Archive for the ‘Torah’ Category

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.


*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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Two weeks ago, I attended a Torah study at the synagogue down the street from me and then went to a Bat Mitzvah service afterwards. At the Torah study, a small gathering of men, surprisingly diverse, black, white, young, old, gay straight, gathered around a bare table on folding chairs to read this ancient text together. I’m quite skeptical of the use of ancient texts in any kind of normative way. It feels more like a cultural artifact to me, than anything else. But the Reform torah commentary that went with the text was fascinating, with metaphorical and even critical readings, acknowledging the historical and situated composition of the text. The men seemed to enjoy each others’ company and laughed as they read a portion from Devarim (Numbers), a dry text about a census and a bunch of legal proscriptions, and God punishing Miriam and Aaron… I’m just not sure where a reading of the stories of an ancient desert people will get me in the 21st century.

Throughout that day, I had two prominent impressions, at war with each other.

On one hand, I have a strong aversion to the hard, tight law, the Right, of Judaism and organized monotheism in general, at least as it was portrayed in the parsha (Torah portion). A suffocating straight jacket of ancient culture, dead people, dead context, lifelessness, meaninglessness. The same feeling comes whenever I read ancient religious texts of any tradition: They are out of context and don’t fit. Why do we consent to be bound by cultures that emerged in times and places so far removed from our own as to bear no meaning in the here and now? Beliefs and practices disarticulated from their contexts no longer make sense and risk doing great damage in the here-now.

The redeeming feature, for me, of modern, post-enlightenment judaism, is the recognition of the potential deadness of the tradition, and a struggle or dialogue about and with that deadness is built into the practice. Because Judaism generally anchors itself to a tradition of wrestling with “god”, the Sacred, Being, Oneness, rather than dogmatic submission to it, judaism has the possibility to wrest meaning germane to the here-now, a connection between the ancient and the now.

On the other hand, in contrast to the above, both the translation we read in Torah study, and the liturgy of the service used the word Eternal as a replacement for “god”. Seeing that word, used in that way, broke something open in my head, that is difficult to explain:

Evolution—our brains have evolved with the ability to ‘see’ time, forward and back. It was a cognitive prerequisite for conscious problem solving. Many philosophers and thinkers for 1000s of years have observed that humans are self-aware and know their own mortality, their own “dyingness”, and recently (since the 1970s) some more spiritually-minded scientists, like Carl Sagan, have observed that the evolution of the human mind is in some ways, the universe becoming aware of itself.

It occurred to me that the finiteness of life for the Self is in sharp contrast to the realization that the universe has always existed without the Self and will continue to exist forever after the Self dies. Death is, in a literal sense, a small annihilation of a piece of the universe that existed with a beginning and an end. And yet, that Self is able to apprehend the time and space that existed before it did, and which will continue to exist when the Self is gone. Eternity is the beginninglessness and endlessness that can only be imagined but never experienced. That moment of imagination provokes what cognitive scientists call an “awe response”, and is actually measurable and observable in many ways (I hesitate to evoke the problematic MRI here). It can jar the Self into a momentary experience of boundarilessness, where the self experiences Oneness with all that surrounds it, because there is nothing else, in a very real way.

I am not a fan of people who try to “spiritualize” science. I am also an empiricist in many ways and a believer in the scientific method of understanding the universe and world as it is. So I find myself at odds with religion that does not acknowledge the world as it is; yet I also find myself needing to make the world as it is revealed by the scientific method meaningful.

I do not believe in an external God as a cohesive being of some kind, as an exterior force or presence or power. In fact, I deny the existence of such a being (although I would probably more accurately call myself an agnostic in the original sense of the word, one who denies knowledge of something for which there is no evidence, in this case, a god).

But I believe in the human experience of the Holy or Sacred, those moments when the boundaries between the Self and Other and between the Self and Time fall away, when the Self feels the awe-full awakening to its own beginning and end, the finiteness of its existence in contrast to the infinity of the universe. And I believe that the communal sharing of that experience provides a social, interactive space for creating a meaningful life. How have I arrived at a place where I don’t believe that religion is true, but I believe that it can be “true”?

In Judaism—at least in modern, liberal, and mystical Judaism—Hashem, the Eternal, the Neverending is precisely that experience, the Oneness and Endlessness of which we only experience an infinitesimal bit, that is only imaginable. And that is what I mean when I use the word Holy. That is holiness. A kind of panentheism, really—a word I have only discovered over the past few months, from a colleague and from reading Radical Judaism by Arthur Green.

In the scientific age, with the state of human knowledge as it is, and with our collective, ongoing gathering and keeping of knowledge and wisdom, it would be irresponsible for anyone to positively affirm the existence of a god for whom we have no evidence. In light of scientific agnosticism, for me religion’s purpose—instead of proclaiming universal, a priori, normative truths—becomes to provide one possible, ongoing social frame within which we can work out, struggle over what our finiteness, our dyingness, or endingness means in the face of the Eternal. But I must acknowledge that most religion in our society, indeed in the world, is not framed in that way; rather, it continues to make dogmatic, counter-evidential claims for a truth that does not exist.

Yet I hope that in its humble, more grounded manifestation, religion can be one path to infusing our brief moments as the Universe’s consciousness with meaning and life. I had found glimmers of this in some liberal forms of Christianity, and indeed, my own spiritual journey will be forever indebted to American liberal Christianity from the early 19th century (e.g., unitarianism, universalism, and Transcendentalism). And art, for me, serves a similar purpose in human life. If cognitive science is right, making this consciousness of the Universe meaningful is the profound and unavoidable human endeavor—the accidental spandrel of evolutionary processes long past, which now connects my body to my mind and to the history of all life on this planet and all matter in the universe in an infinite space of Being.


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