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CHRISTIANITY WITHOUT THE CROSS
I was sad when I read the letter from Lawrence Swaim who seemed to characterize Christianity in America, in fact all organized religion, by “The hijacking of mainstream Protestantism by conservative evangelicalism and the suppression of social-justice Catholicism by Republican bishops…”
Where, I thought, does my little Episcopal Church in Penn Yan, NY, fit in — along with the Methodist Church in town, the Baptist Church in town and the Roman Catholic Church in town, all of whom do our best — in a poor and rural area — to live out Jesus’ teachings on compassion and justice? Tomorrow I will go to church for our weekly study group which is reading and discussing “The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto” by Tavis Smiley and Cornell West. This type of study informs many things we do including personal political action of members, a weekly peace vigil on a busy street corner, fund raising for projects in Africa and Haiti and a Closet of Hope providing fashionable clothing for women in transition. The Baptist Church hosts a Food Bank and a Backpack Program which provides weekend lunches for school children who get lunches in school during the week. Just a few examples.
If Mr. Swaim, and others, should think “Oh, well, that is exception” they should re-think. There are millions of such “exceptions.” It is counter-productive to these efforts to think that only trends that make headlines count. Mr. Swaim, and others, might benefit from looking around their own towns to see all the wonderful works that are being done by churches.
Lawrence Swaim responds:
Thanks for your very thoughtful and challenging letter. The spirituality that is so necessary to my survival is all about the gift of relationships—and sometimes the best gift is from strangers who care enough about something I’ve written to share their feelings and thoughts. What a blessing that is!
Yes, the best teachings of religion are often acted out in local communities, and not in the mega-history that nihilistic headlines reflect and try unsuccessfully to capture. The mainstream Protestant churches, not to mention American Catholicism, have been pivotal in forming American concepts of progressivism and social justice. There would have been no antislavery movement without Christian abolitionists (some of whom I am descended from), and no trade unions without the progressive teachings of social-justice Catholicism—and I could give many other examples of social progressivism that arose directly from American religion. Christians in mainstream Protestant churches are increasingly willing to offer fearless witness for justice—in Israel/Palestine, in the search for racial and economic justice, and against Islamophobia. It’s important to acknowledge this because progressive people of faith are so often criticized both by the secular Left on the one hand and by the Religious Right on the other.
In the Napa Valley, where I live in California, we have more than once seen the positive influence of Christian witnessing for basic social justice. The entire economic infrastructure of the county is based on the hard work—and the skills—of the farm workers who pick our grapes, mainly Mexican men from the state of Michoacan. Father John Brenkle, a priest at St. Helena Catholic Church who is now retired, was for many years outspoken in his defense of farm-workers’ rights and immigration reform. It was he who stood up at a St. Helena city council meeting to declare, “If we do not provide proper housing for our farm-workers, it is tantamount to economic apartheid!” The local politicians were a bit shocked at hearing truth being spoken to power in that uncompromising manner, but they had to listen, because Father Brenkle came from an old and honored faith tradition. When he talked, people listened—and acted.
Yet what is one to do about the survey of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that revealed that 62 percent of white evangelicals in America believe that torture is often or sometimes justified, a much higher percentage than Americans in general? And then there is the Religious Right in the state of Kansas, where I was raised, which uses its base in the conservative evangelical churches to justify the most blatantly racist kind of voter suppression. It appears, I’m sorry to say, that by far the most numerous Christians in the US today are people who call themselves evangelicals, and—as the Pew survey showed—a majority of them are extremely conservative. They have become increasingly powerful in the South and the Middle West, and are the most consistent cultural constituency in the increasingly right-wing Republican base.
