Sunday, September 30, 2012

Making Space for Questions Between a Rock (Fundamentalism) and a Hard Place (Secularism)

Everyone’s so sure these days about God and religion and spirituality. The religious fundamentalists know God, they know the name of God, they know the ways of God, they know the judgments of God, they know who the chosen people of God are and aren’t—self-appointed messengers, they are the voice of God. The atheist fundamentalists know God isn’t, they know the names of all that exists and does not exist, they know the ways of the universe, they know how to judge all—infallibly—in the light of reason, they know anyone who is religious is not a member of the chosen, the enlightened ones—self-appointed iconoclasts, they are the voice of Reason.

But if everybody’s talking (shouting really), who is listening? Listening to other people, to other theories of human existence, to reality itself? To listen requires humility. And that is what is lacking, the humility that recognizes one does not know, that instead of filling up the void with words, a hedge against anxiety, one must sit still and listen. Religious and atheistic fundamentalists, as well as many artists who specialize in ironic distancing, share the same disease: a feeling of absolute certainty about things that cannot be known, a feeling that makes them feel superior to all who do not see or hear or feel reality in the same way they do, whose limited view does not match their limited view exactly.

I have lost all patience with all this absolutism and misdirected chatter incessantly coming from all sides. People are hungry for meaning. They thirst for new ways to imagine and interpret their lives, ways that nourish them and sustain them as they search for ways to live good and meaningful lives. With all this noise and heat coming from the fundamentalists, where is the silence and the light that will show us the way to a new understanding of the complex and mysterious existence we have been born into, a reality that is—whatever you call it—multi-dimensional, at the very least both material and something more than material, something that goes beyond the merely physical?

Let’s stop all the shouting and mutual condemnation. Let’s stop wringing our hands in despair at the state of religious discourse today. Let’s stop taking the easy way out in irony, winks and witticisms that reveal how bored, how above it all, how past it all we are. Instead, let’s get busy and start making space for uncertainty and questions, a space where we befriend silence and practice listening.

Maybe if we can clear a space like that, a place of openness and opening, there will be room for food to grow and springs to burst forth that will nourish the hunger and slake the thirst of those of us who know we do not know and find our way in seeking.
So that’s what I want to do—declare a pox on both their houses, the religious and the anti-religious fundamentalists, and start clearing a space where we can breathe freely, open or eyes, our hearts, our minds in asking questions, genuine questions, about who we are why we’re here, what matter is, what “beyond matter” is, what people mean when they say “God,” what it can mean to say “God” or “spirit” in 2012.

I will try. And I will begin by clearing away some obstacles. I want to dispel certain notions of God that have been dead for centuries but act as if they are still viable. Call them zombie notions of God. Before we can even start listening, we have to rid the world of religious discourse of these zombie ideas and images that suck the life out of every conversation, stop them dead in their tracks.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Yom Kippur, Day of Atonement --Tishrei 10

“Be still and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted on the earth.” Psalm 46:10

A meaningful fast to all.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Days of Awe: Each Our Own Life, Our Own Death

On Yom Kippur we pray the prayer U’Netaneh Tokef, attributed to Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, Germany, as related to Rabbi Klonimus ben Meshullam. Here is the most famous excerpt from that prayer:
On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by storm, who by plague, who by strangulation, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. (Machzor)
Meditating on this prayer alone may help us review our lives, our actions, our hearts, our frailties, our vulnerabilities in the perspective of coming into the Presence, the One Without beginning and Without End.
And here is a companion prayer from Rilke, more interior perhaps, but also arresting, and in a modern voice that may also move us toward the perspective we need.
God, give us each our own death,
The dying that proceeds
from each of our lives:

The way we loved,
the meanings we made,
our need.
(Rilke's Book of Hours, Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, p. 131)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Days of Awe—“Stir Filth This Way or That, It Is Still Filth”

