Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Technology of Moral Choices

This has been quite a week of crisis over Syria.  But even with immediate crisis postponed, we are left with many difficult moral questions.  Last week, President Obama proclaimed that  President Assad of Syria crossed a red line.  He deployed chemical weapons against his own people.  According to the Obama administration,  1,429 people died in that war crime, including 426 children --  and this act warranted a response because it clearly violate s the norms of the international community.  In the ensuing arguments and political deals in the past few days, one question gnaws at us:  why, in particular, are chemical weapons worse than all the countless atrocities that Assad has been perpetrating for years now?  It’s a good question, and that’s why it gnaws at us. You see, deep down, we Jews in particular, we know well—very well—why chemical weapons cross the line from pedestrian atrocity to unacceptable horror.  It was our people who were forced into the gas chambers.  It was our people who were the targets of the total genocide of men, women, and children at the hands of a vicious dictator.  We, in fact, know, from centuries of experience, what it is to be the innocents wiped out en masse.  In our very marrow we, the remnant of Israel, live to tell the story of the evil of which humanity is capable.  
        As I beheld the awful pictures of the victims buried in mass graves, including the children, I couldn’t help but think not only of the Holocaust, but also of a story from the Torah that we all know well.  In the book of Exodus, we read the slaying of the first-born of Egypt the night before our escape from Pharaoh.  We are told that about midnight, HaMaschit—the Destroyer—came into the Land of Egypt and wiped out the firstborn, from the firstborn of the Pharaoh to the firstborn of the maidservant at the mill, and even the cattle.  Our ancient rabbis explain that this Mashchit, this Destroyer, was a force of unspeakable terror: it did not distinguish between the innocent and the guilty.  It simply killed.  But we, the Israelites in Goshen, we had our own, very different sort of red line:  we had the lamb’s blood that we spread on our doorposts and lintels.  I would like to ask us all to take that famed story and just sit with it for a moment:  imagine that you are an Israelite, looking from your safe place out on that dark night, when all around you are screams of terror and grief as God indiscriminately kills the firstborn of Egypt.  How do you feel?  If you’re anything like me, you feel horror, guilt, anger, unworthiness, alienation, powerlessness, humbled even as you are grateful to be alive.
      I share this story today because, through its similarities and differences to Syria, it gives us a unique perspective.  At first blush, the Maschit/Destroyer is like a Divine chemical weapon.  But it’s not.  It’s from God.  It’s destroys, but it is there as an instrument for the good!  The Maschit is a response to evil.  It’s a response that works evil even as it opposes evil!  Inherent in the story of the Maschit is that evil is sometimes so profound in this world that there is no way to counter it without bringing about some collateral evil.  It is a profoundly challenging story on a moral level.  Every year when we sit at our seder, we are forced to confront this painful truth:  that if that Mashchit hadn’t destroyed so many lives in Egypt on that dark night, we would not have been saved.  Indeed, we would not even exist now.  And this, of course, is why we take out the ten drops of wine from our cup of joy at our seders every year.
        And now we struggle over more killing in the Middle East because a red line has been crossed, and the security of the region—of Israel—is at stake.  Today, I’m talking about Syria, about the intense moral challenge that Syria poses to all of us.  What I’m talking about is how our every choice to do good has consequences—often good together with bad consequences.  What I will show today is that, while we certainly have the moral high ground with respect to Syria—the greatest danger is for us to forget that we never, ever, have an absolute moral high ground over anyone.
In attacking his own people, even the innocent children, Assad is worse than Pharaoh.  He is once again the ancient Amalek, the sworn enemy of Israel and all that is good in the world, because Assad, like Amalek, respects no rules of human dignity and life, and attacks even the defenseless. This most certainly, from a Jewish perspective, seems to be a clear open and shut case.  But wait a minute.  The same God who tells us never to forget the atrocities of Amalek in all generations, was also the God who commanded us to wipe out the Canaanites, the Jebusites, and other peoples living in the Land of Israel in our conquest of the land.  And in that command, God had us wipe out all these peoples—the men, the women, and the children.  Yes, we were commanded by God to commit mass killings! And just as in the slaying of the firstborn, I want to ask you to just sit with that for a moment:  your ancient ancestors attacked and killed countless people, including children, in order to inherit the Land of Israel.
              Our Torah is such a frustrating document!  It would be so easy for it to be only inspiring, with a God who is nothing but love and goodness.  But it just doesn’t work that way!  Yes, it has plenty of inspiration and love.  But it is full of horror, injustice, and a God who is so often angry, distant, cruel and cold.  For generations, our people have sought to avoid all the challenging, uncomfortable parts of the Torah.  As soon as we encounter God, the killer of innocents, we squirm.  And we typically do anything to avoid these texts and stories.   One of my teachers, Rabbi Irwin Kula, taught me that we typically avoid these texts in two ways:  the first way to avoid uncomfortable parts of the Torah is the Ultra-Orthodox way.  That is, if you don’t like God’s actions or commandments, it’s your fault, and it’s your problem.  The Torah is perfect, so you have to be the confused one.  The second way of avoiding a disturbing text of the Torah is the modern, academic, secular way of avoiding it:  A disturbing text with a vengeful angry God?  No problem!  It’s obviously an ancient text from primitive times, reflecting barbarian values of the ancient world.  The pretty, inspiring texts are more sophisticated.  We’ll keep those, and reject the ones we don’t like.  The problem with the Orthodox avoidance is that you get Jews who say that the Holocaust was the Jews fault because they didn’t do enough Mitzvos, and they didn’t check to make sure their mezzuzahs were Kosher (an ultra-Orthodox man once explained this to my face).  The problem with the secularist avoidance of the text is that by deconstructing it, you reduce it to just a piece of literature that doesn’t necessarily have moral sway over your particular opinion.