How do I confront these immense changes in American religion? I choose to be a ‘prophetic intellectual,’ using whatever gifts as a writer I may possess to address this problem. I also write about those religious premises that need to be re-examined. Faced with social problems that seem to arise too quickly for the mind to comprehend them, religion and spirituality can become frivolously trendy, on the one hand, or on the other embrace power in return for supporting war, torture and economic oppression. Remember how Christianity supported anti-Semitism in one form or another for so many centuries? Christianity has demonstrated a historic tendency to be emotionally and culturally supportive of systemic evil. This bonds religion to dark and sadistic forces that seek human oppression, just as Constantine turned Christianity into an imperial state church for his corrupt political benefit. My response is to embrace a progressive Christian spirituality that can reexamine basic premises of Abrahamic religion while celebrating its prophetic tradition.
Religion was once both able to describe and redeem evil, but it has lost its ability to do so. Yet evil exists, and when it is generated and concealed by the state it becomes systemic evil. Humanity saw it in the politics of such violent tyrants as Stalin and Hitler, and in the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides; in one form or another, systemic evil continues to be the great moral problem of our time. (Think of rapid climate change generated by an addiction to industrial profit, the approaching genocide against gay people in Central Africa, and geopolitical power defined entirely by a nation’s possession of nuclear weapons of mass destruction.) I seek a spirituality that can describe evil as a behavioral system, as I have tried to do in my book Trauma Bond: An Inquiry into the Nature of Evil. Ultimately I see systemic evil arising from a society-wide addictive disorder animated by traumatic memory. We must find new ways to transform the human personality, with spirituality as one component.
In the South and the Middle West, the majority of conservative evangelicals have convictions that have much more to do with the rabid talk shows of AM Hate Radio than with the compassionate and revolutionary message of Jesus. What the conservative evangelicals want, as do others in the right-wing Republican base, is short-term political power to make up for their long-term loss of cultural influence. To do this, they use veiled neo-Confederate rhetoric to promote ideas they call conservative, but which are really more of an indigenous American neo-fascism. Some have embraced a kind of Christian Zionism that openly promotes Islamophobia and religious war. The question is, how much damage can ultra-conservative religion do to America in the short term? Certainly it is doing a great deal to discredit Christianity among the young. My response is to write about it, as directly and as vividly as I can, to give witness of the enormous cultural and spiritual danger it represents to American religion—and to American democracy.
Your little Episcopal Church in Yates County sounds beautiful, as does the village of Penn Yan itself. (The name, I am told, arises from a conflation of the words “Pennsylvania” and “Yankee.”) The gradual influx of Mennonite and Amish families there must have added to the religious diversity of the county, and enhanced its already historical flavor. Wherever I go, I love to visit such small churches, Episcopalian most of all. The reason is simple: I love Anglican liturgy, thought and culture, and have spent some of the happiest hours of my life in such churches. But tell me honestly, Joan, would I not be betraying whatever gifts God has given me if I did not use that gift to denounce evil as I see it? That I also need to do so more thoughtfully at times, and do it more in love than in anger, the present writer would hasten to agree.
I read with interest Dr. Ron Feldman’s essay “Sleeping in the Dust at Burning Man” (summer 2013)–contrasting it, inevitably, with my 2011 Burning Man experience, reported in Tikkun (summer 2012).
I share Dr. Feldman’s passion for “participation, community, art, and shared immediacy,” and the implication throughout his essay that in taking measure of Burning Man one should be careful not to sacrifice the good for the perfect.
At the same time, his essay took me back to Calcutta/Kolkata in 2003, when I attended Durga Puja, the city’s greatest festival.
Durga Puja takes the form of hundreds, possibly thousands of pujas (altars, i.e., sites of worship) consecrated to the city’s patroness, the many-armed goddess Durga. Just as the Christian crèche, though it varies in execution, always features certain figures (the Virgin, Joseph the carpenter, the ox and lamb, the baby Jesus in the manger, hovering angels), every puja features statues of Durga riding her lion, brandishing a weapon in each of her eight arms, accompanied by her four children as she defeats her nemesis, the evil demon Durgo, always present in the form of a blue water buffalo. Every tableau enacts the same scene, but in execution they vary as wildly as the human imagination. In 2003 I visited a fraction of Calcutta’s pujas—visiting them all would be impossible. I saw a Muhammad Ali puja, a Statue of Liberty puja, a village farm scene puja, a puja woven entirely from jute, a puja built entirely from snail shells . . . In scale these range from the size of a small house to the size of a palace—a city-wide festival, in other words, on the scale of Burning Man.
