Monday, February 29, 2016

What I have learned from Judaism and my Jewish friends

When  Jonathan Zasloff, a new member of Orange Grove Meeting, shared his spiritual
Jonathan Zasloff
journey, I was deeply impressed by his questioning, thoughtful exploration of religious practices and concepts. What also surprised and delighted me was his humility, his ability to say: “I don’t know the answer.” A UCLA law professor who has earned degrees from Yale and Harvard and is now studying to be a rabbi, Jonathan has earned the right to be proud, but he doesn’t flaunt his credentials or his knowledge. In his commitment to be Jewish and Quaker, he reminds me of Claire Gorfinkel, another Orange Grove Friend who is Jewish and wrote a pamphlet with the intriguing title: “I have always wanted to be Jewish: and now, thanks to the Religious Society of Friends, I am.” Although Quakerism is deeply rooted in Christianity, Friends are not required to be Christian to be members of our religious society. As a rabbi is reported to have said, “Many of my best Jews are Friends.” Jonathan’s talk made me think of how my Jewish friends have inspired and challenged me to be a better Friend, and a better follower of Jesus of Nazareth.
1)      Good questions are just as important as good answers. I love the joke about the rabbi who was asked: “Why do Jews answer questions with questions?” He replied, “Why do you ask?” Outsiders like Jews and Muslims realize that many questions, especially those posed by the dominant culture, are “loaded” and need to be unpacked. The best example of this I can think of was a Muslim scholar who was asked t o contribute an article to Christian Century addressing the question: “Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?” He began his response by asking: “Why is this question being asked?” Given how many Christians believe that "Allah" refers to some kind of Muslim moon god or even a demon, it was important to examine the context of the question before trying to answer it.
On a more positive note, open-ended questions can lead us to look more deeply into ourselves and into the nature of reality. Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a best-seller with the provocative question: “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
Quakers love questions and "queries" (open-ended questions) are part of our spiritual discipline. We recognize that what is important sometimes is not to have the right answers, but to wrestle with the right questions. This is also the essence of Jewish wisdom.
According  to the Pirke Avot, a collection of sayings by Jewish sages:
Find a teacher
to challenge your answers.
Acquire a friend
to challenge your questions.
Allow everyone the room to doubt:
the ability to challenge opinions,
even your own. (I:6, p. 7)
The German poet Rilke wrote about the importance of open-ended questions in a letter to a friend:

“...I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

2)      When it comes to matters of Scripture, or God, or anything really important, there is no definitive interpretation or understanding. Jews often joke that whenever three Jews gather together, there are at least four opinions. Jews value diversity of opinion and argumentation, as evident in the Talmud. This monumental work of biblical interpretation includes dissenting as well as a consensus views on scriptural passages. There is no definitive interpretation, no dogma that must be believed. Quakers feel the same way. A formerly fundamentalist Quaker friend of mine summed up his views on fundamentalism by saying: “I still accept the idea that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, but now I am convinced that no interpretation of the Bible is inerrant.”

3)      Religion is not a matter of right belief, but of right action. Orthopraxis, not orthodoxy, is the hallmark of Judaism, and of Quakerism. Using the word “Reality” in place of God, Rabbi Shapiro translates a saying by Shimon the Righteous, one of the last sages, as follows:

The world stands upon three things—
Upon Reality.
Upon self-emptying prayer and meditation.
Upon acts of love and kindness.

4)      Sometimes the best answer to a difficult question is a story that helps us to see the situation in a new light. When asked how he felt about thorny question of Israel/Palestine, Rabbi Waskow responded with this story: “A group of Jews wanted to find the origin of idolatry so they journeyed all over the world but were unable to find it. Finally, they returned to Jerusalem and went to the Temple. There in the Holy of Holy, they found it. Sometimes, what we reverence as holy becomes an idol because we place it above the Living God that is everywhere present and beyond names and forms. That’s what is happening with Israel. It’s a wonderful country, a wonderful idea, but if we can’t criticize or question it, it becomes an idol.”

