Recently I spoke at a Shabbat service of a local humanistic Jewish congregation, Kol Hadash, in Albany, California. This post is an adaptation of the talk.
Goldie Cohen, an elderly Jewish lady from New York, goes to her travel agent. “I vont to go to Thailand.”
“Mrs. Cohen, why Thailand? It’s unfamiliar and much hotter than New York.”
“I vont to go to Thailand.”
“But it’s a long journey, and those trains, how will you manage? What will you eat? The food is too spicy for you. You can’t drink the water. You must not eat fresh fruit and vegetables. You’ll get sick. What will you do?”
“I vont to go to Thailand.”
The arrangements are made, and off she goes. She arrives in Thailand and, undeterred by the noise and crowds, makes her way to a Buddhist temple. There she joins the seemingly never-ending queue of people waiting for an audience with the monk. An aide tells her that it will take at least three days of standing in line to see him.
“Dats OK,” Goldie says.
Eventually she reaches the hallowed portals. There she is told firmly that she can only say three words.
She is ushered into the inner sanctum where the wise monk is seated, ready to bestow spiritual blessings upon eager initiates. Just before she reaches the holy of holies she is once again reminded: “Remember, just three words.”
Unlike the other devotees, she does not prostrate at his feet. She stands directly in front of him, crosses her arms over her chest, fixes her gaze on his, and says:
“Sheldon, come home.”
What would Sheldon come home to? For his mother, his home is a Jewish home in a Jewish community – I think this is implied in the story. What Jewish home?
Will Sheldon go to a traditional shul and daven/pray to God, thanking God for his deliverance from Egypt? Will he kiss the Torah as it is paraded up and down down the aisle, linking with this sacred object as the others do in this synagogue? Will Sheldon stand shaking before God and ask for forgiveness on Yom Kippur hoping that he is written in the Book of Life?
Perhaps Sheldon will go to a humanistic Jewish congregation. He will stand with other agnostics and atheists and celebrate his Jewish roots, making statements about his beliefs in the responsibility of human beings for this planet and sing songs of celebration.
This is a story of our times. If you look at any Zen Center in the U.S., you will find many Jewish Sheldons: teachers, head monks, writers, and speakers. I’m not going to provide an analysis about why this is, but I would like to share my own story about my love of Judaism and strong attraction to Buddhism because I’m guessing that I’m not unique.
After 66 years of being a Jew, I have finally found a balance between my love of and identification with my Jewish family and my quest for a life of freedom, joy, and equanimity. This balance is not a permanent one . . .it tips one way / then another . . .constantly seeking its center.
Why do I juxtapose embracing Jewish identity with a life of freedom and equanimity? Can we ultimately combine these quests to achieve an integration of Jewish identification with liberation and joy? To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure, but I’d like to share my own quest with you this evening.
First we need a couple of definitions. The title of my talk is Judaism and Mindfulness: Roots and Wings. Let’s start with roots.
Here is a dictionary definition of “root.” As a noun, root means the basic cause, source, or origin of something. As a verb, it means to establish deeply and firmly. It would seem, at first blush, that to have a Jewish identity is to be rooted, deeply and firmly in the past.
Is it possible to have roots and wings at the same time? My life is an embodiment of this question. Perhaps it is yours. Tonight I’ll share what I love about my Jewish roots and why I need my Buddhist wings.
I’ll begin with my own roots. I grew up Conservadox. I kept kosher, walked to shul on Shabbos. I was frum. I believed that God wanted me to do this. I felt quite righteous about my halakhic (following the law) Jewish practice. I was pretty comfortable with these beliefs growing up. Our duty was to continue the chain of Judaism, the only authentic Judaism. My perspective changed when I became a teenager and began to question what sort of God would allow the holocaust / what sort of shul president owns a sweatshop / what sort of rabbi moves out of the neighborhood when the neighborhood becomes racially integrated. In short, I became disillusioned and moved on. . . .far away from what I considered to be my narrow and parochial roots. I didn’t see a Jewish alternative at that point. There was orthodoxy or nothing (the reform weren’t really Jewish, you know).
I went to college, demonstrated against the war in Viet Nam, became a feminist, became disillusioned with politics, became an artist, married, and had two children.
