Entering the stream . . . it is not in heaven . . .

Buddhism and Judaism are living traditions. I was reminded of this last month, when I had the the privilege of interviewing Stephen Batchelor about his new book, After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age for The Middle Way Society. bookBatchelor tries to rescue the original teachings of Gotama, Buddha. Because Batchelor has been immersed in the world of Buddhism since he was a young man, and because he has been inspired by Buddhist practice as he understands it, he feels rooted in that tradition. To quote the Buddha helps embed and locate him within the unfolding of this tradition. At the same time, he doesn’t look at tradition as a fixed thing to be followed blindly. He sees tradition as a place to root oneself in order to be able to flourish more fully. Batchelor talks about seeing a graffiti on the Berlin wall when it fell that said: “Culture without history is like a tree without roots.” He said that to be self-conscious of your embeddedness in your tradition is nourishing, is emotionally and spiritually grounding and affirming, and gives you confidence and courage.

I was surprised by my own strong feelings as I listened to Stephen Batchelor’s expression of gratitude to Buddhism in spite of the attacks that he has endured from those who are strongly tied to more dogmatic forms of the tradition. I kept thinking about Judaism, about how we at the Society for Humanistic Judaism are trying to continue within the tradition of Judaism even though we reject forms of the religion that are not compatible with our humanistic beliefs. It takes courage to stand up and honestly proclaim your own point of view based upon your own knowledge and experience.


Buddhism and Judaism are living traditions that have evolved within various historical and cultural conditions. Although there are forms of these traditions that resist change and that proclaim absolute truths about the world, there are practices that keep these traditions alive and relevant to us, especially to those of us with particularly imaginative, curious, and skeptical approaches to the world. I hope you’ll listen to this podcast and hear what Stephen Batchelor eloquently says about what he believes may be the original dharma and practice taught by Gotama, a non-metaphysical dharma from which we can benefit today.

The above podcast is sponsored by The Middle Way Society. I highly recommend that you go to The Middle Way Society website to learn more about the middle-way approach to living an ethical life free of dogma.

What does faith mean to you?

What does faith mean to you? Is faith only possible if one has an absolute belief in a particular religion? If you are a Jew, do you state, as Maimonides did,

“I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and, though he tarry, I will wait daily for his coming.”

Or do you declare every day, or at least weekly . . . maybe yearly? . . . this?

“Hear O Israel, The Lord Our God, The Lord is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down and when you rise up. . . .”


If you are Christian, do you believe the following?

“We believe that Jesus Christ is the second person of the Trinity and is the only begotten eternal Son of God Who became flesh to reveal God to man, to fulfill prophecy, and to become the Savior of the lost world. In becoming man Jesus did not cease in any way to be God so that He is fully God and fully man inseparably united in one person forever.”


Or, perhaps, this is quite familiar to you:

“I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended into hell.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic and apostolic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.”

Perhaps you are Muslim and declare:

“There is no god but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God.”


Symbolizing the faith of Islam, the crescent moon is seen at sunset on top of the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad, Pakistan, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

If any of the above texts rings absolutely true for you, and you would prefer to have any of these statements further strengthened with my blog post, you will be disappointed. Please feel free to stop reading this and to go about your day.

To my fellow doubters and skeptics, I have one question: What does faith mean to you? Is it a word that you would feel more comfortable living without? Were you, perhaps, “burned” by it as a child, sending you running toward a more rational, enlightenment point of view? Perhaps you are comfortable with the word “faith” in a form that makes sense to you.

Several members of The Middle Way Society recently had a round-table discussion about what faith meant to us. I recommend that you listen to the podcast of this discussion.

The four participants in this discussion were Barry Daniel, active member and podcast interviewer for The Middle Way Society; Robert M. Ellis, philosopher and founder of The Middle Way Society; Willie Grieve, a Zen Buddhist who lives in Scotland; and me, a humanist rabbi. What we all had in common was a comfort in living with uncertainty. For me the faith of patience described by Maimonides takes the form of working toward a more messianic age – meaning toward a time when people are less violent and more loving; i.e., my point of view was political, but, at the same time rests on a belief that people are capable of change and that personal transformation has a positive effect on the world even if one is not politically active. Willie Grieve has an apophatic approach to faith, and, through a Buddhist practice, sits in the midst of uncertainty and mystery. Robert Ellis talked about two kinds of faith. First, one can have faith that the chair one is about to sit upon will not collapse under you. And second, and the one that we are mainly talking about here, is a faith in our values based upon our experiences. We need to think about what are the best things to have faith in. He pointed out that faith is often a shortcut to absolute beliefs, similar to those that begin this blog post. Willie Grieve shared an Alan Watts quote that distinguishes belief from faith:

“We must here make a clear distinction between belief and faith, because, in general practice, belief has come to mean a state of mind which is almost the opposite of faith. Belief, as I use the word here, is the insistence that the truth is what one would “lief” or wish it to be. The believer will open his mind to the truth on the condition that it fits in with his preconceived ideas and wishes. Faith, on the other hand, is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go. In this sense of the word, faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.”

