Friday, August 31, 2012

Don’t Condemn, Forgive —Elul 13

The Days of Awe focus on teshuvah, turning, repentance and forgiveness, for our sins and for the sins of others against us.

One of the stories of Jesus that I always loved as a child was the story of the woman taken into adultery. I didn’t know what adultery was. I just knew that it was something so bad people could kill you for doing it, and that Jesus responded to it in a wholly different way.
Jesus went unto the mount of Olives.
2 And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.
3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.
9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?
11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. John 8: 1-11
Let’s put John’s polemics against the Jews (the “Pharisees,” whom he sees a law-bound and devoid of all forgiveness, which is not at all an historically accurate view of the movement of the Pharisees) aside for a moment and return to it later.

What does this story mean? And the related teaching of Jesus, “Judge not lest ye be not judged”? (Matthew 7:1)

We are so ready to pass judgment because we are so sure we are right, because we see so clearly from within the confines of our limited perspective. It all looks so clear to us because we are looking at one small corner or section of the painting, not at the whole composition in all its glorious beauty. We confuse the part we see with the whole, not understanding that what may look one way in a small section is actually something totally different when seen as part of the whole. Our judgment may be and probably is a spiritual optical illusion. So better not to judge. And instead open our hearts to see wider and wider, that we might understand more and forgive more.

When others judge our full and rich lives from their limited external perspectives, we cry, “Foul!” We protest, “They don’t understand, they don’t see the big picture, they don’t see where we have come from or where we are in our life’s journey, or we are or where we are going.” Hillel teaches: “That which is hateful to you do not do to others.” Or in Jesus’ version of the teaching in the Hebrew scriptures: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Don’t judge others from your limited perspective. Don’t condemn them from within your limited awareness of the justice and mercy of the One. Instead, open your heart to a larger justice, a larger mercy, a larger humility that acknowledges how limited our perception is.

This does not mean we should not fight to bring about justice in the world for our sisters and brothers wherever they may be. But we can do this without condemning persons. For what do we know of that justice? When we speak of condemnation and judgment, Hazrat Inayat Khan suggests we remember this: “There is only one thing that is truly just ,and that is to say, ‘I must not do this.’” (The Art of Being and Becoming, p. 208) Instead of condemning an action by another, use their action to confirm in your own heart the strength of will not to commit that act yourself. That is more powerful and will bring about greater change than any condemnation ever could.

So what about John and those Pharisees? Why does he find it necessary to condemn them, to judge them wrong to make himself and the fledgling Christian communities right? Because in his day the Jewish and Christian communities were so close, so entangled, that he could not step back far enough to see them both in a wider perspective—two spiritual traditions, one ancient, one just beginning, that came into being to help people follow the path of righteousness and mercy and glorify the One.

So when I read those portions of the Christian scriptures that are part of the anti-Jewish polemic, I try not to explain them away or merely condemn them. I try to say, I must not condemn another religious or spiritual tradition to reinforce my own.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

By Their Fruits You Will Know Them, Sign 3—Elul 12

This is the final sign Edwards brings forward as a way to discern if we are holy or not. In essence he is echoing the New Testament, “By your fruits ye shall know them.” It reminds me of a famous article that S. Y. Agnon wrote, “Halakah and Aggadah,” in which he insists that both halakah, law, and aggadah, narrative, are essential, for to flower is never the goal; one must bear fruit in one’s life.

Here are some excerpts from the wise Edwards on why it is important to look at one’s actions when one is reflecting on one’s holiness (all emphases in original):
“What makes men partial in religion is, is that they seek themselves, and not God, in their religion, and close with religion, not for its own excellent nature, but only to serve a turn. He that closes with a religion only to serve a turn, will close with no more of it than he imagines serves that turn: but he that closes with religion for its own excellent and lovely nature, closes with all that has that natures: he that embraces religion for its own sake, embraces the whole of religion.”

