Friday, November 29, 2013

Freedom From Form/Freedom Within Form

After facilitating a discussion on reforming Judaism with an audience of Reform Jews I felt I had a better handle on the real challenge facing contemporary Reform Judaism.

My focus was on taking the old forms of Judaism—kashrut, Shabbat, God, prayer, Torah—and reforming them: ethical consumption, play, self-realization, contemplative practice, and critical/imaginal thinking. What I found was people in no need of such reforming because they had lost interest in form altogether.

They didn’t need to remake kosher because they had no intention of ever restricting their consuming in any way other than person preference. There was no need to rethink Shabbat because they had stopped thinking about Shabbat long ago. God wasn’t taken at all seriously, and prayer was a matter of social convention and communal gathering in which the liturgy itself was irrelevant. While some in the class enjoyed Torah study they had no need to find new meanings in the text because they didn’t engage Torah as a source of meaning, but as a lesson in history. 

Simply put, my passion for reforming Judaism wasn’t shared by the people with whom I hoped to reform it. While I yearn for a Judaism where old forms yield to new meanings, my students wanted a Judaism without form, or at least without any form that demanded anything from them. Their rejection of form wasn’t driven by a passion for freedom, but by a desire to be left alone. The goal isn’t to be free from constraints—they have no constraints—but to avoid any hint of constraint. But again this isn’t a drive toward freedom or anarchy, both of which I can respect; it is simply apathy. And against that we may be powerless.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Hodu L'Adonai

This year Hanukkah overlaps with Thanksgiving for the first time since 1888. Such a coincidence will not happen again for over 70,000 years. I’m not usually an early adaptor, but the chances of my being here for this future union of Pilgrims and Maccabees is slight, so I have decided to celebrate this conjunction of holy days with a special prayer: Hodu L’Adonai.

Those who know their Hebrew Bible will recognize Hodu L’Adonai as the opening verse of Psalm 136: Hodu L'Adonai ki tov, ki l'olam chasdo/Give thanks to God, Who is good, for God’s mercy is boundless. But this prayer of thanksgiving holds a special surprise.

Hodu is rightly translated here as “Give thanks,” but more surprising it is also the Hebrew word for “turkey.” Yes, there is a slight difference in spelling between these two hodus but let us not limit our great and glorious God to the grammatical quirks of Hebrew. For thousands of years God hid the link between thanksgiving and turkey in plain sight, waiting for us to find it.

As we gather on Hanukkah and light our candles in celebration of the Maccabees’ victory over the Greco–Syrians let us sing hodu l’Adonai: give thanks to God, and then let us give turkey to God as well.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Can Jewish Humor Save the Jews?

The new Pew survey on American Jewry reveals a fascinating statistic: 42% of those who identity as Jews in the United States hold humor as an essential Jewish value. Like most commentators on the survey this statistic bothered me. I took it as a sign of the decadence of Jewish life in this country. It was the epitaph on our gravestone: We Died Laughing. But this morning my train of thought made a U-turn. Jewish humor may not be the death knell of our people but a shofar blast of our new awakening.

What does the humor of Gertrude Berg, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Gilda Radner, Jon Stewart, Lewis Black, Joan Rivers, Mel Brooks, Roseanne Barr, Andy Kaufman, Groucho Marx, Sarah Silverman, Susan Essman, and many others have in common? Irony and the ability to pull back the curtain on the lives we live to reveal the madness at its heart.

Jewish humor has for centuries been the way the powerless speak truth; the way we who live in the absurd reality that is this world survive. Irony and humor is our way of shining light on the absurd. No it doesn’t make it less absurd—nothing can do that—but it does give a modicum of sanity by reminding ourselves that it is absurd. Can you be totally insane if you know you’re insane?

The Pew survey isn’t saying that Jews think Jews are funny, it is saying that Jews honor the Jewish value of using humor to speak truth to power. Indeed with far more Jews valuing humor over halacha (Jewish law), American Jews are simply lifting the holy fool over the wholly observant. But the two need not be in opposition.
Listen to Lawrence Gross from his 2009 review of the Penguin Classics edition The Talmud: A Selection:

“The reader ought to be told, even in summary form, how the centuries that Jews spent steeped in the Talmud laid the basis for the contributions that their secularized descendants would make to world culture. The penchant for studying godly law and lore, for example, engendered the interests and habits that sparked later Jewish intellectual achievement; the open-ended Talmudic debates set the stage for some Jews to think “outside the box” and chart new paths in science and mathematics; the stress on rationality and quantification sharpened Jewish business acumen, and the wordplay, irony and whimsicality encountered in the Talmud bred a distinctive Jewish humor — no Talmud, no Woody Allen and no Seinfeld.”

