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Archive for the ‘Jewish Philosophy’ Category

The Bible is not an intellectual sinecure, and its acceptance should not be like setting up a talismanic lock that seals both the mind and the conscience against the intrusion of new thoughts. Revelation [the Bible] is not vicarious thinking. Its purpose is not to substitute for but to extend our understanding. (273)

Since I began this journey 18 months ago, I have been avoiding really grappling with what I think of The Torah(a) (i.e., the Pentateuch) and the Tanakh (the Bible). Having spent a good deal of my life studying critically the production and reception of texts, and having studied in my early 20s biblical high criticism, and having studied  the history and sociology of Christian fundamentalism (which is a particular, uh, problematic relationship to the Bible text) in graduate school, I just didn’t see a place for the Bible in my spiritual life. Indeed, until recently I hadn’t picked up a bible, except out of curiosity or to look up an allusion in nearly 15 years. In February and March, I briefly tried to study the weekly parashat, before giving that up in frustration with the arcanely offensive ancient text.

I have recently returned to reading Heschel’s God in Search of Man—which I had laid aside last fall after becoming frustrated with Heschel’s theism—having realized that I have much to learn from Heschel even if I don’t share his belief about god or his conception of faith. This was partly precipitated by a Shavu’ot study group that focused on the meaning of Torah for liberal Jews, where we discussed Heschel’s belief that The Torah requires interpretation to be meaningful and complete. After reading more of Heschel’s writings on Torah this morning, I still find myself struggling with his theism; Heschel is far too concerned with the “divine inspiration” of the prophets for my comfort. But I also find myself excited by his understanding of The Torah as a text and his notion of how to approach the text as a Jew.

In Ch. 27 “The Principle of Revelation,” Heschel lays out some key principles that I find important for my humanist approach to Judaism and for a meaningful approach to the Bible and to all of Torah. Here are my interpretations of Heschel’s principles of approaching Torah through text.

1. Text vs. Meaning: Heschel distinguishes between, on one hand, the text—including its literary and historical production in a specific context—and on the other hand, the meaning of the text. For Heschel, the true content of the Torah is not the same thing as its literary “frame”, which is human. This distinction helps me settle into reading the Bible, because it allows me to maintainthe space for textual and historical criticism and, although I probably have a slightly different idea of this than Heschel, it maintains the possibility of meaning and interpretation.

2. Text as Dialogic, Holy with Human: For Heschel, the Bible is a record not of God’s revealed Word as such, but rather, of the prophets’ interaction and response to that revelation. I would go a step further toward a humanist reading, where the Bible represents historical and local records of a people’s (or individual’s) efforts to understand their experience of the Holy, in particular political, cultural, historical moments. For Heschel, the Bible is necessarily dialogic, the “word of God and man; a record of both revelation and response” (260). As a non-theist/humanist, the importance here is in the dialogism, the relationship of humans to experience; that it is always interpretive and responsive.

3. Text as Incomplete and as Hidden: In Mormon mythology, there is a story in the origins of the Book of Mormon, that Joseph Smith only translated 1/3 of the book; the other 2/3 of the book were sealed. Harold Bloom, in his interpretation of Mormonism as “the American religion”, compares this piece of the Mormon origin mythology to parts of Kabbalah, where the emphasis is placed on hidden and future knowledge. Heschel reads parts of the Tanakh to say that much of torah remains hidden or unrevealed; knowledge as yet unknown. For Heschel, a large part of reading The Torah and the Bible is in the yearning for that hidden, as yet unknown knowledge. There is something profound in both the Mormon and the Jewish notions of hidden knowledge, of mysteries unrevealed—human life is characterized by having a brain that yearns to know its environment, and which evolved to do so through conscious problem solving. But that very capacity, our evolved consciousness, also makes us aware of the fact that we don’t know. In fact, we know very little. This sacrilization of the unknown and of the desire to know are indeed, for me, a driving force in my life at large. Heschel argues that the Messianic age will be characterized by a revelation of what is hidden. In a humanist judaism, the messianic age is not a literal time, but rather a state of the world that we strive to bring about through, for example, tikkun olam. The hidden knowledge can become, in a humanist reading, the knowledge one gains by leading a dedicated, ethical, engaged, curious life.

4. Text as Common, Mundane, Human, and Ugly: Heschel argues that the divine truth of Torah is hidden in the robes of the every-day human experience of the people who wrote the Bible, and that, indeed, the holiness can be hidden within the most mundane or even offensively human of concerns. I cannot help but see The Torah and the Tanakh as the production of a people in a time and place, albeit for me the record of one people’s (the Hebrews’) struggle to understand and make sense of their experience of the ineffable, the holy. Heschel’s teaching leaves that human layer in place; but he believes that underneath that outer human layer lies the divine truths.

