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We Children of Israel are forever building up our entire selves to become dwelling places for divinity. … We Israelites are called upon to build up the full form of shekhinah (= mishkan) by using our entire selves. … The verse [Exodus 25:8] does not say ‘within it’ but ‘whihin them’! … This is what we have taught: that each of us must build up our entire self to be a fit dwelling of divinity. Then God indeed dwells within us. This is what the holy Zohar meant when it taught that the form in which the world was created, the form of the mishkan, and the human form, are all the same.

— Malbim, Or ha-Me’ir quoted in Speaking Torah, Vol. 1

A common idea among modern liberal Jews is that Torah is an emergent phenomenon arising from the ongoing, centuries-long dialogue, debate, and struggle of Jews with the text and with each other about what this founding document might mean. Torah is both communal and accretive, in this view. But some parts of the text are easier than others to have this kind of dialogue, and this middle section of Sh’mot baffles me, not at the p’shat level—it’s anthropological origins in ancient middle eastern cultic practice are clear, fascinating, and interesting—but at the deeper levels.

As I wrap up the week of study, I keep coming back to the idea that the משכן (mishkan) stands for the immanence of the Divine, of holiness, both in that it is human constructed—that is, we create the holy space—and that it is “in our midst.”

The Text (Monday)

I seem to have picked an inauspicious (or perhaps immanently auspicious) parsha to start my Torah blogging with. Reading it on the morning train on my way to work, it was hard to keep my eyes from glazing over. The seemingly endless descriptions of curtains, poles, and slaughter-sites feels really disconnected from life of a modern Jew. I understand the symbolic and anthropological import to the mishkan, but knowing such doesn’t change the construction instructions into scintillating reading.

Fox’s commentary with his translation offered some interesting ways to frame the building instructions from the anthropological point of view, that the dwelling place of the divine is the earthly locus of the divine presence, the axis mundi, to borrow Eliade’s phrase. Fox argues that the litany of materials and measurements are the message of the mishkan passage, culminating in the injunctions about Shabbat (next week’s parsha). I like this idea of the measurements and materials being a human expression of perfect proportions and perfect matter, but it is difficult for me to make something meaningful out of that. [But i love the imagery of the winged-sphinxes (usually “cherubim”) protecting the holy witness of divine will.]

Commentaries (Thursday)

Reading the commentaries this week, I find myself thinking mostly about the relationship between human action and holiness, about how we are partners in the acts of creation and in the making of holiness in the world. I’m sure I’ve been quite influenced by the contemporary Judaism of which I’m a part, which takes the Lorianic Kabbalah and makes the key ideas of tikkun olam as central to Jewish worldview and life.

After Sinai, the moment of complete immersion in the presence of the Eternal, the people must wander away from the axis mundi, the center of the universe in Sinai [thinking Eliade here], but the mishkan allows them to take the presence with them. That they must construct it themselves emphasizes the humanness of making holiness and the human responsibility in kadeshing (if you’ll pardon a coinage) the world we live in. To extrapolate from Rosenzweig’s argument that these chapters of Exodus are actually the pinnacle of the Torah, this is the moment when a formerly enslaved people were able to turn their work, the labor of their bodies, to something higher, and to do so of their own free will. Questions about what we are working for and why come to the fore—am I building a mishkan, as it were, or a pyramid?

I also like the centrality of wandering to this line of thinking about the mishkan. This is a story of people in exile, used to living apart from the holy place, and it creates a bridge between the physical, historical land of revelation and the wandering people. The divine goes with you, if you build it. [I first encountered the idea that one of the Hebrews great innovations was that you could take your god with you, and did not become subject to new gods when you moved (or were forced) from one land to another in Karen Armstrong’s work when I was in college.]

