Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Is Religious Literalism Dying?

When it comes to religion, I'm a pretty extreme non-literalist. I pretty much take nothing in our sacred texts literally. I certainly don't see the story of Creation as scientifically, historically accurate, for example. In fact, I've often said that if there is a single accurate historical fact in the Torah, it's by accident. From what I've learned, the Hebrew Bible starts in with semi-reliable history somewhere in the book of Kings (somewhere around Kings David and Solomon).

This non-literalism extends to God, as well. I certainly don't believe, in any literal way, in the God presented by the Torah — I don't think that there is a being "out there" with whom we can have conversations and arguments. I don't even believe in most of the not-quite-as-literal images of God I read about, such as "God as energy." Most people, if they heard me talk about what I do believe, would pretty much write me off off as an atheist (it happens all the time when I bother to get involved in on-line discussions). I'm not an atheist, but I certainly don't believe in anything like what almost everyone means when they use the word, "God."

I've made this comment before, but I've long wondered how unusual I am, when it comes to this. I know that I am far from unique — there are many people in religious life who believe, and disbelieve, much as I do (have you heard about Art Green and his book Radical Judaism? It might be worth a read…). But, I don't have any sense about how widespread this kind of religious thinking is. Am I part of an insignificant, fringe movement with no real impact on the wider religious world? Or, do I represent a significant minority? And, more importantly, and more interestingly, do I perhaps represent a growing minority? Whatever the numbers are currently, is this worldview becoming more prevalent? Does this kind of non-literal spirituality represent a future, or the future, of religion?

Daniel Dennett seems to think so. In a recent article in Religion Dispatches, he discusses the future of religion in the Internet Age, and believes that there's just no way that religions and religious people will be able to continue to hold to anything like biblical literalism when the scientific counter-truths are so readily available:
I don’t see how the traditional credal models of religion are going to be able to withstand this sort of epistemological pressure. I think that we see trends even in traditional evangelical churches that are moving away from doctrine and more into allegiance and ceremony and letting people be more relaxed about what they actually believe.
Dennett isn't writing off religion completely. We still have a lot to offer, so long as we remember that our job isn't to be bad science. But, I especially love that he points out (which I may have mentioned once or twice in my time, as well) that, in some ways, science can beat religion at its own game:
To the extent that religions are very much engaged in enriching lives with meaning, with ceremony, and even with a sense of mystery and awe, that’s all good. I think the problem comes when they think that they have to put their awe-inspiring myths in competition with the equally – or I would say more – awe-inspiring discoveries of science.
I mean, if religion is in the Awe business, then which of these is actually more Awesome (in the original, religious sense of being awe-inspiring)?

  1. An all powerful Being who can, by definition, do anything, created us one Friday morning with full intelligence and consciousness, or
  2. A bunch of molecules randomly got together and, over time, figured out how to recombine in ways that allowed for intelligence and consciousness to emerge, which would then be used to try to figure out that process that led to their creation?
I dunno. I can understand that first one. But, the second? It blows my mind, just trying to think about it. It's pretty damn awe-inspiring! Science doesn't have to lead to less religion. If we believe in the power of awe, then it can actually lead to more!

But, that's an aside (albeit one that I love). The real question is whether we are at the start of a revolution in religious thought. Can old orthodoxies long survive in a world with effectively unlimited access to information? Or, are the ultra-fundamentalisms that are so prevalent today nothing more than rear-guard desperation moves, doomed for failure, sooner rather than later (as a certain Art Green describes them)?

I don't think anyone really knows the answer. But, I'd love to hear your opinions. And, more to the point, I'm going to enjoy watching the actual answer unfold!

Awe Deprivation

I came across an interesting article in the New York Times last week. It was about the importance of Awe. If you've heard me speak more than a few times, you know how important this topic is to me. Awe is one of the core religious emotions and impulses*--it's at the foundation of most of our authentic religious/spiritual moments, and an integral part of all religious life.

* The other two are need and gratitude. This is all summed up in the pithy statement (which I first heard from Rabbi Rick Block) that there are only 3 prayers in the world, and they're all 1 word: "Please," "Thanks," and "Wow." Everything else is just a wordier version of these.

