Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Rami on the Sixth Commandment

Yes, yes! I love what you had to say about this. And I agree that we should add these kinds of suggestions. Maybe, once we have worked our way through all ten commandments we should pause and explore suggestions before we move on the Sermon on the Mount. It might make a good transition.

For now, let’s move on to the Sixth Commandment.

The Sixth Commandment seems clear: "You shall not murder" (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17). While some translations replace “murder” with the more generic “kill,” this is too broad and puts the Sixth Commandment in conflict with other divine commands.

For example, in Genesis people are allowed to eat fruits and vegetables (Genesis 1:29), and doing so implies killing them. After the Flood God allows humans to eat animals though not their blood (Genesis 9:3), and that certainly results in their deaths. And God sanctions killing other human beings both in warfare (Deuteronomy 20:1-20) and for violating certain laws such as the Sabbath, adultery, and murder itself (Exodus 21:12-14; Leviticus 24:17, 21; Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22-24).
From the Jewish point of view murder is the unlawful and, especially when we come to the rabbis, premeditated taking of a human life. The Torah’s antipathy to murder has to do with disrespecting the image of God: Whoever sheds human blood, humans will shed his blood, ‘For in the image of God He made humankind (Genesis 9:6).

Jesus spoke out against murder (Matthew 5:21-26; Mark 10:17-19), as did Paul (Romans 1:18, 29-32; 13:8-10; Galatians 5:19-21), James (James 2:8-11; 4:1-3), Peter (1 Peter 4:15-16) and John (Revelation 9:20-21; 21:7-8; 22:14-15). So there really isn’t any controversy here.

The rabbis noted that prohibitions against murder existed long before the Torah was revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai, and that the earlier Book of Genesis already prohibited murder (Genesis 9:6), so why include it among the Ten Commandments?
Their answer was that the Torah is far more subtle than earlier law codes, and refers to behaviors that one might not associate with murder. For example, causing a person significant embarrassment, failing to provide travelers with food, water, and safety, causing someone to loose her livelihood, passing legal judgment without the proper training, and failing to apply your wisdom to a situation that needs it are all tantamount to murder, though none are punishable as a capital crime.

The rabbis were also troubled by the death penalty even when associated with murder. While the Torah makes it clear that the punishment for murder is death, the rabbis put so many qualifications on the act of murder as to make conviction of murder next to impossible.

For example, the act has to be observed by two credible witnesses who must interrupt the murderer to explain the forbidden nature of the crime. They must also explain to the murderer the nature of the punishment associated with murder, and the murderer must verbally affirm that he or she understands the nature of the crime and the consequences of committing it. Just to be safe, the rabbis also require that these two witnesses actually witness the murder itself. Only eyewitness accounts are admissible as evidence in a capital murder case.

And, just in case all that took place, the rabbis further decreed that a murderer can only be tried by a tribunal of twenty-three judges, and only in the Temple in Jerusalem. When the judges vote, a majority of two is necessary for conviction. If, however, the guilty verdict is unanimous and all 23 judges find the defendant guilty, the rabbis annul the judgment of their colleagues because, since it is nearly impossible to get 2 rabbis, let alone 23, to agree on anything, the unanimous nature of the verdict proves in and of itself that the defendant was denied vigorous defense counsel.

Given all of this, it is not surprising that the rabbis decreed that any court that executes more than one person in seven years is to be labeled a bloodthirsty court. Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah dissented saying that the number should be seventy rather than seven.

I’ve been going on for a while, and I want to let you jump in here, Mike, but I want to suggest that we can’t take up the topic of the Sixth Commandment without at least mentioning the issue of abortion. More on that later.

Mike: Wrap Up on the Fifth Commandment

I love what you shared about an "Ethical Will." In practice, it should strengthen the link between generations and conserve wisdom for ongoing use. This is the kind of project I would consider introducing to our church members.

In fact, your rabbi's program leads me to try to imagine other ways a community of faith might help people start to practice the Fifth Commandment.

(1) Build prayer for parents into the ongoing worship life of the church. Nothing penetrates mind and heart better than something engrained in weekly services. Prayer, from my perspective, also may better align us with the purposes of God.

(2) Find those who are actively engaged in appropriate support of their parents. Encourage and help them to frame their stories. Share the stories with the community of faith through print media, the web and (on occasion)public testimony. Such stories challenge and inspire the rest of us.

(3) Create support structures for those who honor their father and mother. For example, providing care in one's home can become exhausting. Caregivers often experience social isolation. Small support groups might be useful. Perhaps a church or synagogue might train "sitters," who can spell the primary caregivers from time to time.

(4) Face up to the reality that many parents will not be honored by their children. They will need another family. Very well. Church and synagogue might step, at least partially, into the role. Our own church keeps a minister on staff. Her primary assignment is to befriend older adults, walk alongside them in every way possible, and help them find their way. For example, she has spent a great deal of time with senior adults, assisting them as they try to decide among the numerous medical plan options associated with government health care. She functions as a dutiful daughter to them.

I think we may be approaching a time of opportunity, as the first generation of baby boomers enters stage one retirement. I envision recruiting retired teachers, lawyers, physicians, and such to become surrogate care-givers to those more aged. Even a few such persons per church or synagogue would make an enormous difference for the good to many isolated, elderly parents.

Of course, those who served in such ways would no doubt develop relationships. Conversations would follow. The "wisdom" of the elderly might well begin to flow acros the generational lines. We might even learn not to fear old age, or at least to fear it less.

With a bit more reflection, we (or our readers) might come up with additional suggestions.

Rami, as we continue to work through the Ten Commandments and (later) the Sermon on the Mount, I wonder if we should try to wrap up each segment with such suggestions.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Rami's Reply to Mike 4/28

Thanks for your take on these things. I appreciate your interpretations of Jesus’ sayings, though I suspect we could much more deeply into them if we chose.

As for the link between caring for parents and thriving in the Promised Land, I think the Bible is reflecting the consensus of many Near Eastern legal codes that link inheritance of one’s parent’s property and wealth to the quality of care one provides for one’s parents in their last years. Children can only inherit their parent’s land if they honor them and provide for their welfare. The Torah is simply affirming the legal precedent that inheritance is not a birthright, as one might assume from the story of Jacob and Esau, but comes with social responsibilities.

The Fifth Commandment has personal relevance for me. Having spent five years helping to care for my mother-in-law I am acutely aware of the challenges posed to middle aged children by aged, ill, and dying parents. I look to the health of my parents and worry that my sister, who lives quite close to them, will be burdened with their care, while I who live hundreds of miles away will not.

I worry about meeting my obligations to my parents, and about being there for my sister when my parents are no longer capable of taking care of themselves.

And I take the Fifth Commandment as a social challenge. Our society is segregated by age. Older middle-aged people often retire to children-free communities, and put their parents in facilities for the elderly that are often little more than holding tanks for the near dead. The horrors and abuses that occur at old age and nursing homes are in the news regularly.

We live in a society that worships youth and fears old age. This may change as the boomer generation enters its final decades, but I fear that the lack of respect for the wisdom of the elder will remain even when the boomers themselves are the elders.
Abraham, Sarah, and Moses were in their eighties when God called them to lead. The Bible has a respect for the aged that our society lacks.

My rabbi, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, has created a program for the elderly called “From Aging to Saging” and has written a wonderful book on the topic with the same name. He speaks of harvesting one’s wisdom, going over what one has learned in the seventy or eighty or ninety years of one’s life, and making it available to people. He asks the elderly, “Are you saved?” What he means by this is not theological, but technological. Just as you must remember to save your work on a hard drive if it is to endure the shut down of your central processing unit, so you have to save your life–wisdom so that it will survive the shut down of your body. When people die unsaved, their wisdom dies with them.

One way to save your wisdom is to write an Ethical Will. In Judaism people are urged to keep an ethical will, a diary or journal of their life and what they have learned from living it. This Ethical Will bequeathed to their children and grandchildren along with any property they may own.

As a rabbi I have helped dozens of people get started on writing Ethical Wills. Some choose to write, others to record their thoughts on CDs or visually on DVDs. It is always a wonderful process. It reminds us that we have so much more to offer those we love then the stuff we have accumulated.

