Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Torah is a myth

Our Torah is a myth.

The idea that an all-powerful God shaped our world in six days? A myth.

The idea that God led our people through a split sea? A myth.

The idea that God dictated the Torah, word for word, to Moses? A myth.

But, I believe in them all.

I recently came across a book review, entitled The Orthodox rabbi who considers Torah a ‘myth’. It's about the book Torah from Heaven: The Reconstruction of Faith, by Rabbi Norman Solomon. In it, Rabbi Solomon takes the (hardly new) position that the Torah could not possibly have been handed down directly by God to Moses. From the review:
It is no longer possible in the wake of academic research to believe that the text of the Torah is God’s precise word-for-word dictation, he argues. We cannot read as the ancients or medieval did. “The classical doctrine of Torah from Heaven, such as that of Maimonides, with its erroneous historical claims and occasionally questionable moral consequences, cannot be upheld by the serious historian, scientist or philosopher,” he writes.
People often refer to religion as "a myth," but they include the word "just." As in, "religion is just a myth." But, there is nothing "just" about a myth.  The World English Dictionary defines "myth" as:

  1. a story about superhuman beings of an earlier age taken by preliterate society to be a true account, usually of how natural phenomena, social customs, etc, came into existence
  1. a person or thing whose existence is fictional or unproven
  1. (in modern literature) a theme or character type embodying an idea: Hemingway's myth of the male hero
  1. philosophy  (esp in the writings of Plato) an allegory or parable

So, colloquially, we tend to use "myth" in the sense of definitions one and two – a false, probably primitive story. But, it's those other definitions which I'm thinking of, when I call our Torah "a myth." A myth, at its core, is a story (true or not, factually speaking) which embodies and transmits some higher value, and which stands near the core of some larger tradition. A myth is a story which we tell about ourselves, in order to tell something deeper about ourselves.

There is nothing "just" about a myth.

People who argue about the accuracy of the Bible (probably any Bible) are missing the point. I've often said that I firmly believe that if our Torah contains a single accurate fact, it's only by accident. The Torah (probably) doesn't contain any facts. The rest of the Bible contains many accurate facts, and almost certainly many which are inaccurate, as well. But, through and through, our Torah, and our Bible, contains Truth. Meaning. A way to understand our world.

God gave the Torah to Moses. That's a myth. And, like all myth, it's very, very True.

You Can't Disprove God

This morning, I came across an article on Huffington Post. It was titled Science & God: Will Biology, Astronomy, Physics Rule Out Existence Of Deity? And, the article seems to be answering "yes." The more we learn from science, the less room we leave for God. We used to believe that God created the world; now, we know about the Big Bang. We used to believe that God created all of the animals, including human beings; now, we know about evolution. And so on.

It's hardly a new idea. I've heard it described as "the God of the Gaps. We use God to fill in the gaps of our knowledge. Anything we don't know, we ascribe to God. There are plenty of problems with this approach. The most obvious is reflected in this article: every time we learn something new, we essentially diminish God. We replace God with the Big Bang, et cetera.

There's also some more fundamental logical fallacies here, I think, even if I'm having trouble finding the precise words to explain them. But, there's something rather ad hoc, and maybe overly convenient, about this way of conceiving of God.

But, I'm getting off track. That's not what I really wanted to comment on. What I really wanted to comment on was the incredible fallacy underlying the entire article, and almost every refutation that you'll see about God and religion these days. And that fallacy is that this, or anything close to it, is the only valid way to think about, or believe in, God.

Essentially, all of these pundits who are railing against God and religion —Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, even Bill Maher -- are always (and, as far as I can tell, never explicitly) talking about a Dualist God. A God who is "out there," and "other."

Now, I will admit, that's a very common conception of God. But, there are other ways to conceive of God that are radically different from that. And, it just so happens that that other way is how believe. And, there's no way to disprove God, in this theology. None. Because, there's nothing to prove.

Want to know more? Stop by for Kol Nidrei.

Guess what my sermon is going to be about...

p.s. of course, if you can't make it, join us online. And, please spread the word to anyone you know who needs a place to pray. We're happy to give tickets to anyone who needs (no fee; just a suggested donation), and anyone can catch the Livestream, of course! 

Thursday, September 13, 2012


Today, I had the privilege of officiating at the funeral of a Holocaust survivor. This woman survived the ghetto and Auschwitz. As she wrote, and as we all know, it was hell on earth.

