Rabbi Lew’s book about the High Holy Days is called This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared—and I think I’m starting to see why. I decided just after Tisha B’Av that I was going to do the full holiday cycle this year as I explore the Jewish calendar and experience Judaism as a personal spiritual practice. I’m even going to go Kosher during the Days of Awe/Yamim No’arim (although I’ll probably go the easy route and just go vegetarian for 10 days which is the no-brainer way to keep kosher).

I said I wanted religious practice, and I got some practice tonight.

None of the books I have been reading, including Rabbi Lew’s, had much to say about S’lichot, other than that it is the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah and is a preparation for Rosh Hashanah. The service at Sha’ar Zahav was really sweet; about 25 people, many of whom I have met or seen at services before. It felt good to participate in a small intimate ritual. Tonight was a night of firsts for me: My first havdalah; my first s’lichot; and my first time holding the Torah.

Before services began, the guy leading the service asked my friend Avram and me to participate in changing the mantles on the Torah scrolls. During the service, I was asked to take the largest of three scrolls from the ark, place it on Avram’s lap so he could hold it while I removed the usual colorful mantle and replace it with a white one for the High Holy Days. I hadn’t expected to have that honor, and it’s a bit difficult to explain what that meant to me. More than anything, it was about being a member of the community, trusted enough to care for the Torah scroll. I do wish sometimes that I could shut off my inner sociologist. It’s weird to have my sociologist brain sort of ticking through the social scientific words for what was happening to me in terms of holding the axis mundi and participating in a communal sacrilization while at the same time actually experiencing it. Regardless, it was a momentous and humbling experience and made me feel intimately and profoundly connected to the community. It made me feel like a Jew.

The S’lichot liturgy itself presented another opportunity for practice, a journey which actually began a few weeks ago in Judaism class, where we had spent a good deal of time talking about the Rosh Hashanah liturgy and I had a bit of an aversion to the discussion about sin and repentance. Rabbi Noily deftly negotiated our various reactions to the liturgy by framing it as a difficult ancient text tied to the memory of animal sacrifice and burnt offerings in the temple and rigid and difficult rules of behavior and harsh punishments, which we in turn have to make spiritual sense of in the 21st century. But it was difficult for me not to have some mild PTSD from my upbringing, where mormonism’s obsession with “moral cleanliness” and “worthiness” combined with my nascent homosexuality combined into a deadly cocktail of hyper-surveillance and self-hatred. I really cannot go back to a place of that kind of nearly obsessive attention to being Perfect.

The discussions with Rabbi Noily and reading Rabbi Lew’s book have brought me to a new understanding of what “repentance” can mean, and have also given me something else I’ve craved: A context for thinking deeply about ethics and meaning. T’shuvah, the Hebrew word for repentance, is more like “turning back” or “returning”. It’s a contemplation and evaluation of where you are and a looking forward to where you want to go. The High Holy Days become, in the hands of contemporary Rabbis and Jewish thinkers, a process of both personal and communal transformation. There is no grand tally in the sky, one’s soul is not tainted for ever, no blood sacrifice is needed. In fact, the Jewish conception of sin, cheit, a misfiring of an arrow, actually focuses not on how sin affects your soul, how evil or dirty or unworthy you are; rather, the concept of cheit focuses on the consequences in the real world of wrongdoing, that when we miss the mark, our actions have consequences and that there’s nothing we can do to stop those consequences. Forgiveness isn’t about balancing a grand ledger in the sky and wiping our souls clean, it’s about acknowledging and taking responsibility for the consequences of our actions, even those actions that cannot be taken back or repaired, and hoping for magnanimity and generosity of those we’ve wronged to forgive us.

But actually saying the liturgy, even just these small portions of it, I found myself resisting it. I both reveled, tonight, in the beautiful melody of the Avinu Malkeinu and recoiled at the recitation of sins. I loved the final blast of the shofar (it helped that two great butch lesbians were the blowers…going to a queer shul gives me all kinds of queer pleasures), although I continued to struggle with beating my chest and calling myself an abomination.