Mike: Reply to Rami's 4/27

Whatever else might be said about them, our online conversations are seldom predictable. Just when we think we're ready to move on to another topic, one of us pushes the other's hot button, and we strike off in an unexpected direction. I'll try to respond to the matters you raised.

(1) "Jesus is paradigmatic." Yes. I would add, though, he is something more. He indeed shows what it is to live under the rule of God. In some way beyond certain definition, he may also grant us his kind of life. The nature of this kind of life is captured in the cross and the resurrection. We lay down our lives that we may be raised to a different sort of life. Few of us exhibit the new life to the degree of those you mention. Yet we also are not the people we would have been had we not received this new life.

I think of a certain aged man I've known a long time. He is a bit crabby, harbors more than a dallop of racism in his heart, and hates to turn loose of money. Sometimes I look at him and think how little he resembles Jesus. But I've known him a long time, and I remember what he was like before he died to his old self and rose to the new life God gave him. He now has a conscience, for one thing. He aches over his sin. He now gives money to help the poor, though he still struggles with his miserly tendencies. My friend has actually spoken to his friends at a local cafe, challenging their racist jokes. Something new is taking hold in him. He is changing.

Certainly, Jesus is the example to whom he looks, but something more than example is at work here.

(2) Christianity has an awful track record with regard to the Jews. Both of us have read Constantine's Sword. While thin in spots, and colored by the author's own resentments, it nonetheless lays out the ways in which Christians have hurt Jews. Bad theology coupled with an unholy union between church and state usually fueled persecution. This subject alone demands another book.

Christian exclusivism, as often understood and practiced, springs from a misreading of Jesus (in my opinion). Jesus commanded his disciples, then and now, to bear witness, receive new disciples, and build his kind of community. Insofar as I can tell, he did not authorize his disciples to persecute or even annoy those who chose not to embrace Christianity. Jesus seems to have believed he had "other followers" of which his disciples were not aware. He eschewed coercion. In short, he envisioned a community given to self-sacrifice, worship and good works. We Christians have often failed to catch, let alone actualize, his vision. The vision, though, remains.

(3) Luke 14:26 and 9:60 continue to shock us, especially if understood to refer to the emotion of hatred or the literal practice of burying the dead. Insofar as I can determine, Jesus had something else in mind. I think these sayings track back to "you shall have no other gods before me." Put positively, these sayings should be read in light of "Seek you first the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you." Even good things and great obligations may sometimes function as idols, especially when used to excuse us from submitting to the rule of God.

If you want a contemporary example, consider patriotism. Love of country is often a natural good. When love of country trumps submission to the rule God, it becomes an idol.

I'm going to stop now, lest this posting become too long read! I'm interested to hear your take on "the land."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Rami's Reply to Mike 4/27

Your reference to the cross reminds me of a panel I shared with Father Thomas Keating, one of my spiritual mentors. Someone asked him if the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is absolutely necessary to salvation. Not wishing to be drawn into an argument about Christian exclusivism, Father Thomas gave a very diplomatic answer.

I then took the microphone, and offered a different take: Yes, the death and resurrection of Jesus is absolutely necessary—necessary but not sufficient. Unless and until you are willing to die and be reborn, your salvation is not secured. Jesus is paradigmatic. He showed us what it is to live the Kingdom of God, and what the consequences of doing so may be. Jesus says, “he who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:38).

In 1st Century Roman occupied Jewish Palestine the cross was a sign of state sponsored terrorism. Tens of thousands of Jews and others were crucified by Rome. You were hung on a cross as a warning to others to not do what you have done. To take up the cross meant to confront injustice, to stand up to the state and decry exploitation and oppression. And the consequences then and now can be fatal.

Christianity, as the dominant religion of the West, seems to have lost that edge. With wonderful exceptions: St. Francis, Martin Luther King Jr. and Bishop Desmond Tutu to name but three, the Church since the time of Constantine has more often been the crucifier than the crucified. That certainly has been the Jewish experience of Christianity up until the modern period.

I want to comment on the link between this commandment and the Land, but while we are on the topic of Jesus, I would like to hear your take on several statements attributed to him that seem to fly in the face of the Fifth Commandment.

In Luke 14:26, for example, Jesus says, “If anyone come to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Similarly in Luke 9:60 Jesus says to a potential disciple who wished to bury his deceased father before joining Jesus, “Let the dead bury the dead.” These sayings would be, and in fact still are, shocking to Jewish ears.

Hating family and even one’s life is considered a rejection of God who gave you life. And burying the dead is a cherished mitzvah (divine command). While it is true Job said it would have been better that he had not been born (Job 3:3), he was speaking out of his pain. Jesus seems to be making a general philosophical statement.

I thought about linking this to Mark 13:12 where Jesus says parents and children will turn against one another because of the Good News Jesus is bringing. But this might be a latter addition to the text reflecting the state of things after the death of Jesus.

So rather than my guessing, and before I return to the notion of the Land, what is your understanding of these teachings?

Mike: Continuing our Conversation on the Fifth Commandment

You wrote: "The very self that wills is the self that needs sacrificing. Can the self sacrifice itself? I don't think so...the self...needs to be sacrificed by something greater than itself call it the soul if you like." Quite right! If one assumes we are on our own.

On the other hand, most Christians (including me) believe God sacrificed himself unto himself precisely in order to provide a way for each self to be made anew. God did what we cannot do, and made it possible for us to participate in his kind of self-sacrifical life. So...from my perspective it is possible to grow toward "agape," precisely because God has chosen to make it possible. It's certainly not easy. In fact,it usually hurts. "Take up your cross and follow me" describes the experience.

My hunch is that our individual perspectives on God undergird what seems to be a genuine difference regarding our potential for self-sacrificing love.

On to your question: "What is your take on the connection between honoring our parents and living well on the land?" I think other standard translations read "live long in the land." I start with an assumption: the commandment is part of a package of injunctions designed to form a particular kind of community. In this case, God's intent is that his people provide care for their aged parents. The commandment may apply to the individual son or daughter or to the community as a whole.

Assume the commandment was given while the Israelites were in the wilderness. If so, the temptation to discard elderly persons who could not keep up or who consumed valuable food and drink must have been quite real. The commandment might have had immediate application: "Let the community slow down, let all make do with less, that none--including the declining elderly--may go without what they need to live."

The temptation to discard the elderly did not go away once the community settled, though it may have taken other forms. In either case, the commandment assumes a stable community cannot be built and sustained if the weak are neglected or cast aside.

I tend to think the commandment has special relevance for modern society, with its strong emphasis on production. What are we to do with people who can no longer produce more than they consume? At the least, our society, including the church for that matter, tends to want to hide them. The commandment directly challenges our tendency to measure another's worth in terms of production. In fact, it suggests our worth is directly proportional to how well we care for the elderly (and by extension, the weak in general).

Rami's Reply to Mike 4/26

I am struck by your insight into agape as a matter of will. As I understand it, agape is to be distinguished from eros, sexual love, and philia, non-sexual affection. Agape is divine in the sense that it is self-sacrificing. And therein lies my problem: how can anything willful be self-sacrificing? The very self that wills is the self that needs sacrificing. Can the self sacrifice itself? I don’t think so. I think, as I have said earlier, that the self, the ego, cannot sacrifice itself and needs to be sacrificed by something greater than itself, call it the soul if you life.

I do agree, however, that feelings cannot be changed directly by the will. What I can change through will is my behavior, and what often happens when my behavior changes is that my feelings follow suit. But if I have to change my feelings before I alter my behavior, I suspect I will never alter my behavior. So this may be why the command to honor our parents is behaviorally defined by the rabbis: do the right thing by your parents and you may discover a deepening of love for them. But even if you don’t you have still honored them through your actions.

What we are talking about is a Zen Buddhist based philosophy called Morita Therapy in Japan and Constructive Living here in the United States. Shoma Morita was a contemporary of Sigmund Freud and chairperson of the Department of Psychiatry at Jikei University School of Medicine. My teacher David Reynolds, the founder of Constructive Living, was instrumental in “translating” Morita’s insights for Americans. The key to Morita’s teaching is the three-fold instruction: Know Your Purpose; Accept Your Feelings; and Do What Must Be Done.

