Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Boundaries and Borders in our Lives

As we come to the end of the Torah reading cycle in our Jewish calendar, one is continually aware of how the experiences of the generations that are the subject of the Torah narrative bleed into the hopes and aspirations of the generations to come, all the way to our own times. Land is divided, laws and prescribed practices defined, and so much else is delineated in terms of the reality of our existence as Moshe delivers his final review lessons that emanate from God’s instruction and are to last as the legacy of the Jewish nation. At this juncture, there is an acute awareness of the notion that time will go on, generations will come and go, and our understanding of boundaries and whatever comfort that definition may bring will surely and sorely be tested and questioned. The Jewish journey will continue to examine and analyze those boundaries on so many levels as Jewish Law and the many hands that take on insuring its practice continue to distill their meaning. And so it is with other communities of faith as well in joining the lessons and legacy of the past to the experiences and challenges of the present and future.

I am presently reading a book by Michael Abraham entitled God Plays with Dice. (For those of you fluent in Hebrew and interested in this discussion, I highly recommend this work.) This book is a very intense examination of the interplay of Science, Philosophy, Theology, Deism, Faith and so much else as we try to figure out what was the very beginning of our journey and where these boundaries and borders began. Abraham takes great effort in trying to be a purist (which results in a great deal of circling and repeating arguments and perspectives), from his vantage point of his knowledge of Science as well as his perspective as a religiously observant and equally knowledgeable Jew. One of the points he makes continually as he references the work of so many other scholars and writers, primarily the one with whom he takes issue, namely Richard Dawkins, is that one must take great care in discussing such matters to define one’s framework and to use language, questions and concepts from that discipline. We can no more use terms of faith and belief to explain science any more than we can work in the opposite direction. Here is yet another lesson in boundaries as Abraham looks at Evolution in terms of its postulates and queries and shows that within different domains there is much to learn as one crosses boundaries. In this examination, Abraham eschews dichotomies, showing that so much of who and what we are is a matter of a continuum of understanding and not binary systems of A or not-A. The book is written on a sophisticated level and I am not always sure I am catching all the nuances in his distinctions of the boundaries of various domains, but it is clear that he posits the need to be cognizant of the limitations of each system of thought and knowledge as well as the notion that we can interface the various ways we have of explaining how all came to be if we honor the principles and parameters (yes, the boundaries if you will) of each domain.

Simultaneously, my husband and I, along with our son Brian, just spent an amazing week in some of our western states, specifically Nevada, Utah and Arizona, during which we spent hours driving, hiking, walking and learning about the many geological and natural elements as well as the various forces of nature, human involvement and time and their impact on what we were observing. In watching sunsets, in moving from the vantage point of being on a plane to being on the ground, at the top of canyons as opposed to the bottom of canyons, driving as well as walking and so on, one cannot help but be awed and wonder where one aspect of the totality of what one is observing ends and the other begins. When we were at the Hoover Dam, for example, we learned how the economics of the Depression in this country and the building of the Dam were intertwined in our history; and of course now, as one marvels at the construction and the function of this Dam and its purpose, it is important to remember the human factor, the historical moment and the natural threat that brought this effort of construction (and containment or creation of a boundary) to be. There are so many different stories – the story of nature, the story of human lives, the unfolding of historical events, and the timing that brings all of them together to create this defined wonder.

Also, during our time in Nevada, we went to a Cirque d’Soleil show, “O” which is all about boundaries and their bleeding together as well as moving. Water, air, gravity, human figures, movement, scenery, and musical as well as visual art all came together from their different domains to create a shared and magnificent product – in which each is present both individually and as part of the greater whole. It was truly something to behold. And while I was marveling at it all, I was thinking of what I was reading in Abraham’s book about how all that we are comes together – both in ways we can explain through science or philosophy or mathematics or other defined fields and in ways we cannot explain but yield to our faith for support. I was then thinking of “O” when we were driving, walking, hiking and experiencing God’s art along with nature and the evolving of time. Mountains that were precisely carved and artistically placed – without intentional human tools of art. How can this be? Where is the dividing line between God’s domain and the human hand’s domain? Is there a clear one? Or do we just hold onto the faith and belief that joins us together, striving to break boundaries that need to be torn down to create something greater while working intentionally to maintain those that are necessary for our existence – such as dams and water? In the end, says Abraham, we can and do believe in so many different systems of truth that ultimately begin at a point beyond anything we can identity. Many of us choose to call that point before the beginning of all of these domains God.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Value of Sharing our Faith Journeys, Texts and Teachings; An Amazing Conference

