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Archive for the ‘Humanism’ Category

This past spring, I took a course with a Reconstructionist rabbi (with Renewal leanings) who is part of our synagogue community. The course covered the Shacharit and Shabbat Torah service, and it had the unintended side-effect of convincing me that I needed to look more carefully and seriously at the notion of prayer and its role in my life as a Jew.

My childhood and young adulthood associations with prayer are thoroughly theist, patriarchal, and heterosexist. But I also cannot deny some powerful experiences I had praying in the Mormon mode, especially the day when I was 22 years old that I had decided to kill myself because I was gay, and telling God—whom I believed was a real, anthropomorphic being at the time—what I had planned while sitting at the bottom of Bryce Canyon in southern Utah. I no longer believe that my experience came from an outside divine force, but I definitely believe that having been reduced to nothingness, I was totally open emotionally and spiritually to see clearly (and being in the red rock desert always clarifies life for me). What I felt, like a light going off in my head, was that if I died then at age 22, I would miss a lifetime of love. I think I sat there for about an hour with my mouth hanging open. Then I got up, walked back to my car, and went back to my studies.

Between leaving Mormonism and choosing Judaism, my most serious and regular practice had been basic vipassana meditation in the (lesser wheel) buddhist tradition. I had been a casual buddhist for about 15 years, and meditation had been my practice of choice on many levels.  I discovered buddhism when I was still at BYU during my senior year, through Thich Nhat Hanh, but didn’t start seriously meditating until I read a book by Jack Kornfield around my 28th birthday. My experience with meditation and reading buddhist psychology and philosophy opened me up in a completely different way. The constant practice of accepting what is and of being open to the here and now transformed in ways that I still cannot articulate (and to be clear, I still need this daily practice; I’m a bit of a cling-er, grasper, holder-on; I’m also an idealist who rages against the imperfection and injustice of the world).  Buddhism also showed me a path to ethical living that I had been unable to find in Mormonism, because buddhism insists that you see the world as it is and other people as they are. So I have had important and powerful experiences of holiness before and outside of Judaism (and frankly I don’t see that changing).

As I posted about a couple months ago, I have been working through the rabbinic teaching that prayer has three phases, Praise, Thanks, and Asking, and thinking about what that could mean in a more meditative vein, and especially what it means for someone who isn’t sure he believes in a g-d at all.  So I finally decided about three weeks ago to take a leap of faith, and begin doing a small modified  שחרת  before breakfast in the morning. I’m using a combination of the Siddur Sha’ar Zahav (from my somewhat frum Reform shul) and the Koren Siddur (British Orthodox). By modified, I mean that from the Orthodox siddur, I cut out a lot of text and I cut out all the clothing bits (tsitsit, tallit, and teffilin). Here’s the order of my Shacharit:

  • Modeh ani
  • Asher yatzar et ha-adam (I call this the “orifices” prayer…teehee)
  • Elohai n’shamah (my fav)
  • Morning brachot [I use the SZ siddur here for feminist, disabled-friendly, non-ethnocentric language:
    נברך את עין החיים יוצרת השולם, etc.]
  • Ha-Gomeil chasadim tovim [I am currently really taken by this line:
    ותננו היום ובכל יום לחן ולחסד ולרחמים בעיניך]
  •  Sh’ma

I have some struggles with these prayers, mainly because the traditional language makes a couple of assumptions that I don’t believe, e.g., that god is a conscious, agentive being; and that god is a ruler or sovereign of some kind. So why pray this stuff? Why pray at all?

I’m not sure I know yet. But one of the things that drew me to modern, liberal Judaism is its willingness to look at tradition, ask hard questions, and rethink our relationship to tradition and most importantly development meanings for it that make sense in our context today. SZ’s siddur has some beautiful readings especially associated with the Orifices Prayer and the Daily Blessings. But also, being who I am and where I am in life, I also can just sit there and think about what something means. Then there’s the simple experiential aspect where the hebrew functions as a kind of mantra, a sonorous and embodied swaying practice of focus and attention. I’ve been trying to find traditional melodies to sing the prayers, but am not having a lot of luck; I have found a Yemini melody for the Modeh Ani and Elohai N’Shamah, and another for the Sh’ma that I love, but which are difficult to sing early in the morning. In any case, beginning the day with what amounts to a 15 minute long remembrance of the miracle of being alive and gratitude for your body is, for me personally, a very good thing.

