Archive for May, 2012

Ahhh, it’s that time of year again; time for me to struggle with that oh-so rabbinic of holidays, Shavuot.

I love the original Shavous — a holiday celebrating the first fruits and vegetables to appear in the season, and a reason to travel long distances to share one’s bounty with neighbors and priests. That’s what the holiday was all about in the Torah. It was a spring harvest holiday, the yin-yang twin of the other harvest holiday that takes place in the fall: Sukkot. On this day, the Torah tells us, people would pack up the First Fruits of their harvest and make the long pedestrian trek to Jerusalem.

Take a moment and picture what a rag-tag scene that must have been. Donkeys and babies. Food and water canteens made, I am imagining, from the bladders of animals.

Then the stodgy halachists of the rabbinic era (c 300 CE) got ahold of Shavuot. Now the holiday has become burdened with the (much later) story that Shavuot was the day that Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. It’s a nice story, a nice myth. The problem is that so many generations of Jews have turned this myth into “history.”

When a story like this becomes “history,” the inevitable question becomes who has the right (and power and authority) to interpret these Mosaic laws “given by God.” The rabbis of the rabbinic era made the holiday about the passing of law (and their right to interpret it) rather than the passing of rains and seasons. An entire system spanning 2,000 years of Jewish history has been built on the idea of rabbis declaring human laws as “coming from God.”

It’s not any different than the power-grab done by every other major world religion (and probably every minor religion too.) But as a post-Enlightenment human being blessed to live in a relatively free world, I’d love for my religion and my people to just speak honestly about why things are the way they are.

I wish to keep my myths restricted to the reading of JRR Tolkien. And the holodec on Star Trek.

Sigh. I could use a little Rabbi Rami Shapiro at a time like this, and indeed, a quick google search led me to one. Rabbi Shapiro can always be counted on for breathing fresh air, insight, spirit, and soul into every last creaky nook of our tradition. And on the topic of Shavuot, he does not disappoint. Here is a prayer R. Shapiro offers as an alternative aleiynu, for a Friday night Shavuot service. (The aleiynu is a standard prayer that appears in different versions throughout Jewish liturgy.)

I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

It is up to us to hallow Creation, to respond to Life with the fullness of our lives. It is up to us to meet the World, to embrace the Whole even as we wrestle with its parts. It is up to us to repair the World and to bind our lives to Truth.

Therefore we bend the knee and shake off the stiffness that keeps us from the subtle graces of Life and the supple gestures of Love. With reverence and thanksgiving we accept our destiny and set for ourselves the task of redemption.

— Rami Shapiro

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Martin S. Jaffee offers the following definition of ‘religion’ in his book Early Judaism.

“Religion is an intense and sustained cultivation of a style of life that heightens awareness of morally binding connections between the self, the human community and the most essential structures of reality. Religions posit various orders of reality and help individuals and groups to negotiate their relations with those orders.”

You may have noticed that this definition does not focus on beliefs or rituals. This may surprise you. Jaffee argues that the idea of religion as a collection of beliefs about divine beings expressed in moral behavior, prayers and various forms of communal worship is actually an idea that emerged out of Europe in the 16th century. It was advanced by philosophers, politicians and theologians struggling to define the role of the Church in the emerging national states of Europe. For that time and place, that definition served a useful purpose: to create societies in which Church and State had separate and distinct spheres of life, enabling citizens of different religious beliefs to coexist as relative equals in society.

This particular definition of religion however, has not been reflective of the many ways in which non-European and non-Christian peoples have constructed their own conceptions of the role of holy communities and their institutions in the larger social and political order. Thus, he offered that alternate definition of religion, broad enough to explain human religious behavior across civilizations and millenia.

According to Jaffee, religious patterns of behavior encourage human beings to interpret themselves as moral beings whose destiny is bound with others in a project that brings them into relationship with the fundamental reality of things. In religious systems, the self identified through personal, autobiographical memory tends to be enlarged or enriched as it is interpreted in contexts well beyond personal experience. Personal identity includes a conception of how all these relationships are connected to generations of the distant past and the far-off future, as well as to the forces and powers that are held to account for the world as it is. (page 7)

Certain types of Buddhism, and even, Judaism come to mind. What all religions share, though, is the desire to participate in the essential structures of the world — to those spaces beyond our immediate world where “God” or “enlightenment” or “consciousness” reside. The ways we conceive of these alternate worlds differs from religion to religion. But constant among all of them is the tendency of religions to puncture the apparent solidity of mundane experience and to privilege intimations of other worlds at more profound levels of being.

