Categories
Death

God and the Tragedy Test

So who, exactly, is the God we believe in? This is not only a question for rabbis, it is a question for every Jew. And it may well be an urgent one, one that our Movement needs to address seriously, and sooner rather than later.

It is a question that took on special meaning for me when I was well along in my rabbinate. After the sudden and tragic death of our 26-year-old daughter Talia in 2012, skilled though I may have been at answering God questions for congregants, (though I’m anything but sure that I was) I found myself unable to answer them to my own satisfaction. It was disconcerting, to say the least.

So I embarked upon a search and concluded that the God who people meet in our congregations—the God of many of our sacred texts, liturgies, and holidays—is a God that many, if not most of them, cannot and do not believe in. Moreover, the same can be said for many of us.

My journey led me to the God I refer to as the “God of Law and Spirit.” It is not complicated.

The God who intervenes in history, the God who answers the prayers and does the will of those who love and serve her, the God who executes righteous judgement, is simply not a God that coheres with most people’s life experience or understanding. Before my daughter’s death, I allowed myself to finesse these issues and, on occasion, to plead ignorance in the face of them. In the wake of it, I no longer could.

Like us, our people look at the world and see that moral and righteous conduct do not protect them, or for that matter anyone else, from the ravages of nature, the laws of physics, or the predations of our fellow human beings. Like us, they are acutely aware that much of the world’s suffering is morally incomprehensible. Like us, they see that the Bible’s promises to reward and protect the good and the upright have been mocked throughout the length and breadth of human history. This may help to explain why many of our rabbinates place greater emphasis on Torah and Israel than they do on God.

But God is the ultimate underpinning of Jewish life. Without a God who is genuinely alive in the hearts and minds of our people, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to sustain an enduring faith.

We know that challenges to biblical notions of God go back at least as far as the Book of Job. The Rabbis, too, dealt with them extensively, and often creatively. As have philosophers and theologians from antiquity until today.

But such sophisticated understandings are typically not what our people encounter in our liturgy, sacred stories, or holidays. Certainly not in any clear or systematic form.

It is good that we are strong on tikkun olam. It is good that our communal life is strong. But Judaism and Jewish life will never be as strong as we need them to be without a true and living God in the hearts, minds, and lives of our people.

We need to offer God-language, God-teaching, and God-understanding that is coherent, comprehensible, and above all, believable.

———

In my search I looked for a God who could, as I came to call it, “pass the tragedy test.” I needed a God who could make at least some sense in the wake of life-upending loss.

Many people, whether they have directly experienced tragedy or not, are on the lookout for such a God as well. Few of us can live so much as a day without witnessing testimony to the world’s violence, chaos, and injustice. Where is the God who makes sense in such a world? Where is the God who cannot be dismissed as a relic of the ancient religious imagination?

My journey led me to the God I refer to as the “God of Law and Spirit.” It is not complicated.

The “Law” is derived, in varying degrees, from the understandings of Maimonides, Spinoza, Einstein, and others. In essence, the Laws of the universe rule us all. They are invariable, immutable, and all-inclusive. They control everything from the farthest cosmos to the subatomic particles within us and around us. We either live in accordance with these laws or we do not live at all. I understand God as being one with them.

In addition to Law, there is Spirit, the qualities we all recognize as essential for religious life, for spiritual life, and even for life itself: love, kindness, compassion; the pursuits of wisdom, justice, holiness, and sacred experience.

I believe the God of Law and Spirit to be worthy of our devotion, service, commitment, and aspiration. Because it is neither wrong nor foolish to believe that:

  1. The laws of physics and nature are all-encompassing, universal, and determinative.
  2. These laws, God’s Laws, if you will, can create tragic outcomes—for no higher purpose or reason.
  3. God does not intervene in our lives to prevent such tragedies—or to inflict them.
  4. God nevertheless lives in Spirit. Through the sacred values of goodness, love, wisdom, compassion, justice, and more.

The God of Law and Spirit offers honest and believable answers to more than a few of our timeless questions. Why did my daughter die? Because when a 100-pound human being is struck by a three-ton motor vehicle moving at speed, the Law determines what the outcome will be. No amount of righteous behavior, and Talia had much of it on her ledger, can change that.

Alas, this God is limited, but at least this God does not ask us to accept myths that often fail, and fail spectacularly, in the face of tragedy. I think of the God of Law and Spirit as a God for grownups.

