Archive for September, 2010

I have just gone back and added teku to several earlier posts. I had meant to make that a standard practice on this blog because I want to emphasize the ongoing path, the ongoing openness to learning and discovery. I liked the fact that the Talmud finishes many debates with the acronym תיקו as a sign of the process of Jewishness. It is, for me, the antithesis of dogma and orthodoxy in the literal sense of ‘right belief’.

The acronym stands for tishbi yitaretz mashiach u’shealot (I think it looks like this in Hebrew, but I’m not sure: תשבי יתרצ משיח ושאלות), that unanswered or unfinished extra or surplus questions will be resolved by the Messiah (Meshiach).

I haven’t even begun to grapple with the idea of the משיח (meshiach) in Judaism or with its political implications. I have purposefully put that on the back burner for now, but I suppose this is as good a place as any to start the conversation. The Christian idea of Christ (Greek for Messiah, or Anointed One) hasn’t really been operationally meaningful to me for over 15 years; although I find that I still think of Jesus as a powerful spiritual and ethical thinker (a Jewish thinker and teacher), the idea of the need for a Savior from sin is now, at best, unnecessary for me (and at worst a call for human blood sacrifice to atone for sins that cannot in any real sense be atoned for). Likewise the Jewish notion of a political messiah to restore the political power of the Jewish people (shared interestingly by both ultra-orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians). I find messianism in most of its forms—Christian, Jewish, Muslim (e.g., Shiah), Hindu (e.g., Krishna), etc.—to  create ethically problematic (to be polite about it) situations in the real world. So I simply reject the idea of the need or desirability of a messiah at all.

Since I don’t believe in a messiah, other than possibly as some kind of metaphor, I like the idea that teku really means that, since the messiah will never come, the questions are by nature unanswerable, kind of like Zen koan, and that we are meant to contemplate and struggle with them as an end-in-itself, knowing from the beginning that we will never have the answers.

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When I thanked the cantor on Friday for an amazing first Rosh Hashanah experience and told her that I was blown away by it, she suggested that I just let it be and not really struggle with it, to just let it sit and develop on its own. But it is not in my personality not to struggle. The metaphor of Israel–Jews as those who wrestle with god–pulls me toward my Jewish practice and gives me a hook for my own kind of Jewish identity, one that can integrate and uphold all that I have been so far in my life with this new path.

My struggle with Rosh Hashanah has been about meaning. With my non-theist experience of the sacred, my panentheist perspective as I’ve been working it out on this blog, my non-belief in a personal, agentive, consciousness that moves and shapes with intention–what do I make of the language of a ‘just judge’ in ‘heaven’ who decides whether or not to forgive me?

When dealing with thousands of years of god-language, part of the attraction is indeed the deep connections to a history, a language with a past. But if I take it at the level of ‘P’, the first possible reading of p-r-d-s**, the literal, I’m left cold with nothing to hook into. But if I stand with my fellow Jews, singing the Avinu Malkeinu and beating my chest through the upper levels of p-r-d-s, I find something more profound than I had anticipated. The music, the prayers, the drash, and surprising to me, the shofarim become something more: the beginning of transformation. When i was younger, a closeted gay, scholarly, liberal, doubting Mormon, I tried to sit in Mormon services and Mormon temple ceremonies and make of them my own meaning. But in that context there was not only no Mormon way into the texts at a level beyond the literal (or more accurately, beyond the sanctioned and official reading) within mormon tradition, there was an active and spiritually violent resistance to anyone who tried (excommunication for all those engaged in what I’d now call ‘mormon midrashim’). But it struck me like a wave of clarity on Erev Rosh Hashanah that my new community not only had a place for such rethinking, meaning-making, and struggling, but it was a normal, almost banal part of Jewish practice.

Sitting in the three RH services and reminding myself that ‘god’ is for me the sacredness of all existence and that ‘sin’ is the consequences of my actions, and that I do believe in taking responsibility for the consequences of my actions, etc., was a seamless part of the experience. I had braced myself against the recurrence of guilt, shame, and self hatred from my childhood conceptions of sin and repentance, but they never came. Instead I stood shoulder to shoulder with a few hundred Jews who were having a communal experience of personal struggle. [To be clear, I’m sure that many Jews would be uncomfortable, maybe even outraged with my beliefs; but none would be able to say in any meaningful way that I am less Jewish because of them.]

This is what I am looking for in practice: a context within which to experience not only the sacredness of existence, but to safely experience my own broken heart.