In his book Ehyeh, Rabbi Green says that his purpose in making a Kabbalah for the 21st century, a Kabbalah that accounts for our current scientific knowledge and the spiritual needs of today while building upon the Jewish past, he says that his primary message is for us to be openhearted, that transformation and healing of ourselves, our communities, and our world requires an open-heartedness. In his explanation of the nature of evil, building on the Cain and Able story, he writes

Another reading of it may be found, however, in the difficult key verse in which God warns Cain, ‘Sin crouches at the entranceway. Its desire is for you, but you may rule over it’ (Genesis 4:7). … Why does sin crouch at the entranceway? The entranceway to what? … Suppose we read it as referring to the entranceway to the innermost self? When does sin—read it as violence, aggression, or rage—arise? It comes up at the entranceway. … Much of the evil we do comes about in the course of flight from our own vulnerability. … [Our] response to evil lies in training the self toward greater openness. We must learn to be less afraid, and endeavor to build a society and a vision of humanity less dependent on the thickness of our shells. This is the real work, the worldly task, of those who have been privileged with insight…. This is the core question: How do we learn to live in a more openhearted way? How does Judaism serve as a vehicle to lead us to openheartedness?

As I recited the sins, I thought of this notion of practicing, working to be openhearted, to being soft and vulnerable and seeing things as they are, with unabashed honesty and without excuse. During the month of Elul, I have tried every few days to take stock of my life, where am I, how did I get here, what kind of man am I, is this good enough, can I do better… I have come to see that over the past 10 years, I have become accustomed to merely being dissatisfied, disgruntled, disappointed. But since the death of my friend Karl last Spring, that hasn’t been enough. My anger and resentment at where my life has ended up has clouded my ability to see how I got here. What I have struggled to admit, to acknowledge, to own is that my choices brought me here. I chose this life. These are the consequences of my actions.

So I beat my chest and called myself an abomination, an oppressor, a liar, a violence-perpetrator; I called upon the 13 names of a forgiving G-d; I sang the Avinu Malkeinu–all as a practice of opening my heart to humbly take responsibility for my choices and to own the effect that I’ve had on myself, my fellow-beings, and the world, and to practicing opening my hear to the hope for a transformation of heart and mind and soul, both to repair the wrongs I’ve made and to make new and better choices.

I asked for practice. I got it and then some. It is real. And I am completely unprepared.

Kashrut & Racism

I ran across this article earlier today and it hit on precisely some of the things I’ve been thinking about. The rabbi-to-be comes to a rather inspiring decision about grape juice.

Rethinking stam yeinam

Among the things that have risen to the fore in mid-life for me is that I used to have an intense desire to be a good person. In my old life, that was wrapped up in notions of sin and punishment and God; but since my mid-20s, I’ve thought about it much more in terms of humaneness and being grounded in my own and others’ humanity. I recently finished reading A. Kwame Appiah’s book called The Ethics of Identity, wherein he proposes the idea of having an ethically successful life as a way to frame modern thinking about the classical concerns with the Good Life in a pluralistic democracy and intense global interdependence. That is, a Good Life is one that not simply fulfilling and satisfying to the individual, but that also aligns with ethical obligation to the self, to close associates, to strangers, to society, and to humanity writ large. This idea resonated with something that I had not articulated yet, which is the connection between my desires to be a ‘good man’ and my path into Judaism.

My earliest experience of Jewish ethics was actually through philosophy when I was a senior in college and a dear friend of mine—who recently passed away—introduced me to the ethics of Levinas. At the time, I knew Levinas was Jewish, but because of the family and environment I was raised in, that just seemed like his religion and didn’t really register as a salient feature or forerunner to his philosophy. I now can see his notion of seeing the Face of the Divine in other people to have arisen from his particular articulation of b’tzelem elohim.

There are few things that appeal to me about Christianity at this point in my life, but one thing that really stands out to me is Christian ethics (which are clearly rarely if every followed by those who most loudly profess to be followers of Jesus)—namely, the idea of perfect love, or unconditional love, true compassion, of a powerful, spiritual affect toward other human beings. In earlier Christian language, this was called charity, caritas, and was seen as the kind of perfect love necessary to sacrifice one’s life for the sake of others; as the base for ethical behavior, because it comes from a broken heart, the knowledge that the self needs this kind of deep, unconditional love, and so in turn, must practice giving it.