“True grace is not an inactive thing; there is nothing in heaven or earth of a more active nature; for it is life itself, the most active kind, even spiritual and divine life. It si no barren thing; there is nothing in the universe that in its nature has a greater tendency to fruit. Godliness in the heart has as direct a relation to practice as a fountain has to a stream, or as the luminous nature of the sun has to beams sent forth, or as life has to breathing, or the beating of the pulse, or any other vital act; or as a habit or principle of action has to action : for it is the very nature and notion of grace, that it is a principle of holy action or practice: for it is the very end of it, th a viewi to which the whole work is wrought.“

“Passing affections easily produce words; and words are cheap; and godliness is more easily feigned in words than in actions. Christian practice is a costly, laborious thing. The self-denial that is required of Christians, the narrowness of the way that leads to life, does not consist in words, but in practice. Hypocrites may much more easily be brought to talk like saints than to act like saints.

“Thus it is plain, that Christian practice is the best sign or manifestation of the true godliness of a professing Christian, to the eye of his neighbors.”

After insisting that even this sign is a sign that we show to or see in others, he goes on to say that we must take care in using this sign to discern because there are many varieties of practice and things that are external are limited and cannot be known with certainty; hence they cannot be judged or condemned.
”[N}o external appearances whatsoever , that are visible to the world, are infallible evidenes of grace. The manifestations that have nee mentioned are the best that mankind can have; and they are such as oblige Christians entirely to embrace professors [of Christian religious experiences]as saints, to love and rejoice in them a s the children of God... But nothing that appears to them in their neighbor, can be sufficient to beget an absolute certainty governing the state of his soul. They see not his heart nor can they see all his external behavior for much of it is in secret and hid from the eye of the world: and it I s impossible certainly to determine, how far a man may go in many external appearances and imitations of grace, from other principles.“
So what does Edwards conclude? Since you can’t know about your neighbors actions and what they say about the state of his or her holiness or relationship with God, don’t worry about your neighbor; worry about your self. What is your heart? What is your practice? What are your fruits?

His reason for tending to your own actions and not those of your neighbor is instructive: the goal is for all to let their light shine in their practice “before men, that others seeing their good works, would glorify their Father which is in heaven!” This is the last sentence of Treatise on Religious Affections.
So what can we learn from these three signs in Edwards’s response to the religious awakening in his day?
Instead of condemning others verbally or attacking them violently, physically and otherwise, for not feeling, thinking, or acting as we believe they should, we should look at our own lives and ask these questions with Edwards:
1. Does my life reflect genuine humility?
2. Is my heart a heart hardened by judgment into stone or a heart softened by the love of God into tenderness, a heart of flesh?
3. Do my actions blot out or desecrate the name of God or shine a light in the world that illumines the glory of the One?
If we would just take a moment to ask ourselves these questions before we leap to righteous indignation, judgment, and condemnation of others, the world would be a far, far different place.

Thank you, Jonathon Edwards.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

By Their Fruits You Will Know Them, Sign 2—Elul 11

Here’s another sign that Jonathon offers in his Treatise on Religious Affections that may help us put aside condemnation.

2. “Gracious affections soften the heart, and are attended with a Christian tenderness of spirit… [Gracious affections] turn a heart of stone more and more into a heart of flesh.” (IX)

In interpreting this sign he counsels that one must banish “servile fear,” the fear of punishment for wrongdoing, and let it be transformed into “reverential fear,” the awe and love of God for God’s own sake, not for sake of fear of punishment for sin or hope of reward for right doing. As Edwards explains, the person who lives for the sake of God is not afraid of evil, in himself or others, for he trusts in God.
When one trusts in God, one lives in and for God, and is not selfishly concerned for one’s own salvation or morbidly concerned with controlling the beliefs, affections, practices, and salvation of others. This reminds me of the ninth-century mystic Rabi’a, who prayed God to chastise her if she lived out of fear of hell or hope or paradise and not out of love for God alone.

We’ll look at a third sign from Edwards tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

By Their Fruits You Will Know Them—Elul 10

Hatred and condemnation, even of one’s own people, is an equal opportunity disease.

