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Archive for the ‘Mormonism’ Category

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.

teku

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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As I’ve explained at length on this blog, one of the contradictions of my life is having a relatively rationalist orientation to the world, and yet having this powerful draw to religion and, especially, religious practice. My judaism course this spring is focusing on the siddur, the shabbat morning service in particular, which is really appealing to me in my search for practice.

Yet the notion of prayer sticks in my craw and troubles me. Who or what exactly am I supposedly talking to? For a humanist Jew like me, I see prayer as an expression of human yearning, hope, suffering, and longing; and inasmuch as the human mind tends to overextend social consciousness, projecting intentionality into the universe to make a “conversation” seems to be, well, deeply human. Moreover, there’s some pretty good psychology research about what prayer does for states of mind and for affect and for overall sense of well-being.  For me, prayer has become a problem of balancing my humanism (and agnosticism) with the beauty and humanness of religious desire expressed in ritual language.

When I was still a theist (and a Mormon), I had a vibrant prayer life, with prayer playing the central role in my spiritual life (the second largest piece was temple worship, a highly ritualized form of prayer). But I had given prayer up in about 1996 when I finally came to grips with the fact that I just didn’t believe. [I’ve explained my position on the existence of god and possible uses for the idea of god on this blog before, so I won’t rehash them now (see here, here, here, and here).] My break with a theistic, personal, agentive god was not a clean one. And I mourned the loss of god for several years after I made that realization—it was, for me, a stunning blow to my world view and habits of mind. To this day I find myself automatically talking to something exterior, in moments of pain, panic, awe, or joy.

But that was many years ago. Shortly after that I took up reading buddhist philosophy and started trying meditation practice (primarily vipassana); I undertook a buddhist path alone, without a teacher, because every attempt to join any kind of religious community induced panic attacks. (I’m not being hyperbolic—it’s only been since I started exploring Judaism that I have been able to sit and enjoy a religious service without feeling what I call Mormon-PTSD for lack of a better term.) Later I started doing yoga from time to time after I moved to San Francisco. During this 10 year period of reading and exploring eastern religion, I came to understand religious practice in new ways and to understand my craving for it.

Which brings me back to the siddur and to Jewish prayer or to prayer more generally. In his introduction to the Koren Siddur, Rabbi Sacks notes that the talmudic rabbis divided prayer into three phases or parts: 1) praise, 2) supplication, 3) gratitude. His description uses god-language in a way that I am completely comfortable with other people using, but which I find unusable in my own spiritual path. So he speaks not just of “praise”, but specifically of praising G-d for what he has done; not just of asking, but of asking G-d to give and answer and help and sustain; not just of gratitude, but of acknowledging G-d as creator and giver.

In both the Jewish and the Christian traditions, there is about a 200 year old tradition of reading “god” as metaphor (i.e., Haskalah in Judaism and liberalization of Christianity after German high criticism). So I feel that I have some ground to walk on in thinking of god as metaphor for something else. I have also always loved religious liturgy (both Christian and Jewish) as one of the arts, so I see the aesthetic and human appeal. But what of the practice of talking and asking that metaphor? or praising that metaphor?

The answer seems to lie in somehow combining my understanding of the inward purpose of practice from Buddhism (centering, calming, opening, accepting, and bringing awareness to life) with the beauty of the Jewish prayer tradition (music, dance, poetry, ancient tradition). Here’s my thinking, beginning with Rabbi Sacks’s talmudic outline, but expanding it to a liberal, contemporary, Judaism. I think of prayer as practice, as a grounding, centering, and opening practice of the heart. In keeping with the sage’s three-phase prayer, a humanist-Jewish practice might look something like this:

1) Expressions of Awe: the idea of the unity of G-d, the ultimate Oneness of Being, the place of my infinitesimal consciousness in the massiveness of Existence, and awareness and openness to all being. When I think about this for long, it’s hard not to think of Emerson’s essay Nature and the all-seeing eyeball and the oneness of the individual with everything that exists; or with Thomas Paine’s deist argument that Nature itself is the Word of God. The first part is to take a moment to open and contemplate Existence Itself and the Self’s relationship to it.

2) Awareness of Suffering, Lack, Need, Want, Imbalance: I like the notion of bringing what is wrong or lacking in life to consciousness and holding it with care and compassion (maybe with chesed?). The emotional or mental act of holding out the broken pieces of the world, or my life, and bringing a degree of acceptance and resolution to repair, in a conscious intentional way seems to me a great way to make prayer a fitting daily or weekly practice for anyone who wants to repair the world or his own heart.

And finally 3) Acknowledging the Unpayable Debt: Much of the joys of life are in the daily, ordinary things that fill our lives—the smell of rotting leaves in the fall, the sunrise over the bay before most people are even awake, holding hands with a beloved friend or lover. Sometimes when I stand back and account for what is in my life, the only word that comes to mind is blessed (ברוך). For me, it seems that very often, the things in my life that make me most thankful are from no doing of my own; they are simply the things that are or have happened to me, without my will or effort involved. In this way, they are miraculous (but not supernaturally so, in my mind). And so it’s the conscious gratitude of blessedness, even if there is no ultimate Blesser.