I was just in the most wonderful setting for incredible learning with a phenomenal group of people. These people came from all over the world and come to their belief in The Holy One in so many different ways. For three days, we learned together, discussed together, sharing our hopes and our dreams and our challenges, we ate together, we laughed together and most important of all, we shared our humanity and our faith journeys with each other. We discussed God, gender, women in religion and so much else. IF you want to get a sense of the breath and breadth of this amazing gathering go here to see the program and note the different presenters and their nationalities as well as faiths:

In a stroke of genius on the part of the conference organizers or perhaps as a coincidence (you know, those occasions on which I believe God likes to remain anonymous) I was roomed with a wonderful woman who is a devoutly religious Muslim woman, as well as two lovely Christian women. Immediately my new Muslim friend and I found so much common and shared ground in our lives as we interface our religiously observant souls with our various involvements in our daily life and world. We were able to share the many blessings we feel we have as religiously observant women as well as frustrations regarding what people “think they know about us.” She talked about how people assume she is oppressed and how they do not understand the choices she makes out of her very intentional devotion. This conversation between us went on and on for many hours and I hope fervently that it will continue in the future. This is just one of the wonderful contacts I was able to make and feel as if I potentially found a friend for many years to come, I hope. People were there from lands of origin and lives lived located all over the world – India, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Canada, Israel, United States and so on. We ranged from those who are devoutly observant to the most liberal manifestations of personal journeys of faith. We come from all races and ethnicities.

For three days we learned about and with each other, another example of the types of communities that I just run to be part of, believing with every fiber of my being that God in all of God’s manifestations is truly present in an intentional and joyful manner in such spaces. It is here that we all, as God’s children, come together with our various belief systems, gender and sexuality identities, lands of origin and ethnicities to celebrate what unites us and honor our differences, trying to sincerely deepen our understanding of each other, so that then we can go back to our home communities and share dispelled myths, break harsh and misguided stereotypes and truly work together to build a better world.

As was shared on multiple occasions, in the Koran it is taught as follows: “We have appointed a law and a practice for every one of you. Had God willed, He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you. So compete with each other in doing good deeds. Every one of you will return to God and He will inform you regarding the things about which you differed.” (Surat al-Ma’ida, 48) We all shared our revealed teaching about the value of every life and how each life is an entire world and so much else that is part of our individuated religious journeys and yet also foundational to the values, so often shared, that inform those practices. We marveled at the similarities between important terms and concepts in Hebrew and Arabic. We asked questions of clarification and learned that while we each interpret and distill practices differently, we all have a deep respect for what is so much greater than us, hopefully keeping our hubris in check.

Were there moments of discomfort or awkwardness for individuals at various moments? Absolutely. As one of our keynote speakers remarked, if we do not have such moments, then we have not cast the net wide enough. This net cast by the Hickey Center of Nazareth College in Rochester, New York for our conference on “Sacred Texts and Human Contexts: A Symposium on Women and Gender in Religions” was clearly cast fairly wide – with the most liberal iterations to the most religiously and ritualistically observant strands of all of the Abrahamic faiths and others included as well; so, how could one not negotiate moments of discord? The question is how we do so, not that these moments exist. I found so much honor and so much love in this space that provided a supportive environment for addressing these realities of our lives. We learned about each other’s lives and each other’s faith journeys. I can only hope that these conversations will continue among so many of us that shared this space in the coming months and years. From face veils to Kipot (Yarmulkas) on women as well as men, from various forms of religion/cultural headdress and garb to everyday western clothes, we found beautiful souls in each of these cloaks.

As it happened, this conference was held over the Jewish observance of Tisha B’Av (yet another coincidence, perhaps?). In a particularly poignant experience, I went with two other Jewish women and we took three of our Muslim friends with us to an Orthodox shul in the area for the reading of Lamentations that marks this day of mourning for having lost our Temples, so much historically and even more spiritually when we consider how we treat each other, which is not in the spirit of the humility and the awe with which we are to hold each other as individuals created by God. I want to thank the shul and their Rabbi for their hospitality even though we could not fully take advantage of it socially due to the muted nature of the day.

Daily in our prayers, Jews repeat the verse “On that day, God will be One and God’s Name will be One.” I have never thought of this as conflation of our varied beliefs and religions, but rather our ascension to the realm beyond words where our separations and conflicts are set aside for all that unites us – our collective belief, through so many modes of expressions, in The One Who Is Holy and Supreme. Gatherings like this convince me that such ascendance is indeed possible if one wills it to be so.