Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas and Chanukkah? Or Christmas and Passover?

This is the text of a d'var Torah entitled Love Your Neighbor that I delivered on Shabbat Sh'mot, Tevet 18, 5771, December 25, 2010, at Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle, WA. 

Shabbat shalom!

V’ahavta l’reiakha kamokha. Ani Adonai. “Love your neighbor; for he, she, is like you. I am the Lord.” (Leviticus 19:18) This text, the basis for the summary of Judaism favored by Rabbi Akiva and many others, is not found in today’s Torah reading. It is the heart of Judaism out of which I am speaking this morning. I’m using Norman Hirsh’s (Emeritus Rabbi, Beth Am) translation, not the common one of “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and I hope by the end of this d’var you will see why.

This Shabbat morning we have a remarkable opportunity. For today, the 18th of Tevet on the Jewish calendar, the Shabbat of Parashat Sh’mot, is also the 25th of December on the secular or shared calendar, also known as Christmas Day. We’re here in shul this morning, all of us—Jews or fellow travelers with Jews or friends or partners of Jews or just curious souls—to observe Shabbat by davening and hearing the Torah portion of Sh’mot read; while all around us, at this very moment, the majority of people are celebrating Christmas, either in their homes or in churches.

So what are we going to do with this opportunity?

Shall we ignore it? Why should we care? Why should we pay attention to what the dominant culture of Christians, our neighbors, are doing right now? This is Shabbat, the "sign forever" (ot hi l’olam) between The Holy One and the Jews. This is our rhythm, our celebration. Let’s not get distracted. We have to deal with this every waking monet---why on Shabbat too, and in shul, our sacred space, free of outside encrouchment? Let’s just go on with our practices and observances without mentioning those “others.” This is a way I, like many of us, have practiced for many years, and it is a good way.

Or how about this? Shall we confront this situation and talk about how difficult it is to be Jews this time of year, how hard it is to keep our heads above water let alone swim gracefully in this cultural tsunami called the Christmas holidays. Talking about “the December dilemma” is also good way, and one many of us have taken over the years.

But here’s another way we can meet this morning’s opportunity: We can step back for a moment and look at what is actually happening in both communities on this very day and reflect on what our actions mean for us as and our relationship to our spiritual neighbors. For we Jews and Christians are spiritual neighbors. Not just strangers, though we are that, too, unfortunately, in our ignorance of each other. Not just enemies, though we have sometimes been that, as we are too well aware. But neighbors. Looking on our communities of faith as spiritual neighbors is the way I want to meet this morning’s challenge.

So let’s take that step back and ask, What is going on in our two faith communities today? This: We Jews begin reading the book of Sh’mot, the story of the Exodus, and Christians begin reading the story of Jesus Christ.

Here’s how I read this remarkable fact: When we neighbors are having a conversation over the fence, it’s not Christmas and Chanukah we should be comparing, but Christmas and Pesach, not Christmas tree cookies and latkes, but Christmas tree cookies and matzot. Hold that thought of Pesach; I promise I will return to it!

Why not Chanukah and Christmas? First of all: when you compare traditions, you can’t compare what is central to one with what is marginal to another. That, in anybody’s book, is a false comparison. To do this is to Christianize Chanukah, elevate it to a status of key story, which it may look like from an outside, Christian point of view, but which it is not, from an inside Jewish point of view. The Chanukah story is not in the Torah, not even in the Tanakh. The story, though based in historical facts, comes from an apocryphal text preserved by Christians. The Christmas story, by contrast, not only is in Christian canon, it forms part of the core of that canon, the gospels. Theologically speaking and religiously speaking, it’s misleading, not to mention inaccurate, to compare one community’s minor holiday with another’s foundational holiday.

Of course it is anthropologically correct to compare Christmas and Chanukah. If we stand outside as ethnographers and look at what different communities of faith are doing at this time of year, the darkest time of the year, near the solstice, we see a lot of similarity. There’s a common emphasis on miracle and focus on light entering the darkness of the world, a season of remembering the power of hope against hope. And of course, eating and singing and merry-making and gift-giving. These two celebrations share something else, too: the degeneration of authentic spiritual traditions into the one de facto universal religion: materialism and consumerism. There’s a lot to be learned by comparing Christmas with Channukkah from the outside.

When we stand inside the Jewish community of faith and inside the Christian community of faith and look around at what is happening, however, a more fruitful comparison of Christmas within Judaism emerges—not Chanukah and Christmas, but Pesach and Christmas. (My many years of living hard and deep within both traditions, first as a Christian and then as a Jew allow me this double-vision privilege.) So let’s take a look together.

What are we and Jews all over the world doing this morning in our synagogues and homes? Opening the book of Sh’mot. Reading the beginning of the story of the Exodus. Our founding story, the story of the origin, ruthless enslavement, and liberation of God’s people. And we’re reading this story on Shabbat, which we call “the first of the holy festivals celebrating our going forth from Egypt.” By the way, it’s interesting that this opening of the story in Sh’mot, Names, begins with listing the names of our eponymous father and his sons—“These are the names of b'nei Yisrael who came to Egypt with Ya’akov”(Ex. 1:1) but does not give the name of father of the central character in this story, Moshe; it simply calls Moshe’s father “a certain man of the house of Levi who went and married a Levite woman” (2:1). We have to wait until the next parashah (Ex. 6:20), when we are already in the thick of the action in Egypt, for the storyteller to give us the father’s name—and the mother’s. Why? I can think of two reasons. One, it is this son, his uniqueness, not his ancestry or his biological or earthly father who is key to this story—similar to what happens in the Jesus story, as we’ll see in a moment; and two, the story wants to highlight Moshe’s special relationship to God.

What are Christians doing all over the world this morning in their churches and homes? Opening the Gospel of Luke or Mark and reading the beginning of their founding story, the story of the birth, horrific death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and through him, the liberation of God’s people.

We won’t complete the story of Exodus until the spring, when we finish the book of Sh’mot and move on to Vayyikra, and when we celebrate Pesach and retell the story of our exodus and redemption. And Christians won’t complete the story of Jesus Christ until the spring, when they observe Good Friday and celebrate Easter.

But today, December 25, the 18th of Tevet, we are both at this same moment going back to our source, to our root, that from which we sprang as a people and that which keeps us ever greening; we're returning to our founding narrative, the master story that shapes and guides all that we see and know and do. A master story or founding narrative is the lens through which all other texts are read. We Jews and Christians both have incredible collections of diverse sacred texts that span thousands of years. What unifies them? Our way of reading them: through the lens of our founding narrative. (Read Michael Goldberg’s Jews and Christians: Getting Our Stories Straight if you want to follow up on this, though in a more polemical presentation.)

Listen again to what we pray before every Shabbat eve dinner: We praise and thank you for the gift of Shabbat, “the first of the holy festivals celebrating our going forth from Egypt.” Shabbat was given at creation; no one denies this. But we read it through the lens of the Exodus.

The same is true of our beloved siddur. Exodus is the golden cord that holds all these pearls together. Check it out sometime—I challenge you. For today, turn to page 119 in Siddur Sim Shalom, Al Ha-Nissim, the prayer the rabbis added to the Amidah for Chanukah. The rabbis who wrote and inserted this prayer took no sides in the contemporary debate whether Chanukah was a military miracle of the few against the many like that performed by the Maccabees or a supernatural miracle of oil like that performed by the prophet Elisha. They included them both, in the second paragraph and the last paragraph. The way forward for them, as the guardians of the Jewish way of living with God, was to seal Chanukah in our heart of hearts, and to do that they tied it to the Exodus story. This is what we read in the first sentence, and near the end of the blessing.

We thank Thee for the miraculous victories of liberation and deliverance which Thou didst effect for our ancestors in ancient days, during this season of the year.

In the days of the Hasmoneans, Mattathias ben Yochanan, the High Priest, and his sons, there arose against Thy people Israel a wicked Hellenic empire. It sought to make Israel abandon Thy Torah and violate Thy precepts. But Thou, in Thine abundant mercies, didst come to their defense in a time of trouble. Thou didst champion their cause; Thou didst vindicate their rights; Thou didst avenge the wrongs they endured. Thou didst deliver the strong into the hands of the weak; the many into the hands of the few; the corrupt into the hands of the upright; the wicked into the hands of the just; and the arrogant into the hands of those who were faithful to Thy Torah. Thou didst establish Thy renown throughout the world; and for Thy people Israel Thou didst effect a mighty deliverance. Thereupon did Thy children enter Thy house. They removed the defilements from Thy Temple, and cleansed Thy shrine. They kindled festive lights in Thy holy courts, and they established these eight days of Chanukah in thankfulness and praise to Thy great name.

These are rabbinic allusions to the deliverance and the signs and wonders made public before the Egyptians and the whole world, in the Exodus. Chanukkah, too, is read through Exodus.

Just so the story of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ serves as the lens through which Christians read all their texts (including what they call the “Old Testament,” our Tanakh) and organize their prayer books and liturgies.

In this way, through this focusing of the lens, the details of the story of Exodus work their way into Jewish bodies and hearts and minds and spirits, as the details of the story of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Exodus work their way into Christian bodies and hearts and minds and spirits, so that when we are interpreting our own experience, our own lives, we read what happens to us and what we do through these stories. Think of how the Exodus narrative teaches us to exist in relation to our past, present, and future, to eternity—both communally and individually.

