Saturday, October 4, 2014

What it Really Means to be Jewish

On Rosh HaShanah, I shared a message about the sacred purpose of the Jewish people:  we are here to find every kind of brokenness in this world and to repair it.  In every broken shard of life, there is a hidden spark of Divine light that we must find and return to its source in God’s oneness.  It’s up to us to take the initiative in overcoming hatred and judgment; it’s up to us, and not anyone else, to teach the world what it means that we are all one human family in the image of God.  In these times of so much violence and polarization--the violence, racism and outrage in Ferguson; the contempt-ridden polarization of left and right in so many political spheres, the missiles and tunnels of Hamas, the atrocities of ISIS, and the scourge of anti-Semitism around the globe--we, the Jewish people, must rise to our sacred purpose.  Why are we constantly beset by hatred and violence in our lives?  It actually all boils down to one root cause: it’s the propensity that lives in each of us to ‘other-fy,’ to reduce individuals and groups to the status of alien or different or inferior to “me” or to “us”.  We see this phenomenon in various forms--in the political polarization in this country, in the scourge of racism, as well as in the atrocities of Hamas and Isis.  This living in a state of alienation from other human beings violates an essential value in Judaism. The Torah exhorts us over and over to Remember the stranger, for we were once strangers in Egypt.  
It’s ironic, however, that with this clear universalist ethic in Judaism, we Jews also exult in being the “other” in the world.  As Leviticus says, “Kedoshim t’hiyu,” “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am Holy.”  According to most biblical scholars the Hebrew term Kadosh, or Holy, is best translated as “separate-and-elevated.”  For example, in biblical times, special objects were “Hekdesh,” consecrated, or set aside--made as ‘other’--in a separate and elevated way so that they could not be used for profane purposes, but rather for Divine purposes.  So the standard interpretation of all of this is that we, the Jews, are to be a Holy people--separate and elevated above the rest of the world--the “chosen people” with a special and Divine purpose in the world.  If you’re anything like me, this notion of being a ‘Holy-Other’ and Chosen people leaves you ambivalent at best, and downright alienated at worst.  This chosen to be other idea can even feel a little creepy:  if other-fication is the root of so much evil, and we celebrate our otherness, does that mean, God forbid, that we are to blame for anti-Semitism?  
...Don’t worry, the answer is no!  Not at all.  On this Yom Kippur, I am going to suggest today  a deeper understanding what it means not only to be Kadosh--holy-- but what it means to be Jewish in the first place!  I am going to explain today that being Jewish is not, and was never about us vs. the world.  Rather, it’s in how we can transform our relationship with the other that can truly sanctify the world.  I will show us how the great purpose of the Jewish people begins with each one of us today, and how we choose to live in every one of our relationships in our lives.   
The problem is, of course,  that people can be crazy-making!  You may have further noticed that life is constantly a mess:  for all our attempts at order and creating a life that meets expectation--free from drama--life keeps surprising us, and not often in pleasant ways.  “Der mensch tracht un Got Lacht,” as the Yiddish proverb goes:  “Man plans and God laughs.”   In truth, this proverb is an overriding theme of Yom Kippur:  on Kol Nidrei we ask to be released from vows knowing full well that we will mess up again and ask to be released the following year.  In our services today, we acknowledge that some of us in this room may be dead next year at this time, and we can’t predict who or how or when.   It’s all too easy, as happens to many in our society today, to become nihilists or atheists, to believe in nothing but chaos.  But Judaism rejects chaos and Godlessness.  Despite the messiness of life, we are called to sanctify the “sacred messiness”--as my teacher Irwin Kula calls it--of life itself.  In other words, whenever life is a mess, whenever bad things happen to us, whenever life itself feels “other” and alienating and terrifying, all of Judaism can be boiled down to a simple question:  “What can we do now?”  And do you know what we do?  We defy the chaos!  We bless this life, despite everything.  As the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof says, “There’s a blessing for everything.”  Sometimes that blessing is literally a bracha, sometimes it’s a life-affirming act of tzedakah or kindness or courage; and even in the face of death itself, we respond with the Kaddish--an ultimate affirmation of life’s holiness.
My wife, Batya, is the Director of Social Justice and Interfaith Initiatives at the JCRC of Greater Washington.  Through her work with leaders of other faith traditions, she learns not only about their traditions but about what it means to be Jewish.  Once she was having a meeting at our dining room table with clergy from various faiths.  Batya put out a bowl of fruit and a Catholic priest expressed his understanding that that fruit isn’t kosher unless it is first blessed and declared holy by a rabbi. Now, this priest’s misconception makes a lot of sense:  in Catholicism,  objects like holy water are not holy until a Priest, a holy man, blesses them and declares them to be holy.  In that priest’s confusion, the fundamental difference in worldview between Catholicism and Judaism became clear to Batya.   For that priest, the world is not holy.  It needs to be made holy.  For Judaism, the world IS holy; we sanctify our lives by recognizing the holiness inherent in the world.  Whenever we perform a ritual mitzvah in Judaism, we invoke the phrase “Asher Kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu,”  Blessed is God “Who sanctified US through the commandments and commanded us…”  In other words, what makes us a Holy people is our actions, our words, our very outlook on all things as inherently holy and belonging to God.  In other words, we’re not inherently holier and closer to God than everyone else; rather, we’re the ones who can see how we--together with everyone else--are holy and close to God!  In other words, to be Jewish, to be an ‘Am Kadosh, a holy people,  is to learn to see the world and all of life through the eyes of God!