Still, I wonder why I’m doing this. As I’ve said many times on this blog, I came to Judaism for the practice, because I know that I need in my life regular focus and attention and structure to keep my mind contained, at least minimally, and to remind myself of my actual core values. What has shocked me in this process is a couple of things that I’ve learned by accident, just by doing the practice.

First, on a personal level (if you’ll permit), I have spent a long time, a very very long time, ignoring and hating my body; I didn’t quite understand the depth of that hatred until the past few weeks. 41 years at war with my own body. The daily ritual of confronting myself with gratitude for that body has been jarring and awakening. Where that will lead, I don’t yet know.

Second, there is an interesting layer of meanings with the “melech” language of traditional prayer. On one hand, it really goes back to pre-Babylonian captivity semitic Battle of the Gods (i.e., where various peoples and tribes were vying for control of the pantheon). This is the Hebrews claiming that their god is King of them all! Then there’s the later monotheistic layer, where the Jewish diaspora, along with Christians and Muslims, conceived of the One God as ruler of the universe, as supreme sovereign; and where theology developed around submission and helplessness. I think I’ve been inspired somewhat by Rabbi Green’s insistence that, despite some of our modern democratic discomfort with the Melech language, we need to keep it. Rabbi Green argues (if you’ll excuse an oversimplification) that it keeps the balance of Justice and Mercy in the works if we maintain and embrace the Melech language.

But I have come to think of the King/Ruler image as something a bit more important, in a buddhist sense. There is in the Orthodox siddur a long prayer leading up to the Sh’ma wherein the davenner works through the power and limitlessness and ultimateness of god in a way that, I have come to realize, works to eliminate or break open the Ego. That has resonated with my buddhist studies and practice, where one of the goals is disidentification, not so that you disappear, but so that you can see. The practice of recognizing our own human powerlessness can force important breaks in the Ego, to see one’s self and one’s place in society, the world, the universe with stark clarity. Of course, I am thinking here of Melech language as practice and meaning rather than as literal representation of an actual being. It’s the effect of the practice that matters. [There is much then to be said about the conncetion of this ego-break that I find to be vital here (and in Buddhism) and the notion of tikkun olam, but I haven’t thought about that much yet.]

Which leads me to third: I hadn’t ever realized it, but all those years I’ve been meditating, there was something missing for me. In vipassana (and much more so in Zen technique), the egolessness and openness saved my life at a crucial juncture in my development, and it has sustained me for over a decade. But there’s a way in which it leaves me feeling empty (which some would say is the point), or more importantly, disconnected. I’ve been reading a book called Making Prayer Real: Leading Jewish Voices on Why Prayer Is Difficult and What to Do about It, by Rabbi Mike Comins. Rabbi Comins interviewed 50 different rabbis and organized his book around their observations about what prayer means and how to do it. The book has been very comforting to me on one level, in that many of the rabbis interviewed are humanists in the same way that I am.

But more importantly, what I have realized from these rabbis teachings is that whereas viapassana is completely monistic in its form and goal, that I still need some dualism. For anyone who has known me at all over the past 20 years, that will be an astounding revelation. But there is something about the act of “calling out” that creates a connection that is, for me, missing in Buddhist practice. I will probably continue vipassana meditation for the rest of my life; so what I’m saying here isn’t a condemnation. Rather, it’s that I had always wondered why I didn’t just dive in and become a full-fledged buddhist; something was always holding me back.

What I am starting to see is that I need both monism, and the practice of dualism for a fully formed spiritual life. “Calling out” in prayer—to praise, thank, and ask—is not about the reality, the thingliness of god; it’s about acknowledge the human need for relationship and connection. The day-to-day, real-life experience of being human is that the Ego is simply not the Other, and can never be. The desire to merge and blend with the Other that often drives sexual intercourse and that brief twinge of disappointment after you orgasm comes from the realization that I am not nor can I ever be the other. I am fundamentally separate, which drives the pleasure and the necessity of connection. For me personally, my buddhist experience was that the practice broke down my ego and helped me to see and accept, thereby freeing me to have compassion. But what it didn’t give me was a meaningful experience of connection to myself, to others, and to the world and cosmos. I think that, for me, prayer has the potential to provide that connection.

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Warning: Rambling aimlessness ahead.

