Monday, December 5, 1994

Spirituality and Religion (Jewish Week)

 

Spirituality and Religion

by Joshua Hammerman
(1994)

Sometimes the most profound truths are discovered in the unlikliest of places. The Jewish theologian Arthur Green saw this earlier, when he came across a personals ad in the New York Jewish Week. It was written by a woman who described herself in this way: "DJF, 34. Spiritual, not religious. Seeking like-minded JM, etc."

This young women should indeed be of interest to us. Green sees her as an icon of our age. We can assume that she has a pretty good idea of what she means by "spiritual, not religious," but do we? Let's speculate about her. You can meet her, along with a great many other Jews, at an Ashram retreat, where she goes for a weekend of yoga, massage, a lecture on spiritual teachings, healthy vegetarian food and conversations with like-minded people. You will not meet her at your synagogue, Green notes, from which she continues to feel alienated. But she fasts and meditates on Yom Kippur, a day that has some special meaning to her. She reads both Sufi and Hasidic stories. She used to go to Shlomo Carlebach concerts. Passover with her family is still a boisterous, "totally unspiritual," as she would say, affair. But one year her folks were on a cruise and she got to go to a women's Passover Seder, and she liked it, although it was a little too verbal for her tastes.

Spiritual, not religious... I hear it all the time. Who is this woman who wrote that personal ad? What turned her off? And what could turn her on to Judaism again? Why did she feel so alienated from her parents' synagogue? Why did she leave it so far behind? And how can we get her back?

Her problem is a reflection of her generation, to be sure, those in their 20s and 30s, the so-called Generation X. But it really is endemic to society as a whole. Look at any bookstore and you'll see aisles devoted to what people have come to know as "spirituality." Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin went into a Barnes and Noble one day and counted three bookcases for Judaism, three for general religion and Christianity, two each for Bible, and nine bookcases for New Age. The New Age menu is diverse, including astrology, psychic phenomena, tarot, goddess worship, witchcraft, out-of-body experiences and reincarnation, angels, Satanism and the occult, the channeling of spiritual energy and faith healing, yoga and transcendental meditation, holistic health and healing crystals.

Spirituality can mean all of these things and more, everything, except for what we do in a church or synagogue. Spirituality books are at the tops of all the best seller lists. Films are into spirituality big-time, especially Disney, which in consecutive years brought us African animism in the Lion King and Native American environmentalism in "Pocahontas."

So what is the difference between all this and what people perceive as religion? In a nutshell: Pocahontas talking to an enchanted tree and living peacefully among the birds and forest animals: that's spirituality. Pocahontas receiving a dues statement from her local synagogue: that's religion. The Lion King feeling whole, purposeful and connected to the entire circle of life: that's spirituality. And the Lion King forgetting how to read Hebrew therefore never coming to services because he feels real uncomfortable: that's religion.

I serve on the clergy team of my local hospice organization, and recently the staff tried to better understand the difference between pastoral and spiritual care. In this seminar and accompanying articles, spirituality was defined as "the gas, the organizing center of one's life which radiates from within," and religion as, "the vehicle, an expression of culture; a set of predetermined standards and practices."

By this definition, religion is seen as a lifeless shell; spirituality, which can exist independent of religious structures, is the true source of vitality. The explosive proliferation of 12-step groups, some of which have a pro-spirituality anti-religion bias, tells us even more about the perception that our institutional religious vehicles have run out of gas.

We in the religion biz a have a big problem. The market is booming, but the customers aren't heading in our direction. A recent Gallup poll shows a marked increase in those who say spiritual matters are important in their lives; but the same poll shows that church affiliation and attnendance are down. Spiritual themes are everywhere; even on Madison Avenue. A computer company got into the act recently, by calling its latest hardware an "out of box experience." The Washington Post reports that interest in the power of prayer and divine intervention is clearly growing and even gaining some credibility as an area of scientific study. To document this trend, the Post noted that for the first time ever, the National Institute of Health is funding research into the effects of spirituality. In the fall of 1993 a fledgling alternative medicine department at the NIH awarded a $30,000 to a researcher hoping to measure the impact of prayer on the recovery of drug users.

With people clamoring for transcendence as never before in our lifetime, and with the normal fin de siecle and end of millennium religious frenzies building, and they are, and with hucksters everywhere cashing in on this massive selling of soul, we can't even get Pocahontas to come to services.

And why should she? There's passion in nature. There's life. Theres' God. And what does she get in synagogue? If she's lucky, an ark opening on the High Holidays.