Sod (Shabbat)

The early hasidic masters seem focus on the spiritual meaning of the mishkan and the meaning of making an offering, a t’murah (literally an ‘uplifting’). Reading the redactors’ commentary, it is no wonder that I found earlier this week the fact that this is a portable, moveable dwelling place so appealing, as it is both the divine presence for the diaspora and the interior experience of holiness from practice, which is what drew me to Judaism in the first place. In the No’am Elimelekh, we learn that the mitzvot can, depending on your intention, serve to open the heart to experience the divine in this world, again emphasizing the immanence of the divine and the connection of holiness to human acts.

Thinking about the Malbim’s command to build a dwelling place for the divine in your own heart, and Rabbi Green’s response to the idea, I keep thinking about the ineffability of Sinai, the overwhelming experience of oneness with YHWH and the experience of covenant, and the desire, maybe the drive, to put it into words or to somehow make it real, thingly, but the impossibility of doing so. It strikes me that the mishkan was empty; it was a physical shell, but there was no god within it. You cannot make an image of g-d because the physical cannot contain the expanse of olamim, the eternal Being itself; and what you can make, a dwelling, leaves us with awesome emptiness and silence.

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It’s been a couple months since I updated the bibliography at the top of the page. I did that this morning. Rest assured, many of the books I’m reading “at” rather than reading cover to cover. Typical ADHD academic, my desire for books is greater than my time to read them all cover to cover at once. With school starting again next week and my massive teaching load back on my shoulders, I’m guessing my time for judaica reading will diminish greatly.

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The past couple weeks have been full at work, writing articles and grading summer term finals; but I have continued my reading and practice in my exploration of Judaism. Over the next few days, I’ll be posting some thoughts on Torah, Jewish identity, and God, thoughts I’ve had as I’ve finished reading Rabbi Green’s Radical Judaism, a collection of speeches from Heschel, and some writings on Jewish identity from Elie Wiesel.

Through this reading I’ve come to understand that I began this journey with a set of blocks or walls, from a place of negation and refusal. Whatever it is about my personality, my life experience, or my body that draws me to a religious life, it contradicts and conflicts with my intellectual and academic life and with my experience of “spiritual abuse” in organized religion. Yet I don’t want to approach this amazing experience from a place of refusal anymore, so I thought I’d write a few brief affirmations of what I actually do believe:

1) Holiness. Human beings evolved in such a way that our brains experience a series of qualia that together we might call an experience of the “sacred.” First, our brain’s ability to infer causality overlaps with our overreactive social cognition to make us feel at a deep level that there is an intention behind events in our lives. Second, our conscious awareness of our place relative in space (insignificance) and time (mortality) can create a sense of awe. And third, our brain’s default perception of itself as separate from the rest of the universe and from other humans can be overcome to dissolve the barrier and allow us to feel a sense of oneness and a dissolution of our Self. These experiences may not be universal, however; anecdotally, I have friends who say they never have these experiences at all or who look at me as if I’m on crack when I’m carried away in transcendence in a grove of giant Sequoias.

These experiences are—universal or not—deeply human, a part of what it means to be a human, part of the breadth of experience of humanness, of being embodied in this way on this planet at this point in our evolutionary history. Rather than an exterior force or power causing us to feel this way, it is simply a human experience of the world as produced by our brains. For me, this does not reduce the importance or possible meaning of the experience of the sacred, but it does reframe it in important ways.

I believe that the experience of the sacred is similar to the experience of love or the experience of beauty. We know they are created by chemicals and neural activity; but they qualia, the lived, embodied experience, is real to us, and as conscious beings, we require meaning for our experiences. The qualia push us to explain the sacred, to make it intelligible and meaningful.

Although I would not argue that religion comes purely from the need to render the experience of the “sacred” meaningful—it is as much an outgrowth of social interaction and power dynamics as anything—religion does and can fulfill that purpose. Religion at its best can shape our experience of the sacred in life-affirming, expansive, and opening ways. At its worst, it can justify the exact opposite. For good or ill, and despite my intellectual bent and my best intentions, I experience “sacredness” regularly. And so I find myself at mid-life seeking a tradition and community to shape and giving meaning to those experiences in the best way possible.