Imagine with me what it would be like, over the course of a lifetime, to relate to everyone and everything with this understanding of holiness.  Imagine with me cultivating God’s perspective on life, and not just our own.  Where we see life’s messiness, life’s darkness, life’s violence, and apparent chaos--God sees the world as Tov Me’od, very good--perfection in its very imperfection!  Where we might only see life’s Otherness, God sees Holiness.  Where we might see fear or despair, God sees infinite potential for the good, for justice, for beauty, for peace.  Batya has a beautiful way of practicing this Holiness-perspective even when walking down the street or stuck in traffic:  when she encounters people who are rude or angry, she repeats to herself over and over:  “You don’t know what he/she is going through.  You don’t know what he/she is going through.”  She does this practice because it helps her feel more at peace with whatever is annoying her.  Now that may be so, but I think she is blessing them even as they might make her life more difficult.  She is blessing them by acknowledging God’s perspective, by recognizing that what they truly are is infinitely more than how she might judge them based on one encounter or behavior.
So to be a Jew in the world is not about being a “separate and elevated” tribe above and beyond other peoples in the world.  Being a Jew is not limited by shared history or ethnicity or brilliance or neuroses.  In this day and age of so much other-fication in this world, we must indeed start by  celebrating what makes us unique and different.  But as individual human beings, we are not inherently unique or different because we’re Jewish.  We are not holy by being separate and elevated.  We are holy by relating to the world as God’s sacred Creation.  Kedushah, Holiness, at its core is a quality of awareness, of mindfulness that everything--even those things that frighten us, that make us feel out of control--everything belongs to God, is of God.  Our sacred purpose as the Jewish people in the world is--as individuals, as families, as communities--to teach the world how to transcend Otherness!
This sacred purpose is so important, so central, that I want to spell out how each and every one of us can do this:  the very moment you perceive another human being or situation as Other, as frightening or alienating or inferior to you--stop!  And find a way--no matter how agonizing or painful--to find the image of God, the spark of the Divine at the very core of that Other.  Our job is to replace all Otherness with Holiness!   Judaism serves as a technology to get us there.  In our service, in the Kedushah, we say “Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh,  Adonai Tzeva’ot, Melo Kol Ha’Aretz Kevodo,” “Holy holy holy is the God of all the forces of nature, the whole world is the fullness of God’s Presence.” Our ancient rabbis teach us over and over that all of the mitzvot, the commandments, come as one piece, one package to live every moment of our lives with this insight!  In this day and age, we like to think that the ethical commandments of Judaism take precedence over the ritual actions.  Not so, insist the rabbis.  A famous passage in the Talmud (Shabbat 127a) says that the act of simply studying Torah is equal to all the great ethical injunctions like honoring parents, visiting the sick, caring for the needy, and even making peace!  How could just sitting and studying be equal to making peace in the world?!  Other teachings insist that rituals like prayer, like lighting Shabbos candles, are equal to acts of justice.  How could this be?!  When we light Shabbos candles, what is it that we are really doing here?  An empty ancient tribal act?  Or, are we recognizing that there is Divine light in the world, despite all the darkness and otherness we perceive during the week?  
In this way, this practice of seeing with the eyes of God is equal in ritual and in ethical acts.  One informs the other.  So when the time comes in each of our lives to stand up for justice, or to stand even in the face of our enemies--are we doing these acts out of a  place of anger, out of a place of seeing our adversaries as alien Others?  Or are we engaging in these actions in the spirit of Kedushah, of that Divine Holiness perspective, where even in the moment where we are in the presence of our enemy we have the courage to remind ourselves “You don’t know what he/she is going through.”  Even as we struggle against overwhelming odds when all seems hopeless and despairing, are we able to defy that darkness and otherness and find even the smallest spark of light and hope?
Just as our people, even in the darkness of Hitler’s Europe, even in the Warsaw ghetto and elsewhere, continued to light Shabbat candles and acknowledge the possibility of light and renewal in the midst of apparent chaos, we are still here to continue to bless the possibility of light, to overcome the fear in our hearts of all those who terrify us, and recognize how they too, however distorted they may seem to us, are in the image of God.
At Ne’ilah, we will be distributing cards with the phrase “Ani v’Atah,   Me and You.”  It’s the name of a famous Israeli song, sung by Arik Einstein.  We do this as a simple reminder to take with us into the New Year of 5775 our sacred purpose as the Jewish people.  It’s what the philosopher Martin Buber taught in his famous work “I and Thou”:  It’s a reminder that just as we try to be Havruta partners with each other whenever we study Torah, we must understand ourselves to be Havruta partners with everyone whom we encounter in our lives--however briefly, however painfully or frighteningly, however alien and Other they may appear to us.  It is only together as Ani v’Atah, me AND you, not me versus you, that we sanctify this world.  It’s only when we set as our chiefest goal and purpose as the Jewish people to be the ones to transcend otherness that we can begin to create the possibility of peace and lasting justice.  We can’t wait for the rest of the world to live this message of transcending otherness.  This, and only this, is what we were chosen for in the first place.  So this year, let’s resolve together as a community to live in Havruta, Ani v’Atah, with all those in our lives and in our world.  Let’s make use of the ancient technology of holiness that we have received from our ancestors and learn to see the world not as a dark place of hostile others, but rather as an imperfectly perfect work in progress, one where God is always present, seeing it for all its beauty and potential, where we have the power to help the whole world see one another with the eyes of God.  

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The One True Narrative of Israel

A few weeks ago, I was working with a bar mitzvah child as he prepared for his simchah.  At some point, we were discussing the terrible events that had been going on in Israel this summer.  After this talk, his mom pulled me aside and said to me, very simply, “It’s hard to be Jewish at this time.  It’s just so hard.”  I think she expressed a sentiment that we all feel as we enter this Jewish New Year.  It began with the kidnapping and murder of the three Israeli boys, Naftali Fraenkel, Eyal Yifrach, and Gilad Shaar.  Next, some Jew, in retaliation, decided to murder a Palestinian boy, Muhammad Abu Khdeir.  And the terrible theme of this summer, along with the missiles and the world condemnation of Israel, was the murder of children and other innocents.  Hundreds of children in this conflict as a result of the Hamas policy to place the innocent in as much danger as possible and use the innocent as human shields knowing the power of these deaths and images to tear at our souls.