Rabbi Lew’s book continues to be a touchstone to me on this High Holy Days journey. In talking about the ancient idea of our sins being recorded on Books, Lew suggests that our lives are written on the world itself, on our very bodies, and on the memories and lives of all those whom we directly affect with our actions. I take from this that the consequences of our actions becomes the reality around us and we cannot in any real way escape the consequences of our actions. Reading the world around me as the Book, reading my own body, reading the faces of all the people in my life–family, friends, colleagues, students, even complete strangers–becomes a practice in self examination, in the broken heart where I can see what is really there, break through the anger, the irony, the aloofness, the pain, the hardened shell that keeps me from seeing, to see what i have really wrought [I love that word despite its pretentious feel] in my day to day life. It is a sobering experience.

During the Days of Awe, the Yomim Noraim, I have been searching for a way to keep the gates open, to think about and experience what Is, what is Real in my life. I don’t want self-flagellation or self recrimination, or self-pity, or self hatred. I want honesty. I want openness. I want transformation. I want in some small way to change directions in my life.

Rabbi Lew suggests that real transformation can only be seen over time, that it is not sudden or dramatic, but occurs at a deeper more subtle level. His background with buddhism becomes clear in his discussion of T’shuvah, infused with patience and equanimity for the self. If our intention is aligned with what we see when the gates are open, he says, we have the possibility of real transformation. Lew quotes from the first 10 verses of Deuteronomy 30 to illustrated the significance of the constant repetition of the Hebrew root Shem-Bet-Hey. By reading these verses of Torah from my panentheist perspective, the idea of t’shuvah becomes something different altogether from the ancient notion that sinning is, more or less, not doing the mitzvot correctly.

If I read ‘god’ as the sacredness, the holiness of all Being, the Ein Sof or never-ending Eternity, then ‘turning’ to god becomes becoming aware, opening my eyes, being willing to perceive the smallness of my own life, yet its unique significance in the face of all that Is, of all Being. Turning to ‘god’ and hearing the ‘voice of god’ is about intention, awareness, willingness to see Reality, and the promise is the possibility of real joy through the clarity. Rabbi Lew adds to this the idea that it is a never-ending process, an ongoing state of possibility in daily lives, and that we are never done with it. Transformation, then, comes in the practice of awareness, of the constant willingness to See, and the openness to what Is.

May we all have the courage to Look.


**פרדס—Pardes (paradise in Hebrew) is an acronym for four levels of understanding Torah (in all its forms, written, oral, revelatory, personal), in short, Jewish exegesis. פשט—plain, direct, literal. רמז—hints, allegorical, metaphorical. דרש—inquiry, comparative, scholarly. סוד—hidden, mystical.  I tend to be intellectually fine with anything above the פ level.

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Rabbi Lew’s book about the High Holy Days is called This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared—and I think I’m starting to see why. I decided just after Tisha B’Av that I was going to do the full holiday cycle this year as I explore the Jewish calendar and experience Judaism as a personal spiritual practice. I’m even going to go Kosher during the Days of Awe/Yamim No’arim (although I’ll probably go the easy route and just go vegetarian for 10 days which is the no-brainer way to keep kosher).

I said I wanted religious practice, and I got some practice tonight.

None of the books I have been reading, including Rabbi Lew’s, had much to say about S’lichot, other than that it is the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah and is a preparation for Rosh Hashanah. The service at Sha’ar Zahav was really sweet; about 25 people, many of whom I have met or seen at services before. It felt good to participate in a small intimate ritual. Tonight was a night of firsts for me: My first havdalah; my first s’lichot; and my first time holding the Torah.

Before services began, the guy leading the service asked my friend Avram and me to participate in changing the mantles on the Torah scrolls. During the service, I was asked to take the largest of three scrolls from the ark, place it on Avram’s lap so he could hold it while I removed the usual colorful mantle and replace it with a white one for the High Holy Days. I hadn’t expected to have that honor, and it’s a bit difficult to explain what that meant to me. More than anything, it was about being a member of the community, trusted enough to care for the Torah scroll. I do wish sometimes that I could shut off my inner sociologist. It’s weird to have my sociologist brain sort of ticking through the social scientific words for what was happening to me in terms of holding the axis mundi and participating in a communal sacrilization while at the same time actually experiencing it. Regardless, it was a momentous and humbling experience and made me feel intimately and profoundly connected to the community. It made me feel like a Jew.

