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Do humanists pray?

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

As a ger (גר), a Jew by Choice, a convert, or a “righteous goy”, it is often difficult to figure out where you fit in to the whole ethnic side of judaism. Many born-Jews have told me that being Jewish in contemporary America is both an ethnicity and a religion, and that for me, only religious Judaism is available. As a sociologist, I have never found that completely convincing, mainly because it has echoes of racism in it, as it essentializes jewishness, making it an in-born quality rather than a learned ethnos.

Clearly, I will never have ancestors who were Jewish or have a tradition of familial connection to the Jewish people (at least, not that I know of—there is always a possibility of a Jewish ancestor, but at the moment I don’t know of any). And clearly I will never repeat my childhood and grow up Jewish with Jewish parents. But I remain firmly social constructionist about ethnicity: It is a quality of human interaction and human production, not of birth or essence, so while I will never be the same as someone born into a Jewish family, I don’t think that my “ethnicity” can help but be transformed and “judaified” by the conversion process.

Assimilation (or integration or acculturation or whatever term you prefer) is a difficult and controversial topic on many levels for many different minority populations; and it occurs in both directions, between the subordinate (minority) and dominant (majority). In our modern, pluralist societies, we have come to treat ethnicities as ends-in-themselves, and have created a whole culture of expectations about the “autenticity” of cultural identities and practices, how they should remain unchanged, and the imperative to “preserve.” Historically, I would argue that in today’s pluralist societies we are experiencing not a difference in kind, but of degree or intensity; that is, ethnicities have always had processes of boundary formation, assimilation, blending, and conflict, but now because of the frequency and scope of global migration combined with the rights discourses of democratic institutions, we live in a world of intense and constant ethnic conflict.

In addition, I think that Judaism, because of its particular history of outsiderness and persecution, has had intensely policed ethnic boundaries since about the time of Ezra (with the notable exception of a period of about 300 years during the Hellenistic diaspora around the Mediterranean where Judaism welcomed and actively proselytized converts). Even during the most open times, Jews had to maintain a communal distance from the dominant culture (e.g., in caliphate Spain). That has meant that, historically, Judaism has been perhaps more conscious than most of its ethnic boundaries.

As I have mentioned before, I have been wondering about the relationship of a ger to Jewish ethnicity (actually, there are multiple Jewish ethnicities, but for the sake of clarity here, I’ll pretend that it’s a singular, unitary thing) and what my own conversion means to whatever ethnicity I will eventually be and my relationship to the ethnic attachments I already have (American, northern European, Mormon). In a scholarly mode, I understand that empirically, humans tend to blend ethnicities as a matter of course, almost unconsciously, and in contradiction to their feelings or beliefs that their ethnicities have remained unchanged and remain “pure”.

In personal terms, in this process of exploring judaism over the past year, I have changed, even without being aware of it. I have developed habits of mind, habits of practice, habits of speech that are (American, liberal) Jewish, even if I’m not aware of them. I find myself identifying with Jewish characters and Jewish figures on the news (e.g., Gabby Giffords, D-Ariz. who was shot last week), without even realizing it (but I have also not lost my identification with my other ethnic commitments). Yesterday I was walking from my car to my office when it occurred to me that I was humming a Yeminite sh’ma that I particularly love. Without even meaning to, I have blended my ethnicity already.

For me, though, there is a deeper level of identification that I have never experienced. I always feel like an outsider at shul, not because anyone makes me feel that way, but just because I’m hyper-aware of my difference. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing. In fact, one of the things that attracts me to Judaism is that it’s a religion of outsiders. And given my personality, it’s probable that I’ll always feel like an outsider, even after conversion.

In reading a brief history of Jewish liturgy this morning by Rabbi Sacks (head Orthodox rabbi of the UK), I came across a brief passage where he explains how the Jews who were taken into exile to Babylon had to contend with the loss of their primary religious practice, the avodah or sacrifice (burn offerings). He notes that it was in Babylon that the exiled Judeans (Israelites?), separated from their holy city and knowing that their temple had been burnt to the ground and sacked, dealt with their loss and grief, and their subordinate status as exiled outsiders in Babylon, by gathering to read Torah together and through three-times daily prayer, corresponding roughly to the times of daily avodah/sacrifice (except the evening prayer).

It struck me in reading that, that my own personal experience of religion or spirituality, if you will, has been an experience of exile and longing; of trying to understand and create a meaningful spiritual life for myself after radical separation; of mourning the loss of a previous spiritual life and community; and of return or redemption. I suddenly found myself feeling intensely Jewish, of identifying with a lost and exiled people who longed for their spiritual home. In a fleeting moment, I felt for the first time that the Jewish story was my story.

As someone who is primarily rationalist (with an openness to the human (shared) experience of the sacred), I find that I can’t read the Exodus story as history, a recounting of actual events and people. The archeology just can’t support, for the moment, a literalist or historical approach to the text. But when I think of Exodus as the expression of a lost and exiled people in Babylon, it makes complete sense to me: The story of the triumph of their G-d over the local gods, the constant reassurance that they are G-d’s people, the catharsis in Pharoah’s punishment and learning, etc., all point to the story of an exiled people longing for home. It occurred to me (perhaps not an original idea or even all that interesting to those of you who are well-read in Jewish history and Jewish thinking about history) that what has been preserved in the Jewish story of the past 2500 years is the experience of being an exiled and scattered people who long for wholeness (שבת) and who find it through return (תשובה) with each other in community and in (ancient) tradition. This resonated at a deep level for me. The Jewish story is my story.