        Here at home, we have watched in horror and fear as missile after missile was fired at Israel, relieved at Iron Dome’s effectiveness, but still deeply terrified, knowing that their aim is to kill our people--men, women, and children.  Our fears and heaviness have only multiplied as the world, it seems, has chosen to utterly vilify Israel as a cruel and vicious oppressor.  And our hearts were breaking knowing that so many innocent Palestinians were dying because of Hamas’ cruel tactics--and because of Israel’s need to defend itself nevertheless.  I’m sure many of you join me in feeling like the world is going mad.  Everywhere, we are moving to extremes, hatred, and violence.  The specter of Anti Semitism is springing up all over the world again. We are all so scared, and indeed, it is so hard to be Jewish right now.
        While I so wish I could point to a clear way out of the pain we all feel right now, what I can do for us this Rosh HaShanah is to at least point us in the direction of hope.  And indeed, that message of hope did rise up in Israel this summer--and many of us may have missed it in the shuffle of events of the summer.  After the Palestinian boy, Muhammad, was murdered in retaliation for Hamas’ murder of the three Jewish boys, something remarkable happened. Jerusalem’s Mayor Nir Barakat paid a shiva call to Naftali Fraenkel’s home.  While there, the Mayor called Abu Khdeir, the Palestinian boy’s father, and suggested that he speak to the family.  The uncle of the slain Jewish boy got on the phone and had an emotional conversation with the father of the Palestinian boy.   “We expressed our deep empathy with their sorrow, from one bereaved family to another bereaved family,” Yishai Fraenkel reportedly said. “I think it’s very good they seem to have found the culprits. We expressed our absolute disgust with what had happened. He accepted our statements, it was important for him to hear it.”   The Fraenkel family also issued an official statement:   “There is no difference when it comes to blood. Murder is murder; there is no justification, forgiveness or atonement for any murder.”
        In these extraordinary actions and words, the seeds of a way out of the out of control hatred and violence were planted…
        There is simply nothing in our human experience more despicable than the murder of children.  Such murders send shockwaves through all of humanity, engendering not just horror and anger, but the deepest of fears.  The fallout from such murders--be they by kidnappers or by Hamas’ tactics--turns otherwise good and decent people into extremes of fear and judgment--on both the political left and right about Israel.
        On the left, Israel has become the ultimate villain of western imperialist domination, one of the great impediments--literally and symbolically--of all oppressed peoples in the world.  In other words, age-old anti-Semitism, dressed in progressive liberal drag, has invaded the left.  For those of us who are proud Jewish liberals, this has felt like an incredible betrayal.  This insidious anti-Semitism--that so perverts true liberal values of compassion for all troubled peoples on all sides--has effectively muzzled those of us who feel that current Israeli policies and approaches deserve criticism in a respectful and democratic fashion.
        On the political right, as well, fear and rage have pushed not only some Israelis, but many here as well into ever-more hateful vilifying of all Palestinians, and delegitimizing of valid Palestinian claims. As much as Israel has every right and need to defend itself, I have heard too many Jews callously write-off the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian children as collateral damage; who refuse to acknowledge the horror and immediately deflect the conversation away from the children to hatred of Hamas and Palestinians.  The great tragedy of Israel these days is not just the war casualties--it’s the very humanity of all people in their fearful reaction to this war.  This diminishing sense of the humanity on all sides is also a betrayal of what it means to be Jewish, and the deepest Jewish value that every human life is sacred.
        Indeed, it is so hard to be Jewish right now….
At a moment like this, we need to go back to basics.  We need to remember who we are as Jews, and why we are here, and what the vision and dream of the State of Israel is in the first place.  On May 14, 1948, David Ben Gurion spoke these words.
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
Thank God, the modern state of Israel is indeed all of these things.  Within these words we hear of Israel’s commitment to be based on prophetic values of justice.  In the haftarah of Yom Kippur, we will recite the words of Isaiah who tells us that God wants us to “...unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke.  To let the oppressed go free; to break off every yoke...to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”
        Contrast the Israeli Declaration with the foundational “Covenant of Hamas,” where article 7 quotes the Koran and reads, “ 'The Day of Judgment will not come about until Moslems fight Jews and kill them. Then, the Jews will hide behind rocks and trees, and the rocks and trees will cry out: 'O Muslim, there is a Jew hiding behind me, come and kill him.”
           Our own Jeffrey Goldberg, writing for the Atlantic, brought in a quote where the famously left wing writer Amos Oz--one of the founders of Peace Now, in fact--poses two questions to his interviewer at the beginning of an Interview with Deutsche Welle:
Question 1: What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?
Question 2: What would you do if your neighbor across the street digs a tunnel from his nursery to your nursery in order to blow up your home or in order to kidnap your family?
And indeed, with this apt metaphor, we, the Jewish people, pass the simple truth onto the world.
           There is a stark contrast  between the two foundational documents.  There is no moral equivalence between Hamas and the Israeli government. And yes, Hamas’ aims are terrifying.  Their hateful, barbaric, extremist ideology, echoes the barbarism and contempt for human life we have seen from ISIS.  Yes, these terrorists are motivated by an anti-Semitism as pure as that of Hitler.  But on this New Year, as we face the unshakable truth of anti-Semitism in Gaza and the world, and reel from the deaths of children--we must, above all else, resist the urge to sink to Hamas’ level.  Instead, we must stand strong and hold fast to the foundational principles of Israel and Judaism.  If we are to play our part in overcoming the darkness of our time, the narrative of Israel must NO LONGER be about Jews vs. Arabs, or Israelis vs. Palestinians anymore.  It is NOT about the powerful vs. the powerless. The struggle in the Land of Israel is a struggle between those who yearn for peace, and those who do not yearn for peace.
