Saturday, December 29, 2012

Why I Am a Jewish None (or a None-ish Jew) and Why You Should Care

(This is an adapted version of the sermon I delivered on Friday evening, December 28, 2012 at NSCI)

I’d like to share a recent self- revelation: deep down inside, my soul is the soul of a None.  No, I didn't spell that wrong. I’m not referring to a Catholic nun of course!  Let me explain. A "None" is the name given to a “member” of the fastest growing religious group in our country - a seemingly new religious denomination named by the Pew Forum and other religion demographers as those who will not identify with any singular religious grouping, category or denomination.  The Nones have grown from 15% to 20% of the US population in the last 5 years alone, and they’re projected to increase even more over the next decade. 

It seems like a pretty sad indicator for the face of organized religion at first. But don't get too distressed.  Here's something interesting: Although atheists and agnostics are included in the "Nones" category, their specific populations have remained a steady, flat 6% for a quite a while now.  So who are the other now 14% of our population of those not identifying in one singular religious category but yet not atheist or agnostic, and why on earth would I consider myself to be like them?

Well, 37% of them say they are spiritual.  Check.  68 % of these Nones say they believe in God. Check.  58 % say they have a deep connection with nature and earth. Check.  1 in 5 say they pray daily. Check.[i]  The Nones are searchers, seekers, boundary pressers and question askers, souls unwilling and uninterested in tightly reinforced definitions and denominations. They may very well have deep spiritual encounters in a prayer service, but they will also have them in their yoga class, or walking in the Botanic Gardens. Or listening to stirring music or reading a powerful book.  Check, Check.  They view themselves as open vessels for the meaningful and the sacred in all experiences.  Check.  In many ways, they sound like they'd make great Jews!

What are the true defining characteristics of Jews anyway?  Outside of not believing in more than one God, what other consistent indicator or unifier is there - in origin, in practice, in ethnicity, in language, in sexuality or in family structure?  Jew by birth, Jew by choice, Jew by matrilineal or patrilineal descent? Jew by synagogue membership or not?  Jew by how many days a year or lifetime they attend services? None of these offer a real limitation on what being Jewish means, only what Judaism can mean to a given individual in a given situation.

After all, who among us fits perfectly in the category of any label?  We are by nature complex, amalgams of identities, experiences, histories, practices and beliefs that don't generally fit a cookie cutter definition or picture.  And that, if you asked me, is a pretty wonderful thing – these combinations keep us interesting, diverse, learning and evolving!  If being a None equates to a rejection of black and white, absolutist religion then the real question should be, who among us isn’t a None?

So what at first seems like a pretty ominous report of eventual religious demise instead turns out, I would suggest, to indicate an evolution in the openness  of what faith based and religious communities, including Jewish ones, will someday become, if they aren't already on their way.

Here's the snag:  Many Jewish organizations and Jewish population study publishers have a problem with what I just said.  They want to perpetuate the emotional response from what seems to have become Judaism's historical meta-narrative:  Someone, somewhere is trying to put an end to Judaism by steering us away from our long-held, steady and implied "proper" roots and traditions.  Maybe it is an external demise that's predicted, maybe it’s an internal one, as the latest Chicago and New York Jewish population studies seems to suggest about all forms of non-Orthodox Judaism.   We've gone astray from our tradition - strangers to our faith and the so-called "right" way to practice it.  Failures of perpetuating what our ancestors throughout the ages fought and died for.  And the truth is, these erosion narratives have long worked as catalysts for community solidarity and fundraising.  It is one of the main myths at play when non-Orthodox Jews make financial contributions to organizations like Chabad instead of their own non-Orthodox synagogues or organizations with which they are affiliated – almost as an apologetic and acknowledgement in a sense of their self-perception as somehow a lesser or failed Jew. 

