I’m going to be podcasting as I do clinical pastoral education this summer at the San Francisco Night Ministry. Check out the first episode here:
I wrote this five years ago for a nonfiction writing class. My topic was a bald eagle webcam in D.C. that went viral. I set out to write a light-hearted essay, but I found that the more I thought about the eagle cam, the more my thoughts were directed back to theological questions. I realized that if I could relate something as far afield as an eagle webcam to God, maybe I should focus more on my interest in religion. Five years later, I think it holds up. I‘d love to hear your thoughts about it.
Adorable Eagles: Can We Commune with Nature Through a Webcam?
When two bald eagles hatched at the National Arboretum in D.C. live on a webcam, the fanfare that followed bridged the ideological-political divide in an exceptional way.
Fox News ran feel-good segments about the eagles, the snarky feminist blog Jezebel published a somewhat ironic post about the birds and Jill Biden tweeted to congratulate the eagle parents. The spokesperson for the nonprofit that runs the camera told me that the feed got more than 35 million views in just a few months.
When I first tuned into the eagle feed, I saw one of the adult eagles towering over two mangy gray chicks. The nest swayed in the wind and eventually one of the chicks laid its head face down into the nest.
Watching the cameras certainly wasn’t thrilling, but there was something about the feed that made me want to keep watching. Perhaps it was the experience of looking at these striking creatures that are so different from us — as the adult bird turned to face the camera, I saw that it had a sharp yellow beak and these piercing black eyes.
Intrigued, I looked through the eagle cam website to learn more about the birds. It was then that I found the disclaimer.
“This is a wild eagle’s nest and anything can happen,” read italicized text in a gray box below the video feed. “While we hope that two healthy juvenile eagles will end up fledging from the nest this summer, things like sibling rivalry, predators, and natural disasters can affect this eagle family and may be difficult to watch.”
The United States has a long tradition of people feeling inspiration and even religious transcendence in nature. In an 1836 essay, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that the happiest person is someone who learns “the lesson of worship” from nature. Very often, the inspired observers of this tradition felt small in comparison to the totality of the universe that surrounded them. Many of them were challenged physically by their surroundings. At the very least, they spent time outside.
But nature now comes with a disclaimer, as people watch it while sitting at room temperature, sometimes thousands of miles away. I wondered about the experience of people whose only encounter with nature happened through a video feed. Why do so many people watch the feed? Do they ever experience something like what Emerson felt while walking in the Massachusetts woods?
For the next year, I couldn’t shake this question of whether people could have a transcendental experience through a webcam. I scoured Twitter, the Facebook page of the nonprofit that runs the webcam and Google search results for anyone who saw something deeper in the video feed. But in comments online people discussed how “adorable” the eagles were, made patriotic statements about the eagles and asked scientific questions about them. Sylvia Peters, a Facebook user whose profile picture shows a parrot, commented, “Watched a feeding a few minutes ago. The eaglets ate lots and looked too cute!”
Throughout American history, the people with the closest contact with eagles would not have described them as cute. As recently as 1971, the New York Times reported that 770 eagles were slaughtered in Wyoming by men shooting rifles out of helicopters. (Although one of the men involved claimed that the vast majority of the birds, which were slaughtered to protect livestock, were golden eagles and not bald eagles.) Still, as the scholar Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence explains, some classic figures in American history also despised the birds. The naturalist Charles Audubon wrote that bald eagles have a “fierce, overbearing and tyrannical temper” and Benjamin Franklin, criticizing the decision to put the eagle on the American seal, wrote to his daughter that the eagles are “of bad moral character.”
The conception of the birds as adversaries fits into one way Americans have thought about the wild. As the scholar Roderick Nash wrote, “For most of their history, Americans regarded wilderness as a moral and physical wasteland fit only for conquest and fructification in the name of progress, civilization and Christianity.”
But gradually, as the American frontier disappeared from public view, this vision of nature as an adversary was generally supplemented by Emerson’s and Henry David Thoreau’s view of nature. For these romantics, nature was a wellspring of beauty, a source of masculine vitality and a setting for religious inspiration.
While I very much admire people like Emerson and Thoreau’s insights into divinity through nature, they were by no means saints. Their conceptions of nature were loaded with hypocrisy and exclusivity. As has been so often cited, Thoreau’s family brought him food and did his laundry while he was living in the woods during his experiment at Walden Pond. And when the canonical thinkers of the mid-nineteenth century described man in nature, they were thinking of men (not women), and men who were white.