You purpose arises from discovering your rightful place in the universe. In Judeo-Christian terms I would suggest our purpose is to “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly” (Micah 6:8). At any given moment our feelings may or may not jibe with our purpose, but whether or not they align with justice, mercy, and humility, we are obligated to act in a manner that does.

Morita was primarily concerned with a type of anxiety neurosis called shinkeishitsu, which we might translate loosely as “too much self focus.” As you said, the command to honor your parents is humbling, and may well be part of the cure for shinkeishitsu, a problem from which all humans suffer.

We are basically in agreement, and I don’t know if you have anything to add to this, but before we move on to the next commandment, what is your take on the connection between honoring our parents and living well on the land, which is the rationale the Torah itself offers for keeping the Fifth Commandment?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Mike on the Fifth Commandment

I've always been impressed by the commandment's brevity. It says just enough to establish a behavioral standard, while remaining silent on less measurable matters, such as feelings. We're left to grapple with our feelings, even as we carry out the commandment.

Both of us know the familiar categories of love: brotherly love, erotic love and God-like (agape) love. The first requires that we grow to like each other. Eventually, "like" may develop into something deeper. Erotic love is biologically driven. Agape love is a matter of the will, of deciding to want and work toward the good for another. Feelings may well enter into the decision, but they are not a required prerequisite.

All that leads me to divide the question of observance from the matter of feelings. For example, you write "the Bible does command love...it clearly isn't afraid of commanding emotions." Insofar as I can tell, the Bible commands agape, which may be exercised with or without the emotion we call love.

The commandment, I think, is addressed primarily to adults, loosely defined. In my experience, adults seldom are able to change their feelings by an act of will. Repeated actions, though, may do so. To take an almost silly example, the best way to overcome our fear of water is to get in the water and learn to swim. After a few years, we may find old feelings have dropped away. We may even transform into people who love the water. We do not do so by paying too much attention to our feelings but by paying careful attention first to staying afloat, then expanding our range to include actual swimming.

We agree that the ego cares only for iteself. I would add that it hates to have our attention diverted from itself. Honoring one's father and mother may well do so. The ego fights back, of course. Spiritual formation is tough, dirty work--not least because it usually starts a civil war inside us.

Humble tasks train us to resist runaway ego. Providing food, drink, shelter, clothing, transportation and the like is good for one's parents, but I suspect it's even more beneficial for us. It's the most commonly available "proving grounds" for learning how to get out of ourselves and do what is necessary to build community.

Back to you!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Rami on the Fifth Commandment

The Fifth Commandment seems simple enough: "Honor your father and your mother, that you may long endure on the land that HaShem your God is assigning to you" (Exodus 20:12). Yet it raises two questions that merit investigation: What does it mean to “honor” our parents, and Why will this result in our enduring in the Promised Land?

Let me address the first question here and see where our conversation goes.

While the commandment itself doesn’t define what “honor” means we can get some sense of the matter from other Torah passages. For example, children are forbidden to strike or curse their parents, and those that do so are to be put to death (Exodus 21:15, 17; Leviticus 20:9); and children are forbidden to mock their fathers or disobey their mothers (Proverbs 30:17). The rabbis latter added a host of other rulings regarding honoring parents: children must provide needy parents with food, drink, clothing, shelter, and take them to and from their homes when they are infirm (Kidushin 31b).

While all these behaviors are meritorious, the one thing one might expect to find is blatantly missing: nowhere are children commanded to love their parents.

I have heard it said that it is impossible to command love of parents, because love is an emotion and emotions are outside one’s control. You can command behavior not feelings, and that is why the Bible focuses on behavior. This makes sense when taken out of context, but since the Bible does command love—love of God, neighbor, stranger, and enemy— it clearly isn’t afraid of commanding emotions. So why not do so in the case of parents?

I have also been told that love for one’s parents is so natural that a command to that effect would be superfluous. But we know too much about human behavior to find this compelling. And, if doing what comes naturally makes commandments unnecessary, why outlaw sex with one’s mother since very few people are inclined to do that in the first place?

I have been told that the Fifth Commandment corrects the tendency to value love over care. People did naturally love their parents, but that love didn’t necessarily translate into honor and respect, so the Bible made sure to command these explicitly.

I find none of these arguments convincing. For me the meaning of the Fifth Commandment is this: It is easier to love strangers than intimates. It is easier to ignore or excuse the faults of people you rarely see, while obsessing on the faults of those whom you see regularly. The closer you are to people, the harder it is to love them. So don’t worry about loving your parents, simply make sure you take care of them.

This is harsh, but maybe true. I can see how people can hold a grudge against one or both parents and use that grudge to excuse ill-treatment and dishonor. “What did my dad ever do for me that I should go out of my way to see that he is taken care of?” “My mother abused or ignored me as a kid, why should I bother with her welfare now that she is old?”

And the grudge doesn’t even have to be real. The ego only cares for itself, and will find any obligation to care for others, unless doing so somehow benefits the ego as well, to be annoying and meddlesome. So the ego will blow some minor childhood incident out of proportion to excuse indifference to the welfare of one’s parents.

I have more to say about this, but let me catch my breath and give you a chance to jump in.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Mike: Closing our Discussion of the Sabbath

Agreed. Let's move to the next commandment.

By way of closing my portion of the discussion on Sabbath, I agree that guided retreats or similar opportunities may offer the best hope of learning to do Sabbath. On the other hand, most people probably cannot participate for any number of reasons. I'm all for working with those who can, but I feel uncomfortable leaving behind those who cannot (as opposed to those who will not).

Both our traditions provide for weekly community worship. At its best, such worship ought to reignite our sense of the sacred. Never mind that much of worship as practiced simply strengthens our preoccupation with self.

Call me a populist, but the tradition of community worship (which should not be equated with going to church or synagogue)offers opportunity to the widest range of persons.

Messing with the worship practices and goals of a community is dangerous, of course. It's also frustrating. So much time, so much energy, so much heartbreak--often, with little to show, at least insofar as we can see. Still, it's bound up in my sense of calling, Rami. Meaning no inappropriate comparison, I think I understand in part why Jeremiah wept.

Rami: Response to Mike's 4/24 Post

I agree, Mike, that the only way to really get what the Sabbath is all about is to actually keep the Sabbath.

When Moses compiled the Book of the Covenant and read it to the Jews they responded saying, “Naaseh v’nishmah, We will do and we will understand” (Exodus 24:7). The implication is that you cannot understand the deeper meaning of these teachings unless and until you put them into practice. The doing reveals the meaning.

Unfortunately, most people no longer think this way. We want to understand why we should do something before we do it. This is like someone who has never tasted chocolate saying to a person who is offering her a taste of chocolate, “I won’t taste it until you tell me what it tastes like.” No matter how detailed the description, the only way to truly understand the nuances and magic of chocolate is to taste it for oneself. Hence the saying, “Taste and see that God is good,” (Psalm 34:8).

On the other hand, practice alone may not suffice. For example, without critique and guidance from a good writer, a poor writer will not learn to become a better writer simply by writing. Contra William Blake, a poor writer who persists in writing poorly will not become a better writer, let alone a good one.

To promote the Sabbath as a time for deep rest, play, and spiritual realization will require both doing and guidance.

How do we start? I doubt your suggestion that we link the Sabbath to church attendance will get us anywhere. People who go to church probably like it just the way it is; otherwise they wouldn’t go. They won’t be open to any real alternative. And besides, church going is not the same as Sabbath Keeping. So here is my suggestion:

Let’s begin with a tagline for marketing the idea. My offering is this: 24/6: Don’t Work Harder Than God.

Then let’s make t-shirts with the tagline on them and offer them to people who agree to join us for a special Sabbath retreat three times over a twelve month period. We could lead the retreat together, and model it on the Jewish Shabbat: ritual bathing, candle lighting to open and close the Sabbath, and the creation of a real contemplative space for silence, prayer, chanting, study, and conversation. The retreat would begin Friday afternoon and run until sundown on Saturday. That way we won't run into Sunday church problems. People will be invited to “taste and see” what the Sabbath might be.