        What I say is that both these approaches are equally evasive of the Torah itself.  I teach a class called Making Torah Personal (I will be teaching it again this fall in the Beit Midrash).  In that class, I instruct students not to avoid, but to sit with these texts. They’re disturbing for a reason!  The Torah is a technology that exists to change us, to humble us, to make us more compassionate and thoughtful people.  But you can’t get there if you avoid these texts.
        Last week, I talked about God.  I taught how the Da’at, the deepest knowing of God is to acknowledge What-Is, to acknowledge Reality itself.  This week, as we think about the painful implications of our potential involvement in Syria, we must turn to our Judaism, to our Torah, for guidance.  This week, I teach that the technology of the Torah is to serve as a perfect mirror of What-Is.  It’s a mirror we hold up to Reality in order to find our own moral clarity in that reflection.  In that reflection, we are forced to ask ourselves:  Why does God seem to kill indiscriminately?  Why does God let bad things happen to good people?  Why does pursuing the good sometimes lead to terrible consequences?  Why  does the Torah have all these things?  I’ll tell you the answer:  Look around at the world around you.  That’s exactly What-Is!  That’s the Face of Reality, the Face of God!  The Reality of this life does not only contain Abraham and Moses, Gandhi and MLK; Reality also includes Pharaoh, Amalek, Hitler, and Assad.  You can’t be a true moral actor in this life until you acknowledge that all our actions exist in one singular continuum, and all actions are inseparable from one another.
        In light of this, the greatest Jewish response to the beautiful, terrible, awesome fact of Reality, of What-Is, is simply this:  Now what?  Given that good and evil are so often inextricably intertwined, what do we do next?  The Torah itself rings out with a magnificent answer.  In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses stands before the Israelites and says “I call on heaven and earth to witness against  you this day, that I have set before you Hachayim v’hamavet, life and death, habrachah v’haklalah --the blessing and the curse; uvacharta bachayim, therefore choose life that you may live, you and your seed.”
        When you really look deeply into the Torah, you begin to see that we’re not better than anyone else.  We’re not inherently more moral.  God loves us, commands and instructs us, but even these Divine acts manifest imperfectly in this imperfect world.  And so, despite this incomprehensible world, uvacharta bachayim!  Choose Life!  With all of it, the good and the bad, the message is that we must choose the path that sanctifies life above anything else.  There’s a reason we know that, deep down, Syria really has crossed a profound moral red line.  If anything our thousands of years of redemption, genocide, blessings and curses, life and death has shown us, it’s that life is sacred.  
        Any choice we make as nations or as individuals, must be guided at its core with this simple fact of choosing life—whether it be choosing to attacking Syria verses diplomatic means, or choosing to put  criminals in jail, or becoming a whistleblower, opposing corruption or speaking our mind to our loved ones.  Every choice echoes out into the universe, both for the good and for the bad.  And so we must be ever-mindful that our every choice upholds life and rejects death; our every choice must affirm peace and reject strife; it must affirm compassion and reject abandonment.
        And even when we make our choice, we must know this:  we can never, ever know in this life if it was absolutely the right choice.  We can never know for absolutely certain that we are 100% on the side of life, and our adversary is 100% on the side of death.  We can be pretty darn sure, but there’s a universe of difference in acknowledging and owning the consequences of our uncertainty.  It is very tempting for us to reduce our world to good vs. evil, black vs. white, as all fundamentalists and dictators do.  But this is not the Jewish way.  The Jewish way is to choose life, and choosing life means acting with the greatest of humility, fear, and knowledge that the shades of moral difference that separate any of us human beings are so very slight…
        …And yet, the Torah says Lo Tuchal Lehit’alem:  you MUST act—“You must never remain indifferent.”  Even with all the ambiguous consequences, the greatest sin in Judaism is not to act at all when action can be taken.
        So this Yom Kippur, I pray that we will do everything in our power to affirm life, to understand that we cant ever be sure, but that we must do the best we can.  I believe that the last thing that God wanted was for that Mashchit/Destroyer to kill the firstborn; the last thing God wanted was to command us to wipe out the Canaanites and Jebusites; the last thing that God wants is a world with chemical and nuclear weapons, that contains the ever-present possibility of genocide.  I believe that God grieves each and every desecration of the sanctity of life itself.  Indeed, that’s why we’re here:  to help God, to help finish Creation itself; to be God’s partners in making this world what it yet could be.  In this year, 5774, may we finally come to make true God’s vision for this world, that it indeed be Tov Me’od, that it fulfill it’s potential to be very good.  May we make that possibility real through the works of our hands, and the choices that we make for the sake of life.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Why Jews should NOT Believe in God

