The Jewish middle way

I recently was officially ordained by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ) as a rabbi. In preparation for my ordination I wrote three speeches. Of course, I only gave one, but here is an adaptation of the second one that I had planned to give.

What brings you here? Why are you not at a movie or sipping wine over dinner or at home reading a good book? I might ask myself the same question. We freely chose to come here tonight – to celebrate havdallah – to learn at this colloquium – to schmooze with others – a host of reasons – to get ordained . . .our choice. I think we are here because humanistic Judaism has offered us a middle way to be Jewish. What do I mean by middle way?

Some of you may have heard of the Buddhist middle way – at least those of you from California. Who has heard this story? Briefly – The story (and it is, indeed a story) about the founder of Buddhism – Siddhārtha Gautama, goes like this. The young Buddha, born into a royal family, was protected from all unpleasantness as a child and lived in a protected palace compound. One day he convinces a servant to take him outside the palace grounds and he sees a sick man, an old man, and a corpse. After realizing that he, too, would become old and ill and would ultimately die, he wanted to seek a way to handle this knowledge. He became a seeker and left his family to find a way to handle this disturbing knowledge about life. First he associated with ascetics and was so good at being a wandering monk that he almost starved to death. He ate only roots, leaves, and fruit – sometimes he ate nothing at all. He did this for 6 years. He realized that this was not the way . . .he would die if he continued to live as an ascetic. He told himself:

“Neither my life of luxury in the palace nor my life as an ascetic in the forest is the way to freedom. Overdoing things cannot lead to happiness.”

The Buddha sat all night under the Bodhi tree and vowed not to get up until he knew the way. He said:

“I will not leave this spot until I find an end to suffering.” 

He accepted milk and food to sustain him. He found a middle way between his life of luxury and his life as an ascetic and became enlightened. He understood that we cause our own suffering and that there is a way to make choices about how we approach our difficulties that release us from this suffering. This is the middle way in Buddhism, in a nutshell – on one foot, you might say. This is a path that many Jews have taken in the west; there are Zen centers, Vipassana centers, eclectic mindfulness practice programs all over the United States, many places founded and organized and led by Jews.

What if we found a Jewish middle way? A way that doesn’t leave our Jewish family behind. What would that middle way look like? Of course, some of us are practicing meditators, a practice I highly recommend, but what specifically do we mean by a Jewish middle way?

I’d like to talk about three aspects of Jewish life that scream out for finding a middle way:

  1. Tribalism and exclusivity
  2. Halakhah / law
  3. Jewish text study

Tribalism and exclusivity – Living in the bubble of Northern California makes it easy to think that Jewish exclusivity is a quality from our past. But just this year I was at a social event where someone from my Chicago south side high school showed up. I hadn’t seen her for over 45 years. I thought it would be interesting to share something I had heard from our homeroom teacher, who, coincidentally, also had moved to Northern California. The teacher said that many of the other students who were not Jewish would come to her in tears because they were left out socially. The Jewish girls were not interested in being their friends. Okay – this was 45 years ago – but, what struck me was that when I told this Jewish classmate what the homeroom teacher had said, she said, “Well – that’s how it is – like people like to be with each other. What’s the problem?” This was last year! And this woman was not religious – she was a secular Jew, raised in a secular Jewish home, who did not see any issue with Jewish exclusivity.

I’ll give you another example. I have a good friend who is Armenian. Many people think she is Jewish when they first get to know her. My friend told me that when she was working at a co-op nursery school, volunteering so that her son could attend, the mother of another child in the school – a Jewish mother – befriended her. They were becoming good friends until one day my friend said something that made it clear that she was not a Jew. The Jewish woman dropped her as a friend – like a hot potato. She is still hurt by that behavior years later.

How many of you have heard of half-Jewish.com? Raise your hands. The Half-Jewish network was founded by Robin Margolis, a women who was raised Episcopalian but found out that her mother was Jewish and began to explore her Jewish side as an adult. Being half Jewish presented her with a problem. She explains:

“The heart of the problem is that Jewish communal neglect and coldness towards adult children of intermarriage are still socially acceptable behaviors, in ways that unpleasant behavior towards other sub-groups–including interfaith couples–are increasingly not acceptable.”

The Jewish middle way, and I think we’re miles ahead of other denominations in this regard, is to welcome everyone into the fold. We need to reach out to half-Jewish adults and be welcoming. We have already begun with our official statement about what it means to be a Jew: Perhaps you all know this statement by heart, but I’m proud to repeat it:

We define a Jew as someone who identifies with the history, culture and future of the Jewish people.

I hope that the adult children who have formed a network community on half-jewish network will join us!

