Friday, October 28, 2011

Religions have to be spiritual...duh!

Crazy observations, from David Briggs

Men would rather watch Monday Night Football than go shopping. Eating too many Hardees Monster Thickburgers is linked to obesity. Texting while driving is a bad idea.

There are times when research findings are so obvious they are almost beyond questioning. So it is puzzling that growing evidence showing the importance of congregations cultivating the spiritual lives of the faithful is so routinely ignored.

As I've said before, it is amazing how easily many of our synagogues (and, as always, I'm sure this includes churches, mosques and other houses of worship) forget this basic truth. We exist, more than anything else, for religious purposes. Spiritual purposes. I'm not suggesting that all we should do is sit around and explore our inner spiritual lives. Social Justice, learning, socializing and much more all have a place in the religious world, and they always will.

But, a synagogue which doesn't help people to explore their spiritual lives simply isn't doing its job.

Hey - have I self-servingly mentioned recently that, starting in November, we'll be holding a monthly session before Shabbat services, in which we'll explore personal prayer? Or, that it's called Making Prayer Real?

Come to our first session on Nov 12 at 9:00 a.m. or come to an information session on Nov 1 at 7:30 p.m.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Blessing for Social Action

I haven't been able to post my sermons from the High Holy Days on our website, yet, because of some techincal difficulties (I know… I know… you're all waiting, desperately). Hopefully I'll be able to do so, soon, but in the meantime, let me share one little tidbit—one of my favorites from all the sermons.

Judaism seems to have a blessing for almost everything—from lighting Shabbat candles to going to the bathroom. But, traditionally, there is no blessing for acts of Tikkun Olam (Social Justice). It seems like a strange omission. Why wouldn't Judaism offer a blessing at a moment which seems ripe for blessing?

...traditionally, there is no blessing for acts of social justice. A blessing is used in order to elevate a non-sacred act into a sacred one. To turn the simple lighting of a candle into a religious act. But, we never need to turn an act of Tikkun Olam into a sacred act; it already is.

To me, it's such a simple, lovely idea. Saying a blessing over an act of Tikkun Olam is like adding water to the ocean: utterly redundant.

Want to experience a bit of holiness today? Just help someone in need.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Rational Religion - Still not just for Jews

This past summer, I wrote a little bit about Christians who take a rationalist view of religion. I remember being very happy to read the article which led to that post, because it made me feel a little bit less lonely. Very often, it seems that being a rational religionist is a minority position. The religious people that we see in the press tend to be extremists—that's not surprising; most people who get press coverage tend to be extremists. But, it's easy to start thinking that most people in this world who are religious take an extreme, fundamentalist view about religion. You know—the Bible is the literal, perfect, unchanging Word of God. Anyone who deviates, at all, is a sinner, and is bound for hell. And, most of the atheists who get press coverage are reacting to this kind of extremist religion. They are, in a manner of speaking, extremist atheists. I don't mean just that they are extreme in their atheism (although, many are), but that the religion that they reject is an extreme religious. No one, it often seems, is speaking up in favor of, or even against, moderate, liberal religion.

This (false) sense of religious isolation is heightened by a quirk of my profession. Not surprisingly, I meet a relatively large number of people who want change religions—they come to me to convert. Which pretty much means, by definition, that they're not happy with the religion with which they grew up. So, they often tell me what they didn't like about that religion. And, something I've noticed since moving from Canada back to the states (I'm not sure if it's the States, or the part of the States in which I live) is that the most common complaint is the extremism, and lack of rationality in that religion. This is all a long-winded way of saying that I hear many people complaining that the Christianity of their youth was irrational, and therefore unacceptable to them. Given that, in my daily life, I don't have a lot of other interaction with Christianity, it can start to create a skewed view of their religion: Judaism is, at least potentially rational. Christianity is, inherently, a rational. I don't really believe that, you understand. It's just that it sometimes starts to feel that way.