5)      God is invisible, transcendent and beyond our understanding, yet is personal and wants a relationship with us. The Bible is full of passages that move from the third to the second person, reminding us that what is most important is our relationship with God, not our metaphors about God. In Psalm 23 the Psalmist begins by describing God in the third person, using a metaphor that originated in a pastoral culture, but still resonates today. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures…..” But at the emotional high point of the psalm, when the Psalmist is facing death, he dispenses with metaphor and directly addresses the Divine: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” This pattern is found throughout the Bible, reminding us that the Eternal One wants us a relationship with us.

6)      Prayer has many dimensions: gratefulness, petitioning, questioning, and listening for the “still, small voice” to guide us. All these aspects of prayers are present in Hebrew Scriptures, and especially Psalms, one of the best guidebooks to prayer ever written. It even includes a powerful call to silent prayer: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46). Among modern Jews, Rabbi Rami Shapiro is one of the best practitioners and teachers of silent prayer. His book Wisdom of the Jewish Sage: a modern reading of pirke avot is a treasure trove of wisdom, and my autographed copy includes his Quakerly advice: “May your words be grounded in silence.” Jews are not known for their silence and often joke about being so talkative, but this deep yearning for silent meditation has drawn Jews to practices like Quakerism and Buddhism. This yearning is beautifully expressed in the Pirkot Avot where Rabbi Jacob describes what Buddhists call “mindfulness practice.” 

If you are walking lost in wonder,
Empty of self, and mindful of Reality,
And suddenly you interrupt the peace to exclaim,
“How beautiful is this tree!
How magnificent this field!”
You forfeit life.

The intrusion of self
And the imposing of judgment
Separates you from Reality
And snares you in the net of words.
Be still and know.
Embrace it all in silence.

7)      We can be totally honest with God and express our feelings, our frustration, our anger, our disappointment, our despair, as well as our hopes and desires. We can even express our doubts and fears, and argue and bargain with God. Jacob, one of the founders of the Jewish faith, “wrestles” with God, and is given a new name, Israel (“the one who struggles with God”). My favorite Quaker example of this willingness to confront God is a story told by a woman who was so frustrated with her life she began berating God. For nearly an hour, she told God how pissed off she was with Him. Finally, her anger subsided and she heard a “still, small voice” whisper to her: “Finally, we can have an honest relationship.”

8)      I have learned to think of God as a “Thou” rather than an “It,” thanks in part to the Jewish theologian Martin Buber. To think of God as a “thou” means that the living God is not a thing, an "it,"  and cannot be limited. For God to be real and alive for us, God must be experienced as a Presence, as a still, small Voice, as a Reality seeking to engage with us. 

9)      Relationships are more important than the images or roles we assign to others. Buber’s “I-Thou” philosophy also applies to people:  When I think of the person I share my life with as just “my wife,” I have defined and limited her. When I dialogue with her as a “you,” she is infinitely complex: a human being, a woman, an activist, a child of God, etc, etc. True friendship or love begins when we are willing to experience others as they truly are, without judgment and without stereotypes,  in all their complexity, their mysterious “you-ness.”

10)   Shalom, the Hebrew word for “peace,” includes the social as well as personal. The goal of the Jewish faith isn’t “inner peace,” it is peace/shalom/well-being with justice for all.

11)   God is on the side of the oppressed, the poor, the downcast, the marginalized. This is what Jewish prophets cry down from heaven, and this voice is heard in modern Jewish prophets like Bernie Sanders. Recent historians like Doug Gwyn have come to see our Quaker faith as rooted not so much in mysticism (as Rufus Jones believed) but rather in the prophetic tradition. In his latest book, A Sustainable Life: Quaker Faith and Practice in the Renewal of Creation,  Gwyn writes: 

"The Quaker movement emerged as a recognizable phenomenon in the North of England in 1652. It was a prophetic outbreak that drew together a variety of religious and political radicals in an experiential, socially engaged movement, which grew exponentially in its first four years and sustained rapid growth for two decades. It was apocalyptic in the sense that it proclaimed the coming of Christ by means of the light's revelation  in each person's conscience. The light had power to transform individuals and to gather communities that could challenge and overturn an unjust and violent society....It was a revolutionary movement: early Friends were willing to suffer and even die in resisting the oppressive order of their day, to testify to the power of Christ's light to transform their own lives, to transform the world, to spread the kingdom of heaven on earth and to renew creation (p. 96-97)."