I wonder what she would have said if, back then, in the camp, someone had told her that one day, her 3 great grandchildren would be there at her funeral.

Her survival was a miracle. What she did with the next 70 years or so -- that was a victory.

Zichronah livracha - may her memory be a blessing.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012


A Rabbi I know once taught me that there are, in the end, only three prayers in the world. And each of them consists of only one word.


All of our prayers are really just wordy versions of these three, basic prayers. We need things, we're grateful for things, and we're amazed by things.

If you want to put it differently, there are three basic emotions which underlie prayer. Three sources of prayer, if you will. They are: need, gratitude and awe. All authentic prayer comes from one of these three places.

I was reminded of that (again. I'm actually reminded of this quite often) by a short teaching by Peter Yarrow, of Peter Paul and Mary fame.
I have gained perspective on the art of aging over the last decade of my 74 years. The gift of perspective is, in a word, “gratitude”- the conceit that my cup is half full, and each day more and more so.
Years ago, my life was filled with excitement, wonderment and adventure, but also beset with varying degrees of anxiety about what tomorrow might bring. Now, I truly pass my days without such concern, and with few lapses, I feel grateful for what I have, for those I love, for work that satisfies – and, happily, the focus of my life is all about tikkun olam, repairing the world.
Is my life different now from the way it once was? Not really. But the shift in the angle of the glass, the tilt of the reflection that has reframed my perspective, has made an inestimable difference.
I’m reminded of the lesson of the goat: A rabbi is consulted by a man who proclaims that his life has fallen apart. “My wife hates me, my children disobey me, I can’t pay my bills, no one respects me.” The rabbi solemnly counsels the man, “Buy a goat and live with it for a month – in the house – and then we’ll talk.” The man obeys the rabbi. Soon the goat has chewed his clothes, eaten his food and done his business on the carpet. Chaos reigns. Desperate, the man returns to the rabbi and throws himself on the rabbi’s mercy. “What should I do?” he wails. “Get rid of the goat,” says the rabbi calmly. One month later the man returns. He fairly shouts to the rabbi that he’s the luckiest person in the world, proclaiming to all in the ‘shtetl,’ that the rabbi is a genius.
What’s the gift of aging? Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we get rid of the goat.
If you want more teachings like this, especially during this pre-High Holy Day time of year, subscribe to "Jewels of Elul." But, either way, it's a good teachings remember. There are few things that we can do in our lives but will have the same positive affect as focusing on gratitude. During this time of reflection, I hope that we'll all take a few moments and really focus on all that we have to be grateful for.

L'Shana Tova.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Perfect? That's not exactly what we're going for...

Another brilliant insight from Rabbi Art Green on the High Holy Days.

According to one tradition, Rosh Hashanah occurs on the anniversary of the giving of the second tablets. As you probably remember, God gave Moses one set of the 10 Commandments, but Moses smashed them in anger when he saw the people building the Golden Calf. So, God had Moses carve out a second set of tablets, upon which He wrote the Commandments, again.

Why would we celebrate one of our holiest days on anniversary of, shall we say, not one of our finest moments? We only received the second tablets because of a combination of our terrible disobedience and Moses’ uncontrolled anger. Not exactly an auspicious occasion.

In fact, Green teaches us, that’s the perfect day for this kind of holiday. Because, as another tradition teaches us, the real lesson from these two sets of tablets is about the need for compromise and the acknowledgement of human imperfection. The first set of tablets were completely made by God: God carved the tablets of stone, and God wrote the words on them. Therefore, they represent God’s unadulterated, pure will. Perfection incarnate.

That’s why they didn’t “work.” No person, and certainly no people, could be expected to live up to such high standards. We were doomed to failure by unrealistically perfect expectations.

The second set of tablets were a joint project. They were created by Moses and God, together. And so they symbolize a more attenuated version of God’s will. Perfection, filtered through our imperfect reality. And, because of that, a more attainable target.

The High Holy Days, with their focus on teshuvah (repentance), are about trying to get ourselves to be better. To stop making the mistakes, and willful failures, of our past, and instead be the kind of people that we want to be, and that we’re supposed to be.