The poorest caste of the city spends the year making the tableaux sculptures from the clay of the nearby Hoogly, the branch of the Ganges that flows by Calcutta. On the tenth and last day of the festival, the city pours into the streets. The tableaux are taken from their settings and borne to the Hoogly on the shoulders of the celebrants. There they are set afloat on rafts, to drift into the current. Within minutes the clay statues have dissolved, back into the river from whence they came.
And this is my point: This fantastic festival—this extraordinary celebration of “participation, community, art, and shared immediacy”—is a community effort. It takes place amid the neighborhoods and streets and markets. Funds for the construction of each neighborhood’s puja are collected in door-to-door campaigns. The pujas are free and open to all, 24/7. They are constructed using the infinitely renewable energy of human sweat and imagination. Their materials come from and return to the landscape of the festival itself.
Judging from photographs, the “Man” of the 2013 Festival was the biggest burn ever. But in looking at those photographs, in hearing the Burners’ eyewitness accounts, in reading Dr. Feldman’s essay, I find myself thinking back to Durga Puja. The dissimilarities between cultures could not be greater, of course, and yet: what does it say about Anglo communities and the “default world” that we have built that we must so aggressively dislocate ourselves from it, from our landscape and neighborhoods, our spiritual traditions and their imageries, to act out and give voice to this most elemental of desires: our desire for union—communion—our desire for God?
WAR IN SYRIA
As the war drums and the media and war machine ramp up for Syria, I question the potency of immediate opposition to US involvement there. I wonder how many in the peace community rushed to judgment on the issue, calling for an immediate halt to all war-directed energies. It seems as if many of my hard-scrabble peacemaking friends are acting out ideological or categorical opposition to US involvement in the Syrian conflict, and not exercising the kind of prophetic spiritual discernment described in scripture.
Ten years ago this month I left my home to join the army and fight in Iraq over many similar objections. More recently, I spoke as a veteran to two university history classes about war in Homer’s Iliad. Not long before that, a pacifist college friend of mine from a peace faith tradition told a group of students, “everyone who goes off to war is lost to evil.”
In my mind these two attitudes — one of categorical opposition to involvement in conflict and the other of writing off those who participate in conflict — are irrevocably bound together. Who is to say that there may not exist, in some Star Trek future, a purely defensive weaponry that only engages in preventative violence when deployed by neutral observers? Who is to say that the God of Peace cannot redeem what seems lost to violence?
I would posit that in fact the violence of scriptures presents us with a lesson overlooked. Do not the prophets proclaiming peace (or the historical John the Baptist) teach us to reject categorical thinking, especially in terms of the veteran victims of war? In this sense, isn’t the collective story of God’s people that of a veteran suffering from “moral injury” and PTSD?
The more I study scripture and veterans, the more I am drawn to the idea that PTSD is a gift from God of which we have yet to realize the true nature. I believe that PTSD is an existential problem within the context of civilization. True horror, in the Colonel Kurtz sense, is not seeing the violence of war and death; rather the most horrifying experience is the realization that war and death are actually the superstructure on which human institutions have been built since the Fall of Man. Was Cain not a victim of moral injury, forced to live a nomadic life of insecurity? Was Abraham’s flight from the city not unlike that of a traumatized veteran “headed to the hills?” Is God’s main problem with Jerusalem not its reliance on social, economic, and military violence?
The value of PTSD and moral injury lies in its transformative potential. It prods us on to what US veteran Ralph Ellison called the “salve of philosophy.” More importantly, it exists as an experiential tool in the discernment of moral goodness, especially in questions like those of present-day Syria: What constitutes an atrocity? What constitutes an army? It is the peace-loving, self-disciplined veteran, if he exists, who is best-equipped to judge such things. Like Gandhi.
