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?

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Teshuvah as a Natural Social Process--Elul 8

Mordecai Kaplan spent his life formulating the “organic and dynamic view of Jewish life,” because he believed Judaism had fallen into “maladjustment” and an “unhealthy state” in the modern world.  (Preface to The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion) His revolutionary approach was to look at the religion of Judaism as a “natural social process which arises from man’s intrinsic need of salvation or self-fulfillment” (Ibid.) This approach yielded many insights that complement the study of traditional texts and bring their truths into the experience of contemporary men and women.   His insights on the regeneration of human nature, on sin and repentance, are one example. By focusing on the natural, social, and process dimensions of repentance, he uncovers aspects of it that are often neglected and that can aid spiritual growth and creativity. As he argues, “The sacramental efficacy of the ritual of atonement is nil, and its symbolic power of no value, unless the sense of sin leads us to seek the reconstruction of our personalities in accordance with highest ethical possibilities of human nature; only then can we experience teshuvah, the sense of returning to God.” (187).

Teshuvah is natural. Kaplan defines repentance or teshuvah as “part of the normal functioning of our personality in its effort at progressive self-realization.” (Ibid., 182)  It’s not an arcane or particularistic religious habit, but an essential part of all human life.  We focus on this process during the Days of Awe, but we recognize that it is part of our normal daily lives, as evidenced in our daily prayer, “Cause us to return, O our Father…”

Teshuvah is socialTeshuvah, whether toward God, the natural world, or other human beings, is by definition a social act.  It is not a matter of an individual’s self-contained purity or impurity or state of imperfection.  It involves the quality of one’s relationships with others.  We do not seek perfection within ourselves; we live toward greater wholeness (shalom)  in the full context of our lives.

Teshuvah is a process. Repentance is not a single once-for-all act or a series of discrete acts. It is the very movement of life.  We are always either moving toward greater realization and fulfillment or we are stagnating. Life or death: the choice is ours.  But we must choose, at every moment.

So what does repentance look like in our daily lives?  Kaplan outlines “three types of failure which repentance should aim to remedy.”  (Ibid.) We’ll reflect on each of these three failures (yes, failures)  in the coming days of Elul. 

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Why the Name “Jews”? Elul 7

We Jews have many names for ourselves.

We are called b’nei Yisrael, the children of Yisrael, the one who wrestles with God.

We are called rachmanim b’nei rachmanim, the merciful ones who are the children of the merciful ones.

We are also called Jews, from Yehudim.  Historically and politically this makes sense, since the tribe of Yehudah gave its name to the Kingdom of Judah, the southern kingdom that emerged after the tragic fall of King Saul. which in turn gave the name to the land of Judea. But what of the spiritual meaning of this name? Do we want to claim this, too, as we have claimed the spiritual ancestry embedded in the names God-wrestlers and rachmanim?  

There is good reason to claim that we are Yehudim during Elul and at all times of the year because Yehudah is the first recorded person to make full teshuvah to another human being.

As the liturgy continually reminds us, Yom Kippur atones for our sins with God, not with people.  It does not atone for the ways we have harmed or alienated our family, friends, community, and natural environment. For those acts, we must make teshuvah, and it is Yehuda who guides the way.

It’s a great story, and Yehudah is no hero in the ordinary sense.  Nor is he an anti-hero.  He is a hero of the spirit.

As Genesis 38 tells it: Yehudah married off his son Er to Tamar.  Er died. Following the law of levirate marriage, Yehudah gave her to his son Onan, to bear sons in Er’s name.  We know what Onan did. Onan died—or God killed him as punishment.  Yehudah, fearful that his daughter-in-law is an incarnation of what we now call the  vagina dentata, refuses to let her marry any more of his sons. But he lies to her (and perhaps to himself, intending to marry her to his next son, just not yet), telling her to be patient and wait and he will do the right thing.  He doesn’t. And he doesn’t. And he doesn’t.  So Tamar takes it upon herself to set the law of God in motion.  She dresses up as a sacred prostitute and stands along the road her father-in-law is traveling.  He sleeps with her.  She cleverly asks for a token.  He tries to fob her off with the promise of a lamb.  She demands his seal and cord, and his staff in addition.  To his credit, Yehudah sends her the promised lamb. He makes good on his obligation to her, though it would have been easy to let it slide.  He is a man of his word, if not master of his desires.