Of course, if you've heard me speak more than a few times, you've also heard me quote or reference Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel more than a few times, too. And, no one does a better job of talking about awe than Heschel. More than anyone I've ever come across, Heschel is almost obsessed with awe--with experiencing it, with trying to express it, and especially with trying to get people to seek it out, and to embrace it. In fact, it was probably his writing about awe, more than anything else, which really drew me to him.

This article, though, adds a nice perspective to this ongoing conversation. First of all, it confirms, scientifically, the effect that awe can have on us. They actually do awe-based experiments, and show that people are nicer to each other after experiencing awe. It reminded me of a lesson I learned from Jay Michaelson who taught that one of the universal criteria for authentic mystical experiences is an increase in kindness. If you have what you think is a mystical experience, and you don't feel kinder towards others when you're done, then you didn't have an honest mystical experience. True religion and kindness are inextricably joined together [insert diatribe against cruel, evil religious extremists here].

The article also tries to think a bit about why awe is so powerful. What it comes up with isn't so shockingly new, but it's worth thinking about. Awe is, by definition, an awareness of our own smallness as compared to the greatness of God, or the world, or one aspect of the world (think of the feeling we get when standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or watching a massive storm roll in). That sense of smallness leads pretty smoothly to a realization that our own needs are, ultimately, pretty inconsequential. And that makes it much easier to be open to the needs of others around us. The greatness of the world makes it seem much less important to focus on the needs of little old me!

But, it's the last point in the article that might be most worth thinking about. Because, if awe is so important (and, I'm pretty sure that it is), then we should think seriously about how much awe we're getting, and how we can get more:
You could make the case that our culture today is awe-deprived. Adults spend more and more time working and commuting and less time outdoors and with other people. Camping trips, picnics and midnight skies are forgone in favor of working weekends and late at night. Attendance at arts events — live music, theater, museums and galleries — has dropped over the years. This goes for children, too: Arts and music programs in schools are being dismantled in lieu of programs better suited to standardized testing; time outdoors and for novel, unbounded exploration are sacrificed for résumé-building activities. 
We believe that awe deprivation has had a hand in a broad societal shift that has been widely observed over the past 50 years: People have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others. To reverse this trend, we suggest that people insist on experiencing more everyday awe, to actively seek out what gives them goose bumps, be it in looking at trees, night skies, patterns of wind on water or the quotidian nobility of others — the teenage punk who gives up his seat on public transportation, the young child who explores the world in a state of wonder, the person who presses on against all odds. 
All of us will be better off for it.
If your religion (or whatever else you have in your life, if you're not religious) hasn't been helping to lead you to more awe, then it's been failing you. Go see some art. Go out in nature. Find something awe inspiring, and just take it in.

Pursue those goosebumps. They're the sign of an encounter with something, or some One, worth knowing.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Baltimore and Either-Or Thinking

A quick thought about many of the opinions I've been seeing in regards to the riots going on in Baltimore. I seem to be seeing two major streams of thought.

On the one hand, there are people (including the family of Freddie Gray, the victim whose death sparked this violence, along with the much larger peaceful protests) who are condemning the rioters. There is no benefit to this kind of violence, they say. It's reckless and immoral to destroy property and, much worse, injure people, especially when no good can come of it.

On the other hand, there are people who point to the underlying, systemic racism of our society, and the constant disenfranchisement of large swaths of our communities as the underlying, root cause of the violence. Nothing will get better until we start fixing that fundamental problem. Riots and violence will always be simmering, waiting to explode, as long as some members of society feel oppressed. Because, when people have no reasonable recourse, they resort to unreasonable actions.

I'm pretty sure that we don't have to pick between these two streams of thought.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A 1 State Solution?

I subscribe the Religion Dispatches e-letter/blog. It's often got some interesting material in it, even if it often leans so far to the left that it even makes me uncomfortable (and that, my friends, is saying something). I disagree with it often, but never moreso than when someone writes in it about Israel.

It happened again today. They posted an article which was ostensibly about the idea of a shared, side-by-side 1-State solution. But, mainly it was a blatantly biased, sometimes distorted diatribe against Israel. I was tempted to not even post about this, because it's a minor blog, and so why draw more attention to it? But, the article got under my skin, so I wrote a (much shorter than I wanted to) response.