I therefore believe that all war matters be turned over to Veterans for Peace, for implementation of the kind of discernment that such a statement implies.
—Evan M. Knappenberger
Dear Rabbi Lerner, I heard you on Lila Garrett’s show on KPFK this morning. You were calling for all sorts of measures against Syria for the use of chemical weapons. I was wondering, did you call for the same measures against Israel for using white Phosphorus during the Gaza massacre in 2008? Did you call for the same measures against Israel for bombing the hell out of Lebanon and leaving thousands of cluster bombs there a couple of years before that? Do you call for the same measures against Israel for decades of illegal occupation and an apartheid system in Palestine? The reason why I ask these questions is because I am subscribed to your Tikkun newsletter, and I have never heard you talk about Israel in the same voice as you do Syria, Iran, or any other Islamic country.
It is so easy to question the United States on its moral standing vis-à-vis Syria. But a little introspection goes a long way towards the cure for hypocrisy!
Rabbi Lerner responds:
The Syrian conflict has created over two million refugees and hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries. The Obama Administration rejoiced when it thought it achieved elimination of chemical weapons from Syria, but that agreement allowed the West to turn its head from the ongoing slaughter perpetrated by both sides, so we still want an intervention by the international community (though not led by the United States). When Israel caused the death of one thousand six hundred Palestinians in Gaza, we took a full page ad in the New York Times calling for the international community to intervene and stop the slaughter and to use that moment to impose a peaceful solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict which appears again in the Winter 2014 issue of Tikkun and in my 2012 book Embracing Israel/Palestine.
THE SPIRITUAL TRUTH OF JFK
I have been a subscriber to Tikkun‘s email listserv for a long time. Most of what you write is a very important counterweight to the war mongerers among the power elite, especially on Israel. This time you have, to me, gone to far in an unfortunate direction. I’m afraid that the editor has made a tremendous mistake in reprinting Gabel’s article lauding Olive Stone’s movie JFK as being a laudable effort to open up American culture to the liberating Kennedyesque 60s cultural shift by creating a “counter myth” to the “myth” created by the Warren commission to “nail down the repressive culture of the 50s” before it all got out of hand. The key sentence is this: “It doesn’t really matter who killed Kennedy”. Au contraire! It matters tremendously who killed Kennedy. The enormous outpouring of paranoid conspiracy theories which followed the assassination has led to a level of cynicism and distrust of government since the event. I would argue that Oliver Stone did a tremendous disservice with JFK, adding to that cynicism and alienation. If you want the final word on the “reality” behind the assassination, read Vincent Bugliosi’s 1,600 page book on the subject, or, if that is too much, read Posner’s “Case Closed”. They may be less hip on the psycho-social, cultural analysis, but they are much better on the facts. It does very much matter who killed JFK.
Sausalito, California, and La Paz, Mexico
Peter Gabel Responds:
The critical point of my essay is to understand the psycho-historical dynamics that give meaning to the Kennedy assassination and learning to use this type of analysis as a way of understanding what is happening in the world more generally. My emphasis is on the meaning of the assassination itself as a traumatic disruption of a longing, a hope for a more idealistic world, the opening up of desire that JFK was able to manifest, and also the meaning of the violent counter-reaction to him by the inherited “system” of the denial of that desire that was cemented in the fear-saturated culture of the McCarthyist, organization-man world of the 1950s.
Social dynamics of a very powerful kind led to the death of JFK whether Oswald shot him alone or whether a group was involved. The same is true of the murders of Martin Luther King and in my opinion Bobby Kennedy, which also occurred because of the enormous conflicts generated by the lyricism and hope elicited by these people and the movements they spoke for.
In the same vein, the rush to “keep it to a lone gunman” itself has a social meaning, the desire to prevent us from collectively seeing and recognizing the social factors as play, the conflict between the longing for a loving socially connected world and the overpowering identification that alienated humanity has with everything remaining normal within the system…that was the point of my piece and the reason for my saying the key fact is not whether it was Oswald alone or a group.