But if the only justification for practicing Judaism, for identifying as “Jewish” is to react against this so-called erosion, then how can it ever be possible to really flourish?  Survival mode never yields much other than stasis at best, and at worst, ironically, it causes the very same erosion it was created to fight against.  I think that is what we are seeing now in the non-Orthodox world, and maybe even the Orthodox world too.  The reality of most Jewish institutions 
for the last 6-7 decades has been one of survivalist mentality.  It’s as if we, at some point, forgot that at its heart, Judaism has always, always been about a relationship between the evolving mundane and ineffable qualities of life, with Jewish traditions and laws not designed for stagnation, to serve solely as anchors of vessels never intended to take to sea, but more as wide, billowing sails, enabling us to traverse and discover more of the endlessly revealing cosmos of which we are an integral, covenantal, evolving part.  Solely surviving inhibits and prohibits thriving.

One key reason the Nones are important is because they are not interested in just surviving, erosion, in anchored vessels that can’t sail; they are wholly invested in yearning, in seeking, in thriving.  They seek deep rooted answers to the significant questions of existence and meaning in the universe.  Their yearnings, I believe, are not unique, but are actually shared by every human being. It’s just that not everyone is comfortable or willing to articulate them in a so-called religious or Jewish context because we, as Jewish institutions, have failed to foster an environment where such questions are the norm.  But these questions are ultimately what we find at the heart of life.

Our desires to know and deepen our understanding of ourselves, our place in the world, what we are here to do, ultimately our search for Truth – with a capital T – the asking of and searching for answers to these questions, I’d say prove the very purpose for which God created us in the first place.  And that search is necessarily about wrestling and digging.  The goal is not reaching “a single, eternal realization,” as Rabbi Irwin Kula teaches,  but instead “living out the process of realizing again and again.”[ii] 

Our Jewish teachings are at once plentiful and varied, ripe and evolving, rooted and ethereal.  Ours is a wisdom tradition intended to be lived, wrestled with, imagined, “deconstructed, and re-imagined.”[iii]   We must not be afraid to do just this – to activate and enliven our own yearnings and souls’ quests in this light.  Not to do so surely resigns us to a life of malaise and stagnation.  And that’s not just a modern psychological statement.  Jewish mystics have been talking about it for centuries, originating in Jewish folklore about the Golem of all places, with poignant teachings about the Hebrew word for Truth:  Emet.  Rabbi Kula puts an interesting twist on it. He teaches: If you remove the first letter from Emet, you are left with a different word: “met” – which in Hebrew means death.  As such, the mystics taught that if you only have one side of the story which you believe is absolute truth – with a capital T, you've essentially begun your own demise.  Truth, they inherently understood from a most profound level, has always been more complicated, nuanced, evolving than that. When viewed all together, Emet – aleph, mem, tav - is comprised of the first, middle, and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet – as if to suggest that the very composition of the word Truth itself urges us to seek a wider, more inclusive, deeply resonating, and all-encompassing truth.[iv]

Indeed, this call to seek a wider, more inclusive, deeply resonating and all-encompassing Judaism, I believe, is the call to all of us at this precise moment in our evolution as a faith. 
So I’m a Jewish None, and maybe you are too. And maybe we’re all better for that.

[ii] From the teachings and language of Rabbi Irwin Kula in “Yearnings” p.4.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] These teachings on Emet are sourced to any number of places, both ancient and modern.  The play on Emet and Met is a reference to any number of Golem narratives.  See Sefer Yitzirah as an example.  The concept of Emet as comprised of the first, middle, and last letters of the alphabet I first heard mentioned in rabbinical school and have since heard and read mentioned many times, however I do not know the original source of it.  Irwin Kula offers a fitting description of these stories, and it is from his conceptions of the stories that this sermon derives its meaning.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The "Fathomability" of Gun Violence against Children - Remembering Noah Pozner and Aliyah Shell

Like most everyone I know, I am having a really hard time coping with the horrific murders in Connecticut. Since I have young children myself, I keep having these nightmarish visions placing our family there, me waiting at the fire station and my child never returning to me. I see the sweet face of 6 year old Noah Pozner, the youngest murdered victim, and in my mind, his face morphs into the face of my own 5 year old son. He could, after all, have been my son, that young Jewish boy attending elementary school in a "good, safe, suburban school." The nightmare plays over and over again in my head, until I shut it down. Something I, as someone whose child was not actually there, have the luxury of doing. Truth be told, I have absolutely no clue how anyone in that community, especially those whose children or family members were murdered, will ever find any peace. It is beyond fathomable.