If Talmud led to Jewish humor, could not Jewish humor lead to Talmud? Can we post-modern liberal and largely secular American Jews recognize that what makes Jon Stewart Jon Stewart is Judaism and its love of irony, skepticism, argument, and doubt? And could we not in this way begin to reclaim the source of that stance—classical Jewish texts themselves? Could we once again hear the call of which irony is only an echo to not only laugh at the insanity of power but confront it with truth? Is it possible that we can once again learn that to confront the powers that be we must not only speak truth but embody truth? And can we, with all due respect to my teacher Mordecai Kaplan (z”l), use that realization to reconstruct ancient behaviors into modern counter-cultural lifestyles?

I don’t have the answer to these and similar questions the Pew survey raises, but to simply wring our hands over our people’s clinging to humor is to miss the deeper hope that cling contains.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Three Passions, Two Doubts

I have three passions: Judaism, spirituality, and Murphy, my Goldendoodle. Of the three the only one I embrace without ambivalence is Murphy.

My ambivalence regarding Judaism has little to do with Judaism itself and more to do with Jews. I love studying Judaism but often when I speak to Jews about the potential of Judaism to transform their lives with new meaning and purpose, I am met with blank stares and apathy. I want to believe that the reason so many Jews are only nominally engaged in Jewish life is because the Jewish life they are offered is only nominally engaging. But in those dark moments when belief gives way to truth I suspect the reason that most Jews are apathetic regarding Judaism is that they are simply apathetic toward Judaism. They really don’t care. And because they really don’t care there is nothing any of us who do care can do about it.

My ambivalence about spirituality is different. Here the issue isn’t with the people, but the enterprise itself. Spirituality is the practice of connecting to Reality (God, Tao, or whatever you choose to call it), but the fact is (and for me it is an experientially confirmable fact) there is no need to connect to Reality since you cannot be disconnected from Reality. All the systems we create and organizations we build are, as my Zen teachers used to say, selling water by the river. The more I travel and teach ways of awakening to Reality the more I spread the illusion that you need to awake, that you are asleep.

Perhaps it is the recent death of Toni Packer and my rereading of her books and those of J. Krishnamurti that has me thinking this way. In any case, do we really need all the initiations, workshops, mantra, speakers, gurus, etc.? Is this really the alternative to organized religion that so many participants claim it is? Or is it just more of the same?

My ambivalence doesn’t keep me from doing the work I do. I continue to invite Jews into a new Judaism of my own imagining, and I continue to invite the spiritually independent to learn from the wisdom of the world’s great spiritual texts and teachers. But I continue to doubt the efficacy of both efforts.

Thank God for my dog and the simple truth of wagging tails and chasing Frisbees. While I never answered the koan “Does a dog have Buddhanature,” I have definitively answered the koan “Is it the Buddha’s nature to have a dog?


Monday, November 18, 2013


Last Saturday morning as we settled in for the second day of my Path & Pen: Writing as Spiritual Practice workshop, Rev. Margaret, our “den mother” explained that those of us searching for the password needed to get on line should understand that there is no password. Access to the Internet is free. A light bulb went off in my head as she said this.

Did you hear that? There is no password! Access is free! The truth has been revealed to you. All these years you have been searching for the password, surrendering to priests, pastors, rabbis, imams, swamis, and others who promised to reveal it to you once you are ready to receive it, once you have bought, literally and figuratively, the reality they are selling which is always about the need for the password they claim to have. And now at last you know the truth: there is no password! Access is free!

Now what will you do? Religion is all about selling you passwords you don’t need. Knowing the truth, how can you go back? I’m not saying you shouldn’t go back. I’m only asking that if you choose to go back, knowing that there is no password, how will you return?

If you go back, go back free. Go back knowing that there is nothing to know. Go back to play with myth and ritual rather than to surrender to pomp and piety. Go back free, and free others when you get there.

Now you know the truth as well. What will you do with it?