        What must rise up from the terrible ashes of this summer is that Jew and Jew, left and right, Jew and Muslim, Jew and Christian, religious and secular, Israelis and like-minded Palestinians-- must all come together with voices joined to speak out against extremism on all political sides.  We must recognize that not all Palestinians are evil.  Hamas and their ideology are evil.  There is a famous story in midrash Tehillim (Psalm 104) about how there were once “ruffians,” or evil people living in the neighborhood of the great Rabbi Meir.  Rabbi Meir began to pray that these evil-doers die.  Upon hearing this, Rabbi Meir’s wife, Bruriah, was outraged.  She quoted the 104th Psalm to him, that says, “Yitamu Chataim min ha’aretz” which means “May sins be uprooted from the earth.” She said to her husband.  It does NOT say May sinners be uprooted from the earth, rather their sins.  “Pray that the sinners repent of their ways, NOT that they themselves would perish.”  Bruria reminded her husband that the role of the Jewish people in this world is not to seek the death of others, but overcome sins and all sources of evil.  The story ends that Rabbi Meir took his wife’s advice.  He prayed on behalf of the evil-doers, and lo and behold, they ceased to be evil.
Judaism tells us over and over again--all hope for Tikkun Olam--repair of the world--MUST begin with us, the Jewish people to create a world that is whole and just.  In Kabbalah, we are taught that our role as the Jewish people is to respond to every kind of brokenness that we encounter in this world,  to redeem the broken shards of every brokenness, and to liberate the spark of the Divine in every shard so that that spark may return to its source in God’s Oneness .  We have to break the chain of hatred and see through our fear to the real humanity of the other.  And, equally importantly, we must DEMAND that others must recognize our humanity as well!
        It is essential that we, like the Fraenkels, grieve the loss of innocent Palestinian children as much as we grieve the loss of our own.  We must learn from the Fraenkel and Abu Khdeir families, and realize that no one people or ideology owns the claim to the worst victimhood in this world.  There is, in truth, only one story of victimhood in the entire human saga, and that is the loss of innocent life at the hands of any and all people who do not value peace and justice and the dignity of life itself.  The Mishnah itself, in Sanhedrin (4:5), explains: God created the world from one single person, from Adam, “...for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, "My parent was greater than your parent".  Remarkably, it’s not only the Talmud that teaches this wisdom.  There is a parallel teaching to this in the Koran itself!  The evil that we struggle against is not in Islam.  Yes, Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, has its problematic texts--but as a religion it is not evil.  It is in the twisted, distorted ideas of Hamas and other fanatics.
        Now is the time, more than ever, for us to lift up Judaism’s message for all peoples of the world:  We are one human family--the children of Abraham--Jews, Christians, Muslims, and together with all families of the earth, we are all the children of God.  And our Torah teaches us that the Land of Israel contains the seeds of turning the hearts of brothers and sisters, parents and children toward one another, recognizing the sanctity of life and God’s creation.  This summer, the Fraenkels and the Abu Khdeir families lived this truth.  Now we must all do it.  We express this vision every day when when we say the Aleinu in our services:  that the nations that today seem so scattered and dissonant, will one day come together and recognize the oneness that we all share.  We can and must hold our heads high and speak the truth of what Israel can and will be to this world.  It is most clearly summed up with the words that we end every Kaddish with in our Machzor:
“Oseh Shalom bimromav,”  “May God who makes peace in the Heavens above,” “Hu Ya’aseh Shalom aleinu, v’al kol Yisrael, v’al kol yoshvei teivel,” “May God bring peace upon us, upon all Israel, and upon all inhabitants of this world,”  “V’imru Amen”!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Technology of Moral Choices

This has been quite a week of crisis over Syria.  But even with immediate crisis postponed, we are left with many difficult moral questions.  Last week, President Obama proclaimed that  President Assad of Syria crossed a red line.  He deployed chemical weapons against his own people.  According to the Obama administration,  1,429 people died in that war crime, including 426 children --  and this act warranted a response because it clearly violate s the norms of the international community.  In the ensuing arguments and political deals in the past few days, one question gnaws at us:  why, in particular, are chemical weapons worse than all the countless atrocities that Assad has been perpetrating for years now?  It’s a good question, and that’s why it gnaws at us. You see, deep down, we Jews in particular, we know well—very well—why chemical weapons cross the line from pedestrian atrocity to unacceptable horror.  It was our people who were forced into the gas chambers.  It was our people who were the targets of the total genocide of men, women, and children at the hands of a vicious dictator.  We, in fact, know, from centuries of experience, what it is to be the innocents wiped out en masse.  In our very marrow we, the remnant of Israel, live to tell the story of the evil of which humanity is capable.  
        As I beheld the awful pictures of the victims buried in mass graves, including the children, I couldn’t help but think not only of the Holocaust, but also of a story from the Torah that we all know well.  In the book of Exodus, we read the slaying of the first-born of Egypt the night before our escape from Pharaoh.  We are told that about midnight, HaMaschit—the Destroyer—came into the Land of Egypt and wiped out the firstborn, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh to the firstborn of the maidservant at the mill, and even the cattle.  Our ancient rabbis explain that this Mashchit, this Destroyer, was a force of unspeakable terror: it did not distinguish between the innocent and the guilty.  It simply killed.  But we, the Israelites in Goshen, we had our own, very different sort of red line:  we had the lamb’s blood that we spread on our doorposts and lintels.  I would like to ask us all to take that famed story and just sit with it for a moment:  imagine that you are an Israelite, looking from your safe place out on that dark night, when all around you are screams of terror and grief as God indiscriminately kills the firstborn of Egypt.  How do you feel?  If you’re anything like me, you feel horror, guilt, anger, unworthiness, alienation, powerlessness, humbled even as you are grateful to be alive.