Beyond the critique of the romantic approach to nature as being exclusive, I wondered why prominent intellectuals today so rarely talk about wonder in nature. Yes, spiritually-inclined and outdoorsy people celebrate nature, but the dominant secular intellectual world of today seems not to be concerned with divinity in nature. One of the best-known writers who discusses nature is Michael Pollan, who in his writing breaks down the barrier between humanity and nature. In his book “Botany of Desire” Pollan argued that plants and humans often evolve together. Tulips, marijuana, apples and potatoes were all bred to bring out characteristics that were mutually beneficial for the plants and humans.
While Pollan is certainly onto something when it comes to how we relate to nature, I wondered whether there is room in Pollan’s approach for Emerson’s revelry in nature. In fact, headier writers like U.C. Berkeley Professor Jake Kosek go even further than Pollan in breaking down the nature/human divide. Kosek’s bio on the U.C. Berkeley website describes how he has been “exploring how the flow of knowledge between bees and human collective behavior has remade discourses of modern citizenship and populations.” I was left asking, if we focus on the ways we are in this material interplay with nature, can we still lose ourselves in it?
Another modern approach is to see nature in terms of environmentalism. In fact, it seemed that at least some of the organizers behind the D.C. eagle cam had an environmental aim in setting up the eagle cam. Dan Rauch, a D.C. biologist attached to the project, told me, “If people become emotionally attached and really care about eagles, maybe that will make them care for these dynamic ecosystems that these species require.”
It is clear that there is value to the environmentalist perspective, particularly when it comes to bald eagles. In large part due to the pesticide D.D.T., the population of bald eagles in the contiguous United States declined from about a hundred thousand in the 1700s to fewer than 500 nesting pairs during the 1960s, according to The American Eagle Foundation, which runs the D.C. eagle webcam. But thanks to the ban on D.D.T. and conservation efforts, the bald eagle population has boomed in recent years. In 2007 the species was removed from the U.S. Department of the Interior’s list of endangered or threatened species.
While this victory and the environmentalist perspective more generally are worth celebrating, if we only think about nature in terms of something that needs to be protected, it seems like we are again missing out on a deeper meaning nature has to offer. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that thinking in terms of the mainstream secular ways of conceiving of nature left little room for rehabilitating the Emersonian approach. Seeing nature only in terms of its material links to humanity or environmentalism leaves little space for transcendence.Read more
I’m trying to read Braiding Sweetgrass the way I think its author Robin Wall Kimmerer would want me to read it. I’m taking the book slowly, chapter by chapter. I’m trying to savor it, and that seems to be working — I find myself tearing up after about half the chapters.
I first heard about Kimmerer when she appeared on the podcast On Being. On the show, Kimmerer, a professor of botany and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, described her perspective on the natural world. By drawing from both natural science and her Native American heritage, Kimmerer argued that we can learn deep lessons by observing nature.
That approach comes out beautifully in Braiding Sweetgrass. In the chapter, “The Consolation of Water Lilies,” Kimmerer describes her relationship to a pond on her property in upstate New York, and how caring for the pond reflects her experience of loving her daughters. In one scene she writes about a moment after clearing the pond of algae:
Loading the kayak onto the car in the fading light, I was doused by the leftover pond water draining onto my head. I smiled at the illusion of my grief-containment system: There is no such thing. We spill over into the world and the world spills over into us.
Kimmerer chooses to see the world as if it were enchanted. In doing so she sees her life reflected in nature, and she learns from nature.
As I read it slowly, I’m taken by Kimmerer’s description of living in “reciprocity” with nature — a worldview that is so needed right now. This approach is based on her understanding of the importance of “gifts.” Drawing from her Native American heritage, she provocatively defines gifts as things that are only temporarily ours that we pass on to others. She writes:
We are showered every day with gifts, but they are not meant for us to keep. Their life is in their movement, the inhale and the exhale of our shared breath. Our work and our joy is to pass along the gift and to trust that what we put out into the universe will always come back.
What strikes me most about Kimmerer’s thinking is an intersection I see between it and the thought of a very different writer who I’ve been studying for the hell of it, William James.
A rabbi I admire keeps referring to James, the turn-of-the-century American philosopher, psychologist and doctor. And so I recently read James’ bluntly titled 1895 talk “Is Life Worth Living?”