5. Text as a Container of Meaning: This leads Heschel to an interpretive move that resonates with my education in literary criticism: The text is only the vehicle for our understanding, for our meaning-building from the text. Heschel offers a metaphor of a clothed human: The obvious, historical, human layer of the Bible is the clothing; the general principles and ideas of the text are the human body underneath the clothing; but the real meaning of the Holy, the soul of the human, the actual Torah, requires insight, work, and struggle. Heschel goes so far as to say that only those who were at Sinai can pierce through the text to the Soul. Again, the theistic framing doesn’t work for me; but what does work for me is the centrality and location of meaning as being in the engagement with the text. For Heschel, Torah isn’t the text itself, but is within the text, like wine is in a jar (268). The text of the Bible is mere container or surface. This resonates with some post-structural textual criticism that I still find useful in dealing with cultural texts and objects.

6. Text Requires Engagement: Through several different points, I think Heschel is arguing that texts are not inert, stand-alone objects; they are rather living, breathing, human entities that exist only in our interaction with them. I gather this from Heschel’s insistence that the prophets of the Bible by definition challenged god/the divine and argued with god/the divine; that biblical passages change meaning over time as context and history and experience change human perspective; and that truth comes only through the courage to look beyond the surface level to how something actually is or actually works.

7.  Text Requires Philosophy of Religion: Heschel argues against two approaches to text. First, the fundamentalist approach to the Bible falsely assumes the Bible is self-contained and self-sufficient, and ignores its history and production. Second, the rationalist approach which may in its overconfidence eliminate the possibility of meaningful interpretation. His critique of rationalism earlier in the book bothered me as incomplete and as apologia; but here it resonated with me, as I have read scientists railing against human culture generally, as if the kind of empirical truth scientific method can produce is actually the source of all knowledge (e.g., Sam Harris’s recent work on morality) and as if scientific method weren’t itself structured within value systems and historical moments. So I’m fine with being cautious about a rationalist approach to textual interpretation. Heschel proposes the philosophy of religion approach to the text as the antidote for both, as its purpose is to lead us to “higher knowledge and understanding.” Here he loses me, as I’m not sure what “higher knowledge or understanding” would even mean. Rather, I would argue that the antidote for both fundamentalism and problematic rationalism would be a humanist-rationalism, one that takes science and history and sociology seriously, but one which understands the human need for and process of meaning making and which also takes the human experience of holiness (not its empirical existence or non-existence) seriously. This will be a place that I will need to work out in detail in the future.

8. Text as Interactive and Ongoing: Finally, and for me, most importantly, Heschel explains the Jewish/rabbinic approach to the Bible, one which I experienced first hand at this week’s Traveling Shavuot study groups. Torah is, essentially, not the text; rather Torah is the interaction of Israel with the text. The call to study The Torah is in fact a call to continue this interaction, this struggle with text, in order to produce Torah. If The Torah (or the Bible) is seen as complete and self-contained, it becomes a stumbling block to true understanding and to truth. Heschel goes so far as to argue that those who claim a fundamentalist relationship to the Bible can never have Torah at all, because they have foreclosed the possibility of struggle and interpretation (274). “Judaism is based on a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation,” he says. Torah is both written (the text) and oral (interpretation and communal dialogue). Jews speak often of Israel as “struggle with god”; but here, Israel becomes “struggle with text”. He then flips the claims of authority that mark Christianity’s approach to truth (as well as Islam’s): “The source of authority is not the word as given in the text, but Israel’s understanding of the text.” Torah is in the life of Israel (struggle with god), not in a literal book. Without a continual, ongoing, never-ending effort to understand, the text is just paper (275).

What I loved about Heschel, in the end, was his approach to the Bible as text, rather than as the word. It can be boiled down to a couple key points that are compatible with my humanist values: the text is human and historical; and the text’s meaning and holiness comes from our dialogic interaction with it. I’m sure Heschel would be uncomfortable with my leaving out revelation; but as always, for me, holiness is in the human experience, the encounter with Existence, the Universe, and with our own dyingness.

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Note:

(a) In Hebrew and the Jewish tradition, the word תורה can mean several different things: the particular five books of Moses; or more generally law or teachings; and in the rabbinical tradition, torah can be oral or written, the entire body of knowledge of judaism and jewishness. For my purposes here, when I type The Torah (with caps) it refers to the Pentateuch; when I type it without the definite article, it will be in reference to the broader idea of teachings or laws.

