Kol Nidre 5777: “The God Participle”

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

Since this is the evening of confession. I am going to confess something tonight. It’s a theological confession.

While I am rooted in one particular religious tradition, and I am open to interfaith engagement and spiritual exploration, there is one place where I get stuck. And that is, I don’t like the term atheist. So long as I have been engaged spiritually, since I was young through my studies and now into my rabbinate, I have always had a problem with the term atheist.

I don’t like the term atheist because it begins with a negative. A-thiest, non theist, and it seems odd to begin one’s belief system from a negative. Why define your set of beliefs from a place of the negative. My wife Yohanna doesn’t like the candy non-pariels, the chocolate drops with the candy sprinkles on top because as she says, why would you want to eat a candy that has a negative name? It is hard to argue with that. A belief system based on what you don’t believe does not seem like a compelling place to start.

But the other reason is that the term atheist, which is there to define an opposition to God, is there to describe a particular type of God. A God we have a common notion of, but a God that may not hold us to our reality, a narrow conception of what God is. A fundamentalist view of God as portrayed in sacred text, or a vision of God we are given as a child, an immature incomplete vision, that then defines or not define our adult spirituality.

So tonight I wanted to talk a bit about God. And I want to talk about God because I really want to talk about religion and I want to talk about spirituality. Because it seems to me that for all the power we ascribe to God traditionally, ironically God remains one of the biggest barriers we have to living a spiritual life.

Earlier this year, I was invited to Nova School—the local private middle school– to talk about Judaism. I spent the morning sharing a presentation on Judaism with four different classes of middle school students, and then answering a lot of questions. The students had prepared question in advance, so I came prepared to answer a variety of things. The questions were thoughtful and interesting. One question was, “what is the meaning of YHVH?” What does that signify?

It was an interesting question, because I hadn’t really been asked that before. The term YHVH is a reference to God, and a specific one at that. YHVH is a transliteration of sorts—when we render Hebrew into English characters—of yod, hay, vav, hay. The four Hebrew letters that make up the traditional name of God. We call this name the tetragrammaton, from the Greek for “four letters.”

Generally you see this term in academic papers and books, in Judaic or biblical studies. Sometimes in these contexts they use the pronunciation Yahweh, which is just applying vocalization to the four letters, and it is not a term we use in Jewish ritual practice. In fact, as I explained to the students, we don’t use that pronunciation in worship, or services, or ritual. Rather we use the term Adonai—literally meaning “My Lord”–in its place when we are reciting a berachah. So Adonai is the term we use, taking on the role as a direct reference to God, so much so that in traditional practice one does not even say the term Adonai when referring to God, one would say Hashem—literally “the name”–so when saying a blessing not at an appropriate time, for the sake of education or demonstration, or referring to God in another context, traditional Jews would say “Hashem” as in Baruch Atah Hashem…

I explained this all to the kids. Later on reflecting on this, it got me thinking, that these substitutes come to show that essentially, we can not say God’s name. The name is unpronounceable.

And this is a deeply rooted tradition. In ancient times, when the community gathered for Yom Kippur, it was an intense day of ritual, sacrifice and atonement. Tomorrow we will read in the Torah about the Azazel ritual, when two goats are brought forth before the priest, one as an offering to God, and the other the goat upon which the sins of the community would be placed, and then sent out into the wilderness.

The rabbis in the Talmud elaborate on this ritual as well with more detailed explanation of all of the steps. One thing that would happen on Yom Kippur in ancient times according to the rabbis is that the High Priest would pronounce the name of God the way it was meant to be pronounced. This was the only time in the year when it was done. And when he did the people would recite, “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,” baruch shem kavod malchuto le’olam va’ed, which we retain now in our liturgy in the Shema. It is the response after the Shema, usually recited in silence, but recited aloud on Yom Kippur as an echo of this ancient ritual when the people would recite this aloud.

Now, if the rabbis say that the name was pronounced by the High Priest in the Temple only this one time the whole year, they also say that after the destruction of the Temple  in 70 CE by the Romans, the act that led to the shift from biblical Judaism to rabbinic Judaism, from Bible to Talmud, from priests to rabbis, the end of the sacrificial system and an ushering in of a new form of Jewish practice, after this destruction it was forbidden to pronounce the name of God. And with this prohibition, over time, the knowledge of how to pronounce the name was lost.

So for us, as we approach this practice, it is not so much that we don’t pronounce the name of God, but we can’t pronounce the name of God. We can not name God.