This new-found identification, however, is only one of two strands in the story of Babylonian exile that felt particularly salient to me this morning. The other half is an identification with those Hebrews who had been left behind after the exile, the Judaeans who remained in the land after the destruction of the temple. The exiled leadership, now what we would recognize as Jewish (probably the first time historically we can properly use this term), were freed from Babylon by the Persian empire and returned to Jerusalem. They found to their horror that those who had been left behind were radically different from them: they had a syncretic (blended) culture and religion, they had intermarried, and they no longer spoke Hebrew (sound familiar?). The returnees reacted with anger, indignation, moralizing, and violence to the new practices of those Hebrews/Judeans who had been left behind; and they exerted a culture of tight ethnic monitoring, tight control over practice, language, marriage, prayer, text, food—in short, of Jewishness, all backed by the power of the Persian Empire. The returnees’ practices, which had surely developed during exile, were transplanted and forced onto the remaining Israelite population.

Just as I felt an identification with the exiled, the Babylonian Jews, I simultaneously realized that I also identified with those who had been left behind, and who had made different choices vis-a-vis their religious and cultural alliances. I found myself defending the assimilated, the blended, the syncretic, and intermarried Judaeans against the orthodox onslaught of the returnees. Those who had been left behind had created new and vibrant forms of Hebrew religion in their syncretic practices. I cannot align myself in good conscience with the returnees who sought to “purify” and “correct” the “Bad Jews” who had been left behind. Everything from the new, strict rules of practice to the restructured Temple priesthood of the 2nd Temple to the forbidden practice of intermarriage and religious syncretism ring to me, from my 21st century ger-ische perspective to be unethical and a profound misunderstanding of how culture (ethnicity) works.

And so I ended up with a very broad sense of Jewishness and identification to an entire range of ancient Jews 2500 years ago in the breadth of their experiences, identifying both with the exiled and those who remained in Judea, the oppressed who became the oppressors and the “assimilated” who were perceived as a threat to Jewishness: Both were ethnic and religious innovators, both had survived an unimaginable (cultural) loss, and both ended up with a workable survival strategy: They were all Jews. Yes, the Jewish story is my story.

teku

edited for clarity

Identity Work and Jewishness

Warning: Rambling aimlessness ahead.

A big part of my journey has been struggling with my personal identity, my sense of who I am or will be as I move along this path. On one hand, I’ve pretty much embraced the label “Jew” and find myself thinking of myself as jewish already; the only caveat I find is my own ignorance. I feel Jewish, whatever that means; but I am a mere babe in terms of learning and practice. For me, that’s a good thing. It points to a road ahead of learning, exploring, growing, and moving toward a meaningful, ethical life. It seems clearer and clearer that I haven’t ceased being me, my ancestors and family haven’t disappeared, my aesthetics and morality and desires are still there; in short, I’m still me. Just me and Jewish.

There is a communal form of identity work, however, that is still troublesome for me. It is not unique to Jews, but I’m just having to deal with it in my new Jewish community.

A basic mode of community building that is relatively universal (I use that word advisedly) is that of working out meaningful boundaries, drawing cultural in/out lines. A common way groups do this is by building a kind of knowledge of the Other, the outsider, the Not-I. This knowledge of the Other is usually more mythical than empirical. Sometimes there are touches of experiential truth in this knowledge, but most often the experiences are already interpreted through the perspective of the Self, the We, and are often already inaccurate.

At its worst, this kind of identity work creates us/them distinctions that justify violence—pogroms, inquisitions, holocausts. At its most benign, it draws light social boundaries that can separate or distinguish at key moments and in key social spaces.

Although I know rationally that this is just simply something that human groups do—everything from Americans vs. Muslims (in the popular consciousness of the War on Terror) to internecine battles over arcane distinctions between death metal and lyrical death metal—I find that both my personal ethics and my education make it highly visible and highly vexing when I’m in a social situation where its actually happening. I understand this behavior in my sociologist brain and can see the behaviors with an interested detachment. In fact, I can even point to some important benefits of this kind of identity work, especially for minority groups.

But when I’m sitting in the middle of it, I get impatient with it very quickly. I realized tonight that I have two separate difficulties with this boundary drawing identity work: on one hand, it is usually anchored in ignorance of the Other (or reduction or oversimplification or willful misrepresentation, etc.), sometimes relatively harmless, sometimes full blown lies; and on the other hand, I have a deep ethical objection to it, as it’s hard for me to see an ethical way to exclude through misrepresentation, myth, or misinterpretation. Even as I write this, I am thinking of a hundred objections to my own objections, and maybe I’m not expressing this accurately, but I have a visceral ethical objection to doing identity work in this way. Even though I recognize that my lone objection is not going to change 6 billion humans’ behavior (and acknowledging that I may engage in it myself).

