Being and Doing

gingko sidewalk2I am addicted to doing. I allow myself to just “be” once a week – on Saturday, on Shabbat, and this links me to a chain of Jewish practice that goes far back in history. I like this “time outside of time” as Abraham Joshua Heschel described Shabbat. However, I’m beginning to think that this one day is not enough. I seem to be addicted to constant activity. I think I may have learned this behavior from my family. We are not worthy unless we are being productive.

I retired almost 9 months ago. Nine months is an apt moment to be born anew. I’d like to be born anew as a person who is productive when that makes sense in my life and as a relaxed and in-the-moment person when that makes sense. My obsessive desire to always be productive is a problem for me. I am in a constant state of tension, thinking that if I am not engaged in an activity that has some use for the world, that I’m wasting my time. But doesn’t it benefit the world to “be peace” as Thich Nhat Hanh (a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist) says? If a moving butterfly’s wings have reverberations across the planet, certainly a person at peace does so as well, yes?

To know something is not enough. “Being” requires as much discipline as “doing,” when you are a compulsive doer. I write this blog to publically state my intention. I hope others will help me in this endeavor.

The first step will be to read the newspaper tomorrow morning and do the crossword puzzle as I sip coffee and eat breakfast. I’ll periodically report about my progress.

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.










Happy Chanukah!

It’s Chanukah and, as usual, I feel a strong conflict. My Jewish self wants to celebrate Jewish holidays and Chanukah is one of them. When I was a child I remember playing with dreidels (a form of children’s gambling) and eating delicious latkes (potato pancakes). The competition with Christmas had not begun back then, and we truly considered the holiday to not be that important. I enjoyed lighting the candles and eating the latkes, but there wasn’t much there there.


When I attended Hebrew School I learned about the evil Seleucid Empire and how they tried to force the Jews to worship their gods and how they desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem. The brave Maccabees fought the Seleucids and won . . .Yahoo! Now we can be Jews without anyone imposing their views on us. There isn’t much of a spiritual component to this story, just one band of fighters winning over a temporarily weak empire involved in other wars, not very inspiring to me at all. Then, as an adult I learned about the original story of Chanukah that made me want to celebrate it even less! The conflict was really a civil war between Hellenizing Jews and traditionalists. These traditionalists, who won the battle, were more like the Taliban than liberators.*

Now what? The sages had difficulty with the Maccabees too. They were not keen on making Chanukah a holiday, but the people were celebrating so they created a story about the miracle of the oil. The holiday then symbolized hope, light in darkness, and took on a more universal and less militaristic quality. Also, we put our Chanukiot (what most people callmenorah menorahs) in the window to show that we are Jews and we are not afraid to let others know that we are Jews. I like that, too. As we know, it has not always been easy to be a Jew in places where Jews are a minority. Chanukah, like all Jewish holidays, clearly evolved and took on new meanings. For example, activists for social justice created a myth that the Maccabees were freedom fighters.

What does Chanukah mean to us today? Universally, bringing light into the dark winter gives us hope. For me, this could be enough. I’m happy to let go of the story of the Maccabees. At the same time, however, Chanukah is about taking pride in our Jewish roots and not being afraid to express our culture in the midst of a majority who celebrate other holidays of light. This year, I dedicate my celebration of Chanukah to Muslims who are experiencing discrimination and fear fueled by a few radical extremists who profess to have the same faith. Together we need to light the darkness of hate and fear.

Shalom / Salaam

*My reference to the Taliban is not necessarily accurate; i.e., there are differences of opinion about how much force was exerted on the Idumaeans and Ituraeans by the Hasmoneans to conform to Judean ways (be circumcised, for example), not to mention that the Maccabees and the Hasmoneans are not synonymous.

Read – Write – Listen – Create – See

And now that I’ve complained about my smart phone addiction, I’d like to sing it’s praises. I see a flower, a beautiful flower among thousands of others, hanging from a branch in the Presidio, wet with dew. I want to share how beautiful this flower is with my husband, or maybe with other friends. I pull out my phone and photograph the flower. I use one of my editing apps and zero in on the droplets of dew. Others, who I know, who may be at work, or are otherwise indoors and will never see this very flower, can now see it, if I share the picture with them.