Confession is not morbid. It is not wallowing. It is a transformative action that leads to creative action for good in the world. Long before we began hearing in the contemporary marketplace that we must "set positive intentions" and not focus on what is lacking or what we don't want, because words are powerful and help create the future we speak, the Hasidic masters were already offering us this wise guidance, like this from Rabbi Isaac Meir of Ger:
Whoever talks about and reflects upon an evil thing he or she has done is thinking the vileness he has perpetrated. And what one thinks, therein is one caught. With one's whole soul one is caught utterly in what one thinks and so he is sti8ll caught in vileness. And she will surely not be able to turn, for her spirit will coarsen and her heart rot, and besides this, a sad mood may come upon her. What would you? Stir filth this way or that, it is still filth. To have sinned or not to have sinned—what does it profit us in heaven? In the time I am brooding on this, I could be stringing pearls for the joy of heaven. That is why it is written: "Depart from evil and do good"—turning wholly from evil, do not brood in its wake, and do good. You have done wrong? Then balance it by doing right.
During these Days of Awe as we prepare for Yom Kippur, may we face our evil deeds, individually and collectively, with clear eyes, so that we may turn our thoughts to doing good.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Coming into the Presence: Be Present—Elul 29

What if you can’t imagine yourself standing before anyone or anything, coming into any presence at all? What then? Do you go to shul on Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur and kibbitz with your neighbors or criticize the rabbi or chazan or feel inadequate because you’re not really davening or perhaps even paying much attention to all those words? Or do you just not go, because it has lost meaning for you, or because you consider yourself above it all?

Why let your intellect interfere so? Just show up and be fully present. And see what happens. One of my favorite sayings of the modern Hasid Martin Buber is this: “For those who are not present, there is no Presence.”

Friday, September 14, 2012

Coming into the Presence of the Friend—Elul 27

And again, coming into the Presence, the Friend. How do you stand before your dearest friend? You may do all kinds of favors for them, and praise them endlessly, but if you don’t know what pleases them, what good is all that when you are in their presence? If they are truly your friend, you know them and what pleases them. A friend is your friend not because you have done this or that for them, given this or that to them, because you are beautiful or rich or well connected. Friendship is mysterious. It can’t be earned. One loves a friend because one loves them, because they have found favor in your eyes. As God says to Israel, “I chose you to be my treasure. You weren’t the most powerful nation. Far from it. You weren’t the most numerous people. Far from it. I chose you to be my treasure because you found favor in my eyes. Because I fell in love with you.”

I was once asked by someone, “Why are you friends with that person? You two don’t seem much alike at all?” I was taken aback by the question, because for me friendship is always inexplicable. There was no way to explain why I loved this friend. I just did—in all her frailties and strengths. Friendship, like beauty, is truly in the eyes of the beholder. What I saw in my friend this other person could not see.

And that is how we stand before the Friend during the Days of Awe, coming into the Presence of our Friend, knowing that though others (or even we ourselves) may judge us ugly or wanting, in our Friend’s eyes we are beautiful and whole, cherished for no other reason that than we are.

Let’s go and meet the Friend.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Coming into the Presence of the Friend—Elul 26

During the Days of Awe we pray often that we may be remembered in light of the “merits of our ancestors.” I often wonder about this. Are we invoking some kind of substitutionary atonement here? Look at the faith and deeds of our mothers and fathers, not ours! No. We’re asking that the covenant with them be remembered, a covenant of mercy, and that we be enfolded in that same bond of trust and faithfulness unto a thousand generations.

Which makes me wonder about that bond made with Avraham and Sarah. What is it about that bond with the One that we want to recall in these days of awe?

Some say that the name Avraham comes from haver, for Avraham was a friend of God, and God visited with Avraham as Friend. That is how I want to imagine coming into the Presence during Elul, the Days of Awe, and every day—coming into the Presence of the Friend.