Part of this comes from growing up Mormon, in a community that, although it sees itself as essentially American, also sees itself as the set up against the rest of the world (Gentiles…yes, Mormons adopted this Jewish language in the 19th century from the Hebrew Bible).  And it comes from my rejection of the idea of a “chosen” people or a “special” individual of any kind in my early 20s. My own values revolve ideas of the value of human beings without regard to race, class, gender, religion, etc., and so I balk at efforts to make substantive distinctions. Having said all that, I realize there is some irony in my choosing as a spiritual home a religion that has been isolated and oppressed for nearly 2000 years, so community boundaries are often front and center in any conversation about Jewishness. And I should also stress that like everyone I often fail to live up to my ideals in this regard (e.g., I often get really pissed at all the straight people in the Castro).

The other part of impatience (and sometimes anger) comes from a character flaw of sorts: I do not suffer fools easily. I don’t mind people’s ignorance (and in fact am painfully aware of what I do not know), but I despise when knowledge (false) is used as a tool for social ends (boundary drawing). It makes me squirm.

Tonight I got into a conversation with a few friends about charity and chesed, something I’ve talked about here in a previous post (and a bit of a pet peeve of mine). The conversation was mostly fine, until it derailed into “Christians are…” and “Christians believe…” versus “We [Jews] are” and “We [Jews] believe”. I spent many years (a couple decades) immersed in Christian history and doctrine. Like any massive ancient culture, Christianity is diverse and complex and simple to be constructions just don’t work. My problems with the conversation were many, from simply false ideas to ideas produced through perception bias to the irritating need to build up Judaism by bashing Christianity. [Again, I know that this is a common social practice and nothing unique or bad about my friends, and Christians and Jews have been doing this to each other for a couple thousand years.]

Again, acknowledging that this identity work that my friends were engaged in is perfectly normal (statistically not morally) human behavior, I just had to ask myself, is this the best we can do? Is there no other way for we Jews to assert ourselves or to build a Judaism that we are proud of and that is meaningful to us than in this kind of Us/Them myth building? Is there no way to make a meaningful contribution to the world without making the contrast with a biased view of Christianity? To be honest, I don’t know if that can even exist, from the minority position, where Christianity is so dominant culturally. Yet I have to believe that there is a way to generate identity without othering the Other, without making shit up and repeating misunderstandings and misrepresentations. Are there ways of speaking about “us” in terms of who we are, rather than who we are not?

One of the things that I love about Reconstructionism is its exploration of a universalist strain within Judaism, the idea that YHVH is a universal presence and Judaism is just “our” way of relating to it, both ancestrally and in the present. That framing seems to be much more fruitful, ethical, and open, more appropriate and workable in a pluralistic, diverse, multiethnic world. A kind of Judaism dedicated to easiness with itself, knowing itself without having to define itself in the negative.

Apparently, Orin Hatch (R-Utah) has written the lyrics to a Hanukah song. Reading the article about the blessèd event caused more than a little consternation on my part. Mormons have an odd cultural affinity for Jews, partly because of the location of the most esoteric of Mormon doctrines and temple rituals in Kabbalah (see here); partly due to Mormon mythology, which places Mormons in the House of Israel (and assigns each Mormon to a tribe); and partly because of Utah/Mormon history, complete with an “exodus” from Illinois, a “moses” in Brigham Young, and a new “god-given desert homeland” in Utah. I’m sure that my own Mormon upbringing in no small part has led to my path into Judaism as an adult. It comes then as no surprise that Orin Hatch wears a mezzuzah around his neck or that he “loves Jews”.

What disturbed me, however, about Mr. Hatch’s song was how thoroughly Mormon it is.  In a sort of naive, clueless way that marks Mormon social behavior (cultural isolation has its price), he reproduces Mormon musical, lyrical tropes for a song about Hanukah. The result is sickening (to me). Perhaps you would have had to have been raised Mormon to hear the mormonness of the lyrics, but this sounds like every smaltzy Mormon song I’ve ever heard in its earnest innocence and manipulative sentimentalism. Unbearable.

Eight Days of Hanukkah from Tablet Magazine on Vimeo.

To make matters worse, the article about Hatch’s song repeats all the exact pieces of modern Jewery’s use of the Maccabee story in precisely the unhistorical way that grates on my last academic social scientist nerve.

There are moments when the psychic and spiritual violence I have experienced in my life reappear. Heart races, adrenaline pumps, emotions explode. I don’t know why this still shocks me when it happens, but I find myself having out-of-body experiences, watching myself react in fear and anger at moments when I had expected to have a good handle on a situation. I had gone into Monday night’s hebrew/judaism class relatively excited for the discussion, because I knew we would be tackling the texts of Leviticus that prohibit sex between men. I had read Rabbi Greenberg’s book, an extended midrash on the text, wherein he argues that the text really forbids penetration of another man; and I’d read Rabbi Noily’s essay on the Hebrew of the passage. So I was coming in confident in my exegetical foundation for the discussion. What I was unprepared for was feeling like I was being assaulted over and over again by the conversation.