2) Community. I believe generally speaking, we humans need to belong, we need a community of like-others who see us, recognize us, and accept us. Real communities are messy and full of people we sometimes don’t like or want to associate with. A good healthy community can both channel our social needs and desires through regular interaction, social connection, and belonging; and it can show us our weaknesses and highlight our ethical responsibilities by putting us in interaction with people we wouldn’t normally associate with.

More importantly, the experience of the sacred can be shared with a community; indeed, in social psychological terms, the communal interaction itself actually produces the sense of the sacred. Further, it gives the context for making the sacred meaningful through interaction with other people.

In both positive and negative ways, religious communities share a symbolic language from which they can develop a meaningful life. This language can be more or less exclusive and can result in problematic relationships with outsiders; or it can be used to expand and promote values and interrelationships with all humans.

Regardless, I think that creating a meaningful life and understand the meaning of sacred experiences is nearly impossible to do by oneself. I believe that it requires interaction with other people and a language to have the conversation.

3) Reason, Science & Meaning. In American pragmatic tradition, John Dewey argued that all science (by which he meant human knowledge) had to be brought together in great intellectual dialogue, and that none could be ignored or left out. Various kinds of knowledge could be evaluated and rejected as necessary. Importantly, for Dewey, all discussions of ethics, morality, beauty, and meaning had to account fully for the discoveries of science, and no social or political policy decisions should be made in isolation from science either. For Dewey, this meant that if you developed an ethic that did not account for the empirical work of, say, evolutionary biology, that ethic might be flawed in some way and create problems. If you tried to devise a political policy at the level of the state without accounting for the empirical work of social science, you could likewise end up with a flawed or even dangerous policy. Etc.

For me, no meaning of the sacred, no meaningful life can be created by ignoring science and empirical study, by pretending it doesn’t exist or isn’t there or that it’s false. For reasons of intellectual integrity, I believe that religious meaning must be congruent with what we know now as a species in the rational realm.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that reason alone can provide an ethics, a standard of beauty, an explanation of the sacred. Empiricism can explain my brain chemistry and evolutionary history, but it cannot tell me what it should mean in my life and how I should live because of it.

I’m a firm believer in the humanities (the classical definition of the study of the human arts and their meaning) as the locus of humanity’s search for meaning, and I see religious life as one of the “humanities” in this sense.

So meaning, for me, can only be derived with my eyes wide open to all the knowledge I have, from disparate ways of knowing, and accounting fully for the empirical work of scientific mindset; but the role of meaning-maker belongs firmly to the humanities alone, writ large.

4) Ethics. Acknowledging the great weaknesses in Enlightenment universalism, I nonetheless believe that a universal ethic is not just “true”, but indispensable in our radically interdependent world. Since the 18th century, humans have become increasingly connected across time and space through technology, trade, militarism, media, and politics. This means that we are constantly interacting with people who are different from us.

Current thinking in evolutionary theory is that we inherited a baseline sense of social connection and social justice from our primate ancestors; unfortunately, it looks like this ethic is a group ethic, aimed at like-others and not at the species-being (a handy Marxist idea here). But the world we live in makes a tribal ethics untenable and when pushed too far dangerous and violent.

And so with the Englithenment philosophers I would affirm the inherent value of individual human beings (again, I’m ignoring the problems with this idea for the sake of the affirmation I’m making; but I am not ignorant of the problems with Enlightenment philosophy, Christian, Jewish or Secular). As a baseline for ethics in a broadly interconnected, interdependent world, I see no other way to build a workable ethic, as messy as that may be.

5) Humanistic Judaism. I began this blog a few weeks ago sort of insisting on my atheism. The god language in much of what I was reading in Judaism was very difficult for me to parse and wade through—I don’t know what I was expecting, given that Judaism is a religion, a monotheistic religion at that—because it felt like an assault on my rational position on god: There is no evidence that a god exists, and I do not believe in things for which I have no evidence (this is actually classical agnosticism (Thomas Huxley), as opposed to how agnosticism is used to do to indicate a kind of “fence-sitting” about god).