Imagine being in the presence of you deepest, oldest, most trustworthy friend. They know you. They see you. You cannot lie to them, or to yourself in their presence, for they see through to the heart of all you do and have been and will be. When you stand in their Presence, if you have erred, you don’t have to wait for them to judge you, you judge yourself for having failed, for you see yourself through their eyes, as a person capable of so much good. You don’t make excuses, for in that between of honesty you know how foolish such words would sound. You feel their disappointment in your actions as if it were your own, and you vow not to slip again; you vow to be the person you and they know you to be.

That’s one way to imagine coming into the Presence during the Days of Awe as we pass in review before our Friend—fully exposed to eyes of truth and love.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Coming into the Presence: “To Be Simply in Your Presence”—Elul 25

And a last prayer from Rilke for the days of Selichot, to prepare our hearts to come into the Presence.
I’m too alone in the world, yet not alone enough
to make each hour holy.
I’m too small in the world, yet not small enough
to be simply in your presence, like a thing—
just as it is.

I want to know my own will
and to move with it.
And I want, in the hushed moments
when the nameless draws near,
to be among the wise ones—
or alone.

I want to mirror your immensity.
I want never to be too weak or too old
to bear the heavy, lurching image of you.

I want to unfold.
Let no place in me hold itself closed,
for where I am closed, I am false.
I want to stay clear in your sight.
(Rilke's Book of Hours, Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, p. 59)

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Coming into the Presence: “It’s Not Too Late”—Elul 24

Here is another of Rilke’s outpourings that may give us the words our hearts need to unfold into the Presence:
You see, I want a lot.
Maybe I want it all:
the darkness of each endless fall,
the shimmering light of each ascent.

So many are alive who don’t seem to care.
Casual, easy, they move in the world
as though untouched.

But you take pleasure in the faces
of those who know they thirst.
You cherish those
who grip you for survival.

You are not dead yet, it’s not too late
to open your depths by plunging into them
and drink in the life
that reveals itself quietly there.
(Rilke's Book of Hours, Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, p. 61)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Coming into the Presence: “I Am Praying Again”—Elul 23

Today and the two following days I want to share some selichot, penitential prayers of Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy, in their book Rilke’s Book of Hours). His arresting images and intimate, fearfully honest conversations with the One may help us re-imagine—beyond God as our Father, our King—what it means to come into the Presence with our failings, our weaknesses, our resistances, our confessions, our longing.
Here’s the first one:

I am praying again, Awesome One.

You hear me again, as words
from the depths of me
rush toward you in the wind.

I’ve been scattered in pieces,
torn by conflict,
mocked by laughter,
washed down in drink.

In alleyways I sweep myself up
out of garbage and broken glass.
with my half-mouth I stammer you,
who are eternal in your symmetry.
I lift to you my half-hands
in wordless beseeching, that I may find again
the eyes with which I once beheld you.

I am a house gutted by fire
where only the guilty sometimes sleep
before the punishment that devours them
hounds them out into the open.

I am a city by the sea
sinking into a toxic tide.
I am strange to myself, as though someone unknown
had poisoned my mother as she carried me.

It’s here in all the pieces of my shame
that now I find myself again.
I yearn to belong to something, to be contained
in an all-embracing mind that sees me
as a single thing.
I yearn to be held
in the great hands of your heart—
oh let them take me now.
Into them I place these fragments, my life,
and you, God—spend them however you want.
(pp. 97-98)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Coming into the Presence: Encounter on Sinai—Elul 22

