Sunday, September 29, 2013

Between divinity and depravity / Noach

Like many parents, on the occasions when I thought my children’s table manners were lacking, I was wont to say, “Where were you raised—in a barn? Don’t eat like an animal.” The predictable retort was, “Yes. And we’re all animals.” The story of the Flood, in parasht Noach, is the quintessential “animal story” of the bible; ironically the one in which virtually every animal on earth is annihilated.
The story of the Flood is nestled between two stories of human overreaching for divinity. The Flood story follows the account of Adam and Eve, who are banished from the Garden of Eden for eating fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which will supply moral discernment. Added to the immortality God has already granted Adam and Eve by virtue of fruit from the Tree of Life, this will make them divine. In essence they will become gods. Torah cannot tolerate apotheosis, people becoming gods, a notion rife in other ancient Near Eastern cultures.
The Flood is followed by the terse account of the Tower of Babel, found in this week’s parashah. The Tower is a tale of human hubris gone wild. People set out to build a tower to heaven so that—ונעשה לנו שם / “we will make for ourselves a name; that is, become gods. Adonai confounds their speech and here Torah makes a wordplay on שם “name” when it says ונבלה שם שפתם “God confounded/confused their speech there. The seemingly superfluous term “there” is written identically to “name” because the Torah originally had only consonants. Their “name” (i.e. ambitions for divinity) became nothing there but confusion and lead to ruin.
These two bookends to the Flood story, Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden to insure they do not become gods, and the Tower people’s failed attempt to become gods, not only bracket the Flood story, but also help us understand it on another level. Torah has treated God’s unsurpassed creative power in the opening chapter of Genesis; creating the cosmos and our world provides sufficient evidence. The Flood, in contrast, addresses God’s unrivaled destructive power; most of the world is wiped out in the deluge. Only a small remnant remains and—the story suggests—God could well have decided to forego the whole ark business, leaving nothing. In fact, midrash Bereishit Rabbah 3:7 tells us that God created and destroyed many worlds before creating ours.
In fact, there is ample evidence that the biblical authors knew of traditions that some of us are descended from gods. Just after Torah’s first mention of Noah, but before the story of the Flood begins, we find this peculiar remnant of that tradition:
And it came to pass, when people began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the divine beings [b’nai elohim, lit. sons of gods] saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took wives from among them, whomsoever they chose. And Adonai said: ‘My spirit shall not abide in people for ever, for they also are flesh; therefore shall their days be 120 years.’ It was then that the Nephilim were on the earth, and also after that, when the divine beings [b’nai elohim, lit. sons of gods] came in to the daughters of men, and they bore children to them. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown. (Genesis 6:1-4)
Descendant of gods (b’nai elohim), presumably, walk among us. Adonai does not approve. Perhaps it is because finding our place in the world, between the vaulted heights of divinity and the depraved depths to which humans can fall, is so difficult and dangerous. Striving to become divine leads us not toward holiness, but ironically in the opposite direction. Human arrogance knows no limits, and leads people both to conceive of themselves as gods, and to engage in nearly unimaginable corruption and violence. Akavkiah b. Mahalalel taught:
If you ponder three things, you will avoid falling into sin: Know your origin, your destination, and before whom you will be required to give an accounting. Your origin: a putrid drop. Your destination: a place of dust, worms, and maggots. Before whom will you be required to give an accounting? Before the Ruler of rulers, the Holy One Blessed be God. (BT Pirke Avot 3:1)
How’s that for a formula to keep one’s ego in check? But don’t we want people to spread their wings, let their creativity soar, and exert their influence? We are capable of the best and the worst, and the two often come perversely bundled. Accounts of the Holocaust, certainly a hallmark of human depravity, are not complete without the stories of courage, heroism, and altruism.
The Rabbis (BT Sanhedrin 38b) envisioned God consulting panels of angels concerning the creation of humanity. The first two panels, citing the evil people would do, are adamantly opposed. God eliminates them. The third panel says (in essence): Given what You did to the first two panels, we wouldn’t dare oppose the plan. Do as you will.” But when the Generation of the Flood and the Generation of the Tower come, the third angelic cadre cannot resist chirping a refrain of, “We told you so!” What is God’s response? I’m sticking with them through thick and thin. God is committed, but it’s not always easy.
The Rabbis couched it this way:
God created humans with four qualities of the angels and four qualities of the lower animals. Like the animals, people eat, drink, reproduce and die. Like the angels, they stand erect, speak, understand, and see [from the sides as well as from the front]. Rabbi Tifday said: The angels were created in the image of God and do not reproduce, while the earthly creatures reproduce but were not created in God’s image. God said: I will create humanity in My image and likeness and in that way they will be like the angels. But they will also reproduce, like the animals. Rabbi Tifday also said: The Lord reasoned: If I create them like the angels, they will live forever and not die; if I create them like the animals, they will die and not live forever. Therefore I will create them as a combination of the upper and lower elements. If they sin they will die; if they die, they will live [in the world-to-come]. (Bereishit Rabbah 14:3)
We are little lower than the angels (Psalm 8:6), but not unlike the beasts. In our best moments, we aspire to righteousness, generosity, and humility. This is our divine side. But we also aspire to power, possession, control, acclaim, and adoration, and like the beasts, we are curious about everything—good and bad. We are vulnerable to every sort of temptation. We are driven by our biology. We live every day in the tension of our angelic selves and our animal selves.
Science confirms this. Psychiatrist and cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz explains this in her both startling and comforting book Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and Human Healing. We would see ourselves as utterly different from the animals—possessed of free will, superior intelligence, complex technology—but in reality we have all evolved in tandem and share many traits and biological processes in common. Not only can we learn much from the animal world and the specialists in animal behavior and healing, veterinarians, concerning cancer, infection, and disease, but we have more in common with animals than you might like to acknowledge in the areas of addiction, sexuality, eating disorders, and adolescent behavior.
Natterson-Horowitz gently counsels that rather than denying the breadth and depth of our “animal side,” we would be better off acknowledging and even embracing it. Our biology combined with our instincts are responsibility for much good—love and loyalty, for example. The energies of our biology, when we understand them and how they operate in us, can be channeled to fuel our divine side. Acknowledging and understanding our animal side, celebrating it, and then taming it by placing it in service of holiness will go far to relieving the angel-or-animal tension.
Torah’s persistent refrain that humans must not become gods is, perhaps, a warning not to think of ourselves as gods and thereby shut off our aspiration to holiness.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel saw the two poles of our being as divinity and dust, which we will all ultimately become. His charge to us applies to our attempt to achieve balance between the poles of divine being and animal, as well. He wrote:
Perhaps this is the most urgent task: to save the inner man from oblivion, to remind ourselves that we are a duality of the mysterious grandeur and the pompous dust. Our future depends upon our appreciation of the reality of the inner life, of the splendor of thoughts, of the dignity and wonder of reverence. This is the most important thought: God has a stake in the life of man, of every man. But this idea cannot be imposed from without; every man must discover it; it cannot be preached, it must be experienced. (The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence, pp. 12-13)
This week, pause and consider your “mysterious grandeur” and your “animal side.” Try not to focus on the former at the expense of the latter. Try to discover in your life a sense of how valuable you are to God and to those around you. Feel it. Experience it. And then going forward, live it.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Radiation from the Big Bang / Beraishit

