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Archive for the ‘Holidays’ Category

A few months ago, a teacher at shul told me that I would probably find that the rhythm of my year would soon shift to revolve around Passover and the High Holy Days. I didn’t quite understand what he meant, but this spring I have felt a kind of inner tectonic shift, reorienting myself to spring and fall. I didn’t expect Pesach to be as meaningful as it was and have enjoyed 8 days of opening and awareness.

Spring

And underneath it all, just a good old fashioned, pre-monotheistic (i.e., pagan) ritual celebration of springtime. Sacrifice of the firstborn lamb (totally pagan) and ritual meal of the first fruits of the field (totally pagan). The histories I have read basically all said the same thing: Pesach is a syncretic practice of probably two different pagan traditions, one pastoral and one agricultural, with a gradually emerging, nationalistic monotheism that was ultimately congealed during Babylonian captivity.

Although I’m slightly mortified by the thought of animal sacrifice, I find a depth of meaning in the grounded, in-your-face recognition of the fragility and utter dependence on other living things that the blood sacrifices of many older cultures contained within them.

In many ways, I’m probably a pagan at heart. I feel strongly the movement of the seasons, the changing in the length of days, the passage of time and change of the earth as it moves in its orbit. Like any good American raised west of the Rockies, I feel my most powerful connections when I’m out in wilderness (a fraught term, I realize).

This year, my practice included a long and, for me, glorious walk through Golden Gate Park and along Ocean Beach, watching birds, smelling the (invasive) trees, and talking with a good friend. Next year I want to find a way to bring those older, deeper roots of passover even more to the surface.

Bodies and Awareness through Eating Practice

The former Mormon in me rebels against minutiae of rules and strictures and the pressures of a community monitoring my practice. I am deeply lucky to have good Jewish friends who are either patient with my choices (and mistakes) or fully supportive, even when their choices are different. As a practice for the festival, I had decided to keep fully kosher and kosher for Pesach. Of course, I made a hilarious gaff on Erev Pesach by serving creamed asparagus with beef. And I decided to go the Sephardi route and rejected the kitnyot laws as arcane and ultimately too ascetic for my personal spiritual life.

Pesach Table 5771

What emerged for me was a hyper-awareness of my body, of eating, and of hunger and satedness. I thought about everything that I put into my mouth for 8 days. I thought about whether or not I really wanted it in my mouth, whether or not i was really hungry, whether or not I needed the nutrients and calories, and whether or not it would support my practice to eat it. This had a dual impact. First, as a person who is more or less a mindless eater (reflected in my voluminous girth) it gave me an experience of conscious eating that I’d never had. It was eye opening in a way that diet never could have been. I’m still, er, digesting what it means. Second, it set aside the eight days of Pesach as a time apart, a time unto itself. Judaism loves the notion of separation—which is frankly one of the things that I struggle with in Judaism, as I tend to be a lumper rather than a splitter—and for the purposes of practice I found the separation through an embodied practice so basic as eating to be just enough to push my awareness into a different space.

Moses, Mitzrayim, and (Re)Birth

Rabbi Waskow’s recent book on the passover story, an extended book-long midrash on the maggid, opens up the possibilities for understanding the exodus in a new way, one that resonated with me much more deeply than the national story so often retold. The traditional, ethnocentric, nation-building story only works for me on a metaphorical level, where I can think of the Hebrew people as they are described in the text, as being a hodgepodge, multi-ethnic, mongrel group of escaping slaves, so that rather than an ethos, Israel becomes a collection of the oppressed that can stand in metaphorically for the whole lot of the human family struggling for freedom.

Further, I’m surely not the first Jew to struggle with the idea of a god who would harden Pharaoh’s heart, magically force him to abuse, crush, and subjugate the Hebrews, in order to prove his power through the plagues. As the Hebrew god spends a lot of time in the Torah waving his divine phallus about to demonstrate his masculine superiority over all other forms of holiness, I find myself cranky with the ancient tribalism of it all and the immanent violence of the story. I cannot abide a god who would murder one nation’s first born in order to make a motley crew of escaping slaves into his own Firstborn.

Waskow’s midrash steps back from the surface-level, direct details of the story to see an intense story of birth, a feminization of divine power, a massive metaphor for the emergence of a new Being, a new kind of Holiness. Waskow teaches that, when read openly and with attention, the white fire reveals something quite different from the black fire in the Book of Exodus. Whereas for Waskow the new lesson is one of the centrality of the feminine, what resonated for me in his teaching (which builds on the last few decades of feminist Torah reading) was specifically the imagery of birth.

