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.