Interestingly, a podcast I found on James (in French) discusses how James struggled with depression, and the essay really does seem to come from the heart.
In it, James beautifully describes how some people are naturally predisposed to happiness and others to sadness, while some who interrogate the meaning of life are mentally ill and need professional help.
But more generally, James turns to faith to argue that life is worth living.
James posits that he can’t be sure about the existence of the “supernatural,” meaning he can’t prove definitively that there’s something out there greater and more meaningful than the physical world. But James notices that when he chooses to believe in the supernatural, his life becomes more meaningful. “Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact,” James writes.
(Interestingly, this seems to be very much in keeping with James’ pragmatist philosophical orientation — what matters for James most is the outcomes of his beliefs, not the question of their metaphysical truth.)
In my past reflections on belief, I’ve been most interested in basing my religious life on that which I can confidently assert to be true. I’ve thought since I first read Heschel that the ineffable (the inexpressible) lies at the heart of belief, so this grounding for belief has always been a bit paradoxical. I’ve nevertheless wanted to base my religious life on that which I am pretty sure I believe.
But this surprising intersection between Kimmerer and James, in addition to the wonderful time I’ve spent in the redwoods recently, has opened me to an alternative of taking a bigger leap of faith. Act as if you believe that the world is enchanted, and the world seems remarkably enchanted.
Hello dear readers! It’s been a while. I’ve been busy with rabbinical school, but I want to do a little more writing for my blog. This post gets a little more jargony than most of my posts. For that I am sorry. I’m trying to make sense of a book that — trust me — is much more jargony than this post.
I began this summer reading what I thought would be two completely unrelated books. Coming off a semester of studying modern Jewish history in rabbinical school, I decided to read the mid-20th century classic of social criticism Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while — following my blog post on scientific racism and the Enlightenment a couple people recommended Horkheimer and Adorno’s classic critique of the Enlightenment. Written by two secular Jewish thinkers in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, I knew before reading it that Dialectic of Enlightenment argued that the Enlightenment led to nazism, and I knew based on my favorite philosophy podcast that this would be dense and difficult reading.
So I decided to pair Dialectic of Enlightenment with an easier-to-read and ostensibly unrelated book, Richard Powers’ The Overstory. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel tells the stories of 10 people and their relationship with various trees. It was a delightful read, and in addition to describing the magnificence of trees and nature, it seemed at times to transcend a human perspective. The book had a quality of both empathy toward its characters and an appreciation for the shortness and instability of human life that made it feel like it was told from the viewpoint of a redwood tree looking down on humans. Or at least that’s what it seemed to be trying to accomplish and, aside from occasionally feeling like it was longer than it needed to be, it succeeded.
While The Overstory was more or less what I thought it would be, Dialectic of Enlightenment really surprised me. I was expecting the book to mostly be social criticism focused on the era of the Enlightenment and its links to nazism. But the book turned out to be a more profound critique of civilization beginning with the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Greeks — and most surprisingly, I understand the book to be very much within the Continental philosophical tradition, despite its interdisciplinary nature. This link to the philosophical tradition surprised me because I knew that as participants in the mid-century Frankfurt School, Horkheimer and Adorno would be critical of classical philosophy, that they would be critical of the idea that there are enduring truths.
But in their dense and disorganized writing, Horkheimer and Adorno make a profound argument that Western civilization went off track in its origins with the Hebrew Bible and the Greeks. The two German-Jewish thinkers argue that Western civilization began in a fundamentally problematic way because of its desire to subjugate nature. “What men want to learn from nature is how to use it in order to wholly dominate it and other men,” Horkheimer and Adorno write toward the beginning of the book (p. 4). As civilization progressed, Adorno and Horkheimer argue that this desire to rule over and instrumentalize nature becomes a myopic and consuming affair until “All that remains of the adaptation to nature is the obduracy against nature.” (p. 181) This “obduracy against nature” makes itself manifest in the consuming hatred of nazi antisemitism that is ultimately what they call a “morbid expression of repressed mimesis” (p. 187). (As I understand it, “repressed mimesis” here refers to a repressed desire to imitate nature.)
To be clear, I doubt very much that Horkeimer and Adorno would like The Overstory. As I understand the mid-century thinkers, they argue not for anything like an ethic of environmentalism, but for something like an ongoing civilizational self-awareness that roots out the will to domination. Horkheimer and Adorno don’t believe in enduring truths — they believe truth is contingent on history — but I read them as arguing for self-awareness and inquiry. In this way, it seems that they are not at all against enlightenment per se and I see them as being very much advocates for a modern and historically contingent version of philosophy.