The S’lichot liturgy itself presented another opportunity for practice, a journey which actually began a few weeks ago in Judaism class, where we had spent a good deal of time talking about the Rosh Hashanah liturgy and I had a bit of an aversion to the discussion about sin and repentance. Rabbi Noily deftly negotiated our various reactions to the liturgy by framing it as a difficult ancient text tied to the memory of animal sacrifice and burnt offerings in the temple and rigid and difficult rules of behavior and harsh punishments, which we in turn have to make spiritual sense of in the 21st century. But it was difficult for me not to have some mild PTSD from my upbringing, where mormonism’s obsession with “moral cleanliness” and “worthiness” combined with my nascent homosexuality combined into a deadly cocktail of hyper-surveillance and self-hatred. I really cannot go back to a place of that kind of nearly obsessive attention to being Perfect.

The discussions with Rabbi Noily and reading Rabbi Lew’s book have brought me to a new understanding of what “repentance” can mean, and have also given me something else I’ve craved: A context for thinking deeply about ethics and meaning. T’shuvah, the Hebrew word for repentance, is more like “turning back” or “returning”. It’s a contemplation and evaluation of where you are and a looking forward to where you want to go. The High Holy Days become, in the hands of contemporary Rabbis and Jewish thinkers, a process of both personal and communal transformation. There is no grand tally in the sky, one’s soul is not tainted for ever, no blood sacrifice is needed. In fact, the Jewish conception of sin, cheit, a misfiring of an arrow, actually focuses not on how sin affects your soul, how evil or dirty or unworthy you are; rather, the concept of cheit focuses on the consequences in the real world of wrongdoing, that when we miss the mark, our actions have consequences and that there’s nothing we can do to stop those consequences. Forgiveness isn’t about balancing a grand ledger in the sky and wiping our souls clean, it’s about acknowledging and taking responsibility for the consequences of our actions, even those actions that cannot be taken back or repaired, and hoping for magnanimity and generosity of those we’ve wronged to forgive us.

But actually saying the liturgy, even just these small portions of it, I found myself resisting it. I both reveled, tonight, in the beautiful melody of the Avinu Malkeinu and recoiled at the recitation of sins. I loved the final blast of the shofar (it helped that two great butch lesbians were the blowers…going to a queer shul gives me all kinds of queer pleasures), although I continued to struggle with beating my chest and calling myself an abomination.

In his book Ehyeh, Rabbi Green says that his purpose in making a Kabbalah for the 21st century, a Kabbalah that accounts for our current scientific knowledge and the spiritual needs of today while building upon the Jewish past, he says that his primary message is for us to be openhearted, that transformation and healing of ourselves, our communities, and our world requires an open-heartedness. In his explanation of the nature of evil, building on the Cain and Able story, he writes

Another reading of it may be found, however, in the difficult key verse in which God warns Cain, ‘Sin crouches at the entranceway. Its desire is for you, but you may rule over it’ (Genesis 4:7). … Why does sin crouch at the entranceway? The entranceway to what? … Suppose we read it as referring to the entranceway to the innermost self? When does sin—read it as violence, aggression, or rage—arise? It comes up at the entranceway. … Much of the evil we do comes about in the course of flight from our own vulnerability. … [Our] response to evil lies in training the self toward greater openness. We must learn to be less afraid, and endeavor to build a society and a vision of humanity less dependent on the thickness of our shells. This is the real work, the worldly task, of those who have been privileged with insight…. This is the core question: How do we learn to live in a more openhearted way? How does Judaism serve as a vehicle to lead us to openheartedness?

As I recited the sins, I thought of this notion of practicing, working to be openhearted, to being soft and vulnerable and seeing things as they are, with unabashed honesty and without excuse. During the month of Elul, I have tried every few days to take stock of my life, where am I, how did I get here, what kind of man am I, is this good enough, can I do better… I have come to see that over the past 10 years, I have become accustomed to merely being dissatisfied, disgruntled, disappointed. But since the death of my friend Karl last Spring, that hasn’t been enough. My anger and resentment at where my life has ended up has clouded my ability to see how I got here. What I have struggled to admit, to acknowledge, to own is that my choices brought me here. I chose this life. These are the consequences of my actions.

So I beat my chest and called myself an abomination, an oppressor, a liar, a violence-perpetrator; I called upon the 13 names of a forgiving G-d; I sang the Avinu Malkeinu–all as a practice of opening my heart to humbly take responsibility for my choices and to own the effect that I’ve had on myself, my fellow-beings, and the world, and to practicing opening my hear to the hope for a transformation of heart and mind and soul, both to repair the wrongs I’ve made and to make new and better choices.

I asked for practice. I got it and then some. It is real. And I am completely unprepared.

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