances, and I also understand the social function of religious practice as a separation of the world into sacred and profane.

But as someone who is seeking a practice, but who is atheist-panentheist, I am caught up short by the more conservative take on halakhah-as-separation. And as a humanist, I wonder if there isn’t a more universalistic or humane reading of halakhah, a halakhah for the present social and scientific realities, rather than one built in a past that, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists.

Surely, Judaism contains within it the intellectual and humanistic values that I hold dear, otherwise I would not be so seriously pursuing conversion. From gemilut khasidim (acts of kindness), tzedakah (acts of justice), and tikkun olam (repairing the world) come a central ethical and, for me, resonant way of living. How do these altruistic and forward looking ideals interact with a legal culture of minute and specific laws? How do the Talmudic teachings that extend the acts of kindness and justice and repair outside of the Jewish community combine with the Talmudic (and cultural) impetus to exclusion and separation?

Because I am at heart a humanist who finds beauty, truth, and goodness (as well as ugliness, lies, and evil) in all of humanity’s religious efforts, I want to create a Jewish identity for myself and be part of a Jewish community that looks outward from its spiritual home to the world as a positive and intentional act, rather than out of a need to express a separate identity.


**derived from German high criticism of the Bible, and which had a massive impact on Christianity as well; in the United States, this led to the liberalization of Congregationalism and the transformation of Unitarianism and the roots of American Transcendentalism (Emerson’s Nature being a prototypical panentheistic text); thus, German high criticism generally marks the beginning of liberalization of Western monotheism; the effect continues to be felt today both in Judaism and Christianity.

++I use the term “Palestine” with full awareness of the complexities of naming the land that has been the locus of so much bloodshed and identity politics for the past 3000 years. I use it as a term of ease rather than a political position.

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One of the main things I hope to find in a Jewish practice is a sense or awareness of the sacred. It is a tricky proposition for me, because I am agnostic/atheist, yet think the experience of the sacred is a deeply human and, for me, centering and meaningful part of life. My atheist friends who were raised outside of a religious tradition often look at me askance for my fascination with the sacred; and yet I am just made in such a way that I both experience the sacred in my bones and don’t believe in god or any kind of external, agentive, creative force.

The quote from Rabbi Green (in the column to the left) describes a way that an agnostic but religious humanist Jew approaches the world. Science does what it does, and produces empirical knowledge about the universe. But we still, as humans, with these amazing and weird brains, must experience that universe; and our brains, with the weight of their evolutionary origins behind them, are impelled to give that experience of the universe meanings.**  Rabbi Green calls this a “post-naïve” religiosity, where the literal existence of a being or essence that acts in the universe with intention is rejected, yet the post-naïve remains connected to a religious affect and practice.  I have been without such a practice for about 15 years, and yet have never lost the occasional overwhelming and powerful experience of Existence, Being, The One, what Rabbi Green calls “God”.

Who or what was the God I sought—and still seek today, half a century later!—once I had accepted that I was such a ‘nonbeliever’ in the God of my childhood? The question seemed to be whether we post-naïve seekers dare to use the word ‘God’ anymore, and what we might—or might not—mean by it, while remaining personally and intellectually honest. …

… I still consider the sacred to be the most important and meaningful dimension of human life. ‘The Sacred’ refers to an inward, mysterious sense of awesome presence, a reality deeper than the kind we ordinarily experience. … These moments can come without warning, though they may be evoked by great beauty, by joy, by terror, or by anything else that causes us to stop and interrupt our ordinary, all-encompassing and yet essentially superficial perception of reality. …

… It is out of such moments that religion is born, our huamn response to the dizzying depths of an encounter we cannot—and yet so need to—name.

… I find myself less convinced by the dogmatic truth claims of tradition than powerfully attracted to the richness of its language, both in word and in symbolic gesture. Through the profound echo chamber of generations, tradition offers a way to respond, to channel the love and awe that rise up within us at such times, and to give a name to the holy mystery by which our lives are bounded (Green 3-5).

Although I’m still uncomfortable with Rabbi Green’s god-language, when I read this passage a couple weeks ago, it was as if I had written it. This was straight out of my experience with being a believer in science, scientific method, and scientific mindset, and yet having these experiences of awe and wonder at the universe I live in, my own body, and life as Being.

It is this awareness of the massive interconnection of all existence in an incomprehensibly massive universe in which I am an infinitesimal speck, that I want to have in awareness, to acknowledge in a regular kind of way. It is the one aspect that has been missing for me in Buddhism (which, by the way, has been an amazing power for good in my life, and which will always be an integral part in my own spiritual path). In the Congregation Sha’ar Zahav Siddur, there is a blessing for everyday life, written by Sue Bojdak, that can potentially remind me of this greater connection, and the holiness of every other human I encounter from day to day.

You reflect God through your soul, through your mind, and through your body. … We honor you and your body because you are a gift (Siddur 6).