When the year is up we would invite them to assess their experience and brainstorm how the larger community might proceed with the Sabbath Keeping idea.

Anyway, just a thought. Perhaps it is time to turn to the next commandment. Just don’t forget to send me a T-shirt.

Mike: Suggestions for Sabbath Keeping

Sabbath keeping, like everything else theological, becomes real to us only when we start to try and do it. It's a little like higher mathematics.

I remember how well I understood the teacher's explanation in class, only to find I understood nothing when alone in my dorm room with a particular problem. Comprehension and appreciation came slowly as I gradually solved the equation. I changed while engaged in the task, becoming less an observer of mathematicians at work and more nearly a mathematician. In the interest of truth, I must confess I never became much of a mathematician!

We become mathematicians by doing math. We become Sabbath keepers by keeping Sabbath.

How might we get started?

For many of us, setting aside the time needed to participate in community worship might be the best way to start. Rami's earlier point is well taken. Community worship is too noisy, filled with words and actions. It usually is short on silence. Still, it breaks the typical rhythm of life. Its odd vocabulary, readings from ancient texts, hymns of varied quality, prayers and the like at least cut us loose from what we do most of the time. Perhaps the only way to begin to break our addiction to "the noise of life" is to substitute a different kind of "noise."

Beyond community worship, being still and silent before God helps. Some of us may be able to do this for an entire day. I suspect most of us need to start with something less ambitious. I find it useful to carve our some Sabbath day each day. If possible, I find a place where I can be alone. I sit with my eyes closed and my hands resting comfortably on my legs. If someone were to see me, he or she might think I was napping. I slow my breathing and wait quietly before God. This daily (well, almost daily)mini-Sabbath helps ground me in God.

Rami probably has additional suggestions. Certainly, numerous books and articles have been published in recent years on the subject. My fear is that many of us are daunted, afraid to try because we know we do not know how to do Sabbath. Getting started is the main thing.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 4/21 Post, Part 2

Yes, I would say Shabbat is, or could become, a day of spiritual cleansing. Seriously observant Jews actually prepare for the Sabbath on Friday afternoons by going to the mikvah, or ritual bath. The details of the mikvah are not relevant here, but suffice it to say this is a powerful act of physical cleansing and spiritual renewal. If we were to promote the Sabbath as a spiritual cleansing of sorts, I suggest we promote going to the mikvah to begin the spiritual cleansing with a physical cleansing as well.

Early Judaism was a very body-affirming faith. The fact that God looks upon the physical world and proclaims it “good” makes it clear that the physical and material are not the enemies of the spiritual. I worry that a kind of Gnosticism has crept into our spirituality. We have separated body and spirit, and denigrated the former while elevating the latter. I don’t see the separation as valid.

If, as I believe, God is the Source and Substance of all reality God’s body is the universe itself and everything in it, from quarks to quasars. My body is part of the Divine Body, and should be honored as such. To think we can only get to the spirit by negating the body is to insist on a dichotomy that God would not recognize.

Having washed away the grime that covers the body, we are then ready to wash away the grim that covers the spiritual body. We have already spoken of the Sabbath as play, and I suspect that when we cleanse ourselves of the illusions and delusions that pass for spiritual knowledge and wisdom we will discover the playful te (way) of God. Religion has become a grim business for many of us. So rooted in fear, we have stripped religion of joy, and made it all so deadly and dreadfully serious.

I agree as well that the process of freeing ourselves from the false is, as you have said, a kind of death. This is what the Sufi’s call “dying before you die.” It is a psychological death; a dying to the false and a rebirthing into the true which returns us to God as the power that liberates us from the narrow places of our egos’ creation.

As to your thought that none of this can be done by the ego itself, I would again happily agree. The ego cannot surrender itself to God, for the very thing that needs to be surrendered is the thing doing the surrendering. The ego must be surrendered by something greater than it, i.e. Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit.

So much of contemporary spirituality is simply the subtle machinations of the ego. The ego pretends to surrender as a means of maintaining control. True surrender happens only when the ego is pushed to the limit. This is what Twelve Step people call Hitting Rock Bottom, and what others might call The Dark Night of the Soul. Whatever we call it, it is only when the ego realizes it cannot save itself that it is surrendered to a Higher Power that can bring about the salvation that is dying to the false and rebirthing to the true.

Sabbath Keepers might form communities, just as Twelve Steppers have their meetings, so I am not opposed to organization per se. I just worry that the organization eventually take precedence over the practice and the message, at which point that the whole thing is doomed.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Mike: Response Rami's 4/21 Post

I want to play with another image. Might we speak of Sabbath as a kind of cleansing, which washes away our self-centeredness and excuses, leaving behind only that which accords with the way of God. Perhaps it's not going too far to say that Sabbath continues the work often associated with baptism. Through Sabbath we die to self and the world and are born anew.

The practice of Sabbath, then, serves as a means by which we become the kind of people who actually remember the God who brought us out of the narrow places and who do not abuse the name (character, power, etc.) of God. Sabbath, in this sense, is a transforming spiritual discipline. The Sabbath truly is made for the sake of humanity, and not humanity for the sake of the Sabbath.

Can a community be or become a Sabbath community, or is the best we can hope is that individuals may become Sabbath persons who join loosely together in limited ways? Rami points to the early Jewish followers of Jesus as a possible example of this kind of community. I think he is right in describing them as people who, for the most part, traveled light. On the other hand, they also seem to have worshiped together daily, received or given ongoing instruction, and provided food to their needy. This sounds like a tightly knit community.

How did they achieve (at least on occasion)a balance between the individual and the community? They gave a great deal of credit to the Spirit of God. Would it be too much to say a Sabbath community cannot be fashioned except God's Spirit take up the task? We look first to God, rather than techniques. Observing the Sabbath conditions us to accept this is so.

New heaven, new earth, new persons, and new community--Sabbath not only helps keep the vision alive but also proves to be a conduit through which the Spirit of God moves us toward its realization.

Rami: Response to Mike's 4/21 Post, Part 1

Let me start with your notion that the Sabbath is an “opportunity to lay aside our normal preoccupations and assumptions and immerse ourselves in a radically different approach.” Who would I be if I laid aside my normal preoccupations and assumptions? I can only think of one answer: I don’t know.

I am my preoccupations and assumptions. I am the thoughts I think, and the things I do, and I tend to think the same thoughts and do the same things day after day. My thoughts and my actions are largely conditioned by past thoughts and actions. So to ask who I would be without these is to ask a question I cannot answer, for the “me” that would answer it is the very “me” that would be put aside.

And yet this is exactly what is necessary if God’s promise to “create a new heaven and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind” (Isaiah 65:17) is to be realized. The new is created when the old is forgotten and no longer comes to mind to be repeated.

Living without the former things, without conditioned thoughts and actions, means living without the learned biases that catalyze the fear, anger, greed, and violence that defines so much of human existence. I wouldn’t forget my name, but I would forget my labels. I wouldn’t forget how to feed, clothe, or house myself, but I would forget why it is OK that others go hungry, naked, and homeless. I wouldn’t forget the call for justice and compassion, but I would forget the excuses that allow for injustice and cruelty.

Jesus, rather than Mother Teresa, would be my role model here. Jesus challenged almost all the assumptions of his time. His table was open to all, something that is still unheard of. He dropped all labels and knew that “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30), and idea so terrifying that we imagine he meant that he and he alone was one with God.

Mother Teresa, on the other hand, as filled with compassion as she was, did not question assumptions and did not confront the system that made for the injustices she confronted daily. To cite only one example: in a country like India whose problems are so deeply rooted in over population, she could not challenge the assumptions of her Church and teach birth control.

As to your question what would a community steeped in Sabbath consciousness, and thus free from preoccupations and assumptions, look like? I suspect it would look a lot like the early Jesus movement among the Jews. It would be a loose knit community of people living lightly, lovingly, and seeing to the healing (on all levels) of everyone it encountered.

How do we transform our communities in this way? With twenty-five years of community leadership experience under my ever-expanding belt I can honestly say I have no idea. I think that is one reason I left congregational life. It may be that the very things needed to sustain a community are the very things that preclude the communal life I am suggesting.

