Category Archives: liberal religion

Not Knowledge But Wisdom

We confuse knowledge with wisdom. “Knowledge” derives from demonstrable facts: the facts of science, for example, which no serious and informed person can reasonably reject. We may debate alternative interpretations, but the debate will be demonstrably knowledgeable.

Some knowledge arrives less scientifically: how we know someone loves us, or the way a brilliant portrait catches the essence of its subject. These things too are “knowledge.”

Wisdom is something else altogether. It is insight into living deeply and well. All the knowledge in the world need not add up to wisdom, and wisdom can come from someone with no formal education whatever – “out of the mouths of babes,” as the saying goes (from Psalms 8:2, actually).

Religion converts knowledge into wisdom. A scholar may be exceptionally knowledgeable about the Talmud. The same scholar becomes your rabbi , however, only if that knowledge supplies wisdom also.

The S’lichot  service, this Saturday night, anticipates the High Holidays that begin just a few days later. We label them “high” because of the wisdom, not the knowledge, they provide. Take sermons, for example. Packed only with knowledge, they fail. What we want from sermons is wisdom, that we may live better.

So too, High Holiday prayers offer wisdom, rather than knowledge. Sh’ma koleinu  (“[God], hear our voice”), for example, is a central S’lichot  prayer. The searcher after knowledge questions scientifically if God can really hear, and, if so, how God does the hearing. “Renew our days, as of old,” the prayer continues. The seeker after knowledge is skeptical: Can we really recover the days of our youth?

As knowledge, these prayers fail.  God is not a super-human being with extra-sharp hearing; and the past is really “passed” – it is unrecoverable.

Yet the prayer remains “true” as wisdom. “God,” said theologian Henry Slonimsky (1884-1970), “is the Friend we suppose to exist behind the phenomena.” Behind the phenomena, note! Beyond what science studies. God is, alternatively, a “power making for righteousness,” according to Matthew Arnold, whom Slonimsky liked to cite, and who influenced Mordecai Kaplan to define God as “the power that makes for salvation.”

Wisdom relies on proverb, poetry and metaphor: language that is evocative more than it is descriptive. That God should “hear our voice,” Slonimsky insisted, expresses “the demand of the human heart” that our voices of pain and aspiration deserve being heard.

“How tragically inadequate the response,” he conceded, knowing full well that prayers may not be “answered.” But nonetheless, “we are so convinced of their utter righteousness, we will not take no for an answer.”

Here lies the wisdom of the High Holidays: the insistent cry of the human spirit. We are not so constructed as to be slavishly accepting of anything less than what this spirit instinctively demands: righteousness and justice, truth and goodness; we will fight to the end that these may prevail.

That same human spirit, however, is part and parcel of the universe, part of evolution itself, as if something about the universe is supportive of the spirit’s insistence. That “something” is the “Friend behind the phenomena” in Slonimsky’s words, the “power making for righteousness” for Matthew Arnold: what we normally call God.

The seemingly endless praying on these Days of Awe add up to more than the meaning of any given prayer. The experience as a whole reaffirms not just what God wants from us but what we demand of God: Yes, “righteousness” above all! Yes, “justice” and “truth” too. The human heart is certain of these certainties. It is our very nature to live with purpose derived from the promise that these will triumph.

We acknowledge (“knowledge,” that is) that our trials and tribulations may persist even after the prayers are over. But the wisdom of prayer is no less certain. Our lives are not for naught; we are part of something greater than whatever it is that pains us. We have a voice that demands being “heard”; and yes, we can feel ourselves renewed “as of old.”

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The Myth of Denominational Demise

The world is filled with certainties that aren’t – like the myth that religious denominations are dead. We will eventually have three inchoate pools of people, it is said: Orthodox, “Other,” and Unaffiliated. Already Orthodoxy is less a denomination than a way of life rooted in halakhic observance, community consciousness, and synagogue centrality. “Other,” presumably, will feature the very opposite, synagogues as “limited liability communities” that collect dues in exchange for rabbis on call, life-cycle ceremonies, and occasional events like High Holidays. The growth market will be “a pox on both your houses” — the unaffiliated altogether.

Evidence for this sorry denouement includes the documented decline in religious affiliation generally, the generational replacement of the baby boomers (who joined things) with their children (who don’t); economic conditions that allow little luxury for supporting synagogue movements; an internet era that provides programming for free; the declining numbers of Conservative Jews, once the majority denomination; and the stagnation of Reform Jews who maintain their numbers only because of the in-migration of Jews by choice.

So why are denominations not necessarily on their way out?