We've got to restore "the gas" to our sanctuaries, classrooms and board rooms. Mainline Protestantism, discouraged by declining church membership, has recently tried to rediscover passion in its practices. American Judaism, which for too long desired to become Protestantized and succeeded all to well, must now follow suit with its own critique of pure reason.

My point is that Judaism is a spiritual entity, that the dichotomy drawn by that woman from the personal ad, and by so many of us, is a false one. This vehicle is not an empty shell. So how do we get that woman, and Pocahontas, to come through the sanctuary doors?

...Bringing Pocahontas Back to Religion

One way is to knock down these doors. We have to begin to bring God out of this sanctuary and into the world around us. Not just the trees and flowers, but into our actions, attitudes and even our language. We must understand that the sacred resides everywhere, if only we would begin to notice it.

In her book, "Ordinarily Sacred," Lynda Sexson, tells the story of an only man who showed her a china cabinet filled with items related to his deceased wife. This was a sacred box, she says, in the tradition of the Ark of the Covenant. Emily Dickenson had her forty nine ribboned packets of poems, carefully written and stored. We all have these sacred books and boxes. If a hurricane were heading toward our home, and we could take away only one thing, what would it be? My guess is that most of us the answer would grab a photo album, a video tape of the last wedding, a box of letters, a notebook of thoughts, a volume of dreams, these are the things that connect us to something deeper than our own lives, to other people, to our ancestry, to our dreams. This is the stuff of spirituality. The stuff that makes us laugh and, most of all, cry. The stuff that guides us and terrifies us for the thought of losing them. The ordinary things -- that are religious.

Psalm 90 says it all, "Teach us to number our days, that we might attain a knowing heart." When I began writing in a journal twenty years ago, that daily exercise became a profound part of my Judaism. These twenty books have become my sacred canon. My collection of old newspapers, or match books from restaurants, and my videos and photos, these help me to connect the dots of my life, enabling it to have meaning. And that's all from Psalm 90. That is spirituality -- that is Judaism.

Thomas Moore, who has made quite a splash with his two books, "Soulmates" and "Care of the Soul," writes in the latter, "The spirituality that feeds the soul and ultimately heals our psychological wounds may be found in those sacred objects that dress themselves in the accoutrements of the ordinary."

At a rabbinic retreat I attended a few years ago, my group performed a cultural inventory of the ordinary things that have become part of our sacred world. My assignment was to write a museum-style description of the hidden meaning found in a box of Golden's blintzes. Next time you're at the store, look at it closely. There is actually a note from Grandma on the box. Grandma is telling you that she made these blintzes just for you. When you open this box and fry these blintzes -- for godsakes please don't microwave them -- Grandma's kitchen will appear somewhere in the recesses of the mind, or at least the nose. OK, so the blintzes are mass-produced, and OK, so I believe the company was bought out by a Japanese conglomerate, it doesn't matter, because the box says Grandma made it. And you know, when I eat Golden's blintzes, sometimes I cry, because I think of my Bubbe's potato kugel, which has passed form this earth never to return.

So the box is part of my spiritual life as an American Jew, as are shlocky New Years cards and wine-stained Maxwell House Haggadahs. These little things help along the process of imbuing the world with God's image, because Godliness is nothing more than the creation of order, and meaning where there was chaos before. And Jews have another word for how we create order out of chaos: kedusha -- holiness. As Jeffrey Salkin put it, "Holiness is where spirituality becomes Judaism." As Jews do Jewish things, these acts increase our sense of holiness, and through them we connect ourselves to our history, to God and to that ubiquitous, ill-defined thing called spirituality.

Spirituality is also about social action. Spirituality is about healing others, it is about giving selflessly, it is about sharing deep insights and terrifying fears, it is about glowing candles and incessant questioning from children. It is about life and death and life from death -- in short, it is about everything that organized religion does twenty four hours a day,

And -- it's about dues, and leaky roofs and staff hirings, and yes, although I shudder to say it, it's about politics too. Spirituality is about forming a community and making it work. One night while Web-surfing I came across a discussion group on the subject of why people don't affiliate with synagogues. I think that woman from the personals ad must have been one of the contributors -- there were about fifty in all. They recited the entire litany of depressing things we all know too well, the high cost, the cliquishness that turned them off, the politics.

