Sunday, October 16, 2016

Open to the World / Sukkot 5777-2016

In a fascinating irony of synagogue architecture, stained-glass windows often plug the very openings our Sages tell us we need when we pray. In the Babylonian Talmud, R. Yochanan teaches: One should only pray in a house with windows, as it says, The windows of his upper chamber were open toward Jerusalem (Daniel 6:11). (BT Berakhot 34b) In accord with R. Yochanan’s teaching, synagogues have windows so that those who pray within its walls do not sequester themselves from the world beyond. Rather, our meditations, petitions, and aspirations should be mediated by the windows, which connect us with the world beyond and God who is manifest everywhere. Stained-glass windows, however magnificent, constrain our visual focus to the room in which we sit; although the light that animates its art come from without, we run the risk that, without windows, our focus stops at the walls.

If the requirement to pray in a room with windows enlarges our perspective, how much more so living in a sukkah, whose flimsy walls and open roof are open to the world. Indeed, one is outside when one sits inside the sukkah. And if the protective walls of the synagogue are an illusion that the world is contained with the facade of the synagogue, the sukkah exposed that illusion. Rabbi Alan Lew z”l wrote:

[A sukkah] exposes the idea of a house as an illusion. The idea of a house is the it gives us security shelter, haven from the storm. But no house can really offer us this. No building of wood and stone can ever afford us protection from the disorder that is always lurking all around us. No shell we put between us and the world can ever really keep us security from it. And we know this… In a sukkah, a house that is open to the world, a house that freely acknowledges that it cannot be the basis of our security, we let go of this need. The illusion of protection falls away, and suddenly we are flush with our life, feeling our life, following our life, doing its dance, one step after another. (This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared, pp. 266-7

All this talk about architectural forms is, of course, a metaphor and prescription for how we are to be in the world. Recently, I learned of a 98-year-old Mennonite minister who epitomizes R. Yochanan’s teaching with grace and compassion galore. Chester Wenger and his beloved wife, Sara Jane, raised eight children. When their son, Philip, came to them to tell him he was gay, Chester Wenger heard him with respect and regarded him with love, despite the teachings of his church. And when Philip, at age 35, was excommunicated by a church leader who neither sought to speak with Philip or even inform his parents, Wenger did not reject his church. When the state of Pennsylvania, in which he lives, legalized same-sex marriage in July 2014, Philip and his long time partner Steven immediately applied for a marriage license and subsequently asked Chester to officiate at their wedding and sign their marriage license. As a result of officiating at his son’s wedding, the Lancaster Conference of the Mennonite church “retired” Wenger’s clerical credentials. In other words, they withdrew his ordination. Yet Wenger still did not reject his church. Rather, he seeks to help them pry open some very old windows long painted shut.

In an open letter to the Mennonite Church, which has been read more than 278,000 times although the Mennonite Church has a total membership of ~100,000, Wenger expresses compassion for his community as well as unwavering support for his son and all those who have been marginalized. He writes:

The world we live in is no longer the idyllic Eden. It is a broken, complex, messy, violent and yet wonderful world. God’s mercy-filled grace infuses our broken world with a goodness that keeps surprising us with joy—and healing. God’s grace also calls us to faithfully love God and neighbor above all else.

Wenger calls upon his church community to learn the lesson we Jews learn from living for a week each autumn in our sukkot: To be open to the world. To open our minds and our hearts. To transcend the assumptions and bigotries that inform our thinking. To attend to the pain and experience of “our sons and daughters who are bullied, homeless, sexually abused, and driven to suicide at far higher rates than our heterosexual children.” Most of all, Chester Wenger asks his fellow-Mennonites to fling open the doors and windows of their worlds and breath in the air of love, respect, and acceptance. He writes:

We know from Deuteronomy that eunuchs were a sexual minority, loathed and considered unacceptable for admission to the “assembly of the Lord” and yet in Isaiah 56 the Lord says: “Do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’…  I will give them a name better than sons and daughters….for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples … ”

Malcolm Gladwell, in his podcast Revisionist History, recently interviewed Chester Wenger. Gladwell framed Wenger’s outlook, words, and actions as “generosity orthodoxy,” an approach that cherishes tradition while remaining open to the world, and is marked most of all by grace and love. Brian D. McLaren, author of A Generous Orthodoxy, writing from a Christian perspective—but in a universal tone—tells us:

We must never underestimate our power to be wrong when talking about God, when thinking about God, when imagining God, whether in prose or in poetry. A generous orthodoxy, in contrast to the tense, narrow, or controlling orthodoxies of so much of Christian history, doesn't take itself too seriously. It is humble. It doesn't claim too much. It admits it walks with a limp.

As I consider the loving and challenging balance Wenger has achieved, I am, like everyone, still digesting the ongoing revelations concerning one of the presidential contenders, his boasts about sexually assaulting women, the accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior that woman have leveled against him, and the crass responses of those (including the candidate) who dismiss his remarks as mere “locker room talk” and discount the painful testimony of his victims. This is anything but “generous orthodoxy.” This is the old-fashioned orthodoxy of white male supremacy, privilege, and entitlement—a decidedly ungenerous attitude toward everyone and everything.

There is far too much ungenerous orthodox in the Jewish world today, as well. I needn’t cite examples; you know what I’m talking about. (But isn’t it interesting that women and homosexuals stand out prominently?) It’s not challenging to point a finger at others; it’s much more difficult to look within. Each of us has corners of ungenerous orthodoxy. Sukkot is a fine time to let cleansing rays of sunshine fill those corners, reveal them for what they are, and then take responsibility for them. We, the children of Israel, the offspring of Jacob, have walked with a limp since that famous wrestling match with the angel. But can we admit that we do? Do we have the humility to know the truth? 

May the open walls and roof of our sukkot open minds and hearts.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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