Friday, September 30, 2016

Using Our Words: Saying What We Mean and Meaning What We Say

Many times I have explained why TZEDAKAH (Hebrew word) is not the same as charity as these words come from two separate religious/cultural contexts. In the same way, defining GIBOR as hero can be misleading in a Jewish context and the full sense of KADOSH is not accurately captured by the word holy. So what? Who cares? I do, because I would not want to use words that are important and meaningful to collapse other traditions and belief systems that are meaningful to my friends and colleagues.

I love the breath and breadth of my life and the people in it. I am involved in a great deal of multi-faith initiatives and find it so wonderfully fulfilling. As I often say, there is so much that unites us, ultimately reminding us we share infinitely more than what may divide us. Many in the religiously observant world in which I live my life as a Jew disagree with me and think that I am engaging in building bridges that are not to be built. Such bridges of understanding and sharing are critical in our world today when those who take extremely narrow points of view are raising their voices louder and louder to try to drown out the rest of us who would prefer to maintain the integrity of our individual identities while forging meaningful connections with others who have identities of their own of which they are rightfully proud and to which they are appropriately dedicated. As I often say, there is so much on which we agree, and simply put, we can agree to disagree at appropriate points. But this is generative of meaningful discourse, NOT leading to the intense lack of empathy and understanding we see in our world today too often.

During part of this past summer, I read Krista Tippett’s amazing book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living. Among the important tools she identifies for good and constructive living are WORDS. You know, the most important tool of our shared trade of communication. How do we use words and do we use them to build and share or to destroy and build impenetrable walls? As I was reading through this wonderful set of conversations she shares that she was privileged to have with so many different people – of faith, political leanings, cultural backgrounds, and as many types of groups as you can enumerate, it was so apparent to me exactly how we must all think about our WORDS.

And then, the reality of the world in which I live strikes! How can I avoid the 24/7 exposure in these United States to the ongoing barrage of words that are meant to tear down, destroy and render so many as “the other” when I really had hoped we were so past that. Apparently, too many of us were so wrong on this account. The verbal bullying that is masquerading as a presidential election while we are trying ever so hard to sift through the diatribes and histrionics we are hearing in order to get to the real issues and support those candidates for various offices who are trying to do the same is horrifying and reminds me of WORDS so poorly used. It is easy enough to note that WORDS and SWORD are made up of the same letters; how sad that the former have turned into the latter. How do we keep trying to reverse this trend and heal what is breaking even further?

Throughout the Jewish days of observance of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur that are approaching, we are told to think about our actions, our intentions, and most certainly our WORDS. In fact in the confessional prayer of Yom Kippur, the misdeeds of words far outnumber any other type. We know from Proverbs/Mishlei “Death and life are in the hand (power) of our tongue (the words we use and say).” I see this playing out daily, inside of our communities of faith, amongst our various communities of faith, political beliefs and cultural identities, within families and so on.

Here is a thought. People often ask why we have to repeat the same prayers and the same script so much? Maybe it is because we say the words but WE DO NOT MEAN THEM or totally understand them and the ramifications of those words on our actions! Maybe, regardless of how many syllables the words we use have and how articulate we may be, we are not as sophisticated or evolved as we think our word usage indicates. In Krista Tippett’s conversation with Vincent Harding, who helped Martin Luther King Jr. develop the theory and practice of nonviolent communication, he says as follows when asked about the meanings of “civil” and “civility” and the degree to which they are present in our world:

“… [how can we learn] to have a democratic conversation. That is what we need. We are absolutely amateurs at this matter of building a democratic nation made up of many, many peoples, of many kinds, from many connections and convictions and from many experiences. And to know after all the pain that we have caused each other, how to carry on democratic conversation that in a sense invites us to hear each other’s best arguments and best contributions so that we can then figure out how do we put these things together to create a more perfect union…. For me, Krista, it also opens up the question of what it means to be truly human…” (p.51)

In the Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur liturgy, we are not supposed to just SAY the words of the prayers that are scripted, but insure that they are fully intentional, that they come from our heart and our innermost being – that which we share with all individuals who were created in the image of G-d. We say “I am sorry” and “Please forgive me” to each other and we promise G-d and ourselves “I will repent, I will return, I will do better.” Do we mean it – are there actions to reinforce our words? Without the actualization of these words into the deeds of our daily lives, what good are they?