In more orthodoxic religions, the requirement is on belief. In Mormonism, where I was raised, there are a set of key beliefs that are mandatory, and you are regularly asked about them and expected to publicly proclaim them on a regular basis. This is more common in Christianity, but may exist in more conservative or traditional forms of Judaism. So in my early 20s, when it was increasingly clear that I didn’t actually believe in it, I tried for about two years to talk myself through a different meaning of the rituals, scriptures, prayers. It was  a lot of work, exhausting in a context where I knew that if anyone knew what was happening in my mind, what I was doing to try to make mormonism intellectually tolerable, they would have been mortified and possibly taken corrective action against me.

But what Judaism seems (so far) to offer is a context within which the relationship to each other and the sacred is the focus, and there is built in to the religion, at least in modern, liberal, post-Englightenment mode of Judaism, the assumption that every individual in the room is working out the meaning themselves and differently. I get the impression that if I told the guy davening next to me at shul that I didn’t believe in God, that I just thought there was something awe-ful and wonder-ful about the Existing in the universe and being aware of it, even the most orthodox might argue with me in disagreement, but there wouldn’t be a question of whether or not it was Jewish to think such a thing.

It is an incredibly refreshing and relieving and relaxing place to be. And so I can pray B’tzelem Elohim, and love its meaning and implications in a panentheistic spirituality, and yet maintain my intellectual integrity as an atheist.


**I do not mean to argue here that religiosity was selected for in the evolutionary process. When I look at the evidence we have at the moment, I fall into the “spandrel” camp, those who see Homo sapiens religiosity as an accidental bi-product of the evolution of our problem-solving consciousness and our social cognition.

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An old teacher of mine, a traditional Jew, suggested to me that I look into the writings and teachings of Steven Greenberg, the first openly gay orthodox rabbi. I’ve been poking around the internet and stumbled upon a brief teaching he made about remembering our gay ancestors. Although this was a message for Rosh Hashanah, it felt like it tied together a few strands of thought I’ve been having lately.

One strand is about the meaning of being a gay Jew. For me, I was not born into a Jewish family and discovered I was gay; I’m a gay man who is seriously drawn to Judaism, a religion with a less-than-perfect record regarding gay rights (actually quite parallel to American Christians in many ways). Judaism is an intensely familial and home-centered practice, and so an open question for me is what the place of an openly gay man would be in such a religious, spiritual practice.

A second strand is related to an ongoing question I have about the place of a convert in Judaism. Whereas my liberal and mystical Jewish friends have all, to a person, said more or less to me, “If you feel like a Jew, you are a Jew,” clearly that is not the attitude of many within the Jewish community. The orthodox rabbinate, for example, does not recognize conversions conducted by Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements. So in this very brief message, from an orthodox and gay rabbi, I found again one of the things that I love in Judaism: There is always another side, always another view, always another Jew. Orthodoxy is as complicated and fraught and contested as any of the other movements or as the various denominations are with each other.

This particular piece touched me in a way that is hard to explain, but connects with my own scholarly research and a belief I have that one of the key things that gay men and women need for meaningful lives in the present is to find ways to know each other across generations, to have a sense of time and connection through history and among ages.

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Partly because I’m a scholar and partly because I’m anal and partly because it seems cool, I have added a tab at the top of the blog to a bibliography. As a write posts, I will reference works I’m reading or have read using a (last name) citation. Readers can then refer to the bibliography as they desire for full citations. I will also update the list periodically as I read new stuff or add new stuff to my bedside reading table.

I would appreciate any book suggestions from blog readers of works you think might be of interest or that you think I should read as I continue on this path.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I read incessantly (and usually in a piecemeal, random way with about 10 books at a time), so this is a current list only. And I also think it’s another reason I’m drawn to judaism culturally: Seriouslly, a religion based on reading, language, and text? I’m there!

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In the URJ’s* Torah: A Modern Commentary, the Mormons qualify for a mention in the Gleanings for this week’s parsha.

Influenced by this distinction [in the Epistle to the Hebrews], the Mormons distinguished in their hierarchy between a lesser, Aaronic priesthood, and the office of high priest that is according to the order of Melchizedek.


*Union of Reform Judaism, the American version of a liberal, post-Enlightenment denomination of Judaism started in Germany and which really flourished in the United States.

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Two weeks ago, I attended a Torah study at the synagogue down the street from me and then went to a Bat Mitzvah service afterwards. At the Torah study, a small gathering of men, surprisingly diverse, black, white, young, old, gay straight, gathered around a bare table on folding chairs to read this ancient text together. I’m quite skeptical of the use of ancient texts in any kind of normative way. It feels more like a cultural artifact to me, than anything else. But the Reform torah commentary that went with the text was fascinating, with metaphorical and even critical readings, acknowledging the historical and situated composition of the text. The men seemed to enjoy each others’ company and laughed as they read a portion from Devarim (Numbers), a dry text about a census and a bunch of legal proscriptions, and God punishing Miriam and Aaron… I’m just not sure where a reading of the stories of an ancient desert people will get me in the 21st century.