Still, it was really striking to read these two very different books in conversation with one another. At their cores they seem to make a similar critique — that by seeking to dominate nature, civilization has made a fundamental mistake. This is by no means an original idea — and it’s one that I used to read and think more about.
But seeing Horkheimer and Adorno argue that so many of our problems begin with our will to dominate nature, while at the same time reading delicious prose about the need to live in harmony with nature made me wonder anew about how we relate to nature. If we reconceived of how we fit into this world, would we be much better off?
As Horkheimer and Adorno suggest with their heady call for self-reflection, this is hard and ongoing work. But my takeaway is that these two books are absolutely correct in their overlap: imagining a better world begins with reconceiving of who we are vis a vis nature.
In closing, I think it’s worth pointing out that Horkheimer and Adorno are only partly correct in the way they describe Judaism’s fundamental call to dominate nature. The call to dominate nature is definitely present (see Gen. 1:26-28 (although these verses can also be read as a constructive environmental ethic)). But as Rabbi Joseph Solveitchik persuasively argues in his The Lonely Man of Faith, there is another current of thought present from the outset of the Jewish tradition, present in Genesis 2. This is the thread in the tradition that asks us to be in relationship with the divine, that asks us to consider imperatives bigger than ourselves. It seems that the way out of the dialectic Horkheimer and Adorno describe is already embedded in the Jewish tradition.
The Forward published a reflection I wrote on my experiences travelling in the South this summer, and how American Jews can borrow from the Jewish concept of teshuva to advance the national conversation on racial injustice.
When I arrived at the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana earlier this summer, a staff member handed me a card with a photo of a statue of a young girl wearing a yellow dress. A quote on the back of the card explained that before this girl, Carlyle Stewart, was freed at the age of seven, she worked in the fields of the plantation.
“They had straps and a whip, and they better not catch you praying to God,” Stewart later told a researcher. “You can’t say your prayer.”
My wife and I were touring the South to learn about the history of racism in our country, and the Whitney Plantation, which memorializes the enslaved people who worked there, was our first stop.
On our tour, I learned new details about America’s brutal chattel slavery; I learned enslaved people who tried to escape had their hamstrings severed, and when pregnant women were whipped, they were partially buried face down to protect their valuable fetuses.
A few days later, at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, I learned that the popular understanding of lynching is woefully incomplete. Many of those murdered were black political and labor organizers. Lynching was, among other things, a tool for maintaining a broader white supremacist social order throughout much of this country well into the twentieth century.
As Jews enter the month of Elul and begin the season of teshuva — repentance — I’ve come to understand that I, along with many other white Americans, am collectively in a long process of penitence. Thanks in part to sites like those I visited this summer, mainstream white American culture seems to be finally taking seriously the important work of prominent black thinkers who place racial oppression at the center of this country’s history.
In my previous post, I made the claim that liberally religious people shouldn’t shy away from belief. I’d now like to deepen that idea by looking at the specific issue of how to make sense of the Bible in a liberally religious context (I define this context in my previous post).
When I find myself in liberally religious Bible studies, I often feel that there is an unstated confusion about how to approach the Bible. It seems some people feel pressure to suspend disbelief and operate as if the text somehow comes from divinity. These people feel it is not kosher to bring in modern scholarship about the human authorship(s) of the Bible, despite the fact that they generally accept this approach (even if they might not know much about it). Other people refuse to take on a position of assumed naivete and they deny that there is any sacred about the text. This can lead them to approach morally problematic sections of the Bible by being hostile toward the Bible (and perhaps even religion) more generally. And perhaps the largest set of people believe that the Bible was written by humans who were somehow divinely inspired, but they aren’t sure who these humans were, when they wrote, exactly what their relationship with divinity was — and they especially aren’t sure how the human authorship of the Bible should bear on the text study at hand.
I think there is an opportunity to cut through this emotionally charged and confused stew by unabashedly putting forth the idea that the Bible is a collection of texts written and compiled by humans. If done correctly, embracing modern biblical scholarship could in fact strengthen liberal religious belief.
I recently finished reading biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman’s book Who Wrote The Bible? In the book, Friedman makes the case that the Pentateuch (the five books of Moses) were written by at least six people. Although the specifics of who wrote which section of the Bible are certainly above my current pay grade, the general approach that different people wrote different parts of the Bible is very convincing.