Which is a powerful statement, that we can not name God. And, I would suggest, a crux of our theology as Jews. For naming is defining, and to say that we can not name God then we can not define God. A name is a noun. And here is our main problem, our issue with God, perhaps. That we tend to approach God as a noun. As a thing. As an object.

This is something that even informs our popular imagination or ideas. Perhaps you have heard about the God Particle. The God Particle, a term that scientists actually don’t like, is a popular term for the Higgs Boson, a subatomic particle that scientists are looking for and have potentially found. Posited by physicist Peter Higgs over 40 years ago, it is a particle that it is theorized existed not only at the subatomic level but at the beginning of the universe. I won’t go into details because it would be too far afield and frankly I don’t understand it, but that is what these giant colliders that scientists have built are looking for. By smashing beams of particles together, scientists study matter on a level previously unknown. All that to say, outside of the specifics, is that the reason the nickname was proposed, and why it stuck in the popular imagination, is because we tend to think of God as a thing, as a constant.

But I don’t think this is accurate, or helpful.

It is not the God Particle we need to think about, but the God Participle.

In our “Advancing in Hebrew” class here at TBH we are diving into Hebrew grammar. And so bear with me through a short grammar lesson. Hebrew is built around a three letter root system in which a group of three letters will have a particular meaning. For example kof-dalet-shin has the meaning of holiness, and why the words for Kiddush over the wine, or the Mourner’s kaddish and kiddushin (marriage) are all related, variations on the theme of holiness.

These roots can be formed into nouns or verbs, generally by fitting them into a structure or conjugation that follows a particular pattern that can then be modified based on these patterns and use of suffixes and prefixes to reflect number, gender or person. And one such structure, one such form, that lies at the heart of all of this is the participle.

What is a participle? Allow me to quote from Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, a standard text of biblical Hebrew grammar:

Like the two infinitives, the participles also occupy a middle place between the noun and the verb. In form they are simple nouns, and most nearly related to the adjective; consequently they cannot in themselves be employed to represent definite relations of tense or mood. On the other hand, their verbal character is shown by their not representing, like the adjectives, a fixed and permanent quality (or state), but one which is in some way connected with an action or activity. The participle active indicates a person or thing conceived as being in the continual uninterrupted exercise of an activity.

Got that? In simpler terms, as our Hebrew textbook that we use in class says, a participle is a form of that can act like a noun or a verb, and whose translation can therefore be varied. By way of example, our textbook points out hu shomer can mean “he is a guard,” “he is one who guards,” “he is guarding,” “he guards,” “he does guard.”

So what does this have to do with God? This is in fact the way we encounter God most frequently in our ritual practice and in our liturgy. As a participle.

And these might be familiar to you. When we bless bread we say hamotzi lechem min haarez, who brings forth bread from the earth. The word motzi is a participle: “the one who brings forth” “the bringer-forther” or “bringing forth.” Same is true for our blessing over wine or grape juice: borei peri hagafen, who creates the fruit of the vine, God is described as the one who creates, creating. Before the Aliyah to the Torah, we say, notein hatorah, the giver of Torah, the one who gives Torah.

In the Amidah, the silent prayer we just read God is somech noflim, the one who upholds those who have fallen, or upholding those who fall. And rofe cholim, the one who heals the sick, or healing the sick, and matir asurim, the one who frees the captive, or freeing the captive. And there are many other examples.

God then is not a thing, God is a state of being. God is not an actor, God is an action. God is not a particle, but a participle.

This is why we get so hung up. This is why ironically God gets in the way of our spiritual lives. Because we tend to think of God as a thing, out there, when we need to think of God as a participle, in here. The question of spirituality is not do you believe in God. The question of spirituality is do you live in a Godly way? The question is not do you look upon God above, but rather are you able to elevate your life to heights above the mundane, above the day-to-day, above the individual self.

And because of this, this idea, this God Participle, I ironically have a new appreciation for the God of the Bible, of the Torah, the God conception we perhaps have the most trouble with. The basis, perhaps, for much rejection of Judaism and religion in general. The source for the theism in atheism. A question I am often asked is how can you believe in a God who… and quotes some difficult passage from the Torah. And for some it is a legitimate question of inquiry. And for some it is a challenge. A seeking of permission to reject, to reject the God of the Torah and therefore religion as a whole.

And at the same time, it is the text in which we most often encounter God. And my appreciation for the text, for the Torah, comes because it is in this text, our most sacred text, that God is continually in the act of doing.

What does God do in the Torah?

The God of the Torah gets pissed off, changes God’s mind, forgives, wants revenge, shows compassion, lashes out, plays favorites.

