Thursday, September 18, 2014

Religions Are What We Say They Are

Just a quick thought.

I just saw another article with a title like, "Is ISIS Really Islamic?" I didn't bother to click through, because I've seen enough of these, and not only about ISIS. Every time some radical group claims to be religious, it starts the same debate--is this really what that religion is about? What is the core nature of Islam/Christianity/Judaism/whatever?

I'm kind of sick of it. Because, I'm pretty sure it's a meaningless question. Islam is precisely what Muslims say it is. For some, it's a religion of peace. For some, it's a religion of extreme hatred and violence. Christianity is precisely what Christians say it is. For some, it's a religion of love. For some, it's a religion of violent proselytization. Judaism? It's either thoughtfulness, or narrow-mindedness. Peace-loving, or kill-all-the-arabs-ness.

The idea that a religion has a true, core identity, independent of the actual people who live it daily, simply makes no sense to me. Religions are human constructs, and they exist within our human lives. They are precisely what we say they are. They are precisely what we live them as.

If someone sees it differently, I'd love to hear them explain how and why. But, absent that, can we please stop with this simplistic, inane and fundamentally divisive conversation?


It's hard for me not to notice how little I've been blogging for a while now. Part of the reason probably has to do with busyness and priorities. But, like everyone else, I've always been busy, and I used to find more time for blogging, so that can't be all of it. I think the biggest reason that I've had trouble motivating myself to blog more is a change in where my interests and focus lie these days. As I've gotten more involved and engaged in the world of spirituality and spiritual practice, it's been harder to talk about these things in the context of a blog post.

Truth is, it's hard to talk about spiritual matters in any context, and it's harder to write about them. But, the short form is, for me anyway, especially frustrating. Because, when talking about spiritual stuff in a few hundred words it's awfully easy to come across as either completely vapid or kind of crazy and extreme. Either stupid or fanatical (or, if I'm really lucky, both). Without the nuance of voice and interaction, or at least of pages and pages to explain myself, it often feels like everything comes across except for what I'm actually trying to say. And so, rather than put something out there which seems kind of empty and trite, I put it back on the "to do when I have more time" list and move on.

This morning, I came across a post by a blogger by the name of Charlotte Kitely (thanks, SEC, for the FB link).  It's just a beautiful piece. I can't encourage you enough to take a quiet moment and ready it. Kitely knew she was dying, imminently, and so she wrote this piece to be published just after she died, which she did on Tuesday. It's heartbreaking in its honesty and sweetness.
As you read this, I will no longer be here. Rich will be trying to put one foot in front of the other, to get by, a day at a time, knowing I will no longer awake next to him. He will see me in the luxury of a dream, but in the harsh morning sun, the bed will be empty. He will get two cups from the cupboard, but realise there is only one coffee to make. Lucy will need someone to reach for her hairband box, but there won't be anyone to plait her hair. Danny will have lost one of his Lego policeman, but no one will know exactly which one it is or where to look. You will look for the latest update on the blog. There won't be one, this is the final chapter.
But, she isn't writing from a place of self-pity or depression. She's quite clear and honest about what saddens and angers her, mind you, but her real point is the lesson she's leaving behind. And, it's an unbelievably trite, common message: savor your life. Every moment of it.
But, they are not to be denied of you. So, in my absence, please, please, enjoy life. Take it by both hands, grab it, shake it and believe in every second of it. Adore your children. You have literally no idea how blessed you are to shout at them in the morning to hurry up and clean their teeth.
I can't imagine how many posts there must be on Huff Post alone with the same theme. I can't begin to conceive how many similar posts there are on the entire Internet, to say nothing of magazine articles, books, poems, tattoos and movie scenes. It is probably one of the most common themes and lessons in the entire world. I'm pretty sure that, quite literally, every single person reading this, and every single person who might read this, already knows, believes in, and tries to appreciate this message. We hear it so often that we barely pay attention when it crosses our path. It is, in a word, trite.

But, it's no less true for being so.

Most clichés have more than a grain of truth in them — that's how they became clichés in the first place. Most truisms are, not to put too fine a point on it, true. Most things which are trite are, if we stop and pay attention to them, quite profound.