There’s an old joke:  a young Jewish man in the shtetl suddenly realizes that he doesn’t believe in God.  He goes to his rebbe, and says “I don’t believe in God, what should I do?”  The rebbe says, “You don’t believe in God?  I can’t help you, but I know who can.”  “Who?” Asked the young man.  “Go to Krakow and seek out the Atheist Rebbe.  He can help you,” replied his rebbe.  So the young man got a horse and buggy and made the schlep from the shtetl all the way to Krakow.  He went to the shul where the Atheist Rebbe davened (all the while thinking it very strange that an Atheist Rebbe would daven in a shul at all).  He got to the shul during prayer time.  And there, at the back of the room, was the rebbe, in long black coat, a black hat, a long white beard, and long curly payes;  in fervent prayer, shuckling.  “Excuse me, rebbe…” said the young man.  “Sha!  I’m davening!” said the Atheist rebbe.  When the rebbe finally finished davening, the young man said “If I could just…”  “Sha!” said the rebbe.  First, we must eat!  As they sat down to the meal, the young man said, “Rebbe, please…”  “Sha!” said the Rebbe, “We must make Hamotzi and eat in silence.  When they finished eating, the young man said, “Now, rebbe?” “Sha!” he replied, “Now we must bensch! (recite grace after meals).  Finally after bensching, the young man said, “You know rebbe, for an Atheist, you sure strike me as a very pious Jew.”  “Nu?” said the rebbe, “I may be an atheist, but does that mean that I should act like a gentile?”
        There are a lot of us in this room who are not that different from that rebbe.  We’re very Jewish.  Very proud of it.  But this belief in God thing, not so much.  Not long ago, I was listening to an NPR show where they interviewed a young Evangelical man, who had a crisis of faith because he woke up one day and realized that he didn’t believe in God.  He had to break off his engagement, he had to leave his church, and wander.  All while hearing this, I kept thinking:  just by not believing, he is cut off from his people, his church, even his beloved?  That’s so NOT Jewish!  So today, I am going to make a very radical assertion: as Jews, we should NOT believe in God!
        To this you might say, But that’s absurd!  Judaism is all about God!  If we don’t believe in God, why should we pray? Why should we care about justice, and all other Jewish values? Why have a God concept at all?!  In order to answer this question, I must first unpack what I mean by ‘believe in God’ in the first place.  In truth, the whole idea of “believing in God” is quite new in Judaism.   Historically, the question of belief never really came up for us.  Remember, Christianity broke with Judaism 2,000 years ago over the idea of Faith vs. Works.  For the Christians, the goal is to believe in Jesus in order to be saved.  For us Jews, we don’t need to be saved from Hell, and we don’t need to believe to prevent us from getting there.
        Of course, Judaism is also not as simple as saying that it’s just about what you do either.  The essence of Judaism is more correctly expressed as living in a committed relationship with God.  To this idea, you might say Wait a minute!  I thought you said that we shouldn’t “believe in” God.  How can we have a committed relationship with something that we don’t necessarily believe in?  To answer this, I would like to ask us now to picture someone whom we deeply love.  Do you need to believe that this beloved exists before you love them?  It’s an absurd question, isn’t it?  We don’t need to ‘believe’ because it’s patently obvious they exist.  We have proof:  they have a shape, they have mass, you can reach out and touch them.  Now I will ask a follow-up question:  Are your rational proofs of your beloved’s existence why you are committed to them?  Obviously not.  What commits us to our beloved is the sum of all the experiences we have shared together; what life we have lived together; what choices we make together; what actions we take.  We don’t need to believe that the other exists because the life we live with our beloved touches us, transforms us…We don’t need to believe abstract things about our beloved.  Instead, we just know:  we know who they are; we know what they mean to us.
        Ah, but we may say:  Our minds can fool us.  We all know stories of people really knowing something to be true, only to discover that they were mistaken.  This, of course is true.  But I speak today about an even deeper kind of Knowing.  Take water, for example.  One or two molecules of water in the palm of our hand isn’t going to feel like water.  How many molecules are necessary before I have the experience of “wet?”  Now, I could assert that I don’t “believe in” wet, because there’s no wet there at all, just molecules.  And yet, none of us in our right minds would deny that there is such a thing as the experience of ‘wet.’  Why do we know that there is ‘wet?’  Well, we just…know.
        Judaism is not a religion about “believing in” anything.  Judaism is a religion that is all about ‘just knowing.’  There are many Hebrew words for Knowing/Knowledge:  chochmah, sekhel, melumad.  The most famous word for Knowing is “Da’at.” Da’at is a famous word because this is the word that means knowing “in the biblical sense.”  But Da’at is not just knowing in a racy sense.  Da’at really means the deepest kind of Knowing; it refers to intimate knowledge that comes from a deeply felt experience in life.  We say that Moses “knew” God better than any other human being, that God Knew Moses panim el panim, face to face—intimately.  It was this same quality of Da’at, knowing, that enabled Abraham to go forth to a land he did not know:  he trusted his deepest Knowing of what was right and true.  When Moses was at the burning bush, that bush is really a metaphor for an experience of Knowing that was so uncanny that a new Name of God revealed itself to Moses, and that name was YHVH.  The essence of that Ineffable Name is the very Hoveh, which means What-is.  When we truly open up to the What-is-ness of life, we don’t need to “believe in” anything. We just know.