The God of the Torah learns from mistakes, gives comfort to the ailing, teaches, is able to be reasoned with, creates.

The God of the Torah frees from oppression, feeds the hungry, offers encouragement, cares for animals, argues and compromises.

The God of the Torah wages war, forges peace, pushes away, draws close, remains loyal, shares secrets, values trust.

Sound familiar? It sounds kind of like us. The God of the Hebrew Bible, of the Torah, is the most human of all the conception of God in our theological tradition. That’s what we say, that humans are created in the divine image, from the story of Creation in Genesis, that we are betzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Which we can understand as a two-way relationship. We humans may carry within us a spark of the divine, meaning that each individual human being is worthy of respect and compassion. And God reflects humanity, with all of it ups and downs, promises and challenges.

Which for me makes this God—the God of the Torah—the most powerful God. The most human God is the most powerful God because it is a God that allows us to embrace the totality of life. That’s the God I want to worship. That’s the God I’m interested in. That’s the God I want to wrestle with. Because we need to embrace the totality of what God represents in order to reflect it in our lives.

Over and over in the Torah we are told that the number one sin is idolatry. Idolatry is nothing more than the reduction of God to a part of the whole. To substitute the representation for the real thing.

But we need the wholeness. That’s why idolatry is a problem. We need the totality, we need the all-of-it, all of God’s actions. I know, there are other religious thinkers who are challenged by the Bible, by the Torah, and the negativity contained, who posit it is not a true representation of the divine, that God is love. God is love. And I like this, I’ll concede this. But it is not sufficient. It is only the part of a whole represented in all the actions we see God performing in the Torah. If we read the whole scope of Torah, in the text, we see all of it. We see it in God, and we need to see it reflected in ourselves.

Yes, God is love. And we need love in order to deepen relationships, forge bonds, build families, communities.

And God is compassion. And we need compassion because we are not going to love everyone or everything, but we need to bestow upon everyone and everything the dignity and respect that we wish to receive and to ensure that everyone’s basic needs are met and rights respected.

And God as we know from the Torah, God is also anger. And we need that anger, we need to be angry in the face of injustice and be motivated to go out and do something about it. We need to angry to call out sexism, and xenophobia, and Islamophobia, and racism, and anti-Semitism, and homophobia when we are seeing it, and we are seeing it these days. We need to be angry to be able to call out those who would seek to overturn us and our society.

And God of the Torah is insecurity. And we need insecurity, so that we can strive to grow, and learn, and not be content with how things are at any one moment, knowing that we have the potential to change, and become better people.

God embodies all of these things. We need to embody all of these things.

The God of the Torah is first and foremost a vulnerable God. A God who creates humans because God needs help to maintain what was created. A God who enters into covenant, a relationship with a people out of need for a partner and doesn’t want to and can’t be alone. A God who, over the course of the entire text, is trying to figure things out, and is influenced by humans just as much as humans are influenced by God.

The God of the Torah is a God who allows us to accept our vulnerabilities, our limitations, and know that it is ok. God is a model for personal growth, for teshuvah, for change. Our spiritual roadblock comes from when we imagine God to be perfect, to be whole, to be omnipotent. Because we know that does not play out in reality. Things happen beyond our control.

So Rather than think of God as the answer. Think of God as the question, as the model for what is possible, for what can be.

God is a participle. A participle is not a completed action. It is, as the grammar book says, a person or thing conceived as being in the continual uninterrupted exercise of an activity. Continual uninterrupted exercise of an activity.

This is the essence of the spiritual life. This is why I don’t believe in atheism. Because, I would posit, we all do have a sense of this larger calling, need for movement, desire to make meaning and transcend ourselves. We have the desire to change. That’s why we are here. And change on all levels. At the personal level, the communal level and even at the divine level, change is possible. If anything, change is the one constant.

We inhabit the spiritual through the actions we take: cultivating a sense of gratitude, being mindful of where you are and what you are doing, showing compassion to those in need, extending kindness to fellow humans and creatures, caring for the earth, standing up for injustice, deepening relationships, working on ourselves. Spiritual living is not about a divine being, it’s about being divine.

This is what lies at the heart of the universe. Not some particle that will tie it all together, with a neat and tidy name, but the participle that allows for movement, for new ways of being. We need the spiritual life. I know that is why you are here. But I know also that some people know that as well, but aren’t here, for reasons that we ultimately need to leave behind.

So use the term God, or don’t. But don’t use the term atheist. Because you are not. Affirm your religiosity. Live your spirituality. Reach beyond yourself.