Anti-women violence by Haredi Jews: In the past years, chairs have been thrown at Jewish women praying in the women’s section of the wall in Jerusalem (, screams of rage and insults have been hurled at the women, as I myself experienced in the fall of 2011, and fecal matter has been poured on Torah scrolls carried by women ( (Read about Women of the Wall

Anti-abortion and anti-women violence by Christians: On May 31, 2009 Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed by Scott Roeder as Tiller served as an usher at church in Wichita, Kansas; recently in the Roman Catholic church, the pope and the bishops have been trying to muzzle and chain the women religious because they do not parrot the “church’s” teaching as they go about their works of compassion.

Anti-Sufi-inspired Islam by Moslems: Recently in Mali, Al Qaeda and Al-Qaeda in the Magrebh and other Moslem fundamentalists transplanted from other countries have physically attacked Moslems in Mali who follow a gentler path of Islam, forcing over 90,000 people over the border into refugee camps in Mauritania, to escape violence at the hands of their own people. (

I write this not to condemn the condemners, but to reflect on what makes a person pious—pious Jew, pious Christian, pious Moslem—and to consider what repentance and forgiveness mean in our world today, especially during these Days of Awe.

In what may seem to many to be a great irony, I take as my guide Jonathan Edwards, the Calvinist whom people love to condemn for his fire and brimstone sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

Jonathon Edwards lived during the time of the Great Awakening, the great mystical revival in New England, and he himself was a mystic. In a time of so much religious fervor and division, with so many people claiming to have had religious experiences and to have become “true” Christians, superior to others who had not had their same experience, and condemning those who had not had them, he wrestled with the question of how one can know with certainty whether one’s neighbor’s or ones’ own religious experience was holy. The result is one of the finest treatises ever written, Treatise on Religious Affections (The Works of Jonathon Edwards. Volume 1. Banner of Truth, 1974, pp. 234-364.), in which he argues the following.

There is no guarantee that a person is saved, is holy, is chosen, is spiritual because of what visions or spiritual experiences they have had, or because of what beliefs or doctrines they hold. If this is the case, then what are the signs by which we can distinguish what are true and what may be false religious affections?

Edwards mentions many signs. Here are three that seem to speak to our situation today.

1. “Gracious affections are attended with evangelical humility” … [or] “holy humility.” (VI)
“And this may be laid down as an infallible thing, That the person who is apt to think that he, as compared with others, is a very eminent saint, much distinguished in christian experience, in whom this is a first thought, that rises of itself, and naturally offers itself; he is certainly mistaken; he is no eminent saint; but under the great prevailing of a proud and self-righteous spirit. And if this be habitual with the man, and is statedly the prevailing temper of his mind, he is no saint at all; he has not the least degree of any true christian experience; so surely as the word of God is true.”
This is a daring, radical conclusion: To believe oneself above others, and so certain in own’s superiority and the rightness of one’s judgment that one can condemn others and compel them to believe or feel or behave as one does is a sign that one is not as pious as one imagines.

This sign is well worth considering today in our stormy atmosphere or religion between, among, and within religious traditions: to judge another as unworthy is not to act in humility. In almost every religion, ancient and contemporary, true humility is a mark of communion with God or the sacred.

Tomorrow we’ll look at another sign Edwards mentions.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The Fourth C: Don’t Condemn —Elul 9

Don’t complain. Don’t criticize. Don’t compare. We’ve reflected on these three. What about that last one, Don’t condemn?

Condemnation, too, comes all too easily to us, especially if you grow up in a household of condemnation and blame. Someone is unhappy? There must be something wrong and there must be someone to blame for that wrong causing the unhappiness, that sense of not-rightness. Once blame is assigned, a sense of “rightness,” “all’s well with our world” is restored.

