Monday, September 11, 2006

Poison Pill

“But that’s not Jewish!” I get that complaint all the time. This time it came from a rabbi who had just finished a passionate rant about the need for continuity in Jewish life.

“Continuity,” I said by way of unsolicited comment, “is the death of creativity. A culture built on continuity is one that is devoted to its own doom. Life is change. You either change with it or you die. Continuity is suicide.”

“That is not a Jewish value,” he retorted. “Judaism is about preserving the eternal truths and forms given to us by God on Sinai. Even if life does change, God does not.”

Now, I could have argued this point. For me God is change; not that God changes, but that God is change itself. “I will be what I will be” is how God names himself in Exodus suggesting to me at least that God is not the same moment to moment because is the changing moment itself. I could have argued this, but I didn’t. Instead I said:

“Continuity gives precedence to form. God is formless. Focusing on form is like decorating the eggshell without ever eating the egg. The nourishment is in the egg not the shell, and to get at it you have to break the shell.”

“Breaking the shell, as you call it,” the rabbi said, “is the end of Judaism. Aren’t you concerned about Jewish survival?”

“No,” I said, “I’m not. Jewish survival is up to God. What I am concerned about is God-realization, meeting the One in the many, and seeing Whole manifest in every part. If Judaism can do that, then it will survive. If it is simply a self-reflexive exercise it is useless to me and to God.”

“Well I totally disagree, and thinking as you do is the spell the death knell of Judaism, something I neither wish for nor wish to devote even another moment to. Let’s move on.”

And we did.

I was not happy with myself over this exchange. While I believe what I said to be true, I also believe there was no real need to say it. I wasn’t going to change the mind of the speaker and the audience was inclined to side with him so their minds, too, were set. I should have kept my mouth shut.

After the lecture a woman came over to me and asked politely, “So what criteria do you use when deciding what aspects of Judaism to follow and which to let go?”

“I do what works for me,” I said. “And what works for me are those things that help me experience and live out the ethical implications of my unity with God. If I find something in Orthodoxy that works, I use it. If it comes from Reform, I use that. And I don’t limit myself to Judaism. If I learn something from Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Islam, or Christianity that awakens by true Self to God as all then I use that as well.” Labels are meaningless to me. I do what works because it is God and not religion I care about.”

She stared at me for a long, hard moment and then spit out, “The rabbi was right, you are a poison pill for Judaism.” She spun around and walked over to ask a question of our speaker. I looked around and found myself all alone.

As I walked out to my car I grabbed a bottle of cool water to wash down the poison pill I found myself pushing. Not a bad way to go; not a bad way to go at all.


Rachel said...

This story saddens me, though it probably shouldn't surprise me. I spend so much time in Renewal contexts that I forget that much of the religious world is most interested in conservation and restoration, not change.

Me, I'm glad you're out there. Your work introduced me to the notion of nondualistic Judaism, which was a radical and valuable eye-opener for me. (So, you know, thanks.)

Rich said...

a "poison pill" is the treatment for the cancer that interferes with the the integrated function of a living system.

You are a healer, promoting the continued blossoming of Jewish understanding; you and Akivah and Shammai and Luzatto and the Bal Shem Tov and Mordechai Kaplan. A rather amazing collection of poison pill pushers, they appear. At least to those who are afraid to taste the tase of the unknown.

Then again, I often find your "poison pill" the sweat taste of questioning my attachment to my stories.


Peter Schogol said...

Reb Zalman told you to speak as Reb Yerachmiel, speaking a Judaism for non-Jews, and that is what you do and do very well.

So far as I'm concerned, you **are** the continuity of Judaism. Whenever I find myself looking worship artefacts I return to Reb Yerachmiel and you his American descendant for a truly living faith.