Archive for August, 2010

I ran across this article earlier today and it hit on precisely some of the things I’ve been thinking about. The rabbi-to-be comes to a rather inspiring decision about grape juice.

Rethinking stam yeinam

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Among the things that have risen to the fore in mid-life for me is that I used to have an intense desire to be a good person. In my old life, that was wrapped up in notions of sin and punishment and God; but since my mid-20s, I’ve thought about it much more in terms of humaneness and being grounded in my own and others’ humanity. I recently finished reading A. Kwame Appiah’s book called The Ethics of Identity, wherein he proposes the idea of having an ethically successful life as a way to frame modern thinking about the classical concerns with the Good Life in a pluralistic democracy and intense global interdependence. That is, a Good Life is one that not simply fulfilling and satisfying to the individual, but that also aligns with ethical obligation to the self, to close associates, to strangers, to society, and to humanity writ large. This idea resonated with something that I had not articulated yet, which is the connection between my desires to be a ‘good man’ and my path into Judaism.

My earliest experience of Jewish ethics was actually through philosophy when I was a senior in college and a dear friend of mine—who recently passed away—introduced me to the ethics of Levinas. At the time, I knew Levinas was Jewish, but because of the family and environment I was raised in, that just seemed like his religion and didn’t really register as a salient feature or forerunner to his philosophy. I now can see his notion of seeing the Face of the Divine in other people to have arisen from his particular articulation of b’tzelem elohim.

There are few things that appeal to me about Christianity at this point in my life, but one thing that really stands out to me is Christian ethics (which are clearly rarely if every followed by those who most loudly profess to be followers of Jesus)—namely, the idea of perfect love, or unconditional love, true compassion, of a powerful, spiritual affect toward other human beings. In earlier Christian language, this was called charity, caritas, and was seen as the kind of perfect love necessary to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of others; as the base for ethical behavior, because it comes from a broken heart, the knowledge that the self needs this kind of deep, unconditional love, and so in turn, must practice giving it.

In my late 20s, when I turned to Buddhism, I found the notion of loving-kindness and metta practice to be a compelling, somewhat secularized notion of this. Somewhat analogous (but not homologous) to Christianity, lesser wheel buddhism (specifically the vipassana that I studied) sees the realization of the impermanence of life and the universality of suffering as the ethical impetus to practice loving-kindness for all living beings. Buddhism adds to loving-kindness or compassion the ethic equanimity, one of my most profound and ongoing ethical weaknesses.

Last night at shabbat services, the Rabbi was leading and she actually had us do a brief buddhist metta practice, with the thousands of years old mantra—may I be at peace, may I be filled with loving-kindness, may I be well, etc. I’m not sure if she knew that it was buddhist (she had learned it at a spiritual retreat she recently returned from), but it was a lovely judification of a powerful practice. Later, after the שמע/sh’ma, she focused our attention on the first words of the verse from דברים/Deuteronomy, which says simply ואהבת/V’ahavta—”and you shall love.” Again, this is exactly the kind of practice and focus that I find ethically significant and meaningful. The object of that imperative is the tetragrammaton, which in my monist view is a universalization of the object of love to all that Exists. A massive, potentially overwhelming conversation to have, were we to discuss how to practice or effectuate that kind of love—indeed, is such a love even humanly possible? If not, is it worth practicing anyway?

The struggle comes from the books I’ve been reading about Jewish practice. In contradistinction to Levinas’ philosophy and Torah, the three books I’ve read specifically about Jewish practice explicitly eschew the idea that there is an ethical affect that is part of Jewish practice. Robinson, Diamant, and even Rabbi Shapiro all explicitly reject the notion of love as the basis for ethical action or even the ethical desirability of what I would consider loving-kindness practice. All three of them explain tzedakah (generosity) as specifically not like Christian charity. Whereas I understand the historical and sociological impetus within Judaism to differentiate itself from Christianity, I found myself annoyed at all three authors because their understanding of the Christian idea of charity was simply wrong—or at best, shallow and caricatured, lacking any depth or nuance.

Rather, they spoke of tzedakah as obligation—I’m still with them here, but getting uncomfortable. And then they smack me across the face: It’s a legal obligation, an obligation of mitzvah. They lost me. Even my monist, agnostic, bu-jew Rabbi Shapiro. For me, intention does matter, and not merely the intention to obey a law or perform a mitzvah. But the intention of the heart and mind. This is why we distinguish between first degree murder and man-slaughter, between a common assault and a gay-bashing. Intentions matter ethically. Emotional states matter ethically.

It got even worse when they described gemilut chesed, often translated as acts of loving-kindness, where in all three authors, the notion of loving-kindness got reduced to being nice. Because it’s an obligation.

I know that deep compassion, caritas, loving-kindness is present in Jewish philosophy, it’s in the Torah, and I hear my liberal Jewish community talking about it. But I want it to be part of my Jewish practice. And I cannot seem to find it in Jewish practice.