I think there is little question that Oliver stone did a great job of illuminating the social conflicts at play underlying JFK and the JFK presidency. Hardly anyone had any idea about this complex, dynamic social reality prior to his film. He deserves a lot of credit for making it (and also enduring the lasting hatred toward him that his film elicited). The upset that you feel towards his film suggests you yourself have a big stake in the warren commission being “right”—even though Bugliosi and Posner to the contrary notwithstanding, most sane people who have engaged with this subject, including bobby kennedy, suggest that it is very unclear what happened that day. Go to Oliver stone’s website and look at the facts he presents there that state the case against Oswald as the lone gunman (his published reply called “Yes There is a Cover-Up” to a September 13 Chicago Tribune article criticizing him) … my question to you is, why do you yourself feel so strongly that there is only one right answer to this murky question?
For myself I have no opinion about who really killed Kennedy. I don’t see how anyone can view the Zapruder film, when Kennedy’s head snaps backwards, and not have a doubt no matter how many supposed scientific claims are asserted that try to make this consistent with being shot from behind. But I honestly do not have an opinion. My piece is not about that. It is about what is I say in the first paragraph above, including why there was such a strong desire to wrap it up quickly behind the lone gunman. That’s very different from saying it was a conspiracy.
Roger Brindle replies:
I understand Peter is trying to make a symbolic point of the “meaning” of the Kennedy assassination. But whatever meaning you try to assign to it, you must not twist the facts. The overwhelming evidence is that Oswald shot Kennedy alone. It is maddeningly disappointing, frightening even, that such a failed personality with a cheap mail order war surplus rifle could do that, but that is what he did. Oliver Stone falsified all kinds of “facts” to fit his “counter-myth”. He did a serious disservice to history and added to the paranoia and the cynicism of our times. Unfortunately, most people today get their history from the movies. We are creatures that love a good story. Oswald makes a lousy story, so people like Oliver Stone make up stories that we like better than mere “reality”. That is a very dangerous unhinging of our culture. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, they just can’t be entitled to their own facts, or we will have lost the basis for rational debate about anything.
On television last night the NHK station came in again. The nation of Japan has been deeply moved by the tsunami, earthquake, and consequential nuclear disaster. The interviews were initiated by the efforts of a Japanese-American woman who returned to Japan to write a book about and experience the society in the wake of this tragic event. (She had lived a few years in Japan as a child).
A leader of the Buddhist priests had organized the community to heal the losses. Shinto and Christian clergy were mobilized as well but were not interviewed in this program (however, the connection for the station was lost toward the end). Prayers were presented by the monks which I recognized as in Pali (an ancient language of India spoken by the early Buddhists- same words I heard in Chiang Mai, Supanburi, and Jomtien, Thailand). One monk remained in the temple to provide support for the community despite the proximity to the power plant melt down and dangers. The monks listen deeply as the people share their pain about the events, and they help the victims talk about this pain.
In the interviews a central topic was about how “religion” holds a space for questions of the after-life. (Buddhism is not technically considered a “religion”). Buddhism and Japanese culture hold dear their ancestors, thus those who physically died are still part of everyday life, and remain important in the community. At one local the community had a cemetery for the children who died at their young age. The stone markers had been buried by the tsunami’s mud and the team with the community unearthed this site- as it had great importance. Every day they wish these children well in the next life. This seems to be an important bridge for the people to keep faith and hope in the face of tragedies and death.
—David C Lavra
This is a very powerful article by Lynice Pinkard in the Fall 2013 edition of Tikkun. I was put off by the title—suicide!—when we are threatened with death, the sixth great extinction. But then she makes clear she is talking about living more fully, not compromising with the forces of death, recognizing our complicity with the death-dealing systems we live in. We are all embedded and she is asking us to look at that and begin to address the beliefs and fears that embed us in these systems that are leading us all of the cliff. Until we address our own complicity with these systems and commit to working in solidarity with everyone to dismantle these systems by stepping out of them, delegitimizing them, creating alternatives to them, we will in fact be cooperating in collective suicide.
