Ask The Rabbi

Have you got a question for Rabbi Michael Lerner? Click here and fill in his Ask the Rabbi form.

Question:

Animal sacrifices? Why? It’s cruel and inhumane. It takes away our human-ness. It also teaches people to harden their hearts. It is the foremost catalyst of why the world is in the state of affairs it is in today. It teaches people to do as they please to the animals. We can eat them, wear them, and use them in food, clothing, sports, experimentation. Why? Because the Bible says so, because God ordained it? Bunk! If love and respect had been given from the early times of Cain, with sacrificial offerings of fruits and vegetables instead of Abel, then our world for the most part would be civilized today.

Rabbi Lerner responds:

As I explain in my book Jewish Renewal, people always hear God’s voice through the filters of their own consciousness, state of psychological and spiritual development, etc. By the time of the Talmud, the rabbis already knew that sacrifices were a mistake, so they re-interpreted the Torah’s commands about “sacrifice” to mean “prayer.” Today, most branches of Judaism do not seek a return to the time of the sacrifices. On the other hand, those who have been victims of a world of cruelty and pain sometimes find it helpful to imagine themselves hurting animals. In our Jewish Renewal movement, we emphasize love and kindness, and in Tikkun magazine we have an excellent article “The Planet-Saving Mitzvah” (July/August 2009) arguing for why Jews must become vegetarians (as I and most of the people in our movement already are).


Question:

First of all I would like to congratulate you for this work full of love and hope. I guess many Jews don’t seem to appreciate some of your positions, but isn’t debating part of our culture? Isn’t asking a question more important than the answer itself, anyway?

My request is very simple.

My grandmother suffered through World War II hidden in a cave for five years. Fortunately she survived and lived to the age of 87. After she died, my family told me about the secret she held all these years: she was a Jew and never told anyone about it, scared to death and probably wanting to protect her children and family from another eventual Shoah.

Meanwhile my mother ordered a brit mila for me (a civil one) and gradually prepared me to receive my new “identity.” What is surprising is that I always knew, I always felt the Jewishness in me and always was seen as a Jew by non-Jews! A “Jew without papers” and conversions are not well considered at all here. But a converted Jew will remain converted forever.

As you might understand I am completely lost and need to strengthen my identity and pay tribute to my poor grandmother — Hashem rest her soul. Please Rabbi Lerner, your advice is valuable and vital to me. I am asking for help even though this may not be the right website for such a request!

Feel free to answer.
Best regards.
Shalom.

David

Rabbi Lerner responds:

Dear David,

I suggest you formally convert to Judaism. Approach the Jewish community nearest you and ask the rabbi to teach you about Judaism and tell the rabbi you wish to convert. According to Jewish law, such a rabbi must say “no” the first three times you ask, but if you persist, the rabbi should agree to do it or refer you to a rabbi who will. In my community in SF we would already accept you as a Jew, but we would still ask you to engage in a course of study.

If you don’t wish to formally convert, then I suggest that you nevertheless connect with a Jewish community and if people ask you about your Jewishness, simply tell them that your family has been secular but that you are Jewish since your grandmother was Jewish and a survivor of the Holocaust. Again, take courses, learn about Judaism, and start to observe some of our traditions (most importantly, the weekly Sabbath).

Or, if this path doesn’t work for you, and you instead can’t find a Jewish community that is either willing to convert you or accept you “without papers” (though I believe most will unless YOU insist on talking about not being Jewish and introduce yourself that way); then I suggest that you (a) come visit San Francisco and attend High Holiday services with us at Beyt Tikkun synagogue; (b) start studying Judaism with guidance from the web and from me (start with my book Jewish Renewal; Arthur Waskow’s book The Seasons of Our Joy and also his book Down to Earth Judaism; David Cooper’s God is a Verb; Arthur Green’s books Speak my Name and Introduction to the Zohar; Abraham Joshua Heschel’s books The Sabbath, God in Search of Man, and Who Is Man; Judith Plaskow’s book Standing at Sinai; Zalman Schachter’s book Jewish with Feeling plus visit his website and check out all his books, writings, and videos and audios). And start practicing the Sabbath each week on your own and go to a synagogue to pray even if they are not totally accepting.

