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Archive for the ‘Practice & Ritual’ Category

I’ve been rereading and studying Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism over the past week for a course I’m teaching on cultural theory. I’m not sure if this is why I focused on the labor themes of the text or not, but I could not help but wonder at the relationship between skill, work, and calling as they are described in the text. Many online commentaries of this parasha zero in on the Shabbat injunctions at the beginning and riff on that, but for me, that’s the least interesting part of the parasha.

In Fox’s translation, a few words and phrases get repeated and associated repeatedly throughout the passage in reference both to the offerings of materials to build the Mishkan and in regards to the workers actually creating it:

  • to raise
  • to lift up
  • to make-willing, to be willing
  • wise mind, wisdom
  • spirit and mind

There is a feeling in the text, in the way that these concepts get repeated over and over in Fox’s translation, that one is impelled to offer (donate) as the words are repeated both for the mind being lifted up to offer and then the individual Hebrew lifting up that offering. There’s a sense of being impelled or called to offer and then that offering is lifted up for the building of the Tabernacle. The same language is then used for the workers who actually build the Mishkan, that their minds are infused with wisdom and have been raised up with wisdom from YHWH to do the work.

The URJ commentary points to the historical existence of Hebrew arts—sculpture, architecture, mosaic, painting, etc.—and explains the historical distancing of the Jews from representational art. But I wondered as I read about the Torah itself which seems to “lift up” artisanship and art and skill in labor and creation as wisdom and as a calling from YHWH, as part of the creative work that humankind must do in relationship with the Divine.

It wasn’t until I looked at the Speaking Torah portion for Vayak’heil that it all came together. The Maggid’s students took these passages and, in a mode of רמז and סוד interpretation give us a mystical, Jewish understanding of labor. Because I’ve been reading about Calvinist readings of labor this week, I feel pushed to distinguish the two, but there is some significant overlap here as well.

In two separate places, the rebbes teach that when we are working in mindfulness of what it means to work as a creation of YHWH, it hallows all work and is a manifestation of humans participating in the ongoing process of creation. The Me’or Eynayim calls this Torah within us, that what impels, motivates, or pushes us to act for good in the world is actually Torah itself, and we are vessels. In the passage describing the work of women on the Mishkan, the T’semah ha-Shem li-Tsevi interprets קל אשה to mean not just merely all the Hebrew women, but rather, all womanhood itself, which would then be the Sh’khinah; here, it is the Sh’kninah that impels or motivates work, and we are the vessels of that cosmic impetus, again participating in ongoing creation.

There is a meditative mindfulness about work here that distinguishes it from the Calvinist concept of “vocation.” Rather than fulfilling one’s earthly role for the sole purpose of the glorification of god, the Rebbes taught that we are co-creators with the divine, that the divine works through us, and that through mindfulness of this dynamic we participate in creation itself. (This dovetails with the chasidic teaching that Betzalel, the chief architect of the Mishkan, was a master of the Hebrew letters who knew how they were used to create the world, and deployed them to create the Mishkan in reflection of the original creation.)

The editors of Speaking Torah contradict the current, extreme versions of chasidism that insist that these passages actually refer to study, so the eschew work and deny the dignity and holiness of the workaday world (a dynamic that has caused significant problems within the state of Israel). They argue that the teachings are clear that the labors of daily life are themselves a sacred activity with the possibility of sacrilizing daily life; in the editors reading, the Me’or Eynayim actually says that mindful work the rest of the week is what actually makes the Shabbat holy.

Whereas Calvinism’s vocation is about holding one’s nose to work in the social structure for the sole purpose of glorifying god, the Maggid’s teachings about work combined with my reading of the parasha see the spirit or mind being implanted with knowledge or skill necessary to participate with Torah/Sh’khinah/YHWH in creation itself. Work, in this way, is an end or process toward unification with Keter, toward the negation of the self in the recognition of the self as vessel for the divine. In the Hayyim v’Hesed, a comparison of Jacob and Moses leads to a teaching that as Moses turned away from the body in his recognition of his own nothingness compared to God, so did Jacob turn toward his body and make it whole and perfect by using it. Because the world is fallen and utterly depraved, this kind of sanctification is not possible in the Calvinist view, and indeed would be blasphemous.

There is a kind of mystical experience, then, associated with everyday work, but it is unclear in the Hayyim v’Hesed (at least in the passage quoted by the editors) whether or not this is an ideal (Moses as exemplar) or a command. But reading deeper, it seems to be rejected by the Rebbes as it is in the banal, every-day world of the body and work that the divine is made present in the world.

