Neil Gillman on Jewish theology (part 1/?)

Remember that contemporary theology books meme that was making the rounds of the religious blogosphere a while back? Were I doing that meme now, there's another book I would plug -- Neil Gillman's Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew. I've been assigned the task of reading sections from Rabbi Gillman's book for a forthcoming theodicy class, so this afternoon I donned a baseball cap and pulled up a big purple Adirondack chair and sat in the sun on our deck reading and underlining.

There's a lot of really good stuff here -- and I've only read a small handful of chapters so far. In this post I want to highlight some of the issues raised in the book's introduction; if there's interest, maybe I'll post more about other parts of the book later on.

One of the first ideas that caught my eye is Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan's formulation that we identify with the Jewish community by behaving, by believing, or by belonging. Kaplan's work focused on belonging, whereas more traditionalist critics insisted that behaving was primary. "What is particularly striking about the dispute is the absence of any prominent modern thinker who is willing to make the case for the primacy of believing," Gillman notes.

Historically, the enterprise of systematizing Jewish belief has been somewhat alien to Judaism, and the thinkers who did engage in this work did so in a language other than Hebrew. (Even Maimonides wrote most of his work in Arabic, Mishneh Torah notwithstanding.) "[W]hereas the Jewish legal tradition -- not surprisingly for a system of law -- exhibited a great deal of inner consistency and coherence, Jewish theological positions have been wide-ranging and diverse." In other words, we're great at expounding upon the commandments, but not so hot at outlining belief. Maybe precisely because Christianity makes belief so foundational (think "credo"), Judaism explicitly doesn't, or hasn't.

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On liturgy and ambiguity

I've been slowly working my way through Kathleen Norris' Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith.

Her book The Cloister Walk is one of my very favorite religious memoirs. Dakota: A Spiritual Geography offers engaging meditations on place, spirituality, and small-town life. I often carry my pocket copy of The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women's Work in my purse for re-reading. And I also really like her poems. So I expected to like this book -- and I do, though it's more like a collection of little bite-sized chocolates than it is a full literary meal. It lends itself to being read in bits and pieces, which is helpful, since that's the kind of time I've currently got!

Anyway, in the chapter called "Belief, Doubt, and Sacred Ambiguity," Norris says a lot of things that really resonate for me. Here's a taste of the story at that chapter's heart:

When I first stumbled upon the Benedictine abbey where I am now an oblate, I was surprised to find the monks so unconcerned with my weighty doubts and intellectual frustrations over Christianity. What interested them more was my desire to come to their worship, the liturgy of the hours. I was a bit disappointed -- I had thought that my doubts were spectacular obstacles to my faith and was confused but intrigued when an old monk blithely stated that doubt is merely the seed of faith, a sign that faith is alive and ready to grow. I am grateful now for his wisdom and grateful to the community for teaching me about the power of liturgy. They seemed to believe that if I just kept coming back to worship, kept coming home, things would eventually fall into place.

This passage charms me because it rings so true. I know a lot of people who might say, as Norris did, that doubts and intellectual frustrations distance them from religion; and I also know a lot of people who might respond, as the monks did, that doubt is no problem at all, and that the way to deal with doubt is to keep practicing. Regular prayer can effect subtle and thorough changes, but the only way to understand that is to take the leap of beginning to pray.

Later, Norris writes,

If I had to find one word to describe how belief came to take hold in me, it would be "repetition." Repetition as Kierkegaard understood it, as "the daily bread of life that satisfies with benediction." Repetition as in a hymn such as "Amazing Grace," or the ballade form, in poetry, where although the refrain is the same from stanza to stanza, it conveys something different each time it is repeated because of what is in the lines that have come in between.

The more I inhabit Jewish liturgy, the more I understand what Norris is talking about here. (Clearly this is true of liturgy qua liturgy, not merely hers or ours or anyone else's.) There's something in the repetition of words that invests both the words, and the silences between them, with new meaning. Later in this same passage, Norris notes that weekly church attendance came, in time, to shape the days between Sundays in much the way that a repeated poetic refrain shapes the feel of a poem. I know the feeling.

She tells the story of a seminary student arguing with an Orthodox theologian at Yale Divinity School. The student asked what to do when he couldn't affirm certain tenets of the Creed; the theologian responded, "Well, you just say it." The student, distressed by this answer, queried again, "How can I with integrity affirm a creed in which I do not believe?" And the theologian replied, "It's not your creed; it's our creed." In other words, these aren't your own words, written just for you and tailored to be something you can affirm easily. These are the words of our community. Simply saying them is important, and links us across both time and space; and saying them changes us, gradually; and it matters that we say them even if they don't perfectly fit what we think we believe.

Probably my favorite passage in the essay is this:

As a poet I am used to saying what I don't thoroughly comprehend. And once I realized that this was all it was -- that in worship, you are asked to say words you don't understand, or worse, words you presume to think you have mastered well enough to accept or reject -- I had a way through my impasse. I began to appreciate religious belief as a relationship, like a deep friendship, or a marriage, something that I could plunge into, not knowing exactly what I was doing or what would be demanded of me in the long run.

As a poet I am used to saying what I don't thoroughly comprehend -- isn't that the truth! And I love her insight here that liturgy and poetry intermingle in this way. Often, I think, liberal religious folks want to demand of our liturgy that it appeal to our minds, to our politics, to the ideas and values we hold dear -- and there's a lot to be said for that. But at the same time, it's worth remembering that liturgy isn't only, and isn't always, meant to express something timely and agreeable; it's also meant to connect us with our history, with other people, and with some of the deepest emotions we know how to feel. It's not always meant to be comfortable, or to be something to which we can assent intellectually.

Granted, great poetry isn't necessarily usable as liturgy; the two serve different needs, in the end. But I think there's common ground. We allow our poems to be associative, complicated, resonant in ways we don't necessarily understand; how might we be changed if we treated our liturgy likewise?

On a related note, Eric Selinger at A Big Jewish Blog has announced a project called Siddur Kol Hevel: A Prayerbook for the Rest Of Us, and wants to hear what poems, quotations, and other snippets of text you would put in a siddur of your own:

What are your favorite, most inspiring, most unsettling passages? The ones you turn to, or that shaped you, for better or for worse? Ones you've stumbled across, and that haunt you--or tickle you, for that matter, with their sass and heterodoxy.

Drop him a comment and weigh in; I'm expecting interesting stuff.

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Faith and trust

My friend the Feminarian is having some trust issues with God. She writes:

Every time I tell God: OK, I'll put this living situation in your hands. You know I’m very confined and sad living in our current place, and here's this opportunity (new apartment, the house, etc), and God, I'll just trust you that what’s best will happen.

And then every time I lose the thing I want. God and my desires don't line up. And I don't mean it in a whiny way. I mean that it's really hard to trust God when every time I give something to God it doesn't work out.

It is really hard when something one desperately wants doesn't come through the way one wants it to. (I'm guessing each of us has something that fits into that category -- or something we fear will fall into that category eventually.)

Reading this post highlighted for me how important I think it is that we be able to say these things. That even seminarians, who will someday (God willing) be clergy, be able to admit that there are times when our relationships with God feel strained or painful -- when a great disappointment, or deep wound, cuts at the quick of our ability to feel connected with God. Every person of faith deals with these issues at some point, on some level, and as clergy we need to be able to say, "I know what that feels like; I've walked that stretch of road, too."

Last night I listened to a live webcast of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, and his remarks dovetail with these issues in some interesting ways:

One important quotation from Chazal [our sages of blessed memory] which directly relates to this issue, the power of thought to determine [what arises], is this simple two-word phrase, machshavah mo'elet, which means "thought works." Or "thought helps." The question is, what does it help?

The Sages say that sometimes, if you think too much about something happening, that will help that it shouldn't happen! The example given is, a person plans too hard to finish a tractate of the Talmud by a given date. "I'm going to learn this tractate by Rosh Hashanah." Very likely if you decide to do that, you're not going to do it...that thought itself might backfire! It would result in the very opposite. Instead of helping it happen, the thought can help it not to happen.

The Gemara goes on to say, what does thought help to happen, and when does thought actually project an energy that prevents something from happening? Chazal say, that's a function of yirat shamayim [fear, or awe, of God]...

I have complicated feelings about the notion that getting what we want, or not getting what we want, comes down to yirat shamayim -- that if I don't get the outcome I'm looking for, it's because my awe of God was insufficient. That may be an interpretation that doesn't translate well into a liberal religious mindset. Still, I like the idea that our thoughts change reality, if only in a certain way.

Much of Rabbi Ginsburgh's talk centered around two key terms, emunah (faith) and bitachon (trust). If I've got this right, he defined faith as believing that whatever arises comes from God, and is therefore good. Trust is an attitude that presumes that God is good and that God wants us to understand the good in all things even if that good isn't readily-apparent to us in our limited human consciousness. (Intriguingly, he said at one point that faith and trust are closely-linked, and at another point that they can work in opposition to one another. There's subtlety to these definitions that I'm surely missing -- if anyone can enlighten me, please do.) Anyway, he went on to say:

If I had very large perspective on reality -- the whole world, all of history -- I would understand that all is good. I don't see my previous incarnations; I don't see where I'm coming from or where I'm going, so I can hardly fathom what's good for me and what's not good for me...

Faith means, no matter what happens, I believe it should be good and I accept it with joy. As Chazal [the Sages] say, when something bad happens you have to bless Hashem with the same joy that you bless God when something good happens. The whole distance between this world and the World to Come is that in this world there are two different blessings, one for good things and one for bad things. But the spiritual motivation of saying the blessings should be the same... and in the world to come, there will only be one blessing. It will all be the blessing of the good, because it will all be good in our eyes.

I'm fascinated by the notion that in the world to come -- in messianic time when the work of perfecting creation will be complete, when all the holy sparks will be lifted up, when the ultimate tikkun will have been made -- we will offer only the blessing for good things. In the world we know, we are called to bless God sometimes in joy and sometimes in sorrow, but in days to come we will fully understand the fundamental goodness of all things.

I know I often have an impulse to put a band-aid over suffering. It's hard for me to simply sit with something that hurts, whether it's in my own life/practice or in someone else's, and that's something I need to work on. (Boy, did my year of chaplaincy work teach me about that.) But I wonder whether there's a way to strengthen our own faith and trust, our emunah and bitachon, even while we acknowledge our very real moments of feeling distant from God. To acknowledge what's broken even as we assert what's whole.

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Up the spiral

One of the good books I've read during these days in San Antonio is The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness, Karen Armstrong's memoir about moving into, and then out of, and then in a different sense back into religious life.

Karen Armstrong was a Catholic nun for five years, beginning in 1962 when she was seventeen. The Spiral Staircase begins with the profound culture shock of leaving the regimented religious life, and entering into the wild tumult of the 1960s. Armstrong weaves together the details of her academic and professional life with their underlying emotional and spiritual narrative of struggle, trauma, and reintegration. And then, in the latter third of the book, we follow her into a new life of writing about the three major monotheistic religious traditions, and a new understanding of what transcendence, practice, and faith might mean.

The T.S. Eliot poem Ash Wednesday serves as an organizing principle for the book. The first section appears after the preface; each chapter is titled with a phrase from the poem, and as the book unfolds, the poem's significance to Armstrong becomes increasingly clear. This is a gorgeous poem which I hadn't read closely in years. It's really worth re-reading. (Go read it now, if you want; I'll wait.)

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It is written: I have set the Lord always before me (Ps 16:8). Shviti ("I have set") is related to the word hishtavut ("sameness"). Whatever happens to a man, it should be all the same to him -- whether people praise him or insult him; and so for all other matters... No matter what happens, one should say: This comes from God; if He deems it proper to do so [then that is sufficient for me.]

Man's intentions should be solely for the sake of heaven. As far as he himself is concerned, however, there should be no difference to him. This is a very high degree [to attain]...

(From the teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, Zava'at ha-Rivash, ed. Kehot, cited in The Religious Thought of Hasidism, Norman Lamm.)

The Baal Shem Tov teaches that, having set God always before me, I should respond with equanimity to whatever arises. Whether someone praises me or insults me, whether the food before me is good or bad -- whether readers  like my writing, or quibble with my interpretations; whether the text of my body is legible, or opaque to understanding -- I should acknowledge that God is the source of whatever is. If God is always before me, then I can find blessing in all things, even those which appear at first glance to be negative.

But if I school myself to simply accept whatever is, then will I lose my impulse toward improving anything, either internally or externally? I think the BeShT would say no; equanimity doesn't equal inaction. Lamm writes that  with regard to oneself, one should cultivate this kind of studied indifference -- but one must always do what is right, helpful, and satisfying for the other, "for the sake of heaven." If one is occupied with devekut (cleaving to God), ego recedes...but dealing righteously with one another remains important, maybe because interactions with one another are one way we can approach God.

One of my favorite meditations on the Shviti is a four-line chant: "It is perfect / You are loved / All is clear, and / I am holy." (There's a beautiful black-and-white graphical rendering of it here, drawn by Morty Breier.) The four lines of the round can represent the four letters in the Name, and/or the four worlds.

How does equanimity manifest in the four worlds? In the world of assiyah, action and physicality, everything is perfect -- maybe not according to our limited understanding, but from God's point of view. In the world of yetzirah, emotions and the heart, we are loved -- as our liturgy reminds us daily. In the world of briyah, thought and intellect, all is clear -- all obstacles to understanding are products of mochin d'katnut, small consciousness, and not ultimately real. And in the world of atzilut, essence, God is all that exists.

In light of these teachings, the clamor of ego and the inclination toward gratification are simply things to notice and then release. If I keep God always before me, then equanimity naturally follows.

Shabbat shalom.

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Contemporary theology

I've been tagged by PamBG to try my hand at the "contemporary theology books" meme that's going around.

Trying to answer these simple questions has awakened me to how few of the books I hold dear are theological texts. I could easily recommend titles relating to Torah study or to Jewish practice, but theology qua theology turns out to be a challenge for me.

My choices are fairly idiosyncratic, and say at least as much about me as they do about contemporary Jewish theology! So I welcome suggestions and discussion in the comments section of this post, if anyone is so inclined.

Three of the most influential works of contemporary Jewish theology:

  • Seek My Face: A Jewish Mystical Theology by Arthur Green. Rabbi Green uses the lens of Jewish mysticism to explore the nature of God and the levels of access toward God to which we can strive. This book offers a framework for seeking God, organized into four sections which relate to the four worlds, four levels of soul, and four letters of the Tetragrammaton.

  • Standing Again at Sinai: A Jewish Feminist Theology by Judith Plaskow. I'm not sure this counts as "contemporary" anymore -- it came out in 1991 -- but it had a tremendous impact on the Jewish world, and it certainly had a tremendous impact on me as a Jewish woman. This is one of the germinal texts of Jewish feminism, and still really worth reading.

  • I'm having a tough time choosing a third essential text, so I'll offer a couple of options for those wanting an overview of this field: Contemporary Jewish Theology: A Reader, ed. Elliot Dorff and Louis Newman, and The Many Faces of God: A Reader of Modern Jewish Theologies, ed. Rifat Sonsino. 

Three lesser-known books almost everyone should read:

A bonus fourth rec: The Volcano Series by Alicia Ostriker. This collection of poems is also a powerful work of contemporary Jewish theology. These poems engage with God on a variety of levels; many consciously evoke psalms, and wrestle with questions of divinity, theodicy, gender, and ruach ha-kodesh.

I'd love to see answers to this from any of you. If you've done this meme, please drop me a comment and point me to your post; and if you haven't done it, and would like to, please consider yourself tapped.

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Mah tovu

I just found the text I want to use in this Shabbat's Torah study: section two of The Gate of Sadness: Jewish and Buddhist teachings on the broken heart by Jay Michaelson.

"Sadness and joy are not opposites," Michaelson writes. "They exist as two notes of a sometimes dissonant, sometimes harmonious, chord of quiet awareness.  Learning to experience and accept one’s sadness as part of the unfolding perfection of Being is to make the darkness visible, and beautiful.  It is a gate into deeply knowing that all is God."

If you have ever wrestled with sadness -- and who among us hasn't? -- you might find this brief text worthwhile. The part I hope to teach is section two, which alludes to the prayer offered by Balaam in this week's Torah portion, now part of our regular liturgy:

In the parallel structure of Balaam's speech, we can see a microcosm of the mind states of gadlut (great mind, when we know we are filled with God) and katnut (small mind, when we do not think we are).  The "tents of Jacob" represent katnut – grasping mind; Ya'akov, whose first act was to grasp the ankle of his twin brother Esau; Jacob, who stole his brother's blessing and tried to live his life; mere tents.  The "dwelling places of Israel" are gadlut; Yisrael, he who wrestles with, embraces God; the person who has become transformed; dwelling places made into mishkenot for the shechinah.

Yet Balaam does not say that only Israel's mishkenot are tov (good).  He does not say how wonderful it is when (and only when) our finite tents are transformed into places for the Infinite.  He says that both sides are good.

I love the way Balaam's verse suggests the tension between katnut (small or grasping mind) and gadlut (great or expansive mind), and I love the idea that a shift in consciousness can transform our plain old tents (or houses, or synagogue buildings) into holy dwelling-places. (I offer that teaching many weeks at the start of our service when we're beginning with "Mah Tovu.")

But even more than that, I'm struck by the reminder that Balaam doesn't necessarily subscribe to binaries the way that we do. As this text reminds me, the prayer doesn't say that gadlut is great and katnut isn't. Balaam suggests that both are good: that even as we strive for expanded consciousness, our contracted consciousness is also okay. That the paradigm which insists on one replacing the other might be flawed.

There's merit, it seems to me, in learning how to lift ourselves out of binaries sometimes. Instead of getting caught in this/that, we can move up a level and see the bigger picture, the whole of which the binary system is a part. We can't live our lives in constant devekut (cleaving-to-God); mystics of every tradition agree (often regretfully) that we seem to need to return to ordinary bounded consciousness in order to live in the world. But we can learn to appreciate the beauty in the whole that contains both individual selfhood and boundless unity. Mah tovu indeed.

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My friend Ellen recently posed an intriguing question:

In literature or in life, what does transcendance -- the noun, used all alone -- mean to you? Just what is being transcended, and how? Is that a good thing? Why, or why not?

To me, transcendence implies a state of heightened consciousness. That which is transcendent exists or extends beyond creation, as opposed to that which is immanent and is embodied in creation. Of course, I'm most interested in what bridges the presumed tension between transcendent and immanent, between the numinous that pervades creation and the numinous which extends beyond it...

I've had experiences I would characterize as transcendent: moments of powerful emotion, exquisite flavor, music that moves me. Those moments of transcendence allow me access, however temporary, to something far greater than myself. I enjoy that. It's good for me to be reminded that there's more to the universe than whatever's frustrating or confining me at any given moment -- that if I get out of my own way, I might be able to see a larger picture, and be transformed by that seeing.

Of course, the term "transcendence" can also be a cop-out, a sloppy description of an ill-defined category of experience. I'm skeptical about prepackaged mystical experience for this reason; I don't trust the perpetual search for something extra or beyond. I value my spiritual practice precisely because it isn't transcendent, most of the time, nor does it aim to be.

But regular spiritual practice can open up a space in which occasional moments of transcendence can arise. What's critical for me is the balance between the two. My immersion in daily experience is what makes it possible for me to occasionally see beyond that daily experience. If I never looked out beyond the confines of the mundane, I'd be diminished -- but if I spent all my time chasing the extraordinary, I'd miss the ordinary, and that would be a diminishment too.

Okay, your turn: what does "transcendence" mean to you?

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My theology, in one paragraph.

My extended unit of CPE is almost over. Nine months seemed so long back in August when I was getting ready, and suddenly I'm working on my final evaluation paper. It's going to be fairly mammoth, I think; there's an entire page of questions! One of those questions asks for my "statement of theology" in a single paragraph.

Poetry has taught me valuable lessons about concision, but it's hard to explain my understanding of God in brief. I've been working on a response, and I keep fighting the temptation to add more to it -- I'm afraid I might be forgetting something important.

For kicks, and because it might spark interesting conversation, and because I think it might be helpful for me to see the paragraph in a context other than my paper draft, I'm posting my draft of that theology paragraph here:


My theology holds that our world is imbued with God's presence, and hence with opportunities to encounter holiness. I believe that each of us is a reflection of God, created in the endless diversity of God's image. I believe that God transcends our understanding and our words -- and that even so, each of us in our finitude partakes of God's infinity, because there is a spark of God in each of us. I believe that doors to God's presence open both in our moments of greatest joy, and our moments of greatest grief. According to my theology, God manifests in the world in a variety of ways on a variety of levels (the four worlds paradigm and the schema of sefirot or divine attributes expressed by the Jewish mystics are two ways of understanding God’s unfolding). I believe that God is available to all of us. As we evolve, as we learn and grow, as we become more compassionate and loving, we grow closer to and we increasingly resemble God. I believe that God is present wherever two of us truly meet one another. I understand God as fundamentally unitary: the Oneness underlying all things, which can inform and transform our existence if we open our eyes.


(Draft, April 24, 2006 / erev 27 Nissan, 5766.) I welcome responses, of course. And if you want to tackle this question too, please drop me a link to what you write. I'd be tickled if "my theology, in one paragraph" became a meme.

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As God is holy

In a comment on this post, I told Mis-nagid that I see no disjunction between the idea that the Torah as we know it was written  by (multiple) human hands, and the idea that there's holiness encapsulated in Torah and that studying it can lead us to holiness. He emailed me afterwards and asked, reasonably enough, what I meant by holiness. My first thought was that, like art (or porn), I know it when I see it. But that seems glib, and his question got me wondering whether I have a better answer.

Predictably, I started my exploration by looking at what other people mean by holiness. The incredibly cool Online Etymology dictionary has a lot to say about the English word "holy." At its heart, it may once have meant "that which must be kept whole" or "that which is inviolate." My first sense that holiness relates to wholeness came from Wendell Berry, who writes (in The Art of the Commonplace), "The word health belongs to a family of words, a listing of which will suggest how far the consideration of health must carry us: heal, whole, wholesome, hale, hallow, holy." He's talking about the deeper meanings of health, but I think his list has bearing on the deeper meanings of holiness, too. And indeed, Webster's Dictionary tells me, among other things, that "holy," applied to a person, means "spiritually whole or sound."

In Hebrew, the root  kadosh (or qadosh, as some transliterations would have it) means "sanctified." Though it bears no etymological relation to the root of  l'havdil, "to separate," some heavy hitters have argued that the two concepts are linked. This page holds a relevant section of Leviticus, followed by commentary from Rashi and Nachmanides which addresses the relationship of holiness and separateness. (The Wikipedia entry on holiness begins with "Holiness means the state of being holy, that is, set apart for the worship or service of [God]...") I have to admit, that's a connotation I'm not crazy about. The religion major in me understands the power of setting apart; the egalitarian ecumenicist in me wants holiness to connect, rather than separating.

For another perspective, check out this essay by Avi Lazerson, which drashes the etymological relationship between holy (kadusha) and harlot (kadasha) in order to argue that God's holiness resides in God's un-bounded-ness. God exists beyond boundaries, as harlots exist beyond social conventions.

Okay, enough about what the tradition means by holiness; what do I mean by it?

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