I take a long bus ride to my favorite café and in-between looking out of the bus window I read Stephen Batchelor’s latest book, after buddhism: rethinking the dharma for a secular age. The lower case letters of the title are not an accident. I read this book on my smart phone. I believe that this book is especially important right now. I’ve always enjoyed Batchelor’s books about Buddhism, beginning with Buddhism Without Beliefs, a Buddhist counterpart to Sherwin Wine’s Judaism Beyond God.
One does not have to accept dogma to be a Jew or to have a Buddhist practice, but because people tend to want certainty, we have a tendency to be attracted to institutionalized forms of religion that present absolutes. I recommend both of these books, and, if you’re interested in learning about the middle way that I think these approaches suggest, do pull out that smart phone or computer and see The Middle Way Society website: Also, if you’re interested in a secular Jewish practice, check out The Society for Secular Humanistic Judaism:

After reading Batchelor’s book on the bus, I went into a café and continued to read on my computer. My attention was strongly grabbed, though, when I heard a lovely, moving piece of music. What was I hearing? I pulled out my smartphone, opened the app called Shazam, and, bingo, found the music and was able to identify it. The group was not a group I ever would have heard of and I was happy to buy the 6- minute piece of music on my, you guessed it, smartphone.

I’m remembering discussions during the 1960’s about technology. We discussed everything back then – maybe it was because I was of an age when one questioned everything, or, it’s probably partly true that the 1960’s youth culture encouraged us to question everything. In any case, we talked about technology. Should we try to go back to living a life without technology? Many folks went back to the land and tried to live what they thought would be a quiet, simple, life. Others of us thought that technology was neither good nor bad, but depended upon how we used it. When I think of my smartphone, I see an object that has positive uses for me. When I use this piece of technology, I’m able to read, listen to music, read about philosophies that make sense to me, communicate with friends on Facebook, write emails, take photographs, make collages, and even identify a piece of music that I’ve never heard. What a powerful little object this is. On the other hand, as I wrote about in my last post, one can easily become addicted to smartphones. I know I walk a fine line here.

As long as I continue to see the world around me, can be inspired by great writing, hear beautiful music, take photographs, create collages, communicate with those who are not nearby, listen to podcasts, and, most important, do nothing and put this little object away, all is well.

Smartphone Addiction – Can We Break This?

About 20 years ago our daughter came home from school and introduced us to her friend and told us that this friend also sits with her family and eats dinner together. At the time, this was an unusual occurrence for many young people, and this was before smartphones! Now, even those families who may gather together for dinner aren’t fully present for each other because they’re checking their smart phones, worrying about missing out on some new text or Facebook post, Twitter post, or email. FullSizeRender (1)To just be with each other is becoming more and more rare. If someone is sitting across from you and is expressing an emotion that should be paid attention to, you may not notice because your eyes are looking down at a smart phone.

Sherry Turkle is an ethnographer and the director of the M.I.T. Initiative on Technology and Self. She has been speaking out about how addiction to our smartphones reinforces our fear of being in silence and our fear of being bored. There is a constant craving for stimulation provided by media on your smartphone. We forget how to just sit in silence or to speak eye-to-eye with the person across from us.

I will confess that I am not immune from this smartphone trend. I am trying to put the phone away when I’m with people, but I feel the pull of it. I don’t want to miss out. What if someone is writing to me? I know it can wait but I want to respond right away. This is a bad habit! Recently I bought a new phone. I clicked on a link that activated my new one but there was a software glitch. The panic I felt was all out of proportion to the situation. I became obsessed. I had no smartphone. I stopped everything else I was doing and spent hours on the phone with the phone company and then the manufacturer of the phone. I experienced this phone as an extension of my body. It was as though a part of my body was not working and had to be fixed immediately. I knew I was out of control but I kept on pushing through until I had my phone working. I know from my own experience that smartphone attachment and addiction is real and powerful.IMG_3589

What is my solution? I am trying to disconnect once a week on Shabbat. From sundown Friday night until Saturday evening I’m trying to stay disconnected. One way to do this is to put an “away” message on your email and perhaps post “Shabbat Shalom” on Twitter and Facebook. That’s a start. What do you do to temper your smartphone addiction?