In my late 20s, when I turned to Buddhism, I found the notion of loving-kindness and metta practice to be a compelling, somewhat secularized notion of this. Somewhat analogous (but not homologous) to Christianity, lesser wheel buddhism (specifically the vipassana that I studied) sees the realization of the impermanence of life and the universality of suffering as the ethical impetus to practice loving-kindness for all living beings. Buddhism adds to loving-kindness or compassion the ethic equanimity, one of my most profound and ongoing ethical weaknesses.

Last night at shabbat services, the Rabbi was leading and she actually had us do a brief buddhist metta practice, with the thousands of years old mantra—may I be at peace, may I be filled with loving-kindness, may I be well, etc. I’m not sure if she knew that it was buddhist (she had learned it at a spiritual retreat she recently returned from), but it was a lovely judification of a powerful practice. Later, after the שמע/sh’ma, she focused our attention on the first words of the verse from דברים/Deuteronomy, which says simply ואהבת/V’ahavta—”and you shall love.” Again, this is exactly the kind of practice and focus that I find ethically significant and meaningful. The object of that imperative is the tetragrammaton, which in my monist view is a universalization of the object of love to all that Exists. A massive, potentially overwhelming conversation to have, were we to discuss how to practice or effectuate that kind of love—indeed, is such a love even humanly possible? If not, is it worth practicing anyway?

The struggle comes from the books I’ve been reading about Jewish practice. In contradistinction to Levinas’ philosophy and Torah, the three books I’ve read specifically about Jewish practice explicitly eschew the idea that there is an ethical affect that is part of Jewish practice. Robinson, Diamant, and even Rabbi Shapiro all explicitly reject the notion of love as the basis for ethical action or even the ethical desirability of what I would consider loving-kindness practice. All three of them explain tzedakah (generosity) as specifically not like Christian charity. Whereas I understand the historical and sociological impetus within Judaism to differentiate itself from Christianity, I found myself annoyed at all three authors because their understanding of the Christian idea of charity was simply wrong—or at best, shallow and caricatured, lacking any depth or nuance.

Rather, they spoke of tzedakah as obligation—I’m still with them here, but getting uncomfortable. And then they smack me across the face: It’s a legal obligation, an obligation of mitzvah. They lost me. Even my monist, agnostic, bu-jew Rabbi Shapiro. For me, intention does matter, and not merely the intention to obey a law or perform a mitzvah. But the intention of the heart and mind. This is why we distinguish between first degree murder and man-slaughter, between a common assault and a gay-bashing. Intentions matter ethically. Emotional states matter ethically.

It got even worse when they described gemilut chesed, often translated as acts of loving-kindness, where in all three authors, the notion of loving-kindness got reduced to being nice. Because it’s an obligation.

I know that deep compassion, caritas, loving-kindness is present in Jewish philosophy, it’s in the Torah, and I hear my liberal Jewish community talking about it. But I want it to be part of my Jewish practice. And I cannot seem to find it in Jewish practice.

This is not a deal-breaker for me, especially given the powerfully humane ethical philosophy from Jews that has so powerfully transformed my thinking about ethics since I was in my early 20s. But this is a moment of pause and thinking. I do not want my own practice to give up the notion of charity, loving kindness, or לאהב. So what would a Jewish practice of loving-kindness look like? I still do buddhist metta practice at least once a week. Perhaps this is an area where, for me, a bit of syncretism is going to be necessary.

Finally, I feel strongly that the highest ethic of loving-kindness should transcend social, cultural, and tribal boundaries. Again, the three authors I’ve read about Jewish practice all, in the 20th and 21st centuries, still speak of ethical obligations as being primarily toward other Jews. My sociologist brain is able to parse the historical routes and sociological function of such an ethic. But it isn’t big enough or, frankly, ethical enough for my idea practice. Whereas I’m willing to commit to my new-found Jewish community and understand my obligations to it, I want an ethical practice that directs me beyond immediate social boundaries. Again, the practice in my little shul does transcend those boundaries—Sha’ar Zahav hosts ecumenical activities and has established a communal link with a Turkish muslim community center in Burlingame and regularly participates in trans-religious political and social actions. So why do I not find this in books and writings about Jewish practice?


