Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Kotel

Another item on my "blog idea" list is to talk about The Wall, and what it means to me. This is a perfect day to write about this, because as you may have heard, it's a big day for gender/religious equality at the Kotel (which is Hebrew for "the Wall"). In short, Israel's Supreme Court ruled today that it is not against the law for women to wear a tallit (prayer shawl) at the Kotel.

You see, the Kotel has long been officially designated as an Orthodox synagogue, which means that it falls under the auspices of the official Israeli Rabbinate, which is ultra-Orthodox. To put it mildly, they don't support gender equality within Judaism (or, for that matter, within anything). And so not only do they think that it's inappropriate for a woman to wear a tallit, which is traditionally something only men do, but they think that they have the right to tell others that they have to think, and behave, the same way.

A relatively small, but ever-growing, segment of Israeli Jewry has been pushing back against this ultra-Orthodox hegemony, and over the past couple of years they finally seem to be gaining some momentum. There was a recent decision to make a mixed/egalitarian prayer area at the Kotel, to go along with the all-male and all-female sections. And now this ruling, which if it's obeyed, means the police can no longer arrest women for having the audacity to dress and pray as they wish.

As you can probably tell/guess, I not only disagree, strongly, with what the ultra-Orthodox have been trying to do for years, but I also get quite angry about it. I'm certainly not alone. Many of my liberal (non-Orthodox) coreligionists have been disgusted by the attitudes and behavior of the ultra-Orthodox for a long time now. And, partially because of that, many have started to turn away from the Wall — to no longer see it as an important, or maybe even holy, site.

There are other reasons for this attitude towards the Wall, as well. Many find the treatment of the Kotel to be somewhat idolatrous. People pray at the Kotel as if God is more willing (more able?) to hear prayers there. People write prayers on pieces of paper and put them in the cracks of the wall, believing/assuming that somehow their prayers are more likely to be answered from being placed alongside those ancient stones. I know there are good, non-superstitious reasons to pray at the Wall, but my experience makes it pretty clear that most people are using the Wall in a superstitious way — as if it had inherent power. I suppose that there's another explanation for the fact that there is a website where can input your prayer, and they'll print it out and put in the Wall for you, but magic and superstition seem the most obvious explanation. You can probably guess how I feel about that attitude.

Anyway, you add up the ultra-Orthodox control, the nasty, vicious non-egalitarian, and anti-feminist, anti-woman attitude of the powers that be, along with the (semi?) idolatrous treatment of the Kotel, and I can completely understand why some people are, quite frankly, sick of the whole thing.

But, not me.

Don't get me wrong. I am, of course, sick of everything I just described. I find it all to be, in so many different ways, the worst of our religion. But, despite that, I still find myself drawn to the Kotel, and I still love it.

Part of it has to do with my love for ancient places like that. Without assigning any extra meaning to it, I love walking on the Roman Road in the Old City of Jerusalem. Every time I'm there, I get unspeakably excited by the fact that I'm walking on the same stones upon which the first rabbis in history walked. I get chills walking into the amphitheater in Casaeria. And so on.

But, that's not it. My real love of the Kotel comes from a much simpler story. It comes from my first visit to it, ever.

It was the summer after my senior year of High School, and I was on a synagogue trip - a whirlwind tour of Israel. I went thinking it would be fun, but found it was much more than that. It was, as few things have been for me, transformative. I fell in love with the country and I can't, to this day, tell you exactly why. I just knew that Israel felt like home in a way in which few places ever have.

Towards the end of the trip we were finally in Jerusalem. We were finally going to see the Kotel, about which I had heard my whole life - it's a pretty big moment for most Jews, to say the least. But, I was angered by the gender separation. My 17-year old self was indignant about not being able to stand with my friends (well, one friend, in particular. You know how High School is). And so, we agreed to both go stand right by the mechitza - the divider between the men's and women's sections. And so, I wedged myself into that corner, and I talked to God*.