The process here is similar to that when people criticize others. They feel insecure in their lives, their possessions, their choices, their being, so they put others down to give themselves a sense of security that comes from a feeling of superiority: My life, my possession, my choice, my being is better than theirs. When people condemn or judge or blame others, they often do so out of insecurity and a fear of their own unworthiness or fear of being condemned as wrong themselves. By condemning others they shift their insecurity and fear into the false certainty of superiority in their goodness: That one is not holding fast to the right order of things, not playing by the rules, not living or thinking or believing right, but I am!

An example: I’ve often been struck by how quickly people leap to blame the victim, myself included. Once, a student of mine reported she had been attacked on a summer day by a man running toward her on a jogging path, wearing a ski mask. When she ran past them, they turned and attacked her with a knife. My first response was horror and sympathy mixed with this thought: She should have known that a man wearing a ski mask in the summer was up to no good. Within seconds I realized my error born of my fear. Hearing her story made me aware of how vulnerable I was as a woman, every day, doing everyday things. To push aside this fear, I blamed her for the attack, which is to say, I constructed a world in which I would never be attacked in this way; for I would never have but myself in that position; I would have known right away this man was trouble and run.

I was reminded of this recently when I read my neighborhood blog. A man tried to rob another man of his iPad in broad daylight at a bus stop, the man gave chase, and the would-be robber beat him, but never got the iPad. People were quick to weigh in with their opinions on what the man should have or could have done to avoid this. What was he doing reading his iPad in public? many asked. Blaming the victim. Why? Because they are afraid this will happen to them when they are waiting for the bus on walking down the street. They want to reassure themselves that it won’t, so they tell themselves this story: that man was attacked because he was waving his iPad around in the face of a bull, but I would never do that, therefore I won’t be attacked, therefore I am safe in my neighborhood. This is similar to the way we used to (and still do, unfortunately) blame women who were raped on the street or date-raped: she was wearing provocative clothing, but I dress modestly; she gave her date confusing signals or she was drunk, but I’m always clear about what I want and I don’t drink.

We do this with people who are poor or homeless also. (By the way, William Ryan’s study of poverty in America, Blaming the Victim, is still a good read.) Blaming the victim is the story we tell ourselves to give ourselves the illusion of security and safety in what is a very uncertain world. I, I, I, we say, I am not her, I am not him, I am different, I am wiser, more savvy, more street smart, more aware, thinking that this incantation will protect us from all harm.

Before we blame or condemn, we should ask ourselves, Why am I telling myself this story? What do I fear so much that I am willing to throw away my understanding of and compassion for another and cast blame on them? Where does our true safety lie?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Another challenge—Don’t complain, Give Thanks—Elul 8

We complain even more readily than we compare and criticize, it seems. Go to the grocery store or anywhere in public and someone will complain about the weather. Too cold, too hot, too humid, too dry. Too too. The only time people say “What a beautiful day” is when the weather is perfect. Anything less than perfect we feel free to complain about and justified in doing so.

We complain about our bodies. We have a little cold. We’re just getting over a cold. We think we might be getting a cold. If our health isn’t perfect we complain.

As if we are owed perfection. As if we know what perfection is.

Maybe it’s harmless, all this friendly complaining, a way to connect with strangers and others. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s a mindless habit that blocks our recognition of how much beauty and vitality we are surrounded by and given and depend on every moment of every day. What if we made a habit of recognizing the good instead of complaining about what is less than perfect?

And for many of us, certainly not all, what do we have to complain about? Often, when I feel irritated or disappointed, these words of St. Paul come to mind: “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content.” Paul, once Saul of Tarsus, whatever you may think of him, a great Christian or a faithless Jew, was imprisoned for his politically dangerous religious views.It was because he was a mystic, a person with radical trust in, absolute dependence upon the One, that he was able to reach this place of acceptance and to say these words in witness of that, “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content.”

Neither did Bahá'u'lláh, another mystic, the founder of the Bahá'í community, complain when he was imprisoned, first by the Persians in the Black Pit, and later by the Ottoman Empire for 24 years, for his politically dangerous religious views. He, too, trusted in the One, in whatever state he was. He taught a similar, equally difficult and deep truth: ”Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity.”