I have been a subscriber to Tikkun since it first began publishing the magazine and this is my first letter.
I write to express my frustration at the Lynice Pinkard article, “Revolutionary Suicide: Risking Everything to Transform Society.” I appreciate her ideas and reasons for them and was “chomping at the bit” when I reached the closing section: “What do we do?” So imagine my frustration and disappointment that her last paragraphs dealt only with what she gave up. It is not appropriate to end the article by listing what she gave up (a secure job, property) and to cite her own satisfaction in doing so.
What is missing is information on how she is living now? How does she obtain food? Shelter? Computer time to write the article? Other activities of daily life—all accomplished without money?
Perhaps this information was cut by editorial decision. Nonetheless this information is owed readers who have spent the time reading her article. Please provide it either as a response to me as a long time reader, if not to all your readers who might feel as I do. If the information was not included in her submission, perhaps Ms. Pinkard would provide it to us now.
IDENTITY POLITICS, CLASS POLITICS, AND SPIRITUAL POLITICS
The writers of the articles in the identity issue (Fall 2013) of Tikkun frequently define identity not only as an ethnic, gender or sexual orientation minority but also as an economic class identity. That is, “working class” or “poor people” constitute an identity in the same way that “Chicano”, “Jew” or “queer” does. This is especially true of Lester Spence in “Race, Class, and the Neoliberal Scourge.”
Other writers in the section such as Robert Espinoza in “Our Issues Entwine: LGBTQ Aging and Economic Justice” believe that organizing around ethnic and sexual orientation identity will facilitate the fight for economic justice for all.
Progressive organizing around economic class and ethnic identities to fight for economic and social justice has been done for well over a hundred years in many countries with varying degrees of success.
However, there is currently a major economic institution in the United States which greatly complicates the picture of the issue of “class consciousness,” which is another way of saying economic class identity. This elephant in the room hampers organizing around working class identity and makes economically progressive political action very difficult, especially among those who may actually have the motivational, psychological, educational and financial means to engage in prolonged political action.
I refer here to deferred compensation, 401k, IRA and Keough retirement accounts that now cover virtually all workers in salaried jobs and even many who are in hourly employment. These retirement accounts have taken the place of traditional pensions, which virtually no longer exist in the United States. Even federal workers no longer have traditional pensions. Social Security benefits are grossly inadequate and few people expect to live through retirement solely on Social Security.
In the deferred compensation and related retirement accounts workers invest in mutual funds which are the bundled stock of many corporations. Some of the money invested comes from the employer in many but not all cases. There is still talk about privatizing Social Security, that is, to turn it into this type of retirement account.
Workers in this “ownership society” who are now stockholders, expect to live in their retirement off these accounts which are completely dependent on the price of stocks and bonds. Yes, Corporate America still exploits the working class and poor in many ways and even as a group the workers still own only a small portion of the stock in any major corporation. However, many workers now identify with these corporations and want, indeed need, to see them make the largest profit possible.
In yesteryear Marxists called this type of thinking a “false consciousness”. In the past it may have been possible through education to enable workers to identify with other workers in a struggle against the economic oligarchy. With the dependence on stock ownership this has become impossible.
I remember that thirty-five years ago my college sociology professor told my class that although Marx wrote that the victory of working class was inevitable he wrote this only for public consumption to facilitate political organizing. In reality Marx was deeply pessimistic especially since he believed that ever expanding stock ownership would blur class lines and economic “class consciousness”. One hundred and fifty years later this has indeed come to pass.
This is why it has now become easier to organize those, such as fast food workers, who do not have access to retirement accounts, than more established workers in spite of the exploitation and inequality that even more established workers face. Unfortunately the easily replaceable fast food workers and other unskilled workers, even if they if they have a “class consciousness”, in most cases do not really have the economic clout, organizing skills, knowledge of the system or even the energy after their physically taxing jobs to make any real change. All they really do is appeal to others with more clout for sympathy for their cause.