      I share this story today because, through its similarities and differences to Syria, it gives us a unique perspective.  At first blush, the Maschit/Destroyer is like a Divine chemical weapon.  But it’s not.  It’s from God.  It’s destroys, but it is there as an instrument for the good!  The Maschit is a response to evil.  It’s a response that works evil even as it opposes evil!  Inherent in the story of the Maschit is that evil is sometimes so profound in this world that there is no way to counter it without bringing about some collateral evil.  It is a profoundly challenging story on a moral level.  Every year when we sit at our seder, we are forced to confront this painful truth:  that if that Mashchit hadn’t destroyed so many lives in Egypt on that dark night, we would not have been saved.  Indeed, we would not even exist now.  And this, of course, is why we take out the ten drops of wine from our cup of joy at our seders every year.
        And now we struggle over more killing in the Middle East because a red line has been crossed, and the security of the region—of Israel—is at stake.  Today, I’m talking about Syria, about the intense moral challenge that Syria poses to all of us.  What I’m talking about is how our every choice to do good has consequences—often good together with bad consequences.  What I will show today is that, while we certainly have the moral high ground with respect to Syria—the greatest danger is for us to forget that we never, ever, have an absolute moral high ground over anyone.
In attacking his own people, even the innocent children, Assad is worse than Pharaoh.  He is once again the ancient Amalek, the sworn enemy of Israel and all that is good in the world, because Assad, like Amalek, respects no rules of human dignity and life, and attacks even the defenseless. This most certainly, from a Jewish perspective, seems to be a clear open and shut case.  But wait a minute.  The same God who tells us never to forget the atrocities of Amalek in all generations, was also the God who commanded us to wipe out the Canaanites, the Jebusites, and other peoples living in the Land of Israel in our conquest of the land.  And in that command, God had us wipe out all these peoples—the men, the women, and the children.  Yes, we were commanded by God to commit mass killings! And just as in the slaying of the firstborn, I want to ask you to just sit with that for a moment:  your ancient ancestors attacked and killed countless people, including children, in order to inherit the Land of Israel.
              Our Torah is such a frustrating document!  It would be so easy for it to be only inspiring, with a God who is nothing but love and goodness.  But it just doesn’t work that way!  Yes, it has plenty of inspiration and love.  But it is full of horror, injustice, and a God who is so often angry, distant, cruel and cold.  For generations, our people have sought to avoid all the challenging, uncomfortable parts of the Torah.  As soon as we encounter God, the killer of innocents, we squirm.  And we typically do anything to avoid these texts and stories.   One of my teachers, Rabbi Irwin Kula, taught me that we typically avoid these texts in two ways:  the first way to avoid uncomfortable parts of the Torah is the Ultra-Orthodox way.  That is, if you don’t like God’s actions or commandments, it’s your fault, and it’s your problem.  The Torah is perfect, so you have to be the confused one.  The second way of avoiding a disturbing text of the Torah is the modern, academic, secular way of avoiding it:  A disturbing text with a vengeful angry God?  No problem!  It’s obviously an ancient text from primitive times, reflecting barbarian values of the ancient world.  The pretty, inspiring texts are more sophisticated.  We’ll keep those, and reject the ones we don’t like.  The problem with the Orthodox avoidance is that you get Jews who say that the Holocaust was the Jews fault because they didn’t do enough Mitzvos, and they didn’t check to make sure their mezzuzahs were Kosher (an ultra-Orthodox man once explained this to my face).  The problem with the secularist avoidance of the text is that by deconstructing it, you reduce it to just a piece of literature that doesn’t necessarily have moral sway over your particular opinion.
        What I say is that both these approaches are equally evasive of the Torah itself.  I teach a class called Making Torah Personal (I will be teaching it again this fall in the Beit Midrash).  In that class, I instruct students not to avoid, but to sit with these texts. They’re disturbing for a reason!  The Torah is a technology that exists to change us, to humble us, to make us more compassionate and thoughtful people.  But you can’t get there if you avoid these texts.
        Last week, I talked about God.  I taught how the Da’at, the deepest knowing of God is to acknowledge What-Is, to acknowledge Reality itself.  This week, as we think about the painful implications of our potential involvement in Syria, we must turn to our Judaism, to our Torah, for guidance.  This week, I teach that the technology of the Torah is to serve as a perfect mirror of What-Is.  It’s a mirror we hold up to Reality in order to find our own moral clarity in that reflection.  In that reflection, we are forced to ask ourselves:  Why does God seem to kill indiscriminately?  Why does God let bad things happen to good people?  Why does pursuing the good sometimes lead to terrible consequences?  Why  does the Torah have all these things?  I’ll tell you the answer:  Look around at the world around you.  That’s exactly What-Is!  That’s the Face of Reality, the Face of God!  The Reality of this life does not only contain Abraham and Moses, Gandhi and MLK; Reality also includes Pharaoh, Amalek, Hitler, and Assad.  You can’t be a true moral actor in this life until you acknowledge that all our actions exist in one singular continuum, and all actions are inseparable from one another.