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In a fascinating interpretation of Moby Dick in the book All Things Shining (1), Ahab is seen as a representation of a kind of Christianity that seeks closed-ness through completion, a view of the world where Truth is already known, so all other possibilities are cut off and where seeking other or more truth is foreclosed. In the story, Ahab can only see the white whale as the object of desire and of aversion, the singular truth of his universe is to avenge himself upon the whale’s body. But Ishmael represents a different orientation to the whale, upon whose head he sees a blankness, an emptiness devoid of any meaning at all, which then opens Ishmael up to a different kind of truth, joy, and meaning. Further, Dreyfus and Kelly, the two philosophers who wrote the book, read Ishmael’s relationship with the pagan Queequeg as an implicit critique of Christianity, where “Christianity goes astray not in its basic religious impulse, but rather in its totalizing turn,” where Christianity becomes all that exists, Truth itself. Ishmael represents a new kind of truth, a new orientation to being, that finds joy and beauty in an embodied, social openness to finding relationship, ritual, truth, beauty, joy in the every-day, in the mundane, in the foreign and exotic as well as the familiar. Ishmael moves easily from his Protestant worship to joining Queequeg in his pagan ritual. Ahab, on the other hand, single-mindedly and blindly pursues the whale as the only truth of his life and is destroyed by it. “Ishmael’s polytheistic view finds in the communal rituals of daily life, contradictory and polysemic and plural as they are, the meanings that can drive away the drizzly November of the soul.”

The book provoked me to seek and to name what I have found most valuable in my own spiritual path, and where I have found meaning over the past 16 years since leaving Mormonism. I found myself reflected in much of the book’s conclusions, in the way I came to redefine the sacred as immanent and joy as embodied and present rather than deferred and transcendent. I had through life’s experiences come to the same conclusions as Ishamael had, at least in Dreyfus’s and Kelly’s reading of Moby Dick. And I found that I loved that about my spiritual life and that I feel like those lessons learned have been useful and meaningful to me over the past decade. [Caveat emptor: The book is receiving some pretty scathing critiques from philosophers (2).]

I read this book at about the same time that I hit a wall in my exploration of Judaism. I find myself asking often, “Why?” Why am I doing this? Why am I exploring a spiritual community that would add yet another outsider status to my already sufficient outsiderness? Why do I need a community at all, especially a deeply traditional one? Why can’t I continue on my individual spiritual path that I’ve been walking since I left Mormonism 16 years ago? What is in Judaism that would make me want to commit to it in a way that I had given up on years ago? Is choosing Judaism a step backwards into Ahab, or can it be a further step into Ishmael?

Whereas everyone in my Choosing Judaism group is exploring conversion because they have married a JBB and are looking for spiritual harmonization and/or exploring the religion of a spouse, I come to Judaism on a rather individual path. As a single gay guy, I have come up hard against the social and communal and familial aspects of Judaism generally (not to mention the somewhat closed relationships at the shul I’ve been attending). There’s a contradiction between my search for spiritual community and the increasingly isolating experience I’ve been having on this path.

The past few days, I have (serendipitously?) stumbled upon expressions by other people of a few of the things that resonate so powerfully for me in Judaism, one in an article about Tuny Kushner and the other in a Conservative rabbi’s articulation of Jewish pluralism.

Last fall, I’d been asked by a peer-reviewed, scholarly journal to write a brief review of a book about representations of Mormons in popular culture (3); and this week, I began reading the book for that purpose. The very first essay in the collection was an engagement with Tony Kushner’s two-play cycle Angels in America, where in the conclusion of the essay, the author lists off a set of congruences between Mormon belief and practice and Jewish belief and practice that account for Kushner’s public statements of sympathy with Mormon belief (despite writing a play wherein the gay Mormon character is the only one in the play who is not redeemed in the play). The writer states:

Elsewhere, Kushner has spoken positively of certain aspects of Mormon theology, particularly those that he thinks reflect Judaism: the emphasis of practice over belief and the de-emphasis on damnation, the centrality of a text, the importance of diasporic experience in forming identity, and the positive theology of the body. (4)

Is my attraction to Judaism that simple and obvious? Of course, Mormonism is far more complex than those issues cited above (for example, the emphasis on practice over belief is far from clear, in my opinion), yet there is a kernel of truth there. And these are most of the values that I take from Mormonism that still inform my personal ethics and spirituality, so many years after leaving Mormonism behind. I do not think that I am merely seeking a surrogate or replacement for Mormonism. I’ve been through too much over the past 16 years for that. But as a sociologist who researches the social construction of perception, values, and cognition (i.e., culture), I have to stop and recognize the possible influences that Mormonism may be having on my exploration of Judaism.