As for Judaism, that was a memory from the past, only associated with orthodoxy in my mind.
Everything changed in 1987 when I attended my cousin’s wedding in Ann Arbor, Michigan, officiated by Rabbi Sherwin Wine. I enjoyed the ceremony. Afterwards my mother said, “that Rabbi is an atheist.” I became intrigued and read his book Judaism Beyond God. My journey began with that book (perhaps yours did also) – a book that described the sort of Jew I was. Several years later, following my pre-teen daughter’s lead to find a community, I found Kol Hadash (then the Society for Humanistic Judaism – centered in San Francisco and the East Bay), and was soon asked to lead the group after being sent for training to be a leader, Madrikha.
So – I was back to roots. Judaism now had a different meaning than the meaning it had when I was a child. In a word, Judaism was a civilization, a culture, a place for even those of us who were atheists or agnostics and who valued reason and humanism. How joyful to come back to the fold / to be a Jew / proud of my roots. To be able to embrace a Judaism that did not demand that I believe in God or the supernatural, that did not require that I worry about hard boundaries between “us” and “them,” that reflected the values that I had as a modern, American young Jewish woman.
The Jewish world that I joined was inclusive in a way that a number of Jewish communities were not. For example, recently at a Northern California Board of Rabbis learning session I heard Mica Goodman talk about encouraging all Israelis, the orthodox and the secular, to unite and follow the Talmudic dictum: “All Jews are responsible for one another (kol Yisrael arevim zeh la-zeh)” (Sanhedrin 27b). He spoke about a midrash that tells the story of a passenger on a boat who takes out a drill and begins drilling a hole under his seat. The passenger next to him sees what he’s doing and says, “What on earth are you doing?!”
The man with the drill replies, “It’s none of your business. I’m only drilling under my own seat.”
When I heard him tell this story, I thought to myself, why not expand that boat to include all of humanity? This is what the Jews who I identify with have been doing for the entire modern and postmodern period.
We were active in the Civil Rights movement – even at the cost of our lives.
I was so moved when I read the former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich’s story about his childhood. He was small for his age and was bullied in school. He relied on older boys to protect him. One of his protectors was Mickey . . .full name Michael Schwerner. You’ve all heard of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, murdered by the Klu Klux Klan during Freedom Summer of 1964. When Reich read about the death of his protector, he decided to always stand up for the powerless, as Mickey stood up for him.
When a child becomes a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in our communities, we ask them to speak with us about a hero and what about that hero embodies their most important values. These children in our communities do not have to dig to find these heroes.
They might choose Rose Schneiderman, leader of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union who rallied thousands – tens of thousands of seamstresses to end the deplorable conditions in the sweatshops where they worked.
They might choose Yip Harburg, who expressed the despair of the depression with his song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and who expressed hope with his song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Or perhaps they would choose Rabbi Sherwin Wine, the brave, indefatigable founder of our movement, a man of courage who defied the status quo as he removed the word “God” from the services of his congregation – the first Jewish humanist congregation.
Another source of Jewish pride, for me, is the study of Jewish texts. For example, during my rabbinic training I read Talmud and learned that the editors/redactors of the Babylonian Talmud, the Bavli, re-contextualized stories to make points that they wanted to make. Talmud has been studied mainly in the yeshivah, we are under the impression that only the orthodox have the knowledge or skill to study it. But, since the orthodox are mainly interested in halakhah (the law), they are missing an opportunity to look at the complete cultural matrix in which the final Babylonian Talmud (the Bavli) was redacted. In this enormous body of text, we can learn history, culture, literature, how people thought at different times in the history of particular texts, what the final redactors were trying to teach, how the final redactors were not trying to make hard and fast rules about Judaism – let me say that again, how the final redactors were not trying to make hard and fast rules about Judaism! We, humanistic Jews may be more in sync with the redactors and writers of the Bavli, than the orthodox are. Wow!
We can take pride in our Jewish identity and make the choice to continue the chain. Our boundaries are permeable and we live with open minds that welcome influence from others. I’m proud of my Jewish roots. I love to study Jewish texts. I’m happy that there is a humanistic Jewish alternative. I’m inspired by great modern Jewish leaders and artists, but does this pride and love of study and humanistic Jewish practice as it has been developed so far inform my day-to-day life and help me to carry on? Does it do that for you?