When his lackeys report that his daughter-in-law has “played the harlot” and gotten pregnant, he says, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.”  He is a man of justice.  Sin must be punished.  Tamar whips out his seal and cord, saying, “I am with child by the man to whom these belong.” 

Yehudah’s response is miraculous. He could have denounced her as a liar. Who would have challenged him if he had had her burned, a woman already responsible for the death of two good men? a woman without a man, a widow, less than nothing? He could have equivocated, masked his responsibility by invoking general principles, or deflected the attention of himself back to her by focusing on the act of her harlotry.  Instead, this is his response:  “She is more in the right than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he was not intimate with her again (v. 26).

I love Yehudah for this.  What he does in response to her confrontation is a blueprint for true teshuvah in relation to others.  He does not deny or minimize the harm he has done. He accepts full responsibility for the action of his that has brought about this state of affairs.  He does not blame her, he doesn’t even mention what she has done that is wrong.  He is convicted of his own sin, shoulders his own burden of responsibility. He sets himself and her free in this moment.  But his teshuvah, his turning from evil to good, from alienation to love, is not yet complete.  Convictions alone, realizations alone, and words alone do not make for teshuvah.  These must bear fruit in changed action, sustained over the rest of one’s life.  And this is what we are given to understand by the narrator’s comment, “And he was not intimate with her again.”  He now acts as a true father-in-law, he defends and protects his dead sons’ wife, the woman he has wronged in so many ways.   He does not use her for his own purposes, as he might easily have done.  He acts toward her in justice.  He cannot undo what he has done.  She will bear sons to him.  But he transforms  death and destruction to life and justice.

This is the courage and creativity of  teshuvah. This is what it means to be a Jew.

This is the territory of teshuvah--messy, downright ugly, lurid, mean, dangerous, and miraculous. 

Monday, August 16, 2010

Teshuvah Trumps Despair Elul 6

Cain murdered his brother.  He could not have  committed a more heinous deed during those days on earth.  Yet he did not despair.  Instead, he clung to God, in his own way, and made teshuvah.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said:

Even if a person  has fallen to a low level, he must strengthen himself and not despair at all.  God’s greatness is much higher than the Torah: on God’s level, everything can be rectified, for repentance is even higher than the Torah.”

   I asked him “But how does one reach this?”

   He answered, “One can reach this as long as one does not despair from crying out and praying. One should remain untiring until one finally succeeds.”

   This is because the essence of repentance is crying out to God.   (Sichot Haran, no. 3; in The Chambers of the Palace, ed. Y. David Shulman, 31)

Perhaps this is what Paul meant in his Letter to the Romans, when he wrote, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.”

There is a way back, always, from however far away we have slipped, from whatever depths we have become mired in.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Cain: The Father of Teshuvah? Elul 5

Cain is much maligned. We tell the story of how he kills his own brother in a fit of jealous rage at God.  How God curses him to till the earth in vain and wander the land as an exile. How God marks him forever with a sign so that all will recognize him as the sinner he is and go on living as a cautionary tale to others: This is what you turn into when you do evil.  Whatever the mark of Cain looked like (some say it was a dog, others a horn protruding from his forehead, others writing on his forehead),  it has come to symbolize the evil human beings are capable of.

But what about that mark? God gives it to Cain for protection. Anyone who lays a hand on Cain will suffer seven-fold violence. Why is it that God wants Cain alive?  What is Cain’s life a sign and reminder of to human beings? 

