Sep 30, 2007

Yom Kippur 5768: "Truth and Love"
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom

We begin with questions: What is faith? Can we have absolute faith in any source? Who has the right to judge the past? Given what we know about the transmission of the Torah and of tradition in general, and given the difficulty so many of us have with the question of absolute authority, how can we know what has truly happened and should our behaviors and decisions be based upon any tradition at all?? What is true?

All words are human. We recite every Pesach that God’s outstretched arm brought us out of Egypt. Since it is a core Jewish belief that God has neither hands nor arms, such a description is an expression of God's power – a metaphor – and not a conception of God in physical form. Metaphor is rampant in the Torah. God has a heart. God is pleased. God gets angry. The literal Hebrew idiom for God’s anger is that "God's nose flared." But these are metaphors, analogies to our human experience. God is always more than our language can contain, even biblical language. Words are human constructions, meant to convey meaning. But every word, and every human method of communication, is burdened by multiple meanings and by the limitations of the speaker. To say that God’s Will is contained in a text is to limit God’s Will. And to restrict God to words is to create an idol, perhaps no different than the Golden Calf.

Human beings gave God’s Self-revelation form. God’s Presence in revelation is not the question. The subjectivity of the words that result from this holy encounter is. What is the relationship between God’s Truth and the words of the Torah? And what command might be connected to this subjective human formula?

I took my first class in Theology during my first undergraduate year at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I entered with a faith in God’s Word as recorded in the Five Books of Moses. The new ideas and approaches to Torah I learned in with Rabbi Neil Gillman’s class shattered my faith, and left me deeply confused and doubtful.

This was my question: “If the Torah isn’t God’s Word, then what of the tradition I follow which is based upon the words of the Torah? “ The things that had made sense to me because they were based on God’s Will now had no foundation. If our entire tradition is human interpretation how is it Ultimately True?

It’s not.

And, for me, this is the beginning of faith.

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The world we live in is ambiguous.

One of my deepest inspirations, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, posed this situation: “There is a large, strong person with a deadly instrument in their hand. Nearby is a small, weak person. Should the large person use the deadly instrument on the small person?”

And we answer with a thunderous “No! That’s immoral! Of course not!” - Except that the situation is a bris, the larger person is a mohel, and the small person is an eight-day-old boy.

That which might seem clear seldom is.

The founder of American Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Solomon Schechter, taught,

“[There is] only One who knows the exact truth about the great mystery. But we may indicate our doubt about one doctrine by putting by its side another, which we may affirm to be not more absolutely true, but more probable. This seems to have been the attitude, too, of the compilers of the ancient Rabbinic literature, the most conflicting views ... were embodied. Nor did the Synagogue, in general feel called upon to decide between these views… Thus Judaism has no fixed doctrines on the subject. It refused a hearing to no theory for fear that it should contain some germ of truth, but on the same ground, it accepted none to the exclusion of the others. (Studies in Judaism, pp.213-214)

Judaism, according to Schechter, made room for conflicting visions of Truth because it was understood that the best we can do is hit a probable “truth.” The religious system Schechter discusses, and the one we choose, is one path towards Truth. In a sense, “Truth” (capital ‘T’) is reached by many paths, each with its own “truth” (lower-case).

Our religious perspective recognizes shades of gray in the passageways to God.

There do exist people who see this world as black and white, where the definitions of “evil” and “good” are clear. Some strap bombs to their bodies and kill, only to be considered holy by their community and criminal by another. Some read their holy writings literally and cause pain to others “in the name of God.” In either case, those who believe that the world contains objective rules and boundaries are typically unaware of their own subjective starting points, and are clearly in violation of French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ paradigm of authentic interpretation, which includes the requirement of not living “in a vacuum, as if in a private universe, but [rather] engaged and open to “the life of the city,” to the present tense, to life shared with others (as quoted in Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s important book ‘Wrestling with God and Men,’ p. 21).”

And so, paradoxically, the only truth is subjectivity. Perhaps the only way to be on a true path to God is to acknowledge that it is not the only one.