The answer for me is a resounding “No!” This brings me to Buddhist mindfulness. Aside from my humanistic Jewish practice, I have been a meditator and avid reader of Buddhist books, the Western agnostic Buddhist books often written by Jews and Christians who’ve left the world of Judaism and Christianity and have found their spiritual home in the East. I’ve been comfortable with one foot in humanistic Judaism and the other in Buddhist practice. Twenty years ago, when doing research for my final project in the leadership program, a guide for helping the sick (Bikkur Cholim), I found most of the material in books about Buddhism or books written by practitioners of Buddhism. I couldn’t find anything within the Jewish tradition that didn’t include theistic language and being a humanistic Jew freed me to be pragmatic and look outside the Jewish tradition for material for my project.
For a number of years I led the Bay Area community, Kol Hadash and throughout that period I was often concerned about the suffering of some of the members of the congregation, especially those who were dying. I would meet with people in their homes. Sometimes I would teach them the meditation techniques that I learned over the years. What I learned as a leader was that our humanistic Jewish values, such as courage, taking responsibility, autonomy, often require optimum health, a health that we don’t always have. I learned this first hand when I was hit by a car 13 years ago. After extensive surgery to repair my broken legs, 3 months confinement in my home in a wheelchair and hospital bed, and a long, painful rehabilitation, I knew what it was like to not be at the height of my powers. What helped me get through this? Was it readings from humanistic Judaism? Was it a thought that I should have courage? Not at all. It was help from my husband, family, and friends, and the Buddhist practice that I had been doing over the years. Specifically, I knew from this practice that it was possible to be aware of a sensation, such as pain, without being caught up in it. I was lucky to already know this way of viewing my experience. I don’t think I could have learned about this in the middle of the trauma. I knew then that the focus that I had chosen as a rabbinic student was the right one; i.e., my mission to bring Buddhist practice into humanistic Judaism, to share what I’ve learned with others in our movement.
What did the Buddha teach? The Buddha, through his own experience, discovered that the origin of suffering[i] is self-centered craving. He also discovered that there was a course of action that could overcome this craving. There is a subtle but real difference between a life of courage that our esteemed founder, Sherwin Wine enjoined us to cultivate and the wisdom of Buddhist thought in the following two stories.
Story 1 – Secular Humanistic
Rabbi Wine, in Staying Sane in a Crazy World, tells a poignant story from his childhood. When he was a young child in elementary school he had a pen that he was deeply attached to. A little girl asked to borrow it, and he thought the right thing to do was to let her borrow it, despite deep misgivings. She dropped and broke it.
Here are his words:
“I simply looked at the bent nib, destroyed from its collision with the sidewalk. In a moment my most precious possession had been destroyed. The perpetrator of the ‘crime’ had moved on with her friends, totally uninterested in my distress. I felt so much despair and anger that I started to cry. One of my teachers passed by. . . . I liked her because she always displayed a certain rough strength and consistency of purpose that made me feel that I was not wasting my time when I listened to her. She saw me fighting back my tears and came over to me, and, much to my surprise, put her arm around my shoulders and asked me what was wrong. Although embarrassed by my inability to control my tears, I explained to her how unfair I thought it was that my beautiful pen should be destroyed, in a moment, by somebody who did not even care. I told her that I was so mad that all I could do was cry. She turned me around, bent down to look at me face to face and said, with that special direct way she had that made you trust her sincerity, ‘Sherwin, the world is unfair. Being mad at it and crying won’t change it. You pen is broken and you didn’t deserve to have it broken. So dry your tears and be strong. If you do, you will find that you are stronger then you think.'”
Being strong is being rational. Being rational is being realistic. Realism is the courage to look the world square in the face and not turn away.
But I think that the Buddhists take this one step further. This brings us to a similar story.
Story 2 – Buddhist
Mark Epstein, a psychiatrist and Buddhist, (and Jewish by the way) talks about a trip he took to Thailand when he was in his 20’s. He was a medical student and a student of Buddhism. He doesn’t remember the question that was asked of the monk, but remembers his answer:
“Before saying a word, he motioned to a glass at his side. ‘Do you see this glass?’ he asked us. ‘I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ But when I understand that this glass is already broken, every minute with it is precious.’”