This is not a deal-breaker for me, especially given the powerfully humane ethical philosophy from Jews that has so powerfully transformed my thinking about ethics since I was in my early 20s. But this is a moment of pause and thinking. I do not want my own practice to give up the notion of charity, loving kindness, or לאהב. So what would a Jewish practice of loving-kindness look like? I still do buddhist metta practice at least once a week. Perhaps this is an area where, for me, a bit of syncretism is going to be necessary.

Finally, I feel strongly that the highest ethic of loving-kindness should transcend social, cultural, and tribal boundaries. Again, the three authors I’ve read about Jewish practice all, in the 20th and 21st centuries, still speak of ethical obligations as being primarily toward other Jews. My sociologist brain is able to parse the historical routes and sociological function of such an ethic. But it isn’t big enough or, frankly, ethical enough for my idea practice. Whereas I’m willing to commit to my new-found Jewish community and understand my obligations to it, I want an ethical practice that directs me beyond immediate social boundaries. Again, the practice in my little shul does transcend those boundaries—Sha’ar Zahav hosts ecumenical activities and has established a communal link with a Turkish muslim community center in Burlingame and regularly participates in trans-religious political and social actions. So why do I not find this in books and writings about Jewish practice?


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My first attempt at a home shabbat ritual

Today was my best friend’s birthday, so I couldn’t make it to the Kabbalat Shabbat service at shul. I decided that this shabbat would be my first attempt at a home ritual, making my kitchen table the alter to focus kavanah, and bring light into the darkness and begin a celebration of life.

Over the past several months, shabbat has become an important part of my weekly routine. Most liberal Christians have de-ritualized sabbath altogether, except for going to church; and for Mormons, sabbath is a drudgery filled with lay-work at church and a lot of rules about dos and don’ts to keep the sabbath day holy. I suppose if I were becoming an orthodox, halachic Jew, I would be sliding back into those days of minuscule rules (can you buy a Twix bar out of a vending machine on Sunday without losing the spirit of god?). But that is not the direction of my practice or the purpose or spirit of shabbat for me.

The idea of celebrating the coming of the Sabbath Bride, l’cha dodi!; of laying aside the work week for a time of sanctification and relaxation and even double-mitzvah-worthy sex; of a time to recenter and seek Einheit/אחד is so different from the dreaded Sundays of my youth. I look forward to Shabbat, the singing, the Maneschewitz (shudder), the niggun, the davening. It’s a meditative practice, but a connected communal one as well.

Not being able to go to shul tonight, I wanted to make sure that I still set aside the time of shabbat for myself. I was far from halachic: cheap votives from the gay hardware store down the block; לו כשר wine, a nice chianti from southern Italy. And way past sunset when I said the prayers.

But it felt really normal and powerful to do this at home. I used the Sha’ar Zahav siddur for the prayers (and coincidentally discovered the Havdalah prayer for tomorrow as well), and said all three of the blessings for the lighting of the candles, the traditional masculine language, the beautiful feminine language praising sh’chinah for the light, and the communal call to light the candles for the One. Then the b’rachot for wine (l’chaim!) and bread.

The only thing that felt odd about it is that it feels like it should be done with loved ones around. But as a single gay guy, I suppose the solo Shabbat is what I have to work with for the moment, and it’s good enough.

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It’s been a couple months since I updated the bibliography at the top of the page. I did that this morning. Rest assured, many of the books I’m reading “at” rather than reading cover to cover. Typical ADHD academic, my desire for books is greater than my time to read them all cover to cover at once. With school starting again next week and my massive teaching load back on my shoulders, I’m guessing my time for judaica reading will diminish greatly.

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Among the many Hebrew terms for spiritual practice is avodah, work. Spirituality is a disipline. When people say to me, ‘I’m a spiritual person,’ they often mean that they treasure some vague feeling of connection with God, nature, and humanity that is most often divorced from any behavioral obligation. Spirituality is not a feeling, nor is it vague. Spirituality is a conscious practice of living out the highest ethical ideals in the concreteness of your everday life. The disembodied spirituality so often spoken about by those who do not practice any spiritual discipline rarely obligates them to anything and often excuses the grossest behavior. —Rabbi Rami Shapiro, from Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity

As the month of Elul progresses, I find myself in a new kind of introspection, different from my usual neurotic worries. For the first time in a long time I’ve been asking myself what kind of man I am, have been, could be.  I wonder whom I may have hurt in my carelessness or anger; I look at what I’ve done to myself, my body, my life; I look at what I’m doing to the earth. It’s a harrowing and sobering affair. My usual day-to-day worries are pretty selfish: I’m lonely, I’m horny, I’m hungry, I’m bored, I’m poor…

Learning about the practices of Elul, the month leading up to the High Holy Days, I have started a self-conscious process of turning, returning, transformation. But I’m choosing this practice, with awareness and desire, rather than doing it by rote or tradition. I want transformation. I want the practice.