Let’s take one more step, one more look together. Granted our founding narratives are different, what can we learn by look at them together on this day, the beginning of the story of the Exodus, the beginning of the story of Jesus? Of course there are differences in these two founding narratives, though not necessarily the ones that spring most easily to our minds: both narratives are grounded in history; and both partake of myth just as much as history, the story of the Exodus and its wonders no less than the story Jesus’ birth and life and death. This is not a fruitful or accurate way to distinguish them from each other. But today I don’t want to rehearse their difference; I want to look at what they share.

Christianity began as a reform movement within Judaism, like Pharisaic or rabbinic Judaism, our Judaism, did. Many of its texts can be interpreted as midrashim on texts in the Torah or Tanakh. Let’s keep this in mind as we look at the elements these two stories share.

In both founding narratives:

1. The Jews are oppressed by a foreign government: Egypt. Rome.

2. A particular ruler fears rebellion by the Jews and thus wants to kill all the male babies born to Jewish women: the pharaoh wants them drowned, Herod wants them slain.

3. A boy is born to his people and survives against great odds: Moshe, Yeshua.

4. Both boys have a humble beginning (symbolized by the lowly grasses of the fields and the waters) that focuses the reader’s attention on their dependence on God alone and their special relationship to God, not father and mother or any human shelter, the signal not only of their great humility but their closeness to God: Moshe a red basket, Yeshua a manger of hay. (I want to argue for a moment with the footnote in our Chumash that claims that this part of the Moshe story differentiates it from other hero stories, because Moshe is born humble and raised to great heights of Egyptian royalty, but then descends to the lowly among his people again, unlike other hero figures who remain elevated to glory. But is this so different from the hero story of Jesus, who goes from humble to royal status to humble as well? Both Moshe and Yeshua are spiritual heroes and guides who combine humility with a close relationship to the One Who Dwells in Glory. They are both living paradoxes of humility and glory that signal to the rest of us how to live with God in the world, and that is why we elevate them to special dignity in our communities: Moshe Rabbeinu, Lord of the Prophets; Yeshua the Anointed One, Our Lord. )

5. Both boys are saved by women and their cleverness: Moshe by five women, Meryam, Yocheved his mother, Shifrah, Puah, and the unnamed daughter of Pharaoh; Yeshua is saved by his mother—and later by the women who save his body after he is crucified.

6. Both boys grow up as outsiders to their biological families, men for whom family ties are not as powerful as their duty to the Lord—again to emphasize their closeness to God: Moshe in pharaoh’s palace, Jesus in the temple.

7. Both are reluctant leaders

8. Both grow up to perform miracles in public.

9. Both help lead their people from darkness to light, bring about the liberation of God’s people in a way that God’s mighty arm and signs and wonders are revealed.

Why am I making this list? Not to say, Hey, they plagiarized our story! Let’s sue them for copyright infringement! Not to say, Look, all paths are the same, so be a Jew, be a Christian, be a Whatever, it doesn’t matter. It does matter. The shape and feel and details of our stories make us who we are. It’s essential to know what your story is and to live out of that particular story. Who can live in an abstracted plot: some people were harming other people and a baby was born, and all the people were saved. Hardly compelling.

I want to be very clear here. I’m calling attention to what our two stories share, not to their ultimate sameness, as if one universal and monolithic truth existed out there somewhere, the pure truth, unadulterated by myth, stripped of all our story nonsense and accessible by those who are rational and modern or post-modern and who have no need for all this detail detail detail. And what these two founding narratives, whether one is a midrash on the other or not, share is this: Both are founding stories, saving stories; both guide and inspire and comfort us frail and fragile human beings as we labor to perform the task given to us by the One God:  to become fully human, to cast out fear, to bring light out of darkness, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to lift up the downtrodden, to free the prisoner, to comfort the weary with a word in the morning, to create justness out of injustice, to transform evil into good, to turn indifference into welcome, ignorance into wisdom, hate into love, to act justly, love lovingkindness, and walk humbly with our God, to hallow the world, this world, for the Holy One to dwell among us.

Our story is not better than theirs. Nor theirs better than ours. Their story is not more full of hard-to-swallow miracles or “pagan” influences than ours and thus more worthy of contempt. Nor is ours. Our story is not the truth, while theirs is an obsolete myth. Nor is theirs the truth. These stories and our re-tellings of them, today and in our spring holidays, in our prayer books and liturgies, in our daily living inside of them, are gifts that keep pointing us to the One and show us how to draw that One into the world. The challenge to us as we travel our path through this world is not to keep looking to see how far ahead or behind our companions are, not to keep looking at what paths, different, unfamiliar, our neighbors may be taking; our challenge is to keep our hearts fixed on the Holy One who draws us all toward love and justice, mercy and truth, each in our own way. Our challenge is to “Love your neighbor; for your neighbor is like you.”

Shabbat shalom!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Holy Ground, Holy Land, Holy Places?

I’ll soon be on my way to the Sinai, Jerusalem, and Safed—my first trip to these “holy” places.  And so I find myself wondering about holiness and space.  For I am of two (at least) minds about holiness and place.  I reject the assignment of permanent holiness to any place on earth, or in the heavens or anywhere within the creation for that matter.  But  I also recognize that some places on earth carry  palpable memories of encounters with God, the Holy One. 

Rabid monotheist that I am, I resist any and all permanent identification of holiness with a particular place. It is encounters with the God who  can be contained nowhere, who can surprise us anywhere that give us a sense of holiness, the sense that we have gone beyond our ordinary experience.  What was holy about that rock where Ya’akov lay his head was his dream experience of the nearness of heaven and earth, which announced his imminent meeting with the face of God as forgiveness in Esau.  What was holy about that ground Moshe stood on was his encounter with the divine presence,  I Will Be Who I will Be, in that little bush.  The holiness was not in the rock or the bush, but—as Martin Buber might say—in that extraordinary I-Thou “betweenness” that occurred there, a holiness to be remembered in story, not visited as a monument erected on that very spot. 

When King Solomon dedicated the temple in Jerusalem, he is recorded as saying:

But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You; much less this temple that I have erected. And You shall turn toward Your servant's prayer and to his supplication, O Lord my God: to hearken to the song and to the prayer that Your servant is praying before You today.That Your eyes may be open toward this house night and day, toward the place which You said, 'My Name will be there;' to listen to the prayer that Your servant will pray toward this place. And You shall listen to the supplication of Your servant and of Your people Israel that they will pray toward this place; and You shall hear in heaven, Your abode, and You shall hear and forgive. (I Kings 8: 27-30).

It was not the temple as a holy place Solomon was after, it seems, but the temple as an invitation to prayer, the encounter between God and human beings, in which one can meet the One and experience the forgiving face of God turned toward them.  That meeting was the holiness Solomon wanted to make available, a meeting that would transform lives. God would not, could not dwell in that magnificent space.  Human beings might, however, remember there that the Holy One of Israel dwelt in the midst of Israel whenever and wherever Israel acted as they were created to be, in the image of God, justly and with lovingkindness.  It also seems to me that in hoping that Israel would pray toward “this place,” Solomon was asking not that the people limit God and holiness to that impressive and luxurious space, but that they keep their hearts turned toward HaMakom, God the Place, to live always as if standing before the face of God, the center and circumference of the world, wherever they were.

When we fight over owning “our” holy places, what are we fighting over?  Emptiness—and not in the good sense of spiritual emptiness as openness to the One. Why are we not fighting to hallow the world by inviting God into our lives were on earth with acts of mercy and justice?

In the weeks to come, I will return to my second point--those palpable memories of encounters with the Holy One that seem to linger in certain places.  I don’t know how my views on holy ground, places, and land will change in the coming weeks as I experience the Sinai, Jerusalem, and Safed, but I am sure they will. 

Thursday, October 7, 2010

How Does Anyone Dare Talk About God?

This is the question I have been asking myself.  What arrogance to talk of God.  Who of us can say who or what or why or how God is?
And then today I passed two young people on the street near the University of Washington,a young man and a young woman.  What stopped me, dead still, was a poster hanging from their makeshift table, a photo of President Obama as Hitler.  I had seen the photo on the Internet.  But I was not prepared for its impact on me as I walked down University Avenue among scores of students in Seattle.  “Is that a joke?” I asked the young man behind the table covered with pamphlets.
“What has Obama done for you?” he asked me.  
“What did George Bush do for you or me or anyone?’ I asked. 
“No, “ a young man waiting for the bus said to me.  “Don’t talk to them.  I’ve tried.”
“It’s so offensive I don’t know what to say,”  I told him.
I walked on, looked in a few stores, then turned back to the corner that had disturbed me so.  I approached the young man at the table.  A young woman was handing out fliers nearby.  “Do you know who Hitler was?” I asked him.
“I know nothing,” he replied.   And the look in his eyes as they stared at me, not vacant but exactly what I could not tell, said he would tell me nothing.
“Are you saying that if Obama hasn’t done anything for you or me personally that that qualifies him as a mastermind of genocide?”
“I know nothing.”
“That’s what they always say,” the man who had tried to warn me before said.  He was still waiting for the bus.  I wondered lwhy he was still there and if he was a shill, the "voice of reason" somehow luring other reasonable people passing by into the argument they had set up and were baiting people for. But there was no way to tell.  “They just tell you to read their literature," the voice of reason told me, "but there’s no information in there.  I’ve read it.  Maybe they don’t really know anything and they’re just paid to hand out this stuff.”
“I don’t know what’s worse,” I said, “someone being paid for advocating violence or they’re just salespeople who don’t know what they’re selling.”
“They believe in what they’re doing,” my friend said.  “I heard that some Vet actually punched out one of these LaRouchers, then went to court, and told the judge he’d be happy to pay three times the fine if he could punch out two more of these guys.”
At this, the male LaRoucher became animated.  “I’m going to call the police and tell them you’re advocating violence.”
“I said,” my friend told the LaRoucher, “ that I read that that happened. It’s a fact and I’m repeating it.”
“You’re advocating violence,” the LaRoucher repeated to my supporter.  “I’m going to call the police.” 
His female counterpart came over to stand by her man.   Or maybe she hoped she would be punched out and make the papers and further their cause, whatever it was.. 
“You’re the ones advocating violence,” I told the LaRouchers. “Do you even understand what you’re doing?”
The LaRoucher tried to stare me down with his hazel eyes.  “I know nothing,” he said.
“Leave it,” my young friend advised me.    “I’ve tried.  They don’t listen.”
I walked to my bus stop.  But I couldn’t shake the experience.  The first black president of the United States of America.  Coupled with a legacy sick with hatred and racism.  Irrationality.  Unspoken threat.   Refusal to take responsibility for what they were saying and doing.  Complete disregard for the consequences of their words and actions. 
In a world gone made like this with hatred and irrationality, on street corners of major universities filled with young intelligent human beings, how can anyone not talk about God, the power that makes for justice and peace, the power that drives toward truth and mercy, the power that brings good out of evil? 