Imagine yourself in the divine image, and therefore, just be a participle.

Rosh Hashanah Day 5776: “Heeding the Call–Both Papal and Jewish–For Environmental Justice”

This summer, I had the opportunity to head off to Camp Kalsman, a Jewish camp in Arlington, to spend a week as a member of the faculty. A rotating group of educators and rabbis and cantors spends a week to 10 days teaching, leading services, tutoring b’nai mitzvah and providing support alongside the full-time staff.

Faculty were also asked to visit some of the activities, chugim, electives. The first day I was there I joined the “environmental heroes” chug.

The session was led by Tal, an Israeli counselor, who led the kids through a series of games. In the first game, each of the campers was secretly assigned to be a plant, an herbivore or a carnivore. They were then told to wander the field, and at the signal, to find a partner. They then—in rock, paper, scissors fashion—were to battle by revealing their assigned roles. Herbivores ate the plants, and carnivores ate the herbivores. This then repeated for several rounds. If you met one like yourself you were safe, but three times and you died of starvation. Those who were “eaten” sat back down until the winners—three carnivores—were revealed.

We then moved into a game of tag in which a lone camper stood on one side of the field opposite everyone else. The solo camper was the hunter, the rest the wolves, and at the signal each ran towards each other. The hunter’s task was to tag as many of the wolves as he could as they ran across to the other side. Each person tagged would then become another hunter. This went on for several rounds until ultimately, all were tagged and became hunters. There were no more wolves left.

We then returned to the first game, and each camper got his or her secret assignment. This time, the herbivores won, and it was revealed after the round that only a few campers were designated carnivores. All the meateaters were “killed” in the earlier game. And then we played again, and this time everyone lost—everyone, as it turned out, was designated a herbivore, and after three rounds of not finding a plant to eat, we died.

We then got back in a large circle and talked about how the second game, the hunting, in which all the carnivores were “killed” didn’t just affect one species, but reverberated throughout the ecosystem. The lesson was reinforced for these kids—and for me—our choices have vast consequences so we must be responsible for our actions in regards to our environment.

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the new year, a time for atonement and self reflection. But we also call this the new year of the world, the day that Creation is renewed for another cycle. We are renewed and the world is renewed. It becomes imperative to link these two themes of the day and spend some time in self-reflection not only with regards to ourselves and our relationship with others, but in regards to our relationship with the earth.

image from www.catholic.com
image from http://www.catholic.com

But this is timely not only because of our Jewish calendar, but, if we pay attention more broadly across the spectrum of faith communities, because Pope Francis has recently released an encyclical, a major work on the environment. And while of course directed to the world’s Catholics, there is much in this document from which we can learn. It is a call not just to Catholics, but to the world. In the spirit of interfaith learning and cooperation, we as Jews would do well to heed this call as well.

So let’s learn from Francis:

The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. In recent decades this warming has been accompanied by a constant rise in the sea level and, it would appear, by an increase of extreme weather events, even if a scientifically determinable cause cannot be assigned to each particular phenomenon. Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it. It is true that there are other factors (such as volcanic activity, variations in the earth’s orbit and axis, the solar cycle), yet a number of scientific studies indicate that most global warming in recent decades is due to the great concentration of greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and others) released mainly as a result of human activity.

Climate change is real. To tell us this a man of faith puts his faith in science. And throughout the encyclical he adds a second act of faith by imbuing the reality of our environmental situation with the hope, potential and possibility that it can be overcome.  That in order to combat climate change, we need to change.

And not just change what we do. We need to change who we are. Bill McKibbon points out in his analysis of the encyclical in the New York Review of Books, we generally have a notion that technological advancement and progress are the same thing. And while there is much to laud with the advent of new technologies, the Pope challenges us to realize that these must be coupled with a moral advancement as well. He writes, “A technological and economic development which does not leave in its wake a better world and an integrally higher quality of life cannot be considered progress.” Technological advancement does not automatically equal progress. It is not progress to simply use the power that we have to do what we want without concern for consequences. It is progress to recognize and act on our responsibility to others and the world. Our contribution to global climate change is a moral problem—it is an unchecked abuse of power in which we see ourselves on top and therefore as having the right to do what we please. If we maintain that attitude then we will not only destroy our environment, we will destroy ourselves.