Solo Shabbat

My first attempt at a home shabbat ritual

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

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

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

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

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

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

Updated Bibliography

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jewish Imagination

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine told me that he didn’t think he could be a buddhist because he needed the sweeping imagination of hinduism or islam. At the time, I had only a vague understanding of what he meant: I imagined the brightly hued posters of hindu gods with animal heads, multiple limbs, crushing bodies under their feet; I imagined the erotic temple carvings of perfectly breasted women mid-coitus; and I imagined the poetry of Rumi and the away-carrying experience of divine union.

But it wasn’t until I started reading midrash and Jewish exegesis over the past couple of weeks that I have come to understand (I think) what he meant. I’ve just finished reading Rabbi Greenberg’s book Wrestling with God and Men about homosexuality in the Jewish tradition. After reading the introduction—which was quite moving to me—I thought it would be an apologia for homosexuality, similar to several I’d read in the Mormon and wider Christian contexts before. However, Rabbi Greenberg instead sets out to engage the foundational jewish texts—the Torah, Talmud, and Mishnah—in an exegetical and ultimately Midrashic mode.

I now understand the appeal and the joy in Jewish exegesis: It is anchored in a deep tradition of storytelling. In his journey through Talmud and a touch of Zohar, R. Greenberg recounts story after story, some of them fantastical (voices from heaven, angels, miracles) some of them mundane but deeply human (love and death, marriage and friendship). The book turned out to be less a legal argument, as I had expected when he started quoting Talmud, and more of an extended deep reading of various texts and stories, not just a scholarly pursuit of knowledge, but an exercise in imagination.  Not only creating a legal or halakhic apologia for homosexuality, but of imagining Jewish homosexuality into being.

Whereas modern judaism can sometimes appear to be almost protestant in its public face, Greenberg has exposed me to a narrative realm, a place of story-telling and imagination that I thought was only part of the Kabbalistic tradition. Moreover, his book exposed me to the more fantastical imagination of Kabbalah (which I had always experienced as textual and linguistic play, but which I now see as equally narrative and fantastical).

In sum, it’s like stepping into Judaism has opened up a whole new narrative tradition, a whole new world of myths, tales, stories, folklore, and imagination that I hadn’t even known existed.

And it tastes so good.

Blood is in scare quotes above mainly because I’m a sociologist and a historian, and I shudder every time I read something that claims a cultural identity is in the “blood.” Of course this has echoes of Hitler and fascism generally, but our notion of genetic or biologically inherited culture, of “owning” cultures or ethnicities because of our parentage are deeply problematic, not just politically, but empirically. Culture is learned and contextual, and is basically a tool of human interaction.

I have a deep compassion and understanding for the Jewish language of ancestors and heritage. I get it. I understand why that language exists and why it circulates. But I also see so many dangers inherent in a language of inherited culture.

Yesterday I bought a used copy of Martin Buber’s collection of essays on Judaism. I was excited to read it because Buber’s I and Thou was transformative for me when I was an undergraduate. But I didn’t even make it half way through the first essay. Buber argues that there are only two things to be said of turn of the century judaism (presumably in Germany), and that is that it’s a religion and that it’s a nationality. He rejects the possibility that early 20th century German Jews were actually religious, because they don’t have a direct encounter with the divine principles, and turns to a three page long explanation of the connection of Jews to each other through their blood, and that their shared blood makes them a nation (he even goes so far to argue that nationhood requires common blood, a horrifying notion from our perspective 100 years later).

The blood language…was there something in the water in Germany? Seriously. I was pummeled by the deep historical irony of a Jew making that argument. But I was also deeply saddened. I need to read the rest of the essay to see where Buber is going with this. But as someone on the path to conversion, reading this blood language yet again (the first time I read it was the Orthodox scholar I have talked about before (see Gelerntner)) knocked me back.

Again, I get it. Completely intellectually, sociologically, historically, and culturally. But it leaves me completely speechless and baffled as to where to take that. I have a sociological/historical response, but I’m not sure how helpful it is for my personal experience of choosing Judaism as my community and spiritual path.

I have a long post on Jewish Identity that I’ve been working on for about a week, and it will tie in to this, but my idea of Jewish Identity comes from a normative position, what I think Jewish identity should or could be, and I take an adamantly anti-essentialist tack.