        In light of this, the greatest Jewish response to the beautiful, terrible, awesome fact of Reality, of What-Is, is simply this:  Now what?  Given that good and evil are so often inextricably intertwined, what do we do next?  The Torah itself rings out with a magnificent answer.  In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses stands before the Israelites and says “I call on heaven and earth to witness against  you this day, that I have set before you Hachayim v’hamavet, life and death, habrachah v’haklalah --the blessing and the curse; uvacharta bachayim, therefore choose life that you may live, you and your seed.”
        When you really look deeply into the Torah, you begin to see that we’re not better than anyone else.  We’re not inherently more moral.  God loves us, commands and instructs us, but even these Divine acts manifest imperfectly in this imperfect world.  And so, despite this incomprehensible world, uvacharta bachayim!  Choose Life!  With all of it, the good and the bad, the message is that we must choose the path that sanctifies life above anything else.  There’s a reason we know that, deep down, Syria really has crossed a profound moral red line.  If anything our thousands of years of redemption, genocide, blessings and curses, life and death has shown us, it’s that life is sacred.  
        Any choice we make as nations or as individuals, must be guided at its core with this simple fact of choosing life—whether it be choosing to attacking Syria verses diplomatic means, or choosing to put  criminals in jail, or becoming a whistleblower, opposing corruption or speaking our mind to our loved ones.  Every choice echoes out into the universe, both for the good and for the bad.  And so we must be ever-mindful that our every choice upholds life and rejects death; our every choice must affirm peace and reject strife; it must affirm compassion and reject abandonment.
        And even when we make our choice, we must know this:  we can never, ever know in this life if it was absolutely the right choice.  We can never know for absolutely certain that we are 100% on the side of life, and our adversary is 100% on the side of death.  We can be pretty darn sure, but there’s a universe of difference in acknowledging and owning the consequences of our uncertainty.  It is very tempting for us to reduce our world to good vs. evil, black vs. white, as all fundamentalists and dictators do.  But this is not the Jewish way.  The Jewish way is to choose life, and choosing life means acting with the greatest of humility, fear, and knowledge that the shades of moral difference that separate any of us human beings are so very slight…
        …And yet, the Torah says Lo Tuchal Lehit’alem:  you MUST act—“You must never remain indifferent.”  Even with all the ambiguous consequences, the greatest sin in Judaism is not to act at all when action can be taken.
        So this Yom Kippur, I pray that we will do everything in our power to affirm life, to understand that we cant ever be sure, but that we must do the best we can.  I believe that the last thing that God wanted was for that Mashchit/Destroyer to kill the firstborn; the last thing God wanted was to command us to wipe out the Canaanites and Jebusites; the last thing that God wants is a world with chemical and nuclear weapons, that contains the ever-present possibility of genocide.  I believe that God grieves each and every desecration of the sanctity of life itself.  Indeed, that’s why we’re here:  to help God, to help finish Creation itself; to be God’s partners in making this world what it yet could be.  In this year, 5774, may we finally come to make true God’s vision for this world, that it indeed be Tov Me’od, that it fulfill it’s potential to be very good.  May we make that possibility real through the works of our hands, and the choices that we make for the sake of life.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Why Jews should NOT Believe in God

There’s an old joke:  a young Jewish man in the shtetl suddenly realizes that he doesn’t believe in God.  He goes to his rebbe, and says “I don’t believe in God, what should I do?”  The rebbe says, “You don’t believe in God?  I can’t help you, but I know who can.”  “Who?” Asked the young man.  “Go to Krakow and seek out the Atheist Rebbe.  He can help you,” replied his rebbe.  So the young man got a horse and buggy and made the schlep from the shtetl all the way to Krakow.  He went to the shul where the Atheist Rebbe davened (all the while thinking it very strange that an Atheist Rebbe would daven in a shul at all).  He got to the shul during prayer time.  And there, at the back of the room, was the rebbe, in long black coat, a black hat, a long white beard, and long curly payes;  in fervent prayer, shuckling.  “Excuse me, rebbe…” said the young man.  “Sha!  I’m davening!” said the Atheist rebbe.  When the rebbe finally finished davening, the young man said “If I could just…”  “Sha!” said the rebbe.  First, we must eat!  As they sat down to the meal, the young man said, “Rebbe, please…”  “Sha!” said the Rebbe, “We must make Hamotzi and eat in silence.  When they finished eating, the young man said, “Now, rebbe?” “Sha!” he replied, “Now we must bensch! (recite grace after meals).  Finally after bensching, the young man said, “You know rebbe, for an Atheist, you sure strike me as a very pious Jew.”  “Nu?” said the rebbe, “I may be an atheist, but does that mean that I should act like a gentile?”
        There are a lot of us in this room who are not that different from that rebbe.  We’re very Jewish.  Very proud of it.  But this belief in God thing, not so much.  Not long ago, I was listening to an NPR show where they interviewed a young Evangelical man, who had a crisis of faith because he woke up one day and realized that he didn’t believe in God.  He had to break off his engagement, he had to leave his church, and wander.  All while hearing this, I kept thinking:  just by not believing, he is cut off from his people, his church, even his beloved?  That’s so NOT Jewish!  So today, I am going to make a very radical assertion: as Jews, we should NOT believe in God!
        To this you might say, But that’s absurd!  Judaism is all about God!  If we don’t believe in God, why should we pray? Why should we care about justice, and all other Jewish values? Why have a God concept at all?!  In order to answer this question, I must first unpack what I mean by ‘believe in God’ in the first place.  In truth, the whole idea of “believing in God” is quite new in Judaism.   Historically, the question of belief never really came up for us.  Remember, Christianity broke with Judaism 2,000 years ago over the idea of Faith vs. Works.  For the Christians, the goal is to believe in Jesus in order to be saved.  For us Jews, we don’t need to be saved from Hell, and we don’t need to believe to prevent us from getting there.