But I’ve had to accept the fact that I’ve found a new religious home. For better or worse, Judaism is working for me. I don’t understand why, and I’m frankly a bit freaked out and confused by it. If you’d told me a year ago that I’d be converting to an organized, ancient, monotheistic religion, I’d’ve laughed in your face. Yet here I am. I find, however, that I haven’t lost my intellectual stance on the existence of god or the deep problems that can arise in religious communities. Rather, I’ve just decided that the religious experience, life, and community are doing something really important for me personally and that there may be a way to integrate my lack of belief in god, skepticism about community, and fear of religions in general with what I’m actually experiencing on the ground.

For me, I’ve ended at what I have started calling Humanistic Judaism. I’m not sure that insisting on the non-existence of God is really what I want to be about. And from the reading I’ve been doing in Jewish philosophy, I’d say I’m in good company. Indeed, what has been affirmed to me over and over again over the past few weeks is that the liberal, intellectual, scholarly, enlightenment forms of judaism are already deeply humanist and I find a resonance with it that transcends the god language (which I can see both as an artifact of history and as a sincere belief on the part of my co-religionists, whom I hold with care and respect) and the tribalism (which I also understand as historical artifact and, perhaps, an unavoidable part of any religious community).

So I’d rather insist on the humanness, indeed, the humaneness that I’m finding in liberal Judaism, and how it corresponds to what I do believe in: The human experience of the sacred, the human need to belong in community, my belief in the human ability to know, and my strong sense that every human being is of intrinsic value. So rather than an atheist who is exploring judaism, I’ve decided that I am a Humanist Jew.


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A colleague and new-found friend of mine, and one of my guides on this Jewish journey, has responded to an Arthur Green quote I’ve had in my sidebar for a few weeks (see the end of the post for the original quote). I thought this would be a good place to think more carefully through some of the issues she raises. Also, you should read her blog which is an awesome exploration of memory, anthropology, identity, and family (I hope she doesn’t mind me advertising it a bit).

Unfortunately, to take a brief pull-quote from an entire book is to necessarily distort and simplify what is a book-length argument. I’m not sure it would be very productive to defend Green, because it’s not as if I agree with him on everything. But I have found someone who is walking down a particular path that I find intriguing and, yes, meaningful. So this is all I will say for Green: He makes a much more sophisticated and subtle argument in his book, although perhaps not as rational as my friend would like. Here what I’d like to do is address my friend’s criticisms from my own position, to engage with her and her ideas as I think about my own position on these ideas.

My friend wrote:

So. Arthur Green. The fallacies. His depiction of evolution is as if it is directional — a very 19th century view of from the simple to the complex. Evolution is not directional. It is not a progression leading ‘up’ to “the great complexity of the human brain.” In fact, it’s not about ‘us’ at all — except in the sense that it is us studying the process.

I’m not sure that Green actually thinks that evolution is teleological, given other things he says in his argument. Regardless, I can affirm with you that evolution is non-linear, random, and the opposite of teleological. However, I think a discussion of “what evolution is about” is a bit more complex.

On one hand, thinking scientifically, there is no goal to evolution. The mechanism of Natural Selection merely “chooses” (the language here is difficult, because humans tend to impute intention into non-intentional processes) the individuals who are suited to their environments and they get to reproduce. Combine that with the phenomenon of genetic drift—the population-level movement of traits over time within a population for purely random reasons—and you end up with the opposite of teleology. In a very real sense, then, evolution has no meaning. It is simply a description of what happens, how organism-populations move and change over time.

On the other hand… Whereas I agree completely that evolution did not proceed in order to achieve the human brain; and whereas I agree that humans are not the end of evolution nor its apogee, but merely one species in one particular geologic moment; and whereas we don’t know where evolution is leading (in my darker hours, I think that we’re heading for extinction); I do believe that the brain we have is a product of selective pressures, and one of its key traits is that its consciousness demands meaning.