Some 14 billion years ago there was no universe. Before that, ironically, time had no meaning. There was only a primordial vacuum in a state of minimum energy but maximum potential — until the Big Bang, the reigning scientific theory of cosmology. A quantum fluctuation in a singularity point of infinite density and temperature gave rise to the seed, smaller than a proton, that grew and blossomed into our universe, giving birth to time and matter. In the initial seconds after the Big Bang, there was a chaotic combination of radiation and matter — tohu va’vohu (“unformed and void”)? — that eventually gave rise to subatomic particles, galaxies, and us. Forget tracing your origins to Eastern Europe, or Asia, or South America. Think on a bigger, grander scale. Think the cosmos. Your origins, everything that is you, arose out of the Big Bang. The branches of your family tree, like the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy 15 billion light-years from here and everything else, lead back 14 billion years to that singularity point.
Messier 83, the Southern Pinwheel Galaxy
Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twerski, the Hasidic rebbe of Chernobyl, lived from 1730 to 1797. He could trace his Hasidic pedigree through his teacher, Dov Baer, the Maggid of Mezritch, to the Baal Shem Tov. The Chernobler Rebbe wrote in Me’or Einayim of creation as a mystical or Kabbalistic “Big Bang”: God is the singularity point and Torah brought about the quantum fluctuation. What for physicists is physical truth, for Rabbi Menachem Nachum is metaphysical truth. Torah tells us:

