Pure Souls

Most of the time, this blog doesn’t get overly rabbinic. I may talk about what I do as a rabbi, or talk about Jewish things, but rarely do I get overtly religious. This is fair warning: I’m about to talk about prayer, the soul, and how I understand them.

One of the prayers of the morning service, Elohai Neshamah, begins, “My God, the soul You have given me is pure.” For me, the soul (neshamah) represents who I am, that part of me that is uniquely “David”. I’m not particularly tied to the idea of an eternal soul that goes on beyond this life (in fact, I tend away from such belief). Rather, I see the soul as my essential being (most of the time, sometimes I get mystical and see the soul as that part of me which is most closely identified with the perfection of Divinity, and therefore the part which is least individual to me). Generally, when I say soul, I mean some essential part of who I am. So what do I mean by saying that the soul God gave me is pure?

For me, the idea is that my soul begins clean, unsullied. As we live life, and reality intrudes upon us, the imperfections of the world impact our soul, leaving scars, dirt, accretions (plaque, if you will). But by reminding myself each morning that the soul began pure, I can attempt to live as though it remains clean, making the decisions that will help to preserve the purity of the soul. It is as though I am saying, “God, you gave me a pure soul; I’ll try not to muck it up today.”

The first line of Elohai Neshamah is popular as a meditative chant, and not just for it’s meaning. While the translation of neshamah as “soul” is a good one, the word neshamah can also mean “breath.” Which is deeply appropriate to the sound of the first line: Elohai neshamah shenatata bee tehorah hee. Each word ends on a vowel (or an open syllable, to use the technical  term). This means, that each word ends with an outflow of breath. The soul/breath given us is pure, and we return it to the Divine as we breathe it out with each word.

Advertisements

Shabbat and NaNoWriMo

As I’m working feverishly on my novel for National Novel Writing Month (18,000 words, thanks for asking), I’m approaching the first Saturday of the month. Which raises a question for me. Do I work on the novel on the sabbath?

On the one hand, I try not to use a computer on Shabbat, because it’s too work like. And in some ways, this writing really is work, in the sense of productive labor.

On the other hand, I’m having a lot of fun writing, and it’s a spiritual activity, especially given the spiritual themes of the novel. And, after all, I’ve got 50,000 words to get done before a deadline.

I really don’t know where I’m going to come out. There is work I’m willing to do on Shabbat (like lead services, for instance). But without boundaries, Shabbat ceases to have true meaning. Studying spiritual text is very traditional as a Shabbat activity. But writing it isn’t. I’m balancing, weighing the questions, trying to find a comfortable result.

I’m trying hard not to let the target of 50k words drive my decision. That’s not what Shabbat is about, and frankly, that drive is the most compelling reason to me NOT to write on Shabbat: the goal oriented nature of 50,000 words is very much not shabbastik (doesn’t feel like shabbat).

A more traditional Jew doesn’t wrestle with these questions. There are clear boundaries that one adheres to. For those of us who seek to live by finding our own path through the tradition, creating meaningful ways of celebrating and observing, the questions are tougher. Competing values come into play, and the decisions are up to us, not the rabbi we ask for a ruling.

For now, I remain undecided, but leaning towards writing. But tune in next week for the answer.

 

For the Sins I’ve Committed

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day in the Jewish year. It begins Sunday evening and runs until we can see three stars on Monday evening. It is a day of fasting, when we eat no food, drink no water. We spend a great deal of the day in synagogue praying. The centerpiece of these prayers is a confession of sins, in which we, as a congregation, confess to  an acrostic of sins. We confess to everything from being thoughtless in our dealings with other people, to deliberate transgressions.

The theory of the day is that if one has asked forgiveness from anyone one has sinned against the previous year, and they have forgiven you, the Day of Atonement atones. For sins against God or oneself, the Day of Atonement atones. In this way, at least in theory, we start each year with a clean slate.

For me, reading through the confession of sins is an opportunity to think about whether there are ways I’ve committed each of those sins over the last year. Some sins, I clearly have (pride, lack of attention to the effect my words may have on others). Some sins, I’m pretty sure I didn’t commit (I’m pretty sure I didn’t pervert justice this year, or commit a violent act). Many more are the categories that require me to really think about my actions over the past year (disrespecting parents and teachers, mocking others, sins in our business affairs, for instance). This is where I get the real value out of the confession: rethinking my acts of the last year, and examining them under the moral microscope.

As we head towards Yom Kippur, and I am thinking over my last year, I ask your forgiveness if I have wronged you, and I forgive all those who may have wronged me. I resolve to try to do better in the coming year, and I pray that for all my sins, I will be forgiven, pardonned, and granted atonement.

Death and Adolescence Don’t Mix

This week I did something I’ve been dreading for a long time: I buried a 17-year-old.

In this case, I didn’t perform the funeral (that was done by another rabbi in another state), but the family plot was here in Portland, and so they needed a rabbi for the interment. It meant I had less contact with the family than I usually do for a funeral, and was less clear on the relationships and the background. I thought that would make me feel less connected, but I don’t think it did.

As opposed to most people, I’m fairly familiar with the what it looks like when you bury a loved one. I know about how much crying there will usually be, or at least the range of crying to expect. I don’t mean to sound callous, and I certainly don’t feel immune to the sadness and grief that accompany a funeral, but having been to 30 or  so funerals, one develops a certain sense of what is regular. This wasn’t regular.

The entire family was crying. Not shedding a few tears, but really crying. Most of the other folks who were there to support the family had tears in their eyes. This was a pain that tore at the soul. This was a pain that tore at my soul.

I have written before about my views of God, and why bad things happen to good people. My view tends to boil down to the idea that God is not a controlling deity who can just “fix things.” but is rather that part of the universe that can cause us to do good. Or is the universe itself, but without a true volition. This is my intellectual, and often spiritual belief in God. Events like burying a 17-year-old challenge this.

At the graveside, I found myself asking God, “why?’ I found myself thinking that just as adolescents feel immortal, perhaps they should be immortal. That they should not die. I found myself asking the Holy for an explanation, and trying to hold the Divine responsible. These are not reactions born of intellectual reason. Even as I asked them, I knew they implied a theology which is not my own. Yet I couldn’t stop myself from asking them.

Sometimes, the pain of the day is too much, and I need God to be more than God is. And I cry out to  God, because even if God cannot act to change what is, at least God can hear my pain. And I, perhaps, can feel a little better.

If you have adolescents, hug them. Remind them to have fun, but that there are behaviors that are too risky, even if they feel immortal. Driving too fast can be deadly. There are drugs which can kill you. There are many risks which will turn out okay most of the time, but once in a while, will kill you. And even if your kids won’t change their behavior to protect their lives, ask them to do it to protect all those who love them from their death. Please. This is pain no one should suffer.

God’s Mouthpiece

I spoke yesterday on a panel about creating GLBT-friendly religious communities. It’s a subject I care about and speak about with some regularity (a few times a year). In general, the audiences for such talks tend to be very supportive, and this was no exception. That’s not the point I want to make today, howerver.

During the Q&A part of the panel, someone asked a question, which sparked a response in me. And suddenly, I found myself answering the question eloquently, and speaking passionately about the use of language as an act of inclusion or exclusion in everyday situations. That we ought not to be making Pride Month the time of the year when we focus on issues of inclusion, but rather, by the simple use of inclusive language, making clear that we are welcoming throughout the year.

There are times that I forget that I have something to say. There are times when I wonder how it is that I can come up with a weekly sermon when I’ve done that in the past. Then there are times like yesterday, when something just comes out, and it is the right message at the right moment. For me, those are times when I am serving the Holy most directly. When I let the words flow through me, and the words are good, and true, and right.

Yesterday was a good day.

Sparks of Love, Sparks of Holiness

I performed a wedding yesterday. Nothing especially odd about that–I perform 7 – 12 weddings a year. What made this one notable (for me…they are all notable for the couples involved) was the intensity of the interaction between the couple underneath the huppah (Jewish wedding canopy).

The bride and the groom were completely focused on each other throughout the ceremony. This may seem commonplace, but in my experience, it’s far more common for the the couple’s attention to be fairly diffuse during a wedding ceremony. A little bit on me, a little bit on the guests, a little bit on each other. In fact, I routinely have to remind the bride and groom to look at each other rather than to look at me, while they are repeating their vows to each other. Not this time. The groom and bride were intensely focused on one another. It was as though sparks of love were flying between them throughout the ceremony. It was as though their love was powerful enough that it was a presence in and of itself. And in my line of work, we often call that presence “God.”

I’ve experienced this under the huppah before. It hasn’t happened often, but it has happened. Yet this time it took me completely by surprise. In all the other cases, I’ve known the couple had this connection going into the ceremony, and expected that focus. This time, it came at me from out of the blue. Most often, couples who experience this love focus on one another under the huppah have a deeply spiritual component to their relationship…and that tends to come out in our conversations. It doesn’t mean they love each other more than other couples I marry, but it tends to mean that they conceptualize the relationship in spiritual terms, often regarding the relationship as possesing salvific power. During our conversations, yesterday’s couple never talked about their relationship in that way, and I’m not sure that they consciously regard their relationship that way. Yet under the huppah yesterday, the intensity of their connection was electric.

I love doing weddings. To paraphrase, even when it’s bad, it’s good. Weddings are feel good events. Sometimes I feel like it didn’t go quite as well as I might have liked (rarely), but I almost always feel like I’ve been a part of a powerful experience for the couple and their family and friends.  It’s a part of why I became a rabbi: to help create meaningful ceremonies for people at critical moments in their lives. I strive to make every wedding a mean ingful and spiritual experience for the couple. Rarely, however, is it a spiritual experience for me (which is as it should be). Yesterday was a deeply spiritual experience for me, as I bore witness to their love.  Sometimes, when we expect it least, the Divine shows up and reminds us what really matters.

Reading Tomer D’vorah

As I previously mentioned, I am reading spriritual texts during each day of the omer. In particular, I’ve been reading a lot of Tomer D’vorah by Moses Cordovero. He is a mystic and a teacher of Mussar (albeit a few hundred years before the “Mussar Movement” came into being). As a result, I’m going in a direction I almost never travel in this blog: the theological. I should also give a “shout out” to Bram, who tweeted and asked me to share some of what I’m studying in the blog. So Bram, this one’s for you.

His basic thesis (at least as far as I’ve gotten), is that we live appropriately when we live in imitation of the Divine. That is, as God is forgiving, we should be forgiving; As God does not hold onto anger, neither should we (he is working off of a definition of God found in Micah 7:18 – 20).

I love the idea of imatatio Dei as an ethical basis on a number of levels. It serves us well in terms of thinking of ourselves as “God’s actors in this world” (which is the direction my theology tends to flow). It also connects nicely with a mystical mindview that sees any division between ourselves and the Divine as illusory. Finally, it takes Kant’s categorical imperative to a not necessary logical extreme*.

To the degree that we think of ourselves as God’s hands in this world, the idea that we act in imitation of God is almost tautological. For if God’s actions in this world are manifested only through our own actions, than our actions necessarily are related to Divine action (though not necessarily imitative). Rather, our actions may be almost definitional of Divine action, at least when we are at our very best.

When we adopt the mystical worldview, seeing ourselves and everything else which exists as part of a whole which we refer to as God, the case does not get any simpler. Rather, the question of us acting in imitation of God because even more complex. If we are a part of Divinity and act in imitation of Divinity, it is as though we are saying that our little finger may act in imitation of our entire body: I’m not sure it has any real meaning. We act, and by so doing, represent Divine action in the world (actually, the more I think about this, the less sure I am that it has any practical difference from the first case above).

Finally, looking at this from a Kantian lens (which is probably a terrible idea, because I never fully understood the Categorical Imperative, a fact which my college girlfriend who went on to get a PhD in Ethics bemoaned regularly) we find that ethical action is being defined as those actions which are generalizable not just to humans, but even to the Divine. While this is not (I’m pretty sure) where Kant went with this idea, it is a curious direction to go nonetheless. It raises the question of whether the same rules apply above and below (to use the mystical terms for the distinctions between the human realm and the divine realm), and suggests that the same rules do, in fact, apply. I’m not sure what that teaches us, except I’m pretty sure I don’t feel like it’s a useful direction to go, unless we are positing a God who is a product of humanity, rather than in some sense superior to humanity or having existence outside of humanity.

As I run through these ideas, I realize I’m clarifying my thinking a little, but not getting anywhere particularly new or useful. I guess it seems more like theological masturbation than anything else. Nonetheless, I believe that the value of what I teach lies more in what people hear than in what I say, and perhaps someone will read in my words something of use to them.

*Kant’s categorical imperitive, as I understand it, says that for an action to be ethical it needs to be universalizable. That is, if an action is ethical it must be ethical not just for me to undertake that action but for everyone to undertake that action.