Friday, October 1, 2010

Islamophobia: Bred of Ignorance, Breeding Violence

Fear and ignorance feed on each other, and when they are allowed to do so unchecked, they result in hatred and violence.

How many examples, from religious or secular history, do we need to confirm the truth of this statement?   There are too many to list, and we all have our favorites on that list—usually involving the persecution of our own people:  the early Christians, the pagans, the Protestants, the Anabaptists, the Huguenots, the Roman Catholics, the Armenians, the Jews, the Palestinians, the Tibetans, women, black people, gay and lesbian people...

Right now, in the United States and Europe, what we are most ignorant of and what we fear most is Islam.  Is our Pakistani neighbor or that Algerian or Somalian stranger a terrorist? Is that woman wearing a hijab or a burqah  a sign that our freedom to choose—from religion to the clothes we wear—is under threat? Do the mosques and Islamic centers appearing in “our” city landscapes mean “our civilization” is at risk?

It’s not just members of non-Muslim religions that are scared; secular people are, too.  Why do we assume that certain people living in our free, democratic societies do not share those values?  Because of their religion or dress? The people we are most suspicious of have come here precisely because of those values—because they value freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression, and because they appreciate—in many cases far better than we do--the safety afforded by a pluralistic culture undergirded with laws to protect minority rights and enforcement agencies that, though not wholly free from corruption or prejudice, can be challenged by legal means.   

Who is the real threat to the United States and Europe today?  Not the millions of American and European Muslims trying to live decent lives with their families and communities.  The real enemy is us:  xenophobic nationalists, fundamentalists of all stripes, smug rationalists,  all of whom want the protections of a pluralistic democratic society for their way of life only, and who pre-judge everything they do not recognize as “theirs” to be impure, evil, or primitive. 

When will nationalists wake up to the reality that we are living and have always lived in a global, human world that transcends race and motherlands or fatherlands? When will Christian and other fundamentalists remember that "There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18)? When will rationalists acknowledge that faith is not by definition irrational or anti-rational, but a well-reasoned way of orienting oneself in the world for good? 

When will we stop playing the righteous god punishing all who do not follow our ways?  When we will start using our imaginations not to inflate our fears but our understanding of others?  What would “Americans”  or “Europeans” do if anyone burned a Christian Bible?  The nation’s constitution or flag? What would they do if anyone vandalized their cemeteries? Fire-bombed their places of worship and social halls and schools?  Attacked one of their people on the street?  Publicized lies and words of hate about them on the Internet? 

In fighting ignorance and fear of those who differ from us, let’s start listening  to one another and learning about the other.  Let’s talk to our neighbors, find out their history, their values, their hopes, their dreams. And, as we learn about one antoher, let’s take as our guide not only the values of a free, democratic society, but also these words of Rabbi Hillel:  "What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is interpretation." (Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, 31a).