I don’t know about you, but I love this way of describing religion. It’s like what Rabbi David Wolpe said: “Life is not an intellectual puzzle. Life is a precious one-time chance to grow. We grow not by solving riddles but by creating meaning.”

I wrote the title on this entry in jest, but it is not entirely a joke. It’s answer all depends on your definitions. Is it possible to be a religious atheist? Well, if you take Jaffe’s definition of religion (above), as opposed to a fundamentalist definition of God (an omnipotent, authoritarian entity invervening in human affiars) — then yes, you can be. And you most certainly can be an “atheist” or a “theistic agnostic” and have a wedding that is decidedly Jewish.

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In my pastoral counseling class for rabbinical school, we’ve been reading on the nature of loss in all its forms: loss of love, loss of health, love of future and its potential.

These readings hit home for quite a few people in my class, particularly in my own home, where we have been struggling with one setback after another for two years.

A year ago, right after our baby was born, my husband was crippled by the searing pain of an L4-L5 disc herniation; it was eventually repaired, but pain and other symptoms still linger. Meanwhile, I developed my own popourri of woes attributed to hypermobility syndrome — a condition whereby one’s joints become too flexible, because my body’s collagen is being manufactured incorrectly.

These experiences have given me a powerful lesson in what it means to “mourn.” I had always thought of mourning and grief as things that happen when a person you love dies. Arthur Frank, in his book At the Will of the Body: Reflections on Illness,offers a much broader perspective from his experiences battling cancer. This excerpt, from the chapter “Mourning What Is Lost,” flies open the doors to just how broad mourning and grief can go. He explains it like this:

The loss that accompanies illness begins in the body as pain does, then moves out until it affects the relationships connecting that body to others. My awkward attempts to avoid commitments I was not sure I could fulfill only made people think I was distancing myself from them. I acted not from lack of freiendship but because my body was taking me out of their natural flow of plans and expectations. I lost my sense of belonging … The inability to make specific plans is only the beginning of the loss of belonging. … Loss of the future is complemented by loss of the past. …

Middle age insinuates itself slowly into our bodies and lives. It is the time when on a good day you can still kid yourself into thinking you are as young as ever. Several nights before my surgery, I looked myself in a mirror. My body I saw was not the body I had had at 22 or even 30, but it retained for me a continuity of those bodies. The changes, the deteriorations, had been gradual.

That night I knew that after surgery, I would never be the same. It would irrevocably break my body’s continuity with its past. When you say goodbye to your body, as I was going that night, you say goodby to how you have lived. … Other losses went beyond the body. Cathie and I had always hoped that if the worst happened, friends and relatives would respond with care and involvement. Some came through. Other disappeared. We now find it hard to resume relationships with those who could not acknolwedge the illness that was happening, not just to me but to us. Those relationships were lost.

Together, Cathie and I lost an innocence about the normal expectation of life. At one time it seemed normal to expect to work and accomplish certain things, to have children and watch them grow, to share their experiences with others, to grow old together. Now we realize that these events may or may not happen. Life is contingent. We are no longer sure what it is normal to expect.

… These losses of future and past, of place and innocence, must all be mourned. We should never question how another person chooses to mourn. I was fortunate to have a wife to share my mourning. Sharing losses seemed to be the gentlest way of living with them.


Several hundred years ago, a great rabbi, the Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, scripted his own prayer for these moments of loss. Here are his words from The Gentle Weapon: Prayers for Everyday and Not-So-Everyday-Moments. I have chosen my own translations for his use of the word “God”:

Dear Soil From Which I Come,

suddenly I am alone; I am in pain.

As I search for some source

of comfort

the world —

the world so full so bustling —

seems so empty now.

It’s cold

and it’s frightening

in this hollow that is me —

in this hollow that once brimmed

with confidence and joy.

Creator, pull me back —

back to the world of the living,

back to the life of action

and human relationships.

(LM 1:277)

It’s a beautiful prayer that brings relief to simply read.

What are your thoughts? Have you experienced a loss that makes Frank’s or Nachman’s words resonate? I’d love to hear your stories or reactions.


Where’s a Good Yenta When You Need One!? No need to sulk; The Matchmaker Rabbi is in! To see Joysa’s columns for Jdate, visit here. Her forthcoming book on dating in Jewish suburbia is being represented by Red Sofa Literary Agency.

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