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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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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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I just started a new book today which consists of an interchange between a Reform and an Orthodox Rabbi. The first chapter is about the nature of truth and whether or not there exists absolute truth. As might be expected, the Orthodox Rabbi, Rabbi Yosef Reinman argues not only that there is such a truth, but that it can be found in Torah. Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, of the Reform movement, argues that truth is a moving target and that few human phenomena are more dangerous than the belief that one possesses the absolute truth.

In the course of this discussion, Rabbi Hirsch attempts to explain the search for truth as an end-in-view and as a worthwhile life-task, and he makes the claim that Judaism is at its best a frame for such an end.

Jewish or not, the feel of his passage resonates deeply with me, as one who has found through rigorous academic study and hard personal experience that life holds no ultimate answers, only more questions. This dovetails beautifully with pieces of Buddhism and even scientific inquiry as well.

You don’t always have to have an explanation. Keep trying to find an answer. The process is good for you. It makes you a better person—more sensitive, more compassionate, more discerning. If you don’t find the answer, keep going. This is certainly what the Jewish people and the Jewish journey characterize.

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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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