When God began to create the heaven and earth — the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water — God said, “Let there be light” and there was light. (Genesis 1:1-3)

Rabbi Menachem Nachum understands it this way:

It was through Torah, called the beginning of His way (Prov. 8:22). All things were created by means of Torah, and the power of the Creator remains within the created. Thus Torah’s power is present in each thing, in all the worlds, and within the human being. Of this Scripture says, This is the Torah: a person (Numbers 19:14), as will be explained. Torah and the blessed Holy One are one. Thus the life of God is present in each thing. You give life to them all (Nehemiah 9:6). God reduced Himself to the lowest rung; a portion of divinity above was placed within the darkness of matter. The whole point was that those lowly rungs be uplifted, so that there be a greater light that emerges from darkness (Ecclesiastes 2:13).

If this is the Chernobler Rebbe’s “Big Bang” theory, think of God as the singularity point. The universe came into being out of God. It’s not that God waved a cosmic wand and created the world and is separate from it. God is the universe; God is everything. Everything is in God. What is more, the Torah that gave rise to Rabbi Menachem Nachum’s “Big Bang” and the singularity point are one in the same, and he tells us this explicitly: “Torah and the blessed Holy One are one.” The universe is inseparably interconnected; all its “parts” are threads in one great cosmic tapestry of time, space and matter. All that is derives from the “singularity point”; everything derives from God. God is the oneness, or unity, of the universe. This is why Kabbalists call God the “Ein Sof” which means “there is no end” or the Infinite. 

French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas addressed our interconnectedness from a different angle. He spoke and wrote of the face-to-face human encounter, a foundation of his moral philosophy. He said that I can only recognize and experience my own radical uniqueness in recognizing the radical uniqueness of others. When I see the trace of God in others — the background radiation of the Big Bang — I can then recognize it in myself. Therefore when I gaze into a human face, it “orders and ordains” me, which is to say that I am called into “giving and serving” when I see an Other.
The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) describes what it would look like to implement the Chernobler’s thinking and Levinas’ principle of the Other through an allegory:

Therefore, humans were created singly, to teach you that whoever destroys a single soul (of Israel), Scripture accounts it as if he had destroyed an entire world; and whoever saves one soul (of Israel), Scripture accounts it as if she had saved an entire world. And [also] for the sake of peace among people, that one should not say to his or her fellow, "My parent is greater than yours;" and that heretics should not say, "There are many powers in Heaven." Also, to declare the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be God, for one stamps out many coins with one die, and they are all alike, but the King, the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his or her fellow…

What would it mean to see the world through this lens and live your life by this understanding? What would it mean for you to gaze into the face of another and know you are seeing God reflected back — not just an image or model of God, but God? How would you speak to people? How would you respond when they irritate, insult, or even undermine you? How would you conduct business? How would you run organizations? How would you approach politics, negotiation, and diplomacy?
It seems to be all about sensing the background radiation of the Big Bang.

Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twerski’s yahrzeit is coming soon. It falls on October 15 this year 2013 (11 Cheshvan). In his honor, perhaps try to spend an entire day seeing everything as a piece of God, a part of the Infinite. Then see what kind of radiation comes back to you.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Which God shades us in the sukkah? / Sukkot

Baylor University professors Paul Froese and Christopher Bader tell us that 90% of Americans believe in God, and that, collectively, we view God in one of four distinctive ways, depending upon whether we believe God to be angry or not, and whether we believe God to be actively engaged with the world or not. The four God-personalities are: Authoritarian, Benevolent, Critical, and Distant. They break down this way:

Engaged and involved
Not engaged or involved
Authoritarian: This is the angry and judgmental God who expresses love through punishment. He’s gonna getcha.
Critical: This God is angry and judgmental, but unwilling to engage with the world; judgment is delayed until after you die. He’s gonna getcha later.
Not angry
Benevolent: Believers hold that God acts in our world by doing good on our behalf. He doesn’t wanna getcha.
Distant: This God is conceived as a powerful cosmic creator, who set the world in motion but is not engaged with it. Get what?

Froese and Bader’s work is based on extensive surveys and interviews and published in America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God — and What That Says about Us. As the title implies, their purpose is to demonstrate that Americans’ views of God are predictive of their views on politics, social morality, science, economics, technology, war, love, and more. Froese and Bader explain that our image of God is our meta-narrative; it reflects our big picture view of how we think the world operates.

Liberal American Jews, the authors tell us, tend toward the “Distant” God; Orthodox Jews tend toward the “Authoritarian” image of God. Let’s explore that a bit.

Clearly, the writers of Torah subscribe to the Authoritarian model (on steroids): The God of Torah loves Israel, to be sure, but spends a good deal of time expressing anger, disappointment, and disapproval, and even more time commanding, threatening, and punishing.

Sukkot fast approaches. Many of us are busy putting up a sukkah, gathering decorations, and cooking, cooking, cooking. When Sukkot arrives, on the tail of Yom Kippur, we will read these verses from the Torah, from Leviticus chapter 23:

Mark, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the yield of your land, you shall observe the festival of the Lord for seven days: a complete rest on the first day, and a complete rest on the eighth day. On the first day [of Sukkot] you shall take the fruit of hadar (or: lovely) trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days. (Leviticus 23:39-40)

God’s commandments are clear enough, including the delightful requirement to rejoice for seven days. As for consequences, this is pretty typical of Torah and is found only two chapters later:

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit… I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone… You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword… I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you… But if you do not obey Me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules… I will wreak misery upon you — consumption and fever… you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it… Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit… (excerpted from Leviticus 26:3-20)

This, however, is far from the only way to understand God, and how we understand God is inextricably tied with how we read the text.

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev did not fit any of Froese and Bader’s four models, but he can be excused for that because he lived in the Ukraine in the 18th century, and because he was a Hasidic rebbe and therefore a Kabbalist. Levi Yitzhak is famous for being the “defense attorney” of the Jewish People. His compassion was unbounded. He found value in every soul. Not surprisingly, for Levi Yitzhak, God was the quintessence of empathy, an ever-present and ever-available flowing cascade of compassion surging through the universe. Dip into the flow, and you will find within yourself love, tenderness, mercy, tolerance, kindness, forgiveness — in a word, the deepest level of humanity.

In his famous work, Kedushat Levi, Levi Yitzhak opens with a question he finds in Midrash Tanhuma (Emor 22) about the Torah verses cited above: If Sukkot begins on the 15th day of the 7th month, how can it be deemed the “first day”? He notes that the midrash supplies the answer that this is the first day when sins are counted. Levi Yitzhak finds this explanation lacking, and proceeds to articulate his own answer, one that closely echoes the Tur (Orach Chaim 581):

This seems to be the meaning. On the days from Rosh Hashanah until Yom Kippur, every Jew goes about with open eyes, surveys his deeds, and prepares to return to God. Each of us, according to our own mind and our own level of piety, fears Adonai and God’s glorious majesty as God rises to judge the earth. The “Day of God” is near, and who can ever feel righteous in judgment? Who can but fear and be humbled in coming before the Judge of the universe? If you tremble before God in this way, you will rise in the heights of your mind to set aright whatever has gone wrong. Such a return to God is called “repentance from fear.”

But after Yom Kippur we are involved in such mitzvot as sukkah and lulav. We give to the needy generously as God has blessed us. We love serving God in this joyous and good-hearted way. This is repentance out of love.