That leaves me with several questions at the level of practice. How can mindfulness of the Torah/Sh’khinah working through a human vessel be incorporated into an experience of daily work? And does the nature of the work matter at all? Is all work (all deed?) holy by definition, or can that mindfulness lead you to the realization that your work is not holy or hallowing? If Ya’akov hallowed himself through his embodied working, but if Moshe’s sanctification came from self-negation, then what is the relationship between embodiedness, work, and sanctification of the world (tikkun olam)?

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Why practice a religion? Why keep commandments? Why observe the ritual practices of any tradition, let alone Judaism? I imagine that for some people who no longer believe in a personal god, or who have a historical or anthropological view of religion, practice and ritual are the contextual, human-made acts of superstition or cultural identity. And they are correct. But that is only the beginning of the story. To understand that humans evolved brains that can perceive their own insignificance in the face of the universe, that is, who can feel awe; to know that our brains evolved in a way that we perceive things that aren’t there; or to know that culture, including religion, emerges out of social interaction in specific times and places and is modified to meet human needs; etc.; is merely to know where religion comes from.  But knowing all of that does not erase the real effects of religious practice on individuals and communities, nor does it negate the powerful meanings it generates for adherents.

So clearly, for a rationalist who believes in evolution and in the historical, human production of the Bible, the meaning of ritual, practice, and observance cannot rest upon the ancient convictions that they were given or commanded by a supernatural God. Nor can they end with a mere sociological or functionalist explanation. Can religious practice be meaningful for a rationalist, beyond being an expression of ethnic identity or group fealty?

My own reasons for practice are largely personal, experiential, and ethical, and even aesthetic. I find meaning in the ritual that marks the passage of time and marks time as sacred, both in shabbat and in the holidays; it gives structure and flow to the cycles of my life. I find davening to be a kind of meditative focusing of attention in the sacred, to what is important to me, both in my personal shacharit and at shul. I find the reading of Torah on Saturday mornings to connect the communal to the historical through language and ritual, as it takes multiple people to read correctly. In short, I like practicing Judaism.

Recently I have been reading books about the spiritual aspects of Jewish practice, and one notion has really caught my attention: that Jewish attention to ritual detail and to arguing about how to observe is itself the sacred practice that grounds us in the importance of what we are doing here and now. In a Mormon context—with mandatory belief and constant surveillance—arguments about practice were always expressions of power and domination. They can be so in Judaism as well; but because Judaism’s whole worldview sees sin and salvation and time differently, it feels different somehow. This Rabbi argued that the argument itself is a practice that constantly reminds us of our earthy, embodiedness and our embeddedness in a community. Jewish practice is about being present and paying attention to what we are doing right now. The rules of Judaism and the joy in small things like challah or a shabbat double mitzvot (wink) emphasize its nowness, the holiness of the life we live, rather than a life deferred or to come.

The holiness code in Leviticus, which Christians read as antithetical to salvation, turns out to be the core of not just the rules, but the meaning of Jewish practice itself: To be holy, because God is holy. In his book Sinai & Zion, Dr. Jon D. Levenson, a professor of Hebrew Bible at University of Chicago, has tried to show the Jewishness of the Tanakh, and to reclaim Torah from Christian misreadings. His approach is to explain Jewish theology as expressed in the Torah by seeing it historically and anthropologically, and to carefully peel back the Christian prejudices that often fail to see what is actually in the Torah.  Levenson argues that the mitzvot are terms of the covenant, demonstrations of commitment to the suzerain יהוה.

Levenson’s history of Hebrew monotheism, while threatening to some traditional believers, to me humanizes the ancient Hebrews and shows how one group of people, over thousands of years, created its own unique relationship to the universe and to the sacred. Levenson argues that the Hebrews created, through their conception of a covenant with יהוה, a three level theology, which I then borrowed into my own vision of the panentheistic divine as described by Rabbi Green in Radical Judaism.

The Hebrews focused their belief in one god (historically, by ignoring or discrediting other gods). In modern radical Judaism, I would say that Judaism sees the unity and holiness of all Being, of existence itself, of the universe as a whole, in terms of our relationship to it and our consciousness of it. I also think of the mystical explanations of the breath of ה–שם that connects us all, in each breath, to the ongoing creative unfolding of the universe.

The Hebrews central religious tenet was to love god wholly. I feel this love as a deep sense of connection to all of “creation,” to the earth and all living things, and to the universe as a whole. Many eco-Jews today anchor their environmental ethics in this relationship to creation. But it is the fact of existence and knowledge that I exist within and as a part of all existence that a kind of openness breaks open in a love of the divine.