But where does that leave the individual seeking God? How can I encounter God? And why, if my path is not the only legitimate path, should I remain on this one?

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There will be no satisfying answer to this question. A significant part of my path is my childhood love-affair with Shabbat and Jewish music. Despite my passion for the river of Jewish Spirituality, I’ve found it hard to explain. Though it might sound exclusive, I believe it really comes down to “If you’ve tasted the joy of a soulful Friday Night, you understand. And if you haven’t, you don’t.” A truth is, perhaps my answers will only make sense to me.

Why be Jewish when there are other legitimate paths to God?

How could I be anything else?!

Why would I be anything else?!

Jewish tradition is rich, and it guides me on a path of goodness and justice. How could I step away from it? It’s such an integral part of my identity, that if I were to walk away from it, I’d be walking away from myself.

Perhaps that is the problem with a liberal ideology. My intensive Jewish childhood experience stabilized me during my first stages of doubt and questioning. But I am the exception to the rule in our current Jewish world. Very few adult Jews look back to an immersive Jewish experience that viscerally bonds them to Judaism.

I am a rabbi. It would seem to make sense, from a pragmatic standpoint, that I should want to reduce the ambiguity in people’s lives in order to perpetuate a connection to Jewish life without throwing them into confusion. The typical connection is tremulous enough that I don’t need to exacerbate it by challenging the very traditional assumptions that give tenuously connected Jews a sense of comfort and belonging.

But that’s not how I see it.

I’m interested in lighting fires in people souls so that they feel freer with every step towards God. The Indigo Girls said it right in their “Power of Two” when they say, “The closer I’m bound in love to you/ The closer I am to free.”

I’m in love with God.

That’s why I’m a Jew. I want to share what I see as the most real, the most intensely meaningful, experience in this world: God.

And if I don’t challenge the things I see as obstacles to seriously connecting with God, I’m keeping that love to myself.

Through my years of study with Rabbi Gillman, I learned that his loving embrace was as compelling as his classroom teaching. And through this combination of love and honesty, I’ve found comfort and conviction in my choice to lead a spiritual life.

I encountered a compelling call to question that faith and I choose to embrace that challenge as I live my life towards God.

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So who was Aaron?

Tradition suggests many answers. None of them are exclusively correct. Searching for the Truth about Aaron is like searching for the Truth about God: It’s unattainable.

But on the other hand, we learn that

“Rabbi Chanin taught, ‘You may not hold back your words because of anyone. Further, witnesses should know against whom they are giving evidence, before whom they are giving evidence and who will hold them accountable in the event of false evidence. ... Judges should also know whom it is they are judging, before whom they are judging, and who will call them to account if they pervert justice. ...The judge only has that which [she] sees with [her] own eyes. (Bavli, Sanhedrin 6b)

We can neither claim that we have the Truth nor may we forget the responsibility we have to use the holy subjectivity of our eyes.

Who was Aaron? We learn that Aaron “loved peace and pursued peace, loved his fellow creatures, and brought them close to Torah. (Mishnah Avot 1:12)”

That’s the truth about Aaron I choose to believe.

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Rabbi Gillman calls the subjective truths that form the underpinnings of our lives “myths.” Though that word might hurt the sensitive religious ear, the very term that makes acceptance difficult has a vital role in religious development.

Gillman writes in his ‘Problematics of Myth’:

“What makes a myth "true"? Clearly not because it corresponds to the facts, simply because we have no independent perception of those facts to compare it with. We cannot escape our humanness. But one myth may do a better job of integrating what we do perceive to be the data of experience; it accounts more adequately for more of what we perceive. For Jews, that myth is canonized in Torah. Myths are singularly tenacious. They also enjoy a certain "plasticity"; they can be reshaped to account for apparently discordant data. (Jews call that process midrash.) Finally, religious myths are existentially true; we make them true for us, they become true when we embrace them and live them.”

I believe that existence is ambiguous. Judaism is a deeply powerful way of making us aware of and fulfilled participants in this reality. God is waiting for us to create – and to journey on – the path.

