Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Facing the Wilderness

[For the Ner Shalom Malakh, June 2009]

As I write this, it is May 26 and I am, it seems, still married in the State of California, a member of one of 18,000 clever, or lucky, or merely bewildered same-sex couples. This is a fascinating turn of events, in which an important civil right (marriage), once inconceivable, became conceivable, then statutorily withheld, then constitutionally interpreted into reality, then snuffed out again by vote of a simple majority.

California will come around, I think; it probably already has since last year's Prop 8 vote. Same-sex couples who have just met, or who haven't met yet, or who are still nervous abotu commitment will someday reasonably soon, I suspect, be able to marry (for better or for worse).

But there's another scary element of this week's California Supreme Court decision that we should note. For the first time in California history, a simple majority of voters was allowed to explicitly take away a constitutional right (even if newly recognized) from an unpopular minority. As Jews this should worry us plenty.

As Americans, we take for granted our Constitutional rights despite seeing them get chipped away as quickly as they are articulated. We take comfort that here minorities are protected from the tyranny of the majority through our federal and state constitutions. But in California, as of this week, anyone is fair game. Jews of course have long experience with such vagaries. In every country we've wandered into we've had Golden Ages and we've had our rights removed by whim. It shouldn't surprise us.

So how do we handle new situations like this? How do we remain calm but poised? I think there is a nice hint in the first parashah of Bamidbar - the Book of Numbers, that we began reading last week. Bamidbar means "in the wilderness" and that's where the book opens. The Children of Israel are in the wilderness - a landscape without landmarks - and God commands them to take a census, by tribe and clan, of all the battle-ready men. This always struck me as an odd story - census taking in an unknown and potentially dangerous setting.

But now I look at it this way. Every moment is wilderness. The future carries no landmarks. We don't know what it will bring, but it keeps arriving at our doorsteps without pause. So when facing the new and unknown, take a census. Count your strengths. What are your special skills? Your talents? Your gifts? What have you gotten from your ancestral house? Does your DNA permit you to do some things others can't? What have you learned from your non-biological ancestors - the people who taught you and loved you and do so still? Do you make music or poetry? Are you good with numbers or with your hands or with children? Are you a good talker? Are you a good listener? Are you a good organizer?

So when facing the unknown, figure out what you do know. In a landscape without landmarks, become the landmark. Remember your strengths. Count them, so that you can count on them, and so that we can count on each other. Sure, every new moment carries risk. But let us approach the wilderness with our banners high, like the Children of Israel in the Sinai Desert or the Plains of Moab. May we know who we are, and let no one tell us otherwise.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Parashat Kedoshim: The Mirror

[For Congregation Ner Shalom, May 1, 2009.]

What do you see when you look in a mirror? What do you see when you think about seeing your “self”?

This week’s Torah portion poses, without answering, some challenging questions of how we see ourselves. “You are like God,” Torah says. But before you get too excited about that, you are also like the person in your life who bugs you the most. Torah says that too.

Both these identifications are uncomfortable; both unnatural. Like looking in a three-way mirror at a clothing store and seeing the back of your head. You know it’s yours, but you don’t feel it.

The parashah is Kedoshim, which means, of course, “holy.” Typically in Judaism we apply the quality of holiness with some restraint. God is holy (“holy holy holy,” in fact). And time – Shabbat, for instance. But we rarely ascribe holiness to a person, no matter how righteous they seem.

But this week’s bit of Torah does just that. It opens holiness up to the masses, democratizing it. It presents a series of mitzvot, and implies that by following them, we can all be holy.

The commandments? You’ve heard them before. No placing stumbling blocks before the blind. No insulting the deaf. Leave some of your harvest for the poor. Deal fairly with disputants when passing judgment. Rise before the aged. No cheating in business. No false measures. Be kind to the stranger.

These are good commandments. Signature ones. Commandments that have become axiomatic and which speak to values that we, as moderns, as progressives, as Jews, can be proud of.

But it’s not 100% clear that the relationship between following these mitzvot and “holiness” is causal; i.e. that one's holiness results from engaging in these good acts. At the opening of the parashah (Leviticus 19:2), right before launching into these commandments, God says:

קדושים תהיו כי קדוש אני
Kedoshim tihyu ki kadosh ani.