A big part of my journey has been struggling with my personal identity, my sense of who I am or will be as I move along this path. On one hand, I’ve pretty much embraced the label “Jew” and find myself thinking of myself as jewish already; the only caveat I find is my own ignorance. I feel Jewish, whatever that means; but I am a mere babe in terms of learning and practice. For me, that’s a good thing. It points to a road ahead of learning, exploring, growing, and moving toward a meaningful, ethical life. It seems clearer and clearer that I haven’t ceased being me, my ancestors and family haven’t disappeared, my aesthetics and morality and desires are still there; in short, I’m still me. Just me and Jewish.

There is a communal form of identity work, however, that is still troublesome for me. It is not unique to Jews, but I’m just having to deal with it in my new Jewish community.

A basic mode of community building that is relatively universal (I use that word advisedly) is that of working out meaningful boundaries, drawing cultural in/out lines. A common way groups do this is by building a kind of knowledge of the Other, the outsider, the Not-I. This knowledge of the Other is usually more mythical than empirical. Sometimes there are touches of experiential truth in this knowledge, but most often the experiences are already interpreted through the perspective of the Self, the We, and are often already inaccurate.

At its worst, this kind of identity work creates us/them distinctions that justify violence—pogroms, inquisitions, holocausts. At its most benign, it draws light social boundaries that can separate or distinguish at key moments and in key social spaces.

Although I know rationally that this is just simply something that human groups do—everything from Americans vs. Muslims (in the popular consciousness of the War on Terror) to internecine battles over arcane distinctions between death metal and lyrical death metal—I find that both my personal ethics and my education make it highly visible and highly vexing when I’m in a social situation where its actually happening. I understand this behavior in my sociologist brain and can see the behaviors with an interested detachment. In fact, I can even point to some important benefits of this kind of identity work, especially for minority groups.

But when I’m sitting in the middle of it, I get impatient with it very quickly. I realized tonight that I have two separate difficulties with this boundary drawing identity work: on one hand, it is usually anchored in ignorance of the Other (or reduction or oversimplification or willful misrepresentation, etc.), sometimes relatively harmless, sometimes full blown lies; and on the other hand, I have a deep ethical objection to it, as it’s hard for me to see an ethical way to exclude through misrepresentation, myth, or misinterpretation. Even as I write this, I am thinking of a hundred objections to my own objections, and maybe I’m not expressing this accurately, but I have a visceral ethical objection to doing identity work in this way. Even though I recognize that my lone objection is not going to change 6 billion humans’ behavior (and acknowledging that I may engage in it myself).

Part of this comes from growing up Mormon, in a community that, although it sees itself as essentially American, also sees itself as the set up against the rest of the world (Gentiles…yes, Mormons adopted this Jewish language in the 19th century from the Hebrew Bible).  And it comes from my rejection of the idea of a “chosen” people or a “special” individual of any kind in my early 20s. My own values revolve ideas of the value of human beings without regard to race, class, gender, religion, etc., and so I balk at efforts to make substantive distinctions. Having said all that, I realize there is some irony in my choosing as a spiritual home a religion that has been isolated and oppressed for nearly 2000 years, so community boundaries are often front and center in any conversation about Jewishness. And I should also stress that like everyone I often fail to live up to my ideals in this regard (e.g., I often get really pissed at all the straight people in the Castro).

The other part of impatience (and sometimes anger) comes from a character flaw of sorts: I do not suffer fools easily. I don’t mind people’s ignorance (and in fact am painfully aware of what I do not know), but I despise when knowledge (false) is used as a tool for social ends (boundary drawing). It makes me squirm.

Tonight I got into a conversation with a few friends about charity and chesed, something I’ve talked about here in a previous post (and a bit of a pet peeve of mine). The conversation was mostly fine, until it derailed into “Christians are…” and “Christians believe…” versus “We [Jews] are” and “We [Jews] believe”. I spent many years (a couple decades) immersed in Christian history and doctrine. Like any massive ancient culture, Christianity is diverse and complex and simple to be constructions just don’t work. My problems with the conversation were many, from simply false ideas to ideas produced through perception bias to the irritating need to build up Judaism by bashing Christianity. [Again, I know that this is a common social practice and nothing unique or bad about my friends, and Christians and Jews have been doing this to each other for a couple thousand years.]

