Monday, February 27, 2006

Putting God First

I have been a rabbi for almost 25 years, and not once in all that time did I feel fully at home in the role. I didn't quite know why until a respected colleague of mine said, "The difference between you and me, Rami, is that for you, God is a-priori and Torah is secondary; for me, Torah is a-priori and God is secondary."

Wow! That was it; I put God first. I had not realized it before because I could not imagine anyone putting God second. Yet that is exactly what conventional religion does. Conventional religion uses God, while I pray to be used by God. Conventional religion reduces God to theology-- mistaking the menu for the meal-- and then spoon feeds this holy pablum to a God-starved public. We become full but never filled.

Conventional religion is antithetical to God. Religion seeks control; God is uncontrollable. Religion establishes hierarchies; God creates holarchies. Religion celebrates an elect: the chosen, the saved, the twice-born; God embraces all without distinction. Religion relies on power; God promotes justice. Religion fosters guilt; God cherishes compassion. Religion rewards conformity; God invites creativity. Religion works for continuity; God revels in originality. It may well be that the chief function of religion is keep God at bay and the experience of God rare and suspect.

To me, religion at its best is a powerful preserver of the great teachings of humanity's God-realized saints, sages, and mystics, but the normative role of conventional religion is to scare the shit out of us for failing to live up to rules set forth by religious authorities. I cannot help but see the average religious enterprise as an elaborate con: the Great Wizard of Oz desperately trying to keep Toto from pulling down the Curtain of Religious Authority and revealing the frightened little man cowering behind it.

To bolster his position that Torah not God should be central to Judaism, my colleague quoted a rabbinic proverb to the effect that it is better to forget God and keep the Law than vice versa. I prefer the Torah's own insight: "You shall have no other gods before Me," (Exodus 20;3). Putting Torah before God is idolatry. Why would the ancient rabbis put Torah before God? Because the Torah they promoted promoted them: "Moses received Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly" (Pirke Avot 1:1), the Pharisees to which all rabbis are heir.

According to the Pharisees, what was transmited to Moses at Sinai was not the Written Torah only but a secret Oral Torah that only the rabbis know. This revisionist history of revelation totally ignores the 1000-year reign of the Levites, the chief rivals to rabbinic power, and has no authority outside the people who invented it. The Written Torah says nothing of a second or Oral Law, and vests all power in the hands of the Levites and their leaders, the descendents of Aaron. Since the Pharisees couldn't make the Torah say what it does not say, they simply wrote a new Torah, the Mishnah, and claimed it was equal to the Five Books of Moses.

Why did the people accept this obvious fabrication? Because the Levites' agrarian Torah was becoming less and less relevant to the needs of an increasingly urban civilization. Mishnah became Torah because it met the needs of the people. Rabbis replaced Priests as the prefered authority because only rabbis had access to the new urban Torah. The scholar-elite created the Mishnah and the Mishnah protected the scholar-elite. And so it went for 2000 years.

Just as the shift from farm to city spelled the end of the Levites (the Romans only hastened the inevitable), so the shift from tribalism to globalism may spell the end of rabbis. The Torah of the rabbis has only one goal: the perpetuation of rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism has only one goal: the perpetuation of the Jewish community as a separate people. The god of the Levites was obsessed with purity and sacrifice. The god of the rabbis is obsessed with identity and conformity. The God of the universe cares about none of this. And that is why good rabbis must put Torah first and God second.

The new globalist reality brings with it a new spiritual sensitivity, what Wayne Teasdale calls interspirituality. Those of us touched by this insight realize that we are heir to the entirety of human religious insight and teaching and need not allow the accident of birth to restrict us to just one. The hyphenated identities of Ju-Bu, Hin-Jew, Su-Ju will soon rival the standard denominational labels that currently dominate Jewish life. Rabbis who cannot positively address the new interspirituality will become more and more irrelevant to the lives of those they seek to lead. Those who put Torah first and God second will not disappear, they simply won't matter to the majority of spiritually seeking Jews.

I am a Jew. I love Torah and find much wisdom in her and her commentators. And though I learn from teachers from all the world's religions, when I seek a language to articulate my understanding of reality I choose Jewish language. But my first loyalty is not to the language of my faith, but to the Reality toward which my faith points: to God, the Source and Substance of all Being and Becoming.

I am not anti-religion, and certainly not anti-Judaism. I am anti-idolatry. I place God before everything else. What happens when I do? I am reduced to silence and a grace-filled not-knowing that precludes certainty, security, and religious hubris. When I put God first, I have to put myself, my tribe, my ideas, and my desires second. My role model here is Abraham.

Abraham put God first. In doing so he left behind everything he knew: his family, his tribe, his culture, his gods (Genesis 12:1). But he replaced this abandoned past with a hoped-for future (Genesis 12:2). He would, through his son, become a father of a nation and a blessing to the world (Genesis 21:13). His future became his idol. So God reminded him: If you put Me first, there is no refuge in past or future. God commands Abraham to kill his son (Genesis 22:2), which means to free himself from the idol of the future.

Free from past and future, Abraham becomes the quintessential spiritual warrior engaging the world with courage, justice, compassion, and hospitality. Tradition tells us [and in so doing reveals its true purpose: preserving the stories and teachings of the awakened ones] that unlike the custom of his time which was to keep three of the four sides of one's tent closed, Abraham opened all four sides of his tent to welcome people from wherever they came. This is what it is to put God first. To be free of the past, free of the future, and radically open to the present moment and all it brings.

If Judaism is to fulfill it truest mission to awaken Jews to the presence of God, it must put God first. If our rabbis are to lead us to this awakening they must model themselves after Abraham: freeing themselves of past and future and embracing the present with God-filled wonder. If, however, they are trained to be curators of the past rather than conduits to the present, then they, like the Levites before them, will fade into irrelevance.

My hope is that we make a home in the rabbinate for God-first Jews so that in time they can stand among us and point through Torah, and not simply to Torah, revealing the One who is a-priori to it all.

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