Levi Yitzhak differentiates between two types of repentance, two ways to turn our lives toward God. The first is based on fear: The Authoritarian God, the He’s-Gonna-Getcha-God, will punish me. So, out of fear for my own welfare, I repent and attempt to set right what I have caused to go wrong.

The second type of repentance, and clearly Levi Yitzhak things this is the superior type, is based on love. Having come through the High Holy Days, repented, atoned, and wiped the slate clean, we feel joy and gratitude which we invest in joyfully doing mitzvot and generously attending to the needs of others. We do not merely fix what we broke, we set out to do good. We serve God not out of fear of punishment, but out of love. This is certainly not the Authoritative model of God — no angry God here — but is it the Benevolent image or the Distant image? Is God actively engaged with Creation or not?

Levi Yitzhak explains this dichotomy of teshuvot (turnings toward God), drawing from the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud):

Our Sages taught (B.Yoma 86b) that when one repents out of fear, intentional transgressions are reduced to the status of unintended misdeeds. But when one repents out of love, the same transgressions are transformed into actual merits. Now God, in God’s great mercy and compassion, wants the penitent to return in true love. “It is not the death of mortals You seek, but that they should turn from their ways and live” [from the prayer Unetaneh Tokef recited on the High Holy Days].

The Bavli credits Rabbi Shimon b. Lakish with this teaching. Reish Lakish sees two purposes for repentance: the first is the self-serving motivation of avoiding punishment; the second is because one is filled with love for God and thereby inspired to do good for others. For Reish Lakish, our good deeds, inspired by love of God, lead to a divine recalculation such that our demerits are deemed merits. Does this surprise you?

I think that Levi Yitzhak goes further. His commentary continues:

So on his holiday [of Sukkot], when we come to rest in God’s shade [under the s’chach roof of the sukkah], performing mitzvot and good deeds out of love of Adonai, God begins counting our sins. He wants to know how many merits we are earning in the process of exchange! He doesn’t count them prior to Sukkot, when we are motivated by fear.

Levi Yitzhak understands that repentance inspired by love is superior to that which is motivated by fear. But he also understands that love itself is transformative. Goodness begets goodness, and it is in our nature when we move past fear and relate to God through love. Or, as Levi Yitzhak reminds us, quoting B.Pesachim 112a, “More than the calf wants to nurse, the cow wants to be suckled.” Allowing love to be the motivating force in our lives rather than fear is powerful and transforming — and also entirely natural because empathy, compassion, and love, are God flowing through us.

Levi Yitzhak’s God is one of empathy, compassion, and love. This God works through us, promulgating and disseminating love at every opportunity. It is not only our deeds that are transformed through love; it is the very Torah text that is transformed from a harsh authoritarian text into one of love. Perhaps Levi Yitzhak is telling us to envision God not as the world is or appears to be, but rather as we wish it to be.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Doing the Big Fish Limbo with Antoinette / The Ten Days of Awe and Yom Kippur

On Tuesday, August 20, another mass killing in a school… was this time averted. I want to immediately note that it was no thanks to better gun laws, and certainly not by insanely arming school personnel with weapons. A 20-year-old armed with an AK-47 and 500 rounds of ammo had come to the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur, Georgia. He was off his meds and determined to kill because he had “nothing to live for.” Disaster was averted — imagine what he could have done with 500 rounds — because of the cool, calm, and above all compassionate response of Antoinette Tuff who worked as the bookkeeper of the school. Tuff stood between life and death.