Whether or not evolution has been working toward the goal of producing human brains (it has not) is beside the point altogether. What matters at a human, existential level is the fact that this brain, this set of traits and capabilities, is where natural selection has landed us right now, and this brain wants meaning. [I could go on and on about the evolution of the human brain, but I will resist the temptation to get onto one of my hobby horses.]

Let me now clarify what I mean by meaning. I tend to use the idea of “meaning” in a much richer way than it is usually employed. I do not mean a Hallmark card version of meaning, where you clutch your pearls, your upper lip quivers as you wipe away a tear, and you feel a warm feeling in your heart. Nor do I mean the banal meaning derived from the endless self-referential linguistic cycle of a dictionary definition. Rather, I use meaning in the sense developed by a small group of American Pragmatists, which is a layered, accretive affair. One piece is certainly linguistic, as humans tend to talk about and work through meaning using the symbolic tools at their disposal. Another piece is the entire set of interactions that members of a given group have around a particular object (here, an object can be a physical object or even an idea or a concept, in the case of this blog post, the concept of “evolution” is an object of meaning). And a third piece are the range of possible “uses” of that object within that particular group. This kind of layered, complex sense of meaning is part of the evolutionary heritage of being human; for modern scientists (who view these three pieces as separate cognitive functions) these are important survival traits allowing behavioral adaptation to an environment.

Here’s the upshot: We evolved to generate meaning (there’s that tricky language problem again) as a survival trait—in fact it’s the key to our massive adaptive flexibility. And I would argue, indeed, that we are impelled to create meaning. Whereas evolution has no meaning, no end, no will or intention; humans can (and often must) make their world meaningful, and when looking at evolution, it’s a normal and potentially beautiful human affair to discover, generate, or create its meaning. (We can talk about beauty another time.)

As the knowers of evolutionary processes, we are also those who give it meaning. In fact, in the broader sense of meaning I have given, my friend’s reaction to Rabbi Green’s language, and Rabbi Green’s book itself are both actually part of the communal production of the meaning of evolution (all meaning production is always-already social, another piece of our evolutionary heritage).

And then, without a blink of the eye, he baldly states, “There is a One …” (my italics). As if such a definitive statement makes it so. A statement rooted in the same capital T Truth of any Orthodoxy around the world. A knowing — without evidence — the dreaded F-word: faith. Can you feel me shudder? Ugh.

And takes it further, “and that One is Being itself.”

This is really a place where Green has built up a language with definitions and ideas and layers over pages that are cut out of the pull quote. Again, rather than speaking for him or falling into weak apologia, let me offer my perspective (which does actually dovetail with Green’s larger argument). There is a human capacity to know, to be aware of its place in the universe. There is an awareness of existence itself, and there is, clearly, an awareness of mortality. The size and scope of the universe, and indeed of the meaninglessness, the ruthlessness, the un-teleologicalness of it all can also be apprehended. In the current understanding of both physics (origin of matter) and evolution (origin of life), there can arise a sense of oneness of existence, or Being, itself. It is the deep apprehension of one’s connection in the grand flow over which one has no control, will only know and experience an infinitesimal piece, and, for those who experience it, the awe that such an apprehension can bring. This is not an empirical or scientific truth claim about the nature of the universe; rather, it is an observation about the experience of knowing what science has discovered so far and an effort to make the experience of that knowledge meaningful (in my sense).

Now, one of the things that I have a big problem with in Green is his god language. He spends a good deal of time explaining why he, as an agnostic, or a “post-naïf” as he calls himself, can possibly gain or mean by employing the word god or what I call “god language” generally. Because he is a Rabbi, speaking in a religious mode, and because he is self-consciously employing the terms and frames of Kabbalah, I’m willing to give him some lee-way. But only so far. It still makes me uncomfortable, probably because I’m more or less an atheist and because I’m concerned that god-language obscures the larger rational project that I think we should all be about and can lead (in our world) to some dangerous places, not least of which, the reconstruction of a supernatural agent who does not, in fact, exist (at least so far as we have evidence right now).