Monday, September 27, 2010


Try to imagine a world without mystery

a world where everything is explained to our reason’s satisfaction--

or will be soon, if not in our lifetime, then our children’s

or our children’s children’s for sure

Try to imagine a world without the Question of Questions

where every question, from trivial to perennial,  has its answer--

if only you find the right person or formula

if only you are diligent enough, patient enough

Try to imagine a world in which only you are moving

journeying among fixed points and planes and angles

seeking the perfect place to rest

forever, your hands and feet nailed in place

Then wake up from your nightmares

shake off the death chill

and taste how sweet the Unknowing

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Name and the Names of God

There is a Jewish practice and a Muslim practice of naming God that together teach us a deep truth about the One.
Jews carry the tradition of the Name that cannot be spoken.  It is the name the high priest once spoke once a year, on Yom Kippur, in the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem, as he was pleading for God to draw near in mercy.  After the temple was destroyed in 70 AD, the pronunciation of the Name was lost.  Only the letters remain, Yud, Heh, Vav, Heh.  These four, the Tetragrammaton, stand as mute witness to the Ineffability of God, the Unity of God that transcends all thought and speech and calls into question all our thought and speech about God.  In daily practice Jews have two ways of  remembering this pointer to the Ineffability of God.  When the letters Yud, Heh, Vav, Heh appear in the Torah, we say “Adonai,” Lord—at once giving God a name while remembering that we do not possess the Name of God.  When one wants to refer to God in daily speech, to thank or bless or reflect on the One, one says “HaShem, “the Name.” The startling paradox of naming God “The Name” is a potent reminder that we do not have power over the One, nor can we limit the Limitless One (the Ein Sof of the Kabbalists). for to name is to limit, saying, You have these qualities and not others; you have this aspect of being and not others. The practice of The Name focuses our attention on the Light Beyond, that light in which we see light
Muslims carry the tradition of the 99 beautiful names, based on the Qur’an. 
"He is Allah, the Creator, the Originator, The Fashioner, to Him belong the most beautiful names: whatever is in the heavens and on earth, do declare His praises and glory. And He is the Exalted in Might, The Wise. (Qur’an 59:24)
"The most beautiful names belong to God: so call on Him by them;..." (7:180)
The beauty and truth of this tradition is the invitation to all people to call upon the One by the many names, names that do two things simultaneously: point us to the complexity and omnipresence of God, which requires the use of many names rather than a single name; and focus our attention on particular attributes or qualities of the One as they relate to our personal experience in the moment. Again, as with the Jewish practice of the Name, the Islamic practice of the 99 beautiful names embodies a paradox: speaking one or two of the beautiful names while aware that these names are only one of the ways to speak of or name God’s presence.  Thus, the practice of the 99 names keeps before one the transcendence of the One beyond all names, the inability to contain the One in a single name, while offering the faithful a way to approach the Limitless through the qualities of the One as they are refracted in the world, the One light, appearing in many colors through the prism of the world. 
Sufis chant these names in varying combinations during communal dhikr, the remembrance of God, and individual retreats.  All Muslims use these names in their daily devotion to pull their hearts toward the One in the way that they need at that moment.  One woman may call upon Al-Azeez, the Undefeated, while another meditates on Al-Wahhaab, the Bestower. One man may call upon Ar-Rahmaan, the Compassionate, while another may remember the One as Al-Fattah, the Opener, or Al-Sabur, the Patient.  One year a person may draw near to the One as Al-Kareem, the Generous One, another year as Al- Haseeb, the Reckoner. The practice is a celebration of the limitless ways the One is present among us and of the compassion of the One in drawing near to us in the way that our spirit uniquely needs. 
The names of the One are not limited to 99.  There are slight variations in the lists from one tradition and theologian to the next, but here is one version:
  1. Allah
    • Allah, He who has the Godhood which is the power to create the entities.
  2. Ar-Rahmaan
    • The Compassionate, The Beneficent, The One abundant in mercy for the believers and the blasphemers in this world
  3. Ar-Raheem
    • The Merciful, The One who has plenty of mercy for the believers
  4. Al-Malik
    • The King, The Sovereign Lord, The One with the complete Dominion, the One Whose Dominion is free from imperfection
  5. Al-Quddoos
    • The Holy, The One who is pure from any imperfection and clear from children and adversaries.
  6. As-Salaam
    • The Source of Peace, The One who is free from every imperfection
  7. Al-Mu'min
    • Guardian of Faith
  8. Al-Muhaimin
    • The Protector, The One who witnesses the saying and deeds of His creatures.
  9. Al-^Azeez
    • The Mighty, The Strong, The Defeater who is not defeated
  10. Al-Jabbaar
    • The Compeller, The One that nothing happens in His Dominion except that which He willed
  11. Al-Mutakabbir
    • The Majestic, The One who is clear from the attributes of the creatures and from resembling them
  12. Al-Khaaliq
    • The Creator, The One who brings everything from non-existence to existence
  13. Al-Bari'
    • The Evolver, The Maker, The Creator who has the Power to turn the entities
  14. Al-Musawwir
    • The Fashioner, The One who forms His creatures in different pictures
  15. Al-Ghaffaar
    • The Great Forgiver, The Forgiver, The One who forgives the sins of His slaves time and time again
  16. Al-Qahhaar
    • The Subduer, The Dominant, The One who has the perfect Power and is not unable over anything
  17. Al-Wahhaab
    • The Bestower, The One who is Generous in giving plenty without any return
  18. Al-Razzaaq
    • The Sustainer, The Provider.
  19. Al-Fattaah
    • The Opener, The Reliever, The Judge, The One who opens for His slaves the closed worldy and religious matters.
  20. Al-^Aleem
    • The All-knowing, The Knowledgeable; The One nothing is absent from His knowledge.
  21. Al-Qaabid
    • The Constrictor, The Retainer, The Withholder, The One who constricts the sustenance by His wisdom and expands and widens it with His Generosity and Mercy
  22. Al-Baasit
    • The Expander, The Enlarger, The One who constricts the sustenance by His wisdom and expands and widens it with His Generosity and Mercy
  23. Al-Khaafid
    • The Abaser, The One who lowers whomever He wills by His Destruction and raises whomever He wills by His Endowment
  24. Ar-Raafi^
    • The Exalter, The Elevator
  25. Al-Mu^iz
    • The Honorer
  26. Al-Muthil
    • The Dishonorer, The Humiliator
  27. As-Samee^
    • The All-Hearing, The Hearer
  28. Al-Baseer
    • The All-Seeing
  29. Al-Hakam
    • The Judge, He is the Ruler and His judgment is His Word
  30. Al-^Adl
    • The Just, The One who is entitled to do what He does
  31. Al-Lateef
    • The Subtle One, The Gracious
  32. Al-Khabeer
    • The Aware, The One who knows the truth of things.
  33. Al-Haleem
    • The Forebearing, The Clement
  34. Al-^Azeem
    • The Great One, The Mighty, The Perfection
  35. Al-Ghafoor
    • The All-Forgiving, The Forgiving
  36. Ash-Shakoor
    • The Grateful, The Appreciative
  37. Al-^Aliyy
    • The Most High, The Sublime
  38. Al-Kabeer
    • The Most Great, The Great
  39. Al-Hafeez
    • The Preserver, The Protector
  40. Al-Muqeet
    • The Maintainer, The Guardian, The Feeder, The Sustainer
  41. Al-Haseeb
    • The Reckoner
  42. Aj-Jaleel
    • The Sublime One, The Beneficent
  43. Al-Kareem
    • The Generous One, The Bountiful, The Gracious
  44. Ar-Raqeeb
    • The Watcher, The Watchful, The One that nothing is absent from Him
  45. Al-Mujeeb
    • The Responsive, The Hearkener
  46. Al-Wasi^
    • The Vast, The All-Embracing, The Knowledgeable
  47. Al-Hakeem
    • The Wise, The Judge of Judges, The One who is correct in His doings
  48. Al-Wadood
    • The Loving
  49. Al-Majeed
    • The Most Glorious One, The Glorious, The One who is with perfect Power, High Status, Compassion, Generosity and Kindness
  50. Al-Ba^ith
    • The Resurrector, The Raiser (from death)
  51. Ash-Shaheed
    • The Witness, The One who nothing is absent from Him
  52. Al-Haqq
    • The Truth, The True, The One who truly exists
  53. Al-Wakeel
    • The Trustee, The One who gives the satisfaction and is relied upon
  54. Al-Qawiyy
    • The Most Strong, The Strong, The One with the complete Power
  55. Al-Mateen
    • The Firm One
  56. Al-Waliyy
    • The Protecting Friend, The Supporter.
  57. Al-Hameed
    • The Praiseworthy
  58. Al-Muhsee
    • The Counter, The Reckoner
  59. Al-Mubdi'
    • The Originator
  60. Al-Mu^eed
    • The Reproducer, The One who brings back the creatures after death
  61. Al-Muhyi
    • The Restorer, The Giver of Life
  62. Al-Mumeet
    • The Creator of Death, The Destroyer, The One who renders the living dead
  63. Al-Hayy
    • The Alive
  64. Al-Qayyoom
    • The Self-Subsisting, The One who remains and does not end.
  65. Al-Waajid
    • The Perceiver, The Finder, The Rich who is never poor
  66. Al-Waahid
    • The Unique, The One, The One without a partner
  67. Al-Ahad
    • The One.
  68. As-Samad
    • The Eternal, The Independent, The Master who is relied upon in matters and reverted to in one’s needs
  69. Al-Qaadir
    • The Able, The Capable
  70. Al-Muqtadir
    • The Powerful, The Dominant, The One with the perfect Power that nothing is withheld from Him
  71. Al-Muqaddim
    • The Expediter, The Promoter, The One who puts things in their right places
  72. Al-Mu'akh-khir
    • The Delayer, the Retarder, The One who puts things in their right places
  73. Al-'Awwal
    • The First, The One whose Existence is without a beginning
  74. Al-'Akhir
    • The Last, The One whose Existence is without an end
  75. Az-Zaahir
    • The Manifest, The One whom nothing is above and nothing is underneath
  76. Al-Baatin
    • The Hidden
  77. Al-Walee
    • The Governor
  78. Al-Muta^ali
    • The Most Exalted, The High Exalted, The One who is free from the attributes of the creation
  79. Al-Barr
    • The Source of All Goodness, The Righteous, The One who is kind to His creatures, who covers them with His sustenance and specifies whomever He wills among them by His support, protection, and special mercy
  80. At-Tawwaab
    • The Acceptor of Repentance, The Relenting
  81. Al-Muntaqim
    • The Avenger, The One who victoriously prevails over His enemies and punishes them for their sins
  82. Al-^Afuww
    • The Pardoner, The Forgiver, The One with wide forgiveness
  83. Ar-Ra'uf
    • The Compassionate, The One with extreme Mercy
  84. Malik Al-Mulk
    • The Eternal Owner of Sovereignty
  85. Thul-Jalali wal-Ikram
    • The Lord of Majesty and Bounty
  86. Al-Muqsit
    • The Equitable, The One who is Just in His judgment.
  87. Aj-Jaami^
    • The Gatherer, The One who gathers the creatures on  the Day of Judgment
  88. Al-Ghaniyy
    • The Self-Sufficient
  89. Al-Mughni
    • The Enricher, The One who satisfies the necessities of the creatures
  90. Al-Maani^
    • The Preventer, The Withholder
  91. Ad-Daarr
    • The Distresser, The One who makes harm reach to whomever He wills and benefit to whomever He wills
  92. An-Nafi^
    • The Propitious, The One who makes harm reach to whomever He wills and benefit to whomever He wills
  93. An-Noor
    • The Light
  94. Al-Haadi
    • The Guide
  95. Al-Badi^
    • The Incomparable, The One who created the creation and formed it without any precedent or example
  96. Al-Baaqi
    • The Everlasting, The One for whom the state of non-existence is impossible
  97. Al-Waarith
    • The Supreme Inheritor, The Heir, The One whose Existence remains
  98. Ar-Rasheed
    • The Guide to the Right Path, The One who guides
  99. As-Saboor
    • The Patient, The One who does not quickly punish the sinners.
The Name and the 99 names--both practices are powerful and life-giving.  We might be tempted to say that the Jewish practice of the Name points us more toward the transcendence of the One, the Islamic practice points us more toward the immanence.  This is misleading, for it ignores the wide variety of names for God in Jewish prayer—Father, Shepherd, Judge, Lover, King, Compassionate One, The Patient One, Bestower of Gifts Resurrector--and it ignores the many names in the list of 99 that point specifically to the One’s transcendence—Al-Muta-ali, Al-Haqq, Al-Ghaniyy, Al-Baaqi.  Both the Jewish and the Muslim traditions point to the transcendence and immanence of God equally.  This is a graceful balancing act both traditions have mastered: when pointing to the transcendence of the One, never to be far from the glories of the One’s immanence; and when pointing to the manifold glories of God’s presence in the world, never to forget that the One exists beyond all human limitation.

Monday, September 20, 2010

After the Intensity, What? God in the Doldrums

For Jews, the Days of Awe have ended.  For Moslems, Ramadan has ended.  For Christians, we are in the long flat time between Easter and Christmas.  When our rituals and practices of prayer and fasting focus our hearts and minds on drawing near to God, it may be easier for us to remember God and “know before Whom we stand.”  But what about when those strong winds of community and tradition abate and we are left in the daily round of life.  We still have our weekly practices of services to blow us forward. We still have our daily practices of prayer and blessing. They keep gently moving us  forward.  And yet, we feel—after the freshening winds of that intense concentration on God—the dull and deadening affect of ordinary life.  We get caught up in the distractions and demands around us and—it seems--we stop moving toward the One. 