On Yom Kippur afternoon, tired and hungry, we will gather to read the enigmatic story of the prophet Jonah. For something that seems like a simple child’s tale, this is an immensely complex story. Legions of commentators have struggled to wrest lessons from it and have found in its very mystery many meanings. Do we read Jonah because the Ninevites, who enjoyed the unenviable reputation as the most brutish nation of the ancient world, repented? Surely, if they can repent, we can. Or are we supposed to focus on God’s mercy in forgiving the Ninevites? If God can forgive them, surely God will forgive us. Is the story — all of only 47 verses! — meant to rattle our cages and teach us that success and failure are not measured in heaven as they are on earth? Jonah thought he was a failure, yet the Ninevites repented. Perhaps the message is that we need to re-examine our priorities. Or perhaps Jonah is the model of someone who does the right thing even though he abhors the idea and initially tries to evade it. Or perhaps Jonah comes to remind us that just as God is everywhere, so our concern for the welfare of others should extend well beyond the safe borders of our families, friends, and communities.

Biblical scholar and psychologist Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg writes, “The book of Jonah invites interpretation from the first verse to the last; but its elusive meanings are never fully netted. There is no conclusive answer to its questions." (The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious)

What are the questions to which there are no conclusive answers? At the core, Zornberg tells us, this is a story about the human condition: we live every moment with existential uncertainty. We are not firmly planted in life because anything could happen at any time. Who among us has not experienced the shock of an unexpected tragedy? The prayer Unetaneh Tokef boldly reminds us of this unavoidable reality. In the coming year, who will live and who will die? Think about Antoinette Tuff.

Jonah is the ultimate liminal character: like all of us, he stands between life and death, not firmly lodged in either. He is a prophet, but he is neither God’s advocate nor the advocate of the people of Nineveh. He tries to flee, though he knows it is impossible to evade God. His moment of realization comes when he is neither on land nor at sea; he is inside the big fish — liminal space, doing the Big Fish Limbo.

Jonah is not alone in his liminality. When the storm erupts at sea, the sailors stand between life and death; they know that their fate hangs in the balance. So, too, the Ninevites after Jonah delivers his message. They have been condemned, but they are not yet doomed to destruction. They, too, hang in the balance. So did the lives of the children at the Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy in Decatur.

In a far less dramatic way, we are no different. We become acutely aware of the fragility of life during these Ten Days of Awe, and especially throughout Yom Kippur, during which we rehearse our deaths. (We wear the white of burial shrouds and some wear the actual kittel in which they will one day be buried; we abstain from drink and nourishment, which sustain life, as well as the comforts and pleasures of the living.) The liturgy of the machzor expresses this through a stark and frightening metaphor: we dangle in the air between ketivah (inscribing) and chatimah (sealing). Our fate, determined by our deeds, is never really a done deal. We need not subscribe to the theology of a God who judges, writes, and seals, to know just how uncertain life is.

Jonah is angry because he doesn’t know anything for certain. In his mind, things should be clear. Evil people should die; good people should prosper. Yet the world does not work this way, and Jonah cannot live in the world as it is. On two occasions, he says he wants to die, both before and after his three liminal days in the big fish. In Zornberg’s words, Jonah is “allergic to standing in uncertainty.”

Jonah is all of us, standing between life and death in every moment; because we cannot know the future, we cannot have certainty. Like Jonah, we have a choice to make. Will we run away, flinging ourselves into the sea? The alternative, Zornberg says, is to stand before God, or stand in the presence of God. It strikes me that Jonah never stands: he runs away, he sleeps in the boat, he floats in the fish, he walks to Nineveh, and he sits in the shade of the kikayon tree. But he doesn’t stand, which for
Jonah and for us means to live in the place between life and death, to live with the tension of uncertainty. That place is a life lived fully, enthusiastically, and compassionately.

Jonah lives in fear and anxiety. The best part about Jonah is that he succeeds in the mission God laid out for him; indeed Jonah is the only prophet in the Bible who succeeds! The worst part about Jonah is that because he cannot “stand before God” and live with existential uncertainty, he lives in fear and anxiety, and is incapable of compassion. You might be thinking that he has compassion for the sailors, but as the story comes down to us, it seems that Jonah realizes he will soon be discovered to be the cause of the storm, and in any case he wishes to end his life. He certainly has no compassion for the Ninevites, or even for their animals — not for any living, breathing creature. His only attachment is to the kikayon, a little bush. Antoinette Tuff listened to the would-be killer. She told him, “We all go through something in life” andWe not going to hate you, baby.” She told him she loved him, and I have no doubt that at that very moment, she did. Antoinette Tuff saved many lives that Tuesday with compassion.