As an educator who often discusses difficult topics (e.g., Rwandan genocide; rape within American slavery; etc.), I have a deep ethical awareness and vigilance about the effect that those kinds of conversations can have on students whose own lives or personalities make them vulnerable to a kind of emotional or psychic violence that, although unintended and invisible, is nonetheless real. I found myself on the other side of that problem this week, where it felt like I was being beaten and abused by the conversation. I have complete trust in Rabbi Noily, and do not believe that she or any of my classmates intended any harm. Yet I was harmed, violated by the conversation.

Before tackling the Leviticus pieces, we split into chavrutot to discuss two passages, one from Genesis and one from Judges, that have been used for nearly 2000 years as justification for the murder and repression of homosexual men and as evidence for the sinfulness of homosexuality. The two stories contain much that our modern ethical sensibilities balk at, not least of which is the fact that the two householders in the stories both offer their virgin daughters as substitute offerings for the men the mobs want to rape.

By at least the third century C.E., the sin of Sodom was interpreted by both Christians and Jews as male-male sex, the desire of the mob to have sex with the male guests of the righteous hosts. God’s punishment for that sin was a fiery, sulfury death. From “sodomite” as an epithet for me and my kind, to “sodomy” as a legal designation for acts punishable by death as recently as the mid-19th century, to “sod off” still in common usage in British slang, the power of this myth has moved through time and informs millions of angry religious anti-gay activists in America today, from Focus on the Family to the Orthodox Union to the Mormon church.

In my chavrutah, and in the large group discussion, this history and mythic reading of the text was either ignored or silenced. When I tried to talk about it, I was told curtly that “that’s not what that passage even means”, as if their personal reading of the text magically erases the past 2000 years or the present hatred and fear of gay men. Understandably, the women wanted to talk about the chattel status of the virgin daughters in the text; but seemed unwilling (or unable) to make the connection of sexism and homophobia. In a classroom setting where I’m the teacher, for some reason I am usually able to maintain a bit of distance and guide conversations in certain ways. But in this setting, it felt like I was made invisible, that the evident homophobia of the passages (or at the very least the centuries of homophobic interpretations of the passage) was just swept away as incidental or unimportant. Again, I don’t think the silencing was on purpose; but it was the effect of the conversation.

When we drew back together to discuss Leviticus, the process continued, with people offering their readings of the text and with the elision of the meaning and power of a text that commands that men who lie with men be put to death as mere “misinterpretations.” Although I actually found the Rabbi’s read of the text compelling, listening to people discuss the value and moral insight of a text that calls me and people like me ‘abominations’ worthy of death to be nearly unbearable. And not one person—not a single one—condemned the obvious message of the text or the 2000 years of violence that flowed from it.

An acquaintance of mine from an online ex-mormon community I used to participate in became so livid with me a few years ago that she left the community for nearly two years. The argument was about the nature of child molestation, age, and sexual attraction; my argument was from an intellectual parsing of the social rules of sexuality and the biology of attraction. It had the effect on her of affirming her worst experiences of patriarchy and religious abuse. I do not think to this day that the substance of my arguments was bad, nor do I think that my intentions were wrong; but that really doesn’t matter when the person in front of me was suffering because the content of the conversation was doing violence to her. I do not know how to negotiate such troubled ethical waters, and I do not blame or condemn the people in my class for the discussion they were having. Yet I cannot and will not deny or elide the pain and excruciating memories that the conversation evoked.

Rationally speaking, the Rabbi’s reading offered an interesting perspective. She argued that the cultural context of Leviticus was a world in which penetration was always an act of domination and was by definition unwanted; therefore, penetration was seen as an act of violence by definition. Given that the most likely direct meaning of the two Leviticus verses are prohibitions against penetrating other males (most likely anally, but also perhaps orally), in its context it is reasonable to read the text as part of a larger moral theme in the Holiness Code against harming others. [It must be noted that this is part of a larger patriarchal system where women, in their abject status, are appropriate objects of penetration; so by extension, the Holiness code is actually forbidding the making of a man into a woman by penetrating him. Again, the interrelationship of homophobia and sexism.]

The apex of the Holiness Code in Leviticus 19 contains a core of ethical commands that resonate powerfully with me, and which most historians agree formed the basis of both Pharisaical teachings and the teachings of Jesus: protect the weak against the powerful and love other humans as you love yourself. So Rabbi Noily’s read is that for Jews of the post-return Mediterranean world, not penetrating another male (i.e., not making him into a woman) would be a law against domination and unethical power.

Although rationally (and ethically) I like the ideas and ethics of that reading, my experience of her reading was of having been erased from the text and from history. How easy it is for the process of midrash and interpretation to disconnect from history and context of the teachers and students. One student was excited to use this reading as amunition against her fundamentalist family; but without understanding of the dominant and dominating interpretations of Leviticus within Christianity, without the full understanding that this is a complex and somewhat of a hopeful reinterpretation that flies in the face of the self-evident meaning of the text (male-male sex is an abomination and you are commanded to kill anyone who perpetrates it), there is simply no way that that reading can work in the political-religious context of today’s homophobic America (including the thousands of dollars the Orthodox Union raised for Prop 8).