        Think to a time that life that just broke your heart wide open, positive or negative:  the moment you fell in love, the birth of a child; the death of a loved-one; think to a moment that changed the course of your life:  a nearly fatal car accident or heart-attack; think of any moment when everything you thought you knew fell away.  In that gap, in that free-fall, the rest of your life began.  When you think about those moments, they gave us something.  They gave us a deeper Knowledge about life; a deeper sense of ourselves, of life’s fragility and preciousness.  It’s in this ever-deepening awareness of ourselves and our place in the universe, in gaining our sense of the What-isness, the YHVH of life—that’s the beginning of what Judaism means by God.  At no point does Judaism ask us to believe in something irrationally; to give up our integrity for an idea.  Rather, Judaism asks us to live, really to live, and let life itself show us panim el panim, face to face, the nature of What-is/of YHVH.  And this Knowing is miraculous, transformational.  Carl Sagan, a noted atheist himself, once said “Science [another word for the pursuit of Knowing] is miraculous, and life on earth is the most improbable of possibilities.”
        Why do I talk of this today?  There are so many Jewish people who tell me, “I just don’t believe in God.”  They try to conjure up an image of God as depicted in our prayers and in the Torah, and in good faith, they just can’t buy it.   What these good and well-meaning people may not realize is that these images and concepts of God in our Torah and prayers are actually more like vessels or tools that exist as a place holder, as a container to hold our experience of life that is unnamable.  So don’t believe in God!  Believe, instead in Life, in Reality, in What-Is.  Don’t think you have to believe in a story or a concept about God.  Rather, believe in your deepest experience of what is true in your personal relationships and in your open-hearted experiences.
        I talk of this subject today because we are all here, in this newly renovated space.  But what we see here is not just a face-lift of a synagogue.  This new space is only an external part of a whole paradigm-shift that is going on in Judaism here at Adas Israel.  Our new paradigm is actually a renewal  actually tshuvah in its best sense:  of the most ancient and central paradigm of Judaism: it’s about living not with God or Judaism as a concept to believe in or not.  But rather, it is to live a Judaism that exists as a portal, a gateway to Da’at, to our deepest and most transformational human experiences.
        I talk about this subject today because through the years, I have heard choruses of Jews who cannot find personal meaning in a synagogue or in services.  I have heard scores of older parents grieve the fact that their children are no longer in synagogue, but turn elsewhere for meaning and connection.  Our new vision here at Adas Israel is a response to these deep concerns.  No longer will we present Judaism only as held-on-high, as a sacred relic of an ancient past that we must make obeisance to only on holidays and at life-cycle events.  Rather, all of Judaism:  our Torah, prayer, Mitzvot, concepts of God—these all exist as a technology that exists FOR us to find meaningful connection to ourselves, to others, and to God (no matter if you use the word God, or call it anything else:  Truth, Science, Nature.  It all works!)
        The bold experiment, the new vision of Jewish life at Adas Israel is a Judaism that is not a series of abstract ideas and quaint ancient practices; it is NOT a source of guilt and anxiety only focused on whether or not we will have Jewish grandchildren.  Rather, it is a vision of Judaism as constant opportunities, as experiences that bring the mind and heart together to make us better human beings.
Adas will be a synagogue where you don’t have to make a choice of leaving your heart or your intellect at the door,  but where you not only bring the fullness of your integrity. We will be the kind of synagogue we have always been--finding releveance and connection between our lives and Judaism.  In new programs like MakomDC in the Biran Beit Midrash we will find innovative ways to come together around learning and Jewish conversation.  In the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington, we will bring back Jewish spiritual practice for those for whom this is meaningful.  In our newly expanding Hazak program, we will be having new ways to engage our senior members with substantive experiences.  Our Vision of Renewal is also all about inclusion for people who have long felt ostrasized from the Jewish community:  people with disabilities, intermarried families, LGBTQ people and families.  We will expand the role of a synagogue beyond ritual life and conventional education to new ways of growing as human beings in community; with our new Engagement initiatives in the synagogue, we will expand beyond the walls of the synagogues into homes, cafes,  and elsewhere. We will find ever-increasing ways of forming bonds, connection, and relationships that can enrich us not just as Jews, but as human beings.
Most importantly, we won’t require you to “believe in” anything;. But like the joke,  we only ask that you find out what happens when we act like Jews together.
The ancient Temple that once stood in Jerusalem was know as THE  House of God.  When it was destroyed, we mourned the literal loss of God in our midst!  Did God ‘live’ there more than anywhere else?  No, of course not.  It was God’s House because we all banded together as Jews and through our committed action, in our creating sacred conditions,  we were the ones who made that place more Godly than anywhere else.  We can still do that through the conditions we create right here today:  In the experience of doing sacred acts for one another:  in affirming our values of kindness and justice; in living in this experience that is Adas:  we can, collectively create the experience of Da’at:  of Sacred Knowledge of the Ultimate (I call it God) together.  Together, may we fulfill the real Jewish notion of God so beautifully expressed in Hoshea (2:21) v’erastich li le’olam: I will commit myself to you forever; V’Erastich li be’tzedek u’mishpat,  I will commit myself with righteousness and  justice, uv’chesed uv’rachamim: with kindness, and compassion; v’Erastich li b’Emunah, I will commit myself to you with faithfulness; v’yada’at et Adonai,   and together may we all KNOW Adonai.  Amen.