How to recapture that intensity of communion and purpose in our daily lives of “ordinary” time?  The early Hasids offer help.  Try to keep before you at all times the unity of the One, which means God is present everywhere and there is nowhere where God is not.  One way to do this is to repeat to yourself through the day the words of the prophet Isaiah, ”The whole earth is filled with God’s glory” (6:3).
As the Baal Shem Tov teaches:
We say, “Here O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4).
     When we say that “the Lord is One,” we mean that nothing other than God exists in all the universe.  It is thus written, “The Whole earth is filled with God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3).
     The main idea here is that a person should consider himself like absolutely nothing.  He should realize that he has no essence other than his divine soul, and that this is a “portion of God from on high.”  Therefore, nothing exists in the world except the absolute Unity which is God.
     The main idea of this unity is that “the whole earth is filled with His glory.”  There is therefore absolutely nothing that is devoid of God’s essence.  (The Light Beyond, ed. Aryeh Kaplan, p. 37).
And also:
God is present in every movement.  It is impossible to make any move or speak any word without God’s power.  This is the meaning of the verse,”The whole earth is filled with God’s glory” (Is. 6:3). Kether Shem Tov 273 (The Light Beyond, ed. Aryeh Kaplan, p. 42).
And this:
     It is written, “The whole earth is filled with God’s glory” (Is. 6:3). This means that even the physical world is one of God’s garments.  The verse therefore says that “the whole earth is felled with God’s glory”—even the physical.  “Glory” alludes to a garment.  Likutim Yekarim 17c. (The Light Beyond, ed. Aryeh Kaplan, p. 43).
What would our days be like, our lives be like,  if at every moment, in every circumstance, in every situation, with every movement we made and every person and creature and place we encountered—on the bus, stuck in traffic, arguing with a friend, holding our babies, sweating after a run, cooking dinner, watching clouds drift by—we said to ourselves, “The whole earth is filled with God’s glory”  and saw through these the garments of the One? 
Try it for a day.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Final Note

The twenty-four things that hinder teshuvah are to be taken with great seriousness.  Our self-examination must know no bounds.  And yet.  And yet the rabbis (ancient, medieval, modern, contemporary) always sound clearly the ground note of Torah: God is the Father of Compassion, the Womb of Mercy, who throws “the banner of love over us,” receives us in love.   As Maimonides says:
“Yet all these sins and those like them, despite the fact that they hinder teshuvah, do not altogether prevent it.   For if a person sincerely does teshuvah and turns from his or her sins, that person is considered penitent and has a share in the world to come.” Hilkhot Teshuvah IV.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Twenty-Four Things That Hinder Teshuvah

As we  approach Yom Kippur and the communal repetitions of our litanies of confession, the Vidui and the Al Chet, it is good to deepen the self-examination we have been practicing throughout Elul and the Days of Awe. One way to do this is by taking to heart some of the rabbis’ “Twenty-Four Things That Hinder Teshuvah.” Of these, four are great sins, five close teshuvah in the face of the sinner,  five prevent a person from turning in complete teshuvah, and five are sins toward which the sinner will always be drawn and will find it hard to leave off.

There is one more set and it is this set of five I want to focus on: the “sins for which the sinner may be assumed not to do teshuvah, because they are trivial in the eyes of most [people].  The result is that the sinner imagines she or he has committed no sin.” (See translation and full text in  S.Y. Agnon, The Days of Awe, pp. 111-115.)   Meditating on these may help us enter the public, communal confessions in new ways.  Who are these “trivial” sinners who sin by imagining they have not sinned? We might call these sins sins by way of abusing the imagination.

1. One who eats a meal where there is not enough for the host; this act is a minor form of theft. The guest imagines that he has not sinned, and says to oneself, But I ate with the host’s permission. [This applies to more than food.  But she said it was fine for me to..]

2. One who makes use of a poor person’s pledge, which may be merely an ax or a plow.  The borrower will generally say in her or his heart, They have not lost their value.  Why, I have stolen nothing from that person!  [This applies to more than tools.]

3.  One who looks at a person they may not marry and imagines to themself that they have done nothing wrong.  For they say, Did I lie with her/him, or even come near her/him?  They do not know that even eying a man or woman lustfully is a serious iniquity, for it leads to the act of lust itself, as it is said, “and that ye do not about after your own heart and your own eyes.” (Numb. 15:39)

4. One who tries to gain honor through disparaging another.  They say in their heart that what they have done is not a sin, since the other person was not there at the time, and could not suffer from any shame.  Moreover, they think that they only contrasted their own good deeds and wisdom with the deeds and lack of wisdom of their fellow human being, so that people might gather that they were to be honored and the other to be despised.

5. One who is suspicious of innocent people says in their heart, I am committing no sin, because (they say), What harm have I done to that person?  I only suspect them; perhaps they are guilty, and perhaps they are not.  This person does not realize that thinking of an innocent person as a possible transgressor is an iniquity.

May our self-flattering imaginations not lead us astray as we complete the Days of Awe and teshuvah.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Can We Forgive Ourselves?

I once left someone I had loved and promised to love forever.  The pain I had caused him was almost unbearable--for me as well as him.  I asked him to forgive me.   He refused.  He was deeply, deeply wounded.  And it was I who had harmed him.  The responsibility for his suffering weighed on me.  Without forgiveness, it would crush me.    When it became clear he would not forgive me,  I wrote to him, “If you will not forgive me will have to find a way to forgive myself.” His reply, “No one can forgive themselves.  Only God can forgive.”

This experience has stirred questions in me for over a quarter of a century.   I realize now that I should not have asked him so soon for forgiveness. As Hazrat Inayat Kahn teaches, “Don’t ask anyone for something they cannot give.”   He was not ready.  And at that moment I wanted his forgiveness inauthentically,  more as a balm for my suffering than as a genuine reconciliation or at-one-ment.

I believe he thought I leaped to forgiving myself as an easy way out of responsibility and guilt, a cheap “grace” I doled out to myself like a cheap little god. As if to say--with a narcissistic ego that does not see the harm it does to others,  with a cold heart that does not vibrate to the suffering others’ hearts--“Well, I did it and it’s over and I just have to let it go and move on.”  Just like that. 

That’s not what I meant or experienced. I trusted that in time, God’s time, The Father of Mercies would forgive me, the Womb of Compassion would enfold me.  But meanwhile, my experience of God was bound up with all my other relationships.   If one is torn or crooked, all suffer.  In a spider web, with God at the center weaving and adhering the edges into a perfect pattern perfectly fitting the surrounding space, even one broken filament mars the whole, one small cut makes the whole web tremble.  I felt that my being would remain torn by this relationship in which someone I had loved and hurt went through life angry at me and refusing me his forgiveness.   Without the person’s forgiveness, I felt I would never be whole.

What good was it to me that my tradition made it clear, as many do, that if a person who is asked for forgiveness refuses, he or she is in the wrong?  It was not a matter of right or wrong, who bare the greater responsibility, when I had discharged my debt and fulfilled my obligation—though that, too, was important.  It was a matter of feeling at one in the world.

To feel at one, I had to forgive myself.  Meaning, I had to stop judging myself in a way that crushed my spirit, killed its hope for transformation, of my self and  of this relationship gone awry.  I had to stop playing the part of the all-knowing god who saw what I had “really” done and what the irreparable consequences “really” were. And I had to stop depending absolutely on the forgiveness of another person for my sense of wholeness, attunement with the One.  The quality of every relationship we have affects our relationship to the One, but no one relationship has the power to blot out or block our relationship to the Whole.  That is what I needed to see.  This very large rupture in my life, as real and painful as it was, was not able to destroy my relationship with the One or prevent me from moving toward wholeness—unless I let it.  If I let it, I would be causing more harm.  I had to accept that I had caused this harm, that the other person adamantly refused my repentance, and that I was still on the way toward wholeness

Paul Tillich, in his famous sermon, asks, “What is grace?”  His answer:  “Accept the fact that you are accepted.”   The One is already, always, moving toward us in wholeness, inviting us to move toward it. To be on the way toward wholeness does not relieve us of our need to make teshuvah, repentance.  It does free us from relying absolutely on the outcomes of our repentance and the forgiveness of other human beings.  We can still move toward wholeness, even as we hope and wait in patience for certain ruptures to be healed.  And on the way, we can rest in that Wholeness, the One, given to us.

This is what spiritual leaders, psychological counselors, and well-meaning friends are reminding us of when they say, “You have to forgive yourself.”  Not, “Take your acts of harm and neglect of others lightly. All that really matters is you.”  But, “Let nothing obstruct you on the path toward wholeness.  Receive the gift and promise of wholeness present now, a wholeness that is not of your making.”

In these ten days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, between the world created anew and the world made whole, we prepare to ask the One to forgive us.  We intensify the examination of our spirits.  We go to those we have harmed and ask for forgiveness.  We forgive those who ask to be forgiven by us.  These are both acts beautiful beyond compare.   And if, in spite of all your have done to repair a relationship, it remains torn, keep your heart open to the day it might be made whole, and in the meantime, rest in the wholeness of the One toward which we are all traveling.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Great Crime--Elul 29

Rabbi Bunam said to his hasidim:
"The sins which man commits--those are not his great crime.  Temptation is powerful and his strength is slight!  The great crime of man is that he can turn at every moment, and does not do so."

(Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim II: 257)

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

"Not Upon Our Merit"--Elul 28

In the daily siddur we pray:
Master of all worlds! Not upon our merit do we rely in our supplication, but upon Your limitless love.  What are we?  What is our life?  What is our piety?  What is our righteousness?  What is our attainment, our power, our might?  What can we say, Lord our God and God of our ancestors?  Compared to You, all the mighty are nothing, the famous nonexistent, the wise lack wisdom, the clever lack reason.  For most of their actions are meaningless, the days of their lives emptiness.  Human preeminence over beasts is an illusion when all is seen as futility.

But we are Your people, partners of Your covenant...
This is the paradox we stand inside everyday, but with a greater sense of urgency during the Days of Awe.  It is there, between "We are nothing" and "We are Your people," that our prayers of petition, praise, and thanksgiving rise. There is no surer place to stand.

Monday, September 6, 2010

"Purify Our Hearts to Serve You in Truth"--Elul 27

Once again, within the eight words of this prayer, we find the inner and the outer, the heart and the deed, bound together. Not prayer or tzedakah.  Not ritual or ethics.  Both prayer and tzedakah is our refrain.

Once again, in this brief prayer, we find the individual bound up in the communal "our." 

Once again, in these words, we hear a call to do heshbon ha nephesh, to take an honest look at ourselves before the Creator and True Judge of All and ask ourselves, Whom are we serving? And are we serving for recognition, for ego, or "in truth"?

"Purify our hearts to serve You in truth."  A lifetime would not be enough to plumb the wisdom of these eight words. 

"Purify our hearts to serve You in truth."  When all other words fail you, lean on these as your prayer and repeat them ceaselessly.