Again, acknowledging that this identity work that my friends were engaged in is perfectly normal (statistically not morally) human behavior, I just had to ask myself, is this the best we can do? Is there no other way for we Jews to assert ourselves or to build a Judaism that we are proud of and that is meaningful to us than in this kind of Us/Them myth building? Is there no way to make a meaningful contribution to the world without making the contrast with a biased view of Christianity? To be honest, I don’t know if that can even exist, from the minority position, where Christianity is so dominant culturally. Yet I have to believe that there is a way to generate identity without othering the Other, without making shit up and repeating misunderstandings and misrepresentations. Are there ways of speaking about “us” in terms of who we are, rather than who we are not?

One of the things that I love about Reconstructionism is its exploration of a universalist strain within Judaism, the idea that YHVH is a universal presence and Judaism is just “our” way of relating to it, both ancestrally and in the present. That framing seems to be much more fruitful, ethical, and open, more appropriate and workable in a pluralistic, diverse, multiethnic world. A kind of Judaism dedicated to easiness with itself, knowing itself without having to define itself in the negative.

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When I was a little boy, I used to create fantasy lives with the characters I saw on TV. Among my earliest memories of such fantasies were with Michael Douglas in Streets of San Francisco, with one of the boys from Zoom, and, later, with the pilots from Baa Baa Black Sheep. Only in retrospect do I see this is the budding erotic life of a soon-to-be gay teenager. The practice of re-imagining the narratives on screen to match my narrative needs—to fulfill my own desires as someone craving reflection in culture—could only carry me so far. By the time I was in high school, I was conscious of the unbelonging, the exclusion from the narrative, and the imagination became interlaced with shame, frustration, anger, and self-hatred. I knew what I was doing, and I knew why I was doing it. And it was exhausting.

In graduate school, I would learn that hundreds, maybe millions of gay people did as I did, rewriting scripts, recasting romantic interests as they watched t.v., and that theorists called this “queering the text.” While it may seem easy to trivialize or dismiss the significance of television or movies, the lengths that many minorities go to to see themselves reflected in dominant narratives that were written to exclude them (either consciously or tacitly) or to identify with characters who are unlike them—in short, the effort it takes for the Other to find herself represented in the dominant should attest to the psychic significance and power of mass cultural narratives.

In my religious life, there was no way to queer the Mormon text, which explicitly condemned me. And so I tried to re-write myself, recast myself as another man. As I got older and my intelligence and personality continued to progress, I realized that gayness was not the only part of me that needed to be “read into” the mormon script I’d been given: I was a budding feminist, an intellectual, and increasingly agnostic. It took me longer than many people to realize that there was simply no room for me within the religion of my parents and ancestors. It takes a lot of energy to maintain yourself in a symbolic world that doesn’t want you there (other than as a foil for the righteous characters in scripture, or a clown for the heroes to laugh at on t.v.).

Since Yom Kippur, I’ve been put back into the position of having to read myself into texts, rituals, and life—this time, into Judaism. I’m thrice an outsider: I’m a goy seriously considering conversion (but not seeking a new ethnicity); I’m gay; and I’m agnostic-atheist-humanist. The fact that I’m exploring the liberal wing of Judaism eases this process enormously (Conservative-Reform-Reconstructionist-Renewal), and in many ways, there are people around me who are wrestling with the texts, prayers, and practices of Judaism alongside me. But even in the liberal theologies of these modern forms of Judaism, I find myself coming up against the idea of God and those who believe in him.  Given that I’m in the very odd position of seeking religious tradition, ritual, and community from a humanist perspective, this is not an unexpected development and, indeed, is something that I had anticipated.

What I had not anticipated is the difficulty of experiencing the outsiderness again in such strong feelings. In talking to friends at shul, men and women I really like and admire, and realizing that they are coming from a place of belief that I do not share has made me stop and question my attraction to religion generally and judaism in particular. While it is clear that being atheist is, in many ways, a very Jewish thing to be; within a community of practicing Jews, it feels odd and excluding.  My beginning assumptions are different, off-kilter, and would maybe even be offensive if they were known. There’s an odd way that I feel I must be closeted with my unbelief (although in practice, I don’t think that’s true—I’ve heard people at shul talk openly about not believing in God); it makes me question what I’m doing at all.