We have come to the time of Selichot, the four days just before the Days of Awe, when we intensify our search for blemishes that will render the sacrifice of our everyday lives we offer unfit and we increase our prayers for forgiveness. Selichot, often translated as “penitential prayers,” is from the verb root “to forgive,” and this word, as a plea, Forgive, s’lach, is the opening word of the Selichot set of prayers and the refrain that runs throughout the Days of Awe.
Forgive us, our Father, for in our abundant folly, we have erred.
Pardon us, our King, for our iniquities are many.
This plea is followed by a prayer based on the beautiful witness in Exodus 34: 6-9 to the One who passed by Moses on Mount Sinai, showing him the backside of the glorious presence and Moses’ response to that Presence. In the siddur, in the Selichot and Days of Awe services, these verses take this form:
Adonai, Adonai, God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abundant in kindness and truth, preserver of kindness for thousands of generations, forgiver of iniquity, willful sin, and error, and who cleanses. May you forgive our iniquities and our errors and make us your heritage. Forgive us, our Father, for we have erred; pardon us, our King, for we have willfully sinned; for you, my Lord, are good and forgiving and abundantly kind to all who come upon you.
As we reflect on what it means to come into the Presence, to be awakened, judged, forgiven, made new, and reflect on how to respond to that Presence should we be so favored as to experience it, it’s worth it to take a look at the dramatic encounter between the Presence and Moshe that inspired the rabbis to write this prayer. In the Torah’s endlessly wonderful laconic way, it gives us a glimpse of the Presence and our response. In Edward Fox’s translation, the encounter goes this way:
And YHWH passed before his face
And called out:
showing-mercy, showing-favor,
long suffering in anger,
abundant in loyalty and faithfulness,
keeping loyalty to the thousandth (generation)
bearing iniquity, rebellion and sin,
yet not clearing, clearing (the guilty),
calling-to-account the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons and
upon son’s’ sons, to the third and fourth (generation)!
Quickly Moshe did-homage, on the ground, bowing low,
And said:
Pray if I have found favor in your eyes,
O my Lord,
Pray let my Lord go among us!
Indeed, it is a hard-necked people—
so forgive our iniquity and our sin,
and make-us-your-inheritance!
During Elul, Selichot, the Days of Awe and all the days of our lives, we, like Moshe, climb, each in our solitariness, a mountain—a mountain of distractions, a mountain of despair, a mountain of hope, a mountain of terror and trembling, a mountain of guilt, a mountain of shame, a mountain of confusion and darkness, a mountain of struggle and longing; we are climbing toward a clear experience of the Presence, to know who we are and how we should live to be always in that Presence.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Shabbat Shalom!--Elul 21

Shabbat shalom!
Selichot begins at midnight tonight. The first of my four Selichot posts will appear then.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Coming into the Presence of the Beloved—Elul 20

S.Y. Agnon, in his wonderful book Days of Awe, writes:
Everyone 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, A niL e-dodi V e-dodi L i (‘I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine’—Cant. 6:13), 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]
And so we move, so fluently, so gracefully, from imagining ourselves in this month of Elul, passing in review before a judge, to standing in the presence of “our Father in heaven,” to reaching out, full hearted, in longing to our Beloved, who in turn reaches out in longing for us. Coming into the presence in an embrace of love.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Coming into the Presence for our Hearts to be Considered—Elul 19

The world is judged at four seasons: at Passover, in regard to grain; on the Feast of Weeks, in regard to the fruit of the tree; on Rosh ha-Shanah, all the inhabitants of this world file before Him. As it is said, “He that fashioneth the hearts of them all, that considereth all their doings” (Ps. 33:15). On the Feast of Booths, the world is judged in regard to rain. Mishnah Rosh ha-Shanah I.2
We human beings are not alone in being judged, weighed in the balance. All of creation is weighed—the grain, the trees, the rain—to see if it has within it that which will make the creation grow and flourish and bear fruit. And on Rosh ha-Shanah, too, we do not stand alone but with the whole of creation, all hearts, the hearts of rocks and sand and water and beasts and birds and creeping things; with all of them we pass in review before the One who considers the heart fashioned in us, to know if that heart is still fertile and moist, as it was when it was created, or if it has grown sterile and dry, incapable of bearing fruit in the world, giving life to others.