        Of course, Judaism is also not as simple as saying that it’s just about what you do either.  The essence of Judaism is more correctly expressed as living in a committed relationship with God.  To this idea, you might say Wait a minute!  I thought you said that we shouldn’t “believe in” God.  How can we have a committed relationship with something that we don’t necessarily believe in?  To answer this, I would like to ask us now to picture someone whom we deeply love.  Do you need to believe that this beloved exists before you love them?  It’s an absurd question, isn’t it?  We don’t need to ‘believe’ because it’s patently obvious they exist.  We have proof:  they have a shape, they have mass, you can reach out and touch them.  Now I will ask a follow-up question:  Are your rational proofs of your beloved’s existence why you are committed to them?  Obviously not.  What commits us to our beloved is the sum of all the experiences we have shared together; what life we have lived together; what choices we make together; what actions we take.  We don’t need to believe that the other exists because the life we live with our beloved touches us, transforms us…We don’t need to believe abstract things about our beloved.  Instead, we just know:  we know who they are; we know what they mean to us.
        Ah, but we may say:  Our minds can fool us.  We all know stories of people really knowing something to be true, only to discover that they were mistaken.  This, of course is true.  But I speak today about an even deeper kind of Knowing.  Take water, for example.  One or two molecules of water in the palm of our hand isn’t going to feel like water.  How many molecules are necessary before I have the experience of “wet?”  Now, I could assert that I don’t “believe in” wet, because there’s no wet there at all, just molecules.  And yet, none of us in our right minds would deny that there is such a thing as the experience of ‘wet.’  Why do we know that there is ‘wet?’  Well, we just…know.
        Judaism is not a religion about “believing in” anything.  Judaism is a religion that is all about ‘just knowing.’  There are many Hebrew words for Knowing/Knowledge:  chochmah, sekhel, melumad.  The most famous word for Knowing is “Da’at.” Da’at is a famous word because this is the word that means knowing “in the biblical sense.”  But Da’at is not just knowing in a racy sense.  Da’at really means the deepest kind of Knowing; it refers to intimate knowledge that comes from a deeply felt experience in life.  We say that Moses “knew” God better than any other human being, that God Knew Moses panim el panim, face to face—intimately.  It was this same quality of Da’at, knowing, that enabled Abraham to go forth to a land he did not know:  he trusted his deepest Knowing of what was right and true.  When Moses was at the burning bush, that bush is really a metaphor for an experience of Knowing that was so uncanny that a new Name of God revealed itself to Moses, and that name was YHVH.  The essence of that Ineffable Name is the very Hoveh, which means What-is.  When we truly open up to the What-is-ness of life, we don’t need to “believe in” anything. We just know.
        Think to a time that life that just broke your heart wide open, positive or negative:  the moment you fell in love, the birth of a child; the death of a loved-one; think to a moment that changed the course of your life:  a nearly fatal car accident or heart-attack; think of any moment when everything you thought you knew fell away.  In that gap, in that free-fall, the rest of your life began.  When you think about those moments, they gave us something.  They gave us a deeper Knowledge about life; a deeper sense of ourselves, of life’s fragility and preciousness.  It’s in this ever-deepening awareness of ourselves and our place in the universe, in gaining our sense of the What-isness, the YHVH of life—that’s the beginning of what Judaism means by God.  At no point does Judaism ask us to believe in something irrationally; to give up our integrity for an idea.  Rather, Judaism asks us to live, really to live, and let life itself show us panim el panim, face to face, the nature of What-is/of YHVH.  And this Knowing is miraculous, transformational.  Carl Sagan, a noted atheist himself, once said “Science [another word for the pursuit of Knowing] is miraculous, and life on earth is the most improbable of possibilities.”
        Why do I talk of this today?  There are so many Jewish people who tell me, “I just don’t believe in God.”  They try to conjure up an image of God as depicted in our prayers and in the Torah, and in good faith, they just can’t buy it.   What these good and well-meaning people may not realize is that these images and concepts of God in our Torah and prayers are actually more like vessels or tools that exist as a place holder, as a container to hold our experience of life that is unnamable.  So don’t believe in God!  Believe, instead in Life, in Reality, in What-Is.  Don’t think you have to believe in a story or a concept about God.  Rather, believe in your deepest experience of what is true in your personal relationships and in your open-hearted experiences.
        I talk of this subject today because we are all here, in this newly renovated space.  But what we see here is not just a face-lift of a synagogue.  This new space is only an external part of a whole paradigm-shift that is going on in Judaism here at Adas Israel.  Our new paradigm is actually a renewal  actually tshuvah in its best sense:  of the most ancient and central paradigm of Judaism: it’s about living not with God or Judaism as a concept to believe in or not.  But rather, it is to live a Judaism that exists as a portal, a gateway to Da’at, to our deepest and most transformational human experiences.
        I talk about this subject today because through the years, I have heard choruses of Jews who cannot find personal meaning in a synagogue or in services.  I have heard scores of older parents grieve the fact that their children are no longer in synagogue, but turn elsewhere for meaning and connection.  Our new vision here at Adas Israel is a response to these deep concerns.  No longer will we present Judaism only as held-on-high, as a sacred relic of an ancient past that we must make obeisance to only on holidays and at life-cycle events.  Rather, all of Judaism:  our Torah, prayer, Mitzvot, concepts of God—these all exist as a technology that exists FOR us to find meaningful connection to ourselves, to others, and to God (no matter if you use the word God, or call it anything else:  Truth, Science, Nature.  It all works!)
        The bold experiment, the new vision of Jewish life at Adas Israel is a Judaism that is not a series of abstract ideas and quaint ancient practices; it is NOT a source of guilt and anxiety only focused on whether or not we will have Jewish grandchildren.  Rather, it is a vision of Judaism as constant opportunities, as experiences that bring the mind and heart together to make us better human beings.