Which doesn’t mean anything at all. But I guess it sounds good. To somebody. Maybe to most people. But what on earth does it mean? And maybe it’s not meant to mean anything, but to feel right, feel comfortable or comforting, though I’m not sure why this nonsensical statement would or could bring comfort to anyone at all. And how did ‘revelation’ become a mechanism of evolution? My friend who posted it, should know better than find this comforting. Although perhaps in his struggle to explore Judaism, he posted the quote in order to enter the argument, play with the words, have at Arthur Green in some fun, dynamic way. In which case, I applaud.

Well, again, in the context of the whole argument he’s making, “Being itself” is quite meaningful and somewhat different than my friend has framed it: It’s the conscious awareness, the apprehension of existence, which for some people can lead to the experience of the holy. From my scientific point of view, that qualia of holiness—that is, the experience of ineffability—is a measurable product of our brain’s cognition, and interestingly seems to be rather similar across cultures and peoples and languages (although what triggers it across cultures can be quite extremely different). [I’m functioning on a deep reading in the neurology and evolution of religious cognition and behavior, here, but I don’t want to bog this down more than I already have.]

To be perfectly honest, I did post the quote in earnest, rather than as an intellectual exercise, mainly because I found in the first two chapters of Green’s book a way to marry my rationalism with my lived experience of the sacred. I do not believe (nor does Green, by the way), in an external, agentive, intentional power outside of human minds. But I do believe quite firmly in the human capacity to experience “the sacred” (acknowledging the vast and astounding diversity of ways that humans get there in their religious practices) and I personally enjoy the communal, shared, social experience of “the sacred”.

For me, this is not at all about finding comfort (other than the relief of finding a framing device that I found useful). I made my peace with mortality and the singularity of human existence many years ago. It is rather about making that singular existence meaningful, in the broad, deep, and social sense I gave above. And for me and my foray into Judaism, it’s about finding a community to experience the sacred and create its meaning with.

Now I have left open and unanswered many questions and issues here, but I think that it’s a beginning. I still don’t know what or how to talk about god, or if such a language can ever be meaningful for me again, and I fear the misunderstandings that all god-language seems to carry with it, given the literal (naïve?) religious understandings of most of my fellow humans. I do not know how to deal with the contradiction in the fact that I find a deep love and resonance with judaism, despite being social-scientifically critical (i.e., I know its history and can explain its social dynamics, etc.). I further don’t know what to do with this thing called Torah (I hope that my friend and I will have many discussions to come about that topic), because I understand it as a piece of ancient literature and a historical touchpoint for people identifying as jewish across millennia, but not, in itself, as sacred (its sacredness can only be constructed in community (even if that community is between a living person and the midrash of the past). And finally, I don’t know how to meld this newfound interest in a religious tradition with my critical brain, the fact that I’m politically and sociologically aware and find problems in every community (religious or secular) that I could potentially become a part of.

Surely, my goal is to find, as Rabbi Green says, a way to understand and incorporate what has been for me a life-long dance with the sacred to my intellectual and rational integrity.

Whereas I’m pretty sure at this point that Judaism is my new spiritual home (whatever might constitute “spiritual” for me), I do not know yet how to incorporate or integrate all the various pieces of the social construction of the sacred, my religious practice, the desire to belong to a community of seekers, and my intellectual objections to patently false truth-claims.


We would understand the entire course of evolution from the simplest life forms millions of years ago, to the great complexity of the human brain (still only barely understood) and proceeding onward into the unknown future, to be a meaningful process. There is a One…and that One is Being itself, the constant in the endlessly changing evolutionary parade. Viewed from our end of the process, the search that leads to discovery of that One is our human quest for meaning. But turned around, seen from the perspective of the constantly evolving life energy, evolution can be seen as an ongoing process of revelation or self-manifestation. We discover; it reveals. […] Our task … is not to offer counterscientific explanations for the origin of life. Our task is to notice, to pay attention to, the incredible wonder of it all, and to find [the Eternal] in that moment of paying attention.”

—from Arthur Green, Radical Judaism

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