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Professor Omid Safi, commenting on the sacred Sufi text “The Path of Love,” suggests that the Sufis saw ambiguity and paradox as tools for breaking through the human tendency to concretize religion and lose the power of seeking and encountering God. "Love," writes one of the Sufi masters quoted by Safi, "is a sweetness, but its inner reality is bewilderment."

Being in love is seldom about simplicity.

I find love compelling.

May this be a year of overwhelming love, a spiritual yearning that leads to comfort, holiness and health for us and our world.

Sep 20, 2007

A Yom Kippur Adaptation of Natasha Bedingfield's "Unwritten"

© Rabbi Menachem Creditor

We stand unwritten, undefined
Just beginning with pens in hand,
ending unplanned

Staring at the blank page before you
Open up the window
Let the sun illuminate the words
that you could not find

Reaching for something in the distance
So close you can almost taste it
Release your inhibitions
Feel the rain on your skin

No one else can feel it for you
Only you can let it in
No one else, no one else
Can speak the words on your lips

Drench yourself in words unspoken
Live your life with arms wide open
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still unwritten

Sep 18, 2007

Not Three Lonely Paths: “Reclaiming HaZedonot VeHaShegagot”

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
based on the original in Rabbi Samuel H. Dresner’s “Prayer, Humility, and Compassion”


A moment of prayer at a time of grief may break a proud heart. An unselfish act of love may take a person so out of herself that prayer will become possible. At what point God’s Love enters a person’s life and the course it may follow cannot be predicted, but of nothing should we be more certain that that it is continuously trying to break in upon us, to heal us, to visit us with comfort and compassion.

Prayer, humility, and compassion are three ways in which God enters the life of a person. They are not three lonely paths, each leading to its own end. They are connected one with the other, interacting constantly. For at the root of them all is God’s Love for all humanity.

The drama of receiving God’s Love and sharing it with others is surely the most profound action of human existence. But for that Love to enter at all, we must first raise the many heavy barriers to our heart and open our soul’s doors through prayer, humility, and compassion.

And so we pray:

God, love us for all we are,
in Your image,
Lonely like You.

Breathe with us, within us.
Open us, care with us.

You and us God,
We’ll forgive each other…

And we’ll try again.

Amen.

A Prayer for the Preschool of Netivot Shalom

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Dear God,

With the world swirling around us, with the High Holidays bringing such intensity to every moment, I offer you my deepest thanks for the children in our shul's school who played, danced, and sang " Lashevet LaKum" (To Sit, To Stand) and "LeShannah Tovah" today, and for allowing me to hear them.

Thank You for the gift of incredibly devoted parents. Thank You for our teachers Lauren, Ofra, and Thea, who have guided grown-ups and children through a transition period. Thank you for David and Joe's tireless work, for Michael's skill and heart.

We pray all our dreams come to fruition, that the souls of our children feel Jewish warmth and personal love, that they touch, smell, taste, hear, and see their shul as a fun, special, sacred space for spiritual exploration and developmental curiosity. We pray that every moment of growth for our Preschool community be accompanied with healthy intentionality, and with the explicit desire to dream together, to appreciate each other, to strengthen our shul family, and to create a better world for ourselves and our children and beyond.

May music, Torah, and peace strengthen all of us and our precious shared home every day.

Amen.

Sep 16, 2007

Rosh HaShannah 5768: “Love Endures
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor

[note: this is an adaptation of the remarks shared on the second day of Rosh HaShannah at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, CA.]


Names mean everything.

We learn from tradition “
kishmo kein hu / we are the embodiments of our names
(I Sam. 25:25). When a baby’s name is chosen, parents search their memories and imaginations to imbue their child’s new name with redemptive dreams. While our children were named for members of our families who had died, we struggled to find meanings within their names that would suggest powerful and positive directions for their lives. What a supreme challenge, to venture into the unknown future of another, to shout their destiny every time you whisper their name.