One answer is suggested by comparing Cain’s encounter with God after his sin of murder with his father Adam’s encounter with God after his sin of failing to trust God in the Garden of Eden and eating a forbidden fruit.  When God confronts Adam, who is hiding, Adam lies, and he blames God.  “I didn’t do it,” he says.  “The woman You gave me did it.” God’s response: God exiles Adam and Hava from the Garden of Eden and punishes them with hard labor and birth pangs.  When God confronts Cain, that vile son guilty of fratricide, he, too lies.  “I don’t know where my brother is,” he says. “Why should I? I’m not responsible for him.” The implication here is that God is his brother’s keeper, so Cain, too blames God. God’s response: He punishes Cain with fruitless labor and exiles him everywhere on earth.  So far, not much difference.  What happens next changes everything—for Cain, for God, and for all who follow.

Cain dares to respond to God, to stay in the relationship with God. “My punishment is too great for me to bear! Since you have banished me this day from the soil, and I must avoid your presence and become a restless wanderer on earth—anyone who meets me may kill me!”  (Gen. 4: 13-14)  Cain is the first in a long illustrious line of those who argue with God for mercy, who dare to negotiate terms of punishment.  And he is the first to mourn the fact that he has alienated himself from the Presence and must suffer the pain of that alienation every day of his life.  Remarkably, God responds to him not with more curses for his cheekiness and whining, but with a mark of protection and a promise of mercy:  “If anyone kills Cain, sevenfold vengeance will be taken on that person!”  The next thing the Genesis account tells us is that Cain went out from the Presence of the Lord and settled in Nod, built a city, and raised his family.

A midrash in Genesis Rabbah (22:12) fills in the gap between leaving the Presence and settling into his life as the man who murdered his brother this way:

“Cain went out from the Presence of the Lord” (Gen. 4:16). Cain  [did not speak deceitfully, but] went forth as one glad in heart. Adam met him and asked, “What was done in punishment of you?” Cain replied, “I vowed repentance and was granted clemency.” Upon hearing this, Adam, in self-reproach, began to stroke himself in the face as he said, “Such is the power of repentance, and I knew it not.” Then and there Adam exclaimed, “It is a good thing to confess to the Lord.” (Ps. 92:2)

Did Cain “vow repentance”? Perhaps all that was necessary was for him to stay close to the presence of the Lord, to trust God enough to keep talking to him.  Even as he bore the pain and shame of his incomparably evil deed and God’s anger, Cain trusted--in his own puny way-- in the power of God’s compassion, and thus in the possibility of return, teshuvah. That is all it takes to awaken new life and set teshuvah in motion. 

Adam or Cain?  Whose way of responding to sin is a better guide along our way? 

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The Beginning of the Way of Turning Elul 4

In Genesis Rabbah, a medieval collection of midrashim,  R. Ahavah son of R. Ze’era makes a curious claim about teshuvah, the way of turning: God created teshuvah before creating the world, including the Earth Creature, ha-Adam. [1:4] 

This is compassion: to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, care for the orphan and widow, release the fettered, comfort the afflicted, make ready the healing before the wound has been suffered. 

What else does R. Ahavah’s order suggest?

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Power of Repentance, Prayer, and Tzedakah Elul 3

On Yom Kippur, the congregation and chazzan repeat this teaching of the ancient rabbis: “Repentance, prayer, and charity avert the evil of the decree” (Teshuva, tephilah, and tzedakah maverin et Roeh HaGezerah). This is the mantra we live by in Elul as well. Let’s set aside for a moment the question of that image of an “evil decree” and consider instead the power of these three actions: teshuvah, prayer or tephilah, and charity or tzedakah. Each of these actions has the power to transform evil into good.  There is no greater awe-inspiring human power than this, to turn that which was destructive into something lifegiving.  Recovering alcoholics and addicts, those who have been betrayed by loved ones, survivors of war, genocide,  and domestic violence, and many others know the truth of this in their lives.  To stop evil is praiseworthy.   To do good is praiseworthy.  To transform evil into good, as Yosef did with the ten brothers who sold him into slavery—that is even greater.

What unites these three ways of transformation is that each is a way of acting in the world.  They are not words or feelings or intentions or hopes that reside within an individual.  They are actions directed to an other; they are relational.  This is the foundation for understanding their power and how they work, in relation to ourselves, others, and God.

Let’s consider these three ways of turning evil into good one by one, starting with teshuvah. 