"Unfathomable" has, far and away, proved the most common descriptor appearing on the boiling feeds of my Facebook and Twitter accounts since Friday's tragedy. And on every emotional level I know, "unfathomable" seems a fitting descriptor of the cold-blooded mass murder of innocent children and teachers in an elementary school; it goes against the most basic core values and code of social order and decency we have. But the heartbreaking thing is, this event was not "unfathomable." It is certainly "fathomable" - it has been fathomable for a long time now. People have been heartlessly and carelessly or calculatedly murdering or injuring children through gun violence for a long time now.

I vividly remember first hearing about the school shooting in Columbine on April 20, 1999. Sitting in the lunch room of my rabbinical school in Cincinnati, we all sat stunned and declared the shootings "unfathomable." Until one of my professors called our attention to the fact that children were being shot and killed all the time; the difference being that Columbine symbolized the expanded reach of gun violence into middle/upper class white America. He called us out on our own selectivity in personal identification with a certain type of event and victim over another, and challenged us to see the Columbine murder victims as part of a longer series of American tragedies and travesties with a much more expansive trail of murdered and wounded children strewn in its current's wake. One that demanded multi-faceted government, educational, health, social, spiritual, and psychological engagement and action.

In 2011, 700 children were hit by gunfire in Chicago and 66 of them died. There is ongoing mass murder in Chicago's gang-ridden neighborhoods to which most of us living in safer, suburban neighborhoods have closed our eyes or ignored. On Friday, speaking about the victims of the Newtown attack, President Obama stated, "They had their entire lives ahead of them -- birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own." And this is true. It is what makes the murder of children in particular so horrific. But I wonder why the same is not being said too of those children struck down by gun violence in the city of Chicago (or elsewhere). I think about Aliyah Shell, the 6 year old girl murdered by gang crossfire while sitting on her mother's lap, on the porch of their Little Village home earlier this year. "Birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of her own" were Aliyah and her family's right, but the same cry was not made nationally when she was murdered, or any of the other of the hundreds of children like her. It is as if we have somehow, as a nation, accepted that for children like Aliyah, such future promise should not be assumed; and that is simply unacceptable. Because birthdays, graduations, weddings, and children should be part of the promise to any and every child. And that future has been stolen from all those slain in the wake of gun violence: black or white, wealthy or poor, shot down in their house or walking on the street, lying down to sleep or waking up, sitting on their front porch or at their desk in their classroom.

Many will take issue with me here.  They will say that linking the Chicago youth murdered to the Newtown tragedy somehow diminishes one or the other.  They will say this is a time of mourning, not of speaking and acting.  They will claim that these are two different problems, one impacting one way and the other a different way. That a school shooting is, by its nature, different than gang related gun violence. On all counts, I disagree. It is indeed a time of mourning, a deepening mourning given these most recent, horrible events.  But one and the other are both inextricably intermingled in what can only be called a community and system-wide web of failure. And that failure isn't rooted in one cause over another. It is immensely complex; it is about gun control and mental health and gang prevention/education and security and anger-management and race and wealth and class and early intervention and public health and, and, and....

If not now, when?  Genesis/Breishit teaches that all humans are created in the image of the Divine, and in the Mishnah, we learn that each life is an entire world. When one destroys a life, they destroy the world. When one saves a life, they save the world. The matter is more urgent now than ever.  So I will not allow myself the anesthetizing ease of time or distraction. And to my own nightmares, I will be mindful to add the face of Aliyah along with the face of Noah. I hope remembering both of these children will remind me of the totality of the real task at hand, and as such, strengthen my personal resolve to be an individual who actively works to create and catalyze change across our communities, within and without, in the areas in which I have a voice and impact. May it be so for each and every one of us who has not yet been caught in the cross-fire directly.

My prayer is that perhaps this most recent horror in Connecticut will be the spark that ignites a system-wide change across all channels, so that the flow of all the murdered souls, whose lives have been cut short too soon, might finally be checked.

Things you can do to start to make a difference now:

Get educated around legislation for safer gun laws/regulation and advocate on its behalf:

Get informed about improving mental health awareness and treatment and advocate on its behalf:

Support organizations that are already working to make a difference:

Feel free to use the comments space below to add your own ideas about how to make a difference.