Consider, then, the power of a person choosing to change their name, to claim a personal dream, a path not yet assigned!

In Jewish tradition, a name change can occur for a number of reasons, the most common of which is a time of deep illness. But sometimes a name change is a way of internalizing the memories of a loved one whose life intersected a person so deeply that they yearn to claim a mantle from their loved one. A person choosing Judaism chooses their own name, adopting and adapting, finding their place at Sinai through an unbelievable act of realignment.

When a person desires to emerge from a place of constriction, of predetermination, sometimes it takes something as staggering as a conscious shifting of personal destiny to achieve health and renewal.

Moses encountered this struggle when he brought God's message of deliverance. Our ancient family could barely escape their own shortness of breath, their ‘
kotzer ruach
(Ex. 6:9) contracted by generations of slavery. They could barely hear, let alone claim, their new name: Am Yisrael, the Jewish People.

And what of Avram, who became Avraham? And of course Sarai, who became Sarah? Their new names are linked to the promise of a child:

“… [God spoke to Avram saying,] "this is My covenant with you: You shall be the father of a multitude of nations. And you shall no longer be called Avram, but your name shall be Avraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fertile, and make nations of you; and kings shall come forth from you. (Gen. 17:3-7)


And so that terrible command from God to Abraham meant so much:

Ascend to the heights. Bring your deepest treasure, the promise that animates your dreams, and offer him up. (adapted from Gen. 22:2)

Abraham would have to re-become Abram if there would be no more Isaac, the embodiment of his parents' realized dreaming. With the loss of Ishmael, whose destiny was not to be joined with his father’s, Isaac was Abraham’s only testimony that his family’s future contained hope.

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We typically devote energy to finding a way out of the
Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac.

Two of the regular explanations include:

God didn’t really mean it” – It’s clear that God was testing Abraham from the very beginning, never truly asking for a sacrifice, but rather commanding a demonstration of faith. This justifies the apparently horrible command and the God who issued it.

Abraham failed the real test” – God had hoped that Abraham would argue for his son similarly to the negotiations that saved Sdom and Amora. When Abraham complied (eagerly, some commentaries suggest), he failed God’s true test. This justifies God but finds Abraham guilty.


Both Drashot (imaginative responses) are legitimate. But this time perhaps we can enter the Akeidah instead of trying to ‘rename’ it.

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But what entry point would we possibly want for a story that contains so much pain?

My rabbi, Neil Gillman, once took part in a biblio-drama, wherein different participants take on different roles within the story of the Akeidah. Dr. Gillman "played God." An audience member posed a question to Dr. Gillman, and said:

"God- how could you command such a thing?! You finally gave Abraham and Sarah a child, and you’re commanding its death? Why are you doing this?"

Dr. Gillman’s deeply moving response might provide our invitation to the Akeidah:

"Don’t you see that every person I’ve created has gone the wrong way? I just want to know that I got it right. I feel like Abraham is my chance to prove that people can love me and listen to me, even when it’s hard! Abraham is my chance!"


This God is not the all-knowing Commander who knows how things will turn out. Gillman’s God is an invested part of the emotional journey towards health. A mistake-making, love-yearning God, a God whose very motivation for creating a being that could reject its Creator was an enormous need for love. As Ennis Del Mar says in the revelatory movie Brokeback Mountain, “There ain’t no reigns on this.”

Abraham’s God at the Akeidah asks for an ultimate sacrifice. Perhaps this is because creation itself was a Supreme Sacrifice of Divine Singularity for the sake of relationship with another. Instead of seeing the Akeidah as a monstrous demand of a vulnerable other, this framework allows us to see both partners in the conversation as striving for wholeness through acts of mutual self-sacrifice.

After all, consider the first blessing of the Amidah:

“Blessed are You, Adonai, our God and God of our Ancestors: The God of Avraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the God of Sarah, the God of Rebecca, the God of Rachel, and the God of Leah. The great, mighty, awesome God; the God-Above, the One who does kindnesses. Creator of everything, the One who remembers the merits of the ancestors, who brings the redeemer to their children’s children, for God’s own Name’s sake in love. Ruler who helps and saves and protects: Blessed are You God, Shield of Avraham and Rememberer of Sarah.”