Denominational obituaries assume that organized religion in general is a thing of the past, but it is equally arguable that religion is just changing, not disappearing. Religion, as we know it, is a post-World- War-II response to the Cold War era, baby-boomer children, and suburbia. Synagogues insulated Jews against latent anti-Semitism, and provided safe spaces to rehearse ethnic identity and support of Israel. Plenty of post-war money paid denominational offices to provide the programs that a synagogue needed to ramp up and reach out.

Denominations back then had bureaucracies that churned out personnel and services; what they did not have is a clear ideological mandate to justify the personnel and services they churned out.

No one will join that kind of denomination. But denominations are what we make of them. They can define what religion is becoming not reflect what it used to be.

Precisely this ability to evolve with the times is what makes religion in America so exceptional. Indeed, one explanation for its robustness, relative to the anemic state of religion in Europe, is America’s separation of church and state, which has prevented state support and conditioned religion instead to fend for itself. Static churches, sociologists say, die out; creative ones succeed. Denominations that hunker down with old ways of thinking are indeed doomed. But denominations that think differently have a future.

This different denominational thinking must acknowledge the fact that, unlike the Cold War era, ours is a time of spiritual search. The limited liability synagogue that trades dues for services will find competitors who offer bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, and even funerals (not to mention high holidays) for a whole lot less than what it costs to be a member. And who needs denominations just for that?

But assume our synagogues respond to the spirituality surge and urge us on to be our better selves. Assume they deliver purpose, meaning, and a reason to be alive. Assume further that they ritualize these higher human goals by connecting people to each other, to their past, and to God. Assume also the existence of rabbis who have something deep to say – rabbis, that is, whose intellectual acumen is equal to whatever society offers elsewhere at its thoughtful best. Assume, in a word, that synagogues manage to ennoble the human condition in communities of commitment, where the scar tissue of entrenched routine is replaced by an intentional response to the human yearning to matter.

Suppose all this, and you get synagogues that need denominations.

A single synagogue has but limited reach while denominations unify a thousand synagogues to influence policy round the globe. Denominations can run seminaries that invest in visionaries who compete in the marketplace of big ideas. Only denominations can galvanize large scale investment for a Jewish future; rally opinion world-wide; or have a voice that must be taken seriously far away in Israel and in circles of power everywhere. Only denominations can argue our way to a viable vision of religion for the vast mass of Americans who yearn for a form of religion that is not Orthodox but is equally authentic and equally deep.

I write this after attending the latest biennial of the Reform Movement, which certainly didn’t look dead or dying. It reaffirmed its commitment to the marriage of modernity and tradition; the courage to take moral stands; an inclusive vision for Jewish Peoplehood; and a compelling portrait of Judaism at its moral and spiritual best. It was religion as it just might be, religion that only denominational greatness can provide.

God’s Second Book: The Most Valuable Jewish Value

Why be Jewish – other than the fact that you like it, of course? The most common answer is, “For its values.” But what exactly are Jewish values? I don’t mean grand generalizations like an affinity for justice and an insistence on learning – although these are not irrelevant. I have in mind something very specific, some single teaching that elucidates the Jewish outlook on the world.

My choice for today is ein mukdam um’uchar batorah, “There is no chronological order to Torah,” a teaching used to explain the fact that some things in Torah seem out of order. Implicit in this principle is an insightful understanding of the role of sacred scripture.

Scripture has become problematic in the modern world. On the one hand, acknowledging something as sacred writ is enormously enriching. That is why so many people insist on it even though they no longer believe that it was dictated by God. Scripture provides us with spiritual ballast, connection to times past, a text around which to ritualize a community’s present, a vocabulary for intergenerational discussion, and a sacred story that becomes the center of conversational gravity generation after generation.

But Scripture can also be a problem. Much like a national constitution, it serves its believers as a foundational document, but unlike a national constitution, it cannot be emended. It is, by definition, canonical, and, therefore, unalterable through time. It easily becomes a rival to such other sources of truth as science and reason.

The Rabbis, moreover, believed scripture came from God, making it all the more unalterable by mere human beings. Yet they knew also that some of its claims couldn’t possibly reflect the divine will. Stoning a “stubborn and rebellious son”? Extracting “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”? Impossible. So they erected the legal fiction of an oral law, a commentary that had come down from Sinai alongside the written Torah and been passed along as an interpretive guide to each successive generation. Jews could now read Scripture selectively.

The Bible’s most morally reprehensible elements, they held, had never actually been acted upon — they were there for other lessons they contained. Even the chronological sequence of the Bible was not actually the way it presented itself: ein mukdam um’uchar batorah.