I find that all people of faith have the capacity and the tools for such reflection. Each of us will aspire to those goals that are articulated as the ideal within our chosen faiths. While there are differences in terms of whether we do things because we are commanded to do them, such as a Mitzvah – NOT a good deed per se in Jewish thinking, but a commanded action because G-d says so; or whether we call G-d as the One and Only or recognize Jesus as G-d’s son or Allah; or tithe our earnings for whatever reason in our respective communities; I would hope that ALL OF US CAN REFLECT UPON OUR WORDS and use them to build ourselves and each other up and not tear down what G-d and so many generations before us have worked to build and give us as a legacy.

I wish all of us meaningful reflection on our words and their use in the appropriate seasons. For those of us in the Jewish faith, that would be now. Shanah Tovah Tikateivu.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Is there really such a person as a Secular Jew? A Question for the Upcoming Season of Jewish Holidays

Elul has begun, the Hebrew month that precedes the month of so many celebrations – Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. As an observant Jew in every respect I am fully aware of how all plans and aspects of life are defined at this point as “things I MUST do before the holidays” and “those things that will have to wait until after the holidays.” Further, as the interfacing of the general calendar we all follow in our day to day lives and the Jewish calendar that marks our religious/spiritual/cultural life result in “a later season of Hagim” this year, nonetheless, so many in Jewish circles are rewarded by these later celebrations by being able to obsess for an additional month! Lucky us!

I am privileged to be able to work with and learn from and share thoughts with people from across the ideological divide within the Jewish community as well as with colleagues and friends of other religious traditions. It is so fascinating to watch an entire society go into an altered state of apoplexy during different seasons of the year as they prepare for the big Thanksgiving Feast, for the High Holiday Observance that is part of the Moslem Community, etc. and clearly this is the case with virtually everyone I know who identifies as Jewish on any level, including “secular Jewish” Israeli and/or culturally or religiously Jewish in our widest circles of community.

I wonder if this unified feeling of “I HAVE SO MUCH TO DO TO GET READY” is something to use as a rallying and unifying cry for All Jews, regardless of how they identify as persons of faith and/or practice. Clearly, it is easy enough to apply this to Moslem, Christian and other communities of shared practices and foundational beliefs on any level. In the month of Elul, we are aware of our relationship to G-d, with the letters of the month itself forming an acronym that references a verse in Hebrew, “Ani LeDodi v’Dodi Li,” meaning “I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me.” As we ready for our annual LOVEFEST of the Hagim/holidays of the month of Tishrei in the Jewish calendar, it reminds me of the mild to more intense hysteria that might be associated with planning a huge event or celebration, say a wedding! And we all want to be and are part of it!

I have been listening to and learning so much from wonderful discussions that are conducted by Dov Elbaum relating to the weekly Torah portions in Israel. Here is the link for those who want to access it, but note that these conversations are completely in Hebrew -- I love listening to how Dov, who identifies as a Secular Jew, interviews so many other Secular Jews, and pushes them to acknowledge that religion does factor into their identify on many levels. Clearly this is the case with him as well. One of his guests, as Israeli poet by the name of Haim Guri, tells the story of how in an Israeli Moshav (communal living entity – think condominium) there were people who were guarding the community during a time of concern. They heard a disturbance around the perimeter and readied themselves to defend their neighbors and friends. The outsiders shouted “WE ARE TZAHAL” – that is members of the Israeli army. The ones on guard were not certain and finally said, “Okay, prove it, what is the weekly Torah Portion?” This is funny to those of us who live by this marker as religiously observant Jews. The point is that secular Jews in Israel live by the same marker so often. Yossi Beilin, a well known political figure in Israel, who also identifies as “Hiloni” or a secular Jew, talks about how he LOVES the culture of being Jewish, including for him, study of Torah, Talmud, being in synagogue and so on – actions and involvements that many define almost exclusively as religious, but in fact they are so much more.