It may be that what we are talking about can happen only among free individuals who gather for a moment to share a meal, a piece of wisdom, or a journey from one place to another without setting up any organization at all.

Mike: Response to Rami's Second 4/18 Post

Your last posting prompts me to consider liberation and alignment.

The Sabbath, from my perspective, is a God-given opportunity to lay aside our "normal" preoccupations and assumptions and immerse ourselves in a radically different approach. Your point with regard to work, expanding desires, and noncoercive action is well-taken.

The Sabbath is not an end in itself. Instead it functions to form us into persons more nearly able to live in accord with God's way. Ideally, Sabbath extends its reach in our lives, so that the Sabbath perspective ultimately becomes our only perspective.

I suspect such full-scale transformation is not possible in the course of a human life-time. Still, any number of persons experience it to a significant degree, and they tend to catch our attention. Mother Teresa may be the best known modern example within the Christian tradition.

I wonder how the Sabbath perspective might inform or transform congregational life, if allowed to do so? Any ideas?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 4/18 Post

OK, so you weren’t as weird as I had hoped. No problem.

You took my “surfing chaos” idea further than I did. You are absolutely right: the very notion that we are to take charge and forge our own destiny is a clear example of the ego playing God.

This is no where more true than in the current fad of The Secret where we are promised absolute control over our lives—getting anything and everything we desire—by manipulating the universal “law” of attraction: like attracts like. Too bad the actual Law of Attraction states just the opposite.

I also agree with you about “private Sabbaths.” While the norm is to make the Sabbath a communal event, I prefer a day devoted to solitude and contemplative inquiry. My prayer life, in contrast to the official Jewish liturgy, contains a minimum of words. We talk too much during prayer, probably to avoid having to listen, question, or think.

And I couldn’t agree more that our culture makes no time for chaos surfing. That is what the Sabbath is for, which is why we are to make it holy.

The Hebrew word for “holy” is kadosh, “to set aside.” The Sabbath is a day set aside from the workweek to (borrowing from the Deuteronomy version of the Fourth Commandment) “observe” (that is participate in) the te, the way God or reality actually operates as opposed to the way we insist is should operate.

Why is this liberating? Because we work not only to sustain ourselves physically, but to earn the means to satisfy a never-ending list of desires. We become obsessed with work because we are obsessed with having more and more stuff. This is why the rabbis, when they clarified the kinds of work prohibited on the Sabbath (Mishnah Shabbat 7), focused on the 39 kinds of work associated with the building of the Tabernacle (sowing, plowing, reaping, weaving, spinning, erecting a building or demolishing one, and writing to name just a few) all of which, if done for secular reasons, would result in furthering one’s material wealth and the desire to have more. Material wealth is so central to human thinking that, as both Calvinism and the Prosperity Gospel inadvertently reveal, we mistake the achievement of wealth for a sign of God’s love. Shabbat is an antidote to this spiritual materialism.

This is why the Jewish Sabbath liturgy eliminates all petitionary prayer. On the Sabbath we don’t ask God to change anything, and instead practice loving what is. At the heart of this practice is not interfering with the natural flow of things and acting in a manner the Chinese Taoists call wei wu wei, noncoercive action. Acting with wei wu wei means living in accordance with te (the way of God, reality), i.e. cutting with the grain, swimming with the current, tacking with the wind, etc. Shabbat is the day on which we practice wei wu wei, or what I called previously, surfing the chaos.

Mike: Response to Rami's 4-18 Post

In my own defense, I had best explain myself. Growing up on a farm, I often wandered for hours alongside the creek that flowed through our property. At some point, I began fashioning speeches (as well as short stories, but that's another tale for another day). I would develop, give, then rework each speech as I walked. Looking back, I now know I was doing the work of a writer and speaker: casting a first draft, revising it, trying on the revision, revising again, and the like. In the process, I found a kind of renewal, something I needed rather badly during my childhood years. We might even say the time spent alone functioned as a kind of Sabbath for me.

Now, back to the Fourth Commandment itself! Rami's comments on chaos, ordering words, laying down "our notions of surety, order, certainty, and security," and living "one day in the unknown and unknowable which is the Presence of God" strike me as true. I love the image of surfing chaos. Surfers know better than to try and control waves. Joy comes in riding the wave as it is.

Much of the time we need a community to help us practice Sabbath in this fashion. Face facts. Almost nothing in our culture or daily life encourages us to surf chaos. Instead, we're told we need to take charge and make the world be what we want it to be. In short, we're taught to try to be God, or at least a kind of god. The longer we follow such a path, the more weary we become. The task is impossible, and we are not made for it anyway. Sabbath recalls us to our senses, reminds us of who and what we are, and encourages us to rest in God. It helps to be surrounded by others who share the experience.

Still, let's not underestimate the potential of a private Sabbath. Go back to my boyhood days. My childhood environment, left unchallenged, would have shaped me in unhealthy ways. The time I spent in retreat provided rest, time to think rather than do, and opportunity to remember who and what I was (as opposed to what the environment tried to impose on me). When the time came to walk back from the creek and into my "daily life," I returned better able to surf chaos.

Rami's Response to Mike 4/17

You played “Public Speaker”? How did that work? Did you line up your stuffed animals and toy soldiers and then deliver speeches to them? I won’t pursue this, but it is a bit weird. So let’s get back to the Fourth Commandment: “remember” the Sabbath.

What does it mean to remember? Since the rationale for the Sabbath given in Exodus is the seventh day of creation, I would suggest it is Creation we are to remember, and doing so somehow reveals the deeper meaning of the Sabbath. Let me explain:

Torah tells us that the nature of reality is tohu v’vohu: wild, unformed, and chaotic (Genesis 1:2). God doesn’t defeat chaos, but lays creation over it as a kind of linguistic veneer: God speaks the world into existence. When we remember the Sabbath we remember that we too use words to create order amid chaos, and how we can get so enamored with those words as to mistake them for reality. We in effect make idols out of our words and worship them. I see this when people tell me Muslims don’t pray to God but to Allah, refusing to accept the fact that Allah is simply Arabic for “God”.

On the Sabbath we are invited to surrender our idols: our notions of surety, order, certainty, and security; and we are challenged to live one day without them; to live one day in the unknown and unknowable which is the Presence of God.

Six days a week I do all I can to make sense out of life; to deny chaos, or force it to conform to my understanding of order. This is exhausting. But on the seventh day I can give this up. I can let things be as they are: tohu v’vohu: wild, unconditioned, and fundamentally unconcerned with my happiness and welfare. But this is not a day of despair.

We Jews speak of Oneg Shabbat, Sabbath joy, because when we allow reality to be reality, and realize we are not able to control it; we suddenly discover that we are able to navigate it. Remembering the Shabbat teaches how to surf the chaos rather than conquer it, and that insight just might make our living in the week to come that much lighter and more loving.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 4-15 Post

Many thanks for introducing the idea of "play!" I agree it provides one way to gather up rhythm, permission, community and idolatry.

Play and formation go together. Think back to childhood. In my own case, many of my private games centered around various roles I might assume when I "grew up." Some were typical of my culture: farmer, truck driver, law officer and the like. Others were atypical: public speaker, writer, astronomer.

Such formation play required me to step outside time, at least time as I normally experienced it. While playing I lived in an intense present moment. Past, future and present more or less became one. I now think the experience provided a taste of eternity.

In addition, I felt free to simply try. Fear of failure and shame, overt concern about long term results, fixation on who might be watching and what they might think, and similiar matters fell away. The fun, something I might even label "joy," sprang from my total engagment.

Sabbath offers something like this to all of us. Jesus once said, "Unless you become as one of these children, you shall not see the kingdom of God." Sabbath may be a way by which adults learn what most of them have forgotten, the practice of play in the presence of God.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Rami's Response to Mike 4/14

Your mention of time made me think of Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great rabbis and sages of the 20th century. Heschel called the Sabbath a “palace in time.” It is an evocative term. When we think of palaces we think of space, and when we think of space we think of the things that define and fill that space. But time is something else.