All flesh is as grass: it comes into being and passes away. The question is, What happens in that moment between? That’s the question we should ask ourselves during Elul, on Rosh ha-Shanah, during the Days of Awe, and on Yom Kippur, when we consider whether we will be found worthy or not: What have we done this year with the heart fashioned in us for goodness and abundant life? Has it dried up? Or is it ever greening, ever rising to new life?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Coming into the Presence: Graveyards and Epitaphs —Elul 18

Last weekend, for the tenth anniversary of our father’s death, my sister, my niece, and I traveled to the cemetery where he is buried. As we walked through the grave markers, almost every one of them a modest plaque flush with the earth—no statues or obelisks or worldly glory of any kind for these mostly Dutch Calvinist immigrants and their descendants—one epitaph appeared over and over. One word, directly under the name and dates of birth and death spanning their life: “Redeemed.”

Redeemed. It may strike one at first as arrogant. How do they know they are redeemed? Why are they so focused on their reward, the eternal life of their individual soul, for their believing? But this epitaph isn’t necessarily a sign of spiritual pride. For many it is simply a sign of their trust and hope, based on the verse from Acts 16:31: “And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” They believed, and they rested in the blessed assurance that they had been saved. This gave them comfort in life and their families comfort in their death, knowing that their sins had been washed away and that they were in heaven with the Lord who had atoned for them, not suffering eternal punishment for their sins.

As we walked among the redeemed, my sister noticed one marker that carried a different epitaph: “In His Presence.”

These three words, “In His Presence,” set me wondering, about the person who had chosen those words as the sign of his or her life to others, and how that sign might be different from “redeemed.” Was this person’s longing in life to be always nearer to God, more and more in God’s presence, trusting that when their body died and their life on earth ended they would experience that Presence fully, with no barriers? As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”
Perhaps this, too can be seen as arrogant, to claim that one is in God’s presence, has reached that station in death that was never possible in life, or been taken there as a reward for one’s trust while alive. For can we ever make such claims as fact? No. These epitaphs read as claims of fact, but they are signs of trust, and true in this sense.

You may say there is no difference in these two epitaphs. To claim, in trust, one is redeemed is to say one is enjoying God’s presence forever (as the Heidelberg Catechism says it so beautifully), and vice versa. But words matter. And this woman or man chose “In His Presence,” not “Redeemed,” to signify the direction in which his or her life was always moving. These three words focus less on the redemption of the individual soul from sin, and more on the joy of dwelling in the Presence of the Holy One, in this life, and beyond it.

I left the graveyard where my father is buried wondering. About that person who chose those three words, “In His Presence.” About what their experience of communion with God had been, and is. How they imagined coming into that Presence. Standing before the Judge? Wrapped in the loving embrace of “our Father in heaven”? Caught up in the joy of experiencing the end for which the world was created: enjoying God forever?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Coming into the Presence: Gurus, Rebbes, and Lamas, Oh My! —Elul 17

What about the metaphor of standing in the presence of a great spiritual leader? Can that help us understand coming into the Presence? If you had a chance to meet the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, the Pope, Rabbi Schneerson, or any great guru, how would you prepare? What would that encounter be like?

I remember during the Watergate hearings on TV I by accident saw a late-night interview with Abraham Joshua Heschel. I don’t remember now his words, whether he was talking about marching for civil rights or Judaism or social justice or something else. What I remember is this: being overwhelming affected by this person’s presence, even across the strange, artificial medium of television. All these decades later, I can still recall it. Heschel’s presence was deep, rich, full, encompassing joy, love, forgiveness, wisdom, power, hope, truth, righteousness. And the effect of his presence on me was to make me want to become a human being like that. Not to be him, but to be the deepest, richest, fullest human being I could be. In that moment of standing in Heschel’s presence—even across the TV waves—I realized how much was possible for a life and my desire to strive for that was kindled.

This is one of the reasons villagers in the 18th century flocked to the houses of the great rebbes, The Baal Shem Tov and many others. Why in the last and current centuries they flock to the study of Reb Schneerson and other rebbes. Why they travel across the world to stand in the loving presence of gurus like Mata Amritanandamayi, known as Amma, Mother. Because to stand in the presence of another human being who has been graced with great love, to absorb the atmosphere such a person radiates, such a spirit tuned to the infinite, to the beyond that is ever near, is to be changed. By standing in the presence of such a person it is as if our spirits are tuned to that beyond that is ever near, and called to become something larger than we were or imagined before.