We need a fundamental change. And the change is not just a new embrace of environmentalism, but an embrace of environmental justice. It is recognizing that we are responsible not just for ourselves, but for others, and that we have a fundamental obligation to care for our environment for the sake of others. That individual abuses lead to societal catastrophes. A midrash, an ancient Jewish commentary, tells of the story of two people in the boat, and one takes out a drill and begins to bore a hole under his seat. The other jumps up, “what are you doing? You are letting water get in the boat, we will sink.” Don’t worry, says the other, I am only boring a hole under my side of the boat.”

And an embrace of environmental justice is to recognize especially that while climate change affects us all, it disproportionately hurts minority populations and those who are economically disadvantaged.

So change we must, and change we can. Isn’t that what we are celebrating today? Our ability and opportunity to change? Our desire to do things differently? Our humility to recognize that there are things we need to change?

Faced with the enormity of the issues, it is hard to think about our ability to make an impact on climate change. But we must do something, even if we can’t do everything. And while there is much to say about what we could do, what we should do, themes I hope we will examine more closely in the coming months, I want to suggest that we as a synagogue community make a renewed effort around the environment.

There is a lot we already do—our use of reusable goods in the kitchen, for example, as opposed to disposables. Aided by the city of Olympia, we participate in composting. Our landscaping is made up of mostly native plants. And this year, during Mitzvah Morning, when we go out into our community to do service work, there will be one opportunity specifically around the environment.

But there is more we can do. Perhaps it is time to take an environmental audit of the congregation, either our own or using the tools provided by faith based environmental groups like Washington Interfaith Power and Light and Earth Ministry to examine our practices and where we can do more. (And we will join together locally with other faith communities through Interfaith Works to read and discuss the encyclical.)

And as one step towards a deeper congregational environmental awareness, I want to propose an idea: that we try as much as we can to move to zero waste in our congregation. Beginning with the Erev Shabbat onegs: ZerOneg. Zero waste is the idea that we can consciously minimize the amount of garbage we create by a more mindful use of resources. That we try to make it so that all food is consumed, and whatever isn’t will either be composted or reused. And that food packaging either be reused or recycled.

As I mentioned, we already do much of this. And I don’t mean to suggest that there are any problems or concerns that we need to fix. The oneg is a special time when we are able to be in community, to share with one another, to offer hospitality after prayer. Thinking zero waste simply adds another intention, an environmental intention, to this already special time, the time when we come together most frequently.

An environmental mindset forces us to be conscious of what we use before we use it—to bring as much as we like but not too much, to eat what we have brought, to pack out what we don’t to either eat at another time or donate. And this will hopefully impact our purchasing decisions in advance, and increase our attentiveness to food and how much we consume. It is mindful eating, it is just eating. And it could be a fundamental change in how we engage with our resources and waste.

This is but one of potentially many examples of what is required of us. One example in which we change not just our practice but our mindset.

Rosh Hashanah is a day of gratitude and humility. We are grateful for all that we have and the past we have followed to this point. And we are humble to know that we didn’t do it all our selves. So too we have a responsibly to be grateful for the world we inherited, and to have the humility to know it is not ours to do with as we please. We have the responsibility, as told to us in our Torah, that the earth is ours “to till and to tend”—in other words, to care it the best we can.

Our job is not to “save the earth.” The earth doesn’t need us to survive. The earth will survive. Even life on earth will survive. But it may look different, and it may not look like us, if we fail in our responsibility to look after what we have been given.

And while the earth doesn’t need us to survive, our fellow human beings do. The earth doesn’t need us, but our future generations do.

On this day we celebrated our renewed lives and the renewal of life of our planet. We also celebrate the renewal of life itself and we welcome and celebrate the generations who will follow us. We will read the haftarah from the book of Samuel, which speaks of the prophet’s birth. It will be read to us by those who have welcomed new life into their families this past year. Then we will bless all our children. So I close with the words of Pope Francis, “Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who follow us.”

We owe environmental stewardship to ourselves. We owe it to our neighbors. We owe it to our ancestors. And we owe it to our children.

It’s not just a game played at camp.

This is slightly different than delivered on Rosh Hashanah, I added a few sentences to clarify my intentions regarding the oneg and zero waste.

Why Today’s Supreme Court Ruling is a Victory for Judaism (For Reasons Not Having to do With Health Care.)

Today the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision that the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as “Obamacare,” will not be gutted of one of its key provisions: that federal subsidies to pay for health insurance would be available to qualified applicants who sign up through a health care exchange. The question hinged on whether or not those who purchased health insurance through the federal exchange rather than a state exchange would continue to be eligible.