A Time for Reflection

We are entering an important, challenging time in the Jewish calendar, a time to reflect on the past and seek to find a better way forward. This is a time to change our habitual self-centered orientation. We forgive those who wronged us and ask for forgiveness from thoIMG_4864se whom we wronged. We seek to be more understanding and compassionate. There are many websites that help us at this time. We don’t have to rely on a particular rabbi or synagogue for our inspiration. I found a website that I thought was particularly inspiring. It’s called Jewels of Elul, and though I don’t agree with every contributor’s orientation, one of the pieces was particularly inspiring to me. It was posted on the fourth day of Elul (Elul is a month in the Jewish calendar – leading up towards Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – the High Holidays) and I’ve pasted it below:

Elul 4: Mohini ~ Rabba Sara Hurwitz

As we age, our brains are hardwired to reject change. We are conditioned to resist new challenges and remain within our comfort zones. However, growing older should not mean that we must exist within self-imposed boundaries.

In the 1960s, President Eisenhower received the gift of a rare, white tiger named Mohini. For years, Mohini lived in the Washington Zoo and spent her days pacing back and forth in a 12-by-12 foot cage. Finally the zoo decided to build her a larger cage so Mohini could run, climb and explore. But when Mohini arrived at her new home, she didn’t rush out, eagerly adapting to her new habitat. Rather, she marked off a 12-by-12 foot square for herself, and paced there until her death, never enjoying the new opportunities in front of her. Mohini exemplifies the classic conditioning most of us live within. Although she was a magnificent, powerful creature, Mohini was convinced her “place” was just a 12-by-12 foot square. We all have the propensity to behave exactly like Mohini. Based on our conditioning, we create invisible cages for ourselves, limiting our lives within their boundaries.

But we don’t have to succumb to our internal imprisonment. Throughout the High Holidays, we will hear the shofar blast. Historically, the shofar signaled the release of all slaves at the end of the Jubilee year. That sound should make us ask, “What enslaves us? What weighs us down? What baggage do we hold onto?” And then, let it go. The High Holidays present us with a tunnel: an opportunity to break free from our self-imposed cages, to find our route to freedom and to live life with renewed passion. The shofar inspires us to free the Mohini inside and move beyond our boundaries.

Rabba Sara Hurwitz is the Dean of Yeshivat Maharat, the first Orthodox institution to ordain women as spiritual leaders.

An Inspiring Life: Barry Daniel

barry danielRecently I had the privilege of interviewing Barry Daniel for the Middle Way Society Podcast. Was Barry promoting a book? No. Was he promoting a movie or play or particular event? No. Barry simply talked about his life, a life that has been packed with adventure and transformation. He talked about his youth in Manchester, his time with the navy, and the many places he has lived all over the world. I was inspired by the work he has done – offering his emotional support working with the Samaritans in the U.K., his experience working with Mother Teresa helping the dying in Calcutta, and his work with the Green Party to name a few.

Barry Daniel is usually the voice you hear interviewing others for the Middle Way Society Podcast. I invite you to hear about his life in his own words. I’m grateful to have heard his story and I think you will be also.

Audio only:

The Joy of Retirement / Rewirement

For some reason the following Karl Marx statement has stuck in my mind since I first read it as a young adult:

“In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” [from German Ideology, 1845]

Though I don’t share his choices of activities, I always thought that an ideal society would make it possible for people to do various activities and not be confined to one, potentially boring, job. His hopes for creating such a society never came to be except in one way. In well-off first world countries, if you have the good fortune of living to retirement age, and you can afford to retire, there is a limitless wealth of activities from which to choose. Here is a sampling of my own choices from the last couple weeks.