"Purify our hearts to serve You in truth."  When your mind wanders during services, bring it back to center, back into communion, with these words of beauty and holiness.

"Purify our hearts to serve You in truth."

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Making Peace with the Dead--Elul 26

It is customary all through the month of Elul to visit the graves of one's ancestors and relatives.  I've often wondered about this custom.  I could understand the tzedakah part of it--distributing tzedakah to the poor who would congregate near the graveyard for this reason. But what were people actually doing when they fell on the graves making supplication? Were they asking God to overlook their sins for the sake of the merits of their ancestors?  Were they avoiding their responsibility as individuals by lumping themselves for judgment with their pious family, people in good standing?  If so, these theologically suspect practices were not to my liking at all.

Here's what I do understand:  We all carry conflict, hurt, alienation, resentment, fear, and other disturbing emotions toward others in our lives.  If we are blessed, we have an opportunity, or we make opportunities, to turn toward these others in love and forgiveness before it is too late.  That is one of the gifts of the Days of Awe--to make us aware of the urgency to do just this before the Gates of Healing close.

But what do we do if we have missed all those opportunities with a significant person in our life, and they have died?  Visit the grave, and take the opportunity you were not ready to take before.  Talk your heart out.  Make peace between you.  If you cannot visit the grave, have this conversation before a photograph of the person. If you do not have a photo, seclude yourself and sit across from an empty chair and start talking.  

The call to teshuvah, repentance, turning toward the other in love and forgiveness, transforming life into greater wholeness, is not limited; it encompasses all our relationships, with God and animals and the earth as well as humans, with the dead as well as the living. 

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Praying Selichot and All Prayers with Strength--Elul 25

Tonight near midnight Ashkenazim begin Selichot, reciting psalms and prayers that ask for forgiveness, selicha, in order to soften and awaken our hearts for the Days of Awe. Why midnight?  Because of David, who says of his practice, "At midnight I will rise to give thanks unto Thee because of Thy righteous ordinances" (Psalm 119:6). And also because by midnight the energy of our bodies has abated enough to allow us to concentrate more intently on matters of spirit. 

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav's advice for how to pray is good advice for how to pray the penitential psalms and supplications during this midnight watch (and all during the Days of Awe services) so that we don't fall into rote recitation but let the words carry us beyond ourselves:

Rabbi Nachman admonished us strongly to put all our strength into the words of prayer.
     He said that a person must force himself a great deal when he prays.  A minority opinion holds that a person shouldn't force himself in prayer.  But this is not right--a person must force himself with all his strength when he prays.
     Rabbi Nachman also said that when a person prays with feeling--that is, when he connects his thoughts to the words, paying attention and listening to what he is saying--his strength is automatically drawn into the words of prayer.  This is because a person's strength automatically waits and looks to be drawn into holy words.
     When a person prays with feeling, all his powers are drawn into his prayer.  Then he prays with great strength, even though he isn't forcing himself.
(The Chambers of the Palace:  Teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, ed. Y. David Shulman, 119-120)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Piety and the Scope of Tzedakah--Elul 24

Tzedakah is our obligation to act justly to those who are in need. Another way to think of those who are in need, beyond economic need, is to think of those who are vulnerable to injustice and thus bear a disproportionate burden of suffering in the world.  To all those we owe justice, and we can do justly in relation to them in many ways. 

We are accustomed to hearing that it is not enough to give money or food to those in need--those these, too, are good.  We are also to help them learn skills and gain the ability to support themselves.  Here's another way to do tzedakah:  become a vegetarian and/or join the hechsher-tzedek movement.  As Rabbi Morris Allen of Congregation Beth Shalom in Mendota Heights, MN and others have been teaching for years, and as recent news reports have confirmed, the kosher meat industry has engaged in unjust practices against its workers.  Just as rabbis in New York in the early twentieth century pronounced the matzot in Jewish factories treif because it had the blood of the hands of the underpaid and ill-treated women who made it in it, so contemporary rabbis are arguing that the unjust treatment of human beings in kosher meat plants renders the meat unfit for consumption.  They have formed the hechsher tzedek project to ensure that the foods Jews eat are not only ritually kosher but ethically kosher as well. For more information, read Rethinking Kashrut: An Interview with Rabbi Morris Allen.

In these last days of the month of turning and during the Days of Awe that end with a complete fast, let us think about tzedakah and the food we bless on our tables everyday. As the prophets continually remind us, ritual does not displace ethics; the two nourish each other.  The haftarah for Yom Kippur, Isaiah 57-58, puts it bluntly:

6 No, this is the fast I desire:

To unlock the fetters of wickedness,

And untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free;

To break off every yoke.

7 It is 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.
Whether eating a Rosh HaShanah feast, giving tzedakah to avert the evil decree, or fasting on Yom Kippur, it is justice, tzedek, we are to pursue, not a false sense of piety that raises us above and beyond our fellow creatures. The test of true piety is this: does it bear fruit in acts of righteousness and lovingkindness?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tzedakah and Supersition--Elul 23

To make teshuvah, to turn to the One, in part is to become whole, to integrate ourselves as the image of the One.  One goal in this is to bring our inner lives in harmony with our outer actions. This is why we can never be satisifed with sounding the shofar; we must hear the shofar and let it wake up our hearts.  This is also why we can never be satisfied with giving tzedakah in any cursory or calculating way.  Giving tzedakah during the Days of Awe does not pay our debt of sins or bribe the Judge to look the other way or lessen our sentence.  How ridiculous! we might say.  Who thinks that?  Yet we sometimes act as if this were true--as if giving tzedakah in multiples of 18 will ensure a good year.  Yes, pray U'netaneh Tokef, acknowledging it is God who decides who will live and who will die, who and who will suffer in the coming year, but--just to make sure--give tzedakah.  This is superstition and it is incompatible with monotheism.

When we give tzedakah, just as when we perform any mitzvah or act of chesed, we are to act without hope or thought of reward, in this world or the world to come.  We give tzedakah, we "do justice," because this is how those called to walk humbly with God live.  Giving freely means giving generously; it also means giving up all expectation of recognition, reward, or benefit. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Tzedakah and Charity: A False Choice--Elul 22

To give tzedakah (money) to or do tzedakah (acts of righteousness) for those in need is commonly distinguished from charity, which comes from the Latin word caritas, love. Charity, it is often argued, is something a person chooses to do because she or he feels kind or loving or compassionate toward those in need. In contrast, tzedakah, it is argued,  is an obligation to act toward another in justice, separate from any feeling one might have or not have toward the other; it is not dependent on pity, empathy, compassion, kindess, love, or any feeling.

This is a false choice.  Certainly, if one if offered the choice between having a fleeting feeling for a homeless person but doing nothing about it and giving a homeless person food or money even though one feels no sympathy for them it is better to give without feeling.  We keep repeating this choice as if it we a true one because of the long history of the argument between Judaism and Christianity.  We each want to claim our turf and announce that we got it right.

But Jews have never argued that it is best to give without love or chesed.  What madness would this be?  And Christians do not encourage people to feel without acting in love.  Caritas is often spoken of as a law of Christ, and this law entails feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, helping those in need, tithing. For both, Jews and Christians, the goal is to bring our actions of justice toward others, especially those in need, in harmony with deepest hearts.  No matter where we start and in what direction we are moving, from actions to feeling, or conviction to action, we are all on the way to the same wholeness. 

So when you think "tzedakah," don't think, "not charity" or "better than charity."  Think "God has shown you, O Earth Creature, what is good.  And what does the Lord require of you?  To do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God." (Micah  6:8) 

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Repentance = Prayer and Tzedakah--Elul 21

There is another reason why tzedakah is singled out to represent the mitzvot that bear witness to a life lived turnged and turning to the One. Repentance as turning involves the two-fold action of praying and doing justice.  When we turn from our false ego to the Holy One, we turn with our inner selves and our outer selves. We turn in the deep center of our hearts directly to the One Who Calls Us, communing with the One,  and we turn in and with our actions to the image of the One in the other, creating the beloved community of the One in our world. 

Prayer without justice is escapism, hypocrisy, worse. 
Justice without prayer is possible, but it lacks the sweetness it has when  it is the fruit of prayer. 

R. Eleazar would first give a copper to a poor man, and then pray, explaining:  It is said, "Through charity I shll behold They face" (Psalm 17:15). Bava Batra 10a. 

Teshuvah is prayer and tzedakah vitalizing each other, communing with God, communing with the other, for one cannot separate God and the world.

Monday, August 30, 2010

But repentance, prayer, and tzedakah...--Elul 20

"But teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah can avert the evil decree."

Tzedakah is an obligation. Tzedakah comes from the word for justice or righteousness, tzedek, as in “Justice, justice [tzedek] you shall pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)  Fundamentally, tzedakah means doing acts of justice or righteousness.  And this doing, as the rabbis were well aware of in our economically unjust world, entails giving money to those in need.  "Jews are to give at least 10 percent of their annual net income to tzedakah."  (Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, “Laws Concerning Gifts for the Poor,” 7:5)

Here's a question:  Why, out of all the other obligations that could have been listed with teshuvah and tefillah, is tzedakah singled out during the Days of Awe, the Days of Turning?