Then there’s Rabbi Heschel. I’ve been wanting to read God in Search of Man for several months, because Heschel is one of those rare people whose moral life and dedication to justice and tikkun olam has been an inspiration to me since I taught about him to undergrads at KU in the late 1990s. Arthur Green and Arthur Waskow, whose writings and activism have guided my journey through Judaism this past year, were both students of Heschel. But whereas Green and Waskow are relatively rationalist and, although practicing and spiritual, have unconventional and universalist notions of God that work really well with my agnostic-humanist belief. In reading Heschel’s book, I encountered an unexpected drawn-out argument for belief in God, complete with the typical science-can’t-know-everything and intelligent design lines.

And so I found myself reading a man I greatly admire and whose ideas I want to love, and find myself instead having to “read myself into” his text, just as I’ve had to read myself into the siddur, as I learn more and more Hebrew. And I don’t know if I have the energy or headspace or will to engage in another process of constant reinterpretation and re-imagining.

What I loved in Heshel’s book is the notion of the Holy and the human engagement and perception of it through wonder and awe. Heschel calls it the Sublime, and he argues that we have flashes of Insight throughout our lives that are windows onto the sublime. For Heschel, these experiences lead to a belief in the “living God” who is a “reality beyond realities”. That is where I kept snagging on his God concept, and having to stop and re-imagine the meaning. Clearly, Heschel was a believer; am I doing him an injustice by disagreeing and reading my humanist views into his work?

From my humanist perspective, awe and wonder (or the sublime) are aspects of human experience of the world and of each other. But holiness (the sublime) is not an intrinsic characteristic of any object or individual. Indeed, I would argue that it doesn’t exist at all, other than as the human experience of the thing. Heschel explains that the way we can ensure experience of the sacred is through recognizing it in the World (or in his words, in all of creation), that is, in all that Exists; through Torah; and through Ritual. The power of ritual is easy to get my brain around anthropologically, as it is both well-documented and, for me, I’ve experienced it myself; the weirdness there, for me, is that I’m having a different kind of a ritual experience as a non-believer. Torah I’m going to have to grapple with that later—I like the idea of wrestling with a text for meaning, but I have a hard time not seeing Torah as a political and cultural product of those who wrote it. And my American, post-transcendentalist, quasi-pagan, environmentalist, naturalist self is completely on board with Heschel that it’s Existence itself that cries out for holiness.

William James tried to describe the religious impulse, the thing that drives so many humans to seek the divine, as the drive to know or experience the MORE. The MORE is James’ abstraction of the desire, bordering on the erotic, for humans to experience something beyond. For James, this involves a Will to Believe, on some level, a conscious choice. A tragedy of his own life was his desire but inability to believe. Around the time of the Civil War, he lost his faith in God, but spent his life studying belief and practice of all kinds. That is perhaps why I feel such a kindship with James, in that his own spiritual life (not to mention his ethical orientation to the world) resonates so strongly with me.

In this instance, I think that James’ concept of the MORE is very useful to explain what I mean by my humanist conception of holiness as an experience: It is a willed affect, a willed outcome of a kind of ritual or action to produce the sacred in one’s life.

Where Heschel (and theists generally) loses me is in the notion that this holiness constitutes some kind of evidence for God, for his [sic] existence, reality, and “livingness.” I believe in the experience, but I believe the experience is the thing itself, rather than a sign of something exterior, least of all of someOne exterior, with agency and intention. For me, my idea of the meaning of the experience of awe, wonder, and the sublime resonates more closely with Heshel’s definition of faith, as “a sensitivity, understanding, engagement, and attachment; not something achieved once and for all, but an attitude one may gain or lose.”

For some time now, I have thought of the importance of the experience of the sublime as the taking of an attitude in the social-psychological sense, as in taking a position vis-a-vis the object that is guided by affect and manifest in behavior. To choose to experience holiness in another human being, in a giant sequoia, or in the red earth of southern Utah is to take an attitude in how one feels about the non-self and in how one treats it. In James’ terms, it is the manifestation of the MORE that we consciously chose to experience and make real in our actions. The MORE does not exist in an objective, exterior sense; but it can be experienced and/or made manifest.

Heshel ends the first section of his book with what I consider to be the most important reasons to choose a religious life and my explanation for why I continue to follow this path. If I lay aside Heschel’s theistic insistence and read myself into the text, this could be the best explanation for why I seek out a meaningful religious experience in Judaism despite the amazing amount of effort it takes to read myself into it:

To summarize: The power of religious truth is a moment of insight, and its content is oneness or love. … A genuine insight rends the enclosure of the heart and bestows on man the power to rise above himself. … [The experience of oneness] is astir with a demand to live in a way that is worthy of its presence. … The root of religion is the question what to do with the feeling for the mystery of living, what to do with awe, wonder, and amazement. Religion begins with a consciousness that something is asked of us. It is in that tense, eternal asking in which the soul is caught and in which man’s answer is elicited.