The particular religious point of view of which Alan Watts speaks is likely Buddhism, at least in its less institutional and more agnostic forms.


One of the most interesting questions that Barry Daniels posed to all of us was,

“Do you think it’s unhelpful that the world’s religions are described as faiths or is that okay?”

What do you think? Please listen to the podcast and join the discussion.










Judaism and Mindfulness: Roots and Wings

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.”

Slide02 “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.

“Fine,” she says.Slide03

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.

Slide06 Likely, Sheldon will join a Zen Center or other Buddhist center where he can continue his meditation practice. Clearly, this sort of practice met his needs when he went to Thailand, wouldn’t you say?

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. Slide07This 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.

Slide08Here 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.

Slide09We all know what we mean by “wings,” clearly a metaphor for freedom, perhaps even freedom from the past. For me, wings means the ability to experience each moment fully and completely.


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, Slide11became 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 Slide14Judaism 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, Slide16that 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.

Now I could dance the Jewish dance in that Jewish chain as it evolved to include humanistic Judaism. I could even study and become a rabbi!Slide17

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.”

We’re all in the same boat. Every Jew is my responsibility; we are different parts to an organic whole. Slide18

When I heard him tell this story, I thought to myself, why not expand that boat to include all of humanity? Slide19This is what the Jews who I identify with have been doing for the entire modern and postmodern period.

Slide20 We were leaders in the labor movement.

We were active in the Civil Rights movement – even at the cost of our lives.

Slide21 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.”

Slide22 They might choose Betty Friedan, writer of The Feminine Mystique, who inspired a generation of middle class women to demand equality and lead a more balanced life.

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.

There are so many heroes: Emma Lazarus, Bob Dylan, Judy Blume, Howard Zinn, Anne Frank, Irving Howe, Slide23

Slide24Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sholom Aleichem, Judith Resnick, Robert Reich, Shulamit Aloni, Slide25Jon Stewart, Louise Nevelson, Michael Schwerner . . .I could go on all night!

Another source of Jewish pride, for me, is the study of Jewish texts. Slide26For 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. Slide27In 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, Slide28how 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.'”[1]

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.[2]

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.’”[3]

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? Slide31We 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. Slide32Even 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?

Slide33One 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. Slide35

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. Slide40 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.


Slide41 If you take nothing else from these Buddhist ideas – just take in this one thought: We will suffer less if we are mindful.


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. Slide42 Thank you.

[1] 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.

[2] Ibid., Kindle locations 912-913.

[3] Mark Epstein, Freud and Buddha, in The Network of Spiritual Progressives, http://spiritualprogressives.org/newsite/?p=651

Self / No Self

Below is my first Toastmaster speech. The assignment was called “The Ice-Breaker” and the task was to introduce myself to the group.

Hello everyone. Today I’ve been asked to introduce myself. Sounds easy, yes? But I ask:

Is there an abiding self who can be introduced?

Am I the nice Jewish girl from Chicago, never questioning the many rules of an orthodox religious practice?

Am I the radical anti-war activist attending six meetings a day, building People’s Park in Berkeley, demanding Third World Studies, and marching in the streets?

Am I the feminist working for women’s rights when the mainstream media and even public television found the movement to be amusing, even laughable?

Am I the artist, disillusioned with political activism, trying to create a new reality through art?

Am I the wife and mother, shaping a more evolved next generation?

Am I a research writer and graphic designer, contributing to public health? And learning to mediate at the university to help people to better communicate with one another?

Am I the humanist rabbi trying to foster interfaith dialogue with the goal of increasing understanding between people of all beliefs and trying to help alleviate suffering?

Am I the doting grandmother (bubbe in Yiddish) whose heart aches with love for her three grandchildren?

To be honest with you, I am torn between two ways of looking at this idea of the self. The first way is one that is inspired by Dogen Zenji, the founder of Soto Zen. He said (this is a very loose rendition):

“To study the Way is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to be enlightened by all things.”

But then, there is the Chassidic tale about Rabbi Zusya:

Rabbi Zusya, a wise and pious man was near the end of his life and he was weeping. His students gathered around and asked him, “Rabbi Zusya, why are you crying? You have led an exemplary life.” Rabbi Zusya answered them. “When I die and go to heaven, the angels will not ask me, “Why were you not Moses, leading the people out of Egypt?” They will not ask me, “Why were you not Solomon, offering wisdom to the people?” They will ask me, “Zusya, why were you not Zusya?”

No Self / Authentic Self

So, who am I – this person standing here before you all? Is there an abiding self who can be introduced? Would we want there to be such a self? If so, is there a thread that holds these selves together into one self?

Some people say that we are the stories we tell.

In that case, I am the forgotten self, the authentic self, the nice Jewish girl, activist, feminist, artist, researcher, designer, mediator, mother, rabbi, bubbe, toastmaster attendee, and I’m very happy to meet you.

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!


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!