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Who are we? Forgetting and Remembering Elul 2

To turn or return, we need to remember where we have been.  This is one reason why we begin the ten days of repentance with Rosh ha-Shanah, the creation of life and root of all being, instead of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

S. Y. Agnon (Days of Awe, 23-34) retells this parable about remembering from a midrash in Darchei Hayyim, The Ways of Life.

Once a king’s son sinned against his father, the king.  His father expelled him from his house.  As long as he was near his home, people knew he was a king’s son, and befriended him, and gave him food and drink.  But as the days passed, and he got farther into his father’s realm, no one knew him, and he had nothing to eat. He began to sell his clothing to buy food.  When he and nothing left to sell, he hired out as a shepherd. After he had hired out as a shepherd he was no longer in need, because he needed nothing.He would sit on the hills, tending his flocks and singing like the other shepherds, and he forgot that he was a king’s son and all the pleasures that he had been used to.

     Now it is the custom of the shepherds to make themselves small roofs of straw to keep out the rain. The king’s son wanted to make such a roof, too,but he could not afford one, so he was deeply grieved.

     Once the king happened to be passing through that province. Now it was a common practice in that kingdom for those who had petitions to the king to write out their petitions and throw them into the king’s chariot. The king’s son same with the other petitioners, and threw his note, in which he petitioned for a small straw roof such as shepherds have. The king recognized his son’s handwriting, and was saddened to think how low his son had fallen that he had forgotten that he was a king’s son, and felt only the lack of a straw roof.

     Our master ended: “It is the same way with our people:  They have already forgotten that they are each of them king’s sons [or daughters], and what they really lack. One cries he is in in want of a living, and another cries for children. But the truth, that we lack all the treasures we had of old—that is something they forget to pray for!”

Martin Buber retells a Hasidic version of this parable:

     Rabbi Shelomo of Karlin asked: “What is the worst thing the Evil Urge can achieve?”

     And he answered: “For a man to forget he is the son [or daughter] of a king.” [Tales of the Hasidim 1: 282]

Let us start by remembering.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Turn, Turn, Turn Elul 1

Today the month of Elul begins, the month of repentance or turning, when Jews concentrate their hearts and lives on turning to  God. Repentance or teshuvah (from shuv, turn) is  good at all times. God stands ready at all times, waiting, longing for us to turn back, turn around, turn toward the way of life.  It is we who are not ready.  We often need a push, a pinch, or a reminder of who we are  and what are lives are. The month of Elul is such a reminder.   It puts creative pressure on us by setting a limit of thirty days in which to prepare ourselves, to practice heshbon hanephesh or the examination of our souls, so we can enter the Days of Awe, the ten days of repentance that stretch from Rosh ha-Shanah through Yom Kippur, ready.

Every man must prepare himself thirty days beforehand with Teshuvah and prayer and charity for the day when he will appear in judgment before God, on Rosh ha-Shanah.  Then let him give all his heart to the service of God.  And those who interpret the Torah metaphorically say, “The initials of the words, Ani Le-dodi Ve-dodi Li (”I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine”—Song of Songs 6:3), when read consecutively read Elul. If Israel will long to turn in a complete Teshuvah to their Father who is in heaven, then his longing will go out to them, and he will accept them in Teshuvah.  [Mateh Moshe, 1591, by Rabbi Moshe ben Avraham of Przemyśl: in S.Y. Agnon, Days of Awe, 18]

Thirty days of turning. Long enough to meditate on who we are, what we are doing with the life given to us, and what it means to turn, to pray, and do justice.  I invite you to meditate with me each day this month.

Friday, August 6, 2010

How to Become a Worm, a Faqr, Not Yourself, Nothing

It’s a popular sport, it seems, to make fun of the Calvinist view of the human being as a worm.  How absurd, we think.  Didn’t the Renaissance, which preceded Calvin, turn all this religious drivel on its head and praise the glory of man.  Think Pico della Mirandola’s oration “On the Dignity of Man.”  Think Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man.  Calvin and his ilk were nothing but religious reactionaries.   