Everyday: I wake up whenever my body tells me to wake up. FullSizeRenderI stretch, brew some coffee, and read the local paper. I walk over to my computer, check my e-mail, and write for 2 hours. I follow up on any letters related to political and professional groups with which I’m affiliated. I also read various journals online, such as Tablet, Tikkun, The Forward, and interesting links that Facebook friends post. What a pleasure! I like to walk an hour a day. Not a day goes by when I’m not grateful that I’m able to do this. When I was wheelchair bound, 13 years ago, I wasn’t sure that walking an hour a day was in my future.

barre assetsTypical Monday includes Barre Assets class, a ballet-based core strengthening and limb stretching exercise class. After that, I go grocery shopping. I take my time because I can! I cook a delicious dinner that will last a few days. Included will be a walk with my husband and perhaps a Netflix movie. In between activities I’ll read from one of the three books I’m reading. Right now I’m reading The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch, Sam Harris’ Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, and Oliver Sack’s autobiography, On the Move: A Life. What a joy! Another typical Monday includes preparing for Toastmasters which I attend every Tuesday.

Typical Tuesday includes a great Tai Chi class taught by Cecilia Tom at the UCSF Mission Bay fitness center, Bakar Fitness. She runs a demanding but rewarding class. I rush off to Toastmasters across the road. Our Toastmasters community is warm, supportive, diverse, and, wonderful! I look forward to participating and hearing the speeches. If you want to learn to do public speaking in a supportive environment, I highly recommend Toastmasters!

Tuesday activities continue into the evening. Lately, I’ve been taking a storytelling class at The Marsh, a local small theatre The Marshthat specializes in producing monologue/plays written and performed by one person. I’m creating a short piece, receiving coaching from Charlie Varon, a stellar writer, performer, teacher – stretching myself to my limits! Yikes! This is HARD!

The high point of Wednesday is caring for our 10 month old grandson. He’s a joy to be around. Seeing the world through his eyes is a special rewarding experience. We adults become so jaded as we get older, seeing everything in a habitual way. Looking at the world and hearing sounds by closely observing a baby is a great learning experience. You don’t need a grandchild to do this – find a baby and see if you can hang out with him/her!

zumbaThursday is play rewrite day. Also, it’s a day for Zumba (aerobic dance) and Feldenkrais (a form of movement education – especially good for people who have range of motion issues, as I do from a serious injury).

Friday is open; a time for reading, writing, and whatever comes up. I may decide to make it a Shabbat preparation day.

Saturday is Shabbat, a non-productive, restful day for mindfulness.Slide41

Sunday is socialize with friends day.

I’m so happy to do my own creative work and to have time to exercise, babysit, and cook. I realize that I am privileged to do these activities. Not everyone is able to retire. I had the good fortune of working at a place that offers a pension. This is just the beginning of my retirement. It’s been less than a month. I’m still looking for volunteer opportunities. What a joy to be able to do this! I am grateful beyond words!

How to Connect to the 60 Million: One Story

Abdi Nor; This American Life website.

Abdi Nor; This American Life website.

Right now, as you read this blog, there are 60,000,000 people who are displaced because of conflicts in the world. I’ll write that again – 60 million people, the largest number the U.N. has ever recorded! We read about people precariously traveling in overcrowded boats to find refuge, or settling in nearby countries, only to be raided repeatedly by corrupt police. I find it impossible to imagine the stress of these refugees as a mass, but one story I heard today, moved me to tears.

This morning, I listened to one of my favorite public radio programs, This American Life, from WBEZ in Chicago. I heard a story about one such refugee, a Somali living in Kenya, Abdi Nor. The program is called The Golden Ticket. I hope you’ll take the time to listen to his story. You can hear the podcast on your phone or computer. Do take the time. Abdi’s story will take your breath away.