Paul Ricoeur defines myth as

…not a false explanation by means of images and fables, but a traditional narration which relates to events that happened at the beginning of time and which has the purpose of providing grounds for the ritual actions of men [sic] today and, in a general manner, establishing all the forms of action and thought by which man [sic] understands himself in the world. (quoted in Idel, 21).

As a former literary guy (two bachelors degrees in literature), I am completely down with interpreting and reinterpreting texts. I love the long tradition of many ancient religions of various peoples in different times and places remaking the myth to meet its own needs. It is, in a great sense, why my friend Mira says that Hebrew and Torah are alive, not dead traditions. But my experience of trying to understand and interpret these key (for me) texts in Tanakh highlighted a major problem: Sometimes the myth cannot be salvaged. Sometimes the current needs, current understandings, current desires are just too different; the past’s myth too starkly unethical, too potentially violent for restoration.

If myth provides the foundations for thought and action in the world, what do you do with a myth so tainted by the patriarchy of its inception and so burdened by 2000 years of use to violent ends that it seems irredeemable? Is reinterpretation of a relatively reified text enough to get us out from under the weight of its origins or past? If our modern ethics have put us in a place where seeing people as they are, outside of halakhic, priestly requirements, is the foundational imperative, if protecting the weak against the powerful is really the ethical center, what do we do with a myth whose very core creates the social system that produces the weak in the first place?

For now for me, re-reading, reinterpreting this passage is insufficient. My wrestling with Torah and tanakh will have to include the ability to insist that the text can simply be wrong on its face. A mature spiritual life must allow (perhaps it even demands) making strong moral stances against tradition. Perhaps part of the holiness of Torah is that challenge to be a moral person in contradisctintion to the Book itself.

Winter Holidays Battle Royale

Tonight’s post is more practical than reflective: What to do between Dec. 1 and Dec. 25 as a Jew?

Since I haven’t believed in Christianity for over a decade, and since I was raised in an alternative religion that didn’t really observe the full range of traditional Christian holidays (really, most American evangelical religions don’t observe the vast majority of traditional Christian holidays anyway, so there are millions of Americans in that boat), I didn’t really think that my path into Judaism would bump up against anything important on the calendar. Anita Diamant’s book for people choosing Judaism spends a whole chapter on the dynamics of Christmas, which is such a huge piece of the American (Christian) psyche.  I read her book last Spring, and didn’t really think much of it.

Now I’m here on the threshold of winter holiday season and suddenly I find myself very upset about Christmas. In fact, I feel a deep powerful urge to sing Jingle Bells and smell pine boughs. I’ve been surprised at my born-Jewish friends’ antipathy toward Christmas. But I get it: From a minority position, it can feel like a massive imposition or assertion of the dominant culture’s privilege in the world around you. But as someone who was once a Christian, it just feels banal (not dangerous or imposing) to me; and as someone who is culturally curious and expansive, it just reads like a cultural practice to me. On an intellectual level, I understand my friends’ hatred of Christmas. But I don’t feel it.

Do I have to hate Christmas to be a Jew?

When I was in graduate school and was self-consciously trying to de-Jesus my life, I spent a couple winter breaks reading histories of Christmas, folklorists’ and historians’ best guesses for the origins of some of the practices. I was pleased to find a thoroughly hybrid, mish-mash of Roman, near eastern, and northern Germanic and Celtic, and even a bit of Persian practices all rolled into this mid-Winter festival. I found (and find) that I am for some reason strongly attracted to the old Germanic religions and old pre-modern, pre-monotheistic nature-observant practices. [In fact, one of the things that is so attractive about Judaism is that a lot of those pre-modern, agricultural, nature-worship elements are evident in the texts and practices; I love them.]  Over a few years between finishing my master’s thesis and passing my doctoral exams, I developed a set of personal practices for Midwinter (solstice) that included some deeply personal moments of reflection, more meaningful gift-giving, and symbolism of hope for a renewal of life. I had blended my personal practices easily with the dominant ones around me. And I had come to see the common experience of a winter holiday in many cultures around the world as a sign that living through the receding sun had inspired our many ancestors to celebrate in the darkest of days.

Now Hanukah is just around the corner (Dec. 1st this year) and suddenly I’m facing my first real dilemma in this process: What to do for the holidays? I don’t mean where will I go or what will I eat…I mean really what will my home practice and personal life look like? There are several interlocking problems, some easier than others to resolve.

First, my parents still expect me to show up for Christmas Eve and Christmas day, to exchange gifts, and eat a gigantic meal, and generally party with the family. This was actually the easiest part of the holidays for me to work out. Diamant suggests that mixed-faith couples simply celebrate Christmas at the home of the Christian side of the family. That seems fine, but in reading the Biale collection of essays about Jewish cultural history, I came across a really interesting passage about the Babylonian Jews. The rabbis in Babylon taught that Jews in Babylon were also Babylonian and that they should honor their non-Jew neighbors by celebrating their holidays with them, and then inviting them into their Jewish homes for Jewish holidays, so that their non-Jewish neighbors could celebrate with them. It was, in all, a message of not just peaceful coexistence, but of a conscious effort to honor the Other and welcome the Other into their lives. It makes complete sense to me, perfectly rational and multicultural, relaxed and hell, it gives you access to twice the feting. I’m a bit stubborn, so I probably would have done this regardless, because it’s just my personality to experience as broad a range of cultural and religious practices as possible.

