Saturday, January 22, 2011

Yitro: Between Before and After

What is revelation? What does it mean to get ready for revelation, what leads to revelation, how does it changes everything afterwards, what of the Before and After, of the stories of Genesis and Exodus that lead to this moment, and the repercussions afterwards,

From the Liktuim Yekarim (sp?):

It is actually very surprising that a mortal human being should be able to attach himself to God. Besides his physical body, many Husks separate him from God. Even though, “the whole earth is filled with His glory”< God is still hidden behind many barriers. But all the barriers that separate and restrain can be torn down by the word that you utter. Your words should therefore be attached to God. This means that you must intimately feel that you are actually speaking to God. If we could speak just one line, or even two or three words, to God in each service, in the above mentioned manner, it would be sufficient.

What are the husks the Hebrews went through to get to that moment on Sinai, and what is it we go through to get to it? And let me just say here that for me anyway, it really doesn’t matter if it actually happened, or what any of us believe about that, because what we know happened are that stories got told about what got us here, and then there was the story of the moment, and then all the stories that stem from it. We’ve got Torah right here. This we know exists.

The Before is these two parallel stories, both a bout young men who are gifted but foolish, who get themselves in trouble and are pulled away from everything they knew or thought they knew, who have to re-invent themselves and in the re-inventing, find their true selves. And the first boy pulls his family into this re-invention and makes a family into a tribe. And the second boy pulls his tribe into the re-invention and turns the tribe into a people. And the people re-invent themselves and turn themselves from slaves into free people, from a people into a nation, from brutes into people of covenant with laws and ethics and spirituality. And all of this re-invention, it’s all to get them all there, at Sinai, at one place and one time, so that something huge can happen, so that everything and everyone can change, all at once, during this one incredibly special moment.

And this experience, it is so huge that it happens outside of time and maybe even out of space, I think when you hear some rabbi say that we were all at Sinai it’s because we were, because we’re there now, right now, at this moment.
And it was the biggest most important moment ever, and I know this because we tell this story every year, thousands of years later, even when it seems ridiculous or barbaric, yet we are compelled to work our way to the stories leading up to this moment, and then the stories that follow from it, from the words that were uttered on that day.

The Before stopped, the After hadn’t started yet, we were just there. Which is as complete a description of what Shabbat should be as I can come up with. So every Shabbat, we are in that moment of revelation of one-ness, of community, of connection, of right and wrong.

If we could speak just one line, or even two or three words, to God in each service, in the above mentioned manner, it would be sufficient.

Imagine if you could find that moment, those two or three words, at every service? And what is a service, what is a prayer, but the stories we tell ourselves, the Before of revelation, to get us to those two or three words of God, that will lead to completeness, no before and after, to shalom, wholeness, even if only for a moment.

And what would be revealed? Same thing at Sinai, on Shabbat, during a service, in a prayer….the Ten Commandments. Which for me boil down to this. Know this transcendence, recognize the moment. Respect your experience, don’t trivialize it, don’t try to make it small or material. Don’t forget this experience, give it to yourself once a week, call it Shabbat. Internalize the experience, live consistently within it, which means you treat your community and yourself with the same respect that you give to this moment.

If we could speak just one line, or even two or three words, to God in each service, it would be sufficient.

So what if, from now one, we start looking into each Shabbat, each service, each prayer, and look for the two or three words that might lead us to that moment. Maybe it’s this word. Maybe it’s this moment.

Maybe it’s this moment.

Baruch atah Adonai, Brucha At Yah, Blessed Ruach Ha Olam, God of my ancestors, God of my current understanding or lack thereof, God of my belief and disbelief,

I pray for those two or three words.
I pray for that moment.

It would be sufficient.


Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Fierce Mystery

“Between the God of the universe and the God of a tribe, between inclusion and exclusion, between the imperative of liberty and the imperative of law, explodes Moses. What we know about him is exactly nothing, exactly everything, he is a fierce mystery.” -- Alicia Ostriker, THE NAKEDNESS OF THE FATHERS

My congregation's mission statement describes Kolot Chayeinu as a community "where doubt can be an act of faith." When that first came out, I thought that meant either, oh goody, I can not believe in God and still join a Jewish community, or, oh fantastic, Kolot is all about truth to power and challenging Pharaoh, or, oh wow, I can join in this place without checking my brains at the door. This is all true, and this is also very limiting.

The God I didn’t believe was a child’s God, learned in a Conservative suburban “temple” of the fifties and sixties that wouldn’t let me, as a girl, have an aliyah, wear a tallit or chant Torah, and which discouraged complexity, at least in its young people. I was right to not believe in that God, but it also never occurred to me that there was an alternative. My Jewish education at my tedious and soul-destroying Hebrew School was so poor that I had no knowledge of or access to the thousands of years of rigorous study of Jewish texts and customs. So I thought being religious, which for me meant being Jewish, was by definition tedious and soul-destroying.