The midwives who resist Pharoh’s order are the beginning of the new story, with their resistance and their observation of the strength and power of the Hebrew women. In the white fire, all the blood of the escape—the entire Nile turning to blood, the blood of the firstborn Egyptians, the blood on the lintel (a not-so-subtle metaphor of a cervix), combined with the water of the (Red) Sea of Reeds—comes to stand for the blood of childbirth. Mitzrayim, the narrow place, the birth canal. Waskow writes,

They could feel their lives, pregnant with possibility, begin to point toward a destination. A birth. … These doorways echo the bloody doorway of the womb through which all human being must pass to being independent beings. … It reminds us that history, biology, human earthlings, and the earth, are intertwined.

Perhaps it’s my interminable midlife crisis, perhaps it’s my longing to be a father, perhaps it’s Just a resonant Jungian archetype, but i can’t stop thinking about birth, becoming a new being, starting anew looking forward to the other shore.

Holiness

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes
Elizabeth Barrett Browning (quoted in Waskow)

As I’ve discussed at length in previous posts, I seek the human experience of holiness, and I want a framework within which to share it in community. Pesach this year has been a brief eight-day encounter with the Burning Bush, a glimpse into that state of awareness that brings me a sense of belonging, purpose, and connectedness.

Rabbi Waskow continues his midrash with the spiral of god’s name, ehyeh asher ehyeh asher ehyeh asher ehyeh

Here he continues his feminist reading of the white fire, where the deeper, older name of god, Shaddai, insists on a feminine god who gives birth. The transformation of the name of god from Breasts to an unpronounceable name that only exists in breath, yyyyyyyhhhhhhhwwwwwwhhhhh, connects us to the breath of life.

God was seen as infinite mother, pouring forth blessings from breasts above and womb below, from heavens that pour forth nourishing rain from the ocean deeps that birth new life. … [And the new name is] just yyyhhhwwwhhh, a Breathing. ‘I am the breath of life and the breath of life is what will set you free. Teach them that if they learn My Name is just Breathing, they will be able to reach across all tongues and boundaries, to pass over them all for birth, and life, and freedom.’

Pesach became for me this year a reminder to Breathe. Life is breath; holiness is life. L’Chaim.

teku

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Apparently, Orin Hatch (R-Utah) has written the lyrics to a Hanukah song. Reading the article about the blessèd event caused more than a little consternation on my part. Mormons have an odd cultural affinity for Jews, partly because of the location of the most esoteric of Mormon doctrines and temple rituals in Kabbalah (see here); partly due to Mormon mythology, which places Mormons in the House of Israel (and assigns each Mormon to a tribe); and partly because of Utah/Mormon history, complete with an “exodus” from Illinois, a “moses” in Brigham Young, and a new “god-given desert homeland” in Utah. I’m sure that my own Mormon upbringing in no small part has led to my path into Judaism as an adult. It comes then as no surprise that Orin Hatch wears a mezzuzah around his neck or that he “loves Jews”.

What disturbed me, however, about Mr. Hatch’s song was how thoroughly Mormon it is.  In a sort of naive, clueless way that marks Mormon social behavior (cultural isolation has its price), he reproduces Mormon musical, lyrical tropes for a song about Hanukah. The result is sickening (to me). Perhaps you would have had to have been raised Mormon to hear the mormonness of the lyrics, but this sounds like every smaltzy Mormon song I’ve ever heard in its earnest innocence and manipulative sentimentalism. Unbearable.

Eight Days of Hanukkah from Tablet Magazine on Vimeo.

To make matters worse, the article about Hatch’s song repeats all the exact pieces of modern Jewery’s use of the Maccabee story in precisely the unhistorical way that grates on my last academic social scientist nerve.

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Tonight’s post is more practical than reflective: What to do between Dec. 1 and Dec. 25 as a Jew?

Since I haven’t believed in Christianity for over a decade, and since I was raised in an alternative religion that didn’t really observe the full range of traditional Christian holidays (really, most American evangelical religions don’t observe the vast majority of traditional Christian holidays anyway, so there are millions of Americans in that boat), I didn’t really think that my path into Judaism would bump up against anything important on the calendar. Anita Diamant’s book for people choosing Judaism spends a whole chapter on the dynamics of Christmas, which is such a huge piece of the American (Christian) psyche.  I read her book last Spring, and didn’t really think much of it.

Now I’m here on the threshold of winter holiday season and suddenly I find myself very upset about Christmas. In fact, I feel a deep powerful urge to sing Jingle Bells and smell pine boughs. I’ve been surprised at my born-Jewish friends’ antipathy toward Christmas. But I get it: From a minority position, it can feel like a massive imposition or assertion of the dominant culture’s privilege in the world around you. But as someone who was once a Christian, it just feels banal (not dangerous or imposing) to me; and as someone who is culturally curious and expansive, it just reads like a cultural practice to me. On an intellectual level, I understand my friends’ hatred of Christmas. But I don’t feel it.

Do I have to hate Christmas to be a Jew?