Why does God do so much kindness for us? For God’s own Name’s sake in Love. The call of the Akeidah comes from that same Makom, that same Place.

Consider also the phrase from within the Kedushah:

Baruch Kevod Adonai Mimkomo /

Blessed is the Glory of God from God’s own place.

“From God’s own place”?! What else could this indicate other than God’s own need for internal healing? And how else can we help effect this healing of God? And what a holy burden to bear.

The deepest way into the Akeidah is to imagine it is as a love affair. A passionate, dangerous, journey of mutual discovery between lovers who can’t know where their sacrifices might lead, but are committed to giving all they are – out of love.

As we learn in Pirkei Avot (5:19):

“Whenever love depends upon some thing and that thing passes, then the love passes away too. But if love does not depend upon some ulterior interest then the love will never pass away. … What is an example of the love which did not depend upon some ulterior interest? That of David and Jonathan.”


When Jonathan contravened his father’s desire, he offered up a sacrifice for love of David. He contracted part of himself as fulfillment of a relationship. Love commands. Love compels. Love demands.

Mysticism teaches that God created the world through an act of “
Tzimtzum / Self-Contraction”, which was the only way to make room for an other. In a sense, the God we know gave up part of Infinity (the “eyn sof”) to encounter another.

In a sense, Creation was the birth of God’s Name. Where once God was all there was, and hence had no need to be called by a name (there wasn’t yet someone to use it), the creation of humanity demanded a Name for God, without which a relationship couldn’t begin.

Sacrifice begins when love calls your name.

And might we not hold in our hearts God’s willingness to sacrifice as we reconsider the painful call to Abraham?

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The extremes of sacrifice are hazardous to the health of both participant and partnership. On the one hand is selfishness (no room-making for another), the other the loss of self (too much room making for another). They are both destructive to the relationship and to each of the independent selfs involved.

As we learn from the very first human partnership, each partner must serve as an “
Ezer KeNegdo
(Gen. 2:18),” a help (“ezer”) and a challenge (“neged”).

Both roles are necessary ingredients for healthy, loving, relationship.

*****************************************

To enter the Akeidah is to hear the call of a loving God.

And we can only do that by listening with “
Shmiat Ozen / Empathetic Listening.
(Pirkei Avot 6:6)” To hear the loving call is to throw away ready-answers when beginning the process of spiritual self-definition.

The Akeidah’s call to “ascend to the heights” is an invitation to bring all of yourself to a point of clarity, to bring your deepest treasure which is that which animates your dreams. And God’s call to “offer it up” is an invitation to a love that takes and gives, a love that includes sacrifice and promise.

Tradition teaches us “with ten tests did God test our father Abraham, who stood steadfast in them all. They were to show how great was Abraham’s love.
(Pirkei Avot 5:3)

The whole story is about love. It’s not a pleasant story. It’s not an easy story. But it’s a romance, not a tragedy, if read with an open, yearning heart.

To escape the Akeidah is to be alone.

To respond to it can be ecstasy.

Legend has it that the Binding of Isaac took place on the future location of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and that the exact site of the altar will be recognizable by the ashes of the ram, offered in Isaac’s stead, still present to this day
(Pesachim 54a).

Love endures.

May we learn to clarify our dreams, name them, and offer them in love.

Amen.

Sep 11, 2007

9/11 2007: "My Heart is in the East"
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Today is not like any other day. And yet, on the day before Rosh HaShannah it's hard to find someone whose eyes are pained like mine today, here in Berkeley, CA. I spoke last night to a sweet group of people of my memories of being in Manhattan 6 years ago today, my family's struggle to find each other, the baby beginning to grow within my wife, and people connected, but perhaps more to the person speaking than to the world that had changed for us all.