Throughout that day, I had two prominent impressions, at war with each other.

On one hand, I have a strong aversion to the hard, tight law, the Right, of Judaism and organized monotheism in general, at least as it was portrayed in the parsha (Torah portion). A suffocating straight jacket of ancient culture, dead people, dead context, lifelessness, meaninglessness. The same feeling comes whenever I read ancient religious texts of any tradition: They are out of context and don’t fit. Why do we consent to be bound by cultures that emerged in times and places so far removed from our own as to bear no meaning in the here and now? Beliefs and practices disarticulated from their contexts no longer make sense and risk doing great damage in the here-now.

The redeeming feature, for me, of modern, post-enlightenment judaism, is the recognition of the potential deadness of the tradition, and a struggle or dialogue about and with that deadness is built into the practice. Because Judaism generally anchors itself to a tradition of wrestling with “god”, the Sacred, Being, Oneness, rather than dogmatic submission to it, judaism has the possibility to wrest meaning germane to the here-now, a connection between the ancient and the now.

On the other hand, in contrast to the above, both the translation we read in Torah study, and the liturgy of the service used the word Eternal as a replacement for “god”. Seeing that word, used in that way, broke something open in my head, that is difficult to explain:

Evolution—our brains have evolved with the ability to ‘see’ time, forward and back. It was a cognitive prerequisite for conscious problem solving. Many philosophers and thinkers for 1000s of years have observed that humans are self-aware and know their own mortality, their own “dyingness”, and recently (since the 1970s) some more spiritually-minded scientists, like Carl Sagan, have observed that the evolution of the human mind is in some ways, the universe becoming aware of itself.

It occurred to me that the finiteness of life for the Self is in sharp contrast to the realization that the universe has always existed without the Self and will continue to exist forever after the Self dies. Death is, in a literal sense, a small annihilation of a piece of the universe that existed with a beginning and an end. And yet, that Self is able to apprehend the time and space that existed before it did, and which will continue to exist when the Self is gone. Eternity is the beginninglessness and endlessness that can only be imagined but never experienced. That moment of imagination provokes what cognitive scientists call an “awe response”, and is actually measurable and observable in many ways (I hesitate to evoke the problematic MRI here). It can jar the Self into a momentary experience of boundarilessness, where the self experiences Oneness with all that surrounds it, because there is nothing else, in a very real way.

I am not a fan of people who try to “spiritualize” science. I am also an empiricist in many ways and a believer in the scientific method of understanding the universe and world as it is. So I find myself at odds with religion that does not acknowledge the world as it is; yet I also find myself needing to make the world as it is revealed by the scientific method meaningful.

I do not believe in an external God as a cohesive being of some kind, as an exterior force or presence or power. In fact, I deny the existence of such a being (although I would probably more accurately call myself an agnostic in the original sense of the word, one who denies knowledge of something for which there is no evidence, in this case, a god).

But I believe in the human experience of the Holy or Sacred, those moments when the boundaries between the Self and Other and between the Self and Time fall away, when the Self feels the awe-full awakening to its own beginning and end, the finiteness of its existence in contrast to the infinity of the universe. And I believe that the communal sharing of that experience provides a social, interactive space for creating a meaningful life. How have I arrived at a place where I don’t believe that religion is true, but I believe that it can be “true”?

In Judaism—at least in modern, liberal, and mystical Judaism—Hashem, the Eternal, the Neverending is precisely that experience, the Oneness and Endlessness of which we only experience an infinitesimal bit, that is only imaginable. And that is what I mean when I use the word Holy. That is holiness. A kind of panentheism, really—a word I have only discovered over the past few months, from a colleague and from reading Radical Judaism by Arthur Green.

In the scientific age, with the state of human knowledge as it is, and with our collective, ongoing gathering and keeping of knowledge and wisdom, it would be irresponsible for anyone to positively affirm the existence of a god for whom we have no evidence. In light of scientific agnosticism, for me religion’s purpose—instead of proclaiming universal, a priori, normative truths—becomes to provide one possible, ongoing social frame within which we can work out, struggle over what our finiteness, our dyingness, or endingness means in the face of the Eternal. But I must acknowledge that most religion in our society, indeed in the world, is not framed in that way; rather, it continues to make dogmatic, counter-evidential claims for a truth that does not exist.

Yet I hope that in its humble, more grounded manifestation, religion can be one path to infusing our brief moments as the Universe’s consciousness with meaning and life. I had found glimmers of this in some liberal forms of Christianity, and indeed, my own spiritual journey will be forever indebted to American liberal Christianity from the early 19th century (e.g., unitarianism, universalism, and Transcendentalism). And art, for me, serves a similar purpose in human life. If cognitive science is right, making this consciousness of the Universe meaningful is the profound and unavoidable human endeavor—the accidental spandrel of evolutionary processes long past, which now connects my body to my mind and to the history of all life on this planet and all matter in the universe in an infinite space of Being.


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