Blessings,

Rabbi Michael Lerner


Question:

If the Network of Spiritual Progressives puts serious emphasis on spirituality, what happens to people who agree with all of your Spiritual Covenant but describe ourselves as atheists or agnostics? One does not have to have a belief in God in order to live a spiritual life or have a spiritual practice.

Rabbi Lerner responds:
Atheists and agnostics are specifically welcome, if:

a. they feel comfortable with an organization that uses words like Spiritual, Spirit, God, love, generosity, awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation, and atonement and repentance;

and b. if they will not challenge other people who do believe in God and make them feel that such a belief is controversial within our organization;

and c. will not contend against our desire to encourage people to have a daily spiritual practice (but of course, as you point out and I also point out many times when I talk, one does not have to believe in God or a Supreme Being to have a spiritual life and a spiritual practice).

So, if you feel the people fit in these respects, please encourage them to join the NSP.

But please note that the dynamics of the Left are such that we are not worried that we are going to be hostile to atheists and agnostics, but rather that atheists and agnostics are going to make people who believe in God feel put down and dissed. So in our organization, I think we want to be sensitive to that dynamic, because I’ve never heard of an instance in any of our chapters where any agnostic or atheist was dissed but I have heard religious people feeling put down when others start saying that religion is fundamentally irrational.

Thanks for asking.
Rabbi Michael Lerner


Question:

Don’t you think you and this magazine are made up of traitorous Anti-Zionists. Am I wrong or are you in league with the Christian and Islamic heretics? The left and right wing radical nutjobs? You cannot honestly believe in that the anti-Israeli liars and opponents are not anti-Jewish? Are you and the writers of this magazine sick in the head? The Arabs (I will NEVER acknowledge the fiction of this “Palestine” created by Roman oppressors who disappeared from history. The non-Israeli Arabs are living in a culture of death, how the hell can you negotiate with fanatics bent on our destruction? Until things change with the Arabs OCCUPYING Jewish land – Judea, Samaria, the Galilee, there will be no peace. The Arabs always try to win what they keep losing through their incredible stupidity and losses in war. They will never stop trying to destroy our Jewish nation. How can you honestly believe that the Arabs are going to stop murdering our citizens, our men, women and children? You and many others are completely deluded by this pie in the sky wishful thinking that we will have peace. The Arabs should have and should be expelled from Israel, from Judea, from the Yesha. Hard problems call for hard solutions. Im sorry but that is the only way I see out. Screw the Arabs, they lost, they support their terrorist brethren including Al-Qaeda, let them take their own people in. I am sick of traitors including Sharon caving into this defeatist, traitorous deluded thinking that giving up land automatically gives us peace. Let Israel kill those who kills its citizens. How can we let these heretics who pervert our faith occupy the holy Temple, with their obscene Dome of the Rock? over 800,000 Jews were EXPELLED from the Arab world from 1948 on. Do we ask for the Arabs to compensate them? Of course not. Israel is ours, we won it, they lost, thats the reality. Israel has nukes, they dare to attack us we should not hesitate to use them. If you pretend that Israel is based on a secular Judaism, you are sorely mistaken. The whole land of Israel is needed for it to grow, not just because of the historically Jewish sites and the significance of these and the fact that Jews have always lived in the land of Israel and Judah, but also because strategically speaking, Israel would be protected from an Arab army splitting the country in two if God forbid they attack us again. Your magazine and its left wing in the clouds writers and editors are secular fools who think you can actually negotiate with murderers. It sickens me that fellow Jews are anti-Zionist and collaborate openly and actively with the enemy. Are these heretics, because lets face it, Christians and Muslims basically stole our religion and developed their heretical perverted doctine from us. Whether they hate us or support Israel, like those right wing nutjob Christians who support Israel because in their mistaken heretical beliefs Israel somehow figures in their insane theology that in the end of course the Jews go to hell. A bunch of lunatic bastards who gall me with their heresy and polytheistic blasphemy. How will you answer to Jews and people of common sense, to God, your spineless, good intentioned yet impractical view and tactics. Israel has been unified, let us expel the Arabs who will not accept Israel. Two peoples who cannot live in peace side by side have to be separated, the Arabs must go.

