Shema Yisrael!

ב׳׳ה


This week’s Torah portion contains the central declaration of the Jewish faith —

Shema Yisrael: Hashem Eloheinu, Hashem echad. 

Hear O Israel: Hashem is our Gd, Hashem is one.  

Over the centuries, commentators have found multiple ways to interpret that declaration.   The command to hear could be to the entire community collectively or to individuals.    One could mean “our Gd is unique among the gods that are worshipped” or “there is only one Gd in all of creation.” 

Yet perhaps the most interesting word in the Shema is Eloheinu, which is translated “our Gd,” but is derived from eloheim — a plural noun meaning gods, such that the Shema could be interpreted to mean “Hashem is all our gods and is one.”  

And at this time in the history of human civilization, that seems to be an important lesson that humanity needs — whatever names we call, whatever language we speak, whatever our religious rituals… whether as individuals we most easily connect to The Sacred through music, art, prayer, study, acts of kindness, the beauty of nature, or relationship with others… we are all reaching for, and hopefully connecting with, the singular Unity that is the One mighty and awesome Gd of creation!

This weekend, through all of our experiences, in every moment, may we allow ourselves to connect to the One who hides behind the many.
Shabbat shalom, jen 

“Prayerless Prayer”

ב׳׳ה

The other day, when I read “Prayerless prayer,” a post by Didi, I was reminded of a saying attributed to Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vorki (1819-1868), who practiced silence and didn’t always answer questions. When he was asked how “true Jews” should behave or could be recognized, Rabbi Menachem Mendel replied: “upright kneeling, silent screaming, motionless dance.”

“Upright kneeling” reminds us that, wherever we are standing and whatever we are doing, we remain in the presence of Gd, and therefore our hearts should be kneeling humbly before our Creator.

“Silent screaming” reminds us that we need not scream aloud for Gd to hear our cries in the face of injustice or agony, because Gd hears our crying, and can bring us comfort, even when we make no sound. All we need do is think the thoughts, and Gd has heard them!

Finally, “motionless dance” is the idea that life is meant to be celebrated, and we should be grateful, happy, and enjoying the goodness that continues to exist, even when life’s details aren’t perfect. So although our bodies may be still, our hearts constantly should be dancing in celebration of our presence in the miracle that is Creation.

Like Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vorki, Didi juxtaposes an act and its opposite to remind us where the spiritual path can lead us — to a place where our every action is a offering to The One, before whom our hearts are kneeled, as we silently celebrate the mystery and grandeur of our Gd.

Please take a look at Didi’s post.

This Shabbat, may Didi and Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vorki inspire us to new depths of service to The One.

Shabbat shalom to all, jen

How protective is your case?

ב׳׳ה

I had a phone case that I really, really loved — it was cute and unique, with characteristics that I hadn’t ever seen in another phone case. But when my phone fell, the case cracked and the phone shattered.

For a while I focused my energy on being annoyed that my phone was so fragile, because I didn’t want to admit that I needed a different case. But finally, I stopped avoiding the truth — all phones are fragile and all phones get dropped, so the most important function of a case is not its beauty or originality, but its ability to minimize the probability of shattering.

People are a lot like phones. We are fragile and Life sometimes drops us onto hard surfaces from what seems like great heights, leaving us feeling we might crack under the pressure and stress.

And what keeps us from shattering?

The community of people we have around us– the ability of others to accept and love us for exactly who we are, imperfections and all, and to catch us with compassionate lovingkindness.

How protective is your case?

The Force… awakens?

ב׳׳ה

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Darth Vader’s chestplate with Hebrew inscription

It’s finally here!! The newest Star Wars movie, Episode VII, opens this weekend, and an article in yesterday’s paper assured readers that this is the best Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi!!!

Yes… I AM as excited as my children!!

What’s not to love about following the adventures of characters who can tap into The Force that flows through the Universe and who choose to use their ability to increase the odds that Good will triumph over Evil??

But . . . I’m not sure what to make of the movie’s name — “The Force Awakens” — because it just doesn’t fit with my understanding of The Force.

