To Love Through Song

Shabbat morning. I have found a new way to celebrate this most important day of the week. First, some background:

Let me start by saying that the joy of my life right now, aside from my husband, children, and fabulous grandchildren, is singing with the Threshold Choir. We sing at people’s bedsides, mainly to those who are dying. There are Threshold Choirs all across the United States, Canada, and Australia.
The experience of singing at a person’s bedside is profound and beautiful. Recently, KQED, a local public television station, showed a short segment about our work, if you’d like to see what I’m talking about.musical_cleff_-_maroon_copy-e1367955072178

Kate Munger founded the Threshold Choir. Years ago, she found herself at a loss when she was visiting a friend who was dying of AIDS. She felt helpless, but then she began to sing to him, and her singing comforted him. This is how the Threshold Choir was born.

I joined the choir in San Francisco almost a year ago, learned about 30 core songs, and began singing at bedside recently. The songs are spiritual but not “religious.” Whether a person is deeply religious or secular in orientation, the songs are comforting, calming, and loving. Those are the facts – but how do I describe the experience?

I’ll tell you about that Shabbat morning. We visited one person who was in great distress, crying out with anguish. No one had been able to calm her, though she was in a facility with the highest standard of care. Three of us from the Threshold Choir sat by her bed and we sang. We watched as she became more and more calm, and ultimately drifted off to sleep. We were barely able to keep singing; we were so moved to see her relax. When can you do something you love to do and have that profound an effect on someone else? What a gift it is to be able to sing for people. It is as simple as that; to do what you love and to help others. The boundaries of who is singing and who is soothed melt away. We are singing and hearing and calming and connecting. What a joy! Shabbat is an imaginary moment of perfection. On that day, for me, Shabbat was truly realized.

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Not everyone would feel comfortable singing at bedside. If you would like to contribute to this wonderful organization to support their work, please do! This could be an especially kind and comforting way to support a friend or family member who has recently lost a loved one.

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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.

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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. . . .”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Jewish middle way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion:

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

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

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

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

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