Tzedakah is not an addition to the life of faith. It is not just another obligation.   It is the heart of the way of life we call Judaism. Without tzedakah there is no Judaism and no turning to the Way of Life. The rabbis teach: “Tzedakah is equal to all the other commandments combined.” (Talmud, Bava Bathra 9b).
When we say "tzedakah" in this threefold litany, therefore, we are using shorthand:  We mean following the teaching of the Torah, the Way of Life.  Giving to those in need is not singled out from the other mitzvot; rather, it is the part that stands for the whole--to act as the image of God, reflecting God's deeds of compassion for the poor, feeding, sheltering, protecting, and defending those who are most vulnerable among us.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Beyond Formal and Spontaneous Prayer, Words and Silence: "I Am Prayer"--Elul 19

This is what Rabbi Bunam said concerning the verse in the psalm: "And I am prayer."
"It is as if a poor man, who has not eaten in three days and whose clothes are in rags, should appear before the king.  Is there any need for him to say what he wants?  That is how David faced God--he was the prayer."
(Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim II: 253)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Siddur Prayer--Elul 18

Whenever I open a siddur or a machzor, I am amazed at the beauty and wisdom of the prayers in the litrugy.  I'm a writer and a theologian, which means that the poetry of language and the adequacy of our language to the complex reality we call God are both important.  Yes, I'm annoyed by the unrelentingly masculine language for God that we still see far too much of in print and hear too much of from the bimah. But this aside,  time and time again I am overwhelmed by the beauty and deep of the truth prayers in the liturgy.

Take Avinu Malkeinu.  This phrase is the perfect paradox of what is traditionally called, immanence and transcendence, or love and awe,  or the One Who Dwells Among Us and the One Who Surpasses All.  Like all Jewish prayer, this phrase does not ask us to choose between our two ways of experiencing the One; it invites us to experience the paradox of the One who exists beyond all our reason and reckoning. To me this is refreshing in an age where many translations and prayerbooks have swung to the side of immanent language for God in an attempt to make God more meaningful and accessible, or in an attempt to combat the imperialistic and two-dimensional transcendence of many fundamentalists.

Take the recurring metaphor of God as Judge coupled with God as the Father of Mercy. Again, instead of handing us a God we are comfortable with, a God who is all sweetness and light, the prayers forge these two into a single reality: righteousness and mercy. No cheap grace here. 

Take the poem/song/prayer Labrit habet.  Its superabundance of metaphors for God and humankind in relation to God invites all to enter, no matter what their experience, and it calls attention to the many faces of God that we encounter.

Take the Al Chet, a work of theological genius. Jews are fond of claiming that we don't teach the doctrine of Original Sin, but this exhaustive catalogue of sins--sins of omission and commission, internal and external sins, sins of thought, word, and deed, individual and social sins--shows the seriousness with which take the yetzer hara, the inclination to evil in all human beings, without exception.  We are not afraid to confess the incredible depth and scope of our propensity to harm others, ourselves, and the One.  We do not minimize the damage we cause.  We do not avoid responsibility for the ills we cause.  We do not make light of how difficult it is to repair the brokenness we bring into the world. We look unblinkingly into the heart of darkness that we may turn, now, wholeheartedly, to the light. 

I love the liturgy for the Days of Awe.  Certainly one can pick it apart and find something jarring to our cultural or personal sensibility; but word for word, prayer for prayer, page for page, it speaks to the depth and complexity of hearts turning toward the One.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Spontaneous Prayer--Elul 17

Formal, public prayer took hold in Judaism after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E., when the rabbis substituted prayer for the sacrifices in the temple. It was never intended to drive out spontaneous prayer of the heart.  The rabbis were clear that Channah, the woman praying so hard for a child on the temple steps that the priest thought her drunk, is the model for prayer.  Moshe's stuttered prayer for his sister Miriam when she is stricken with leprosy is another model: "God, please, heal, please, her."

Since the days of the Torah, spontaneous and personal prayer has surfaced periodically, testifying to its centrality.  Through the ages, Jewish women, who were not obligated to fulfill time-bound mitzvot, wrote techinot, prayers from their hearts that spoke to their needs, just as Channah had done.  Their beautiful prayers range from supplicating God for a child to petitioning for safety for their family to thanksgiving and praise.  Here is one techinah written for Rosh Chodesh Elul by Sarah bat Tovim:

With lovingkindness and great mercy, I entreat You to do with me; accept my petition....I pray that You may accept my tears as You did those of the angels who wept when Abraham, our father, bound his dear son; but the tears of the angels fell on Abraham's knife, and he could not slay Isaac [Genesis 22]. So may my tears before You prevent  me, my husband, my children, and good friends from being taken from this world....'All gates are closed, but the gate of tears is not closed.' Merciful Father, accept my tears....wash away our sins with the tears and look on us, with mercy, rather than with justice. Amen.
And this one for the Days of Awe:
May the four matriarchs' merit, the three patriarchs' merit, and the merit of Moses and Aaron be present for us at judgment....We beg our mother Sarah pray for us at the hour of judgment, that we may go free....Have mercy, our mother, on us your children, and pray for our children, that they are not separated from us. You know the bitterness of a child taken from its mother, as you grieved when Isaac was taken from you.  Pray now, at the blowing of the shofar of the ram, so God may remember Isaac's merit who let himself be bound as a sacrifice. Ask for mercy on our behalf.

I beg mother Rebecca to pray for her children and that our father and mother be not separated from us.  You know how strongly you long for a father and mother, as you wept greatly when you were taken from your father and mother to your husband Isaac.
(Written Out of History: Our Jewish Foremothers, ed. Sondra Henry and Emily Taitz, pp. 193-194)

The women who spoke techinot were not inhibited by the formal prayers of the tradition.  They had the courage to commune intimately with their Merciful Father, unafraid to speak of their daily lives and specific needs.  They, too, are a model for prayer today.

In our day, though, formal prayer seems to have eclipsed spontaneous prayer. Many of us have lost the art of praying directly from the heart.  We seem content or cowed, imprisoned or bored or worn out by our formal prayers.  We're no longer agile enough to make the leap to personal prayer at the end of the Amidah. We are amazed when we hear our Christian friends and relatives pray spontaneously around a hospital bed or in a time of fear and crisis.  We are out of practice.

Elul and the Days of Awe are the perfect time to practice spontaneous prayer and claim it once again for our lives.  The formal prayers are not intended to be a barrier to personal and spontaneous prayer, or a substitute for it, but a guide, a path deeper into our heart, an opening in the hard clay of our hearts where our personal words and silences can flower into teshuvah.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Prayer as Resistance and Rebellion—Elul 16

Even solitary prayer takes two:
one to sway back and forth
and the one who doesn’t move is God.
But when my father prayed, he would stand in his place,
erect, motionless, and force God
to sway like a reed and pray to him.
                                            Yehudah Amichai, “Gods Change, Prayers Are Here to Stay,” in Open, Closed, Open
When most people think of prayer, they think of a certain kind of prayer: petitionary prayer in which one asks God for something one does not have.  But prayer takes as many forms as there are persons communing. 
One form that Amichai evokes so beautifully in the image of his father praying is that of prayer as resistance.  Similarly, Isaac Bashevis Singer, in his Afterword to the novel “The Penitent,” speaks of prayer as rebellion.  Other post-Holocaust thinkers have come to similar conclusions, like Eli Wiesel who speaks of the Jews’ ongoing argument with God.  To resist, to rebel, to argue means that one is actively engaged in a relationship with that Presence one can neither control nor comprehend. 
Is this form of prayer appropriate for the Days of Awe?  Don’t we confess, over and over again, as one of our many sins, that “we rebel”? 
Let me ask you this:  If you had a son, a daughter, a partner, a friend with whom you had a misunderstanding or from whom you had grown distant, would you rather they avoid you, keep hostile silence against you, be indifferent to you, or that they start an argument with you and pour out their heart full of grievance and anger in your presence? 
Why do we think that we, human beings, need to protect God’s honor and tell others how to commune with God.  When the Torah was revealed at Sinai, every one of the 600,000 heard God speaking in a voice unique to them.  Theologians like to speak of this as “God’s accommodating” to our limits and limitations in order to pursue a relationship with us.  Surely that God, who is also the Womb of Mercy, the Father of Compassion, is not offended by the sputterings and spittings of troubled hearts or frightened by the anger or even hatred some feel.  Surely the One Who Surpasses All , Encompasses All, and Dwells Among Us welcomes all prayer, all true communing,  in all voices, in all language, in all tones, when they fly from a true heart.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Prayer as Thanksgiving--Elul 15

What was the sin of Adam and Hava in Gan Eden?  That they disobeyed the Lord's command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?  That they lied, denying what they had done and blaming another?
That they overstepped the boundaries set for them and rebelled?  That they let their desires run away with them? All these answers have been offered through the ages, by Jewish and Christian theologians alike.

Here is an interpretation that I find evocative: the root of Adam and Hava's alienation from God, which sprouted into their lies, rebellion, and unchecked desire, was their lack of trust in and gratitude to the Giver of Every Good Gift.
They forgot to give thanks for the beauty and bounty and love and wholeness that had been so generously given them. 

Prayer as thanksgiving can train our hearts and eyes to see our lives in new ways. It can help us become aware of the gifts that are already ours and help us develop what one of my friends calls "an attitude of gratitude."  Gratitude is one of the core values of Jewish life.  It is exemplified for me in these words of the Hasidic master Yehiel Mikhal of Zlotchov, whose very life had become a constant prayer of thanksgiving: "My life was blessed, because I never knew I needed anything until I had it." (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim I: 156)

During Elul and the Days of Awe, try praying daily in the form of a litany of thanksgiving, silent or spoken, for the many gifts that sustain and enrich your life.  It can transform your life.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Prayer as Praise--Elul 14

 The poet and philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol (b. 1021 C.E.) gives us some of the most beautiful examples of prayer as praise in his long poem The Kingly Crown. Here are a few excerpts especially suited to Elul and the Days of Awe:

Thine is the name that is hidden from the wise, the strength that sustains the world over the void, the power to bring to light all that is hidden.
Thine is the mercy that rules over Thy creatures and the goodness preserved for those who fear Thee.