David ben Yaacov

Rabbi Lerner responds:

Every day I pray that you and people who share your perspective will someday come to realize that those of us who believe that Israel’s best interests for survival and peace lies with an open-hearted reconciliation with the Palestinian people are actually as much concerned about serving God, Judaism and the Jewish people as you. I hope that you’ll read my book Healing Israel/Palestine to see how one can understand the facts differently than you do. Meanwhile, I pray that your fervent energy will be directed toward building more love between and among peoples so that God’s house can become a house of prayer for all peoples!


Question:

How do you respond to the ADL’s attacks on Senator Byrd’s comparison of Senator Frist’s “nuclear option” regarding judicial confirmations to the lack of meaningful legislative process in Nazi Germany? Has the ADL in your view lost credibility as a civil rights organization since 9/11?

Greg Rowe

Rabbi Lerner responds:

The ADL lost most of it credibility in my eyes as a civil rights organization when it began to identify criticisms of Israel with anti-Semitism, still more when it failed to defend me when I was receiving threats to my life from right-wing Jewish groups because of my critique of Israeli policy toward Palestinians (it said that these were not threats that came from my being Jewish, so therefore they were not within their area of concern). However, I think Byrd’s comparison was over-the-top and illegitimate. There was no serious dissent possible in Nazi Germany, and there is serious dissent possible, both within and outside the US Congress today, so Byrd made a stupid mistake in using the Nazi-analogy to make a criticism that was in its essence totally on target. When people use the Nazis analogy they set themselves up for this kind of attack, allowing the substance of what they say to be totally missed.


Question:

Most religions seem to imply that their is order and reason which guide the events of the world: God’s wll or karma for example. The recent tragedies in South and Southeast Asia for me exemplify a problem I have with these ideas in religions of rhyme and reason. To me, the tsunamis and a range of other unfair things in the world make these notions of order and reason very problematic and unacceptable. To me, it seems to iimply that people are deserving of their horrid fates, which I cannot toleratle. If this is misguided and misinterpretation of these concepts of order and reason, order and reason also raise the questions: why not me? Why was i born here and not there? Why not a Tutsi in Rwanda?Why not in Botswana with a life expectancy of 30? Why was I not hit by a car today when someone else was? The suffering of others and this big questions about how the wolrd works brings a tremendous sense of guilt and confusion for being alive and having my family alive. Order seems disgusting and evil, while a certain amount of randomness beyond cause and effect we can feel and touch, though sad, seems more likely to me. My big, probobly unanswerable question is: How do you, or the Tikkun community understand such events? I know in a book of yours to talk of these concepts being used by those in power to uphold inequality and opression. But what decides who lives and who dies and where we are born? If there is no answer how do we accept that there isn’t and not be overwhelmed and paralyzed by these thoughts? Thank you for opening yourself up for questions. It is much appreciated.

Ian Stuart
Email: istuart@berkeley.edu

Rabbi Lerner’s Answer:

I don’t know. I think that whatever else I say below, I want to start with the fact that I do not know, that there is a limitation of knowledge and understanding built into being a human being at this stage in the develoment of the consciousness of the universe. I was not there when the foundations of the universe were being put together-and that is a point that was made to Job long ago when he similarly questioned the way the universe works.