In my mind, The Force is what creates and animates our entire universe. It is the Unity that is the Eternal my Gd and the Gd of my father Abraham. The Force is the One that was, is, and forever will be. It flows. It binds. It connects everything together in an infinite web of existence.

As such, The Force doesn’t ever pause. It doesn’t hesitate. And it most surely can’t stop . . . or we (and everything else in the known universe) would, in an instant, cease to exist. So The Force simply cannot take a nap from which it would need to “awaken.”

No, The Force is always there . . . waiting . . .

It is us — we mere mortals, made of dust and ashes, yet slightly holier than the angels –who must awaken to The Presence and its energy. Despite living in a culture that encourages us to be arrogant about what we can accomplish “alone,” we must find the strength to submit to a Power much greater than ourselves.

Only then, through the lens of The Unity, can we see the real battles that must be fought and the work that truly must be done.

May The Force be with you!!

Shabbat shalom, jen

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ps. I took the photo of Darth Vader’s chestplate a few years ago when my family went to see a traveling Star Wars exhibit at a local museum.  Although I’ve never seen proof, I once read on the Internet that the Hebrew inscription one one costume’s chestplate said “there will be no peace until he turns”  . . . which could be read as a reference both to turning from the Dark Side and to the Jewish concept of “making teshuvah” (turning or returning to Gd)…

Finding Ultimate Meaning

ב׳׳ה

All of us are meaning-seekers. We approach every painting, novel, film, symphony, or ballet unconsciously hoping it will move us one step further on the journey toward answering the question ‘Why am I here?’  People living in the postmodern world, however, are faced with an excruciating dilemma. Their hearts long to find ultimate meaning, while at the same time their critical minds do not believe it exists.  We are homesick, but have no home.

Excerpt From: Ian Morgan Cron. “Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale.” Zondervan, 2013. iBooks.
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A couple of weeks ago, Eva –The Aspirational Agnostic who can be found at theaspirationalagnostic.com — recommended “Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale.”  It’s author, Cron, describes the book as a “delicate balance of fiction and nonfiction, pilgrimage and teaching.”  At the heart of the fiction is a mega-church minister who lands in spiritual crisis when life circumstances cause him to doubt his faith in the Gd about whom he preaches but with whom he has no personal connection.  The nonfiction is what readers learn about Saint Francis of Assisi (and his ministry and “brand” of Christianity) as the mega-church minister goes on a pilgrimage to find Francis, Jesus, Gd, and himself.

Once I started the book, I had trouble putting it down because, as a seeker, I could relate to many of the minister’s struggles with faith and religion. I couldn’t wait to see where his Journey took him, what he would experience and learn, and what I might learn in the process!

There are many themes from the book that I may write more about in the future as I ponder what it might mean to live a more “Franciscan Judaism.”  But the theme that keeps popping into my mind most frequently is the idea expressed in the quote above . . . that modern humans “long to find ultimate meaning” but are unable to allow ourselves to believe that “meaning” could exist.

Not too surprisingly, I keep thinking about that theme because struggling with whether and how to believe in Gd and ‘find meaning’ is a big part of my story…my Torah…my Journey…

You see, some twenty years ago, during graduate school, I broke the news to my parents that I am gay, and my parents, well… they did exactly what you would expect socially-conservative Christians in a rural area of a “Red State” to have done in the early 1990s — they freaked out!

First there was denial. Then there was anger… and bargaining… and depression. Somewhere in the midst of their anger and bargaining, we ended up in the office of a Christian counselor who in no uncertain terms told me that my “decision to be gay was a ‘disease’ tearing apart” my family, that Gd did not approve of my decision to engage in sin, and that I would go to Hell unless I changed.

My response was to do exactly what any rational 24 year old (who wasn’t ready to commit suicide) would have done when handed that load of religious guilt and shame — I said “f*ck you” to Gd!!   If Gd couldn’t love me as Gd had created me, then I didn’t much care to believe in the existence of any such Gd.

For more than a decade, I angrily refused to believe Gd could exist — and I gathered as much scientific “proof” as possible along the way — because denying Gd’s existence seemed ‘easier’ than confronting the religious guilt and shame that were eating away at my soul.