I have not tried it yet, but perhaps this will evolve for me into a regular sitting practice, maybe 10 minutes on each phase? Meanwhile, I can enjoy the liturgy in community with other Jews, some of whom are firmly theist, others of whom are firmly agnostic, many of whom are humanists like me; I can feel the connection of the Jewish past and tradition of prayer and understand its beauty and humanness in its longing; and use it as a practice to ground and center my own intentions and desires.

teku

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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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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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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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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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One of the main things I hope to find in a Jewish practice is a sense or awareness of the sacred. It is a tricky proposition for me, because I am agnostic/atheist, yet think the experience of the sacred is a deeply human and, for me, centering and meaningful part of life. My atheist friends who were raised outside of a religious tradition often look at me askance for my fascination with the sacred; and yet I am just made in such a way that I both experience the sacred in my bones and don’t believe in god or any kind of external, agentive, creative force.

The quote from Rabbi Green (in the column to the left) describes a way that an agnostic but religious humanist Jew approaches the world. Science does what it does, and produces empirical knowledge about the universe. But we still, as humans, with these amazing and weird brains, must experience that universe; and our brains, with the weight of their evolutionary origins behind them, are impelled to give that experience of the universe meanings.**  Rabbi Green calls this a “post-naïve” religiosity, where the literal existence of a being or essence that acts in the universe with intention is rejected, yet the post-naïve remains connected to a religious affect and practice.  I have been without such a practice for about 15 years, and yet have never lost the occasional overwhelming and powerful experience of Existence, Being, The One, what Rabbi Green calls “God”.

Who or what was the God I sought—and still seek today, half a century later!—once I had accepted that I was such a ‘nonbeliever’ in the God of my childhood? The question seemed to be whether we post-naïve seekers dare to use the word ‘God’ anymore, and what we might—or might not—mean by it, while remaining personally and intellectually honest. …

… I still consider the sacred to be the most important and meaningful dimension of human life. ‘The Sacred’ refers to an inward, mysterious sense of awesome presence, a reality deeper than the kind we ordinarily experience. … These moments can come without warning, though they may be evoked by great beauty, by joy, by terror, or by anything else that causes us to stop and interrupt our ordinary, all-encompassing and yet essentially superficial perception of reality. …

… It is out of such moments that religion is born, our huamn response to the dizzying depths of an encounter we cannot—and yet so need to—name.

… I find myself less convinced by the dogmatic truth claims of tradition than powerfully attracted to the richness of its language, both in word and in symbolic gesture. Through the profound echo chamber of generations, tradition offers a way to respond, to channel the love and awe that rise up within us at such times, and to give a name to the holy mystery by which our lives are bounded (Green 3-5).

Although I’m still uncomfortable with Rabbi Green’s god-language, when I read this passage a couple weeks ago, it was as if I had written it. This was straight out of my experience with being a believer in science, scientific method, and scientific mindset, and yet having these experiences of awe and wonder at the universe I live in, my own body, and life as Being.

It is this awareness of the massive interconnection of all existence in an incomprehensibly massive universe in which I am an infinitesimal speck, that I want to have in awareness, to acknowledge in a regular kind of way. It is the one aspect that has been missing for me in Buddhism (which, by the way, has been an amazing power for good in my life, and which will always be an integral part in my own spiritual path). In the Congregation Sha’ar Zahav Siddur, there is a blessing for everyday life, written by Sue Bojdak, that can potentially remind me of this greater connection, and the holiness of every other human I encounter from day to day.

You reflect God through your soul, through your mind, and through your body. … We honor you and your body because you are a gift (Siddur 6).

In more orthodoxic religions, the requirement is on belief. In Mormonism, where I was raised, there are a set of key beliefs that are mandatory, and you are regularly asked about them and expected to publicly proclaim them on a regular basis. This is more common in Christianity, but may exist in more conservative or traditional forms of Judaism. So in my early 20s, when it was increasingly clear that I didn’t actually believe in it, I tried for about two years to talk myself through a different meaning of the rituals, scriptures, prayers. It was  a lot of work, exhausting in a context where I knew that if anyone knew what was happening in my mind, what I was doing to try to make mormonism intellectually tolerable, they would have been mortified and possibly taken corrective action against me.

But what Judaism seems (so far) to offer is a context within which the relationship to each other and the sacred is the focus, and there is built in to the religion, at least in modern, liberal, post-Englightenment mode of Judaism, the assumption that every individual in the room is working out the meaning themselves and differently. I get the impression that if I told the guy davening next to me at shul that I didn’t believe in God, that I just thought there was something awe-ful and wonder-ful about the Existing in the universe and being aware of it, even the most orthodox might argue with me in disagreement, but there wouldn’t be a question of whether or not it was Jewish to think such a thing.

It is an incredibly refreshing and relieving and relaxing place to be. And so I can pray B’tzelem Elohim, and love its meaning and implications in a panentheistic spirituality, and yet maintain my intellectual integrity as an atheist.

teku

**I do not mean to argue here that religiosity was selected for in the evolutionary process. When I look at the evidence we have at the moment, I fall into the “spandrel” camp, those who see Homo sapiens religiosity as an accidental bi-product of the evolution of our problem-solving consciousness and our social cognition.

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In the URJ’s* Torah: A Modern Commentary, the Mormons qualify for a mention in the Gleanings for this week’s parsha.

Influenced by this distinction [in the Epistle to the Hebrews], the Mormons distinguished in their hierarchy between a lesser, Aaronic priesthood, and the office of high priest that is according to the order of Melchizedek.

Ha!

*Union of Reform Judaism, the American version of a liberal, post-Enlightenment denomination of Judaism started in Germany and which really flourished in the United States.

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