That’s what trust will do, to enable one to say, no matter where one is, “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content” and to give thanks in adversity.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Hand of God—Elul 6

We desperately need new ways of thinking about an imaging God, especially in this month of preparing our spirits to come into the Presence. If many of us are no longer comfortable with standing before the Father or Judge as our only way of understanding our relationships to God, how then to think of coming into the Presence? Here is an image from Jane Steger, an American woman born in 1878 who recorded her life’s “adventure of the spirit” in Leaves from a Secret Journal in 1928.
I sometimes think that we are to God as his fingers are to a blind person. Through us He feels of life in all its manifold experiences. Through some of us He feels of happiness, and through some He feels of pain. It consoled me somewhat, when I was unhappy, to think that perhaps He was feeling of suffering through me. ..
The fingers and palm of the hand seem to me to be a good symbol of our relationship to God. We are all separate and distinct and yet all rooted in Him, and we spring from Him as our fingers are rooted in, and spring from, our palm. (p. 51)
Steger’s lovely wondering gives me a new way to think about how to live out what the rabbis said was the focus of our preparation for standing before God: turning or repentance (teshuvah), prayer (tefillah), and tzedakah (charity). Have we amputated our fingers, cut them from their root? What textures of life are we feeling with our fingers? What are we using our fingers to do to and for others?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

What Kind of Atheist Are You? On Spiritual Defensiveness—Elul 5

I once asked a man I had recently met, “What kind of atheist are you?” This was after we had talked for many hours about deep and intimate personal experiences and had moved to the question of spirituality and religion. After I summarized my conversion to Judaism from Evangelical Christianity, I asked him, “What about you?”
“I’m an atheist!” he said.
“A true atheist or an agnostic?” I asked, having encountered many people who didn’t know or weren’t concerned that there is a difference between acknowledging that one knows nothing about God and believing and confessing that God does not exist.
“An atheist!”
“What kind of atheist are you?” I asked.
I was not prepared for his response. What I wanted to know was, Was he a garden-variety atheist? Someone who was not persuaded by a traditional religious or spiritual teachings about God and had had no experiences of God and concluded, logically, that God did not exist? Was he a “God is Dead” atheist, a person who believes the old concepts of God are dead and we must seek new ones that jibe with current science and philosophy? Or, Was he a Christopher Hitchens kind of atheist, that is, a militant, crusading fundamentalist who believes that there is only one truth and he has it: God does NOT exist; and that anyone who disagrees is misguided and irrational. IN short, I wanted to know how open his mind was to different ways of thinking of God and spirituality.
“Why would you ask that?” he asked. He was clearly miffed. “That’s offensive.”
“What do you mean?”
You wouldn’t ask that of anyone else? IF I were a Christian, you wouldn’t ask me what kind of Christian I was. In America today people single out atheists for abuse. It’s like we have to keep quiet, hide in the closet, because everyone has their church or their prayer group. And they treat anybody who doesn’t believe in God badly, with pity or contempt.”
I laughed. “No! You don’t know me! If you had said you were a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim I would have asked, ‘What kind of Christian or Jew or Muslim are you?’ If you had said you were a Presbyterian, I would have asked, “Are you a United Presbyterian, a Southern Presbyterian, or an Orthodox Presbyterian?’ I taught historical theology. I’m a lifelong lover of all religious traditions in their glorious variety. I’m really interested in the differences. And when I ask that kind of question, I want to know about you, where you feel at home, what your deepest values and commitments are. ”
“It’s an aggressive question,” he continued. “People attack atheists and we’re forced to defend our position, when no one else is.”
“I’m not asking you defend it,” I said, “just describe it, so I can get to know you better.”
He wouldn’t, maybe couldn’t, describe it.
He was just mad. Mad about all those religious people he had to live among. Mad about being a misunderstood minority. Mad about being questioned at all.
We talked more. I told him when I asked him what kind of atheist he was I just really wanted to know if he was a fundamentalist, meaning, a person who is closed-minded, who doesn’t admit that anyone else’s experience or values or beliefs are legitimate. Because it’s not just religious people who are fundamentalists, secularists and certain atheists are, too. It’s their literalism and absolute certainty that I worry about, not the particular way they understand the universe and its workings.
I don’t remember his response to that other than a denial that he was a fundamentalist.
I tried another tack. I explained to him that if he thought that “God” meant an angry old man out there somewhere, dropping down every once in a while to punish people or stick his finger in the machine of creation to get the gears unstuck or interfere with the course of nature, then I was an atheist, too; because I didn’t believe that god existed either.
But he didn’t want to hear about other ways of conceptualizing God. He didn’t want to talk about God at all. Just talking about God seemed to make him mad. He was mad. Just mad. So I dropped it.
I’ve been thinking about this conversation ever since. Which is one of the reasons I wanted to start this blog. People have such misconceptions about “God” and religion and spirituality. Old, dead ideas that the media keep playing on. Yet some people, not all, are hungry for new ways of thinking about God and spirit. So after Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur I will continue to talk about our images and concepts of God, the obstacles to our understanding, building on what I have started during this month of Elul talking about “coming into the Presence.”
I’ve also been thinking about how vulnerable we all are when it comes to our deepest values. We are quick to get defensive when we think someone is attacking the core of our being, that which centers our self and guides all our actions. We leap to protect ourselves with anger or certainty or distance, even if we perceive we are not being respected or we are being misunderstood. For who we are in those deep places is so tender, so close to the bone, so sacred, I might say, that it hurts for another not to honor it. This is true no matter how we define ourselves, as Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, Moslems, mystics, agnostics, atheists, or the ones who don’t know where to turn.
So let’s be careful out there. Let’s not leap to take offense where none is given. And let’s honor the hearts and spirit of the other. That’s another way to come into the presence of the One.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Coming into the Presence—Elul 4