During those years of ‘exile’, I converted to Judaism because I wanted to raise my children within a religious belief system and Judaism spoke to my tattered soul without requiring me to affirm a belief in Gd.  At the same time, while I couldn’t bear to read them, I was amassing a large library of books about Kabbalah and Hasidism — branches of Judaism that encourage having an intensely personal relationship with a loving, ever-present Gd.

But then, five years ago, my Granny died, and I “hit bottom,” because she was the last “parent” who had accepted and loved me unconditionally.  Not only was she my last loving parent, her house had been the last place I could go “home.”   Suddenly, the spiritual disconnect that I’d been masking with adamant atheism for all those years turned into a full-blown existential crisis.  I felt completely “untethered” from all of life.

Nine months later, a Rabbi noticed my pain, listened to my story, and suggested reading materials that helped me start to forgive Gd, my parents, and myself.  I cried nearly every day (for longer than I want to admit) as I worked through all the years of anger, grief, shame, and pain.

At some point during my healing process, I expressed that I wanted to pray like I had as a child, to talk to Gd like Gd was the parent that I had always wished I had had (like the prayers of the Hasidim in all those books that I had collected and finally begun reading), but that my mind kept getting in the way, distracting me with rational scientific arguments about how Gd didn’t and couldn’t exist.

The Rabbi looked at me and said, without any hint of sarcasm or condescension — “It’s okay to turn off your scientific brain and pray with your heart.”

And that simple statement . . . that granting of permission to ignore all the scientific arguments against believing in Gd that were bouncing around in my critical brain . . . allowed me to begin disregarding my brain and opening my heart to pray.  Over time, I’ve been able to trade my need to be logically consistent for a deeper relationship with Gd.

Now, after years of exile and homesickness, I’m finally Home . . . believing in a Gd who is more complex and contradictory than even the greatest human mind could ever comprehend, but who nevertheless loves me — exactly as I was created!! — with infinite and eternal unconditional Love.

Somehow, amidst the pain and tears and prayers, I found the ultimate meaning for which my heart longed…

Baruch Hashem!

 

 

“desecration of the covenant”

ב׳׳ה

The Biblical account of the original sin is the story of man of faith who realizes suddenly that faith can be utilized for the acquisition of majesty and glory and who, instead of fostering a covenantal community, prefers to organize a political utilitarian community exploiting the sincerity and unqualified commitment of the crowd for non-covenantal, worldly purposes.

Excerpt From: Joseph B. Soloveitchik. “The Lonely Man of Faith.” THREE LEAVES PRESS DOUBLEDAY.

Rabbi Soloveitchik notes the history of organized religion is filled with examples of such “desecration of the covenant.”

So how, one might ask, do we distinguish between a person of faith who is building a covenantal community and a person of faith who is building a community for worldly purposes?

We can distinguish those people by the way they treat others . . .

To a person building a covenantal community, every individual has infinite value, while to the person striving for worldly majesty, a person’s value depends on that person’s wealth or influence over others.

When building a covenantal community, every person’s voice is worthy of being heard, and decisions are based on open dialogue and respectful discussion of disagreements.   But when building a worldly community, voices are to be heard or respected only if they support “the party line,” which was determined by those who have (and want to keep!) the power and control.

When building a covenantal community, a person of faith understands that Gd is present at all moments** and that knowledge of Gd’s presence always determines the way to behave toward others. But, for someone building a worldly community, Gd and holiness are things to be reached for at “religious events,” while, at all other times, the community is “just a business.”

People who run religious movements and institutions continue to ponder why so many Americans are unaffiliated with organized religion, or why many of those who are affiliated have no interest in investing the time and energy to connect meaningfully to a religious institution . . .

I know that not every religious institution is controlled by people who desecrate the covenant by failing to value, respect, and honor the holiness in every other person who enters the institution, but when examples exist in so many religious organizations . . . across religions, across cultures, and across centuries . . . it’s hard not to lose faith . . . in organizations run by people . . .

shalom aleichem, jen

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**Knowledge of Gd’s constant presence could arise from (1) a person’s faith in such a Gd, or (2) a rational decision to look for the image of Gd in every other person. Either path can, I believe, lead to a frame of mind that requires us to treat others with more respect and dignity.