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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?

teku

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Of course the Enlightenment would impact the Jewish communities of Europe along with its Christian majorities, but it had never occurred to me to see Jews (and Jewishness) as the original test of Enlightenment universalism and an ongoing case study of the interaction between the ascendant individual of modernity and a minority (often abject) population. The Haskalah movement in Jewish philosophy revealed 300 years ago the problems and ruptures in Enlightenment thinking long before post-modenrist critiques of the 1960s, as a group that had been resident outsiders was suddenly, if only in theory, thrust into the universal mainstream of democratic citizenship. Although the “emancipation” of Jews in Europe progressed in starts and fits starting more or less when the French Revolution voted to make Jews full citizens of the secular French state, the idea that Jews were in some sense Europeans and Jews at the same time seems to have pushed the contradictions of the Enlightenment to its limits, both within Judaism and among non-Jews, who were confronted with the prospect of tolerating a people that had been loathed for nearly two thousand years. The emergence of the “Jewish Question” in the early 19th century—how to be both a citizen of a European (or American) nation and a Jew at the same time—foreshadows the debates about multiple identities and pluralism of cultures of the past 40 years.

My reading in this area is new and admittedly only from a very brief overview of Jewish history of the past 300 years (see Robinson Chs. 8-9), and so this post here clearly is not thorough or even knowledgeable. But I found in the reading about this history an odd sense of understanding. On one level, I had yet again the realization that post-modernism is often little more than modernism dressed up in French clothing. On a deeper level, I appreciated the ways in which this question has been confronted head-on as part of the experience of modernity within Judaism, indeed, as constitutive of a Jewish modernity.

Whereas many Enlightenment thinkers saw a world built on rational universalism, modernity in practice and in history has been a far messier human affair of the non-rational experiences of belonging, identity, affect, local practice, and difference in a delicate dance with the universalizing pressures of nation building and democratizing. (The dance between the poles of particularity and universality has only intensified since WWII as the reach and power of global social and economic power has expanded into every-day life of billions of people.) The Jewish Question—can you be a rational citizen and a Jew at the same time?—and the various and contradictory ways that Jews have attempted to answer that question since the early maskilim attempted to remake Judaism in local vernaculars (e.g., Moses Mendelssohn) and to rationalize Jewish practice offer for us a picture of what is not a tension to be relieved, but a constituent feature of modernity itself.

What the development of rational orthodoxy (a real movement, although it seems contradictory) and the Reform movement, not to mention the secular philosophy and art movements within Jewish communities starting in the mid-18th century (including a revival of Yiddish as a philosophical and literary language in eastern Europe) brought about was the disarticulation of the individual from the group, but seeing Jews as individuals with a religion rather than religious groups outside of society. Jews became individuals who could choose a religion, and ultimately starting in the 19th century, western Jews have been working to understand what it means to choose to be Jewish.

This existential choice—Jew or citizen—is a sign of Weberian demystification of everyday life. It is the new context of modernity pushing in on Judaism, forcing it to adapt to a new “emancipated” context. (Nazism can be seen as the bloody extreme of the dominant culture dealing with tolerance of difference, through a mass-produced death.) And it is both the opening of religious and ethnic groups to scrutiny and their rebirth in new forms. Unfortunately in practice over the past 200 years or so, dominant cultures (majorities) in any given democratic nation-state become an unspoken, assumed, often hidden ethnicity that comes to stand for the Universal. It is this phenomenon that all minority groups within pluralistic democracies have had to fight against, the presumed universality of the majority culture. I think what made Christian and secular Europeans so uncomfortable with Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (e.g., The Dreyfus Affair) was precisely that the presence of difference within a culture supposedly built on the universalist-rational claims of the Enlightenment forces the hidden ethnic pseudo-Universal (i.e., the dominant culture) to see itself as one among many rather than as Human.

Judaism as a whole demonstrates both the possibilities and the losses of balancing between citizen and “other”, as Jews have become fully participating, fully enfranchised members of various democratic societies, but have simultaneously fragmented and splintered in their attempts to maintain group cohesion and distinctiveness.

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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.

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**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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