Monday, June 3, 2013

In the Huffington Post:

A Rabbi on the Economy & The Great Gatsby

Posted: 06/03/2013 2:45 pm

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby in 1925 as a poignant commentary on the excesses of the pre-Great Depression jazz era. And now, in 2013, Baz Luhrman has brought it, once again, to the silver screen--a gaudy and beautiful rendering in a moment of economic recovery and rebounding housing markets. We watch this movie in an America hoping to return to dreaming big.
I have long appreciated Fitzgerald's novel as a commentary on the limits of the American Dream that we all hold sacred. Dreams and fantasies, the pursuit of wealth and fame and success--these vanities have been lifted to the highest levels of respect and hope and yearning over the past century. For many, they replace core values. They replace real connection and contentment with the pursuit of praise, which is a false kind of love. When we have achieved fame and power and wealth, we are validated, appreciated, fawned-over. Jay Gatsby could readily dismiss his outward success as empty of meaning. But his tragedy was that he could never acknowledge that the object of his desire--Daisy--was now a dream as empty as any garish party he threw. Her approval could never be made into real love.
My favorite character in the novel is not Gatsby, but Nick, the narrator. The love that Nick feels for Gatsby is real love, not ersatz fantasy love. Nick loved his friend Gatsby because he could see through his futile pursuit of dreams. In essence, Nick could see into his friend's neshamah, his soul. And what he found was a greatness that lived not just in Gatsby, but potentially in us all: a drive never to give up on the possibility of finding real love.
It strikes me as a funny moment in our society for this picture to roll out. After all, with its hip-hop score and beautiful young cast, it's geared toward the lucrative teen market, and also to the host of twenty-somethings who are struggling to find work, but who are maybe a bit more hopeful nowadays. The movie is a big money-maker, full of visions of what money can and can't buy. Do the Millenials watching this movie identify with their counterparts of a century ago? Or are they much more wise and world-weary, unlikely to fall for illusions the way that Gatsby did?
Dreams and fantasy may capture our yearning, but they can never, in the end, replace reality. That's a hard lesson to learn. When the housing market crashed in 2008, I was hopeful that a silver lining of this recession was the possibility of a spiritual return to reality--to its curses, but also to its blessings. We may lose our jobs, even our houses, but when it's all said and done, we have each other. Real love is the final reality that nothing can take away. But do we have the courage to let go of the fantasy priorities of material success that our society has long exulted?
There are real signs that our economy is doing better. Are we going to breathe a sigh of relief that our interruption on the way to success is now ending? Will that be all that recession meant to us? Will we be able to see past the cool music, the gorgeous costumes, and attractive stars of the movie, and really take in the core message of Fitzgerald's great novel?
As an American who is also committed to the values and wisdom of Judaism, I relish the feeling of infinite possibility in America. But I also am grateful to be grounded in an ancient tradition that demonstrates time and again that nothing can replace the bonds of community, the connection between generations of families, and the power of an authentic spiritual life. I pray for our economy to recover, for jobs to emerge, and for prosperity to reign once again. But I pray with equal fervor that as our Millenials get jobs and build beautiful lives for themselves, those lives will be based on the solid ground of wisdom and not just dreams of external success. I pray that they be more like Nick, and less like Gatsby--cutting through vanity, artifice and arrogance, and remembering instead that the measure of a life well-lived is not the love that we can buy or achieve, but rather the love that we can give.
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf


Asteroids, Randomness and the Absolute Truth About God

Posted: 02/13/2013 2:23 pm

When asteroid 2012 DA14 makes its perilously close encounter and near miss with Earth, there will be plenty of people who will thank God. We all know that one hit from a big asteroid, and life on earth as we know it could be wiped out. But, as some may reason, God is not letting that happen to us. Not now. For now, God is still merciful.
As a deeply religious Jew, I must admit that I cringe when I hear people express certitude that God chooses to avert asteroids or hurricanes or any random destructive force of nature -- especially if we pray hard enough. The God I pray to is a God of a 13.7-billion-year-old universe. My God is a God whose majesty and greatness only deepens for me as we collectively discover the ever-expanding mystery of the cosmos. My God is a God of a universe that includes randomness and accidents. And yes, my God is a God of a universe where, sometimes, tragically, bad things happen to good people despite our prayers, and asteroids might hit the earth and wipe almost all life out.
It's not that my religious traditions and texts don't affirm the classic omnipotent, infallible God who runs the show. I have come to see, however, that religious texts and rituals exist not so much to shape hardened, dogmatic beliefs about God or the universe.