Unable to live with mortality hanging over his head, Jonah can experience only judgment, fear and despair. But not compassion. Perhaps this is the most disturbing aspect to the book: Despite all he experiences, Jonah does not grow, or change, or evince any understanding.

Dennis Shulman, MD, published an article to refute Zornberg’s reading of Jonah. He writes:

…the meaning of the Book of Jonah is clear. Psychic unity requires that we face our objects—God and conscience, Nineveh and storm and mother, self and other—struggle with them, stare at them, allow them to breathe and live in the same room. As God, Jonah's “psychoanalyst,” argues, it is only then that we can find our way to where… Jonah never quite arrives—forgiveness of the self and of the other.[1]

I think Shulman’s interpretation dovetails beautifully with Zornberg’s thesis. Isn’t Shulman’s description what it means to “stand before God” as Zornberg explains it? To face the existential reality of our lives, the uncertainty of both how long we will live and how well, to know we are always in limbo, always in a liminal state between life and death — not just during these Eser Y’mei Teshuvah / Ten days of Awe, but always. Think Antoinette Tuff.

Here is how I weave the ideas of these two scholars and psychologists, Zornberg and Shulman, together.   
  • The very nature of life is that we must learn to live with existential uncertainty. Time and energy spent fussing about what we have and don’t have, worrying about what we cannot control, and making excuses for what we do or fail to do, is time and energy that could be spent making our lives meaningful and fulfilling. 
  • What we need most of all to break out the all-too-natural, but unproductive prison of self-absorption and self-pity is compassion: look around and see what’s happening to others. What can we do for them? How can we enlarge our lives to include them?
  •  When we learn to operate through compassion, we will then be able to truly forgive — the real, genuine article — both ourselves and others. 
  • And when we do that, we will have found a measure of shleimut (wholeness) and shalom (peace).
May the coming year be for you one of compassion, forgiveness, and peace.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] Dennis G. Shulman, PhD, “Jonah: His Story, Our Story; His Struggle, Our Struggle: Commentary on Paper by Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg.” Psychoanalytic Dialogues: The International Journal of Relational Perspectives, Volume 18, Issue 3, 2008.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Here come da judge / Parshat Ha'azinu and the High Holy Days

Remember Sammy Davis Jr. in wig and robe, high-stepping across the stage of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In intoning, “Here come da judge! Court’s in session cause here come da judge!” We read parshat Ha’azinu and, in the midst, roll out the apples and honey and shine up the shofar to inaugurate the High Holy Day season with Rosh Hashanah. The theme of judgment pervades both the parashah and the Holy Days.

Parashat Ha’azinu opens with Moses calling heaven as witness and proclaiming God’s glory. He next draws a striking and disturbing contrast between God and Israel:
[4] The Rock! — His deeds are perfect,
Yea, all His ways are just;
A faithful God, never false,
True and upright is He.

[5] Children unworthy of Him—
That crooked, perverse generation—
Their baseness has played Him false. (Deuteronomy 32:4,5)
God is all-perfect and Israel is utterly perverse.  Rosh Hashanah is also called Yom haDin (Judgment Day) and the machzor (High Holy Day prayer book), particularly on Yom Kippur, will riff on our imperfection, sins, transgressions, iniquity, and wrongdoing — in contrast with God who is, in the words of Exodus 34:6-7—

…compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, bearing iniquity, transgression and sin…

That verse continues (though this part does not appear in the machzor), “…yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generation.” The God of the machzor is compassionate and forgiving, to be sure, but also judging and punishing.