Any thoughts would be appreciated.


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.


Of course the Enlightenment would impact the Jewish communities of Europe along with its Christian majorities, but it had never occurred to me to see Jews (and Jewishness) as the original test of Enlightenment universalism and an ongoing case study of the interaction between the ascendant individual of modernity and a minority (often abject) population. The Haskalah movement in Jewish philosophy revealed 300 years ago the problems and ruptures in Enlightenment thinking long before post-modenrist critiques of the 1960s, as a group that had been resident outsiders was suddenly, if only in theory, thrust into the universal mainstream of democratic citizenship. Although the “emancipation” of Jews in Europe progressed in starts and fits starting more or less when the French Revolution voted to make Jews full citizens of the secular French state, the idea that Jews were in some sense Europeans and Jews at the same time seems to have pushed the contradictions of the Enlightenment to its limits, both within Judaism and among non-Jews, who were confronted with the prospect of tolerating a people that had been loathed for nearly two thousand years. The emergence of the “Jewish Question” in the early 19th century—how to be both a citizen of a European (or American) nation and a Jew at the same time—foreshadows the debates about multiple identities and pluralism of cultures of the past 40 years.

My reading in this area is new and admittedly only from a very brief overview of Jewish history of the past 300 years (see Robinson Chs. 8-9), and so this post here clearly is not thorough or even knowledgeable. But I found in the reading about this history an odd sense of understanding. On one level, I had yet again the realization that post-modernism is often little more than modernism dressed up in French clothing. On a deeper level, I appreciated the ways in which this question has been confronted head-on as part of the experience of modernity within Judaism, indeed, as constitutive of a Jewish modernity.

Whereas many Enlightenment thinkers saw a world built on rational universalism, modernity in practice and in history has been a far messier human affair of the non-rational experiences of belonging, identity, affect, local practice, and difference in a delicate dance with the universalizing pressures of nation building and democratizing. (The dance between the poles of particularity and universality has only intensified since WWII as the reach and power of global social and economic power has expanded into every-day life of billions of people.) The Jewish Question—can you be a rational citizen and a Jew at the same time?—and the various and contradictory ways that Jews have attempted to answer that question since the early maskilim attempted to remake Judaism in local vernaculars (e.g., Moses Mendelssohn) and to rationalize Jewish practice offer for us a picture of what is not a tension to be relieved, but a constituent feature of modernity itself.

What the development of rational orthodoxy (a real movement, although it seems contradictory) and the Reform movement, not to mention the secular philosophy and art movements within Jewish communities starting in the mid-18th century (including a revival of Yiddish as a philosophical and literary language in eastern Europe) brought about was the disarticulation of the individual from the group, but seeing Jews as individuals with a religion rather than religious groups outside of society. Jews became individuals who could choose a religion, and ultimately starting in the 19th century, western Jews have been working to understand what it means to choose to be Jewish.

This existential choice—Jew or citizen—is a sign of Weberian demystification of everyday life. It is the new context of modernity pushing in on Judaism, forcing it to adapt to a new “emancipated” context. (Nazism can be seen as the bloody extreme of the dominant culture dealing with tolerance of difference, through a mass-produced death.) And it is both the opening of religious and ethnic groups to scrutiny and their rebirth in new forms. Unfortunately in practice over the past 200 years or so, dominant cultures (majorities) in any given democratic nation-state become an unspoken, assumed, often hidden ethnicity that comes to stand for the Universal. It is this phenomenon that all minority groups within pluralistic democracies have had to fight against, the presumed universality of the majority culture. I think what made Christian and secular Europeans so uncomfortable with Jews in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (e.g., The Dreyfus Affair) was precisely that the presence of difference within a culture supposedly built on the universalist-rational claims of the Enlightenment forces the hidden ethnic pseudo-Universal (i.e., the dominant culture) to see itself as one among many rather than as Human.

Judaism as a whole demonstrates both the possibilities and the losses of balancing between citizen and “other”, as Jews have become fully participating, fully enfranchised members of various democratic societies, but have simultaneously fragmented and splintered in their attempts to maintain group cohesion and distinctiveness.