So the popular interpretation goes.  Whether we blame Calvin or other religious leaders, we often assume that to be modern, to be progressive, to be scientific we need to move beyond God and glorify, or at least focus on,  humankind.

But let’s dig a little deeper.  It’s not just Calvin.  It’s not just dead theologians from another age than our enlightened one.  And it’s not just religious reactionaries who speak of God and of the smallness of humankind in relation to God.  To cultivate proper humility  among human beings is not to muzzle intellect, art, and science.  It is to place humankind in perspective.

Just as the Renaissance was necessary to highlight  humankind and the temporal world, now, in our post-Renaissance, post-Enlightenment world, it is necessary to be reminded that humankind and the material world are not all that there is.  We need to de-center humankind for many reasons.  One, anthropocentrism and human pride have contributed to the damage of our environment.  Two, our concern for our selves interferes with our ability to relate to others and is the cause of much suffering.

Maybe it’s time to take another look at what Calvin and other mystics and ordinary people were trying to remind us of.

Yes, John Calvin spoke of human beings as worms before the majesty of God. He also was a Renaissance man and praised the glories of human reason and humankind’s creative accomplishment in the political and artistic realms.  What he wanted to remind people of is the danger of making humankind ALL. 

The Qu’ran, too, speaks of this when it says, “O, humankind! You are the poor!  Allah is plenitude.” (35:15)  It is partly for this reason that Sufis became faqrs and faqirahs, ones who are poor, indigent and needy.  Their torn and patched cloaks were a reminder of their poverty of self in relation to God.  “The work you do,” Jalal al-Din Rumi writes, “yourself not in the midst, that is work done by God—know this for sure.” (Mystical Poems of Rumi, tr. A.J. Arberry, 2:32)

This teaching is not for mystics, but for everyone.  It is not for one tradition, but for all.  

Jews bow and cover their heads, Christians bow and kneel, Muslims prostrate themselves, and Buddhists bow—these are not the acts of submissive persons; they are reminders of who we are in relation to that which surpasses all our thought and feeling, the circumference we can never reach—small, fragile, ephemeral creatures not fit to be the center or scope of the universe. Pascal saw this while looking at the night sky filled with stars and recorded it in his Pensees, not to demean the human creature, but to place it in the proper perspective. . These gestures are a call to awake from the illusion of our great selfhood and find ourselves in a genuine humility that liberates us to find our true place in the world of nature, humans, and other animals..  

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Dare “To See with Two Eyes”

Mystics of all traditions speak of double-seeing, looking at the world from two perspectives simultaneously, from the point of view of the spiritual reality and from the point of view of our limited material reality.  Ibn ‘Arabi  calls this “to see with two eyes.”  It’s not easy.  It takes practice to recognize the difference between the ways of seeing, avoid getting stuck in one or other, and walking around seeing from both perspectives.  William Blake was an expert at it.  

Blake was well-known and often ridiculed for his double-seeing, his visionary experience of the world he shared with other human beings.  In the biography The Life of William Blake, Alexander Gilchrist records this story of an encounter Blake had with a woman, as told by Blake himself:

“The other evening” Blake said in his usual quiet way, “I came to a meadow, and at the farther corner of it I saw a fold of lambs.  Coming nearer, the ground blushed with flowers; and the wattled cote and its wooly tenants were of an exquisite pastoral beauty.  but I looked again, and it proved to be no living flock, but beautiful sculpture.”  The lady, thinking this a capital holiday-show for her children, eagerly interposed, “I beg pardon, Mr.. Blake, but may I ask where you saw this?” “Here, madam,” answered Blake, touching his forehead.  (pp. 337-338)

Gilchrist points out that Blake was not mad:  He not only knew the difference between the reality perceived by most people and the phenomena he saw, he "would candidly confess [his visions] were not literal matters of fact.” (338) He understood these spiritual appearances to come from the faculty of the imagination.  Not imagination as we think of it:  the invention of empty fantasies or fictions. But imagination as the power of sensing subtler realities, realities, than we usually perceive. Gilchrist notes: “He said the things imagination saw were as much realities as were gross and tangible facts He would tell his artist-friends, ‘You have the same faulty as I (the visionary), only you do not trust or cultivate it.  You can see what I do, if you choose.” (339)

Whether we’re artists or not, his counsel is valuable.  Don’t get stuck in a particular literalistic view, whether it be a scientific or religious one. Trust and cultivate that power of imagination that expands our view of the universe and connects us more deeply to all. 