Thou art One, but not as the One that is counted or owned, for number and change cannot reach Thee, nor attribute, nor form.
Thou art One, but my mind is too feeble to set Thee a law or a limit, and therefore I say:  "I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue."
Thou art One, and Thou art exalted high above abasement and falling--not like a man, who falls when he is alone.

Thou livest, and whoever attains Thy secret will find eternal delight--and "eat, and live forever.

Who can requite Thy bounties, when Thou gavest the soul to the body, to give it life, to teach and show it the path of life, to save it from evil?
Thou didst form man out of clay, and breathe into him a soul and set on him a spirit of wisdom, by which he is distinguished from a beast, and rises to a great height.
Thou didst set him enclosed in Thy world, while Thou from outside dost understand his deeds and see him,
And whatever he hides from Thee--from inside and from outside
   Thou dost observe.

(Joseph Dan, The Heart and the Fountain:  An Anthology of Jewish Mystical Experience, pp.  83ff.)

Monday, August 23, 2010

How Do We Commune? Let Me Count the Ways--Elul 13

We are accustomed to thinking of prayer primarily as petitions, bakashot. We need food, shelter, mercy, forgiveness, a softened heart, freedom from oppression, anything, and we ask the father of compassion, the womb of mercy, the fountain of blessing, the well of light, the strong deliverer to provide it for us. There is nothing wrong or lesser about this form of praying. It is an expression of our absolute dependence upon and trust in the One who is not Enemy but Friend. And during the Days of Awe, from Erev Rosh HaShanah and the Rosh HaShanah seder through Neilah, both publicly in the synagogue and privately in our homes and hearts, we rightly practice this form of prayer vigorously. 

During this month of teshuvah, reflect on what it is you truly need, what it is you truly desire, and whom you are addressing--then frame your heart's petitions accordingly. 

But petition is not the whole of prayer.  To take it for the whole would be like remaining a child who never grows beyond an awareness of his needs or her desires and asking for them to be satisfied by the benevolent parent.  Communing with the One Who Surpasses and Encompasses All is for mature spirits, those who are able to pray in the form of praise and the form of thanksgiving as well.  And these forms of prayer, too, we practice vigorously during the Days of Awe, at home and in the synagogue.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

But Repentance, Prayer, and Tzedakah…—Elul 12

“But repentance, prayer, and tzedakah can avert the evil decree.”  What do we mean when we repeat this phrase during the month of turning toward the One?  First, these three, repentance, prayer, and tzedakah are not separate actions. It is not that we make teshuvah and then, or also, pray and give tzedakah.  Prayer and tzedakah, are part of the larger process of repentance or turning.  Teshuvah is a process that involves the transformation of the whole person and thus is necessarily multi-dimensional.  It includes actions toward the Wholly Other and actions toward others; it is not an interior process of feeling that begins and ends with the individual.  Prayer is primarily (not exclusively) communion or an active relating to God.  Tzedakah is communion or active relating in righteousness to others.

We’ve talked about prayer as “being present to the Presence” and “paying attention” to the fullness and depth of the reality that surrounds us at every moment.  We’ve also talked about the aloneness of the life of the spirit.  It’s important not to interpret this in an individualistic, privatistic, or passive way, however; for even at its most still, prayer is an action in relation to the world, and even at its most solitary and private, prayer is—to use that old-fashioned word—communion.  It’s common to hear people say, “When we pray, we talk to God; when we read Torah, God talks to us.”  But prayer is not a monologue. When we pray we are doing what all meditators do—trying to commune with a reality larger than our puny and deluded selves.  We are trying to enlarge our spirits to touch, to taste, to see, to hear, to smell—you can use whatever language you want—a reality or way of being beyond our ordinary experience, a reality so overwhelming in both vastness and intimacy, distance and nearness, that everything else is thrown into a new perspective, a reality so far surpassing our reason and imagination that our very existence is called into question. 

To be called into question—that is why we pray, why we enter that space of communing.  And that is why we need to pray, in whatever form is native to our temperament and circumstances.

When we pray in this way, not talking to God or at God, but communing with that Other who calls us into question, we are transformed, we  become new.  That is one way that prayer can alter the world by “averting the evil decree.” By praying during Elul we are not necessarily petitioning God to alter or magically erase a judgment against ourselves as individuals; we are seeking to become whole, to live lives of righteousness and mercy in all our relationships and actions in the world. That changes not only ourselves, but the world, and thus can help avert the evil decree of injustice that so many innocent people today suffer under. For when we turn at the root of our being from evil to good, we act in the world for good, containing and combating evil, transforming the evil we encounter into good, and creating new opportunities and structures for the good.

Don’t underestimate the power of prayer, the action of communing, enlarging one’s spirit beyond the narrow strictures of the self, opening oneself to radical transformation, in the work of social justice in the world.  

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Third Failure;: Failure to Realize the Good and Combat Injustice—Elul 11

For Kaplan, the third failure that repentance helps us surmount is “the failure to realize to the fullest degree the potentialities inherent in our natures and in the situations in which we find ourselves.” (The Meaning of God, 184)  We all have “latent powers for good” that we don’t call upon unless there is a crisis.  We’re all too familiar with this.  We quarrel, we bicker, we carp, we criticize—and then when we need to pull together or we need to be creative, we find we can actually do so and enjoy doing so!  Why didn’t we do it before? 
Kaplan stresses the social dimension of this as well.  We as individuals get fixated in old patterns, but so do social institutions.  And when they do, when they no longer respond to new situations in a life-giving way, they obstruct the ability of individuals to realize their creative potential for good; they actually obscure social evils and tempt individuals to accept certain inevitable conditions, like poverty or discrimination, instead of combating them.   He dares to call this “social sin.”  “Ethical religion” he concludes, “is incompatible with an attitude of submission to social institutions that work injustice.” (Ibid., 186) 
One of the sins we confess during the liturgy of the Days of Awe speaks to this:  “We are complacent.”  Kaplan puts it this way:  “To accept complacently ways of life that hinder us from realizing the best that is in us, or even to resign ourselves to the assumptions that they are intrinsically and unalterable, is sin, and calls for repentance.  Such repentance must express itself in determined and persistent effort to reconstruct our social institutions with a view to human welfare as realized in the synthesis of maximum individuality and maximum cooperation.” (Ibid.)
As our ancestors counseled, we don’t have to do all the work ourselves or  finish the work we have begun.  But we cannot stand idly by.  We cannot remain complacent.  We must choose where we can combat injustice in our lives and begin to realize, now,  the good among us. 

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Second Failure: Failure to Grow in Character—Elul 10

For Kaplan, the second type of failure that calls for repentance is “the failure to keep on growing in character.”  (The Meaning of God, 183)  This goes to the root of what we confess in the Vidui, We abuse, we betray….  We built up behavior patterns based on our experience, Kaplan says. But then, the conditions of our life change and impose new responsibilities on us that our experience and patterns did not prepare us for.  Instead of responding to the new conditions and obligations, we keep repeating our old patterns of behavior.  Whether we call it “fixation,” rigidity, laziness, or lack of imagination, we all get caught in this. To prevent it, we need to stay aware. 

Kaplan brings the example of a child, for whom obedience and deference to parents is a virtue. But when the child matures, the virtue of initiative is important: He or she must take responsibility for his own career and mate choices. One might also mention the need for parents to transform from parent to guide as their children mature, to practice tzimtzum (contraction of the fullness of their being), instead of fixating on a certain role in relation to their children.  The transition from single to married life entails a similar transformation of character, as do all major changes in economic status, health, and innumerable other aspects of our lives. 

His conclusion: “Whenever we recognize the inadequacy of our acquired personality to do justice to the demands of a new situation, and we try to overcome the obstacles that prevent out lives from manifesting the divine, we are practicing repentance, or the return to God.” (Ibid., 184)

Where and how have we have gotten stuck in an old behavior pattern that is no longer life-giving? In what relationships have we allowed our old selves to become “fixated” instead of opening our hearts to new (and sometimes awkward and painful) growth?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The First Failure: Failure to Integrate--Elul 9

Let’s not worry about the word “failure.”  Failure (or whatever synonym you choose to use for it: sin, alienation, missing the mark) is an inevitable part of the process of becoming truly human.  As Samuel Beckett says:  “Fail.  Fail again.  Fail better.”  As Mordecai Kaplan reminds us, though failure is inevitable, repentance is always a possibility.

The first failure is “the failure to integrate our impulses, habits, social activities and institutions in harmony with those ethical ideals that make God manifest in the world.” (The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, 182)  If we’re not integrated, we don’t trust ourselves and we become frustrated.  Insecurity and frustration lead to many acts of unkindness, often hidden to ourselves. 

When we work to integrate ourselves, all of who we are, internally and externally, individually and socially, we are acting as the image of God, whose character we experience as integrated.  This is one of the meanings of affirming in the Sh’ma that “The Lord our God is One.” 

Kaplan  draws this conclusion:  “If human character is to reflect the divine, it must be integrated and self-consistent.  This involves a working synthesis of individual self-expression and social cooperation. Such a synthesis is, therefore, evidence of atonement won and the fruit of effective repentance.” (182-183).  One might say this is another way to interpret Hillel’s famous counsel:  "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?" (Ethics of the Fathers, 1:14)

Some of us are very integrated individually.  Some of us are very integrated socially.  How are we doing on the synthesis in our lives?