Because I do not come to Judaism from a place of belief (I’ve spoken at length about my agnosticism in this blog), but rather in search of spiritual practice, I’m definitely drawn to some key practices in judaism, especially the yearly ritual calendar and the weekly shabbat. I’ve been exploring the possibilities of daily practice through what I think of as humanist prayer; but my buddhist background leads me to continued meditation practice. So far, my daily practice has remained pretty firmly buddhist. Since my favorite Conservative rabbis were also buddhist (even though I’m converting at a reform shul), and since my own teacher also relies heavily on contemporary american buddhism for her teachings, I feel pretty comfortable with that practice for the moment. That said, I find that although Mormonism is an intensely legalistic and socially surveilled system, it still emphasizes belief extensively in a way that I do not find in Judaism. In fact, my current research project at work shows that Mormonism’s efforts to control the beliefs of its adherents is very often what pushes people out, particularly questioning and seeking personalities. The lack of this kind of orthodoxy in Judaism is, for me, is a very good thing.

But the other pieces outlined in the essay about Kushner I hadn’t really connected to my Mormon past before: a positive theology of the body, de-emphasis on damnation, etc. My main concern at this point is that I’m moving through my Jewish experience on its own terms, and not out of habit from my Mormon upbringing. But I’m not sure how to do that.

The second piece that articulated a deep resonance for me was in a book about Jewish social ethics by Conservative Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff (5). In a chapter examining the multiple views and movements and ideas and contradictions within Judaism, R. Dorff explains the Jewish approach to Torah as a system of arguments that are “not only rationally but theologically necessary, for all sides bespeak “the words of the living God.'” In my early 20s, I had developed an idea that “truth” was something that emerged out of the spaces between contradictions, that paradoxes where two logically opposed ideas were both true revealed a truer kind of truth, almost like a Zen koan. In graduate school, I encountered William James’ notion of truth as a process, or an emergence out of social, human interaction. James had been studying cultural religious diversity and had come to the almost postmodern conclusion that truth was a culturally conditioned value judgment rather than an essential quality of a pre- or extra-human object. James spoke of truth as a verb, something that we do rather than the quality of something that exists. [Note: In this view, the scientific method produces truth, but it is a socially produced human truth, not an existential or ontological truth; James does not mean to devalue scientific truth, but rather to frame and account for its origins.]

Since the ages of the Pharisees, according to R. Dorff, Jews have turned away from prophecy and toward dialectical scholarly discourse for truth. This brings with it a system of ethics in the discourse, wherein those who disagree with you are accorded dignity and a respectful hearing, and wherein participants are (or should be) always willing to change their positions upon hearing a good argument. Dorff also discusses the notion of learning to read the “white fire”, the empty spaces between the words of Torah as an expansiveness and openness to creativity and novelty in interpretation and exegesis. This Jewish view of Talmudic, midrashic truth seems to be a continuation of my personal efforts to redefine and understand truth that began in my early 20s in college, and the possibilities of finding that intellectual base within a spiritual tradition is more than a little exciting for me.

And so this week, I have re-connected with the why of my Jewish path. But at the same time, those whys have reinforced the alone-ness of my particular journey. Jews and jewish communities seem to function generally more on an ethnic model, which I’ve discussed before. While there’s nothing wrong with that, it means that the highly intellectualized version of Judaism that I’m getting from my reading is not exactly the judaism that I’m encountering in face-to-face interaction with the Jews around me. Just as my academic career can be socially isolating generally, so my path to judaism feels to me like it’s going down a road that puts me yet again on the outside of an already outside group.

I cannot apologize for who I am or what makes me tick. Nor do I regret these things that are so resonant and important to me within Judaism. But it does leave me with the problem I stated up above: that for me, in distinction with everything that Judaism is socially, my Jewishness is for the moment a piece of my alone-ness.

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Notes:

(1) Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age (New York: Free Press, 2011).

(2) Gary Wills. “Superficial and Sublime?” in New York Review of Books. Vol. 58 No. 6 (April 7, 2011).

(3) Mark T. Decker and Michael Austin, eds. Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on Page, Stage, and Screen (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2010).

(4) Christine Hutchinson-Jones. “Center and Periphery: Mormons and American Culture in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America” in Decker and Austin, eds. Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on Page, Stage, and Screen (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2010): 26.

(5) Elliot N. Dorff. To Do the Right and the Good: A Jewish Approach to Modern Social Ethics (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2002).

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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