But, there's a difference between acknowledging where we have fallen short of our goals, and striving to be better, on the one hand, and demanding perfection of ourselves, while beating ourselves up for every little failure, on the other. One of those can lead to self-improvement, the other seems likely to end in frustration, and quite possibly in giving up out of hopelessness. And that is going to do us, or God, any good at all.


The essential message of teshuvah, and thus the moral message of this season in its entirety, is that human change is really possible. In the face of all our cynicism, all the versions of determinism (genetic, Freudian, economic, and all the rest) that serve as excuses for us not to try to get our lives in gear, the Yamim Noraim come each year to remind us that it is possible to change our lives, and that such renewal partakes of the gift of life itself.
Every year, as we approach the High Holy Days, I reread Rabbi Art Green's* wonderful Foreward to S.Y. Agnon's Day's of Awe. If you're looking for something short (that is, not book-length) to really get you thinking about the upcoming holidays, you can't do better than this.

* Interestingly (well, interesting to me, anyway), I've been reading this piece for years, long before I became such a huge fan of Rabbi's Green's thought. I should have realized long ago what a genius Green is!

L'Shana Tova!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A middle ground on abortion?

On one of my rabbinic e-lists, a colleague by the name of Rabbi Larry Milder offered an interesting take on abortion. I don't have any illusions that it would, in any way, resolve the national debate on this issue. But, he did suggest a paradigm that could make for some constructive discussion among the non-radicals who are left out there. And, it just so happens that this paradigm comes from the Talmud.

As we all know, “personhood” has become the current term among Right-to-Life supporters. The idea is that at the moment of conception, a full person is created. A single-cell zygote has the exact same legal status as a born human being, including all of the rights that accompany that status.

This rabbi (I'm keeping him anonymous only because I haven't asked his permission to quote him) looks at the Talmudic principle of ubar yerech imo—a fetus is like the thigh of the mother. His interpretation/expansion of this principle is that this means that a fetus is not a person, but it is human.

My thigh isn't a person. But, it's human. It's a part of me. And, if you start combining it with enough other parts of me, eventually, you get a person. By itself, it isn't a whole person, but, that doesn't mean that it's nothing—it's not worthless. By being human, and by being a part of me, it still has sacred value, and although I may not be politically/intellectually comfortable with talking about its “rights,” I (and we) do seem to have some obligations towards it. It's not “just a thigh.” It's my thigh.

Wondering what others think about this model of thinking, and if there's any hope that this kind of language, even if it can't end this debate, can at least allow some discussions to happen on a higher level.

* I just re-read his original post, and to be fair, I think he's also taking a political tack. By calling a fetus "human but not person," the pro-choice supporters can reclaim some moral high-ground from the "pro-life" side. And, we can shift the debate to: when does "human" become "a person," which is a much harder debate to claim as absolute, in theory. Still--interesting to me.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Sound of the shofar

Recently, I came across a teaching by the Sefat Emet, explaining what the shofar means, and why we sound it on Rosh Hashana. I've been using this teaching a lot this year, and wanted to share it here. Here's a quick version I used when I was asked to give an opening d'var torah on a Rabbinic conference call last week:

We are here to learn about data from recent studies on the American Jewish community, and what those data can teach us. But, as we listen to the breakdown and analysis of numbers, I think it's important that we also remember the larger gestalt. The numbers are important—terribly important, because they tell us a lot about our community. But, we have to remember that they aren't our community.
The Sefat Emet, like so many of our sages, teaches that, in our world, God is differentiated. God exists, from our point of view, in discrete, knowable ways. What we see, what we encounter, isn't God, in God's true form, but rather a mediated, attenuated version of God. But, not on Rosh Hashanah. What's so special about Rosh Hashanah is that, on Rosh Hashanah, God begins to enter our world anew. And, when that happens, it's pure. For a moment, we have the chance to encounter God on God's own terms.
That's why, he teaches, we sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. The shofar is undifferentiated sound. And so, it's a kind of a pure, perfect prayer. Speech, our usual method of prayer, is sound, and thought, broken up and put into useful, but limited, boxes. It expresses an inner truth, but never perfectly. The shofar is a prayer, before were able to put it into words. And so, when we hear it, we're hopefully drawn towards God, not just our own limited conception of God.
So, again, there's nothing wrong with our discrete analysis. It's the only way we can work in this world—none of us can exist on that high, theoretical plane, all of the time. But, we have to remember that as we work with our details, we are always aiming at something higher, and something holier.
Shana Tova.