Again, the God presented in our liturgy, Torah readings, sacred legends, and holidays does not always meet this standard. And when people are offered a God who is at variance where their life observations, they distance themselves from their faith.

They may remain “cultural Jews.” They may consider themselves “secular Jews.” They may call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” In no small measure because we have not given them an intellectually honest way to be both.

I don’t pretend to have anywhere near all of the answers. It is my hope that collectively, we can search, find, articulate, and ultimately instill them into our own lives, and the lives of our people.

It is time for us to ask as a Conference—because this is a place from which rabbis can lead—questions such as, To whom, exactly, are we addressing our prayers? Where is the God we can really believe in? Is there a better response to morally inexplicable tragedy than to plead ignorance and hug?

Beginning with the first Pittsburgh Platform in 1885, and on three formal occasions since, Reform Judaism has addressed these issues. I submit that it is time to put them on our agenda once again.


Rabbi Richard Agler is the Founding Rabbi and Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation B’nai Israel in Boca Raton, Florida. He is the author of The Tragedy Test: Making Sense of Life-Changing Loss (Wipf and Stock, 2018). He’s also the director of the Tali Fund, where he supports the work of the Talia Agler Girls Shelter for trafficked, abused, and exploited girls in Nairobi, Kenya, and promotes awareness and registration for organ donation.

Categories
Technology

Circular Rainbows, Fractals, and Spiritual Technology

“Renew the old and sanctify the new.”  – Rav Abraham Isaac Kook

The thoughtful use of technology can enhance Jewish spiritual practice and engagement. This summer, I was privileged to witness and facilitate a few exceptional examples of this while serving as faculty at the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy.  At this overnight summer camp, currently celebrating its 4th year, campers and staff utilize science and technology as tools to strengthen Jewish identities, develop Jewish community, and enrich Jewish practice.

One Shabbat afternoon during an all-camp picnic, electrified chatter began to spread through the community. Campers and staff excitedly pointed to the sky.  I ran out from under one of the large oak trees shading the main lawn to witness a sun halo, or circular rainbow surrounding the sun.  Many exclaimed they had never seen such a marvel, let alone known that something like this was possible.  After capturing a quick photo (which will be published in PopSci), I ran over to the mic.

Fortunately, I have the CCAR Daily Blessings app on my phone, which contains, among others, the blessing recited upon seeing a rainbow.  After giving a short explanation of the importance of rainbows in Jewish tradition, I was able to lead everyone in the blessing.  This unexpected experience was enhanced and transformed into a Jewish teachable moment by technology, which allows us to access innumerable resources at a moment’s notice.

Even the more traditionally routine moments of Jewish practice at camp are enhanced by the spiritual use of technology.  Each Friday night, we pray together using a Visual T’filah that contains videos of campers sharing their thoughts on the week’s scientifically-focused Jewish value. (This week was kesher, connection.)  Campers who might otherwise be too shy or nervous to get up on stage are able to share their thoughts, and to marvel at their larger-than-life participation in Shabbat services.  Because the camp utilizes a Visual T’filah Template, the director of Jewish life (a self-declared novice at PowerPoint) is able to easily refresh and expand the Visual T’filah each Shabbat, even when I’m not there.  Visual T’filah, like the other spiritual technologies I help develop at the CCAR, offers new opportunities for engagement and meaning in Jewish practice.

Perhaps my most impactful contribution to camp this summer, however, was the short teaching I gave during Boker Big Bang (the morning ceremony during which a blessing from Nissim b’chol yom is studied, and, using chemistry, something is blown up).  Our blessing for the day was “she-asahni b’tzelem Elohim,” who has made me in the image of God.  I explained to the campers that I especially enjoy using scientific metaphors to help myself and others understand God.  This is, in part, because when I was their age, as a scientifically-minded youth, I had trouble believing in a god for which there was no tangible proof.  It was my awareness that someday I might believe in God that kept me involved in Jewish life long enough to recognize that even the early rabbis needed metaphors to try to understand God.  God as a king or ruler, one of our most popular metaphors, may have worked for them back then, but did little to aid my understanding of God in modern times.