On Rosh HaShanah we celebrate the creation of the world. On Yom Kippur we stand before the Creator to be judged for the way we have used the life we have been given in the last year. In the ten days between celebration and judgment, life and death, we turn toward the One.

Here’s a fresh way to think about coming into the Presence that sparks in me new ways to think about celebrating the creation of the world, turning to the One, standing before the judgment of the One, living a life of gratitude in the presence of the ever-renewing One. It comes from a Hasidic story recorded by Martin Buber in his book Ecstatic Confessions.
In the earliest morning twilight a tzaddik stood at the window and, trembling, called out, “Just a short time ago it was still night, and now it is day—God is causing the day to arise!” And he was full of fear and trembling. Moreover he said, “Every created being should be ashamed before the Creator. For if he were perfect, as he was destined to be, he would have to be astonished and awaken and catch fire over the renewal of the creature at every time and in every moment.” (p.147)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Coming into the Presence—Elul 3

On Rosh HaShanah and all through the ten days of Repentance through Yom Kippur, we sing and chant, Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father, Our King. We have a host of other metaphors for God in our festival liturgy, too. Witness these we sing when thanking God for remembering the covenant of love with us:
We are your children, you are our father.
We are your servants, you are our master.
We are your heritage, you are our destiny.
We are your flock, you are our shepherd.
We are your vineyard, you are our watchman.
We are the clay, you are the potter.
We are your subjects, you are our king.

Still, Our Father, Our King is the refrain of the Days of Awe. And indeed, these are the two metaphors that permeate and dominate not only the Torah, the writings, and the prophets, but also the Talmud and the Hasidic stories and most of the Jewish tradition, like most of the Christian tradition. They are beautiful, rich, evocative, lovely. God is a loving father, not a slave master. God is a faithful and generous and wise king, not a fickle, bloodthirsty, and foolish one.

It is not the metaphors themselves that are wrong. It is that our world has changed and these metaphors no longer speak to us in the liberating ways they once spoke to our ancestors. They’re dead metaphors. Unfortunately, many of us today no longer even know what having a father present at all means. And very few of us have experienced standing before a king.

