It’s Amazing That Our Bodies Function

Spending time around my grandfather as he is dying pushes my thinking in interesting ways. One of those ways is about how amazing it is that bodies function, and how resilient they are.

Judaism has a specific blessing about this (arguably, Judaism has a specific blessing for everything), and it’s a blessing that has spoken to me for many years.

Blessed are you, Divine One, our God, nature’s rulemaker, who formed humanity in wisdom, and created within us openings and channels. It is evident and known that should one of these openings be closed when it should be open, or open when it should be closed, we would be unable to stand before you. Blessed are You, Divine One, healer of all flesh and worker of wonders.

It is known, colloquially, as the bathroom blessing, since it is recited, among other times, when one relieves oneself (it is also a part of the litany of blessings recited each morning upon getting up).

For me, this blessing has always drawn attention to the miracle of the intricacy of the human body. How everything fits together, and, for the most part, functions without our conscious attention. How, until the advent of computers, it would have been impossible for humans to design a system this complex (which is not to say that I believe that we were “designed” by a conscious deity, merely that we could not have designed something like ourselves, which nature did). I have always seen it as a reminder of the delicacy of the human body, the fragility of our inner workings.

As I watch my grandfather slipping slowly down his final road, however, I am, ironically,  reminded just how robust the human body is. Even as his body is riddled with a cancer which does not belong, and squeezes out the organs which do, his body continues to function. His brain, for the most part, continues to function, albeit with the occasional fault. Our bodies are remarkably fault-tolerant, to use the language of technology. And somehow, I find this fault-tolerance an even greater occasion for wonder.

Blessed is the one who heals flesh and works wonders.

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Shavuot: Celebrating Revelation

This evening  (Tuesday, May 18, 2010) the Jewish holiday of Shavuot begins. It is understood to be a celebration of the giving of Torah, and more specifically, the ten commandments at Mt. Sinai. For those of us who do not believe in a literal interpretation of sacred text, we speak more generally of “revelation” at Sinai, hoping to be able to skirt the issue of human/Divine interface. Yet this holiday, more than any other, calls me to question and think about what I mean when I speak about Divine Revelation.

What I don’t mean is pretty simple. I do not believe that God dictated the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. While we are taught that God speaks in the language of humanity, I believe this means that we hear God through the words of those we interact with on a daily basis, not that God literally speaks in human language.

In truth, I’m not sure that there was a historical Sinai event, with the entirety of the Israelite people gathered at the foot of the mountain. If push comes to shove, I’ll even admit the historical evidence for such an event is weak. Nonetheless, I think the holiday of Shavuot does celebrate something important.

Revelation is not a one time thing. We are taught that all Jewish souls, whether alive at that time, or later to be born, were present at Sinai for revelation. I understand this to mean that we all have our own moments of revelation in our lives. Revelation was not a one-time event, but rather an ongoing process. Each of us in our lives has the possibility of experiencing revelation, whether in the sudden inspiration which solves a problem we’ve been working on, the transcendent appreciation of nature’s beauty, or in studying an ancient text which seems to speak to us as meaningfully today as when it was first set to paper.

Revelation is not necessarily supernatural. It is not necessarily accompanied by thunder and lightening. Rather, revelation is that moment when the curtain is drawn back, and we see things in a new and different way. Tonight, we celebrate our ability to see the world anew.

Sign Me Up for the Good Life

Rosh Hashanah is coming up faster than I expected, just as it does every year. The month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashanah, is a time of introspection and preparation. For me, it is a time of beginning to review the prayerbook and remind myself of the prayers we will recite. I begin to study them, and think about what they will mean to me this year. One phrase repeats itself, in a number of minor variations, throughout the liturgy: “Incribe us in the book of life.”

In the Avinu Malkeinu, (Our Father, Our King), we find it in this form: “Our Father, Our King, write us into the book of good life.” This leads me to ask. What do I mean by this? What does it mean to be inscribed in the book of good life?

I know what I don’t mean. I don’t intend that God simply make everything go well for me in the next year. I don’t mean that God should protect me from death over the next year. I don’t mean that I believe there to be any sort of physical book (or physical God, for that matter), and that the presence or absence of my name in it determines my future.

What I do mean, I think, is that it would be nice, if over the next year, I had some sense of what decisions I can make which will lead me to living a good life; a life full of meaning, a life full of joy. It is a plea that I be able to, with Divine providence, see the good in whatever should happen to me over the coming year. It is even the plea, at some deep, pre-rational level of my brain, that good things happen to me over the coming year.

I may not rationally believe in a “wish granting God,” but prayer isn’t always rational and doesn’t always have to be consistent with our theology.  Even if my prayer is incapable of being answered, just praying it may be enough. Being willing to put out there what I would really like, even with no real expectation of possible fulfillment, can be useful.  While talking to a friend about the car you’d really love to own, you don’t expect your friend to give you the car, but it can be nice to talk about it anyway.

So when I pray, “Kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim (inscribe us for blessing in the book of good life),” I’ll be pouring out my heart, hoping for the good in the coming year. And as always, I’ll be praying, fundamentally, not because I expect God to act on my behalf, but because it feels good to pray as though I do.

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.

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.