 

One of my favorite metaphors for God imagines God as wifi. It surrounds us and with the right tools we can connect to it, each other, and the rest of the world.  Another metaphor I love is God as computer programmer.  In the same way that computer code can be used to create entire universes through 1s and 0s, I imagine God creating the world with 1s, 0s, and -1s (i.e. protons, neutrons, and electrons).  Finding a scientific metaphor to understand the notion of b’tzelem Elohim (humans being created in the image of God), however, was always out of reach.  Last year, a rabbinic colleague, who is also my wife, gave me the metaphor for which I had been searching.  After waiting more than half the year, I was finally able to share this metaphor with the campers at the URJ 6 Points Sci-tech summer camp.

The metaphor, which perfectly expresses how we were made in the image of God, how we are a part of God but separate, and how we are all connected to each other through God, is: Fractals!  In these complex images, elements are repeated on such a scale, that zooming in reveals that each smaller section looks equivalent to its larger counterpart, and each part is unique but still connected to and a part of the whole. This metaphor clearly had an impact because later that day, a camper in a coding workshop decided to write his own program that would draw a fractal. Another camper expressed that during my talk she felt as though I was speaking directly to her.

While these campers and counselors might be more naturally drawn to scientific metaphors and technological tools, they represent an important path of the future of the Jewish people and the trajectory of contemporary society.  And while some of us may find technological tools only applicable in work settings, or to be a distraction from certain aspects of life, intentionally integrating these tools into our spiritual practice can breathe new life into Judaism and usher in a new age where religion and technology are not seen as at odds with one another but, rather, as mutually beneficial.

Rabbi Dan Medwin is the creator of Visual T’filah and the Daily Blessing app as the Manager of Digital Media for the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He also serves as a founding member of the URJ 6 Points Sci-Tech Academy Camp Council.

Categories
Books

The Second Day: A Pilot’s Perspective

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation, we’ve invited several of the book’s contributors to share excerpts from the book. The book is now officially available from CCAR Press. 

The second day of Creation supplies the world with a new device never seen before: an “expanse” that separates two domains, the heavens and the waters, from one another. The original Hebrew rakia, “something that is beaten or stamped out,” is like a sheet of metal an artisan has flattened into a thin layer to divide one area from another. Portrayed here as decidedly solid, later in Genesis (7:11 and 8:2), we learn that rain can descend from the heavens through windows or sluices, offering the fascinating possibility of trans-expanse communication: water could come down, and in certain very rare instances, people could go up.

In the early days of postbiblical literature, the idea of human beings ascending to heaven to access hidden secrets was all the rage. Enoch, Elijah, Moses, and just a few other characters were granted such supernal experiences, succeeding in their desire to gain divine knowledge in a way that even the subsequent mythical Prometheus would have envied. As a rabbi and student of ancient texts, and a pilot, I admit to feeling a deep connection to these ancient ascent stories.  We moderns, who leap routinely heavenward in complex tubes of beaten metal with sophisticated machinery unimaginable to the premodern mind, are often pretty blasé about what it takes to leave the earth’s surface, climb a mile into thin air, and land a thousand miles distant.

Focus, for a moment, on the intense harmony that must be achieved by the unstintingly complex mechanism that is an aircraft; the balance between going above and returning to below. In the complexity of flight lies another expanse we must cross: the expanse of reaching for expertise. Bringing oneself squarely up against a challenging task one learns to perform is a vital part of being fully human. Flying is but one of these sorts of tasks. The truth is we become fully human when we commit our entire selves to something that is hard and worth doing, when we know our limits, and when we take pride in what we achieve.

One lesser known form of aviation is soaring, also known as gliding. In soaring, a powered aircraft tows you up from a grass runway to a few thousand feet over the airport, whereupon the engineless glider and pilot sail free to employ the air around them to remain aloft as long as possible. The harmony that results from diverse parts that function together suggests a oneness to the universe that is both human and beyond humanity, existing both below the expanse and above it at the same time. As a glider pilot, I have personally circled in rising columns of air with families of hawks, climbed over ten thousand feet in just a few minutes in strong thermal lift, and remained aloft for hours traveling miles and miles powered only by the air. To be able to understand clouds and wind, lift and sink, terrain and airflow well enough to do this makes me feel as if I have access to secret knowledge; as if I have, like an ancient, gone on an ascent to the heavens and returned with secrets that surpass regular humanity. Once one has soared, one can never quite look at clouds and the sky in the same way again. Each glance at sky above fills me with a deep and abiding sense of gratitude that God has created a world in which this is possible for mortal human beings.

For the remarkable ability to fly, with all its beautiful complexity, and for entrée to the secret knowledge of an aviator in the heavens above, I am profoundly thankful. The Creation story in Genesis reminds us, at its core, that God’s handiwork is a gift God shared with us, which implies a duty of care and an invitation to investigate. Safe inside beaten metal thousands of feet above our normal dwelling place, we effortlessly cross expanses unimaginable to our ancestors, learning and growing as we go. This gift of ascent within God’s Creation, whether literal or figurative, is one we can never fully repay.

Rabbi Aaron Panken is a contributor to CCAR Press’s newest book, Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation.  Rabbi Panken is also President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute (HUC-JIR), North America’s first Jewish seminary, with campuses in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York.  

Categories
Reform Judaism spirituality

Rabbi, I Don’t Need Religion to Be a Good Person

I cannot recall how many times over the years I’ve heard the words: “Rabbi, I don’t need religion to be a good person.” I am sure we have all heard different versions of this statement, and it probably gave us pause. As a young rabbi, it sounded to me like a copout. After all, we all are expected to strive to be good people. Religion, as I understood it and still do, has as its main goal to make us good people. Certainly, religion can be easily misused or misapplied. But the founders of the great religions taught kindness and compassion and inveighed against evil. We Jews are taught, “Do not separate yourself from the community.” What binds the community together are our shared beliefs, customs, and traditions. Being part of the community teaches us we are all responsible for one another, and provides the opportunity to help others rather than look out only for ourselves.

Looking back, however, it has become clear to me I had been too judgmental in considered this statement a copout. Instead of dismissing it as a convenient way to “separate oneself from the community,” I should have focused on the words “a good person.” No one should be scorned for wishing to be a good person. Imagine, if everyone were a good person, there would be peace in the world. I should have said to the makers of that statement, “I applaud you for striving to be a good person. This is the worthiest cause of all.” I could have then gone on to say, “You need to find the best way for you to be such a person. I, personally, find religion to be helpful for me to achieve this goal, but everyone is different.” In other words, I shouldn’t have taken it as a rebuke or a criticism of me as someone who represents religion, and let the conversation end at that.

Life, one learns over time, is an ongoing search. We all search for something, and our search takes us in many different directions. For some, interacting with a spiritual leader may be a positive experience, and for others it may be the opposite. Most difficult of all is one’s experience of God. As children we are taught to believe in a good God who cares for you and who is interested in your well-being. But our faith is constantly being put to the test. Life, even under the best of circumstances, is the school of hard knocks. As Rabbi Harold Kushner reminds us, bad things do happen to good people, leaving that person with the unanswerable question, why is God doing this to me? Losing faith in not uncommon, and it is often painful. We Jews who have experienced the greatest tragedy of our long existence in our own lifetime, have every reason to lose faith in a good and caring God. But many of us have made a conscious decision not to give up faith. “In spite of everything I continue to believe.” I believe that in the end good will prevail, no matter how difficult it may be.

I will remember next time someone says to me, “Rabbi, I don’t need religion to be a good person,” I will look kindly at that person in the eyes and utter the words I should have uttered long ago. This will definitely make me a better person.

Rabbi Mordecai Schreiber is celebrating fifty years as a Reform Rabbi. 

Categories
spirituality

Sitting With the Unknown: Continual Revelation of the Not-Yet Revealed

I have a quote on my bathroom vanity that reads, “I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I love it!”  In the middle there is a stick person with his hands triumphantly in the air.  Care to guess how many times I have exclaimed back to this piece of paper, “I do not love it!  I do not love it??!”

I framed this quote and its invitation to sit with the unknown precisely because, it is so, so difficult! We want the comfort of believing that we determine our destiny, or if we do X, Y, and Z this way, we will get what we want.  And while many of our actions shape our fate in profound ways, more often than not, we cannot control what happens to us or our loved ones.

There are some whose faith holds that God has a plan for them, and this is the reassurance that they need in times of uncertainty.  And yet, there are also many of us who do not believe the Eternal directly intervenes in human affairs, or that the Divine is even capable of intervening.  In fact, the Torah goes to great lengths to reassure the searching Jew that skepticism is healthy, legitimate, and even cele­brated in Jewish life.[1]  Rabbi Daniel Gordis asks, “Why does Ju­daism validate doubt? Judaism takes doubt seriously because it takes people seriously.  It recognizes that if Jewish life is to touch us, then it has to meet us where we are. That “place,” Jewish tradition understands, is often a place of bewilderment, of hurt, of skepticism.[2]

And yet, this place of bewilderment or skepticism also invites us to unite with the Eternal.  Reaching out to the Transcendent in moments of uncertainty is deeply Jewish. Our relationship with the Divine Mystery is not supposed to be easy blind faith.

Judaism doesn’t ask us to deny our doubts or fears.  Instead, it invites us to feel God’s presence precisely in these challenging moments.  Bringing mindfulness to these moments offers a helpful path through the struggle.  When we feel powerless, the practice of gratitude can open our hearts connecting us to the simple and profound—our ability to see the light glinting off a tree’s verdant leaves or feel the cool sweetness of a breeze across our face, or to taste the sweetness of a summer peach.

Acceptance of the present moment is another mindfulness practice. It requires patience and strength to sit with discomfort because we do not always know when our thoughts or circumstances will change. Practicing acceptance while sitting with discomfort or the unknown invites us to move into the Divine Mystery even as the unknown scares us. We are afraid things will never change even though we know things always change!  To master our fear, we tell stories and make explanations. However, it can be more skillful to let go of knowing.  Freedom comes with surrender to the unknown.

Martin Buber teaches, “the world is not comprehensible but it is embraceable.”  We do not always need to know how things will turn out, instead we can focus on how we respond in the moment. We can only feel the Divine when we are truly present.  God does not appear when we are worrying about the future, God is manifest in moments when we inhabit the here and now.

Sometimes we cannot summon tools to sit with the unknown, move into the mystery, or connect with gratitude. Sometimes, we are lost in a downward spiral.  If we are able to reach out to our friends, teachers, colleagues, and fellow seekers in these moments, they remind us that this is only temporary.  We have had other challenging moments and will again. They remind us that while the darkness may feel stifling or terrifying, it will shift.  They reassure us that they have been there too; moments of unknown darkness are part of the experience of being human.

We may draw solace in the thought that the Divine weeps with us too sometimes.  God is present in our tears and fear.  With this consolation, we are no longer alone. Here we find peace in the unknown.

The Sefat Emet, a nineteenth century Hasidic rabbi, claimed that the destiny of the Jewish people lies precisely in our openness to the continual revelation of the not-yet-revealed.  The constant quest is openness to the Mystery.  Openness to the unknown.  And we can choose for it to be terrifying and miserable.  Or we can use it as an invitation to feel God’s presence—from gratitude, remaining present, and communal support.

There will probably be many more times when I will holler at the stick figure on my bathroom vanity.  In these times, my thoughts will be projecting all sorts of terrible possibilities in the future, or that a particular situation feels intolerable.  Instead, may these moments open us to the continual revelation of the not-yet-revealed– with patience, with acceptance, and with wonder.

Rabbi Jessica Kessler Marshall joyously serves Temple Beth Or in Everett, Washington.

 

[1] http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/from-belief-to-faith/

[2] Ibid.

Categories
Books High Holy Days spirituality

What is God’s Relationship to Suffering and Evil?

As we ask big questions during the High Holy Days, Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, presents a range of Jewish responses to both theological and philosophical questions pertaining to God, humanity, and the Jewish people. In the spirit of the High Holy Days, we would like to share some of the inspirational responses included in the book, for a thoughtful and meaningful New Year.

I imagine that God weeps at the sufferings of the whole disharmonious natural world. If God does weep with us, it is with a heart that we wrote into the story. We invented God’s heart, our greatest contribution to God’s tale.

I cannot know why suffering and evil exist. No work of fiction is free of it. It is the stuff of timeless story. However, our greatest spiritual resistance to suffering is metaphor and interpretation. To interpret is divine. God breathed that ability into us.

LITFXXX_Page_1A traditional Jewish ritual response to nightmares is called “the Amelioration of a Dream” (Babylonian Talmud, B’rachot 55b). The ritual requires three friends to declare that the dream be interpreted for good. The text explains that all dreams have a hint of prophecy; however, all dreams can be interpreted positively. In fact, the prophecy of the dream lies partially in its interpretation. The dreamer says three times, Adonai shamati v’yareiti—God, I heard what You made me hear and I was frightened. Three friends respond with the prescribed words, “Choose life, for God has already approved your deeds. Repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the decree.”

We dream, but we are also dreamt. We are written, and within that story, we write. It is said in Torah and our liturgy: U’vayom hash’vi-i shavat vayinafash, “On the seventh day God ‘rested.’” Translators struggle in translating vayinafash, suggesting, “On the seventh day God rested and was refreshed.” Vayinafash, however, literally means God “ensouled.” On the seventh day God rested and created spirits. Out of God’s dark, void chamber before Creation, God suddenly dreamed a dream/nightmare and based on that dream/nightmare, the world was sketched and animated in full color. We are the dream/ nightmare. We have little control over the outcome except to interpret it for the good.

A congregant had a double mastectomy and did not know how to love herself afterwards. She would stand before a mirror naked, seeing herself as grotesque. We sought a metaphor that would help her to see herself in a new light. We imagined her body as a sacred altar and that her breasts were the sacrifices that redeemed her life. Years later she told me that now when she stands before the mirror, she thinks “sacred altar” and has found a love for herself inside that she thought had disappeared. She reinterpreted her nightmare through metaphor.

Rabbi Zoe Klein serves Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, CA.

Excerpted from Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, edited by Rabbi Paul Citrin and published in 2015 by CCAR Press.

Categories
Death Healing spirituality

If I Should Meet God

A disciple came to his rabbi and lamented: “Rabbi, I have all these terrible thoughts. I am even afraid to say them. I feel absolutely terrible that I can even think these thoughts. Rabbi, I simply cannot believe. Sometimes I even think that God doesn’t exist.”

“Why not, my son?” the rabbi asked.

“Because I see in this world deceit and corruption.”

The rabbi answered: “So why do you care?

The disciple continued: “I see in this world hunger, poverty, and homelessness.”

And the rabbi once again responded: “So why do you care?”

The disciple protested: “if God is absent there is no purpose to the entire world. And if there is no purpose to the entire world, then there is no purpose to life – and that troubles my soul greatly.”

Then the rabbi said to his troubled follower: “Do not be disturbed. If you care so much, you are a believer!”

When the atheist Stephen Fry is questioned as to what he would say if he met God, he leaves the interviewer at a loss for words when he responds: “if I should meet God I’ll say: “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is so much misery that is not our fault? It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil!”

As a rabbi wrote: “it is time to raise the bar in the conversation about religion and faith, with the knowledge that most people, whether religious, agnostic, atheist, or whatever-ish, truly do want to do what is right, to find and express love, to live a life of purpose, and to be in a meaningful relationship with others.”

“It is good to question and challenge those with whom we disagree, but we deserve more than pithy catch phrases, caricatures of those who we have defined as our enemy, and the childish need to win. Human beings can be glorious creatures who, through conscious choice, can bring healing to the world, and we all need to do this together.”

In my many years as a rabbi, and especially since my illness, I have come to believe that more important than any theology or system of belief is caring, compassion and loving kindness. I have evolved spiritually to believe that no matter what we believe or don’t believe the true heart of our humanity is human goodness and decency.

Rabbi Hirshel Jaffe serves as Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Beth Jacob in Newburgh, NY.  Rabbi Jaffe just celebrated his 80th Birthday in Israel after surviving cancer for the fourth time. 

This blog was originally posted on The Running Rabbi. 

Categories
spirituality

Spirituality in the Rabbinate

I was ordained in 2007, and accepted the position as the solo rabbi in a very small, extremely remote congregation in southeast Alabama.  My nearest colleague (Rabbi Elliot Stevens) is a two hour drive away.  Mine is the only synagogue in 100 mile radius, and we are located in the buckle of the Bible Belt where it is assumed if you walk and breathe, you must be a Christian.  My congregation is wonderful, and I have really enjoyed my 8 1/2 years here.

However, I should tell you that while I learned so much at HUC, I was not prepared spiritually at all.  We never talked about our relationships with God, we never prayed, except at services. Every meeting here in the south begins with a prayer, and I swear I was a deer in the headlights the first time I was asked to begin a meeting with a spontaneous prayer.

I think the lack of spiritual training hurts us and it hurts our congregations.  I have never once been asked to translate Talmud; in fact, most of my congregants only have a vague idea what Talmud is.  But when I do sermons or adult education on prayer or God, I am overwhelmed by the response. There is such a hunger among our congregants for a relationship with God, to learn about God and prayer.  And it is the area where I seem to have the least expertise.  Thank goodness for good books!

And I have so felt so empty spiritually myself so much of the time.  I cannot pray during services.  I have no cantor, so it is just me leading services and the music.  How can I do all that and focus on God?  It just doesn’t happen. I tried praying on my own using the prayer book.  That did not work at all.  And I am so busy because I am the only rabbi around.  It is truly a 24/7 job. Finding time to enhance my spirituality falls on the back burner.

I have been fortunate to be involved with a group of Christian clergy women, all seminary ordained. We meet once a month to study, or to let our hair down and complain about how the robes never fit right, or why dresses and slacks don’t have pockets to put your portable mike in, or most importantly to share serious problems we are having. There are many people down here who don’t think women should be leading a congregation, so we are a support group for each other.

I was surprised when I found out that all of the other clergy in my group are REQUIRED to have spiritual direction.  Required!!  The nun from the Catholic Church is REQUIRED to go to a spirituality retreat every year.  I wondered why we Reform Rabbis do not have anything like that.  I thought about it for a very long time, and finally approached one of the women ministers to ask about spiritual direction.  Of course, a Jewish spiritual director is out of the question here in Alabama, but I have a director who is Methodist. I have been seeing her once a month, driving two hours each way.  I’m slowly but surely getting my head straight and reestablishing the relationship I had with God before I started HUC.  I find it ironic that I lost the relationship I had with God which helped propel me into HUC while I was at HUC.  In any event, I look forward to seeing Lesley each month, and think I am becoming a better rabbi because of the explorations I am doing with her.

So I want to ask, why do we not have any training in this most important aspect of our rabbinate?  I took four required classes in Talmud, yet never talked to anyone about God, except theoretically as part of a Bible class or Philosophy.  I know now that the Institute for Jewish Spirituality does very good work in this field.  I am also aware that some inroads for spirituality training have been made on the LA and NY campuses of HUC, but I have not heard anything about Cincinnati.  And Rabbi Rex Perlmeter wrote a blog post around the High Holy Days about spirituality programs he is doing through the CCAR.  We are becoming more aware of the need to talk and teach about spirituality and our relationship with God.  I hope it continues and becomes an integral part of training for future rabbis.

Rabbi Lynne Goldsmith serves Temple Emanu-El of Dothan, Alabama

Categories
Rabbis Reform Judaism

Renewing Our Spiritual Infrastructure

In May 1999, about 15 ½ years ago, the Conference passed its Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, the Pittsburgh Principles, by an overwhelming majority.  Two years ago, the Reform Leadership Council endorsed a “Vision Statement” which, while more concise, reiterates the same ideas.  What place have these documents in our life now?  Where is our Movement headed today?

Following the Principles’ categories of God, Torah and Israel, most of us would agree that we are much more comfortable speaking about God’s role in our lives than we used to be, and when difficult individuals challenge us, we are more and more prone to remember that they too are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  We have joined in the struggle to preserve and protect God’s creation, lifting our voice for a faith-based environmentalism in a society that still too often sees that as a contradiction in terms.  We are not as advanced as we might be in “encountering God’s presence in acts of justice and compassion,” still too prone to give in to wary congregants’ characterization of acts and statements of justice as “political” rather than “spiritual”.  We have, I believe, work to do in that area.

Do we pray as often we know we should?  Do we study as much, as regularly?  The Principles can serve us as a goad in these realms.  The CCAR, particularly under Debbie Prinz’s guidance, has helped us in both these areas—but we need to help each other as well.  “What are you studying these days?” we can ask our friends.  “Could I talk with you about some issues I’ve been having with prayer lately?”  Perhaps the Conference might conduct a periodic call-in session to talk about our spiritual lives.  With the collapse of the regional councils of the URJ years ago, perhaps the Conference might convene such gatherings in its regions, around regional kallot.  The College-Institute would, I am sure, be glad to host such conversations for colleagues in the vicinity of our campuses.

The section on “Torah” in the Principles commits us to the “ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot”. Have we looked at a list of them recently?  Maimonides’ Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, particularly in the Moznayim edition, is an excellent place to start.  Which of them calls to me?  Which ones used to call to me that I no longer fulfill—do I still agree with that decision?  Are there mitzvot that I have been considering for a long time—is now the time to respond to them?  Are there mitzvot not in Maimonides’ list that call to me?”

The Torah section concludes with a catalog of ways to bring Torah into the world.  It’s a good idea to review that catalog periodically.  What are we doing to “narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor”? To “act against discrimination and oppression”?  “To pursue peace”—in our own homes, our communities, in Israel?  “To welcome the stranger”?  “To protect the earth’s biodiversity and natural resources”?  Are we giving as much tzedakah—of our earnings and our time—as we might?

The Israel section invites us to ask similar questions: are we acting on “a vision of the State of Israel that promotes full civil, human and religious rights for all its inhabitants and that strives for a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors”?  The news of the past several months reminds us how much the Reform Movement is needed to help stem the dangerous nationalistic tide that seems to be engulfing the Israeli government. How do we respond to the chaos in the Middle East?  I believe that a state for Palestinians must be created alongside the State of Israel.  You may not agree, but the Principles suggest that, whatever course we affirm, we need to work for its fulfillment.

And if we respond to all these prompts, “I am so stressed, I feel so pursued by difficult congregants or troubled students—I have no cheshech to ask such questions!” Attention to such mitzvot is a way to lessen stress, to remind ourselves, at a time when we feel that others are controlling our lives, of how much of our lives we can control, how much we can contribute to being partners with God, spreading Torah in the world, and realizing our ancient visions of the people and the nation of Israel.

The financial crises which have beset the arms of the Movement over the years have weakened some of our infrastructure.  We—our institutions and our colleagues—cannot let it weaken our spiritual infrastructure, our resolve to continue energetically to serve God and Torah.  We need to be strong in this time, colleagues; we need to strengthen each other.

I hope you will respond to these thoughts on RavBlog, and I will respond to you.

Rabbi Richard N. Levy is the Rabbi of Campus Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, CA. He completed a two-year term as the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and was the architect of the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, the “Pittsburgh Principles,” overwhelmingly passed at the May, 1999 CCAR Convention. Prior to joining the HUC-JIR administration, Rabbi Levy was Executive Director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. He is also the author of A Vision of Holiness: The Future of Reform Judaism.

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General CCAR Healing Rabbis

Rabbinic Soul Maintenance

I recently met with a colleague who informed me that she really doesn’t like to ask God for help, especially during Tishrei, because there’s already so much on God’s plate. It reminded me just a little bit of the old story with the punchline, “look who thinks she’s nothing?” I am reminded as well of a poignant piece by Jacob Staub on the difficulty of asking for help, available at http://firstdaypress.org/asking-for-help/: “And it is, for many of us, so difficult to ask for help. We may feel things slipping away from us, or the color bleeding from life. But all too often we wait until everything has already hit the fan to pick up the phone and say, ‘I need you.’”

Seth Bernstein posted a beautiful contemplation regarding the gift that Ruth Alpers and he offer our members as the Hotline rabbis of our CCAR Rapid Response team. I am honored this year to be able to join them as CCAR Intern for Member Care and Wellness, as part of my training at the NYU School of Social Work, where I am pursuing an MSW. Seth offered up a list of the kinds of issues which might prompt you to pick up the phone and call one of the three of us. Additionally, I invite you to attend to the basic question of soul maintenance – how are you holding up on a day-to-day basis in the face of all you shoulder personally and professionally? We would never hesitate to encourage a congregant who tells us she is feeling listless or he is feeling joyless to consider speaking to a therapist? But how many of us wait until something has gone dreadfully wrong. Are we sufficiently attuned to the weight of compassion, fatigue and, even, vicarious trauma on our psyches?

Dear colleagues, you offer yourselves up so generously to help others bear the burdens of their lives. The CCAR offers you the same. Ruth and Seth are available for moments of crisis. And for those who would like a few sessions of listening, sharing and examining where you are right now in your life and in the center of your being, I am here for you as well. I am also available for a small number of sessions of spiritual direction and will be facilitating some group work over the course of the year as well.

For more information, go to:  http://ccarnet.org/rabbis-communities/personal-resources-chevruta/rapid-response/

Rabbi Rex D Perlmeter is the CCAR NYU Social Work Intern for Member Care and Wellness.