Which is probably a big part of why I love coming across another article about rational Christianity:

In the world of Christian scholarship, for example, to read the Bible literally is regarded as absurd. To call the words of the Bible "the Word of God" is more than naïve. No modern person can still believe that a star can wander through the sky so slowly that wise men can keep up with it, that God actually dictated the Ten Commandments -- all three versions, no less -- or that a multitude can be fed with five loaves and two fish. No modern person understanding genetics and reproduction can believe that virgins conceive, nor can those who understand what death does to the human body in a matter of just minutes still view the resurrection as the resuscitation of a deceased body after three days.

The author of the article, it has to be noted, isn't just an academic. He is an Episcopal priest—a bishop, actually. I'm going to go out on a limb here, and assume that he is a sincerely religious, devout men. He takes his religion seriously. He believes. But, he doesn't believe uncritically. He doesn't accept every word as unfailingly true. He doesn't believe that rationality needs to (or can) take a backseat to faith.

Christianity is, I believe, about expanded life, heightened consciousness and achieving a new humanity. It is not about closed minds, supernatural interventions, a fallen creation, guilt, original sin or divine rescue. I am tired of seeing the Bible being used, as it has been throughout history, to legitimize slavery and segregation, to subdue women, to punish homosexuals, to justify war and to oppose family planning and birth control. That is a travesty which must be challenged and changed.

You don't have to be Jewish to be religious and rational. You just have to be rational. I've always known that, but it's nice to be reminded. And, it's nice to have company.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Rabbi supports LGBT causes?

OK, this is (for me) a long, somewhat rambling post. I had trouble getting it out, and didn't really have time to edit it. But I wanted to publish it today, because today is National Coming Out Day, and this is about LGBT issues. So, pardon any incoherence. But, please, give it a read!

A number of times on this blog, and quite often on my Facebook page, I've spoken out in support of same-sex marriage, as well as other LGBT issues. Depending on what religious background you hail from, you might find this somewhat surprising (or, maybe, very surprising), or completely expected. But, knowing that at least some people don't expect a rabbi to be on this side of the issue, I have been thinking for a while about posting my reasoning for being pro-LGBT rights and, especially, why I think it's a Jewish issue—why I support this not just as a person, but as a religious Jew, and as a rabbi.

Interestingly, I recently came across another blog post which explained why its author (who describes himself as "A Heterosexual, Married, North Carolinian Father Of Three") supports LBGT equality. It says so much of what I think, that I almost decided to just scrap my own blog post, and link to it. He debunks many common arguments against equality:
Religious arguments against same-sex marriage do not pass the Lemon Test, a three-pronged legal requirement which stipulates that a) the government's action must have a secular legislative purpose, b) the government's action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion, and c) the government's action must not result in an "excessive government entanglement" with religion. I am not sure I have heard anyone make a case against same-sex marriage that did not invoke religion. 
Kids do just fine in families with same-sex parents. "All of the major professional organizations with expertise in child welfare have issued reports and resolutions in support of gay and lesbian parental rights" (Professor Judith Stacey, New York University). 
He also talks about some of the positives of acceptance:
Acceptance of LGBT folks helps protect against depression, substance abuse, and suicide. Why in the world would anyone want to cause suffering in others? If the answer lies in your religion, then you need to re-evaluate your religion. Its ancient morality is flawed at best. 
As always, there's lots more to read, and I recommend clicking through (it's not a long article, but it's a good one). But, not surprisingly, given his atheist identity, he doesn't talk about the religious reasons for same-sex support. So, that still gives me room to add something, right?

I'm clearly not going to be able to explain the entire matter, here. The question of whether it's appropriate for rabbis (or other religious leaders) to be pro-LGBT is complicated, to say the least. But, there are at least three interrelated reasons that I feel compelled to not only support LGBT issues, but to do so vocally and forcefully.

First of all, religion changes, and that's a good thing, If you're part of a religious tradition which believes that your revelation came directly, and perfectly, from God, then you probably won't see the world the same way that I do. But, as part of religious movement which embraces the fact that our texts, practices and traditions all have human origins, I have no choice but to also admit that those human origins have influenced our texts, practices and traditions. In other words, they don't only reflect God's will, but human biases and prejudices, as well. They reflect the society from which they came.