The judgmental Heavenly Monarch-on-the-Throne imagery isn't there to be taken literally. It's there to capture the awe and mystery of our experience of life itself. When I contemplate a 45-meter-wide boulder hurtling to earth at 17,500 miles-per-hour, I am terrified and humbled. When I hear it will come right in line with the orbits of some GPS satellites -- and then miss us -- yes, I'm relieved. But I'm also further humbled and awe-struck that life as we know it is so precious and tenuous. And it's right in that moment, in that uncanny experience of fear and wonder, that I truly find God. My God arises not in arrogant assertions of Absolute Truth, but in those life-experiences that inspire the greatest of doubt and a multiplicity of more questions.
In Judaism, there is a tradition that when someone survives a near-miss brush with death, they are called up before the congregation to "bensch gomel," to say a blessing acknowledging their survival. They say, in effect, Although I am unworthy, I bless God who has been good to me. And the congregation responds together: May God continue to be good to you, Selah! On the surface, this ritual smacks of the conventional benevolent-despot God, a God who might not choose to be so nice to us next time, especially if we misbehave. But if you look deeper at that ritual, you begin to find that the imagery of a God meting out goodness to the unworthy is actually just a vessel, a technology. It's a technology that fashions a moment in time, a moment of an individual acknowledging their humility and wonder together with their people. It's a moment of no illusions, no answers, no certainties -- only the Truth that we are together in this uncertain, imperfect, miraculous moment of being alive. The moment becomes sacred not so much in the words recited, but in our mutually felt connection to each other. I am comfortable calling such a moment, "an experience of God." And I fully respect those who might choose not to name it at all.
So when Earth's gravitational field sends 2012 DA14 hurtling away from us faster than a speeding bullet, it will be a moment for all life on Earth to collectively "bensch gomel," no matter what our religion, even if we don't believe in God at all. It's a moment for us to acknowledge the power of prayers, rituals, blessings and yes, even age-old notions of God -- however we conceive of God -- in the service of what is really Divine: In this often frightening, chaotic, deeply imperfect and perilous universe, here we are! We're alive, and what's more--we are affirming that life can be Good even as it is so precious and fleeting. And most importantly, 2012 DA14 reminds us that despite the terrible uncertainty of it all, we are so blessed to have each other for the time that we're here.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Slavery lives in our attitudes

Washington Jewish Week - Online Edition | Rockville, MD

1/30/2013 12:05:00 PM
Slavery lives on in our attitudes

by Rabbi Gil SteinlaufDuring the holiday break, I took my kids to the Smithsonian Museum of American History. We went to an exhibit about the emancipation from slavery in this country, its effects a century later and on to this day. We went past a glass case that contained tiny shackles, meant for the wrists of a child. It was crowded, but I couldn't but linger at that horrifying object. It's not unlike the huge pile of shoes in the Holocaust Museum - tangible objects that silently make unspeakable horror so very real and palpable. My God, I thought, how could this be possible? How could any human being sink to such cruelty and heartlessness? But here is proof, literally in front of me.
The story of the Exodus from Egypt attests that there has been slavery, brutality and cruelty for as long as there has been human civilization. It's still a reality today around the world. Thank God, we think, we're past institutionalized slavery in this country. Yes, there is still human trafficking and brutal treatment of workers and children right here in America, and that needs our immediate action. But at least the United States has outlawed slavery. At least that's over. Now, at least, we Americans can go to the Smithsonian and shake our heads at the depths that we once sank to generations ago.