I could have done a much more detailed take-down of the article, but I frankly don't have the time or energy right now (seders must be planned!). And, I'm hoping that my response will create some decent dialogue; rambling on and on, refuting every point probably makes that less likely to happen. We'll see.

Read the article if you like. Here's what I wrote in response:
The core idea of this article--that it's possible to create a hybrid, 1 state solution, with two people living side-by-side (mixed together, actually) with autonomous governments, sounds unrealistic to me. I'd love to learn more about it, but it's hard for me to imagine that actually working (in any situation, not just one as fraught as Israel/Palestine).
Unfortunately, the author takes an awfully long time to get to that interesting, yet controversial idea. Before that, he spends quite a bit of time unfairly putting all of the blame for the situation on Israel. It is not "alleged" that the Palestinians have long rejected Israel's right to exist. It's a pretty clear fact. And, no mention is made that the decades-old rejectionism of the Palestinian leadership is, almost without a doubt, one of the primary reasons for the rise of the right in Israel. The peacenick left was eviscerated in large part because their attempts to make peace were either undermined or cynically exploited by the Palestinians.
It's also a convenient distortion to lump Israeli-citizen Arabs in with the Arabs living in the Occupied Territories, thus coming up with the 27% voting eligibility statistic. Of course non-citizens can't vote; in what country or situation can they? And, again, isn't it important to mention that the reason for the Occupation has much to do (especially in its first few decades) with the absolute refusal of the Palestinian leadership to compromise or negotiate in any way? Ever since the '67 war, the majority of Israelis were in favor of a land-for-peace deal, at least in principle. Has there even been a parallel among the Palestinians?
You use Gaza as an example of how bad Israel is, but fail to mention that the blockade only began after Israel pulled out (uprooting settlements along the way) only to see Gazans elect Hamas (which is still openly and explicitly dedicated to destroying Israel) and turn Gaza into a launching pad for endless terrorist attacks. And so on.
I'm no fan of Bibi, and I am, at my core, still a Peacenick. I long for a day when Israelis and Palestinians can live together in peace. But, pretending that Israel is the willing, evil oppressor while the Palestinians are nothing except for victims of Zionist Imperialism is not true, and it's not helpful, either.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Mental Illness and Judaism

This past Shabbat, our member Irma Polster gave a beautiful sermon about Mental Illness and the Jewish community. It was an important start to a conversation that we don't have often enough at Congregation Beth Am, or at many of our synagogues.
We are all here for the same reason--- to draw near to God, to find holiness regardless of our physical or mental health. Congregation Beth Am is already a kehilat chesed, a caring community. We welcome strangers, we visit the sick, we attend shivas. With a little more effort we can be mindful of each other and be kind and accepting and become truly inclusive. Let's take that extra step and become a kehila kadosha, a holy community.
Please take a moment and give the whole sermon a read. And, yasher koach to Irma!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Reverend's Call to Justice

[I'm currently at the annual CCAR (Reform Rabbis) conference in Philadelphia. I was asked to write a guest blog for the CCAR's blog. So, this is written for other Rabbis, but I hope you'll find it interesting, too].

So, when I was asked to write a blog piece for this conference, I happily accepted. There are always things to write about after a couple of days, right? What I failed to account for is how busy I would be this time. I can’t remember a conference where I had so little down time. The sessions are coming rapid fire, and there hasn’t been a moment where I haven’t wanted or needed to be somewhere. I’ve barely had time to breathe, let alone write!

So, in these few minutes in between the State of the CCAR address and dinner with friends, let me share one moment with you.

For the past two years, I’ve been involved with Rabbis Organizing Rabbis (ROR) [ed: it's a group of Reform Rabbis using a Community Organzing model, focussing on Social Justice issues] , but not as much as I should have been. The urgent has far too often gotten in the way of the important, and Justice hasn’t been at the forefront of my Rabbinate, as it should be.