I admit I was nervous leading up to this ruling. Back when I was on my high school debate team, a topic one year was health care, and we had to argue—both pro and con—universal health care. It was then that I really started to learn more about the health care system in our country, an issue that has stuck with me ever since. And since I have had to utilize health care and health insurance several times for fairly serious issues, it has made me even more aware of the need for access and insurance.

And while it may not be perfect, as a means for a large number of people to gain access to health care and health insurance I was a supporter of the ACA. (And I am currently a customer.) I was nervous about the fact that we may backtrack, and that people would lose their newly won benefits.

Here in Washington, of course, those who receive subsidies would have been safe. Our state is one of the minority (!) of states that set up its own exchange, and the ruling would not have impacted citizens of Washington in the same way it would have those in other states.

That discrepancy in the states is what the argument hinged on, and why, as a rabbi, I am very pleased with the outcome. Not because of the merits of the law—I only have a layperson’s opinions about that—but because of the merit of the decision. The opinion of the court, written by Chief Justice Roberts, is a victory for Obamacare, yes, but it is also a victory for the Jewish textual interpretive tradition.

The case hinged on 4 words: that subsidies apply to those who purchase health insurance through an exchange “established by the State.” The question before the court is, does this apply to only those who bought their health insurance through a state exchange, or does it apply to both those who bought their health insurance through a state exchange and those who bought their health insurance through the federal exchange.

When the law was written and passed, the assumption would be that all 50 states would establish health care exchanges to serve as the statewide marketplace for health insurance. Many states—ostensibly for political reasons—refused to set up exchanges. It then fell to the federal government to establish an exchange to serve those who live in states without exchanges.

But the language of “the state” remained, and the plaintiffs of the suit argued that we need to take the law at its plain meaning: since it mentions “the state” it must refer to ONLY an exchange set up by a state, and not the federal government. The government argued that we need to take the law at its intended meaning: that “the state” is not a technical term to refer only to one of the 50 states, but it refers to the government in general.

Now all of this could have been avoided with better editing and tracking as the bill went through its various permutations. But it was passed as it was written, and that is over which the Justices were arguing.

And so this is a victory for the Jewish textual interpretive tradition because the Justices chose an interpretive reading,

The former Temple Beth Hatfiloh building (now K Records) with the Washington health care exchange in the background.
The former Temple Beth Hatfiloh building (now K Records) with the Washington health care exchange in the background.

looking at intent and spirit, rather than a strict literal reading, looking at paper and letter. For this is I believe how we are meant to approach our sacred texts—not strictly to the letter, but with an eye towards meaning-making and spirit.

Law—whether civil in this case or spiritual in Judaism—is meant to uplift the individual and community to a higher level. This sometimes requires a look at context and intent. This is especially true as we seek to interpret our Jewish sacred texts. Some of the laws and practices of the Torah are foreign to us in their literalness or practice (in this week’s portion Hukkat, for example, ritual impurity from a dead body). But the spirit of the laws and the intentions behind them (coping with and confronting death) are very present and important. The letter pushes us away but the spirit draws us close. We seek to understand the spirit of the text in order to make it meaningful.

Additionally, interpreting Scripture through the narrow lens of literalness oftentimes leads to destructive ends. We see this in the rise of fundamentalism around the world in which a strict reading of text leads to fear and hatred of the other, the desire to control and an inability to be open and pluralistic. In the oft-quoted words of Chief Justice Roberts from today’s opinion: “A fair reading of legislation demands a fair understanding of the legislative plan. Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.” While admittedly far from religious fundamentalism, Roberts hints that a strict reading of text would not only be against the intent of the law, but have harmful ends.

In the end, Roberts and the Majority chose people over text. The Minority, in arguing for a strict reading, chose text over people. And that is a lesson for us as well. Scripture is important. Text is important. For Judaism, Torah and text is the root of our tradition. But we must approach it as a living text, meant to help not to harm, meant to expand not to limit. Torah’s words are meant to inhabit our souls, not simply be parsed on the scroll.

Wear Your Bike Helmet

Here is my scientific observation based on empirical evidence: while children are susceptible to head injuries and drowning, once they reach adulthood they are immune from such injuries. Isn’t this correct? My evidence is based on the large number of people I see riding their bikes with their kids where the kids have helmets on but the parents do not. The same is for boating: I see kids wearing their personal flotation devices (PFDs) while adults just have them nearby.family-cycling-2010-photo

I’ll think more about this but first, now that the elections are over, the post-election punditry begins.