The word practice to denote religious ritual and behavior is interesting. Not only the belief or feeling, but the decision to apply or translate into deed what one professes to believe. Although this isn’t true in other Western languages, in English, it also carries the hint that the deed is imperfect, incomplete, flawed in some way and bears repeating. So you not only practice what you believe, but you have to keep practicing it because it’s never quite complete. I find the notion of repetition especially useful in terms of ethical practice, loving-kindness and equanimity.

I worry about adopting a new Jewish practice sometimes, because in Mormonism, for me, practice was a psychologically draining and painful part of the first 25 years of my life. The demands of perfection or having at least the appearance of perfection were a burden that I do not want to shoulder again. Honestly, I don’t think I could ever actually go back to that state of mind, just be virtue of being older and more secure in my own identity and self. Yet I’m deeply mindful as I gradually adopt Jewish practices that I don’t return to that place of judgment and exclusion that was so destructive in my earlier life. This means in some cases even choosing to be Jewish in ways that are different from the Jews in my community, to be more open and to refuse to be prescriptive in my adoption of practice.

For the past 15 years or so, I have considered myself a seeker. I have explored Buddhism extensively (especially vipassana), liberal Christianity, neo-paganism, and taoism. But most of my exploration has been through reading and trying to teach myself practice because my experiences of those communities were so suffocating.

Now, at age 40, I find an intense desire to return to religious practice and community. Not belief per se, but practice. Talking to the Rabbi this week, I said to her in passing, “I’m really craving practice.” I hadn’t actually ever thought about it consciously, and I’d certainly never said it out loud to anyone. But there it was. The Rabbi just continued on with the conversation as if I had said something completely normal, and recommended the book I quoted above. But for me, this was a moment of clarity and revelation.

For the past few days I’ve been trying to figure this desire for practice out. Several of my good friends, fellow academics, with religious backgrounds, have a deep aversion to practice and ritual. A few of my friends who were raised without any religion at all are even more baffled by what seems to them a sudden conversion. For me, this feels like the end of a 15 year wandering period, which was necessary and healing and authentic to who I have been. Now it’s time to settle down, to stake a claim in a tradition and create a home for myself, a place from which I can live the rest of my life in awareness and ethical fruition, that is, fulfillment.

Should I feel guilty, inadequate? flawed? unintelligent? for desiring practice? I don’t know. I do know, however, that I crave a meaningful life, something more than just work, television, food. I crave the ability to live life fully aware and conscious both of the world around me and of my effect on the world. When I’m gone, that will be the end of me. So what kind of life will I have now? I’m sure that for many, a meaningful life is possible without religious practice. In fact, I have had moments of great meaning since I left mormonism 15 years ago. I have lived fine without religion. And I will continue to live fine without belief. But I find that at this turning point—the cliché of mid-life—practice gives me a structure and, importantly, a community to build meaning with greater focus.

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A few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me that he didn’t think he could be a buddhist because he needed the sweeping imagination of hinduism or islam. At the time, I had only a vague understanding of what he meant: I imagined the brightly hued posters of hindu gods with animal heads, multiple limbs, crushing bodies under their feet; I imagined the erotic temple carvings of perfectly breasted women mid-coitus; and I imagined the poetry of Rumi and the away-carrying experience of divine union.

But it wasn’t until I started reading midrash and Jewish exegesis over the past couple of weeks that I have come to understand (I think) what he meant. I’ve just finished reading Rabbi Greenberg’s book Wrestling with God and Men about homosexuality in the Jewish tradition. After reading the introduction—which was quite moving to me—I thought it would be an apologia for homosexuality, similar to several I’d read in the Mormon and wider Christian contexts before. However, Rabbi Greenberg instead sets out to engage the foundational jewish texts—the Torah, Talmud, and Mishnah—in an exegetical and ultimately Midrashic mode.

I now understand the appeal and the joy in Jewish exegesis: It is anchored in a deep tradition of storytelling. In his journey through Talmud and a touch of Zohar, R. Greenberg recounts story after story, some of them fantastical (voices from heaven, angels, miracles) some of them mundane but deeply human (love and death, marriage and friendship). The book turned out to be less a legal argument, as I had expected when he started quoting Talmud, and more of an extended deep reading of various texts and stories, not just a scholarly pursuit of knowledge, but an exercise in imagination.  Not only creating a legal or halakhic apologia for homosexuality, but of imagining Jewish homosexuality into being.

Whereas modern judaism can sometimes appear to be almost protestant in its public face, Greenberg has exposed me to a narrative realm, a place of story-telling and imagination that I thought was only part of the Kabbalistic tradition. Moreover, his book exposed me to the more fantastical imagination of Kabbalah (which I had always experienced as textual and linguistic play, but which I now see as equally narrative and fantastical).

In sum, it’s like stepping into Judaism has opened up a whole new narrative tradition, a whole new world of myths, tales, stories, folklore, and imagination that I hadn’t even known existed.

And it tastes so good.

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