But then, late in today’s (very well attended) meeting, Peter Berg got up to speak, and he referenced the amazing speech (sermon, really) we heard yesterday from Dr. Reverend William Barber [ed: he's the founder of the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, and one hell of a preacher]. It was a firery, passionate call to justice. But, as Rabbi Berg pointed out, it didn’t really contain any new information. We all knew, more or less, about all of the issues he raised; we all know how terrible they are. What we forget is how deeply we have to care. And, as Rabbi Berg said, what we really forget is that this is why we became Rabbis in the first place. We didn’t become Rabbis to help kids with their Haftarah blessings (as important as that is), or to work with the House Committee (as important as that is). We became Rabbis to change the world. We became Rabbis to inspire people, to move people, to challenge people, and to help people. We became Rabbis to bring more justice into the world.

For me, it’s time to draw a line. It’s time to stop letting the urgent take center stage, and to start making time for what is truly important. And, for you? Will you commit to ROR, to do a little, or a lot? Will you commit in some other way to bringing more justice into the world? Will you commit, will you re-commit, to the vision and ideals which brought you here in the first place?

The good Reverend helped me to remember why I’m really here (with an assist from Rabbi Berg). Hopefully, he can inspire us all.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Passover Seders Really Shouldn't Be Boring

We've all sat in this kind of a seder: the leader reads a passage, with a lot or very little enthusiasm, and then the rest of the table kind of drones the next paragraph together. Maybe, just to make it more participatory, we go around the table, taking turns, but always from the text.

Of course, we're crammed around a table not designed to fit everyone there, and we're smelling delicious food coming in from the kitchen, while we get to enjoy a lovely sprig of parsley, dipped in salt-water. Awesome!

Well, not really. Pretty awful, actually. But, what can we do? This is tradition, right? Well...no. The amazing thing is that that kind of a seder isn't actually proper. This is one of those cases where people are so obsessed with "doing it right" that they actually are doing it very wrong. Because, the whole intent of the seder is to have an actual, engaging, fun conversation, not to read an ancient, ritual text.

Last Shabbat, I held a brief workshop on how to make a seder more enjoyable. I'm not gong to try to include everything here (especially since that was a much quicker version of a class taught by my teacher Rabbi Larry Hoffman), but here are a few things you really need to know, if you're hosting a seder next month.

First of all, you don't have to run the seder at your table. Feel free, up until the main meal, to be seated comfortably in some other room. That alone will make people more relaxed, and more engaged. And, you don't need to starve--the "dipping" to which we refer in the seder ("Why on all other nights do we not dip, but tonight we dip twice?")  was actually a full appetizer course. Raw veggies were dipped in flavored water--a kind of ancient crudite. So, put out lots of yummy snacks (especially cut veggies and dip), and stop torturing your guests!

But, more important is the seder itself. And, here is the big revelation--there is no mitzvah (no commandment) to read the Haggadah (the book containing the text of the seder). The original seder (as described almost 2000 years ago in the Mishna) was actually modeled on the Greek symposium--it was meant to be a chance to lean back (literally and figuratively), have a drink and talk about interesting topics--in this case, the topic is freedom. There were some required components (you had to tell a story that went from degradation to glory; you had to talk about the Torah passage that begins "My father was a wandering Aramean"; you had to explain the 3 main symbols on the table--the sacrificial lamb, the matza and the maror), but those were meant to be the starting points and framework of the discussion. The real seder was contained in the discussions which flowed from those starting points. And, those discussions could go on and on, in any direction they might flow. Most of the text of the Haggadah is actually just examples of digressions and associations made by our sages and ancestors--kind of a greatest hits of seders past, and a cheat-sheet if you don't know what to talk about. But, it was never intended as a rite--something which must be performed exactly right, year after year.

Much better is to create your own text, and to create your own discussions. Rather than just read from a static text, ask a serious, thought provoking question about what we just read. Find an alternative reading or poem which might spark someone's own ideas, or at least generate a reaction. Create an actual living, breathing seder, not a ossified, robotic ritual!

Does that sound difficult? Well, it does take some work and preparation on the part of the leader. But, not surprisingly, there are lots of great resources to help. I've compiled a list of a few of my favorites and put them on our website, but there are so many more. Feel free to share some of yours in the comments, as well.

In each and every generation, each of us is supposed to see ourselves as if we, personally, were brought out of Egypt. The seder is not our night to read, the seder is our night to remember, and to pretend, and to think, and to wonder, and to talk, and to talk, and to talk. May your seder be lively, and may your seder be alive.

HaShanah HaBa'ah b'Yerushalayim -- Next Year In Jerusalem!