Furthermore, even if there are workers with retirement accounts who maintain a working class identity and are concerned about growing inequality and the ever decreasing quality of life, how can they possibly be expected to fight the corporate/military/industrial/media oligarchy when their entire retirement security depends upon the profits of corporate America? Even if an individual worker were willing to live in extreme poverty in his/her old age, which is what Lynice Pinkard in “Revolutionary Suicide” implies may be necessary, he/she would be unwilling to force her/his loved ones to make such a sacrifice.
A PORTRAIT OF JEWISH AMERICANS
Here’s my response to Rami Shapiro’s web article about the Pew Report on American Jewry.
Our God will be conceived in panentheistic terms, identical to the natural universe but seen through the eyes of wonder and infused with mystery, thus transcendent. We personify the force of nature in order to love it, to be in committed relationship with it, even to both rail against it and to worshipfully submit to its ultimate power. In doing this we give it the greatest gift we have, that of our own personhood, as we remake it in our own image.
Our tradition has great wisdom about the matter of personhood, if examined historically and then re-appropriated in the post-critical context. So we understand that all our images of God are human projections, and we revel in them. We also know a lot about how to celebrate life and about human responsibility, both to one another and to the cosmos. Judaism does both celebration and responsibility extremely well.
Devotion and humility remain virtues to which we are deeply committed. We pray not because we hope someone is listening “on the other end of the line,” but in order to be fully present, with all our limitations, needs, and concerns, as we stand before the great project of existence and say: “Here I am; send me.” Yes, more silence and fewer words would be a good idea.
Building community in an age of depersonalization, commercialization, and electronic surrogates for face-to-face communication is among the greatest gifts that religious affiliation has to offer in our day. Whether in Havurah, Bet Midrash learning, around the Shabbat table, or in small groups within synagogues, such contexts will have an essential role in preserving values we hold most dear, including our most basic faith in tselem elohim, the image of God, the equally true converse of the first point I made, in an age that is not kind to such values.
The best bridge I know between our tradition and these contemporary needs is the teachings of the early Hasidic masters, as discovered by Martin Buber, Hillel Zeitlin, and others a full century ago. The urge to build this bridge is now more urgent than ever, both because of the challenges to those values and because a Judaism based on tribal and ancestral loyalty, much of it tied to the romanticized memory of “the old country,” has already slipped away. Other strategies for the creative survival of Judaism have not taken us very far.
Why Hasidism? Because it learned to use the tradition—both its myth and its ritual—(halakhah and aggadah, if you prefer) for the purpose of self-transcendence and attachment to God or to the oneness of all being. The traditional forms are retooled to serve a psychological function of stirring and embodying the two great religious emotions of love and awe. These combined, raised to a high degree, give birth to a sense of the holy, the ultimate meaning-making tool.
Whether it is the tales of the patriarchs or the detailed Talmudic discussion of some festival observance, they are all made to teach Hasidism’s great lesson: that the divine may be discovered and served in every place and every moment. Human life is saved from blandness and absurdity, lifted out of the ordinary, by this unending quest.
This focusing of religious life on devotion, transferring its primary locus of interest from the metaphysical and the legalistic to the spiritual/psychological, makes it ripe for application in an era when our primary interest in religion is in its effect on the human psyche, including the influence it has on our actions and interactions with one another. In an age when the very greatest task of all religion will be that of convincing humans to transform the quality of our relationship to the natural world, we have much to learn and to teach from the Hasidic preachers’ search for the miraculous within the ordinary, the sacred spark within the seemingly profane. The ability to appreciate phenomena that are “simply natural” as “Your miracles that are with us daily” is a gift that the Hasidic reading of both life and Torah trains us to see.
How easily we forget the holiday Shavuot—where we read the Book of Ruth. Ruth is a convert and one of the most respected women in the tradition. As Ruth said, “Your people shall be my people, your god, my God.” Why are we Jews so afraid to seek converts, why do we not offer Judaism to non-Jews? You silly people—don’t you know the more Jews the better. It is important to our Jewish future. We lost one out of every three Jews during the Holocaust and today we continue to lose about the same with assimilation. Shame on us. The only way to combat anti Semitism is thru increasing our numbers by gaining converts.