So parents and family Christmas issue easily solved.

Second, Hanukah itself feels a bit anemic and, problematically, just like Christmas, based on a few unhistorical myths that I find vexing. Without going into a long Jeremiad, let me just say that a lot of the dominant Jewish discourses about Hanukah today are about the anti-Helenizing maccabees, with thinly veiled ethno-nationalism at its core and then not even trying to hide the Zionist parallels. When Hanukah talk glides into Israel-Palestine politics and Zionism, I’m out the back door. Just can’t do it. But even at its core, the mythologized version of the Maccabees is pretty far from history itself: The Maccabees weren’t anti-Helenism, they were Greek speaking, thoroughly Helenized and bloody violent rulers. Further, the majority of the world’s Jews during that time were Jews living outside of Palestine and were Greek speakers living fully helenized lives. Politically, I’m generally against forced assimilation; sociologically, I also know that most people as they move around tend to transform their languages and practices to meet new needs and environments. Humans are constantly modifying their cultures and adopting from people around them. So whereas I’m sympathetic to arguments against cultural imposition, assimilation by force, I’m highly dubious of the moral position that cultural change is bad tout court, and that culture must be maintained over time (which is actually an impossibility). So they way Hanukah gets talked about pushes my sociological buttons, my historical buttons, and my political skepticism of modern Zionism buttons all at once.

The upshot is that Hanukah just doesn’t seem like it can fit the bill of a Midwinter holiday for me. One dear born-Jew friend said that for her Hanukah is about the lights; and I do love that idea. And the idea of the “miracle of light” fits in nicely with my own spiritual need for Midwinter. So I look forward to seeing what is there for me.

Hanukah is a minor political holiday that, due to pressure from the dominant culture, has grown into  Jewish consumer extravaganza not unlike the hot mess that is Christmas on Union Square or any mall in the country.

So third and finally, the real issue is what my personal Midwinter practice as a Jew will look like. My instinct is to add Hanukah to my current practice. But I worry about what born-Jews would say at a wreath on my door (evergreens, eternal circle, rebirth, hope) next to a mezuzah (shma!); or pine cones and twinkly white lights and candles on the 21st for solstice night. On the other hand, when I was attending the Wiccan circle at the UU a couple years ago, half the people there were born-Jews. So perhaps my worries are only because I’m a JBC? But I’m left with figuring out what pieces of Hanukah are meaningful to me (for one, the Klezmekah at shul with the Klezmer band is hot hot hot (it was my first service last year when I started this journey)) and how to deal with the Christian imagery which is so embedded in the season (which has never bothered me even though I haven’t believed in it for 15 years).

Suggestions? Ideas? Thoughts?

Reading Myself Into God

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.

Then who will I be?

Warning: navel gazing ahead.

Since the High Holidays, I have been in deep contemplation mode. The value of ritual for me has always been its ability to focus my attention on the salient issues of my life, and the ten Days of Awe were transformative for me on many levels. I sat out sukkot because I felt overwhelmed and overloaded by the experience. From what I’ve read, many modern Jews see sukkot as a regrounding, a coming back to earth after the heady days of self-examination. But i needed some time away, alone to think.

Since Yom Kippur, I’ve come back to the problem of identity. So far, I’ve been framing my journey into Judaism as an accretion, a layering onto myself; not a renunciation of my past or heritage, not an overthrow of the Ego. Judaism has filled many holes in my life, spiritual and social, but it feels like a continuation of who I have already been rather than a replacement.

Judaism is an ancient tradition, whose history of outsiderness has produced a tight identity structure that is unique among the monotheisms and which keeps demanding that I pay attention to it and take it seriously. It’s so tight that many of the world’s Jews will never consider me Jewish at all. A dear friend of mine, Jew by birth, notes frequently that Judaism is both an ethnicity and a religion. The ethnicity appeals to me on an aesthetic level, in the way that human culture generally appeals to me. I find Jewish tradition beautiful and life affirming on the ethno-cultural level. But I’m not sure that I would or ever could be ethnically Jewish. [Part of the Americanization of Judaism has been the restarting of a rather robust conversion stream, historically, which had been dead for centuries. So many of us Jews begin in a non-Jewish ethnicity. I think this could be a vital and important piece of the future of Judaism writ large, but that is for another post.]

What has drawn me to Judaism as a convert is the spiritual, or religious, piece. (I still have a bit of a scholarly, rationalist shudder when I write or say something like that.) For my personality and spiritual needs, Judaism is a near-perfect fit. As an ongoing struggle with god and text, and as a sanctification of everyday life, of the mundane, and as a tradtion anchored in some of humankind’s deepest yearnings, I find Judaism to be a grounding and meaningful way of life, one that says “home” to me in an irrational, intuitive way.