I’ve been reading some, not a lot, of articles trying to dissect the recent elections. Most of the speculation remains just that—speculation. What will happen with a Democratic President and Republican Congress? We don’t really know until we get there. So many talking heads will speculate, but the reality will need to present itself in time.

I would rather read backwards and dissect what did or didn’t happen on Tuesday. I am very happy that our state took the initiative and supported universal background checks for gun purchases, a landmark vote that will hopefully reverberate throughout the nation—a dedicated citizenry taking steps to create some measure to curb gun violence in our country. The organized Jewish community supported this measure and worked hard to get it to pass.

But aside from that, I read with interest about turnout. This always is an issue for examination, especially during these midterm elections. Analysts examine how many people turn out, who turns out and for whom do they vote, picking apart the electorate by demographic. Voting in midterm elections is notoriously low, and this election was no different.

One of the demographic analyses I read had to do with the “millennials”—those ages 18-30 who turned out in low numbers. Commentators have taken note that the electorate in this past election skewed older, and that if younger voters had turned out, based on the political leanings found within this demographic, the election might have been different.

While I haven’t done the research, this strikes me as different than what happened six years ago when Obama was first elected, when Obama rode the tide of young voters into the White House, and that attracting young voters was a key part of the strategy. Of course, the population of who makes up those “young voters” is constantly changing. Those first eligible to vote in these elections were 12 when Obama was first elected in 2008, and this demographic shift is greater (moving from teenager to adulthood) than say moving from the 30-45 age bracket to the 45-60 one.

[I remember this hit home for me once a few years ago when I was talking to a class at South Puget Sound Community College. I was there to talk about Judaism to a class in world religions, and after my presentation I had an open Q and A session. Most had to do with Jewish practice and belief, but one person asked me if I thought a Jewish person would ever be a candidate for national office. It struck me as odd that he should ask remembering how Joseph Lieberman was the Vice Presidential candidate on Al Gore’s ticket in 2000, until I realized that he and his classmates were probably 9 or 10 at the time of that election.]

It is this last statistic of young voters that is interesting to me, and I would be curious to dig deeper. I don’t know if anyone keeps these stats, but since turn out is generally low in elections, I’m curious as to how many of the parents of these non-voting millennials also didn’t vote. Do non-voters beget non-voters?

My hunch is that there may be a correlation. If kids get the message when they are growing up that public participation isn’t worthwhile or important, then when the time comes for them to take an active role in the political process, they won’t. And I don’t mean that parents must instill a particular ideology in their offspring—that may not work—but if parents have respect for the process and act on the importance of civic engagement, then that message will be passed to our kids.

And we do this by modeling. Back to the bike helmets and the PFDs—by not wearing helmets or PFDs while insisting that our children do so, we are sending the wrong message. First of all, it is extremely dangerous. We know adults can have major head injuries from bike accidents or drown from boating accidents; those who don’t wear protective gear are taking a huge risk. And second, by not doing so, we are passing along these bad habits and conveying the message that “this is for kids, but not for adults.” We can’t just tell our children to do it and not do it ourselves, for when those kids get older, I bet they will also stop wearing their helmets.

And what goes for voting, and what goes for personal safety, goes for Judaism as well. If we want our kids to live engaged Jewish lives, then we need to as well. We can’t just tell them to, or send them off to synagogue when we don’t engage ourselves. We can’t say, “this is for kids, but not for adults.” We need to do it ourselves. There is no one right way to do this, and our children’s Jewish lives may end up looking different than ours, but if we don’t model spiritual connection, meaning making, respect for tradition, engagement with learning, and participation and practice, then our kids will leave Judaism, like their ballot and bike helmet, behind.

And when that happens, we may not like the results.

“Does a Zombie Rabbi Say Kaddish for Itself?”

“Does a zombie rabbi say Kaddish for itself?”

This was the tongue-in-cheek observation from my son, fresh from his bar mitzvah, as we discussed Halloween. Would an undead rabbi recite the prayer for the dead for himself? Building on the trend that seems to have taken over public entertainment, I was musing about combining popular culture and Jewish life and going as a zombie rabbi. I will admit, it was a clever response.

I didn’t make any movement towards the zombie rabbi costume. I’m hemming and hawing over my costume, and will probably end up doing what I usually do—pulling something out of our costume box, either a robot head or a pair of butterfly wings and antennae.

One thing I don’t hesitate about, though, is whether or not to celebrate Halloween.

It is a constant refrain—and probably has been for a long time—as to whether or not Jews should even celebrate Halloween. I remember it was discussed when I was growing up, and it continues to be discussed today. Mostly this has to do with the holiday’s pagan origins and Christian associations—All Saint’s Day is the following day.