The interfaith couples I counsel see the lack of Jewish proselytizing as disrespect for them. We do not want to make the non-Jew feel as the outsider, we do not mean to promote clannishness; we do not want to affirm purity of Jewish blood, for god sake, that is what Hitler did! In fact you can become Jewish from any race or ethnicity—we just need like values—not bloodlines.
In fact, the most dynamic Jews are the converts. They are Jews by choice. I should know I married one. He loves a religion that stresses right action and values (over faith), holiness and community, love of neighbor and justice. He loves a religion that gave the world ethical monotheism, provided the first part of the Christian Bible, the Ten Commandments, universal morality, Jesus, the gospels, and much more.
You cannot reject a way of life that you do not know; this statement is meant for the Jew and non-Jew alike. Jews have survived for 3,500 years through Pharaoh, Rome, the Crusades, Chmelnitz, Hitler and Stalin, and today with secularism and intermarriage. Once you have come to me for guidance on Judaism then you may reject it—but not before. Rejection out of ignorance is unjustifiable. I have the rare ability to combine reason and spirituality. I will not allow the intermarrying Jew to jump ship without throwing a lifeline. Finding a life partner with shared values and raising Jewish children is the core to Jewish survival. Before committing to a life partner one must ask oneself if being Jewish is of any significance: How would you feel if Jews were being slaughtered for being Jewish, if Jews were in great danger, or if Jews were disappearing through assimilation. And what if your partner did not really care about any of this. How important is your Jewishness to your marriage? What about if you have children—what do you do then, or at Christmas time, or if anti-Semitism rears its ugly head.
Who you choose as a life partner has more impact on your happiness than almost any other decision in your life. Choose wisely. Marriage is difficult enough without the added stress of differing values. Come see me. I am an investment in your life. This is my spiritual promise to you.
As Herman Wouk wrote: “These people [Jews who assimilate]…are lost form Judaism, that is all; lost down a road which has swallowed many more Jews than the Hitler terror ever did. Of course they survive as persons. But from the viewpoint of an army, it makes little difference whether a division is exterminated or disperses into the hills and shucks off its uniforms.”
Rabbi Michael Lerner Responds:
Some of the most Jewishly engaged families I know began with an intermarried couple. Sometimes, after years of practicing Judaism in a rather slight way or sending their children to get bar or bat mitzvah training, partly to please their partner’s parents, the non-Jewish partner stumbles upon some of the spiritual riches of Judaism, and decides that s/he wants to know more, and takes a class or joins a spiritually alive congregation, and within a short time, it is that non-Jewish partner who is pushing the Jewish partner to a fuller engagement in Judaism. Sometimes s/he will convert, but even when s/he doesn’t, the non-Jewish partner can become the leader in building a fuller Jewish life. Of course, there are many who, when approaching the organized Jewish community, encounter the materialism, national chauvinism, and blind loyalty to whatever policies the current Israeli government is following, and these become obstacles for further involvement. Hopefully, as more people start to read Tikkun they will encounter the kind of Judaism that is more deeply allied to the love-oriented vision of God and humanity that is a different strand in Judaism, a strand that exists in every denomination of Judaism but which often gets little public attention or acknowledgment because they are drowned out by the voices of Settler Judaism (see my book Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation). So I strongly disagree with the implication of Randi Wren’s letter that Jews should worry about those Jews who are intermarrying. Moreover, there is no commandment in Torah that says: “Thou shalt be a Jew.” From my perspective, anyone who finds spiritual nourishment and a connection to the loving energy of The Force of Healing and Transformation (which I know as YHVH, but others know as Cosmic Christ, Allah, Krishna, Buddha and many other names) and who embraces a life of generosity, caring for others and caring for the earth, is serving God/dess and should be honored and not made to feel that they are betraying the Jewish people but rather fulfilling our destiny as a light unto the nations.