Yet I’m still stymied by the identity piece, the thought of what this all means for who I am. Full disclosure: I am not by disposition a joiner and I’m deeply uncomfortable claiming and living identities generally. This is partly due to a my scarring early life experience with Mormon identity; but it is also as much my personality. I have always bucked against being put in any kind of identity box. Identities feel reductive and confining to me, almost like a cognitive or social jail. Dangerous. Suffocating. Whenever people put me in any kind of identity category, I resist. For example, 15 years ago I accepted the fact that I was sexually attracted to men rather easily; yet it took me years longer to make peace with being called or calling myself gay. Another example, my refusal to identify as a professor early in my carer ended up leading me to some bad pedagogical decisions.

Identity categories come with sets of assumptions and scripts that I may or may not want to be associated with nor obliged to perform. Whereas I’m perfectly comfortable saying “I love men” or “That guy is hot” or “I teach university” or “I practice Judaism”, all “I am” constructions feel constraining, imprecise, too easily misunderstood or purposefully manipulated, fraught with rules and expectations, constricting, suffocating.

And so I find myself resisting the part of conversion that brings with it a new identity, an “I am”. What would identifying as a Jew mean? How can I be the kind of Jew I find the most meaningful, when “Jew” as an identity carries with it tight scripts and a world of assumptions, both within and without the Jewish community? That means people around me will assume that I think, believe, and act a certain way. Confining. Restricting. Can’t breathe. If I, Todd Ormsbee, identify as a Jew, then who will I be?

• As a Jew by choice, am I still the child, the great great great grandson Danish Mormon converts?

• Would I still be a seeker, or does conversion imply that the search is over?

• Can I still be a freethinker, one of my most treasured identities? One who refuses to believe without evidence?

• Am I still of northern european descent, and may I still honor my ancestors with objects and stories from my biological past? For example, can I still observe solstices and equinoxes?

• As a humanist, it has been nearly 20 years since I believed in Jesus, but as a Jew, can i still love Jesus as a devout Rabbi who sought to reform Judaism with a pharisaical focus on the greatest commandments of ahavah?

• I have admired the a buddha as a key figure of Human history and thought and spirituality for nearly 20 years, and have considered myself a casual buddhist. What becomes of my Buddha nature upon conversion?

I am universalist by disposition, but have come to believe over the past few years, that living as a universalist without a chosen path of practice is to be unmoored. In many ways, that unmooring can be deeply nurturing to a wounded soul, and indeed it has been nurturing for me over the past fifteen years. But now I’ve arrived at a point where being a lone seeker is no longer enough. I need to share the journey. My thought is to make of Judaism a home base from which to be a seeker, a place to anchor myself in ritual and ethics and community. A way to create a cohesive daily, yearly, and lifetime practice. But I don’t see myself ever stopping from learning and exploring other traditions.

I still feel a deep connection to this process of learning and adopting Jewish practices and hope that my shul can give me some more concrete direction in the required process in the near future (my only complaint about my shul has been the very California, inchoate process of conversion, in sharp contrast to the clearly delineated requirements at other shuls).

Judaism is the path for me. So this post isn’t an indication of doubt or wavering. The choice is the right one, in a way that I thought would never be possible. It is instead a searching of what this means for me. Once I am officially a Jew (to be honest, I already feel Jewish and already practice Judaism), then who will I be?

[edited 10/17 for clarity]

I have just gone back and added teku to several earlier posts. I had meant to make that a standard practice on this blog because I want to emphasize the ongoing path, the ongoing openness to learning and discovery. I liked the fact that the Talmud finishes many debates with the acronym תיקו as a sign of the process of Jewishness. It is, for me, the antithesis of dogma and orthodoxy in the literal sense of ‘right belief’.

The acronym stands for tishbi yitaretz mashiach u’shealot (I think it looks like this in Hebrew, but I’m not sure: תשבי יתרצ משיח ושאלות), that unanswered or unfinished extra or surplus questions will be resolved by the Messiah (Meshiach).

I haven’t even begun to grapple with the idea of the משיח (meshiach) in Judaism or with its political implications. I have purposefully put that on the back burner for now, but I suppose this is as good a place as any to start the conversation. The Christian idea of Christ (Greek for Messiah, or Anointed One) hasn’t really been operationally meaningful to me for over 15 years; although I find that I still think of Jesus as a powerful spiritual and ethical thinker (a Jewish thinker and teacher), the idea of the need for a Savior from sin is now, at best, unnecessary for me (and at worst a call for human blood sacrifice to atone for sins that cannot in any real sense be atoned for). Likewise the Jewish notion of a political messiah to restore the political power of the Jewish people (shared interestingly by both ultra-orthodox Jews and evangelical Christians). I find messianism in most of its forms—Christian, Jewish, Muslim (e.g., Shiah), Hindu (e.g., Krishna), etc.—to  create ethically problematic (to be polite about it) situations in the real world. So I simply reject the idea of the need or desirability of a messiah at all.

Since I don’t believe in a messiah, other than possibly as some kind of metaphor, I like the idea that teku really means that, since the messiah will never come, the questions are by nature unanswerable, kind of like Zen koan, and that we are meant to contemplate and struggle with them as an end-in-itself, knowing from the beginning that we will never have the answers.