I was disappointed in that God and that Judaism but I was (and am) a contrary sort so, if only to piss off the powers-that-were, I demanded alternatives. No answers were forthcoming and I didn’t actually expect them. It never actually occurred to me that there actually might be a Judaism that rewarded someone like me whose main talent was an ability to ask the next logical question.

Think about the “god” you don’t believe in. Is it that you don’t believe in God or is it that you are stuck on one particular name, one particular metaphor that doesn’t name your experience of God? Might there be a different metaphor, another name that opens up the possibility of encounter with a power grander than yourself, with a web that can connect every person to every other person? –Rabbi Laura Geller

Then I grew up and asked, what could God mean if I made the same kind of demands of God-ness that I made of anything else? What if truth to power doesn’t just mean truth to the powerful but means truth is power? What does that demand of me? And what the heck is in all those books written in Hebrew and Aramaic? I began to study. Now, with my teensy bit of Jewish knowledge, I try to reconcile the ancient with the modern, I attempt to interpret laws, ethics and stories that come from a culture that shares almost no references or paradigms with the culture I live in and I look for a linear rationality in a people’s creation myth that was never meant to be linear or rational. I accept that I am a religious person, whatever that means, with a desire for faith as strong as my need for doubt.

So, what is to be done? How do I reconcile my doubt with my religiosity? Thus far I have found five possible strategies:

1. Scoff at the contradictions and walk away from the whole thing.
I was fourteen when I invented atheism.

2. Live with inconsistency.
I used to think that the only way to have intellectual integrity was through consistency. I thought that if God as I was taught God as a child was nonsensical, then I had to reject everything else that came along with that God. So at the very beginning of my God-search I decided I could resolve this by giving up consistency. I said, okay, I want rational empirical thinking and transcendent religion and Torah knowledge in my life, I will just wall them all off into their separate worlds, I won’t try to make them gibe and will enjoy them all just as they are but separately.

Question: Am I not capable of holding more than two opposing ideas in my mind at the same time without my head exploding?
Answer: No.

3. Intellectualize the contradictions away.
But then I started to do study, really started to see a glimmer of the coolness of Talmud and Midrash. Those guys, they wanted consistency, too! Who knew? And they were gonna make it work, no matter how tortured the logic got, reasoning their way through all the permutations until they came up with rationales for why the Torah is sometimes inconsistent, nutty and/or creepy. Much of their work is brilliant, some of it is kind of sad and ridiculous but dazzling nonetheless. I love this stuff. I’ve barely dipped my toe into how the rabbis and scholars have worked to understand the anomalies, or as Larry Kushner calls it, the “not fitting of ideas”, but it’s fascinating and deep. I’d happily spend the rest of my life learning this cumulative and associative way of thinking. But it easily becomes nothing more than a mind game, thrilling but devoid of emotion.

4. Use transcendence and feelings to understand intuitively.
Midrashic and folk stories can be the Jewish equivalents of the Zen koan, the sound of one scroll clapping, more or less, and they make intuitive sense that isn’t dependent on logic. Music and poems describe basic human needs and feelings and perceptions within the framework of Jewish thought. They sound right and feel good, capturing the essence of what we know to be true, bypassing the logical next questions by going straight for the heart. Jewish meditation unlocks a spirituality that is Jewish but also universal. All of this is a very acceptable strategy for assimilating basic Jewish values, culture and God-ness and works for many of us lot of the time. But too much intuition without enough rational judgment leads to sloppy thinking and precisely the kind of faith I don’t want.

5. There are no contradictions or inconsistencies.
Clearly what I need to do is to tolerate, intellectualize and intuit the contradictions all at the same time, if possible, and even run away from them when it’s necessary. When this approach is even remotely successful, I then begin to glimpse the possibility that there are actually no contradictions to reconcile. I begin to see that it’s all a part of a larger understanding of connection and learning and yearning, that it’s okay if I can’t always see those connections. I can just let them be there and if at some point I manage to put it together (unlikely, but you never know) that will be great and if not, that’s fine, too.
In other words, I begin to have faith that it all makes a kind of sense, even if I cannot and will never perceive it. Gosh.

“...the sign of wonder can only impress the one who is psychologically prepared to be convinced.” - Neshama Leibowitz

Each approach is just one aspect of a mindful Jewish life. God’s presence, for me, is in the questions not the answers, and in the arguments not the resolutions. This is truly doubt as an act of faith. What a fine life that could be, to scoff, ignore, intellectualize, poeticize and accept it all and live within the connections and contradictions, whether I call that God (however I understand that at any given moment) or not, to give oneself permission to live within the fierce mystery.

Blessed HaMavdeel, that which Divides Time
And separates the whole into increments that we may comprehend it,
Blessed Adonai Echad, that which Unites All Existence
And connects us that we may be one,
Blessed Ruach HaOlam, that which Cannot Be Known
And provides us with so many questions:

Thanks for being so interesting.