When I was in graduate school and was self-consciously trying to de-Jesus my life, I spent a couple winter breaks reading histories of Christmas, folklorists’ and historians’ best guesses for the origins of some of the practices. I was pleased to find a thoroughly hybrid, mish-mash of Roman, near eastern, and northern Germanic and Celtic, and even a bit of Persian practices all rolled into this mid-Winter festival. I found (and find) that I am for some reason strongly attracted to the old Germanic religions and old pre-modern, pre-monotheistic nature-observant practices. [In fact, one of the things that is so attractive about Judaism is that a lot of those pre-modern, agricultural, nature-worship elements are evident in the texts and practices; I love them.]  Over a few years between finishing my master’s thesis and passing my doctoral exams, I developed a set of personal practices for Midwinter (solstice) that included some deeply personal moments of reflection, more meaningful gift-giving, and symbolism of hope for a renewal of life. I had blended my personal practices easily with the dominant ones around me. And I had come to see the common experience of a winter holiday in many cultures around the world as a sign that living through the receding sun had inspired our many ancestors to celebrate in the darkest of days.

Now Hanukah is just around the corner (Dec. 1st this year) and suddenly I’m facing my first real dilemma in this process: What to do for the holidays? I don’t mean where will I go or what will I eat…I mean really what will my home practice and personal life look like? There are several interlocking problems, some easier than others to resolve.

First, my parents still expect me to show up for Christmas Eve and Christmas day, to exchange gifts, and eat a gigantic meal, and generally party with the family. This was actually the easiest part of the holidays for me to work out. Diamant suggests that mixed-faith couples simply celebrate Christmas at the home of the Christian side of the family. That seems fine, but in reading the Biale collection of essays about Jewish cultural history, I came across a really interesting passage about the Babylonian Jews. The rabbis in Babylon taught that Jews in Babylon were also Babylonian and that they should honor their non-Jew neighbors by celebrating their holidays with them, and then inviting them into their Jewish homes for Jewish holidays, so that their non-Jewish neighbors could celebrate with them. It was, in all, a message of not just peaceful coexistence, but of a conscious effort to honor the Other and welcome the Other into their lives. It makes complete sense to me, perfectly rational and multicultural, relaxed and hell, it gives you access to twice the feting. I’m a bit stubborn, so I probably would have done this regardless, because it’s just my personality to experience as broad a range of cultural and religious practices as possible.

So parents and family Christmas issue easily solved.

Second, Hanukah itself feels a bit anemic and, problematically, just like Christmas, based on a few unhistorical myths that I find vexing. Without going into a long Jeremiad, let me just say that a lot of the dominant Jewish discourses about Hanukah today are about the anti-Helenizing maccabees, with thinly veiled ethno-nationalism at its core and then not even trying to hide the Zionist parallels. When Hanukah talk glides into Israel-Palestine politics and Zionism, I’m out the back door. Just can’t do it. But even at its core, the mythologized version of the Maccabees is pretty far from history itself: The Maccabees weren’t anti-Helenism, they were Greek speaking, thoroughly Helenized and bloody violent rulers. Further, the majority of the world’s Jews during that time were Jews living outside of Palestine and were Greek speakers living fully helenized lives. Politically, I’m generally against forced assimilation; sociologically, I also know that most people as they move around tend to transform their languages and practices to meet new needs and environments. Humans are constantly modifying their cultures and adopting from people around them. So whereas I’m sympathetic to arguments against cultural imposition, assimilation by force, I’m highly dubious of the moral position that cultural change is bad tout court, and that culture must be maintained over time (which is actually an impossibility). So they way Hanukah gets talked about pushes my sociological buttons, my historical buttons, and my political skepticism of modern Zionism buttons all at once.

The upshot is that Hanukah just doesn’t seem like it can fit the bill of a Midwinter holiday for me. One dear born-Jew friend said that for her Hanukah is about the lights; and I do love that idea. And the idea of the “miracle of light” fits in nicely with my own spiritual need for Midwinter. So I look forward to seeing what is there for me.

Hanukah is a minor political holiday that, due to pressure from the dominant culture, has grown into  Jewish consumer extravaganza not unlike the hot mess that is Christmas on Union Square or any mall in the country.

So third and finally, the real issue is what my personal Midwinter practice as a Jew will look like. My instinct is to add Hanukah to my current practice. But I worry about what born-Jews would say at a wreath on my door (evergreens, eternal circle, rebirth, hope) next to a mezuzah (shma!); or pine cones and twinkly white lights and candles on the 21st for solstice night. On the other hand, when I was attending the Wiccan circle at the UU a couple years ago, half the people there were born-Jews. So perhaps my worries are only because I’m a JBC? But I’m left with figuring out what pieces of Hanukah are meaningful to me (for one, the Klezmekah at shul with the Klezmer band is hot hot hot (it was my first service last year when I started this journey)) and how to deal with the Christian imagery which is so embedded in the season (which has never bothered me even though I haven’t believed in it for 15 years).

Suggestions? Ideas? Thoughts?

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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.

teku

**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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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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