In making this argument, Friedman makes the case that the total Pentateuch is greater than the sum of its discrete human-created parts. From my perspective, his most compelling reason for saying this is that by incorporating different perspectives, the Bible creates a theology that none of the individual authors of the Bible intended. Specifically, by including both a personal and a transcendent God, Friedman writes that the Bible creates “a balance that none of the individual authors intended.” He continues:
But that balance, intended or not, came to be at the heart of Judaism and Christianity. Like Jacob at Peni-El, both religions have lived and struggled ever since with a cosmic yet personal deity. That applies to the most sophisticated theologian and the simplest believer. Ultimate things are at stake, but every human being is told “The master of the universe is concerned about you.” An extraordinary idea.
In liberally religious settings, identifying how different sections of the Bible have different conceptions of God could strengthen the overall idea that the Bible as a whole offers different theological perspectives that come together to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.
This is just one example of how modern biblical criticism can strengthen analyses and study of the Bible.
But beyond using modern biblical criticism to strengthen our analyses of the Bible, I think the most compelling reason to embrace modern biblical criticism is simply that this approach to the authorship of the Bible seems to be correct. If we obfuscate around the human authorship of the bible, we risk losing the growing group of people who don’t accept traditional explanations of the origins of the Bible.
Especially in the Jewish tradition, another reason to approach the Bible with reverence is that it is the foundation for centuries of commentary and analysis (some of which teaches against what seems to be the intended original meaning of the text). If we approach the Bible through modern analyses of who wrote it, a modern audience might be more inclined to then open this trove of centuries commentary.
Embracing human authorship of the Bible doesn’t have to mean surrendering the mystery and awe that is so central to religious experience. On the contrary, if we see the Bible as a collection and synthesis of different people’s experiences of divinity and human experience, we can approach the text with reverence and humility. An honest and sophisticated approach to the Bible’s origins could enrich our synagogues, churches and mosques.
I had perhaps the most clichéd last few minutes in Israel a Reform rabbinical student could have. As I sat and waited to board my flight home, a good-natured ultra-Orthodox man asked me about my ukulele case. Naturally, our conversation progressed politely from the fact that no, my case didn’t contain a violin, to what I was doing in Israel, to him asking why Reform Jews even call themselves Jewish, to a disagreement about whether the Torah was given to Moses on Mount Sinai.
My Judaism is a form of religious liberalism, which means it rejects a fundamentalist understanding of sacred texts, it favors evolution over time and the full inclusion of people of different identities, and it is open to conceptions of God that aren’t the pernicious man-in-the-sky God concepts that are so pervasive in popular culture.
As I opened my bag for the last security check, I chuckled to myself about how a conversation could so genteelly explode into his dismissing everything I stand for as a Jew. It also occurred to me that if I accept that this man sincerely believes that God dictated the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai, he and I both based our religious outlook on belief.
In general, people associate belief much more with fundamentalism than with religious liberalism. Belief in God, belief in the sanctity of holy texts and belief in the value of prayer tend to be seen as attributes of orthodox belief and not liberal belief.
But as my flight took off, I found myself thinking that it doesn’t have to be that way. What separates liberal Jewish belief and this polite man’s belief system doesn’t have to be a question of whether to believe, rather it was a question of what we believe.
A belief that the consistency of science can lead liberally religious people to be pretty darn sure that revelation did not occur in the way that fundamentalists conceive of it. At the same time, beliefs that come out of personal experience can lead liberally religious people to believe that there is something in the world that is awesome and language-defying that we don’t understand completely, but that seems to amount to what is commonly known as God.
There are good reasons why liberal religion has so often distanced itself from belief. Religious liberalism grew out of Enlightenment rationalism, which was very skeptical of claims that couldn’t be scientifically proven. Thankfully since then Reform Judaism has moved beyond this and accepted that there is much in the world that we can’t understand through a hyper-rationalistic prism and that it’s important to embrace the mystery of religion.
Belief is also difficult for liberal religions because belief is so much more mysterious and complicated in a non-fundamentalist context. It’s more difficult to say you believe in God if you aren’t sure exactly what that God is. Prayer becomes more complicated when you don’t believe that God can intervene in the material world. And the place of our sacred texts in our religious experience becomes more challenging to understand if we don’t simply believe they come from God.