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Emily Dickinson’s “Serve or Set a Force Illegible”

Emily Dickinson was acquainted with many kinds of loneliness.  She also engaged in a lifelong conversation with God, that which she inherited and that which she experienced.  I think of her poems—all of them—as hymns in the tradition of the Psalmist. Their meter evokes for me the meter of the Calvinist hymns she grew up with--made new with fresh images, lively juxtapositions of incommensurables that explode into new ways of thinking about God in relation to our world. She was a woman who lived contradiction intensely, sincerely, and gracefully; a woman who understood our experience of God gives rise to our view of God but is always too small, too limited, to be equated with that reality; a woman unafraid to travel to the end of the road where one stands alone—enough reason for me to consider her a mystic.  Consider poem #820:

All Circumstances are the Frame
In which His Face is set —
All Latitudes exist for His
Sufficient Continent —
The Light His Action, and the Dark
The Leisure of His Will —
In Him Existence serve or set
A Force illegible.

(#820; p. 398 in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Loneliness: What Do You Do with Yours?

Solitude and seclusion give life to the spirit.  A life seeking and being sought by spirit is, even in the midst of community and action in the world,  necessarily a solitary and even lonely life.  How else to blunt the power of the many distractions that seem to consume us?  We are good at marshalling distinctions: solitude, being alone to the Alone,  is not loneliness, we say.  Distinctions are helpful.  But experience is never as tidy as our intellect would like it to be.  Deep meditation and prayer, that profound communion when one is present to the Presence that overwhelms as it embraces, is a kind of lonely experience. One might feel amazingly close, where one truly belongs, and at the same time, amazingly far—from others, from the daily world, from what—we cannot say.

Reflecting on the variety of our experiences of loneliness can be a helpful guide through this inner territory.  Howard Thurman,  a mystic rooted in the Christian tradition who embraced many traditions in friendship and co-founded the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, points the way.  In The Inward Journey, one of his many books of meditations, he writes about loneliness.  His words, written in 1961, seem even more apt for our age, caught up as we are in a social media feeding frenzy. 
#96.  Your Loneliness
What do you do with your loneliness?  One of the massive results of the invasion of privacy so characteristic of our times is the increasing fear of being alone. Loneliness is of many kinds.  There is the loneliness of a great bitterness when the pain is so great that any contact with others threatens to open old wounds and to awaken old frenzies.  There is the loneliness of the broken heart and the dead friendship when what was full of promise and fulfillment lost its way in a fog of misunderstanding, anxiety, and fear.  There is the loneliness of those who have absorbed so much of violence that all hurt has died, leaving only the charred reminder of a lost awareness.  There is the loneliness of the shy and the retiring where timidity stands guard against all encounters and the will to relate to others is tilled.  There is the loneliness of despair, and the exhaustion of the spirit, leaving no strength to try again, the promise of a the second wind can find no backing.  There is the loneliness of death when silently a man listens, one by one, to the closing of all doors, and all that remains is naked life, stripped of everything that shields, protects, and insulates.
     But there is loneliness in another key. There is the loneliness of the truth-seeker whose search swings him out beyond all frontiers and all boundaries until there bursts upon his view a fleeting moment of utter awareness and he knows beyond all doubt, all contradictions.  There is the loneliness of the moment of integrity when the declaration of the self is demanded and the commitment gives no corner to sham, to pretense, or to lying.  There is the loneliness in the moment of creation when the new comes into being, trembles, then steadies until the path takes them out beyond all creeds and all faiths and they know the wholeness of communion and the bliss of finally being understood.
     Loneliness is of many kinds.  What do you do with yours?  (130-131)

Sunday, August 1, 2010

In Praise of Seclusion

The Hasidic masters say:  “A person who does not have one hour in each day to herself or himself is not a human being.”

Where have you been?