Time isn’t bounded by things or filled with things. Time is bounded by consciousness and filled with memory. Where a palace is all about tangibles, time is all about intangibles. So what we to make of a “palace of time”?

I think Heschel is offering us a paradox that, if we can learn to hold it, has the potential to transform our lives. For one day each week, 25 hours in the traditional Jewish way of making the Sabbath, we are to live with the intangible. We are to live without having, and simply by being. Having is the way the ego lives in the world: grasping and clinging to things and imagining itself to be just one more thing. Being is the way the soul lives in the world: open, empty, engaged and engaging but not attached. The Sabbath is a day for soul living, for being rather than having. In this I would say the best way to live the Sabbath is through play. Everything we do on the Sabbath should be done playfully, joyfully, and fearlessly.

Of course learning to play the Sabbath may take practice, just like learning to play the violin or chess takes practice. But eventually you relax and just play. I think this idea of play works well with your issues of rhythm permission, community, and idolatry.

Too many of us imagine God creating the world as a very serious business. I imagine it is more like play. Play has its own rhythm, and a playful God would live attune to that rhythm. Permission to play would be embedded in a creation that was the product of play, and play is intrinsically communal. And when we play we smash the idols that enslave us. Idols only have power when taken seriously. Play is the enemy of the serious. True, play can become serious as it does in professional sports and the Olympics for example, but then it is no longer play but work.

Religion all too often takes the play out of life and certainly out of the Sabbath. The history of Sabbath laws both Jewish and Christian takes the play out of it. What would church and synagogue be like if people gathered there once each week to play? That would be something!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Mike on the Fourth Commandment

Like Rami, I think the fourth commandment is packed with meaning, some obvious, some less so. I find the commandment speaks to the following matters: time, rhythm, permission, community and idolatry.

Time--the commandment sanctifies time, setting aside one day as a way of driving home that all time belongs to God.

Rhythm--the created live best when they set the rhythm of their lives by the divine rhythm.

Permission--God grants us permission to rest, setting himself in opposition to many cultures (including our own)which tend to devalue rest.

Community--as Rami suggests, the commandment cast ripples, thus challenging the ancient and modern tendency to dehumanize others.

Idolatry--offering the Sabbath to God calls us back from various idolatries (finding identity only in our work, treating work as the ultimate source of security, etc).

The Fourth Commandment is subversive, in the best sense of that much used term. Taken seriously, it undermines many an established viewpoint and practice. Just as importantly, it offers an alternative way of ordering one's life.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Rami on the Fourth Commandment

There is so much to unpack in this commandment that we will have to go very slowly.

The Fourth Commandment deals with Shabbat, the Sabbath, and appears in two forms in the Bible. The first is found in our Exodus text:

Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of HaShem your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days HaShem made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore HaShem blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it. (Exodus 20:8-11)

The second occurs in Deuteronomy where the Israelites are commanded to “observe” rather than to “remember” the Sabbath, and offers a different rationale for doing so: You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and HaShem your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore HaShem your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day (Deuteronomy 5:16). I take these changes very seriously.

The logic of the Exodus version is clear: God rested on the seventh day of creation, so you rest on the seventh day of the week. The logic of the Deuteronomy version is apparent only if we assume it is speaking to a different time and situation, which I believe it is.

The shift from “remembering” to “observing” suggests that the Deuteronomy text comes at a time when the people were having trouble extending the rights of Shabbat to slaves. This is why the text links Sabbath observance to the Jew’s own slave experience: it is trying to soften their hearts that they might allow their slaves to rest on Shabbat.

The fact that the Bible condones slavery in the first place is problematic, but there is nothing we can do about that. The Bible does the best it can to protect slaves from abuse, but it cannot abolish slavery itself because slavery was too central to human socio-economic-political reality. As a human document, the Bible cannot demand what humans cannot imagine, and a world without slaves was at that time unimaginable.

But the Bible can imagine, and in fact legislate, a world without abuse of slaves and others who are powerless in society: widows, children, orphans, strangers, etc. This is no small thing. And, thousands of years later, we have yet to create a society in which such abuse is absent. I say this not to excuse the Bible for its acceptance of slavery, but to remind us of how revolutionary even this flawed document can be.

There is so much more to say, but let me stop here and invite you to jump in.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 4/11 posting

Forgive the slip of the pen (keyboard) when it comes to Reform Judaism! It was quite unintentional. I know better.

We seem to have stumbled onto potentially common ground with regard to the Holy Spirit or Spirit of God, at least in terms of how the Spirit interfaces with personal and corporate religion. I'll look forward to seeing how this affects our unfolding discussion.

Language appears to be one of your underlying concerns. Certainly the use of terms such as "king" and the others you mention may foster inappropriate understandings of God. I sometimes long for updated language myself.

Yet...and there is almost always a "yet"...the language may serve a purpose the authors could not have envisoned. Having to deal with the language may force us to think seriously about modern assumptions. What's good and not so good about modern forms of democracy, individualism and the like? Perhaps one could even say, if God is Lord or King no one else has the right to claim ultimate authority over the world, others or me. This kind of thinking may foster passive resistance to dictators, consumerism, or other would-be lords.

Do you have anything else you want to say about the Third Commandment? If not, let's consider the Fourth Commandment.

Rami's Reply to Mike 4/11

I would certainly agree that any one perspective on religion, be it sociological or otherwise, has it limitations. When I teach comparative religion at Middle Tennessee State I tend to focus more on the heart, the perennial wisdom that each religions shares, though I have to be careful not to impose my own bias on the religions we discuss.

I am so glad you brought the Holy Spirit, which we Jews call Ruach haKodesh, into this conversation. Ruach haKodesh is radically free, unconditioned, surprising. It is the way God works through the institutions of society; it is the way God raises up prophets who battle the powers that be to keep our institutions open and evolving. It is the way God breaks through the ego to liberate the soul. Ruach haKodesh is divine poetry bring ecstasy and meaning to the all too human prose of religious doctrine and creed. I worry, though, that organized religion tries to tame Ruach haKodesh just as it tries to control God and align the Divine with the biases of the ruling elites. But as long as the Holy Spirit is capable of demolishing our egoic structures (both personal and communal) salvation, living a life surrendered to God and godliness, is possible.

As to Bronze and Iron Age worldviews penetrating modern expressions of Judaism and Christianity (by the way it is Reform Judaism, not Reformed, keep that for the Dutch Church), I think it’s a mixed bag. I can’t speak for Christianity, but even modern Jewish prayer books speak of God in ways that are highly reminiscent of ancient times. We use metaphors such as King and Lord that are meaningless if not anathema to liberal, democratic Americans. We continue to speak of God as if God resided somewhere “out there” in time and space. Nowhere are the insights of modern cosmology included in our prayers. While most Jews live in 2008, we continue to pray as if it were 1008.

So, yes, Judaism is a living religion, but I often feel it is on life-support. A true healing would require a radical openness to Ruach haKodesh empowering Jews to rewrite our prayers and refashion our theology so that they speak to what we know to be true and give meaning to life in the 21st Century.

As for the practice of theological self-restraint. All I can say is, “Amen to that!”

Mike: Response to Rami's 4/9 Posting & More on the Third Commandment

Our discussion in and around the Third Commandment brings the following to mind.

(1) From my perspective, a sociological approach to "religion" has limited benefits. Yes, it helps us understand some of the roles(postive & negative) played by religion, but it cannot penetrate the inner heart of religion. Spirituality, personal journey, experience of the presence of God, calling and a host of other terms or phrases attempt to describe the matter. All, of course, fall short. This "heart" lies within religion (theological structures, institutional frameworks,the individual, etc.). At any time it may insist on being heard, whether through a single voice or a movement. So...I think the "conscience" of religion resides within it, however deeply hidden at times. In Christian terms, I'm talking about the presence and work of Holy Spirit, interfacing with the new kind of life God grants the individual.

All of the above is tied to the conviction that God is a work to save, reclaim, restore (pick your terms)not only individuals but the whole of creation, even structures. Since this work takes place in history, it is inherently messy.