Levenson explains that in Torah, history led up to the covenant at Sinai, and after Sinai are the mitzvot, the ongoing, day-to-day actions that link the people to יהוה. Levenson’s reading of Torah suggests strongly (although he doesn’t say it) that observance of the mitzvot is the means of constantly enacting the relationship to the divine.

In a literal sense, historical, anthropological, the mitzvot are a cultural creation.

But in choosing Judaism, I think what I’m doing is throwing in my lot with the Jews, saying that I choose to take upon myself that relationship to the divine that they have created over the past couple millennia, to commit myself to a Jewish practice as the way my life will be an expression of the sacredness of existence.

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

Spring

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

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

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

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

Bodies and Awareness through Eating Practice

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

Pesach Table 5771

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

Moses, Mitzrayim, and (Re)Birth

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

teku

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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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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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My first attempt at a home shabbat ritual

Today was my best friend’s birthday, so I couldn’t make it to the Kabbalat Shabbat service at shul. I decided that this shabbat would be my first attempt at a home ritual, making my kitchen table the alter to focus kavanah, and bring light into the darkness and begin a celebration of life.

Over the past several months, shabbat has become an important part of my weekly routine. Most liberal Christians have de-ritualized sabbath altogether, except for going to church; and for Mormons, sabbath is a drudgery filled with lay-work at church and a lot of rules about dos and don’ts to keep the sabbath day holy. I suppose if I were becoming an orthodox, halachic Jew, I would be sliding back into those days of minuscule rules (can you buy a Twix bar out of a vending machine on Sunday without losing the spirit of god?). But that is not the direction of my practice or the purpose or spirit of shabbat for me.

The idea of celebrating the coming of the Sabbath Bride, l’cha dodi!; of laying aside the work week for a time of sanctification and relaxation and even double-mitzvah-worthy sex; of a time to recenter and seek Einheit/אחד is so different from the dreaded Sundays of my youth. I look forward to Shabbat, the singing, the Maneschewitz (shudder), the niggun, the davening. It’s a meditative practice, but a connected communal one as well.

Not being able to go to shul tonight, I wanted to make sure that I still set aside the time of shabbat for myself. I was far from halachic: cheap votives from the gay hardware store down the block; לו כשר wine, a nice chianti from southern Italy. And way past sunset when I said the prayers.

But it felt really normal and powerful to do this at home. I used the Sha’ar Zahav siddur for the prayers (and coincidentally discovered the Havdalah prayer for tomorrow as well), and said all three of the blessings for the lighting of the candles, the traditional masculine language, the beautiful feminine language praising sh’chinah for the light, and the communal call to light the candles for the One. Then the b’rachot for wine (l’chaim!) and bread.

The only thing that felt odd about it is that it feels like it should be done with loved ones around. But as a single gay guy, I suppose the solo Shabbat is what I have to work with for the moment, and it’s good enough.

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Among the many Hebrew terms for spiritual practice is avodah, work. Spirituality is a disipline. When people say to me, ‘I’m a spiritual person,’ they often mean that they treasure some vague feeling of connection with God, nature, and humanity that is most often divorced from any behavioral obligation. Spirituality is not a feeling, nor is it vague. Spirituality is a conscious practice of living out the highest ethical ideals in the concreteness of your everday life. The disembodied spirituality so often spoken about by those who do not practice any spiritual discipline rarely obligates them to anything and often excuses the grossest behavior. —Rabbi Rami Shapiro, from Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity

As the month of Elul progresses, I find myself in a new kind of introspection, different from my usual neurotic worries. For the first time in a long time I’ve been asking myself what kind of man I am, have been, could be.  I wonder whom I may have hurt in my carelessness or anger; I look at what I’ve done to myself, my body, my life; I look at what I’m doing to the earth. It’s a harrowing and sobering affair. My usual day-to-day worries are pretty selfish: I’m lonely, I’m horny, I’m hungry, I’m bored, I’m poor…

Learning about the practices of Elul, the month leading up to the High Holy Days, I have started a self-conscious process of turning, returning, transformation. But I’m choosing this practice, with awareness and desire, rather than doing it by rote or tradition. I want transformation. I want the practice.

The word practice to denote religious ritual and behavior is interesting. Not only the belief or feeling, but the decision to apply or translate into deed what one professes to believe. Although this isn’t true in other Western languages, in English, it also carries the hint that the deed is imperfect, incomplete, flawed in some way and bears repeating. So you not only practice what you believe, but you have to keep practicing it because it’s never quite complete. I find the notion of repetition especially useful in terms of ethical practice, loving-kindness and equanimity.

