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: http://www.middlewaysociety.org/ Also, if you’re interested in a secular Jewish practice, check out The Society for Secular Humanistic Judaism: http://www.shj.org/

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.http://www.yeshivatmaharat.org

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: http://www.middlewaysociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/podcast69BarryDaniel.mp3

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.

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