(2) Would you argue seriously that modern Christianity or Reformed Judaism (to pick two examples) is characterized by a Bronze or Iron Age worldview? I think it more accurate to say the scriptures of both took shape in those eras. Both religious traditions, though, continue to rework their understanding and application of the scriptures. In short, they are living religions in which not only the scriptures but experience, reason, internal and external conversations, and (hopefully) the Spirit of God act to modify positions.

(3) All of which leads me back to the Third Commandment. Taken seriously, the commandment becomes a lodestone, leading a person of faith to practice serious self-restraint when it comes to speaking in the name of God. Practicing such self-restraint, in turn, helps us learn to distinquish our personal or culturally conditioned perspectives from whatever God's might be. Over time, we may even learn to start to say to ourselves: "Well, now. If I can't claim God endorses my position, just where did it come from?" Such a question may drive us to seek and confront the mundane, but powerful, sources of our narrowness. We may even feel compelled to abandon positions we've held and go in search of better ones. All this is part of spiritual formation.

Viewed in this manner, the Third Commandment's reach extends far beyond the court room. It penetrates into the deepest recesses of personal and institutional religion.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Rami's Reply to Mike's 4/8 Post

I agree that there is more to religion and spirituality then I have stated so far, and I like the idea that spirituality is, among other things, the conscience of religion. But then I would ask, “Where does this conscience come from?”

It can’t come from religion itself, for then it couldn’t act as a corrective. It must come from outside religion. We might say it comes from God, but, unless we define God (which leaves us only with god), this affirmation says nothing. Yet I cannot deny my experience (and that of many others) that when I find myself aware of the Presence of God (whom I define as the source and substance of all reality), I feel myself completely integrated with the whole of life and overwhelmed by a sense of love for and from all things. From this nondual perspective I understand St. Paul’s teaching that there is no male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free in Christ Jesus.

It is also important to note that spirituality isn’t passive or quiescent. The spiritually infused person is a prophet speaking truth to power, and willing to follow conscience all the way to the cross. When Jesus says, “take up your cross and follow me” he isn’t inviting people to the Rapture, but to the crucifixion. He is saying and living the fact that spiritual awakening engages one in the hard and dangerous work of justice. Justice and spirituality are two sides of the same coin of God-realization.

I am intrigued by your notion that it could take centuries for religions to turn the bend toward greater unity, justice, and compassion that is the hallmark of post-tribal globalism. I don’t disagree, and this brings me back to my position that religion is a social device concerned with power more than truth, fear more than compassion, and control more than justice.

Religion doesn’t necessarily lead people in a new direction. Most of the time it simply creates a god who sanctions the direction in which the people are already moving. This is why true prophets are always a threat to the religious. Jesus, to mention just one example, often saw past Jewish tribalism and pointed toward a global spirituality, but Christianity, and I realize this is a gross over simplification, ended up reinforcing it under another name.

As for despair, I admit to it. Conventional institutional religion as we know it, i.e. Bronze and Iron Age worldviews with their attendant biases, phobias, and mores cannot move human consciousness to the more inclusive level of experience needed in the 21st Century. But while I despair of religion I do not despair of prophets. I place my hope in those contemporary spiritual pioneers in every religion who have “turned the bend” and left behind much of the madness that passes for faith today. These post-tribal prophets speak to humanity as a whole, and for the earth herself. They sift through the old and find and release the timeless truths buried there. They may be Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or Buddhists by birth, training and even affiliation, but they are not limited by these labels, and are in fact practitioners of the perennial wisdom that flows through all faiths and is bound to none.

I prefer to see myself as a Jewish practitioner of this perennial wisdom, and I would dare suggest that you are a Christian practitioner of the same.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 4/8 Post

I'm not certain I buy into the hard and fast line you seem to draw between religion and spirituality. Life is more complicated, I think. Spirituality often functions as a kind of "voice of conscience" within institutional religion, challenging the us/them way of thought and action, discerning the kinship of all humans, and reminding us God can not be housed within our structures.

Spirituality may well lead us to embrace life without the usual securities. It also may lead us back from forty days in the wilderness to speak a word of challenge to our religious structures even as we continue to attend synagogue. Genunine spirituality ultimately requires us to love the neighbor, even the ones within our religious worlds. At its best, spirituality enables us to see a little farther and deeper than our home religious culture. We may then challenge the tradition, hoping to nudge it in the direction of a healthier vision of God.

To put it another way, we function as neighbors who have gone ahead of the group, around the bend or over the hill, so to speak. We return to say, "Come and see what I found." We cannot control the response of our neighbors. They may listen politely yet stay put. Some may label us heretics and take up stones against us. A few may go and see for themselves. Generally speaking, I think it requires at least a long human lifetime for a significant percentage of any religious people to respond positively. Sometimes, it seems to require centuries.

I wonder if we despair, at times, because the pace of response is so slow in relation to the brevity of our lives.

The Third Commandment strikes me as a word from the God we meet beyond the normal boundaries. Perhaps it's a word directed not only to those who rather casually claim God's endorsement but most especially to those who travel ahead. If so, the message might be phrased: "Remain thankful you've been allowed to peep around the next bend in the road; take care not to claim you've seen more than you've seen."

Rami's Reply to Mike's April 7th Post

Yes, we come from different perspectives about religion as well as from different religions. And the former is probably the greater difference between us.

I see religion as inherently social and political, one of the ways humans construct and enforce communal identity. As such religion is given to hierarchies of power, in-groups and out-groups, and even enemies both human and demonic. Religion keeps us constantly at war with “the other” and even with ourselves. By keeping us perpetually at war and afraid, religion fosters dependency upon its leaders and its gods who offer us security even as they manipulate us into insecurity. Fear, not love, is the central operating system of religion.

If I understand you correctly, what you call your personal faith journey I would call spirituality. Spirituality can operate outside religion and fear, and root itself in humility, compassion, and justice. Spirituality, at least as I experience it, isn’t about security, but about living fearlessly, embracing insecurity with a loving heart.

While I draw from Judaism and you from Christianity, we are both creating our own vantage points from which to judge the rightness of things. By definition, our respective vantage points must be outside the thing we are evaluating. So we are, each in our own way, heretics.

I wonder if it is possible to stand outside all systems, to stand free and unconditioned. The best I can do is to be aware of my conditioning by cultivating what is often called Witness Consciousness. Once I am aware of my conditioning I am no longer so conditioned by it. When I am aware of my conditioning I am also aware of what I call the te of God, the way of forgiveness, truth, compassion, justice, etc.

I like what you say about the Third Commandment and your pastoral toolbox. We use God to excuse the cravings of ego, and in so doing mistake ego for God. Ego becomes the god we worship, and in so doing we violate both the Second and Third Commandments. People are lucky to have a pastor who can point this out in a manner that frees them from such idolatry, though I imagine they are not quick to praise you for it.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 4-7-08 Posting

Yes, both of us reflect our respective cultural conditioning. My own tradition tends to practice a highly personal form of Christianity. Personal piety, of course, has deep roots in the Christian tradition. My faith journey (note: personal language again!) has led me to expand my range to include social/community matters. I have not felt it necessary to drop the personal dimension. In fact, I find the personal fuels the global, rather than vice versa.

Clearly the example of slavery rang your bell. We've been over this ground in previous postings. The two of us operate from different postulates with regard to the nature of God and the scriptures. I rather doubt we will change one another's minds. On the basis of my postulates (see earlier postings), I indeed can say that the promotion of slavery was a misuse of scripture and of the name of God. Given your postulates, you can not. Both of us seek a place on which to stand and evaluate the relative merit of a given piece of scripture. We've simply found different places. Hopefully our readers will find this interesting. Perhaps some of them will suggest a third or fourth option.

In my last posting I indicated more might be said about possible personal applications of the commandment. Over the course of my pastoral ministry I've encountered cases in which God's name was invoked to justify spouse abuse, self-abuse, turning away from the poor, obviously unjust war, church cliques battling to the death over worship styles, and religious leaders destroying the reputations or careers of theological rivals.

Pastoral ministry often consists of exposing such misuse of God's name, so that we might begin to address root cause(s). Helping someone come to confess that he or she has been misusing God's name is often a necessary first step toward their growing into responsible, faithful adults. In short, the Third Commandment is now an important component of my pastoral care tool box.