Having said that, I want to consider several lines of possible response, as long as you understand that I know that these are NOT ANSWERS but only responses to the question as you pose it.

1. I’ll start with a response I have less sympathy with, but which I cannot rule out. The tectonic moves of the earth are part of a totally integrated moral system that has been in place since the earth began to evolve. That moral system, described by the Bible, tells us that the physical world will be unable to function in a peaceful and gentle way until the moral/spiritual dimension manifest in the behavior of God’s creatures coheres with God’s will: that is, is filled with justice, peace, generosity and kindness. The earth is a biological/ethical/spiritual unity, and its functioning is in accord with its aspirations toward consciousness, love, enviromental sensitivity, generosity, and social justice but when there are contradictions or constraints in the development of love, consciousness, environmental sensitivity, social justice, and generosity then there is a malfunction which eventually manifests in physical disorders, whether they be disease or whether they be earthquakes or tornadoes or floods or other disruptions of nature. This is basically the point of the Bible’s account of the plagues facing Egypt, but now working on a global level. As the Torah makes clear, this karmic order doesn’t happen on a one-to-one basis: i.e. it isn’t as if everyone who suffered in the plagues of Egypt was directly responsible for the enslavement and oppression of Jewish slaves, and the Torah’s claim that if we do not create a society based on love, kindness, generosity, justice and peace we will face ecological disaster is not a claim that each person who suffers from ths disaster will be equally responsible for the moral disorder that generated the ecological crisis. But what the Torah is implying is this: there is noone alive on the planet who doesn’t have some part of the responsibility for the craziness that manifests in lack of justice, kindness, generosity, peace and love. We are all ONE, and that means the totality of the moral craziness is our collective responsibility, and the environmental dysfunction that that moral craziness produces will eventually impact on all of us alike. Now, if you answer, “but why strike the weak in SouthEast Asia and not the strong in the US?” the answer might be, “it will happen here as well, has been happening in many ways already in the form of cancer epidemics and other environmental diseases,” but it might also be, “we are all one, and when the earth is morally dysfunctional the tectonic movement of its plates manifests all over and not in ways that we can directly correlate in a one to one relationship with who did the latest moral outrage and where.” An analogy: when we inhale and eat various environmental poisions which we ourselves created in the factories of advanced industrial societies, they may eventually cause cancer of the liver or the kidneys or the stomach. Now imagine a stomach or liver cell making the following argument: “It wasn’t me who took in this cancer-causing material, but the brain, the mouth, the hands-so it is unfair that I should be suffering when it was done by these other organs!” Well, I guess it has a case to be made, but only on the supposition that the liver cell or the kidney or stomach cell isn’t part of the same unity as the hand, brain or mouth that ingested the poison in the first place. In any event, this is the current form of the argument that there is in fact a karmic explanation for what is happening today that should alert us to the need to do immediate tikkun olam to bring the world into a lasting harmony.