This might be a future tense: “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”

Or it might be imperative: “Be holy! (I am.)”

Or it could be a statement of present fact: “You are holy, because I am.”

If this last, then the association of humankind with holiness is not the product of following these particular commandments, but grows independently out of some identification with God. This is not an unreasonable reading. It hearkens back to Genesis where it says we were created in God’s image. If we follow that reasoning, and indeed holiness is part of God’s image, then we are hardwired for holiness, engineered to be Godlike.

-Nu? How are you today?
-Godlike, thank you. You?
-Same. Like always. Thanks.

Take a moment and close your eyes and imagine being like God, whatever you imagine that might be like.

No really, do it.

Did it feel good? Scary? Weird? I would guess it depends on how you imagine God, if you imagine God. If you are working with an idea of God as separate from you, big, powerful, perhaps benevolent, it might be hard to maintain the identification. We often feel powerless. And we all sometimes feel, well, less than benevolent. Or if you do for a moment feel “like God” in some way, you might then feel vain or embarrassed, and end up wondering how an emotion like vanity (or embarrassment) squares with being Godlike.

It might be easier to hold the identification if your idea of God is less personality-based and more of, say, God as the Universal Xi – the energy that flows through and fuels the Cosmos. But even then, if I were to look in the mirror, searching for the Holiness of God, I don’t know if I would see it.

And yet Torah tells me to see it. You are holy, because I am.

Imagining our likeness to God through the quality of holiness is awkward and uncomfortable and riddled with doubt for most of us. Maybe we just don’t want to look in that mirror; we don’t want to be measured against godly standards.

Perhaps we are, in fact, better off understanding this phrase kifshuto, i.e. in the simple way in which it’s commonly interpreted. The commandments here are instructions to help us achieve holiness, and God’s utterance, “kedoshim tihyu,” is, in fact, a challenge, not an observation. “Do these things in order to be holy; do these things to be like me.”

Maybe holiness is merely an embodiment of the kindnesses and justice that these laws set in motion. And maybe that is what God is – the sum total of kindness and justice unleashed upon a world that doesn’t clearly require it for survival.

Kedoshim tihyu ki kadosh ani.

Be holy and by those acts I, holy, am.

The parashah calls upon us to make one other important identification. In Verse 18 we have a famous commandment:

ואהבת לרעך כמוך
V’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha.

Love your fellow as yourself.

This is a very odd commandment, a commandment to love someone. Not just someone, but everyone. Our sages did not understand this mitzvah as being meant literally. Their view was that it is impossible actually to love anyone else as much as you love yourself; in fact, under Jewish law, your life takes precedence over another person’s. And how could you love another in the particular way, with the depth and specificity, that you love yourself?

Instead, some suggested that kamocha – as yourself – might best be read not as an adverb describing how you should love, but rather as an adjective, describing your fellow. In other words: “love your neighbor who is like yourself.”

Seeing similarities between one’s self and other people can be fun in a limited way. Think of being in a new relationship. “We have so much in common! We finish each other’s sentences.”

But seeing similarities between you and those you love is natural. It hardly needs to be commanded. It’s seeing the similarities to those you don’t love that is growthful and difficult and holy and that is commanded here.

Close your eyes again. Imagine someone in your life who makes you uncomfortable.

Really, do it.

Imagine someone who bugs you. It should be easy to think of who that is. Breathe deep and see the ways in which you’re alike. You’re both stuck inside bodies that work sometimes and not other times. You both get hungry. You both worry. You both want appreciation. You both want love. You may have different tools and skills and talents to get what you want and need, for sure. But you both want and need.

So take a moment, in your heart, and love that person. Because that person is so much more like you than you’d like to admit.

V’ahavta l’re’acha kamocha. Love your fellow, because your fellow is like you.

And if this person is like you, and you are like God, isn’t this person Godlike too? That’s a hard one. Take a moment and set aside your grievances and your annoyance. Look at that person with love. Can you see their holinesss? Can you see God in them too?

So there you are, back in the three-way mirror. Look at your face in the mirror on the left. It is God’s face. Be brave and look. Then look at your face in the mirror on the right. It is the person who is so hard for you. Go ahead and cut them – and yourself – some slack. And look at your face straight ahead, and feel them both in you.

Kedoshim tihyu. You are holy.