Rami's Reply to Mike's April 6 Post

It is interesting how quickly I went to legal matters and you went to personal ones. I think that speaks volumes to our respective cultural conditioning.

There is, of course, a personal element to the Jewish understanding of the Third Commandment. Like many people today, it was customary for the ancient Hebrews to bolster an argument with reference to God: “If this isn’t the truth, may the Lord strike me down where I stand.” Such statements can easily be abused, and this may be why Jesus says, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No;’ anything more than this comes from evil,” (Matthew 5:37). Which is a good segue to your point about God not endorsing evil.

You are right, of course, to point to those people of faith who used their faith to legitimize slavery, but can we really say this was a misuse of that faith? There are dozens and dozens of references to slaves in the Bible, and while the Torah clearly stands against the abuse of slaves it does not condemn slavery, but endorses it as a part of everyday life.

Nor is slavery the only evil God endorses. Genocide is clearly God’s intent with regard to the Amalekites: “Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey,” (I Samuel 15:3). And then there is the matter of the Flood, the murder of the first-born Egyptian, and the slaughter of tens of thousands of Israelites who challenged Moses’ dictatorship in favor of proto-democracy, to name but a few of the more troubling aspects of God’s morality. The Bible isn’t exactly a guide to liberal democratic values.

We can, as the history of Judaism and Christianity shows, make the Bible say anything we want it to say. This is why I cannot rely on the Bible for moral guidance. The text is too inclusive of different authors, times, worldviews, and cultures to give us a clear read on morality. Everything comes down to interpretation, which, regardless of the origin of the text, makes it an all too human tool.

I have to pick and choose which biblical teachings to follow and which to reject. I have to decide for myself what is good and what is evil both in the Bible and in life. And while I find great wisdom in Micah 6:8: “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God,” I know that my take on justice, mercy, and humility is my own and not that of the Bible itself.

So I agree with the Third Commandment: don’t use God to strengthen your own opinion; and I agree with Jesus: don’t use God at all.

Mike on the Third Commandment

"You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone blameless who misuses his name." (NIV)

Like Rami, I have childhood memories associated with the text. In my case, most adults assumed the commandment prohibited cursing ("cussing," as we might say in the South)that used the term "God." Some of the more strict among us argued the prohibition extended to such expressions as "gosh dang it," "golly," or just about any expression of anger, amazement or ill will that began with the letters "g" and "o."

Amazing, isn't it? Even as a child I thought it unlikely God had slipped such a trivial matter into something so important as the Ten Commandments.

What does it mean to "take the name of the Lord your God in vain," as the KJV puts it? My personal paraphrase of the phrase is: "You shall not tie God's name to ungodly things." To put it another way, do not claim God endorses that which is evil. The prohibition is coupled with a warning: God will not hold you blameless, let you off the hook, etc. if you do so.

Observing the commandment is difficult. To do so requires that we nurture both our knowledge of the living God (whatever the limits of such knowledge may be) and our openness to his presence. Such knowledge and relationship engenders "holy caution," that is a growing awareness of how seldom we dare say, "Thus says the Lord."

Yet by its very existence, the commandment acknowledges we will face times when we must speak. The moment we do so, the commandment shifts from the private to the public sphere. In the American south, the story of many white preachers and their support first of slavery and then of segregation provides the prime cautionary tale. Similiary, the story of black and (a few) white preachers who challenged the system and offered an alternative vision of equality serves as a hope-filled contrast.

Much more needs to be said about possible applications of the commandment in private life, but that's for another posting.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Rami on the Third Commandment

OK, let's move on. Here is the Third Commandment as translated by the Jewish Publication Society: You shall not swear falsely by the name of the HaShem your God; for HaShem will not clear one who swears falsely by His name. (Exodus 20:7)

My initial response to the Third Commandment hasn’t changed since the third grade: “You mean I can lie as long as I don’t use God’s Name? Cool.” While I didn’t and don’t believe that is what Torah is saying, I am nonetheless intrigued as to why the Torah doesn’t prohibit lying altogether.

Following Huston Smith, I would suggest that Torah is not laying out a complete ethical system in the Ten Commandments, but rather prohibiting those actions that would promote the devolution of civilization as a whole. As such the commandments beginning with number three are related to the Seven Laws of Noah to which I will return a bit later in our conversation.

Of course it would be best if we didn’t lie to one another, but this is highly impractical. I lie all the time both to protect myself and others, and because it is often easier to say a half-truth ("I'm fine") than to involve someone else in my angst and drama. Actually I am lying right now: Even if I tell myself I am lying to protect others, I am most likely lying to protect myself from having to deal with the suffering of others. I lie because telling the truth is too often easier, requires less attention, and gets you off my back so I can get on with what I want to do. While some of the lies I tell are benign (or so I insist), others, if discovered would cause great pain to myself and others. But none of my lies promote the collapse of social cohesion.

Yet if I were to swear falsely in a court of law, and cover my lie by claiming under oath that it was the truth, the whole truth, so help me God, then my lie subverts justice, and in so doing threatens to bring down civilization as a whole.

I have more to say about this, but let me pause and invite you to get a word in edgewise.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Mike: Response to Rami's 4/1 Post

I had forgotten the bread/salt/broom custom! Such actions have a kind of power, I think. If nothing more, they name the idols. The ritual also fuses mind, will and body, thereby reinforcing the intent. You'll have to forgive me if I make use of the ritual in worship and other settings in the future!

Our recent postings also remind me of the importance of spiritual exercises. We agree, of course, that the experience of God comes as it will. Spiritual exercises have their place though, and you described it beautifully: they "exercise our capacity to have the experience."

I wonder if a wide range of the food, dress, worship, etc. laws might best be understood in such a light? Perhaps they were given not so much for their own sake or as arbitary tests to be passed, but instead as exercises to strengthen the capactity for the experience of the presence of God.

OK. I'm ready to press on and see what the next bit of text stirs up between us.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Rami: Response to Mike's 3/31 Posting

So beautifully put, Mike. I am always intrigued by your spiritual experience of the Presence of God. And I love the image of the household gods of greed, fear, vengence, etc. Wonderful!

There is a Jewish ceremony one does when moving into a new house or apartment. In addition to inviting guests to celebrate the move and to put the mezuzah on the door signifying the house as a Jewish home, we also use bread, salt, and a broom. The bread and salt are a way of asking that God never leave this household bereft of the basic necessities of life; the broom deals with your household gods.

Each guest is invited to sweep out one of the household idols saying, “My this home never be visited with anger,” or “My this home never be visited by violence,” etc.

In my own life I have found that the household gods are highly portable. I carry them with me in the back of mind, and I listen to their litany: “You can’t live without us; you can’t live without us!”

This reminds me of what I said earlier about reading the “You shall not” of the Commandments as meaning, “You are capable of doing without” or “You can live without.” God’s commandments are a direct refutation of the litany of the household gods.

I find it helpful to do more than listen to God speaking from the past, however. I have to actively cultivate my capacity to be aware of the Presence of God here and now. While the experience itself is a matter of grace and beyond the control of the egoic mind, I do think it is both possible and wise to exercise our capacity to have the experience. Prayer, chanting, and meditation are my chief spiritual exercises.

My meditation is silent, so nothing to say about that, and my chanting is a bit complex and not readily explained in print, but the prayer I practice is most is easily explained. It is called gerushin and is the Jewish equivalent of St. Paul’s notion of “ceaseless prayer”.

Gerushin means “to separate,” as in to separate oneself from the harmful voices of the idols worshipped by my ego. The practice is the ceaseless repetition of a Name of God. I repeat HaRachaman, the Compassionate One.

This Name is meaningful to me for several reasons. First is the Name used by Reb Nachman of Breslov, an 18th century Hasidic rebbe (spiritual master) from whose teachings I learned the practice. Second, my Hebrew name Rami is short for Rachmiel which means the Compassion of God. And third, in Hebrew rachmanut, compassion, comes from the Hebrew rechem, womb. When I repeat HaRachaman I find myself embraced by the Shekhinah the feminine noun we use for the Presence of God.

I realize this post was a bit extraneous, but we will let an editor sort that out.