We may fall out of tune once we leave the presence of such a tuning fork, but the desire to be in tune may remain, and we will go on seeking it for ourselves.

This, too, may teach us something about coming in the Presence during the days of Elul, the Days of Awe, and every day.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Coming into the Presence: Celebrity Worship—Elul 16

If we no longer know what it feels like to stand in the presence of a king or queen, what experience can help us understand coming into the Presence during the month of Elul, the Days of Awe, or any day?

I’ve always been baffled by celebrity worship. I don’t even ask authors I respect to sign their books. Maybe it’s the fierce anti-idolatry I was imprinted with by growing up Calvinist and that has only been reinforced by being a Jew. Like Mordecai, I won’t bow to any human being.

Many years ago, however, I read an op ed piece somewhere that argued that with the death of God and attrition of religion, celebrities have become our gods. That makes sense to me. We need something to believe in, to look up to, to focus our lives on. And our celebrities are indeed like the Greek gods—fickle, misbehaving, at the mercy of their passions, jealous, cruel, violent, vengeful, silly, lawless, all too human—at the same time that they live high above us on a Mount Olympus of wealth and privilege that most of us will never experience. They’re very human ness perhaps is what makes them dear to us. They are like us, yet not like us. Because they are like us, we are able to form a bond with them. Because they are unlike us, we are able to live out our ideal life through them. In identifying with them, their beauty, their wealth, their “highness,” somehow our lives are elevated from the mundane work and experiences we must slog through every day to survive. They perform that function for us: to incarnate an ideal to which we direct our lives. Perhaps not every one of these ideals is one we would choose to direct our life toward, but they are ideals nonetheless, and not to be held in contempt.

Does this metaphor work for coming into the Presence? Think about meeting a celebrity that would inspire a little trembling in you. It could be Barak Obama. It could be Elvis. It could be Toni Morrison. It could be Janis Joplin, Golda Meir, Nelson Mandela, or Desmond Tutu. Whoever it is, you’d want to be your best self in that moment, wouldn’t you? You might be a little flustered, a little jazzed, but you would pay attention, be present, try to drink in as much of that person’s presence, their atmosphere, as you could in that moment, so that their shining, in whatever way it is that they shine, rubs off on you and changes you permanently, makes you be a better person from that moment on, because you had met them, come into their presence. And from that moment on your life would change; it would now be a life after you had met x, and that is what would make all the difference.
So, as silly as it may seem at first, maybe there is something to this way of understanding coming into the Presence after all.

More tomorrow.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Coming into the Presence— Fear and Trembling, or Fear or Trembling?—Elul 15

Here’s a quote from that great mystic Jalal al-Din Rumi—not the Rumi of sweetness and light and lover and bellowed and love that so many people want to excerpt today, but the man who also knew the One as slayer and violent batterer of hearts. Like Jonathon Edwards, Rumi was well-versed in the complexities of religious experience and he, too, guided seekers, though through poetry and not theological treatises. This couplet of his speaks to the false claims to absoluteness from which condemnation springs, which we saw with Jonathon Edwards. It speaks to our ongoing Elul reflections on “know before whom you stand” and “coming into the presence.” What does it mean to come into the presence with fear and trembling?

And, in true “doctor of the heart” fashion, this couplet guides those finding their way. Seekers often like to measure their progress, against themselves or against others (comparing again!). Rumi cuts through that urge while directing seekers to one of the paradoxes at the core of the life lived into the presence. In speaking of different stations along the way of the spiritual path, Rumi brings this arresting report of following the way from his experience:
It’s from his Mathnawi, # 228, as translated by A.J. Arberry (Mystical Poems of Rumi 2, p. 24):
Know as a station of fear that in which you are secure;
know as a station of security that in which you tremble.