12)   To whom much is given, much will be expected. Those who are successful have to account for how they use their wealth. The “prosperity gospel” is counter to everything that the Jewish prophets stood for, and stood up against.

13)   Jubilee economics. Perhaps one of the most controversial Jewish teachings is that we cannot own property, we are simply stewards accountable to the true Owner. “The Earth belongs to God, and the profits therefrom.” My wife, who is an Evangelical Christian, loves this teaching and explores it in the theological section of her book: Making Housing Happen: Faith-Based Models for Affordable Housing. If you’d like to know more, I suggest you read her book. You may be surprised at how much Judaism has influenced Evangelical Christianity, and early. Far from worshipping “property values,” early Christians sold their homes and pooled the proceeds so that “there would be no poor among them” (Acts 4). This was the goal of Jubilee economics, the fulfillment of the Jesus’ mission: “I have come to preach good news to the poor….and the acceptable year of the Lord” (i.e. Jubilee).  

14)   Religion is not just about individuals, but also about communities. This runs counter to the American cult of individualism, which turns religion into a purely private matter (“Jesus and me,” or “my spiritual path”). Jewish prophets didn’t speak primarily to individuals, but rather to leaders and “nations.” In Matthew 25 Jesus demonstrates his profound Jewishness when he says that nations (not just individuals) will be judged by they treat the poor, the sick, the prisoners. “As you do for the least of these, you do it for me.”

15)   Everything is holy. It is part of the genius of Jewish spiritual life to see that everyday objects (such wine, candles, food) can be sacramental. This aspect of Judaism is very appealing to Quakers, who have dispensed with the outward trappings of religion and focus on the sacred in everyday life.

16)   God requires us to take time off and enjoy life and give thanks. The idea of Sabbath, an obligatory day off, is a hard commandment for workaholics like me, but I am grateful for the Jewish understanding of why it is important to find time for rest and prayer. Rabbi Waskow discusses both the cosmic and political significance of Sabbath. On the 7th day of creation God rested from work, and commanded us to do likewise. This story tells us that rest is built into the very fabric of the universe. As living beings, we must breathe out, as well as breathe in. We must rest in order to be active. The prophet sees rest as a spiritual practice springing from prayer. “God, you will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are fixed on You: for in returning and rest will be our salvation, in gentleness and trust will be our strength” (Isaiah 26).This is the spiritual essence of Sabbath: fixing one’s attention on the Creator and finding life-giving peace.  

Sabbath also had a political component because it is a commandment given soon after the liberation of the Hebrews from Egyptian captivity. As slaves, the Hebrews had to work seven days a week, whenever and as much as Pharaoh demanded. Sabbath defies this tyrannical work requirement. God set limits to work and gave His people a day to rest, enjoy life and savor the delights of God’s creation. The political aspect of Sabbath is evident today in those who are struggling for paid vacations, paid maternity leave, and a return to the 40 hour work week. Unless employers are forced to give their employees time off, they usually don’t do so. The Bible teaches that time off for rest and recreation is not a self-indulgence, it is a God-given right. Sabbath is therefore profoundly liberating on both the spiritual and the political level. I’m grateful for rabbis like Arthur Waskow who keep both aspects of Sabbath in mind.

17)   Idol worship. Today we don’t worship statues of gods; instead we are tempted worship our pet ideas and our own creations. Seen in this light, the prohibition against idol worship a hard but relevant teaching. How tempting it is to become attached to one favorite “ism”—whether it is liberalism, socialism, or Capitalism—and lose touch with the living God and living people!

18)   We aren’t obliged to finish the work, but we cannot abandon it.  This saying from the Pirke Avot is a reminder that great tasks, like ending slavery, obtaining the vote for women, or abolishing war, can take more than one generation to accomplish.  For the sake of tikkun olam (“healing the world”), we need to work wholeheartedly, but not despair at the enormity of the task or slowness of progress. As Dr. King wrote, “The arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice.” Inspired by this quote, my Jewish friend Steve Rohde helped start an organization called “Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice”

I could go on and on, but this seems like a good place to pause and end this reflection with some questions:

·         What have you learned from the Jewish faith?

·         How are you putting into practice what you have learned?




1 comment:

  1. Wow! There's a lot to chew on here:-)

    Enough to reflect on for months and then some. And to put into practice.