We're coming up on the High Holy Days. And this message of embracing life is one of the core messages of this time. Yom Kippur especially is a reminder of our inevitably onrushing deaths, and the imperative that they bring with them to take our lives seriously, and to start doing so immediately. You may not have tomorrow to repent, and you may not have next year to live your life as you truly want, and as you are truly meant to, so you had better start right now, rather than later.

We know this. We all know this. And yet, we forget it, over and over again. One of my absolute favorite moments in rabbinic writing comes from Moshe Chaim Luzzatto in his Messilat Yesharim. It's one of the classics of Mussar, which is a Jewish program of self evaluation and personal/spiritual improvement. And, at the very beginning, he says that every single thing within this book is already known to everyone reading it. There is absolutely nothing new inside. Instead, the book contains truths which we all know, constantly forget, and therefore are in constant need of reminders of them.

The reality is, that might just be true of all of the great truths in life.

Speaking as someone who has always enjoyed complicated ideas, it's becoming more apparent that the really important ideas are pretty damn simple. Trite, even. Appreciate every thing and every moment you're given. Be as kind as possible. Breathe.

We can talk about these things in complicated ways, either to understand them better, or to make ourselves feel better about our own intellectual depth. We can talk about them in order to remind ourselves of their often forgotten but eternal truth. But, the deeper truth is obvious, and known.

5774 was a wonderful year for me, personally. But it was a difficult year for so many whom I know. And for a couple, it was devastatingly tragic. I hope and pray with every fiber of my being that 5775 brings all of them (but, obviously and especially for Phyllis and Mike, and Sabrina and John, and their families) at least a portion of the peace and happiness they so richly deserve.

And, I hope that the rest of us remember to truly and fully appreciate the lives that we have. I hope that we remember to embrace those around us, and tell them that we love them. I hope that all of us learn to remember what we already know. Our deepest truths are found there.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Facebook and Easy Teshuvah

This was my column in Congregation Beth Am's Digest this month. I thought others might find it interesting or useful, so here it is...

It’s that time of year again—the time when I’ll see something on Facebook, repeatedly, which is done with a good heart and the best of intentions, but bothers me, nonetheless.

I’m talking about Facebook status updates and messages such as, “If I have offended any of you this past year, please forgive me.” They don’t happen only on Facebook, of course, but they do seem pretty common there. As I said, these are offered with great sincerity, I’m sure, but I think they’re terribly misguided.

Our sages tell us that teshuvah, repentance, is a multistep process.  As part of it, we have to confess what we did wrong, and we have to do it in detail. No just saying, “I was greedy.” Instead, we have to say, “I was asked by so-and-so to give to such-and-such cause, and I didn’t because I wanted to go out for dinner that night,” or something like that. And then, if we harmed someone with our misstep, we have to apologize to them, openly and explicitly. We have to repair any damage, if possible, and only then do we have the right to ask for forgiveness from them, or from God.

Teshuvah is more than an apology. Teshuvah is a serious, deep process which is meant, ultimately, to lead to self improvement. That's why our sages teach that a person knows that his or her teshuvah only when he or she doesn't commit the same sin again. The ultimate goal of teshuvah is not to obtain forgiveness from someone else, or to wipe away our sense of guilt. The ultimate goal of teshuvah is to become a better person — the kind of person who would never do such a thing in the first place.

I have a hard time believing that, however good the intentions behind it might be, typing "Please forgive me if I hurt you" into our browsers has any chance of creating that kind of change. In fact, I suspect that, if anything, it might make it less likely to happen, because we will have given ourselves the illusion of having done teshuvah, and so we won't feel the need to do anything else. Why go through the truly difficult, painful work of true teshuvah when we can so easily accomplish it with our keyboards?

The truth is that although Facebook might be quite new, this conversation isn't. The ancient version of easy Facebook teshuvah is actually Yom Kippur services, themselves. There have always been people who think that the words that we say on Yom Kippur are teshuvah. But, the sages of old were clear that just isn't the case. The Day of Atonement does not atone unless we have first made peace with our fellow human beings.

Teshuvah is powerful. Teshuvah is transformative. Teshuvah is beautiful. But, teshuvah is never, ever easy. If it is, then it wasn't teshuvah.

May your Yamim Noraim, your Days of Awe be filled with meaning. And, may they be so because you made the effort to bring meaning to them.

L’Shana Tova u’Metukah – a good and a sweet year to you.