And every year the experience changes. There isn't liturgy. I've lit candles before, sung songs, felt the power of Tisha Be'Av creep into this universal day, recognize terrifying similarities between today and the binding of Isaac narrative, and today I sit even further away than every before from the place that, as my father has put it, will forever define the generations alive today.

What can we do today to make today different? Should today be different?

Six years ago, on a beautiful Tuesday morning I was going downstairs to repark my car during a Midrash class at JTS. That's when I found out. I thought it was a bad joke. I raced upstairs after hearing the news on my car's radio, ran into the National Camp Ramah offices, where scene after scene replayed online. I ran back to class and informed my teacher Rabbi Alan Kensky who was, I believe, as unsure as me as to what to do. He quietly told the story of his teacher Rabbi Shaul Lieberman z"l, who, upon hearing of the murder of a young rabbinical student by a terrorist in Israel told his student: "We learn. Just like we have been. If we stop, they've won. They can't stop us from being who we are." That response was powerful, but outmatched by the circumstances.

Then the entire city broke. Every person broke. Our city broke beneath and all around us.

It's not that heroes weren't born that day, that emergency responders didn't bring everything they were. All that is true, but what remains broken is a sense of safety we once had. The world into which my children have been born is a very different place than the one I inherited. And I remain scared. I sit in Berkeley, CA, and I wonder about the world whose birth we celebrate tomorrow.

Perhaps that's what today must become. A day of mindfulness, of wondering, of sensing the urgent needs of the world and working on healing.

May we never have a day like that, ever again.

Please, God. Never again.

Sep 5, 2007

Yamim Nora'im 5768: "Reaching Beyond"
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor
The image of the person is larger than the frame into which they have been compressed.
Adapted from Abraham Joshua Heschel

Each of the upcoming holidays brings us closer. Closer to each other, closer to our spiritual home, closer to those we remember. Rosh HaShannah reminds us that our world is a universal inheritance, Yom Kippur teaches us about inner and individual rebirth, and Sukkot invites us out of our homes into the waiting experiences of nature and consistent interaction.

A central challenge of our modern world, as I’ve experienced it, is leaving our sheltered homes to get into the car (itself a smaller sheltered world), arriving at our destination (shelter of a different kind), and returning via the same isolated route. This is one of the redemptive aspects of taking walks with new friends and sharing small group programs (as opposed to large group davenings) – we are out of our familiar surroundings, and are experimenting with new relationships.

The symbols of the upcoming holidays hold similar meaning. On Rosh HaShannah we hold the Shofar, feeling its rough exterior and smelling its age. Its sound simply breaks us – we each hold our breath waiting for the end of its sound, melting into the Tekiyah Gedolah as it lifts us beyond wherever we were. Yom Kippur brings us to an ever-deeper mindful relationship with our bodies and with questions of personal meaning sharpened by hunger. We shake with the Lulav and Etrog (now available at Afikomen at 655-1977), each connected to a different part of the body, trying out new directions, remembering to look behind ourselves as we explore what awaits. And then we dance. Simchat Torah is less a procession of scrolls than a release of pent-up energy accumulated over the past weeks. Our Torah is truly a Tree of Life in those moments of abandon, of fun.

What can I say, chevreh? Our communities must become places where all this exists in abundance, where we hold each other and our shared experiences of depth and fun, hunger and comfort – all parts of the spiritual journey. And our precious spiritual homes cannot be one thing for all people. "Home" is many things to many people. But it is a central, safe place for personal journeying.

I believe that God is very present in our holy places. In moments of stress, I’ve walked alone into the magnificent and intimate sanctuary of my shul and stared at the clouds surrounding the Hebrew letter ‘Aleph’, representing (to me) limitless possibility. And I’ve consistently felt less alone.

Every tangible part of a holy community points beyond itself. We each hold incredible meaning within, and each of us must feel invited to bring that which is uniquely ours not only in the holidays but to search beyond Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur. These three important days help us to rediscover our centers as we reach toward newness.

Wishing us all a Powerful, Healing, Sweet Year - Shannah Tovah Um’tukah,

Rabbi Creditor

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