The wisdom of knowing that the glass is already broken, the pen is broken, our very lives are finite, may lead to our despair or to our joy and appreciation of that glass, of that pen, of our very lives, while we are here even for such a brief time. The difference is in our thoughts about the glass, the pen, our brief time on earth. We have more power over how we frame our questions and our thoughts than we ever knew, but we have to work on creating the skills to be mindful and aware of these realities; just knowing that life isn’t fair will not by itself help us to cope with the difficulties we face.
This is what the Buddha taught. What do we mean by suffering? We all want what we want and when we don’t get it we suffer. We don’t want what we don’t want and when we get what we don’t want we suffer. And we don’t care about what we’re neutral about. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But you will find that this teaching is powerful. If you explore this idea you will find that much of our suffering, even everyday annoyance exists because we want something to be different than it is. Even waiting in line at the supermarket can be a painful experience if we think we shouldn’t have to waste our time waiting in line. In other words, if we are just waiting in line without thoughts that we shouldn’t be waiting, there is no problem. That’s a simple problem, but what if we’re in excruciating pain? What do we do with that? The most difficult part of being in excruciating pain is our thought that this pain will never end or that we shouldn’t have pain, that we want to be free of pain. The pain itself is just a strong sensation. But how do we learn to experience pain, emotional or physical, as just a sensation?
One practice that helps us to learn this skill is mindfulness meditation. By learning to sit and watch our thoughts, we learn to be aware of our thoughts at other times when we’re not sitting on our meditation cushion or chair. We have to train ourselves to become aware of our thoughts so that we are not at the mercy of these thoughts when difficult times present themselves.
Most of us live hectic lives, moving from one activity to the next, often lost in thought, with little awareness of what is right in front of us. Have you ever taken a walk to the store or driven somewhere and had no recollection of the trip?
You have evidence that you went somewhere but maybe you didn’t notice the smell of spring in the air or the sound of the chirping birds in the tree right outside your house.
There is so much wonder everywhere and we often don’t notice because we’re thinking, thinking, thinking, all the time. And we humanist Jews value thinking a lot!
Sometimes, that thinking is too much and gets in the way of living a satisfying, balanced life. The Buddhists have a name for thinking too much.
They call this monkey mind. Our multiple thoughts are like monkeys swinging from one tree to the other. By just stopping and sitting regularly, even for 20 minutes at a time, we can learn to notice how our thoughts tend to take us over; then we learn to slow them down and even to be more aware of how these thoughts enslave us. Of course, we value our intelligence and our reason, but we need to choose when it makes sense to engage in thought and when it makes sense to just be. Which brings me to another value of Buddhist practice, learning to be in the present.
What do I mean by being in the present? How can we be anywhere else but the present? This also sounds simple, but we often are thinking about the past or the future. In fact, if you think right now about anything that is bothering you, you will find that this problem has something to do with something you wish hadn’t happened in the past or a fear about what is going to happen in the future.
As Sam Harris so eloquently wrote in his latest book, Waking Up, A Guide to Spirituality without Religion,
“The way we think about experience can completely determine how we feel about it.”
You simply cannot be in distress in the present. Even Sisyphus, if he just rolls that boulder up the hill, and just watches it go down, again and again, will not be distressed if he rolls it up when he’s rolling it up and watches it go down when it’s rolling down. That’s all. It’s only if he thinks that he shouldn’t have to roll that boulder back up the hill that he suffers.
So I stand before you, bound and proud of my Jewish roots and at the same time grateful for my Buddhist wings. What a great time to be a Jew! The possibilities are constantly opening up. We have found a way to continue the chain, take pride in our roots, keep our integrity, and meet our emotional and spiritual needs. I am filled with gratitude for that opportunity and happy to share this gratitude with you tonight. Thank you.
 Wine, Sherwin T. (2013-10-22). Staying Sane in a Crazy World: A Guide to Rational Living (Kindle Locations 900-909). International Institute for Secular Humanist Judaism. Kindle Edition.
 Ibid., Kindle locations 912-913.