* Back then, I had a much more traditional, simpler vision of God. It made it a LOT easier to talk to Him…

The Kotel is somewhat beat up*. As it happened, right in front of me, a bit higher than my waist, was a worn out depression in the wall. It was the perfect spot to rest my hand while I talked. No big deal - just an arm-rest.

* a couple of millennia will do that to a wall.

But, while I sat there and talked (in my head, as I recall), I made a promise. I had been so taken by Israel, so completely overwhelmed by it, that I vowed, then and there, to come back. Not just to Israel, mind you, but with that kind of dramatic fervor that only teenagers seem to have easy access to, I vowed to come back to that. very. spot.

I remember even pounding my fist, gently, as I said each word. That. Very. Spot.

And so, I did. The next time I went back to Israel, for a semester of college, I found my way to the Kotel. And, I put my hand in that spot. 

Every time I visited the Kotel during that year, I put my hand in that spot.

Every time I've visited the Kotel, in my entire life, I've gone to that spot. And, I've put my hand there. 

I smile a little as I think about a girl I haven't seen or talked to in 20 years or so, and I wonder what life has brought her. I hope it's as much as life's brought me.

But, more than that, I put my hand in that spot, and I try to remember what it felt like to be a teenager, capable of melodramatic declarations and of falling head over heels in love with rocky hills and a stone wall.

That spot is mine. And no one, whatever power the Israeli government gives them or (please God) takes away, can take it away from me.

Believing in God

[Well, this isn't exactly the post I thought I was sitting down to write. And, I'm not sure how much sense it actually makes. But, in the spirit of blogging I'll just put it out there. Hopefully, it's interesting.]

For a while now, I've kept a list of topics and articles about which I want to blog, always planning to find some time to write. But, you know how that goes — life gets busy, and the urgent gets in the way of the important. And, before you know it, you've got a long list of blog ideas, and you still haven't made any progress towards them…

And, relatedly, I've been promising (threatening?) myself, and on this blog a couple of times, to start doing some writing about my theology. As any of you who know me, or read this blog at all regularly, know by now, my personal belief is nothing like what most people consider "traditional belief." I do not believe in a God who is "out there" and I certainly don't believe in a God who controls the world, in any literal way. I read and think about that so much, and talk about it in certain contexts so often, that I forget that not everyone really knows what I do believe (although, I guess I did actually give a sermon all about this on Yom Kippur). It's probably important that they do — I am, after all, a Rabbi.

And so, I finally found myself with a free hour, and some motivation (and hopefully, some focus) to write. And as I scanned through my list of blog topics, looking for one which inspires me, I came across this article from a little over a year ago*. In it, Jeffrey Small is discussing his conception of God. And, although it certainly isn't exactly what/how I believe, there's a whole lot of overlap.

* Note to self: write more often, or stop bothering collecting blog ideas...

Start with "classical" God imagery:
God as the potter, the watchmaker or the chess master has lost its relevance for many in our post-modern world. The response to this critique by some is to close their eyes to science and the realities of existence.
I don't really want to get into a refutation of this image of God (if you want to get semi technical, this is usually referred to as an "Active God," or a "God of History." Basically,  it's the God who is an independent, factual reality, and who can, if He so chooses, act in our world directly). Maybe I'll do that some other time, but I still think that Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation does a powerful, if slightly obnoxious, job of that. Suffice it to say, for now, that I find this idea of God completely untenable and, frankly, undesirable. As I've often said, if there is a God who is capable of curing a child of cancer, but chooses not to for whatever reason, then I need a new job, because I'm not working for that God anymore.

But, if I don't believe in that God, then what, exactly, do I believe in? Well, let's start with what Small believes:
I have come to understand God, not as a transcendent Zeus-like figure, but instead as the infinite creative source of existence.
By "creative source" here, I do not mean to say that I think of God as creating existence by waving a magic wand from afar, but rather that all of existence -- matter, energy, the physical laws which govern the universe, even our consciousness -- comes out of God. This understanding of God is rooted not in Creationism, Intelligent Design or a desire for a father figure, but rather comes from this simple question posed first by the ancient Greek philosopher Parminedes (b. 510 BCE): Why is there existence in the first place, instead of nothing?
You know what? As I'm rereading that, I realize that it doesn't describe so well what I believe. It's not that I disagree with it so much, it's more that it doesn't resonate. That's the problem with this less literal understanding of God — it's not so much about describing, in specific detail, the God in which I believe. Rather, it's about describing an image of God which resonates. Theology becomes a matter of perspective and awareness — not a statement about understanding how the universe works, but rather about what the universe means.