Adas will be a synagogue where you don’t have to make a choice of leaving your heart or your intellect at the door,  but where you not only bring the fullness of your integrity. We will be the kind of synagogue we have always been--finding releveance and connection between our lives and Judaism.  In new programs like MakomDC in the Biran Beit Midrash we will find innovative ways to come together around learning and Jewish conversation.  In the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington, we will bring back Jewish spiritual practice for those for whom this is meaningful.  In our newly expanding Hazak program, we will be having new ways to engage our senior members with substantive experiences.  Our Vision of Renewal is also all about inclusion for people who have long felt ostrasized from the Jewish community:  people with disabilities, intermarried families, LGBTQ people and families.  We will expand the role of a synagogue beyond ritual life and conventional education to new ways of growing as human beings in community; with our new Engagement initiatives in the synagogue, we will expand beyond the walls of the synagogues into homes, cafes,  and elsewhere. We will find ever-increasing ways of forming bonds, connection, and relationships that can enrich us not just as Jews, but as human beings.
Most importantly, we won’t require you to “believe in” anything;. But like the joke,  we only ask that you find out what happens when we act like Jews together.
The ancient Temple that once stood in Jerusalem was know as THE  House of God.  When it was destroyed, we mourned the literal loss of God in our midst!  Did God ‘live’ there more than anywhere else?  No, of course not.  It was God’s House because we all banded together as Jews and through our committed action, in our creating sacred conditions,  we were the ones who made that place more Godly than anywhere else.  We can still do that through the conditions we create right here today:  In the experience of doing sacred acts for one another:  in affirming our values of kindness and justice; in living in this experience that is Adas:  we can, collectively create the experience of Da’at:  of Sacred Knowledge of the Ultimate (I call it God) together.  Together, may we fulfill the real Jewish notion of God so beautifully expressed in Hoshea (2:21) v’erastich li le’olam: I will commit myself to you forever; V’Erastich li be’tzedek u’mishpat,  I will commit myself with righteousness and  justice, uv’chesed uv’rachamim: with kindness, and compassion; v’Erastich li b’Emunah, I will commit myself to you with faithfulness; v’yada’at et Adonai,   and together may we all KNOW Adonai.  Amen.

Monday, June 3, 2013

In the Huffington Post:


A Rabbi on the Economy & The Great Gatsby

Posted: 06/03/2013 2:45 pm

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in 1925 as a poignant commentary on the excesses of the pre-Great Depression jazz era. And now, in 2013, Baz Luhrman has brought it, once again, to the silver screen--a gaudy and beautiful rendering in a moment of economic recovery and rebounding housing markets. We watch this movie in an America hoping to return to dreaming big.
I have long appreciated Fitzgerald's novel as a commentary on the limits of the American Dream that we all hold sacred. Dreams and fantasies, the pursuit of wealth and fame and success--these vanities have been lifted to the highest levels of respect and hope and yearning over the past century. For many, they replace core values. They replace real connection and contentment with the pursuit of praise, which is a false kind of love. When we have achieved fame and power and wealth, we are validated, appreciated, fawned-over. Jay Gatsby could readily dismiss his outward success as empty of meaning. But his tragedy was that he could never acknowledge that the object of his desire--Daisy--was now a dream as empty as any garish party he threw. Her approval could never be made into real love.
My favorite character in the novel is not Gatsby, but Nick, the narrator. The love that Nick feels for Gatsby is real love, not ersatz fantasy love. Nick loved his friend Gatsby because he could see through his futile pursuit of dreams. In essence, Nick could see into his friend's neshamah, his soul. And what he found was a greatness that lived not just in Gatsby, but potentially in us all: a drive never to give up on the possibility of finding real love.
It strikes me as a funny moment in our society for this picture to roll out. After all, with its hip-hop score and beautiful young cast, it's geared toward the lucrative teen market, and also to the host of twenty-somethings who are struggling to find work, but who are maybe a bit more hopeful nowadays. The movie is a big money-maker, full of visions of what money can and can't buy. Do the Millenials watching this movie identify with their counterparts of a century ago? Or are they much more wise and world-weary, unlikely to fall for illusions the way that Gatsby did?
Dreams and fantasy may capture our yearning, but they can never, in the end, replace reality. That's a hard lesson to learn. When the housing market crashed in 2008, I was hopeful that a silver lining of this recession was the possibility of a spiritual return to reality--to its curses, but also to its blessings. We may lose our jobs, even our houses, but when it's all said and done, we have each other. Real love is the final reality that nothing can take away. But do we have the courage to let go of the fantasy priorities of material success that our society has long exulted?
There are real signs that our economy is doing better. Are we going to breathe a sigh of relief that our interruption on the way to success is now ending? Will that be all that recession meant to us? Will we be able to see past the cool music, the gorgeous costumes, and attractive stars of the movie, and really take in the core message of Fitzgerald's great novel?
As an American who is also committed to the values and wisdom of Judaism, I relish the feeling of infinite possibility in America. But I also am grateful to be grounded in an ancient tradition that demonstrates time and again that nothing can replace the bonds of community, the connection between generations of families, and the power of an authentic spiritual life. I pray for our economy to recover, for jobs to emerge, and for prosperity to reign once again. But I pray with equal fervor that as our Millenials get jobs and build beautiful lives for themselves, those lives will be based on the solid ground of wisdom and not just dreams of external success. I pray that they be more like Nick, and less like Gatsby--cutting through vanity, artifice and arrogance, and remembering instead that the measure of a life well-lived is not the love that we can buy or achieve, but rather the love that we can give.
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC.