One God, Many Relationships

Image: Digits create a visual pattern stretching out to infinity. (geralt/pixabay)

Anyone who studies Judaism for more than ten minutes will notice that Jews do not agree on much about God except that whatever God is, is One.

Some Jews think of God in very personal terms. Some Jews believe in God in only the most abstract terms. And some Jews do not believe in God at all. This puzzles outsiders, who think that we should at least agree on theology. How can Jews say we are one faith when we have multiple theologies?

The way I like to explain this is to point to one of our most important prayers. It is called the Tefilah [“the Prayer,”] or the Amidah [“Standing,” because we stand when we say it] or the Shmoneh Esray [“18” even though there are 19 parts to it.] It starts with a blessing the prayer books label Avot [“Fathers.”] Here is the egalitarian version:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, God of our fathers and mothers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah; the God, the Great, the Mighty and the Awesome, God of Gods, who bestows kindness, who creates everything, remembering the love of our fathers and mothers, and bringing redemption to their children’s children for the sake of the Divine Name. Sovereign, Deliverer, Helper and Shield, Blessed are You, Eternal One, Sarah’s Helper, and Abraham’s Shield. – my translation of the Hebrew version in Mishkan Tefilah, p76.

If you look closely, you’ll see that there’s a passage in there that seems awfully redundant:

God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah

Centuries ago, a rabbi asked, “Why do we say the prayer that way? Why not “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”? (He was too early to be interested in an egalitarian version.) 

The answer the other rabbis gave was that each of the patriarchs (and matriarchs) had their own relationships with and perceptions about God. They did not all experience God in the same way. Abraham had regular conversations with God. Sarah only met God once, and she got in trouble for laughing. The same with the other patriarchs and matriarchs; they each encountered God in different ways and degrees.

So it is with us modern-day Jews. Belief, for us, is a bit of a side-trip anyway. The essence of Torah is doing. As Hillel said when he was asked to teach Torah standing on one foot: 

That which is hateful to you do not do to others. This is the whole of the Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and study. – Shabbat 31a 

Advertisements

The Sacred Exchange

I am happy to announce that I am a contributor to The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, now available for pre-orders from CCAR Press! This anthology creates a rich and varied discussion about the ethics of money. Our use of and relationship with money must reflect our religious values—this resource aims to starts a comprehensive conversation about how Judaism can guide us in this multi-faceted relationship. The book will be published by April 2019.

The Publisher, CCAR Press, offers a special 30% pre-order discount for my family and friends. To order, please visit the book page online by clicking here. Add the book to your cart and use promo code Exchange30 at checkout to receive your 30% discount. The promo code is valid through November 23, 2018.

Morning Minyan, 2018

Image: Me, giving the drash at morning minyan. Photo by Linda Burnett.

This morning I rolled out of bed fifteen minutes late. I pulled on some clothes and stumbled out the door, aware that I was leaving five minutes later than I’d planned. I was even grumpier than usual at that hour because I was responsible for the drash (lesson) and I was late.

I joined the commuters on I-580 and drive 11.6 miles into Oakland to attend the morning minyan at Temple Sinai. It’s a group of old friends who gather one day a week to study a little Torah and pray the morning service together. We start at 7:30 am and try to finish by 8 because there’s stuff to do and places to be.

I dropped this routine a couple of years ago because my meds left me too groggy to drive at that hour of the morning. But circumstances changed: the mass murder of Jews in Pittsburgh convinced me that I needed to get back to daily prayer, and not just by myself, so I have cut back the pain meds to attend minyan safely. I don’t like hurting this much, but I need the community and I need the prayer.

A reasonable person might ask, Why do such a thing? What does prayer said at top speed, hummed off key, possibly accomplish? Do I think it’s going to persuade the Deity to fix things?  

I know that God is not a magic vending machine.

I pray to remind myself of the person I want to become. I pray to remind myself of the community I want to build. 

Ma tovu, ohalecha Yakov, mishkanotecha Yisrael…

How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel!

Baruch Atah Adonai, rofe chol basar, umafli la’asot…

Blessed are You, Eternal, who heals all flesh, working miracles…

Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam, she’ansani Yisrael…

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All-that-is, who has made me a Jew…

Ashrei yoshvei v’techa…

Happy the ones who dwell in Your house…

…haMa’avir la’aretz v’ladarim alecha b’rachamim…

 …in mercy, You bring light to the world and those who live upon it…

V’ha’er eineinu, b’Torahtecha, b’dabek libeinu b’mitzvotecha…

Enlighten our eyes with your Torah, focus our hearts on Your mitzvot…

Shma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad.

Listen up! Israel: the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One.

Emet v’yatziv, ahuv v’aviv, v’norah, v’adir, v’tov, v’yafeh…

True and enduring, beloved and precious, awesome, good and beautiful…

on and on…

prayer after prayer…

Some say, how can you possibly get anything out of prayers that you recite so quickly?

To that I can say, as long as I keep repeating them, they will be a part of me. I recite them in the hope that they will become a reflex, a way of life, a habit of thinking and behavior. I say them so that I will be ready to act each time I am called on to be the hands of God in this world.

I believe that there may have been miracles in history but that I dare not wait for miracles. I believe that I am here on this earth for a brief time, and that these prayers help me remember how to use that time well. I say them with a minyan because in that circle we are Jews together, responsible for one another, remembering together, learning together. 

More than ever, it’s a big, mean, nasty world out there. There is injustice in plenty, people so wounded that all they can do is scream. There is work to be done. There are hands to hold. There are letters to write, conversations to have, work to do. I need to have my wits about me.

So I pray.

Meet Betzalel, the Builder

Image: The hands of a carpenter, measuring and marking a piece of wood. (wohnblogat/pixabay)

Jewish tradition has a long history of respect for scholarship. We value education as avidly as any people on earth. We honor not only Torah scholarship, but other disciplines for people who work with their minds rather than their bodies: law, medicine, academia, etc.

The larger society also has its priorities. Judging by how we compensate them, it’s fair to say that secular society most values sports stars, entertainers, and the occupants of  corporate suites.

Between these two realities, sometimes we tend to see those who work with their hands as lesser. We honor them less.  We value their work less. Torah teaches us that this is a serious error.

I recently was studying Parashat Ki Tavo, and reacquainted myself with Betzalel, the builder of the Tabernacle and the Ark.

The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying, “See, I have called by name Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the Tribe of Judah. I have filled him with ruach Adonai, a divine spirit of wisdom, understanding, and knowledge in every craft, to devise works of skill to work in gold, in silver, and in brass, and in cutting stones for setting, and in carving of wood, and work in all manner of crafts. Moreover, I have assigned to him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have also granted skill to all who are skillful, that they may make everything that I have commanded you: the Tent of Meeting, the Ark of the Covenant, and the cover upon it, and all the furnishings of the Tent. – Exodus 31: 1-7

Betzalel and Moses offer two contrasting ways of understanding Torah.

Moses is educated by God on Mount Sinai; he carries his diploma (the tablets) down the mountain. Betzalel does not have Moses’ education; rather, he intuits the design of the Mishkan and its furnishings, even though he was not on Mount Sinai.  The Talmud points out that God told Moses to build in a particular order: the Tent, the Ark, then its furnishings. (Exodus 31:7-11) Moses passes the command to Betzalel, but mixes it up, “Ark, furnishings, Tent.” (Exodus 25-26) Betzalel gently corrects him, saying, “Was it Tent, Ark, then furnishings?” (Exodus 36) And Moses exclaims, “Yes! You must have been in God’s shadow [hence the name Betzalel – b’tzal-El] to know that!” (Berakhot 55a)

Moses is like a man with a formal education and many degrees. Betzalel is a craftsman who works with his hands. Yet had they not worked together, with mutual respect, the Mishkan could not have been properly built!

Similarly, Betzalel was from the tribe of Judah, a powerful tribe descended from the matriarch Leah. God appointed Oholiab, from the tribe of Dan, to work alongside him. Dan was a much smaller tribe, descended from Bilhah, Rachel’s handmaid. In Exodus Rabbah 40.4, Rabbi Chanina says, “[Thus we see that] the great and the small are equal.”

Betzalel reminds us to respect all people: not only scholars, but those who work with their hands, no matter their pedigree.

Prayer for a World Afire

Image: The Copernicus Sentinel-3A satellite captured this image of smoke from wildfires in California on 9 October 2017. (Photo from Wikimedia, click link for rights.)

I found myself praying this afternoon, “Please, God, could we just get a little time to breathe?” Between the shooting last night in Thousand Oaks, CA and the anti-Semitic incidents that have been pouring into the news for the last month, I felt overwhelmed.

That was right before the smoke poured south from the Camp Fire in Butte County. The fire is nowhere near here – 175 miles away! – but the air outside makes my throat close up and my eyes burn. Sunset was a muddy smudge against the horizon. So much for breathing.

Last week it was bombs and gun violence. This week it’s climate change and gun violence. Tonight giant fires burn in Butte and Ventura counties in California within 24 hours of a shooting in Ventura County that killed 12 people, including an officer from the sheriff’s department and a survivor of the mass murder in Las Vegas last year.

This is the new normal, apparently: things that once would have been the big news of the entire month or season are now piled up in a single day, disaster upon disaster. The most sickening part of it is that these are human-made disasters: they aren’t earthquakes or tsunamis. Every week, some guy grabs a gun and kills a bunch of people because he’s mad, or he’s sick, or he believes conspiracy theories, or he just feels like it. For the past two years, the changed climate in California and the rest of the American West has engendered monster fires, fires so big that they are visible from space.

So how should we pray about these messes that we human beings have made?

Jewish tradition does not encourage us to pray for miracles. It does not encourage us to look towards the heavens and say, “God, please fix it.”

Jewish tradition encourages us to work to make the miracles we need. When we stood trembling at the bank of the Red Sea, God scolded Moses for stopping to pray and said, “Get moving!” (Exodus 14:15) In that story, God may have stretched out “a mighty arm” as the Haggadah says, but we were expected to seize the hand offered and ultimately, deliver ourselves. We did not fly out of Egypt; we walked.

For too long, we have whined and scuffed our feet at the edge of these Red Seas we face today. We have wasted precious time arguing instead of acting.

Can’t get the solution to gun violence that we want? Push our elected officials to get whatever compromise might help a little. Enforce existing laws, Tighten what controls can be tightened. Fund more mental health care. Fund research. Explore every possible option. Do not simply blame it on “bad people” or “stupid people” or liberals or conservatives.

Let’s do the same with climate change. Let each of us push our elected officials to take it seriously, and do what we can individually. If our grandparents and great-grandparents could sacrifice to fight the Nazis, why can’t we make sacrifices to make the changes we must make to survive? WE – not “other people.” Let’s tell the billionaire business people and corporations that they get to make sacrifices, too. We are all in this together.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who gave us brains and intended that we use them. Please give us the strength to save ourselves from ourselves.

 

 

 

 

 

Washington’s Letter to American Jewry

Image: Signature of George Washington.

Acceptance of religious differences and specifically of the Jewish People is deep in the DNA of the United States. To anyone who doubts that, here is a letter written by George Washington to the members of the Jewish congregation in Newport, RI, after receiving their congratulations on his inauguration.

The words of the first President of the United States:

To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport Rhode Island.

Gentlemen,

While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.

G. Washington

The emphasis in bold is mine, and of course, the words about bigotry reek of irony, given that Washington was himself a slaveholder. Still, the intent, the aspiration is there, to be fulfilled by future generations.

Let it always be known that anti-Jewish hatred is antithetical to the America envisioned by our Founding Fathers.

Letter to Touro Synagogue
The actual letter to Touro Synagogue in Washington’s own handwriting.