I love that the Lubavitch teach that every Jew does many Mitzvot (commanded Jewish actions) every day and that we are all religious in so many different ways. So many students of all ages have said to me through the years “Oh, I am not religious.” I often try to challenge them to think of themselves as religious but perhaps they might not be “ritualistically observant” which is one way to be religious. I share with them that in fact there are so many more options for one to identify as religious or a person of faith. This is what my Lubavitch friends are teaching and this is what Yossi Beilin, Dov Elbaum, and I along with so many others are trying to convey through our work and our lives.

Our identity as people of faith is part of our reality as human being. We are all people of belief systems, religion, if you will; even if, and perhaps especially when we do not feel connected to G-d for whatever reasons. We may and do certainly connect differently but we should all remember that we are all included in the larger entity. It is in this mode that Jews of many different types of religious identity, ritual observance and level of connection will approach the coming season of holidays. As for me, I would like to think the fact that we all connect in some way to each other, to community, to time-honored practices and traditions and to a Being Higher than We is what brings us together and unites us, not just the hysteria of preparing for the season in which we reflect upon all of this. A good year of health, happiness and fulfillment to all! Shanah Tovah!

Thursday, September 1, 2016

I raise my eyes to the mountains, from where comes my support?! (Tehilim/Psalms 121)

We just returned from an absolutely amazing week in Arizona. We used the excuse (or legitimate reason?) of taking our son Brian back to Northern Arizona University, where he is a student, to spend some time in Sedona and the Grand Canyon, two places about which too many people have said “You just have to go there.” So being the obedient child I am, we went!

To be in the presence of the mountains and the terrain that defines that area is truly awe inspiring to the highest degree. I never cease to be amazed by G-d’s artistry. As everyone kept stating that these are natural phenomena, I saw intricate designs and artistic effects everywhere and the references to G-d as the one who fashions, who is the potter, who is the crafter, etc. that we will state several times in the upcoming High Holiday liturgy just kept going through my mind. G-d is truly the most magnificent artisan of all and we are privileged to live as the beneficiaries of this magnificent work. But, too often, people forget that. Spending some time in either of these amazing locales cannot help but remind us. Yes, G-d did create the Heavens and the Earth, and as the clouds, stars, mountains and sunset and sunrise all meld together, it is so clear that the firmaments are there as well!

I remember a few years ago when we were in Boulder, Colorado, also being considered by our son for his college years, I had the same feeling. Wherever you walk, you see mountains, clear skies and generally calm people. As a person with my learning disability of DDD (Directionality Deficit Disorder) there was another benefit. Directions like “walk with the mountains, towards the mountains or away from that mountain range” actually worked… I felt much more grounded, pun perhaps intended! At any rate, I asked one person why the people are so different as I experienced personally that Western USA phenomenon that I knew intellectually exists. The answer I received was as clear as the air, “You see,” said the young man, “when you live alongside the mountains and not sky scrapers and buildings that are the result of human architecture, but rather natural architecture, there is much less hubris.” The quote is probably not exact with the passage of time, but pretty close… and it has definitely stayed with me.

People are different there, really they are nice, they stop to say hi to total strangers and conversations are easy to begin in random places with random people. The pace is different and so appreciated by this resident of the generally hyper Northeastern part of the United States. I totally GET why Brian loves that pace of life in that place and space; it is quite intoxicating in a wonderful way.

One of the topics that I have explored in my own learning and teaching and sharing is that of our connection to the Environment in which we live. We spent time with people who refer to the Grand Canyon as Mother Earth; we use the phrase in Hebrew IMA ADAMAH, and just yesterday I was spending yet another day learning about Native Americans and other peoples on a Museum date with a really close friend (yes JS that’s you!) and saw the French expression MERE TERRE…. The earth is truly our mother and the Creater of All parented her if we think of bringing together our faith traditions and the reality of the land that we way too often ignore.

I am beyond happy as a mom that our son has found his, as one of the locals had put it in January when we first took him there, his “happy place.” But to be honest and a little selfish, Brian, I am so glad that we now have a reason (not an excuse) to continue to come visit (not too much, I promise!) you and spend time in what many people call G-d’s country in which one indeed looks to the mountains for our source, our understanding of so much that is bigger than us and more. For me that is exactly what it is!

As for the rest of us, really YOU HAVE TO GO TO SEDONA and to the GRAND CANYON. And no, I am NOT getting any commission from any tourist bureau for saying so!