But, despite these complications, belief from the perspective of liberal religion is just as sincere and important as the belief of fundamentalists. We believe deeply in scientific findings like evolution and the non-existence of divine miracles; we believe deeply in God, even if we aren’t sure how to define God in human terms; and we believe deeply that prayer is meaningful for us within the context of complicated God concepts.
My conviction is that these liberal beliefs lead to a religious life that is more challenging than fundamentalist religion. I also find these liberal religious beliefs to be more true.
When I parted ways with the polite ultra-Orthodox man to board my flight, he told me that he hoped I found the truth. We should all be humble about what religious truths we can come to over the course of our evolving lives, but I think we liberal believers would be better off if we didn’t shy away from this man’s challenge.
Three weeks before I left Israel, I ventured into a French-language bookstore in Jerusalem to hear a talk by a French rabbi I discovered through podcasts a couple years ago. The small bookstore, Vice Versa, was packed, and I found a place to stand behind the speaker, Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur.
Growing up going to a bilingual French school in the states, I’ve long associated French with some of the best learning experiences of my life. I remember in my ninth grade French literature class we analyzed a poem with my teacher Frank Bessone. I was so taken by what we studied that I visualized knowledge as a lake high on a mountain. I imagined that when learning was at its best, you could draw water from that lake.
But more than that, I also associate French with the particular world I come from. Growing up attending a French/international school in San Francisco, I associate French with the best elements of the liberal 1990s/2000s multiculturalism of my youth. Although I don’t mean to present this world uncritically (my access to it certainly speaks to my privilege, and its hold on the world has definitely been challenged recently), this was a values system characterized by pride in the word “cosmopolitan,” an affinity for Manu Chao, optimism about the transition from the Franc to the Euro, and excitement about the achievements of the LGBT-rights movement. I remember in eighth grade one of my history class assignments was to design a campaign poster that supported the European Union. My French history teacher said the best poster was one my classmate made with a rocket blasting off and the slogan “l’union fait la force,” unity makes strength.
But when I walked into that French-language bookstore in Jerusalem, I was rounding out a year in a country that is complicated, but that generally challenges these multicultural values. Where the France-informed San Francisco of my youth celebrates internationalism, speaking multiple languages and liberal values, Israel is diverse, but it tends to celebrate one national/religious group, one language, and values that can be read into ancient text. It’s easy, especially for someone from my background to point out the flaws in how these Israeli values are often being interpreted in today’s Israel. But I do have an appreciation for the rootedness that some forms of Israeli engagement with Judaism can provide and I value how Israel allows for a deep engagement with Judaism and Hebrew.
Still, as I walked into the bookstore, I was weary from the extent to which Israel — and more particularly Jerusalem — felt dominated by a rigid, conservative approach to Jewish identity that leads to a mistreatment of Palestinians, nationalism, sexism and the reelection of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Early in her talk, Horvilleur, who is France’s third woman rabbi, discussed how the story of Jacob and Essau explains how she understands her Jewish identity. In her talk and her book that I later read, Horvilleur draws from rabbinic commentators to point out that Essau, whose name comes from the Hebrew past tense of the word to be, is born completed. In fact, he is covered in hair at birth, symbolizing that he’s already gone through puberty. Horvilleur writes that “Essau is the man whose name is ‘already made.’ He is the anti-embryo par excellence, the man who is already formed and is therefore a non-Hebrew” (my translation of her French). Jacob, in contrast, must become who he is over the course of his life, as is most famously demonstrated by the fact that he receives the name Israel only later in life after wrestling with the angel. Horvilleur argues that Jacob represents Jewish identity, which is always in formation. To be Jewish, Horvilleur argues, means to be becoming.
Horvilleur’s Judaism is also a Judaism of cultural exchange. In her talk, she argued that one of the main reasons Judaism has survived for so long is because of its cultural porousness; Judaism has endured because it borrows from other cultures.
At this point in her talk, I felt a huge sense of relief and excitement. Here was a Judaism that is centered on perpetual self-discovery and cultural exchange. In addition to being compelling, this vision contradicts the rigid approaches I had encountered so much in Israel. Instead, Horvilleur’s approach affirmed positive elements of the values of my upbringing.
And yet at the same time Horvilleur’s conception of Judaism presents useful challenges to these values of my youth. In her talk, Horvilleur discusses the importance of balancing historical progression with traditional custom. Along with an interest in discussing God, this emphasis on respecting esoteric tradition would seem foreign to the world of my upbringing.