Well, society changes (thank God). Our values change. Our understanding of human nature changes. Trying to apply, uncritically and unwaveringly, an ancient set of laws and restrictions onto a modern world, without accounting for those changes—well, that's precisely the kind of thinking which got Galileo into so much trouble. Not exactly a shining moment for religion, was it?
Our understanding of the world changes, and a religion which doesn't change along with it, is writing yet another embarrassing chapter in its history. Religious leaders refused to see the world changing were the ones who tried to justify slavery. Who resisted women's rights. And so on. I really don't want to be part of the next round of that.

And that brings me to my second reason for feeling obligated (one might even say: commanded) about all this: I am part of a system which has been, throughout its history, and still continues to be, one of the single greatest forces against same-sex equality. Religion, especially organized religion, has been a driving force behind homophobia in our world. So, on the one hand I feel a need (which might not come from the most exalted place, I admit) to distance myself from the views of the religious homophobes. To put it simply (and honestly) I want to make sure that people know that I'm religious, but that doesn't make me homophobic. Call it apologetics, call it insecurity, but at least I'm directing it in a good direction.

But, in addition, I guess I also feel the need to do some makeup work. My own history of homophobia is minor and, thankfully, ended long ago. But, as part of the “religious world,” I guess I still feel I have some repentance to do. If religion has been so awful to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people, and I'm religious, then don't I, at least a tangential way, share some of that guilt? Without becoming too self centered, or too melodramatic, isn't part of being connected to a larger group sharing responsibility, at least in part, for that group?

It's debatable. The same types of arguments happen around America's history of oppression of African-Americans, Native Americans and so on. And, as usual, I see both sides of the argument—on the one hand, I have benefited, indirectly at least, from those injustices. I am part of the institution which oppressed, and therefore somewhat obligated to make restitution. On the other hand, I did nothing wrong myself, so I shouldn't feel guilty or responsible. Both make sense, but there's not much harm in erring on the side of compassion, is there?

And, that brings me to my last religious point. There is no harm in erring on the side of compassion. Especially in Judaism (not comparing it to other religions, so feel free to insert your own here). One of my favorite teachings in all Judaism came (I believe) from Rabbi Irving Greenberg. The oft repeated ethical injunction to care for the stranger, because we were strangers, is a reminder that our own history of oppression is supposed to make us more sensitive to others. We have been treated badly, and we have been marginalized, and we have had our rights (and our lives) suppressed. And, because of that, we're supposed to look at others who are being similarly treated, and help them.

It's that simple. To be a Jew is remember how terrible it feels to be weak and oppressed, and therefore to act on behalf of the weak and oppressed. Right now, in our society, there is probably no group which is more openly oppressed than non-straight people. Gay rights has been called the next/last great frontier of civil rights. It's the last group about which it's ok to speak publicly about the desire to annihilate them, or deny them basic rights. If I were to do so, then I'd be accepted, and applauded, by large swathes of our society. I'd like to be a small part of changing that. It seems like an awfully Jewish thing to do.

Today is “National Coming Out Day.” Let's all pray for, and work towards, the day when that won't be necessary. The day that no one will feel unsafe, unloved, or disenfranchised simply because they love someone of the same gender. It really doesn't seem that complicated.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Why do we fast?

As we get ready for our Yom Kippur fast, I came across this brief article, asking why, exactly, we fast. The author lays out 4 different explanations, all of which find support in our tradition (one one constant in Judaism: there is never only one answer to any question!). But, there is only one of them, he claims, which finds Biblical support:

Isaiah's prescription for the fast that God desires addresses precisely these elements: when you gather in the town square to call out to God, think of the people who sleep there at night because they have no home. When you feel the pangs of hunger after not eating for a day, think about those for whom this is a regular occurrence. When you don your sackcloth and ashes and take off your comfortable shoes, remember that there are those who do not have what to wear. The point of fasting is to sensitize us to those for whom such denials are a daily occurrence, and not by choice.

The entire point of our fast is to sensitize ourselves to those who are in constant deprivation and need, so that we will be more likely to help those people, when our fast is over. Which means that our fast is judged not by how hard we pray during it, but by how hard we work to help others, when we're done.

Funny. That's almost exactly what I'll be saying tomorrow morning. Hope to see you there, so you can hear all about it (out of towners - I'll post it after the holiday, so you can read it, too!).

G'mar Chatimah Tova - may you be sealed in the book of life.