We all detest dirty politics. But that is exactly the point. The synagogue has to be the place where the politics of the place enhance godliness and spirituality. There is a deep spirituality to politics, when it works, when it brings people together. Unlike much New Age spirituality, Judaism requires community. You can't just escape to India to seek a guru. You've got to stick around and make it work here, where it is most difficult, within the community. But when we succeed, and it is so hard to succeed, when the end result is a community where people share basic values and truly care for one another, that can produce the greatest spiritual high of all. It is a feeling of belonging that we all crave. It is one I know we can achieve. Once we've created that, dues and other mundane matters become far less distasteful; in fact, tzedakkah (charity) becomes an obligation we gladly take on. And Pocahontas leads the parade with her little blue box.

Spirituality is about all the little things we do every day, the choices we make that tilt the world just lightly more in the direction of life. The little questions become profound moral decisions. Like what do we eat for dinner? Judaism stands for life, but says, OK, you can kill some animals, but only in ritually-prescribed ways. The Torah always comes down on the side of life. So eat meat, it says, but beware, because animals are sacred, and even more sacred is man, the next step up.

Spirituality is about how we use language. To speak in cliches is to use dead language. I weigh carefully each word that I write or utter. And to use language as a weapon, to gossip, that is truly the way of death. The ancient sages indeed equated gossip with murder, spiritual murder, which kills the image of God for three people: the subject, the teller of the tale, and the one who hears it.

In Judaism, every decision is one of life and death, there is nothing that is morally neutral. If we become couch potatoes, that is choosing death. So working out then becomes a choice of life; a profoundly Jewish spiritual act.

Albert Einstein put it best: "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is. Choose."

As I've grown, I've come to recognize these miracles more and more. I suppose having children does that, to a degree, but it is also one of the blessings of my job. I recognize them because I see so many. I see so many supposedly ordinary people doing extraordinary things, people who hold off the angel of death for one final night or hour so to see some loved one through to the achievement of a personal milestone. I see the miracle of dedication allow people with average ability to soar to incredible heights. I think that's why Cal Ripkin became such a national hero this month. Gary Rosenblatt wrote in The Jewish Week, "Cal Ripkin, playing his position day in and day out with grace and efficiency, confidence and calmness, reminds us that our task is not to perform miracles but to keep our focus and do our little bit, one day at a time." And in truth, that's how miracles are made.

Within each of us is a soul that can be ignited by the pure oxygen of organized religion. We can go outside and join Pocahontas and listen to the spirit of God rustling in the trees and that too can set our souls ablaze. The early Hasidim called it "Hitlahavut," from the Hebrew word "lahav," "to set ablaze," as a means of cleaving to God with all our being.

This is no empty vehicle then, the sanctuary, that we invite our friend from the personals ad to enter again. We agree with her completely. Spirituality, God, is the pure oxygen that can ignite our souls. Religion, Judaism, is exactly the same.

Thursday, October 13, 1994

In Search Of the Perfect Sermon

The Jewish Week, October 13, 1994

I bumped into Jonah the other day. Jonah and I are old friends, especially when I'm preparing my sermons for the High Holidays. You don't have to be a rabbi to relate to Jonah. Everyone who contemplates a flight from responsibility meets Jonah somewhere along the way.

As I approached the Days of Awe, I was afflicted once again with what some rabbis call "Elulitis," but which for me is an annual, if not daily, re-enactment of Jonah's basic choice -- the path of anonymous, burdensome responsibility or a speedy descent into the abyss.

In 1978, fresh out of college, I chose to become a rabbi. My route was rather elliptical; it was almost a process of elimination that brought me to the seminary. There was no calling, no summons from On High; I was opting into a profession, one like all others, or so I thought.

Yet here I was, on the eve of a new year, about to utter the words that, if done properly, could change hundreds of lives and have a profound effect on my community. Here I was, once again, being drained of every ounce of energy, pouring out my soul in order to save theirs.

As my story unfolds in this column, doubtless there will be ample opportunity to share my more embarrassing moments and mundane frustrations. But for the most part I hope to share the sublime with you, to cut through the trivialities that prevail all too much in relationships and have also come to cheapen my noble profession.

A rabbi can either be irrelevant or of ultimate relevance to people. I choose the latter, even if the burden is so much greater. That means the sermons must stretch toward perfection.

I'm not talking about perfect length. If a sermon is perfect, neither speaker nor listener can recall what day it is, much less the length. The perfect sermon transcends time and it transports the listener far from any place a watch can dare wander (but try to be reasonable and keep this bliss to around a half-hour on the holidays).

When the high priest emerged from the Holy of Holies, I wonder how many Levites looked up at him saying, "Too long, let's cut down on the blood sprinkling next year." We've lost the Temple, but why must we also lose the grandeur of the moment?