But slavery is not over. Not even here, not even in the affluent, enlightened neighborhoods of good, caring, law-abiding Americans. If there's anything that the biblical Exodus story teaches us, it's that slavery is far deeper than shackles and taskmasters. The brutality of slavery extends far beyond the victimization of slaves. Slavery is a spiritual cancer that infects the hearts and souls of the societies that engage in it.
God has the Israelites wander for "forty years," the symbol of a whole generation, a lifetime, before the descendants of the slaves are ready to enter the Promised Land.
Slavery is a state of mind in both victim and victimizer, a devastation that takes not years, but generations - centuries, in fact - to overcome. The Bible teaches that God revealed the Divine Ineffable Name for the first time to Moses at the burning bush. It was this revelation that compelled Moses to go before Pharaoh and say "Let my people go." The ancient rabbis explain that this name was hitherto unknown in the world because it revealed God's ultimate essence: compassion; a Divine compassion so deep, so great, that it would do whatever it takes to bring a whole people out of slavery.
The Exodus from Egypt has inspired humanity for generations because it is about the birth of compassion in human civilization. It captures the possibility within us all to rise above fear and enslavement. The Exodus terrifies even as it inspires. Yes, God works miracles for the slaves, but the same God strikes down Egypt's innocent first-born. In this, we learn the horrific cost of slavery. Not only the slaves, but even the most innocent of the enslaving society suffer from its effects. Those effects can cripple a society for generations after the slavery has ended.
Slavery officially ended in this country 150 years ago. Unofficially, it rages on. There are currently more African American adults in the American penal system than were slaves in this country in the years prior to the Civil War. Racism, mistrust, and violence between whites and blacks continues to define American society into this century.
We all have witnessed continued attempts at black disenfranchisement in the recent elections in southern states. The astronomical rate of incarceration of black men feeds a continuous cycle of breaking down families, poverty and oppression.
Most of us care deeply about these terrible social issues. But until we can fully see that we still have slavery, just in another form, our work is not done. In its essence, slavery is the result of a society that does not collectively place compassion as its highest shared social value.
The Exodus story is so valuable not only because it rails against the institution of slavery, but because it reveals that the only real solution to slavery is a spiritual one.
Where compassion is absent, slavery is present. It's that simple.
The ongoing oppression of African Americans is the result of countless small choices and attitudes of all Americans not just of overt racists that create constant conditions of spiritual enslavement. Not just in American racism, but even in our personal relationships we enslave every time we belittle, dehumanize, abuse. In every misuse of power, in every arrogant remark or attitude, we are no better than Pharaoh, and our innocent "first born," our children and other innocents, pay the price, generation after generation.
We have, indeed, come a long way in our society in the past 150 years. But slavery is not over yet. We don't see clearly enough the direct link between our every thoughtless action and the ongoing oppression of others. Only when we have the courage to live for compassion in every moment, choice, and action; only when we choose see the infinite value of every human life in every relationship - only in our own choosing compassion here and now can we create the end of slavery in the world.
Gil Steinlauf is the senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. 