I understand that as (among other things) a subtle recognition that Scripture cannot collide with science, not even the soft science of history, let alone the hard sciences like geology, chemistry, physics and astronomy. Maimonides (among others) affirmed that understanding. Accepting the consequences of ein mukdam um’uchar batorah allows me to lead my life with the certainty that nothing science finds can conflict with what Judaism has to say.

Galileo said, of his own scientific curiosity, that he was simply investigating God’s second book, nature; the first book, of course, was the Bible. I, similarly, see Torah (my Scripture) as God’s first book, and the universe as the second one — each of them created and revealed in its own way. It seems, at the moment, that the universe was formed from a cosmological singularity that brought time into being; it seems also that the Bible evolved from a historical process conditioned by that very flow of time. If opinions change on either of these realities, so be it. Since both “books” are by the very same author, they cannot contradict one another. I can rest secure that as new scientific findings arrive, my reading of Torah need not conflict with those findings.

In no way does that make Scripture irrelevant. Scripture was never intended to define scientific reality. It provides other benefits, like the ones outlined above. When I want to know how the world works, I go to science. When I want to know what the world means, I go to Torah. We need them both, and ein mukdam um’uchar batorah prevents my having to choose one at the expense of the other.

This insistence on a dual source of truth has been a Jewish hallmark through the ages. In an age of renewed insistence on Scriptural inerrancy, and a time when reasonable people can easily find religion antediluvian, I nominate ein mukdam um’uchar batorah as the most valuable value in the Jewish lexicon.

“Clearing God’s Bad Name”: Did I Go Too Far?

Did I go too far in my recent post entitled “Clearing God’s Bad Name”? I was discussing the way we read Torah portions in which God threatens dire punishment for human disobedience. It was time, I said, to “dispense with the childish belief in a God of simplistic reward and punishment.”  The God in whom we ought to believe can hardly be vengeful, I argued. It is time we cleared God’s name.

I published the piece separately in a couple of newspapers to which I submit regular articles on Torah, and received a thoughtful critique from a reader who took me to task for going too far. We may not, he cautioned, “excise portions of the Torah because our timid intelligence has deduced that we are so much more ‘enlightened’ than previous generations.” The letter arrived privately, so I will not divulge the author’s name – suffice it to say that his objection is that I was “preaching against the text,” the “sin” of sermonizing contrary to what the sacred text actually says.

Preachers do it all the time, of course, but use midrash, Talmud, or commentaries from somewhere else in the tradition as their justification — as if to say, “The Torah looks like it says such and such, but it really doesn’t; it really means something else (even the opposite of what its surface meaning appears to be).”

To some extent, I did that. But I went farther and did indeed leave the bounds of normal interpretation by denying a basic understanding of God that we find in most of rabbinic literature.

My critic finds that too much to take, and as I say, I take him seriously enough to want to think the matter through here as an instance of a machloket l’shem shamayim, what the Rabbis call “an argument for the sale of heaven.” Why don’t I think I went too far?

For starters, let us ask how Jews read Torah.

We read it so closely that every word and letter counts – but we do not read it literally. And we read it interpretively, the whole point being to come up with a chiddush, a novel insight that speaks to the situation of the reader seeking meaning in the text.

It is generally presupposed that whatever meaning we find is drawn out from the text, not read into it. The idea is to be properly objective in interpreting a passage so as to arrive at what the text really means. Now, it is not 100% clear that we can ever be absolutely objective about any text; sophisticated theorists know there is always some degree of subjectivity in the way we read. But in any event, sermonic interpretation, for sure, doesn’t work that way. “Meaning” here is always subjective, dependent on both the text and the reader, a sort of pincer movement back and forth between the two.  It is not so much “what the text means” as “how the text becomes meaningful to the person reading it.”

There are some limits of course – as there are for interpreting every piece of literature. If I say that Hamlet, for example, is about indecision, or moral outrage, or the oedipal complex, you will at least entertain the possibility that I am right. But suppose I say it is a Marxist spoof on capitalism. For lots of reasons that is utter nonsense. In making that claim, I lose all credibility. If no one even thinks my claim is sensible, I get read out of the reading community as a crackpot.

What, then, counts as the limits to sermonic interpretation? We would like to imagine that the interpreter always interprets Torah by citing other pieces of Torah – quoting the Talmud to elucidate the Bible, a medieval authority to interpret the Talmud, and so on. But it is never that clean. The twelfth-century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra doubted that Moses had written the entire Torah. Afraid to come right out and question his received chain of tradition, he used allusion: hamevin yavin, he said, “The discerning reader will understand what I am getting at.” He got away with it.  Spinoza came right out and said roughly the same thing and was excommunicated. Spinoza had no readers willing to go as far as he did.