[It is because of the pagan origins that it seems some churches have a harder time with Halloween than some Jews do as many churches sponsor alternative events on Halloween night, inviting people to come into the church rather than walk the streets.]

While the holiday for some retains some of its pagan and Christian associations, for me the holiday has transcended those origins has become a general observance.

One of the reasons I like Halloween is how social and neighborhood oriented it is. At a time when we stay holed up in our homes and prefer our socializing to be through a Facebook page (and I admit I am guilty of this as well), Halloween takes us outside, walking the streets and visiting our neighbors. The exchange is pleasant–“please” and “thank you”–and gifts of sweetness are exchanged.

Halloween has also become a time for seasonal parties and gatherings in a way that the home- and family-based Thanksgiving does not lend itself, and a way that Christmas parties—even with the moniker of “Holiday party”—are still exclusive. And with costuming, decorating and pumpkin-carving, the holiday also has an inherent creative and playful quality to it.

Decorating it seems is on the rise—more and more housed in my neighborhood are decorating for Halloween. We have already done several tours of the neighborhood, including on the ride to school, to check out the decorations. The nervous excitement of my kids (especially the 6-year-old) to go out and check out the decorations, as well as the excitement around the annual trip to the pop-up Halloween store, has brought to mind another aspect of the holiday which I hadn’t thought of before. The fact is, one of the prevailing emotions and themes of Halloween is fear.

Fear is something we deal with on a continual basis, but don’t address that often. And the ability to confront and overcome fear—to accept it and move on with courage—is a developmental skill and sign of maturity. Now that I see my second child go through the same reactions and nervous dance around Halloween I saw my older child go through, I see that it is a natural path we take. We want to be scared, we need to be scared, in order to test ourselves and be able to recognize that fear is a part of life.

Halloween allows us to confront fear in a “safe” way, tempered with candy and celebration. But at the heart of the contemporary observance is the pushing of boundaries and the confrontation with that which haunts us. And perhaps its no surprise that just as we light lights at the darkest time of the year, we confront fear and death at a time the world around us is going through its natural seasonal cycle of death.

Halloween is a good time to remember that Judaism has its own folkloric tradition around supernaturalism—think of the classic figure of the Golem, or the dream scene in “Fiddler on the Roof.” And answering the question of the zombie rabbi and Kaddish allows for an interesting discussion of Jewish values and practices. And whether coincidental or not, wearing a costume to celebrate a holiday of fear reminds me of the custom of one who is gravely ill changing his or her name to “trick” the angel of death.

But more than anything, on Halloween we join with people of all backgrounds to confront that which scares us—the macabre—and celebrate that which sustains us—our neighbors.

Testimony on the Reproductive Parity Act

Yesterday I went to the Washington State Capitol for the third time this session to testify. This time it was in front of a Senate committee considering the Reproductive Parity Act, a groundbreaking piece of legislation that would require health plans to cover all aspects of maternal care, including voluntary termination of pregnancy.  My testimony was brief, the time allotted was short, and I testified on a panel which included the CEO of Planned Parenthood Northwest. The hearing made the New York Times. Here’s what I added, providing a religious perspective in support of choice. The testimony was prepared with Rev. Vincent Lachina, the chaplain of Planned Parenthood.

Senators, my name Rabbi Seth Goldstein and I serve Temple Beth Hatfiloh and the Jewish community here in Olympia.  I come this morning to speak in support of EHB 1044.

My faith tradition teaches the necessity of compassion and care for all humanity. As much as possible, we all desire a society that is both fair and even-handed in its treatment of all people. This bill will make sure that all women are treated fairly in their personal reproductive health decisions.  To have a child, to place a child for adoption or to terminate a pregnancy is an important life decision that a woman makes with the help of those with her best interests in mind: her family and her physician and whomever else she consults, including sometimes faith leaders and clergy like myself, who are asked to offer comforting and compassionate advice. But in the end, whatever any woman decides should be wholly her own, and it should not be regulated by an insurance company or government officials.

As for religious freedom, I believe the exemption clause is quite solid and does protect one’s freedom of religion.  I would add that religious freedom includes both freedom OF religion and freedom FROM religion.  We cannot permit one religious group or their leaders to obstruct or coerce the exercise of mine or any other person’s religious conscience.

And as we are engaged in this country in a conversation about how to extend health care coverage to its citizens, it does raise moral concerns when we consider restricting it.

Thank you for your time, and I ask you for your support of this bill.