Much of the High Holy Day liturgy is difficult for me to digest and challenging for me to use spiritually for several reasons. First, the God I believe in is not a cosmic being who sits in judgment and clobbers those who step out of line; I don’t believe the universe works that way. Second, while the invitation to engage in introspection is all to the good, I am troubled by liturgy that encourages us to see ourselves as brimming with sinfulness. I doubt this inspires change in many people. Third, this formulation of God as “Judge and Jury” probably derives from a human proclivity to be judgmental, and serves to encourage (if not engender) a judgmental mindset. Put another way: Long ago people, as judgmental then as we are today, envisioned God as a cosmic judge from whom they learned that just as God judges us, so we are justified in judging one another. The machzor emphasizes again and again that God is compassionate and forgiving — that, too, is a fundamental theme of the High Holy Day liturgy and a role model for us. Yet in the end, the image of God as judge, jury, and dispenser of punishment doesn’t work very well either as motivation to change or to facilitate a spiritual experience of renewal. Therefore, I need to do a great deal of re-framing and re-interpretation in order to use the liturgy of the machzor spiritually.

Rosh Hashanah is a time for renewal, a time to re-engage with the best within us, the parts of ourselves we treasure most but perhaps have lain dormant for a while: our compassion, goodness, generosity, patience, kindness, and humor. A year flies by so fast. Some of our best intentions of the past year flew away too. We are “works in progress” and Rosh Hashanah reminds us that opportunities abound to become who we were meant to be, to shape ourselves into the best versions of ourselves, to find fulfillment in the goodness within each of us. Rosh Hashanah is an opportunity to meet ourselves again, affirm what is good in us, recognize where we can improve, and reach to be even better.

I hope to provide some examples in the coming week of how I attempt to reframe and reinterpret the High Holy Day liturgy, but first I want to lay groundwork with Psalm 15 because, like much of the High Holy Day liturgy, it can be read through two starkly different lenses. I hope that this example will serve as a model or template.

Psalm 15 is composed of only five verses, yet there is a world of either guilt or encouragement locked in those verses, depending upon how you read it. Here is the psalm in translation:
A Psalm, of David.

[1] Adonai, who may sojourn in Your tent, who may dwell on Your holy mountain?
[2] The one who walks blamelessly, who does what is right, and speaks truth in his heart;
[3] whose tongue is not given to evil; who has not done evil to his fellow, who has cast no slur on his neighbor.
[4] In his eyes, a debased man is abhorrent, but those who fear Adonai he honors; if he vows to his detriment, he does not recant;
[5] who has never lent money at interest, or accepted a bribe against the innocent.
The one who acts in this way shall never be shaken.
One way to read Psalm 15 is that it is the description of the ideal human being, a bulleted list of the attributes we must possess to please God. If we miss the mark (the word for sin in Hebrew, chait, means to “miss the mark”) then we will stumble, we will be shaken — bad things will happen in our lives. Miss a step, and you’re out of God’s good graces. Watch out — the boom will be lowered.

Happily, this is not the only way to read the psalm. The Bavli (Babylonian Talmud, Makkot 23b - 24a) offers Psalm 15 as one of several condensations of all 613 mitzvot, but notice that there’s nothing about ritual or sacrifice or shabbat observance or holy days here — all of which surely figure prominently in the 613. Rather, the psalm speaks of ethical concerns and specifically mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro; that is to say, values and behaviors that pertain to our relationships with other people.

I want to suggest that Psalm 15 is a sampling of God’s musar (God’s ethics). These are traits God prizes: honestly, decency, and loyalty.  This is religious humanism at its best. Viewed from this perspective, what might we do with Psalm 15? We might consider this God’s “to-do list” for us. I make a lot of to-do lists for myself. The first thing I do is check to see what I’ve already accomplished. When we read Psalm 15 we might ask ourselves: Which of these have I accomplished? On which am I making progress? We don’t have to master everything on the list at once, but the list affords us the opportunity to take stock and set goals for ourselves. Taking stock and setting personal spiritual goals is the quintessence of Rosh Hashanah.

Read this way, the God of Psalm 15 is not a punishing judge, noting our every transgression, but instead an encouraging and appreciative teacher who revels in her students’ efforts and progress.

The season of renewal is upon us, a time to celebrate the opportunities the coming year holds out to us to deepen, enrich, and elevate our lives by improving ourselves. I wish you and yours a shanah tovah u’metukah, a sweet new year of possibility and blessing.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman