Sunday, February 18, 2018

Ash Wednesday: A Jewish Perspective on Lent

This past week, Christians began the six-week vigil called Lent.  Many Christians commence this introspective time with the putting on of ashes to be reminded, they came from dust and to dust they shall return.

Lent is much like the ten-day period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  It is a time to reflect on how you have lived your life during the previous year, for what and from whom you need to seek forgiveness.  Among Jews there is a tradition to not seek God’s forgiveness until you have asked forgiveness of anyone you have hurt during the past year.  So, the Lenten weeks are similar, at least in emphasis, to the Jewish holy days.

But there are differences.  First and foremost, Jews do not put ashes on their foreheads.  Remembering the ashes of the Holocaust gives Jews a sufficient reminder about the reality of death and none more so than the ashes.   

For some Christians, the cross is the culmination of lent. They think the suffering and death of Jesus is the highlight.   But that is not so.  The killing of Jesus is an absurdity and a scandal. No amount of theological glorification can make the cross beautiful or meaningful.   For Christians, Lent is the season that leads to Easter, that moment when God declares, life not death, will have the last word. 

As for Jews, salvation never comes through death.

For Jews, so called “salvation”, being saved from the power of sin, death and evil can only happen when we do everything we can to resist the power of sin, death and evil.  Whatever God and his messiahs are doing, we shall leave to them.

Friday, February 9, 2018

What is Purim?

In a few weeks many Jews will celebrate a holiday called Purim.  The Hebrew word “Pur” refers to lots cast by Haman in the Biblical Book of Esther to determine on which day he would kill all the Jews in the Persian kingdom.  The story goes on to describe how because of the actions of Mordechai and Esther, Haman’s plans are disrupted.  Specifically, on the day he had planned to have the Jews killed, he himself meets his demise. 

Why was the Book of Esther, a book which never mentions God, included in the Bible?  Of course, there are many interpretations.  But, it strikes me that the intent was to emphasize how an attempt to kill Jews was avoided by human courage, to encourage us all to resist evil and to not be indifferent. 

All of us will encounter situations in our lives where we could speak up or do something to oppose what is wrong. As is said in the Esther story, “For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance may rise . . . from another place.  And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

Esther was Esther because she was not indifferent.  Mordechai was Mordechai because he was not indifferent.  As Purim approaches, wherever we live let us not remain silent but do what we can do, what we must do, to stop the craziness.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Is it Wrong to Think You Could Be Wrong?

For years I have had this sign on my office door, “Think that You May Be Wrong.” But I feel obligated to ask myself, what if I’m wrong?   

What if emphasizing doubt over faith makes some people lose their faith?  What if most people are not built to be unsure about what they hold most dear?  What if being confused, lacking trust and living with so many open questions is not healthy for human beings?  What if thinking you are wrong disorients people and makes them feel lost?  What if asking questions which never receive any answers is a waste of time and energy?  What if thinking you could be wrong is just plain wrong?

As I begin a new semester, I am asking myself these questions.  And I am asking myself, if my emphasis on remembering the Holocaust has caused people to be frightened by the human potential for evil and dismayed by the apparent silence or absence of God during that horrific event?

I understand and share these reservations.  But if we are going to be people who live by faith, we are going to have to assume certain risks.  Faith is trusting without knowing for sure.  And when you don’t know for sure there will be moments, times and events in your life when your trust will seem to be misplaced or wrong.  This is life itself causing us to wonder if we could be wrong.  And, by the way, we could be wrong!

So, I get it!  Thinking you could be wrong can be a threat.  But remember, thinking you could be wrong does not mean you are wrong.  It means we are committed to searching for wisdom.  If we are going to be truthful about the fragility of our faith; if we are open to correcting those beliefs that are mistaken, if we can each have a healthy sense of humility, we will realize we could be wrong and it’s not the end of the world.  Hold on tightly to your faith, defend it, but do not be afraid to listen to those who disagree.  And change what needs to be changed.

Having said all that, it remains appropriate for me, at the beginning of another semester, to realize the risks and questions associated with thinking you could be wrong, though those risks and questions are at the very heart of faith and will not go away.

Great Quote from Mark Twain, “It’s not what we don’t know that gets us into trouble.  It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Friday, January 26, 2018

Jews, Christians and their Bibles

Jews and Christians both have their own distinct bibles.  They interpret those scriptures in a variety of ways.  But on some matters, there is agreement.  

They do not worship their Bibles and they know their scriptures and traditions are not inerrant or infallible. 

As a boy attending Yeshiva, the Rabbis introduced me to these writings.  I was taught to interpret and wrestle with them.  I was taught the words and commandments of God were intended to transform us into healthy human beings.  I was taught that some of these texts could be incomplete or difficult to understand.  I was taught to argue with the stories to discover their possible meanings.  I was taught to listen and study the historical interpreters of scripture with an eye to where they were right and where they could be wrong.  I was taught to pay attention to the white spaces between the words.  I was taught to think not just to believe.

Let’s say this as bluntly as we can. The Bible is not God.  In places, it can tell us the truth about God and human beings.  Yes, we study our scriptures, but we are not obligated to obey everything they say.  When our texts point us to God, point us to living with courage and integrity, and caring for the neighbor, we respect and follow that scripture.  But, when the scripture does not point us in that direction we are obligated to argue with those texts and consider where they may be wrong.  

After all, some texts are descriptive while others are prescriptive.  Some texts describe what religious people practiced long ago.  Other texts prescribe how we ought to live our lives.  It is the ongoing work of Religious communities over the years to interpret, debate and determine which are which.  This emphasis on interpretation can be confusing and distressing, but better than blind following of the tradition.  To be clear, scripture and tradition are fine but not divine.  Let us respect and listen to the wisdom of our scriptures but not blindly follow what obviously belongs to the culture and practice of another era.  We are called upon to emulate their faith but not their cultural practices.

Our scriptures are rich and have much to teach us if we will let them speak and transform us.  The goal for Jews and Christians is to seriously engage their scriptures and traditions, grapple with them, figure out the best they can how to live as people of faith and character.  All the rest is commentary.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Seven Questions For God

Some years ago, in another life, I heard a sermon by a Lutheran theologian named George Aus at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.  Dr. Aus talked about a list of questions he had assembled that he would take with him when he died to present to the Divine authorities in the heavenly realms.

Recalling his sermon reminded me of an old Jewish tradition which says, when you arrive in the next world, they will not ask you whether you had faith or not; they will not ask you if you were good or bad; they will say to you, “You were alive all those years, what questions do you have?”  And woe to the person who has no questions.

In that spirit, I have been thinking about my own evolving questions.  I ask them not from pride or wanting to know what is none of my business, but merely things I wonder about as one religious human being going about his daily routines.  The questions are addressed directly to God, in no particular order, addressed with humility, awe and respect for the inscrutable mystery that is God.  

1.       Why all the secrecy and mystery?  Why make it so hard to see you and what you are doing?

2.       Are you actually at work in human history or is what happens every day what appears to happen, a combination of capricious laws of nature, ambiguous human decisions and chance?

3.       Do you favor one of the religions on earth or are each of the major religions a vehicle for addressing you and you addressing them?

4.       I understand giving people a measure of free will and all that, but why create human beings with the capacity for such horrific evil?

5.       As you forgive us for our sins, omissions and commissions, with all due respect, are we to forgive you for your ineffective, problematic or ambiguous ways of working in the world?

6.       If there is an afterlife, why must it be so mysterious and unknowable?

7.       Where were you during the Holocaust and where are you whenever and wherever people unjustly suffer absurd suffering, evil and death?

       Those of you who know me know I have been wrestling with these questions most of my life.   I have developed some responses, but they are all quite tentative. 

These questions are “in, with and under” faith.  People of faith cannot escape questioning what God is doing in this crazy, wonderful, problematic, mysterious planet floating and rotating in dark space.

Btw, how do your questions differ from mine?

Friday, January 5, 2018

The Truth of Things

I am a person of faith.  But I have close friends whom I respect who do not have faith.  They think the whole notion of God is absurd.  I hear and consider their rational questions and doubts.  But I grew up trusting there is a God at the heart of the universe that is for us and not against us. 

After being alive all these years, having read so many books, having had many restless nights, I continue to trust despite.  Perhaps it is wishful thinking, but I find I still think behind all the religions, creeds and rituals, something is going on which convinces me, God is there, real and active in our world.

But why?  Why do I persist?  Why do some of you persist?  Something convinces us we are right.  Perhaps it is plain and unadulterated fear, or the way we were brought up, our scriptures, our religious traditions, experiences we have had, a religious leader or teacher, the structure of our brains, or just plain fear of death.  I want to know why we persist?   After the Holocaust, the ambiguities and contradictions of human and non-human nature, and all the everyday unjust senseless or meaningless injuries and deaths, why keep on talking about faith? 

For those of us who are religious we are convinced there is something more.  What is that something more?  We call it God.  Is there something there or do we just imagine what we want to imagine?  You know what I’m going to say.  Whatever trust we have in God, we must be ready to face the puzzling methodology of God and wrestle with the questions and mysteries at the heart of faith.

In the end, most people, whether they admit it or not, are aware of the contradictions and problems in being religious.  Faith is trusting without knowing for sure.  People who are religious, in the best sense, are not so because they are scared, feel alone, or are determined to be ignorant.  Most are religious because they are after the truth of things.  If we are wrong, so be it.  Yes, it could be a fool’s errand.  But we are beckoned to pursue the truth of things and there is nothing else we can do.

Friday, December 29, 2017

My Favorite Quotes: Joseph Epstein

Whether we are religious or not, we are all human and every day in every way we are constantly making decisions.  This quote from Joseph Epstein reminds me to pay attention to what I say and do.  Perhaps it will help you too.  Happy New Year to all and to all a sane 2018.

“We do not choose to be born. We do not choose our parents. We do not choose our historical epoch, or the country of our birth, or the immediate circumstances of our upbringing. We do not, most of us, choose to die nor do we choose the time or conditions of our death. But within all this realm of choicelessness, we do choose how we shall live, courageously or in cowardice, honorably or dishonorably, with purpose or adrift. We decide what is important and what is trivial in life. We decide. What makes us significant is either what we do or what we refuse to do. But no matter how indifferent the universe may be to our choices and decisions, these choices and decisions are ours to make. We decide. We choose. And as we decide and choose, so are our lives formed.”

Joseph Epstein