What is the other extreme aside from exclusivity? The other extreme that requires a move toward the middle way? More than once I’ve heard a story about someone recruiting students for Hillel or some other Jewish organization on campus. If a student is asked, “what is your background?” they may say – “Baptist,” “Catholic,” “Episcopalian.” When they say, “I’m just a person,” chances are they are Jewish. Have you heard this story? What does this mean? At the other extreme from Jewish exclusivity is an aversion to identifying as Jewish or as anything. With no positive identification why bother to identify at all? Perhaps people go to the other extreme away from Jewish exclusivity to no identification as a reaction to tribalism. Speaking for myself, I was one of those young adults who didn’t identify with the Jewish people for many years. I left running from the parochial, Conservadox world that I had rejected and didn’t see an alternative. Times have changed, however, and, as many of you have seen in the recent PEW study 95% of Jews surveyed say they are proud to be Jewish!

The middle way is here – right here in Birmingham Temple, and all of our other communities across the world! We have found the middle way. And the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ) is leading the way to help families integrate multiple traditions in their homes. The subject of 2012 colloquium, sponsored by the IISHJ, encourages us to find new, creative ways to be “Jewish / AND” – goodbye to exclusivity!

As we will see, our three aspects of Jewish life, 1. exclusivity, 2. halakhah, and 3. text study are intertwined in many ways. Our second aspect of Jewish practice, halakhah, is something we don’t often think about in our movement. What is halakhah – the law – to us? Here is where Buddhist practice may be helpful. As we know, Jewish law for an orthodox or haredi Jew covers every aspect of life. Halakha governs what we can eat, who we can marry, how to raise our children, when we should pray, what we should say under various circumstances, how we should celebrate holidays, and so on. 613 laws – laws that make it quite difficult to not be exclusive – laws that keep us from socializing with others. At the other extreme is a way of life that advocates complete autonomy and individualism – that values the self over all else. Does this work for us? “No!” Our desires may be endless. We want what we want. We don’t want what we don’t want. We are often on a course of reactivity and desire that keeps us in a constant state of dissatisfaction. We eat a good meal . . .ahhh . . .then a couple hours later we want to eat something else – or we see a good movie – then what? read a good book – make love – drink some tea – exercise in the morning . . .eat a nice meal . . .on to the next thing . . .never quite there . . .always planning the next pleasure or avoiding something painful. Have you ever felt that edgy dissatisfaction? The Buddha called this dukkha – some translate this as suffering, but it is better translated as dissatisfaction. We want what we want – we don’t want what we don’t want . . . I find neither of these extremes – orthodox halakhah / total freedom – to be acceptable. How does Buddhist practice help us find a middle way? We can learn to be aware of where our mind takes us. Meditation is a great way to become conscious of our mind’s tendency to cause us to suffer. Mindfulness meditation makes us more aware of others around us and helps us to naturally be empathetic, rather than worrying about a law that prescribes lashon harah (gossip). Being aware of how an animal was treated may make us more careful about what we eat, rather than requiring us to be kosher – we may think about the environment or the humane treatment of the animal we may be eating or the environmental impact of the produce we are importing. There are so many ways that mindfulness practice can bring us to a naturalistic moral life – a middle way.

Which brings us to our third, and, for me, most exciting aspect of Jewish practice, Jewish text study! I had the good fortune of being required to obtain a Masters in Jewish Studies as one of my requirements in the rabbinic program at the IISHJ. I also had the good fortune of studying Jewish texts at the institute. The middle way for us is between the idolatrous regard for Torah and Talmud on the one hand and the complete disregard for these texts as not modern and, therefore, irrelevant. There is a middle way regarding the value of these texts / and a middle way is even reflected in some of these texts as well!

Conclusion:

Let us walk together on the path of the Jewish middle way. . . .where no one is ever made to feel less for not being born of the tribe . . .

Let us walk together on the path of the Jewish middle way. . . .when our diverse extended families gather together for Christmas and Hanukah and Easter and Passover.

Let us walk together on the path of the Jewish middle way. . . .meditating together . . .being mindful . . .exploring our minds’ busy distraction from what is right in front of us . . .creating a path that is forged in a natural mindful way.

Let us walk together on the path of the Jewish middle way. . . .reading Jewish texts with fresh eyes, empowered by our knowledge of history, sociology, psychology, . . .knowing our connection with all of humanity in our own particularity . . .understanding our roots not in a tribal, exclusive way, but together exploring the wisdom we may glean from our texts . . .

Now, let us go and study . . .together!

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2 thoughts on “The Jewish middle way

  1. I’m not a Jew (even in the broad sense suggested), but am the chair of the Middle Way Society and just found this post. This seems to me an excellent example of the application of the Middle Way as a universal approach, not restricted by Buddhism or any other tradition, and the way it can arise from reflection in all sorts of contexts by people simply valuing experience and avoiding dogma, whether positive or negative. In the Middle Way Society we’re trying to build a broad movement of people from all sorts of traditions who can be united by this kind of universal use of the Middle Way. See http://www.middlewaysociety.org for more details.

  2. I’m planning a talk and was looking at my blog (something I rarely do) and noticed your comment. I agree with you about the Middle Way being a universal approach to life. I often talk about The Middle Way Society to people who I think would be interested.

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