2. But will there really be no earthquakes in the messianic era-the period when human beings create our institutiions based on love, generosity, environmental sensitivity, kindness, compassion for all life, social justice, non-violence nd peace? The first point above needs to claim that that is how it will be, but I’m not sure that that is true. So if it is not, then we need to reject the notion that everything that happens has a divine cause. We need not reject that there is a karmic order such as is described in point one, only that it does not explain IT DOES NOT EXPLAIN EVERYTHING. But, if it doesn’t, the questioner can legitimately ask, how do we understand the nature of God? My answer here is very tentative, because I know how very little I can possibly know about the ultimate reality of the universe. So what I say must be filled with the crude level of understanding that we humans have gotten to at this point in the evolution of consciousness. But here is what I would say: First, stop thinking of God as some big man up in heaven sitting there and making individual judgments about who shall live and who shall die, where he should put a tsunami and where he should put a beautiful sunset. Instead, understand God as THE FORCE OF HEALING AND TRANSFORMATION IN THE UNIVERSE, the aspect of the universe that is the source of love, kindness, generosity, social justice, peace and evolving consciousness, and that this aspect of the universe permeates every ounce of being, every cell, and unifies all being as it moves the beiing of the universe toward greater and greater levels of love and connection and consciousness, and makes possible the transcending of that which is toward that which ought to be. Seen this way, God is not the all-powerful being that determines every moment of creation, but rather the part of creation aspiring toward love, kindness, generosity, peace, and social justice which is evolving toward greater power to shape our common destiny to the extent that we choose to embody it more fully. Heresy, you say? Only if your conception of God derives from a Greek notion of the All-Knowing, All Powerful Unmoved Mover-a conception which at times has seeped into and shaped medieval theologies of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, but which isn’t the only possible way to understand God. If, on the other hand, we take our cues from parts of Torah that think of God as bemoaning the choices that human beings made, even at times thinking that maybe S/He made a mistake in creating humans, or as weeping over the consequences of Diaspora (Shechina, the Divine presence, going into Exile with the Jews according to one midrash), or as sufferiing from the consequences of human choices, or the Christian vision of God as needing to suffer on the Cross, then you get a different and more vulnerable vision of God, one more in accord with the notion of God not as the one responsible for everything that happens, but as an emerging voice of compassion and love in the midst of a world not totally under His/Her control.In that case, and this conception aligns more closely to what I understand with my limited understanding, God is joining us in mourning for the victims of the Tsunami, not its cause. Or, to put it another way, God is the part of Being (including the part of us) that is yearning for a world in which this kind of suffering will be diminished and in which those parts of the suffering that can’t be stopped will be accompanied by responses of generosity and kindness.


Question:

Since college, I have ceased to believe in god, but I would like to participate in a few holiday services a year at my temple. My mother says that my presence (based on my beliefs) is worthless and could be an offense to members of the congregation who are deeply religious. (Keep in mind that this is a reform synagogue, unlike my conservative one back home.) I think she is just hurt, and striking back. She says that I should sit down with the Rabbi and explain my new beliefs, but I do not feel that is necessary. Furthermore, I am currently trying to gain admission to medical school, and I mentioned that I would like to practice volunteer medicine for at least a year in Israel when I finish my medical education. She said that I shouldn’t bother. (!!!) I am Jewish, and I want to be with my people, support Israel, and participate in our cultural traditions. Is that so bad? Should I listen to my mother?

Sarah

Rabbi Lerner’s Answer:

Lets separate out the issues.

First, which particular conception of God don’t you believe in? Have you ever read my book Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation, and the books of other progressive spiritual mystics (Arthur Green, Arthur Waskow, Zalman Schachter Shalomi)? I can’t accept on face value that you don’t believe in God-because many of us don’t believe in the God that we were taught about as kids, but have found a radically different conception with deep roots in the Jewish mystical tradition which was absent in most synagogues.

Second, I think you have every right to find your own path to connection with your people and with a faith community. I invite you to come to Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco for High Holidays (you can get the information on how to register at www.BeytTikkun.org). But perhaps you can find something closer to home.

Third, I do think that your mother also has a right to find her own path, and if she is made uncomfortable by your presence in her religious community, I’d urge you to respect her feelings and find instead another community with whom to pray.

Fourth, I wouldn’t worry about having your opposition to God be a factor in not letting you practice volunteer medicine. Israel is a mostly secular society and Jewishness by their criteria is not a matter of belief or religious practice (except in matters of birth, marriage and divorce) but of racial heritage and birth. It is really not a society geared to spiritual or religious values. I’m glad you’d like to support Israel-and I hope when you are there you will also provide services to the Palestinian people who are currently suffering and in need of medical care as a result of Israel’s oppressive Occupation. Serving your own people can best be done by serving others as well (though not in place of also serving our own people).