Some people will hear this and, whether or not they like this imagery/approach, will think to themselves "that isn't God." It might be nice, and it might be true. But it isn't God. Right?

This probably just turns into an argument about semantics, which is rarely interesting (although, strangely, often quite strident). If you define "God" as an all-powerful being with independent existence then, no, this isn't God. But if you define God as something else, something more general — as, perhaps, "the ultimate" — and this can, indeed, be God. This is a description of the fundamental, transcendent, holy basis of creation. Some people will find it inadequate — will say that, if this is really God, then God is useless, because God can't do anything. To them, I guess I have two responses. 

First of all, whether or not we like something has no bearing on whether or not it is true. The God described in the Bible is quite powerful, indeed. But, that God doesn't actually exist. And, my wishing (or yours) that He did doesn't change that.

But, more importantly, this God can do something. Just in a different way than we're used to thinking:
What I may have lost from the illusory "comfort" of believing in a supernatural father figure who may or may not intervene on my behalf, I have more than made up for with a new realization: I can touch and experience a God that is the ground of my being (though I'll never fully understand or see God) at a much more intimate level, because God is the spark of light within me. 
I've managed, really without intending to, to write an entire (somewhat rambling) blog post about my theology without actually saying a whole lot (barely anything, really) about what I actually believe. That's okay — I'll be doing that soon enough (I promise). For now, maybe it's enough to keep talking about the fact that even if you don't believe in the God in which you thought you were supposed to believe, that's okay. I don't believe in that God, either.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Waiting Room

Yesterday, something I read gave me an image which is been stuck in my head.

Some writer described cable news as a ersatz hospital waiting room — when something terrible happens, we all go there. We mill about, restlessly and aimlessly, waiting for some news. Wishing that there was something we could do. Of course, there is no news coming anytime soon, and there's nothing we can actually do, right now. All we can do is wait. And so we wait, and we keep looking for news, and we keep telling ourselves we should do something else, and we keep waiting.

I know I'm not alone in feeling that way in the wake of the bombing in Boston, yesterday. I keep checking news sites, looking for any updates. But, the only updates I really might see this morning are the ones I really don't want to see — changes in the death toll, mostly. But, the senseless tragedy keeps drawing my attention back in. It feels voyeuristic and otherwise pointless to keep reading the news, but it seems somehow disrespectful to ignore it — to go on with my life as if the little things which were to occupy my day really matter. And so, I stay in that waiting room, sad, and angry, and restless, and useless. I don't know what else to do.

Recently, in the weekly Torah portion, we read the story of the deaths of Nadav and Abihu, two sons of Aaron who were killed for some ritual violation. Moses, Aaron's brother, explains to Aaron that this is how God asserts His holiness. And, the Torah tells us, Aaron was silent.

A lot of ink has been spilled, over the centuries, trying to explain Aaron's silence. For me, the most compelling explanation is numbing grief. What could he possibly say, what could any of us possibly say, in the face of such a loss? What is the proper reaction to the death of innocents? Anything that we say sounds wrong to our ears. And so maybe the best thing to do is to remain silent. It is, at the very least, more honest than any words we might try to use at times like these.

In Israel, on Yom HaZikaron (Fallen Soldier Remembrance Day), as on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) a week earlier,  a siren is sounded, and for that minute, the country stands still. Whatever people are doing, they stop, stand, and are silent. Cars stop. Businesses stop. Pedestrians stop. Everything stops. And everyone is silent.

In the face of tragedy greater than we can comprehend, and in the face of each and every tragedy, great and small, since, words fail us. And so, we simply stand in silence.

My heart is with the people in Boston. May they find healing, and strength. May they find peace.