Are we just stuck with going to services and praying these words without having a deep understanding of them? Without much of a way to relate to them so that they become meaningful to us? We can use our imaginations to help bring these metaphors back to life, yes. That’s good. But why not use our imaginations with new images so turning toward the Presence during the month of Elul and the Days of Awe is meaningful to us in new ways. Why not ask ourselves, What does it mean today to “Know before whom you stand”? What does it mean to “come into the Presence?” What gives us that experience of standing before someone who or something that existed before we were born, gave us life, sustains us in life, calls us into question, is larger and wiser and in all ways better than we are, showers us with favor, holds over us the power of death, inspires awe and boundless love and speech-defying gratitude in us? What is it that you would bow before, with dignity not servility?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Know Before Whom You Stand—Elul 2

“Know before whom you stand” (Da lifnei mi atah omed). These words, which one finds near the ark in many ancient and contemporary synagogues, are the words that will guide my reflections this Elul. There are many versions of this sentence in the Jewish tradition, including in the Talmud (B’rachot 28b), and even more interpretations. I want to follow where these words lead me during this month of teshuvah, turning.

Before I throw words at you in the next days, I invite you to muse on these words in silence: Know before whom you stand. Imagine yourself standing before someone who or something that or whatever it is that inspires awe, respect, wonder, and boundless love in you, that makes you aware of all your flaws, makes you long to be better than you have been and be all of who you are, that makes you want to live each moment fully, your whole being singing with gratitude and joy. Someone or something or some experience before which you would bow with dignity?

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Know Before Whom You Stand—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 and what it means to be judged by God the “Judge,” turn toward the “Father,” and stand before God in prayer and reflection. I invite you to meditate with me each day this month on what it means today to come into the presence of the One.

For those who want to follow a different set of reflections during the month of Elul, ones that are more focused on traditional Jewish texts, read my posts for Elul 2010, which begin with Turn, Turn, Turn. Just type Turn, Turn, Turn into the search box and you’ll be taken to the beginning of that set of meditations.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Joyous Eid ul-Fitr! From Ramadan to Elul—Bowing All the Way

A blessed Eid ul-Fitr! Today, as the world moves from ending one month of fasting, charity, and prayer, Ramadan, to beginning another month of fasting, charity, and prayer, Elul, which starts at sunset on August 18, I can’t help thinking about one ritual that marks both of these months: bowing.

Most people today, certainly North Americans, have a kind of visceral reaction against bowing. I’ve heard people say this in many different contexts: “I don’t bow to anybody or anything. That’s a sign of submission or subservience. It’s groveling. We stand upright, proud. We shouldn’t humiliate ourselves. We’re not worms that we should crawl on the ground before anyone, even God.”

But that’s the point of bowing when one stands before God, or comes into the Presence! The point is we don’t bow to anything else in the creation. We bow only to that which is worthy of being acknowledged as greater than ourselves. As the meditation before opening the ark in the Torah service puts it:
I am the servant of the Holy One, whom I revere and whose Torah (teaching) I revere at all times. Not on mortals do I rely, nor upon angels do I depend, but on the God of the universe, the God of truth, whose Torah is truth, whose prophets are truth, and who abounds in deeds of goodness and truth. In God do I put my trust; unto God’s holy, precious being do I utter praise. Open my heart to Your Torah. Answer my prayers and the prayers of all Your people Israel for goodness, for life, and for peace. Amen.
This bowing we do is not sniveling and groveling before the slave master or executioner. It is an act of dignity and honor. It’s an act of humility. An act of surrender of our little self with all its narrowness and pettiness to the One, to a truth that is larger than our tiny little minds can grasp or own.