Question:

I really want to support gay and lesbian right to marry but I do not agree with the promiscus sexual lifestyle and behavior that many of my friends have who are gay. I am the same way about hetrosexual promiscuity. I am really struggling with this because marriage is more than about love; its about commitment and honor to each other.

From Michael Freeman
michai@earthlink.net

Rabbi Lerner’s Answer:

The point of gay and lesbian marriage is to provide a societal support for precisely the kind of commitment and honoring which you support. There was a time when radical gay activists attacked me personally because of my call for a progressive pro-families movement even though I included support for gay and lesbian families. In the late 1970s and early 1980s there were some who argued that gay liberation included breaking down patriarchal lifestyles, and they included family life as one such patriarchal institution. Though that extremism was particularly helpful to the Right, allowing it to portray all gays and lesbians as wrecklessly promiscuous, the gay and lesbian community today has evolved away from support for that perspective, and the call for gay and lesbian marriage is in part a support for a much more committed lifestyle. Like heterosexuals, gays and lesbians in marriages may fall out of love, or may fall for others while in love. The question of monogamy is quite different from that of promiscuity-the Biblical Abraham had both Sarah and Hagar, Jacob had Leah and Rachel and Zilpah and Bilhah, and the ban on more than one wife at a time was only formalized in Judaism in the Middle Ages. You may not want to follow the path of Biblical patriarchs, but noone thinks of them as promiscuous. But bathhouse sex, with its anonymity and lack of commitment, not only spread AIDS but also spread an infectious lack of respect for the other. That approach is the polar opposite of the honoring of commitment that is meant to be the essence of gay and lesbian marriage.


Rabbi Michael Lerner is the chair of the Tikkun Community and editor of Tikkun Magazine and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco and Berkeley California.

We have set up this forum to allow subscribers to Tikkun magazine and Members of The Tikkun Community to ask him questions that you feel are not answered inside the magazine or on this website. For many years people requested some such forum inside the magazine, but we feared that in doing so we might convey the message that we treated Rabbi Lerner as our guru. There are people who try to dismiss our entire community by saying “oh, that’s just Michael Lerner.” But as our Community has over 5,000 current members, and we now have had over 1500 different authors write articles for Tikkun Magazine, many of them articulating positions very different from those articulated by our editor, we’ve come to believe that creating this feature on our web page is not meant to elevate Rabbi Lerner’s status beyond that which has been given to him by many others in the past-that of an amazingly profound, deep and creative teacher whose insights have become a major source of inspiration for the Tikkun Community and whose courage in taking personal risks to stand up publicly for our shared beliefs, often at the expense of facing abuse and public distortions of his positions, generates from us much appreciation and much respect. We think you’ll share those feelings if you take the time to read Rabbi Lerner’s books, particularly Spirit Matters: Global Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul and Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation.

Four other caveats: 1. Our community is not just for Jews, and we think that Rabbi Lerner’s teachings are of universal significance. So please don’t feel constrained to ask your questions if you are not Jewish or if you are Jewish but have no relationship to Judaism. 2. We get hundreds of emails every day, and so we will select only a handful of those sent to us to ask Rabbi Lerner to answer (and we will avoid answering questions that are already answered elsewhere on this website, so please please please read the following sections of the website before submitting a question: the Core Vision, and then look down the blue column on the extreme left side of the website to see if the issues you want to discuss are already discussed in one of the areas listed there, and if it is, read it, and formulate your question in a way that reflects that you are familiar with what is already said about that issue on the website). 3. Because Rabbi Lerner is already stretched time wise beyond reasonable limits, the responses to your questions may come weeks after you’ve sent them to him. So please keep checking here. Include at the end of your question your email and phone numbers, which we will keep, but will not put on the website should we choose to answer your question. 4. If we choose to answer your question online, we may choose to edit it for style, grammar, spelling, and/or length.

Have you got a question for Rabbi Michael Lerner? Click here to visit his Ask the Rabbi page.

 
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