When I thanked the cantor on Friday for an amazing first Rosh Hashanah experience and told her that I was blown away by it, she suggested that I just let it be and not really struggle with it, to just let it sit and develop on its own. But it is not in my personality not to struggle. The metaphor of Israel–Jews as those who wrestle with god–pulls me toward my Jewish practice and gives me a hook for my own kind of Jewish identity, one that can integrate and uphold all that I have been so far in my life with this new path.

My struggle with Rosh Hashanah has been about meaning. With my non-theist experience of the sacred, my panentheist perspective as I’ve been working it out on this blog, my non-belief in a personal, agentive, consciousness that moves and shapes with intention–what do I make of the language of a ‘just judge’ in ‘heaven’ who decides whether or not to forgive me?

When dealing with thousands of years of god-language, part of the attraction is indeed the deep connections to a history, a language with a past. But if I take it at the level of ‘P’, the first possible reading of p-r-d-s**, the literal, I’m left cold with nothing to hook into. But if I stand with my fellow Jews, singing the Avinu Malkeinu and beating my chest through the upper levels of p-r-d-s, I find something more profound than I had anticipated. The music, the prayers, the drash, and surprising to me, the shofarim become something more: the beginning of transformation. When i was younger, a closeted gay, scholarly, liberal, doubting Mormon, I tried to sit in Mormon services and Mormon temple ceremonies and make of them my own meaning. But in that context there was not only no Mormon way into the texts at a level beyond the literal (or more accurately, beyond the sanctioned and official reading) within mormon tradition, there was an active and spiritually violent resistance to anyone who tried (excommunication for all those engaged in what I’d now call ‘mormon midrashim’). But it struck me like a wave of clarity on Erev Rosh Hashanah that my new community not only had a place for such rethinking, meaning-making, and struggling, but it was a normal, almost banal part of Jewish practice.

Sitting in the three RH services and reminding myself that ‘god’ is for me the sacredness of all existence and that ‘sin’ is the consequences of my actions, and that I do believe in taking responsibility for the consequences of my actions, etc., was a seamless part of the experience. I had braced myself against the recurrence of guilt, shame, and self hatred from my childhood conceptions of sin and repentance, but they never came. Instead I stood shoulder to shoulder with a few hundred Jews who were having a communal experience of personal struggle. [To be clear, I’m sure that many Jews would be uncomfortable, maybe even outraged with my beliefs; but none would be able to say in any meaningful way that I am less Jewish because of them.]

This is what I am looking for in practice: a context within which to experience not only the sacredness of existence, but to safely experience my own broken heart.

Rabbi Lew’s book continues to be a touchstone to me on this High Holy Days journey. In talking about the ancient idea of our sins being recorded on Books, Lew suggests that our lives are written on the world itself, on our very bodies, and on the memories and lives of all those whom we directly affect with our actions. I take from this that the consequences of our actions becomes the reality around us and we cannot in any real way escape the consequences of our actions. Reading the world around me as the Book, reading my own body, reading the faces of all the people in my life–family, friends, colleagues, students, even complete strangers–becomes a practice in self examination, in the broken heart where I can see what is really there, break through the anger, the irony, the aloofness, the pain, the hardened shell that keeps me from seeing, to see what i have really wrought [I love that word despite its pretentious feel] in my day to day life. It is a sobering experience.

During the Days of Awe, the Yomim Noraim, I have been searching for a way to keep the gates open, to think about and experience what Is, what is Real in my life. I don’t want self-flagellation or self recrimination, or self-pity, or self hatred. I want honesty. I want openness. I want transformation. I want in some small way to change directions in my life.

Rabbi Lew suggests that real transformation can only be seen over time, that it is not sudden or dramatic, but occurs at a deeper more subtle level. His background with buddhism becomes clear in his discussion of T’shuvah, infused with patience and equanimity for the self. If our intention is aligned with what we see when the gates are open, he says, we have the possibility of real transformation. Lew quotes from the first 10 verses of Deuteronomy 30 to illustrated the significance of the constant repetition of the Hebrew root Shem-Bet-Hey. By reading these verses of Torah from my panentheist perspective, the idea of t’shuvah becomes something different altogether from the ancient notion that sinning is, more or less, not doing the mitzvot correctly.

If I read ‘god’ as the sacredness, the holiness of all Being, the Ein Sof or never-ending Eternity, then ‘turning’ to god becomes becoming aware, opening my eyes, being willing to perceive the smallness of my own life, yet its unique significance in the face of all that Is, of all Being. Turning to ‘god’ and hearing the ‘voice of god’ is about intention, awareness, willingness to see Reality, and the promise is the possibility of real joy through the clarity. Rabbi Lew adds to this the idea that it is a never-ending process, an ongoing state of possibility in daily lives, and that we are never done with it. Transformation, then, comes in the practice of awareness, of the constant willingness to See, and the openness to what Is.

May we all have the courage to Look.

teku

**פרדס—Pardes (paradise in Hebrew) is an acronym for four levels of understanding Torah (in all its forms, written, oral, revelatory, personal), in short, Jewish exegesis. פשט—plain, direct, literal. רמז—hints, allegorical, metaphorical. דרש—inquiry, comparative, scholarly. סוד—hidden, mystical.  I tend to be intellectually fine with anything above the פ level.