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Queerness of Love: A Jewish case for same-sex marriage

The queerness of love: A Jewish case for same-sex marriage

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf
Rabbi Gil Steinlauf
Last year, I officiated at the first same-sex wedding in the 145-year history of my synagogue.  For a Conservative congregation, this was quite a break with tradition.  Nevertheless,  I was proud to stand beneath the wedding canopy with this couple, who affirmed the sacredness of their union “in accordance with the laws of Moses and the people of Israel.”  Before I chose to officiate, I studied the texts, teachings, and arguments in my tradition.  I didn’t make this decision lightly.  Today, I am unfazed by the apparent biblical injunction against homosexuality as an “abomination.”  I am confident in my stand, despite a 3,000-year-old tradition that has no precedent for such a marriage.  In fact, it is from a place of humility and awe before my tradition and God that I have chosen take this stand.
The Hebrew word for wedding is “Kiddushin,” which means ‘Sanctification,’ or ‘Holiness.’  A wedding is the formal declaration of the holiness of love.  All the blessings and rituals and formulae under the wedding canopy affirm one idea:  when two human beings find each other and love each other, it is Godly:   a taste of the World to Come, a world of perfected justice and joy.   It is in our capacity to love that we are holy, and most fully in the image of God.  If there’s anything that 3,000 years of Jewish history has shown us—3,000 years of so much exile and persecution—it’s that the only hope for humankind is to strive toward ever-more loving and just societies.
We Jews are a people who have never quite fit into the same categories of peoplehood or religion that other nations do.  We are a distinct people, even as we bear a message of God’s universality.  We affirm that we are different from other peoples, even as we know that we are no different than any other human being.  Our presence in the world has often been a source of anxiety for other nations, religions, and people.  In this way, we Jews have always been a queer people .  And yes, I use the term ‘queer’ deliberately.  To be queer is to be troubling, unsettling, not meeting expectations of the way others might want things to be.
It is, in fact, the Jews’ queerness in the world that captures our particular Divine message to all humanity:  the existence of God is the queerest thing about the universe.  God, too, cannot be categorized or boxed in.  The inexplicable mystery of God is a source of unspeakable anxiety to so many of us who long to reduce God to our simplistic categories.  Finally, we declare the love of a wedded couple to be holy because love, too, defies all classifications and can never be bounded--it’s a feeling, but not just a feeling; it’s a state of being that “have,” that we “are,” but it is larger than any one individual or relationship.  Love is queer, and in recognizing this, we find its holiness, its Godliness.
It is no accident that the famous Levitical injunction concerning homosexuality appears in a section of the Torah called “Kedoshim,” meaning “Holy.”  When seen in context, the homosexual act described comes amidst a series of many kinds of human couplings—all of which are abusive because they are not loving acts.  When one man rapes another man simply because he does not have access to a woman, such an act is indeed an abomination, a desecration of God’s holiness, a desecration of love.  Such an act is the farthest thing from the love of two human beings—of whatever gender—that we can and must sanctify whenever it arises in our human condition.
I reject the idea that the Bible declares that the only sacred love that can exist is the love between a man and a woman.  Love is queer -- it can never be limited to our categorizations of roles and gender.  Love is commitment, presence, and kindness so awesome and mysterious that nothing in our power can contain it.  We must, in our very imperfect world, celebrate, sanctify, and lift up love wherever we find it; because our loving relationships are the only way that we will bring Godliness to this world.  For these reasons, I proudly stand for the evolution of Judaism,  in awe of the wisdom of my Jewish people and tradition, the of holiness God and the queerness of  love.

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf is senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C.

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