I worry about adopting a new Jewish practice sometimes, because in Mormonism, for me, practice was a psychologically draining and painful part of the first 25 years of my life. The demands of perfection or having at least the appearance of perfection were a burden that I do not want to shoulder again. Honestly, I don’t think I could ever actually go back to that state of mind, just be virtue of being older and more secure in my own identity and self. Yet I’m deeply mindful as I gradually adopt Jewish practices that I don’t return to that place of judgment and exclusion that was so destructive in my earlier life. This means in some cases even choosing to be Jewish in ways that are different from the Jews in my community, to be more open and to refuse to be prescriptive in my adoption of practice.

For the past 15 years or so, I have considered myself a seeker. I have explored Buddhism extensively (especially vipassana), liberal Christianity, neo-paganism, and taoism. But most of my exploration has been through reading and trying to teach myself practice because my experiences of those communities were so suffocating.

Now, at age 40, I find an intense desire to return to religious practice and community. Not belief per se, but practice. Talking to the Rabbi this week, I said to her in passing, “I’m really craving practice.” I hadn’t actually ever thought about it consciously, and I’d certainly never said it out loud to anyone. But there it was. The Rabbi just continued on with the conversation as if I had said something completely normal, and recommended the book I quoted above. But for me, this was a moment of clarity and revelation.

For the past few days I’ve been trying to figure this desire for practice out. Several of my good friends, fellow academics, with religious backgrounds, have a deep aversion to practice and ritual. A few of my friends who were raised without any religion at all are even more baffled by what seems to them a sudden conversion. For me, this feels like the end of a 15 year wandering period, which was necessary and healing and authentic to who I have been. Now it’s time to settle down, to stake a claim in a tradition and create a home for myself, a place from which I can live the rest of my life in awareness and ethical fruition, that is, fulfillment.

Should I feel guilty, inadequate? flawed? unintelligent? for desiring practice? I don’t know. I do know, however, that I crave a meaningful life, something more than just work, television, food. I crave the ability to live life fully aware and conscious both of the world around me and of my effect on the world. When I’m gone, that will be the end of me. So what kind of life will I have now? I’m sure that for many, a meaningful life is possible without religious practice. In fact, I have had moments of great meaning since I left mormonism 15 years ago. I have lived fine without religion. And I will continue to live fine without belief. But I find that at this turning point—the cliché of mid-life—practice gives me a structure and, importantly, a community to build meaning with greater focus.

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Sha’ar Zahav has added its own special high holiday to the ritual calendar, Pride Shabbat, the shabbat before Gay Pride weekend. Tonight was my first experience of this tradition, and I was moved in a way that surprised me. More than 11 years after I came out, sitting in that room, I found myself lifted up in a way that I never thought possible in my former religious life: An evening celebrating the holiness of being queer.

One of the privileges of being gay after the 1960s is that we can choose from a range of meaningful gaynesses, from a very limited and narrow gayness, perhaps where it is nothing more nor less than a sexual desire, to an expansive and thorough-going gayness, where one’s sexuality infuses every other aspect of one’s life. The work and sacrifice and toil of our post-war pioneers in the 1950s and 1960s set the stage for a world within which we could work out a meaningful queerness for ourselves.

Although I have had personal experiences of the holiness of my sexual orientation, brief moments of awareness of connection and insight, I had never expected to experience it as a communal celebration. From the reading of the blessing on queer elders; to the Communal Remembrance where we mourn the countless queer people through history who have been oppressed, driven to madness and suicide, beaten, killed, massacred; from the Queer Amidah and the Pride Shabbat Hallel; to the Adon Olam sung to the tune of “I Will Survive”, I felt like I was in world I had never known was possible.

A part of me is sheepish that I’m not out and proud enough to stand free of such outside affirmations. But the religion I was raised in would never in a million years celebrate my or any one of its children’s queerness. And the fact is, like many gay men, I still have internalized homophobia and fears and self-hatred deep down. And I really do need to be seen and understood by others, not just myself. As the rabbi said tonight at the end of service, “It’s so much easier to do it together.”

Tonight with a couple hundred fellow queers and allies, I got to recite and feel for the very first time:

God of Oneness
infinite, eternal
How queer of You to have created anything at all.
God of queerness
in whom are united all separations
we stand before You now
queer ourselves
made of heaven and earth
day and night
female and male
together
all of us
within Your awesome oneness
(Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, pp. 269)

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