Horvilleur also outlines notions of history and text that challenge the culture of my youth and offer decidedly Jewish approaches to life. Like other Jewish thinkers I’ve read, Horvilleur argues that Jewish time is not linear. Horvilleur offers the example of Passover, and the Jewish obligation to reenact the exodus from Egypt every year, as if one is re-experiencing it. By recalling Passover or the revelation at Mount Sinai, Jews are called again and again to fulfill their obligation in the world.
Horvilleur situates the importance of text within this context of a non-linear history — she writes that every generation must learn to read texts anew and writes, “If the rabbis made Jewish children, it’s primarily to make new readers for the book.”
Horvilleur’s Judaism is a Judaism that balances loyalty to tradition with cultural porousness. Her Judaism is feminist and welcoming, while being deeply informed by Jewish understandings of obligation and text. And her Judaism is true to Jewish history, while being progressive.
Walking out of the bookstore in Jerusalem, I was reminded that the worlds opened to me by the French language and the French-San Franciscan environment of my youth are in fact an integral part of what I want to carry forward. I was reminded that being true to Jewish tradition means being both traditional and progressive. Walking out of the bookstore, I felt the excitement that comes with being reminded of why I want to be a rabbi.
Today I had the privilege of offering a D’var Torah on Holocaust Remembrance Day and the Torah portion Kedoshim at HUC-JIR.
This week’s parasha kedoshim puts forth the dramatic claim that our every action can be holy, that our every action can bring us closer to God. The parasha lists key elements of Jewish practice like keeping the Sabbath, esoteric practices like not sewing fields with two kinds of seeds, sexual laws that we must now teach against, and the fundamental principle of loving your neighbor as yourself.
As it presents its laws, kedoshim, and the holiness code more generally, tell us:
You shall be holy, for I, adonai your God, am holy.
קְדֹשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם׃
If we borrow from Rabbi Leon Wiener Dow and say that Halacha is an endless effort to express holiness in every crevice of our lives, we can say that the holiness code is a basis of halacha. The holiness code makes the Jewish claim that all our actions can serve the holy way, that everything we do can be part of halacha.
But what does this claim that we can be in relationship with God through our actions mean on a day we are asked to recall the Shoah? Today and everyday, our systems of belief and action should heed the words of Elie Wiesel, who wrote in Night:
Never shall I forget the night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed.
Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live.
Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.
Kedoshim and the holiness code seem to melt away before Elie Wiesel’s words. What is the point of committing to holiness in a world in which Auschwitz is possible? Why try to be in relationship with a God who would allow Auschwitz or with a God who couldn’t prevent it?
The first response when trying to answer these questions is to acknowledge that there is no answer. There is no solution to the problem of the Holocaust. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg went so far as to write that every theological solution “that is totally at ease with a dominant [theological] option is to be seen as an attempt to escape from the dialectical torment of living with the Holocaust. If you do escape, you open the option that the Holocaust may recur.” We should not seek to feel at peace or comfortable on a day like today, and we should be cautious when we talk about God. Biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg once said that in our times everything we say about God should be said in a whisper.
And yet here we are. This week, we were reminded of how unimaginable hate continues in this world, as we saw the second synagogue shooting take place in the United States during our year in Israel. And today we sit in the shadow of the Shoah. As we go forward with extreme theological humility, we still seek some understanding, some sense of what to do next.
I believe our best-suited text for this moment is the book of Job, our biblical text that more than any other directly addresses the problem of theodicy. The book presents the story of Job, a righteous, happy and successful man, who faces a series of calamities. Job’s ten children die, he loses his fortune and he develops horrific skin sores. After Job mourns for seven days, three of his friends try to comfort him by offering eloquent speeches about how God is just and Job must have sinned. This ultimately upsets Job, who becomes sarcastic, irritated and scared. After yet another friend tries unsuccessfully to console Job, God ultimately appears before Job and demonstrates God’s power by describing all God has created.
Job then humbles himself before God. He says, according to the JPS translation:
I had heard You with my ears, But now I see You with my eyes;
Therefore, I recant and relent, Being but dust and ashes.
לְשֵׁמַע־אֹזֶן שְׁמַעְתִּיךָ וְעַתָּה עֵינִי רָאָתְךָ
עַל־כֵּן אֶמְאַס וְנִחַמְתִּי עַל־עָפָר וָאֵפֶר
What causes this radical and sudden shift in Job’s consciousness? How is he comforted? What does this tell us on a day like today?