We are introduced to Abdi’s journey with a story about how the United States government offers diversity visas through a lottery program. The idea behind this program is to enable a people with low rates of immigration to the United States to get a United State Permanent Resident Card, i.e., a Green Card.

The first scene we envision is a crowd of people at a cyber café in Kenya. Each person at the computer is hoping that after they click this link to the lottery, they will get the answer they are hoping for – you are qualified to get a visa to the United States!

Our protagonist, Abdi Nor, a Somali refugee joyfully learns that luck is with him. He wins the lottery! He is eligible to apply for a visa to the United States where he has always wanted to settle. His English is so good he barely has an accent. His whole life has been leading up to moving to the U.S. Happy though he is, this is just the beginning of a long story. Abdi’s joy quickly changes to fear and hardship. He has to survive repeated police invasions of his community. When there are attacks by Al-Shabaab, a jihadist terrorist group, the corrupt Kenyan police have an excuse to raid the Somali community; sometimes they take bribes, sometimes they take the refugees away. Abdi and his brother Hassan have to hunker down and hide from the police. Sometimes they go hungry. Sometimes they cannot sleep.

We hold our breath as the days go by before Abdi’s interview at the U.S. Embassy. Will he be able to get his papers before the interview? He cannot be in hiding and get these papers. Will he and Hassan survive the raids?

You’ll have to hear what happens on This American Life through a series of interviews that BBC reporter, Leo Hornak brilliantly records over several months through the computer.

I don’t want to give away the story, but here is one detail that is not a spoiler alert. Hassan, Abdi’s brother is asked if he’s jealous that Abdi has won this visa. Hassan is genuinely and completely happy for his brother. He is not at all jealous. He shows a true generosity of spirit. His shared joy was inspiring!

Now, please go listen to the program. We are all on this planet together and, painful though it is, we need to know what life is like for everyone. Please listen to Abdi’s story.

Shavuot – Ruth – Welcome!

shavuotWe are approaching the holiday of Shavuot, an ancient holiday that used to be a harvest festival and has morphed into a holiday that celebrates the giving of the Torah at Sinai. This holiday is a good example of how Judaism has evolved over time. There is no Temple to celebrate the original pilgrimage festival that occurred at the time of Shavuot, but the rabbis created a new holiday that encouraged the community to celebrate the giving of the Torah. The Torah is a central text in rabbinic Judaism and it makes sense that a holiday would have been created to celebrate that text. Many people stay up all night to study Torah and other Jewish texts on this holiday, and the story that is associated with Shavuot is the story of Ruth.

I’d like to talk a bit about the story of Ruth, but first I’d like to share my approach to the stories in the Bible. I assume these stories from ancient times were written by men. We cannot know what their experience was. We have very limited knowledge about that, but, at the very least, I do not believe that the texts were divinely written or inspired. For me, and many other humanistic Jews, to treat the text as sacred severely limits our possible interpretations.

The Bible is not a book. The Bible is a collection of many stories, and these stories are not told from one perspective. In fact, two of the most opposite stories in the Bible are the story of Ruth and the story of the return of Ezra to Judah after the exile in Babylonia. Ezra, with a great degree of anger, asks the people (am ha’aretz – people of the land) who have stayed in Judah, to divorce their foreign wives. Ezra represents a parochial, exclusive, elite point of view. The Book of Ruth, which sounds more like a fairy tale than an elite proclamation, is about a Moabite widow (from Ezra’s point of view a foreign wife) who follows her Judean mother-in-law, Naomi, back to Judah. Everyone has heard the famous line from Ruth: ‘Entreat me not to leave thee, and to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God;. . .
(Jewish Publication Society Translation)

Ruth simply joins the Jewish people. Later, rabbis created a story to say that Ruth converted to Judaism, but whoever wrote this story had a very different idea about how people joined the community. The story of Ruth is written from a completely different point of view than the story of Ezra. Studying Jewish texts, like Ruth, could be a good starting point for us to open the boundaries and welcome all people into our communities.