Ibn Ezra was more careful; but even he risked going over the line. He knew most readers would not follow his half-heretical suggestion. But he knew also that he was not the only reader who lost sleep over a traditional claim that no longer made sense to his growing historical consciousness. Rather than  risk positioning the Bible so that no one would respect it altogether, he went out on a limb and argued against the text.

I am no Ibn Ezra, and certainly no Spinoza, but in our time too, we dare not shy from confronting the real questions that people have – especially about God. Otherwise, we risk speaking to a shrinking audience of people who are already insiders in the Torah game we play – but alienating everyone else. Especially when it comes to hurtful images of God we too must sometimes preach against the text.

The Royal Wedding: More Than an Unrehearsed Sing-along

What is it that attracted so many to the royal wedding Friday morning? An estimated three billion people tuned in to it. It averaged 67 tweets and 74 facebook mentions per second. Within an hour, the Washington Post’s Royal Wedding Blog listed “25,820 articles” on it! What was that all about?

The Los Angeles Times lamented “the hoopla” as “a lesson in just how many hours some of the highest-paid television journalists in the world can spend discussing a bridal dress they have not seen while watching people they do not know mill about in Westminster Abbey wearing large hats.” But the wedding was more than that. It was a reminder of nobility, not just the nobility of the British monarchy, but the nobility of human aspiration that most of us have forgotten we have.

I surveyed my own register of liturgical experts on both sides of the Atlantic. Rabbi Charles Middleburgh, an editor for the Liberal Jewish liturgies of Great Britain, spoke for many when he said, “The ceremony was a deeply traditional one, with some of the greatest hymns being sung and stirring music being played.” Dr. Paul Bradshaw, a British liturgist and priest in the Anglican Church himself, explained that “Prince Charles, the bridegroom’s father, is a lover of traditional language rites.” The couple therefore chose “our traditional language marriage rite, not the one authorized in 1662 which describes marriage as a remedy against fornication so that we should not be like the brute beasts of the field, but a slightly cleaned up version of that.”

Good thing they cleaned up the “remedy against fornication” bit, but, mellifluous language aside, the rite had other problems that left some carping. Haven’t we given up the antiquated notion of giving the bride away? Lutheran liturgist, Dr. Gail Ramshaw of Philadelphia, thinks they “missed an opportunity for Christians to witness meaningful contemporary liturgy. When I hear ‘wilt,’” she says, “I wilt! And, really, ‘man and wife?’”  Indeed, try saying “woman and husband” and you get the idea.

Still, Middleburgh is spot on (as they say across the pond) when he applauds the old language as “being so much finer than its deeply prosaic modern versions.” The soaring lines of Westminster Abbey reverberated with it — and with the sung words of William Blake’s Jerusalem.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

This is a far cry from what we usually get in worship: folksy settings, dress-down gatherings, a guitar or two, and language by lesser lights than Blake. For one brief hour, the British Empire was resurrected from the dead, but without its imperial exclusivity. The Anglican liturgy once sought God’s mercy on “Jews, Turks, infidels, and heretics.” At Westminster, on Friday, Jews and Muslims joined Christians as equals, marveling together at religious ritual’s reach into the heavens. The wedding “expressed respect for monarchy, the Church [and] marriage,” comments Dr. Brigitte Sion, a liturgist in New York, “transcending race, class, religion and geography.”

“Monarchy, church and marriage,” mind you, none of which is doing very well right now. Bradshaw notes that it is “commonplace for couples in the UK to live together without marrying at all, or to marry only after their children are old enough to be bridesmaids at their own parents’ weddings.” Religions in the west have spent half a century downsizing rituals to the point where people may not think they are worth doing any more.

I understand that downsizing. It is part of the baby-boomer revolt against the sterile liturgies that relegated congregations to passivity and erected social distance between people at a time when they sought just the opposite: community, connection, and a God who meets and knows us intimately. But intimacy is one thing; sloppiness, even slovenliness, is another. People in charge of contemporary liturgies tend to forget the artistic care that even informal liturgies require.

In any event, our problem today is that public life in general has become slovenly — and not just aesthetically, but morally. Public debate has cheapened into mean spiritedness. Politicians become little thinkers who shrink our purview of the possible until whatever seems worth doing cannot be done. We are bereft of heroes to call us to our higher selves.

But on occasion, the human spirit whispers within us that it wants to soar again. And the wedding let us soar. Vicariously, at least, we all dressed up for a fairy-tale ending, prince and all; and celebrated it in something other than an unrehearsed sing-along. There is more to a calendar than holiday sales, more to the world than box stores and malls, and more to life than choosing between burgers and burritos. As the midrash puts it, we are all princes and princesses, all children of a divine ruler. On Friday we got a glimpse of royalty – not just the royal family’s but our own.