In his commentary on the book of Job, Rabbi Harold Kushner makes a distinction between abstract theology and lived religious experience. Kushner writes:
The difference between [theology and religion], one explicator of Buber has suggested, is like the difference between reading a menu and having a dinner. Theology can inform and enlighten, but only religion can nourish us. For thirty-five chapters, Job and his friends have been concerned with theology. With God’s appearance out of the whirlwind, the narrative turns to religion.
Kushner believes this direct experience of God is ultimately what changes Job’s perspective. Kushner writes that “Job is satisfied, not so much by the content of God’s answer as by the contact with God.”
It isn’t an intellectual theological point that we can turn to on a day like today when we stand especially in the darkness of the Holocaust. Instead we can turn to our experience of God and our ongoing relationship with God.
This doesn’t answer theological questions about why the Shoah happened or questions about God’s powerfulness. Kushner points out that in the book of Job, when God appears, God doesn’t directly answer Job’s questions about why bad things happen to good people. These theological questions are important, but there is a significant current in our tradition that tells us that experience of God and practice matter more than abstract theology.
Instead, the best recourse in moments like this may be to turn to your practical relationship with God, whatever that means to you. And it seems to me that our tradition — and this week’s parasha in particular — are telling us that the best way to be in relationship with God is through our actions, through the radical proposition that our every act can be holy. We can turn to the holiness in Jewish traditions like the Sabbath, to the holiness in grand ethical principles like loving your neighbor as yourself, to the holiness in the minute details of our everyday life and even to the holiness of the tefillah we are in right now. By sanctifying our every action, we can be in relationship with God, even on a day like today.
And so, as we recall the Shoah, may we all find what we are seeking through our tradition’s claim that our every action can be holy; May we find guidance, comfort and resiliency through Judaism’s dramatic proposition that our every action can continue our relationship with God.
In the video announcing his presidential campaign today, Joe Biden said something that struck me. “I believe history will look back on this president and all he embraces as an aberrant moment in time,” Biden said.
Biden’s statement made me think back to morning after the 2016 election. On my drive home from work the day after Donald Trump had won the presidency, I listened to the podcast of former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau and other former Obama staffers. As these bright, 30-something white men analyzed the election, I couldn’t help but think they in over their heads.
Yes, Favreau offered a heartfelt mea-culpa for his arrogance about how Clinton would win, but beyond being clueless about how to proceed (which, to be fair, most liberals including myself were), these men simply didn’t seem to have the vocabulary required to address the severity of what Trump’s election meant; I wanted an analysis and a reckoning that went deeper.
As I reflect on Biden’s statement today that Trump somehow represents an “aberrant moment in time,” I am struck by how the speechwriters’ reactions and Biden’s analysis are connected in a fundamental misreading of American history.
The fact, of course, is that Trump’s presidency and what it represents are anything but an “aberrant moment” in American history. It is easy enough to point out the various ways in which bigotry, misogyny and imperialism have dominated American history. One need only look at the fact that the mansion Trump now inhabits was built by slaves or that because of the Iraq war, it is debatable whether American foreign policy has done more harm than good in my lifetime. As Ta-Nehisi Coates articulated in an essay in the first year of the Trump presidency, Trump brings to the fore the white supremacy of this country that has always been there.
And yet, we let ourselves off the hook too easily if we simply dismiss United States history as a catalogue of oppressions. I think there is, cautiously, a narrative of progress that can be woven through the complicated history of the United States. It is undeniable that the trend is that the number of people who have basic rights in the United States has steadily expanded since the country’s founding. Lincoln’s words in the Gettysburg address speak to me — this country, with all its deep flaws, does have a role to play in world history.
In fact, Barack Obama’s conception of American exceptionalism, if understood correctly, seems to do justice to this complicated dynamic. This is a narrative that says that the story of the United States is deeply problematic, that there has been progress, that there is no guarantee that progress will continue, but that we can build off of this history of progress in our country to build into the future.
This narrative runs into serious problems when it does not take into account the depths of darkness that have enveloped this country for so much of its history, and that continue to hold much of this country today. In addition to making you look silly, glossing over this country’s flaws leaves you unable to cope with the reality of the fight ahead. It leaves you woefully ill-equipped on a podcast on November 9th, 2016, for example. If we want to improve our country, we must understand both the power of collective action, and the depths of our country’s flaws.