Monotheism and its Discontents: A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5773

From my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon last Sunday:

Isn’t it profoundly presumptuous to say our God is the only God?  I think we can all agree that right and wrong that should apply to everyone, without exceptions, but whose right and whose wrong are we talking about?  Why should our faith system – or any faith system – get to determine the will of this universal moral authority?  It’s all well and good to affirm that we all serve one universal God, but history is replete with examples of heinous acts committed by people of faith who believed the rest of the world should do their God’s bidding.

Click below to read the entire sermon:

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Jewish Law/Muslim Law = Laws for Life, Not “Hegemonic Political Force”

Highly recommended (and extremely important): this recent Moment Magazine article by legal scholar Marshall Breger, “Why Jews Can’t Criticize Sharia Law.”

An excerpt:

While clearly some Muslims do view sharia as a hegemonic political force, the vast majority of Muslims, especially those living in the West, view sharia no differently from the way Jews view the halachic system: as an overarching guide to ordering one’s life. Muslim jurists have always drawn on sharia to mandate that fellow Muslims obey the laws of the land in matters that sharia does not prohibit. In numerous instances (see Koran 5:11), Muslims are told to “honor their contracts” and so to honor the “social contract” represented by the law of the land. The Fiqh Council of North America, the leading interpreter of Islamic law in the United States, ruled as recently as September 2011 that “there is no inherent conflict between the normative values of Islam and the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.”


A New Reconstructionist Dialogue on Chosenness

Check out this lovely dialogue on the meaning of “chosenness” in Zeek Magazine by two eloquent Reconstructionist rabbinical colleagues: Rabbis Deborah Waxman and Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer.

Ever since Reconstructionist Judaism’s founder Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan famously (some believe infamously) dispensed of the Chosen People idea from his conception of Jewish theology, its meaning has been a point of lively debate in our movement.  Here’s a taste of how that conversation is playing out now in the 21st century:

Rabbi Waxman:

Rejecting chosenness is an explicit embrace of a modern discourse pointing toward universal truths; it is an articulation of harmonious and consistent principles out of competing voices. Rejecting chosenness is about getting down to the hard work of being one of the many peoples of the world, jostling with one another on the path toward the divine, rather than holding ourselves separate and nurturing a belief in God-given superiority. As postmoderns, we may have the capacity to hold multiple and conflicting values. When it comes to chosenness, I would argue that that we should not indulge in this capacity; by moving beyond chosenness, we make a deliberate statement about our highest values.

Rabbi Fuchs-Kreimer:

(No) matter what I choose in my own religious practice, I cannot simply ignore a core piece of our tradition. The idea of chosenness has not gone away. As a Jew, I still own it, even if I do not speak of it in my prayers. In the interfaith encounter, I have to resist the temptation to claim only the parts of Judaism I love. If I skip over the Jewish ideas I find objectionable or, more often, if I explain that they belong to someone else – “the mistaken Jews” – I am acting in a way that is both arrogant and untrue to my own pluralistic commitments. My dialogue principles require that I learn to understand the beliefs of my co-religionists even when I do not share them.


A Shiva for the New Millenium?

In his recent NY Times piece, “Mourning in the Age of Facebook,” author/journalist Bruce Feiler suggests what many have long observed: in the post-modern world, we’re witnessing traditional religious mourning practices adapted in ever new and interesting ways.

In his article, Feiler describes at length something he calls “Secular Shiva” – a phenomenon in which he claims he has participated more than once. Here’s his description of this newly adapted Jewish mourning ritual:

Don’t wait for the griever to plan: … With a traditional shiva, the burden falls on the family to open their home to sometimes hundreds of people. If you are considering a “secular shiva,” insist on doing the planning yourself, from finding a location, to notifying guests, to ordering food.

By invitation only. Traditional shivas are open houses; they’re communitywide events in which friends, neighbors and colleagues can stop by uninvited. Our events were more restricted, with the guest of honor suggesting fewer than a dozen invitees. “An old-fashioned shiva would have felt foreign to me,” said my friend Karen, who lost her mother last summer. “I’m more private. If it was twice the size, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable.”

“Would you like to share a few stories?” At the event we held for Karen, she opted to speak about her mom. For 45 emotional minutes, she talked about her mother’s sunny disposition, her courtship, her parenting style. It was like watching a vintage movie.

“I liked speaking about my mom,” she told me. “One, I hadn’t had time to fully grieve because I was so focused on my dad. And two, there was something each of you could come away with about who my mom was in the world.”

At a later event, a Catholic friend who had lost her brother chose not to speak about him. She felt too fragile, she later explained. Instead she handed out CDs with a photo montage of her brother’s life. “I think if I hadn’t had the pictures, I would have felt the need to talk about him.”

The comfort of crowds. While I came away from these events convinced we had hit on a new tool for our circle of friends, I was quickly warned not to assume our model was universal.

“Introverts need to grieve, too,” Ms. Andrews said. “For some, a gathering of this kind might be a particular kind of torture.”

My two cents:

Despite his term “Secular Shiva,” I warmly welcome these sorts of changes Feiler describes here. As someone who routinely attends and helps organize shivas on a fairly regular basis, I’ve noticed that many mourners are already incorporating many of the elements Feiler describes.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a religious/secular issue – I think many who consider themselves religious in a more liberal sense feel fully comfortable adapting the tradition shiva rites to fit their needs. In fact, virtually none of my congregants observe the full, traditional seven-day shiva, the prospect of which invariably feels overwhelming – and in some ways even counterproductive.

As I often tell mourners who ask if it’s “OK” to change or adapt some of these rituals: Absolutely. At the end of the day, I believe the purpose of religious ritual is to serve our needs and not the other way around.


Honoring the Bridgers of Science and Religion

Among the plethora of “Top Ten of 2011” lists out there, one of the most interesting I’ve read was written by Paul Wallace for Religion Dispatches: “Top Ten Peacemakers in the Science-Religion Wars.” According to Wallace, 2011 may well have marked the beginning of the end of the conflict between science and religion – and to prove his point, he spotlights ten figures who, “in small ways and large, have helped to spread seeds of peace on (this) blasted-out battleground.”

His remarkably diverse and wide ranging list includes the likes of Republican presidential candidate Jon Hunstman (a devout Mormon who – gasp – openly supports the scientific findings on climate change), comedian Jon Stewart (who took on the political orthodoxies of American Atheists), film director Terence Malick (director of “The Tree of Life”) and Nidhal Guessoum (a prominent Muslim astrophysicist.)

Here’s Wallace’s take on Malick’s “Tree of Life” – a particularly lovely meditation on the often sublime intersection of religion and science:

It is indeed a strange and beautiful world. Malick, in his graceful and courageous film, reminds us that it is made stranger and more beautiful the more we open ourselves to it.

Both the closed-hearted scientism of atheist hardliners and the narrow creationism of religious fundamentalists kill our strange and beautiful world by flattening it beyond repair. They deny its depth and mystery. Malick, in joyous contrast, has shown us—through art and not through argument—just how wondrous and surprising it is to live life out here in the middle.

And for helpful insights on this important subject from a Jewish point of view, I commend to you this June 2011 post by Rabbi/blogger Geoffrey Mitelman:

Science is about creating hypotheses and testing data against these theories. Judaism is about how we act to improve this world, here and now. And these processes can easily go hand in hand.

So yes, if science and religion are seen to be competing sources of truth and authority, they will always be in conflict — especially if religion is “blind acceptance and complete certainty about silly, superstitious fantasies.” But if instead, religion is about helping people create a deeper sense of meaning and a stronger sense of their values, then I truly believe that science and religion can be brought together to improve ourselves, our society and our world.


Are Religions Mixable?

According to a 2009 Pew study:

The religious beliefs and practices of Americans do not fit neatly into conventional categories. A new poll by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life finds that large numbers of Americans engage in multiple religious practices, mixing elements of diverse traditions. Many say they attend worship services of more than one faith or denomination — even when they are not traveling or going to special events like weddings and funerals… One-third of Americans (35%) say they regularly (9%) or occasionally (26%) attend religious services at more than one place, and most of these (24% of the public overall) indicate that they sometimes attend religious services of a faith different from their own.

A welcome phenomenon? U. of Miami religious studies professor (and Christian liberation theologian) Ivan Petrella says yes:

We’re a nation moving beyond religious pluralism. A religiously plural nation is a multi-religious nation, one where religions peacefully coexist. But within pluralism, religions are still watertight compartments. People aren’t allowed to belong to more than one or to borrow the ideas and practices of another, without feeling like they’re traitors to their faith. That’s changed. In our emerging religious reality people are shattering the compartments and becoming multi-religious. We’re no longer just a multi-religious nation. We’re a nation of multi-religious people…

The United States has always thought of itself as a great experiment. Let’s not be shy about experimenting with multiple faiths as well.

Another well-known professor of religion, Steven Prothero, begs to differ, saying there are just too many important differences between religions – and our tendency to sample a bit of each smacks uncomfortably of American consumerism:

At their best, Judaism and Christianity and Hinduism and Buddhism call us to rethink the world and then challenge us to remake it—and to remake ourselves. But the truths of one religion often clash with those of others, or contradict each other outright. Even Protestantism has carried inside its various denominations strikingly different visions of the good life, both here and in the hereafter. Absent a chain of memory that ties us to these religions’ ancient truths, these visions are lost, and we are left to our own devices, searching for God with as much confusion as we search, in love, for the next new thing.

Theological student Yaira Robinson concurs, using the metaphor of language to understand the importance of exclusive religious affiliation:

In order to communicate effectively, though, you can only speak only one language at a time. When you mix and match language systems—throwing in vocabulary from other languages, re-arranging the grammar, tossing in foreign idioms—then communication becomes difficult. Likewise, each religious system is a coherent whole, with all its parts—stories, history, prophets, teachings, and practices—working together to facilitate communication. This is the beauty of speaking one religious language, of walking one religious path—doing so can bring our lives into a clearer relationship with God.

What say you? I’m curious to hear your thoughts!


The Season of Our Service: Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5772

As my Torah study students will attest, the book of Deuteronomy can be pretty tough stuff. Deuteronomy, of course, is the final book of the Torah, and most of it is a monologue delivered by Moses to the Israelites before they cross into the Promised Land. As Moses is about to die, he engages in a kind of review lesson for the people, relating their history, describing their journey and reminding them of the laws they have agreed to as part of their covenant with God.

This last part – the theological emphasis on the covenant – is a major theme in Deuteronomy. Over and over, God tells the Israelites through Moses: “You’re about to enter the Land. Just follow my laws and you’ll be fine. But break them and you’ll be very, very, sorry.”

It’s really not to hard to discern these theological threats throughout Deuteronomy– in fact we read them over and over and over again. God tells the Israelites that a deal’s a deal – and they had better hold up their end or else. And of course the “or else” is spelled out repeatedly – often in gruesomely vivid detail.

Now, of all the laws contained in this covenant, there is one in particular that God seems particularly uptight about: that is, namely, the law against worshiping other gods. That’s not to say God isn’t concerned about laws such as murder, theft, providing for the poor, caring for the stranger… While these kinds of laws are certainly mentioned, the stakes always seem to be the highest when it comes to the commandment against idolatry – against serving gods of foreign nations.

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