That’s what Jews are doing when they bend the knee and bow their heads during the Amidah, the silent, standing prayer that is part of each of the three daily services; and what they are doing when on Yom Kippur they, like the High Priest who entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement, prostrate themselves when praying for forgiveness. And that’s what Moslems are doing when they kneel on their prayer rugs five times a day throughout the year and with special repetitions during Ramadan, and bow repeatedly, touching their palms and foreheads to the ground. We are all saying with our bodies, “We are not all that is. We do not stand on a mountaintop looking down on everyone and everything else. We stand in awe before the Presence. We are servants of the Holy One, ready to be of service with our very lives.

Fundamentalist Jews and fundamentalist Moslems aside—let them argue about exactly how close to stand and exactly when and exactly how to bow—to me Jews and Moslems are one on this. Even the beloved and wise Abraham Joshua Heschel (May his memory be for a blessing) misunderstood this when in his book on the prophets he compared Islam to Judaism negatively by saying Islam means “submission” and Jews don’t submit, they work with God in the world. We both bow. We both surrender our lives, our selves to the One that we may walk humbly in the world, in beauty, mercy, justice, and truth.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

When You Trust, There’s No Need to Compare

When your perspective widens out from your self, your family, your community, your nation, your tradition, your race, your continent, your species, to all that is, and you accept your place in being, no more, no less, you trust that all that is to come to you will come to you, in time; and there is no need to compare yourself to the life of another, for you trust that they, too, will receive all that is theirs in this life. That’s the “order of things” as seen by the rabbi Ben Azai. Here is one of his sayings, one that reminds us that it is fear of loss and anxiety about not getting what we really need that makes us feel unhappy and compare ourselves to others, whom we think are receiving honors, land, goods, love that we should be receiving, now.
Ben Azai said:
You will be called by your name,
You will be seated in your place,
You will be given what is yours.
No one touches what is meant for another.
No kingdom touches its neighbor by so much as a hairsbreadth.
Hammer on the Rock: A Midrash Reader, p. 17 (a collection of sayings from the Talmud)

Sunday, August 5, 2012

What Genesis Can Teach Us about Comparing

The creation story in the Hebrew scriptures has been used to justify many different kinds of order, from hierarchy to egalitarianism, from sexism to equality, from anthropocentrism to theocentrism. Here’s what it teaches me: that when one rightly distinguishes one has no need to compare or judge one as above or below another.

Here’s Everett Fox’s wonderful translation of Genesis 1: 1-21:

At the beginning of God’s creating of the heavens and the earth,
When the earth was wild and waste,
Darkness over the face of the Ocean,
Rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters—

God said: Let there be light! And there was light.
God saw the light: that it was good.
God separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light: Day! And the darkness he called: Night!
There was setting, there was dawning: one day.

God said:
Let there be a dome amid the waters,
And let it separate waters from waters!
God made the dome
And separated the waters that were below the dome from the waters that were above the dome.
It was so.
God called the dome: Heaven!
There was setting, there was dawning: second day.

God said:
Let the waters under the heavens be gathered to one place,
And let the dry land be seen!
It was so
God said:
Let the waters swarm with a swarm of living begins, and let fowl fly above the earth, across the dome of the heavens!
God created the great sea-serpents
And all living beings that crawl about, with which the waters swarmed, after their kind,
And all winged fowl after their kind.
God saw that it was good

In these three creative moments we see what was “waste and wild” being distinguished, the way a painter composes a work of art, separating light and dark, waters above and waters below, swimming creatures in the waters below and flying creatures in the waters above, to create something beautiful that we may enjoy. Distinguishing these pairs does not set up a hierarchy, to show us that the first is best, or that the last is best. Rather, this distinguishing brings forth a beauty that did not exist before. God saw the beauty and recognized the goodness in this distinguishing that led to this beauty—no light without dark, no dark without light; they speak to each other. “Good” cannot be said of light without dark or dark without light. What is “good” must include both light and dark. We are to enjoy the marriage of two distinct ways of being, not choose between them, not compare them.

If the goodness of creation necessarily includes light and dark, above and below, fish and fowl, all that can be distinguished in beauty, how can we human beings, frail earth creatures that we are, compare ourselves to others? How can we not rejoice in the beauty and goodness that depend on our very distinction from one another?