I'm not speaking about pace, the placement of jokes, all the techniques we learn and hone. None of this matters if the message isn't there, and the passion behind it. And there has to be a real, honest-to-goodness person, not a mask, behind the passion. I receive tons of sermonic material from worthy organizations prior to the holidays. Most of it goes straight into the trash. If it doesn't come straight from my heart, it will never reach theirs.

The perfect sermon has to leave both sides in a state of exhilarated exhaustion. It's possible for the listener to feel like a participant even as she or he sits in supposed passivity. There is a place for today's trend toward Donahue-style dialogues, but on the Days of Awe nothing can duplicate an old-fashioned sermon if it is done properly.

Finally, to deliver a perfect sermon the rabbi has to love people. There's where I've had my greatest problem in the past.

These are the people, after all, who wake my wife on Sunday mornings with silly phone calls, who spread unfair rumors about me snubbing the "old-timers" or avoiding Uncle Joe at the hospital, or who rag at me for daring to take a position on controversial issues. These are the ones who ensnare me in an ever-tightening net of obligation as they draw ever closer and demand more flesh.

I look out at them some years and understand why Jonah didn't want to save Nineveh. They drain me of all my strength. They can be shallow. They can be callous. They can be cruel.

This year I looked into the mirror and said, "Who am I?" which allowed me then to look out at them and say, "They are human." Then, it was as if we looked at each other and said, "You know, we're not so bad. Let's work on this thing together."

This year, I got it right, and I've done enough clinkers in the past to know the difference. All the sleepless nights (sort of an Elul ritual for me) added up to four nearly timeless and virtually sleepless half hours for the majority of those assembled.

But I wanted more.

Athletes call it the Zone, that place where we all want to be, where every jumper swishes and every fastball looks like a watermelon. For a rabbi, the Zone is entered when you can sense exactly how the congregation will respond to every comment and you then respond instinctively to them. It is a feeling of utter control combined with the funny sensation that you are not really the one doing the speaking, that the words are coming from somewhere deep within you, not from the printed text. Just as a good actor becomes the part, a good rabbi becomes the sermon and a good sermon transcends the rabbi. Somewhere between the first taste of apple in honey and the final Neilah blast, I came as close as I've ever been to becoming the message.

The holy and human intersect when we, like Jonah, come to accept our burdensome destiny. This year, for whatever reason, I not only accepted my magnificent affliction, but I embraced it. And as I enfolded it in the spoken word, I was able to inscribe, in indelible ink, the name of one congregation into the Book of Life.

Friday, September 2, 1994

Setting Our Clocks To Jewish Time (Jewish Week - first article)




The Jewish Week, September 8, 1994

How often have we been hearing that familiar refrain lately: "My, the holidays are early this year." Ever since Passover snuck in like a lamb last March, the crescendo has been building. With Rosh HaShanah linked to Labor Day and Chanukah set to begin on Thanksgiving weekend, the cry is sure to continue for another few months, until, mercifully, the month of Adar replicates itself next winter and we get back to normal. Except then, everything will be deemed "late."

With our brains and bodies stuck on the monotonous, relentless tick of secular time, it's natural to wonder if the Jewish holidays ever fall on schedule. But when life sways to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, the question never arises. For most, the idea of Jewish time has more to do with tardy board meetings than an intricate system of ritual, emotion and instruction affixed to the cycles of nature. The hour has come for Jews to begin living on Jewish time. That venerated goal of Jewish continuity can hardly be served when our peak religious experiences are always being measured in secular seconds. Until we begin thinking of Rosh HaShanah as neither early or late, but right on target -- two months after Tisha b'Av and half a year from Passover -- we're grafting Judaism artificially into a corner of our beings. For Judaism to breathe, it must be lived on its own terms, on its own schedule.

That said, so nu, why is the holiday so early this year?

Since you asked, yes, it's true, Rosh HaShanah hasn't fallen this early on the secular calendar in quite some time; 19 years to be exact. It was 1975 when it last began on Sept. 5, and here's why. The rabbis calculated the lunar month to be 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 3.33 seconds (and they were less than a half a second off).

The year consists of 12 of those months, or approximately 354 days. With the secular, solar calendar lasting 365 days, the lunar calendar falls 11 days behind the solar -- one each year. The rabbis figured that an additional month should be added seven times in each 19-year cycle in order to keep agricultural festivals in their seasons. Passover must come in the spring and Sukkot in the fall (unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere, but let's not complicate things). The sages actually were a little off in these calculations, or Passover would be celebrated in June. Fortunately, that's one of those problems we can afford to leave to subsequent generations, like the national debt and the identity of Deep Throat.

The extra month is added during the winter of the third, sixth, eighth, 11th, 14th, 17th and 19th years of the cycle. Notice that leap years are usually three years apart, but occasionally two. Since we're now entering the 17th year of the cycle, we've gone nine years since the last two-year interval (years 6 and 8). That means we've had fewer leap years recently, therefore we've been losing more days to the secular calendar. The 17th year always has the earliest Rosh HaShanah, and the ninth year (because it's preceded by the greatest frequency of leap years) the latest. Get it? Sorry you asked?

Now isn't it so much easier just to live on Jewish time rather than trying to understand it? How often do we ask ourselves about the logic of the secular calendar, which has a new year that occurs when nothing at all is changing and new days begin at an arbitrary hour when few are awake to appreciate it? Give me a calendar that asks us to turn inward just as the weather outside is nudging us precisely in that direction, one that expels us from winter's hibernation to the pulsating poetry of "Song of Songs" and the drama of national release, and one that always promises the moon's return to ripeness, no matter how dark things seem.

To those living within the Jewish time frame, this summer's bombardment of Jupiter wasn't just a cosmic peep show; it was serious theological stuff. Why, after all, did it commence on the eve of Tisha b'Av, a day of great reckoning for the world? Next year, when the fast day coincides with the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima, the same questions will be asked again. What does it all mean?

For inhabitants of secular time, the only dilemmas occur when July 4 doesn't create a three-day weekend or Christmas falls on a Sunday. When do they collect garbage? When can they play football? When can we shop?

Speaking of football, the only thing that compares to the rhythm of the Jewish year, with all its rituals and pageantry, is the American sports calendar. As a young boy growing up in the Boston area, fall meant three things: playing football, stuffing those delicious marble cake slices from the synagogue sukkah into my jacket pocket and watching someone other than the Red Sox win the World Series. Spring meant sneaking out of school to attend opening day at Fenway, usually with a matzah sandwich crumbling in my book bag.

But this year, the sports world has upset the rhythm. With baseball on strike, one of the great rituals of autumn might be fortified, one that has always been there. Seasonal rituals don't normally die easily -- they still have May Day parades in Moscow -- because we need them as a constant by which to measure our years. We need the seder table as a gauge of how the family has evolved, to see who is sitting where this year. Our lives spin around these sacred moments. We need the World Series for precisely the same reason. Baseball -- the myth, not the business -- has never changed. The Series has always been there. The Red Sox have always lost. We need that certainty, and now we may not have it.

But not to fear. If we can trade in our bats and balls for lulavs and etrogs, the rhythm of fall can be salvaged, maybe even enhanced. In Judaism, we are all both owners and players. There are no strikes. Our festivals will always be there for us when they are expected, at least for a few thousand years. Betrayed by the gods of baseball, Jews have a chance to return to a different kind of pageantry this year, one with all the sweet smells and cool breezes of an autumn afternoon at the ballpark, complete with a ceremonial circling of the bases -- seven of them on Simchat Torah. And since Sukkot isn't controlled by the TV networks, the festivities don't always drone on past midnight, that random divider of days. They are tied not to the ratings clock but to the miraculous dance of the sun and moon. Sukkot is also cheaper than baseball. A decent lulav set costs $35, much less than a World Series ticket.

It's really not so difficult to convert over to Jewish time. It's not like Celsius or kilometers or changing dollars to shekels. There's a very easy way to integrate the Jewish calendar into the rhythm of your life: Go out and buy one.

When you do, and live by it, something remarkable will begin to happen. Your moods will shift and undulate, responding to events that occurred centuries ago. Holidays will arrive neither early nor late, and each week will flow into Shabbat none too soon.

And what is Jewish continuity but the transmission of the cadences of Jewish life from one generation to the next? I am often asked, will the American Jewish community be around in the next century? To which I respond: Who can predict? The next century is still 46 years away. There is only one thing that is certain. As long as there are any Jews left on this planet, meetings will still begin 15 minutes late.

Wednesday, June 1, 1994

From the Archives: TBE's Bulletin, 30 Years Ago

At the conclusion of each programming year, I used to lay out my "State of the Synagogue" with a focus on religion and education, youth and social (the president would give the financial report).  Here is one from exactly 30 years ago.  You can see some of the dreams we had then and assess how those dreams have withstood the test of time.  To see a clearer pdf of these pages, click here

And as a bonus, click here for another bulletin from earlier that same year.  And check out a few pages from that one on the bottom of this page, including a very timely article by a certain 12th grader who is set to become TBE's next president.