Thursday, September 24, 2009

Now wait One...

Have I converted to Judaism? No. I am still a non-believer, not just a doubter. When I presented Rabbi Alan with my feelings some time ago, he said (and I an paraphrasing here) "Forget about God for the moment. Judaism is about morals and ethics: how to live." We have had more than a few discussions such as this; and more talk about baseball. So this endeavor of mine is not an adoption of Judaism or an abandonment of atheism. It is part of my curiosity about religion(s).

So, what am I currently reading? I an re-reading Richard Dawkins "The God Delusion." And I recently completed re-reading Bart Ehrman's "Mis-Quoting Jesus."

Rosh Hashanah 5770

My friend Alan Freedman is rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Austin, TX. I truly value his friendship, good humor and teaching. He is also a Phillies fan, which I know some of us will understand that he has done his share of suffering on this planet. Incidentally, Margot and I recently joined Alan's congregation. Yes, Temple Beth Shalom accepts Yankees fans and (severely) lapsed Roman Catholics. Here is his Saturday morning Rosh Hashanah adress for this year:

Rosh Hashanah 5770

Let me tell you at the outset that this is a very personal sermon. In sharing some of what is on my mind this Rosh Hoshanah, I hope it will help others who might be sharing the same theological struggles. This Rosh Hashanah morning, I find myself longing for an understanding of God’s will for me in this upcoming year. I want to know what God has in mind for my life and how I can live in accordance with that plan? I want to have the kind of faith that will allow me to entrust my life to God’s care. Now that may be a somewhat unusual expression to be heard in a synagogue. The idea that God has a plan for our lives and that we should entrust our lives to God is often associated with evangelical preachers.

Rarely, will you hear a rabbi address matters of faith. Rabbis deliver sermons concerning matters of duty. The reason for this is that the most prominent theology contained in Torah is that we express our love for God by obeying God’s commandments and in exchange God refrains from smiting us. Thus, the focus of the Jewish intellectual tradition, in which we rabbis are all trained, is that the access to God’s will is through better understanding of the laws, rules and regulations so that we might better observe them. Obedience results in blessing, disobedience results in curse. Moreover, behaviors are usually addressed on a community-wide basis. Blessings and curses in the Bible generally are dispensed on the entire people Israel and rarely, if ever, addressed to individuals.

Yet, I want something more. I want to believe that God knows of my existence and that God cares about me. The God that we encounter during the Days of Awe seems so remote, sitting off in heaven somewhere with a big book, deciding who shall live and who shall die. This morning, I feel confronted by the God of justice while I crave the God of mercy. I want to know the God in the prayer that we will utter in a few moments before the open ark: Adonai, Adonai, el rachum v’hanum; erech apayim v’rav hesed, v’emet—Adonai, Adonai, God who is merciful and gracious, endlessly patient, loving and true.

But where is that God to be found? The Judaism in which I was raised was always so demanding. Al shalosha devarim, the existence of the world depends on three things, the Sages tell us, al haTorah, obedience to the laws of Torah; al haavodah, ritual observance; v’al gimilut hasadim, and acts of loving kindness towards others. But how does that help me in moments of personal or family crisis, when I am weary, or when I am seeking meaning for my life? I long for a personal relationship with God. But what does that mean and where do we find it in Judaism?

Well, for one, we find it in the lives of two of our matriarchs, Sarah and Rachel, and in this morning’s haftorah, in the story of Hannah. While it is Reform practice on Rosh Hashanah to read the Akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac, the traditional text for this day is the story of the birth of Isaac. Why? Because the Talmud tells us that this is the day on which God pokaid, took note, of Sarah and opened her womb as the Holy One had promised. Talmud also tells us that on this day, God yiskor, remembered, another matriarch, Rachel, and granted her a son. For, the text tells us, God heard Rachel’s prayers and responded to them.

These two ideas, that God both pokaid and yizchor, takes notice and remembers, are combined in this morning’s haftorah, the story of Hannah. Hannah is a woman who is barren and prays to God for a child. In response, the haftorah text tells us, God yizkoreha, God remembers her and grants her a son, the prophet Samuel. But in the next chapter, since Hannah had fulfilled her promise to dedicate Samuel to the service of God, God pakod, takes note of her, and she is granted more children.

These two terms, pokaid and yizkor, are the foundation of why we are here today. We are here to seek God’s notice and to be remembered as God’s children. We see this in the three themes of the verses that are recited during the shofar service. Yes, there are the malchuyot, the verses that say that God is ruler over all the earth. But then there are zichronot, the verses that tell us that God remembers us, that we are worthy of God’s notice. And then the shofarot verses, calling us to teshuvah but also calling us to God’s attention.

It is important to note, however, that God’s remembrance and notice are not automatic. For we are told that Hannah cried out to God from morat nefesh, the anguish of her being. Hannah does not come before God demanding something to which she believes she is entitled, she beseeches God from the depths of her soul. Hannah appeals to the God of mercy, to relieve her from her pain.

Adonai, Adonai, el rachum v’chanun, erech, apayim, v’rav chesed v’emet: Adonai, Adonai, the One who is compassionate and gracious, endlessly patient, filled with kindness and true. It is exactly these elements of God’s being that we will appeal to in a few minutes as we recite God’s 13 attributes of mercy before the open ark.

We live unfulfilled lives, for no one’s life is without pain or regret. For some, the anguish is greater than others. Some among us today are struggling with illness or addiction, painful loss, broken relationships, shredded dreams. Many in this sanctuary are dealing with the loss of a job and the anxiety of hard economic times. Even for those among us who are fortunate enough to describe our lives as happy ones, there can be the sense that there is something more to life. We all have aspirations to be better people, better spouses, better parents, better children.

Let us bring our anguish, bring our pain, bring our fear and, yes, bring our hope to God. For today of all days, we are the object of God’s attention. In Man is Not Alone, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that we are the object of God’s inexhaustible concern; that God does not judge the deeds of humanity impassively, but that God’s judgment is imbued with a feeling of intimate concern. Yet we learn from Hannah that in order to come into contact with God’s concern we must first reach out to God, to bring the longings of our soul to the Eternal so that God might take note and remember us.

In what might be the ultimate teshuvah, in the 12 Step recovery program, the third step is to make a decision to turn one’s will and one’s life over to the care of God, as God is understood by that individual. I would imagine that there are as many visions of God as there are people in this room. There is God the judge, God the lawgiver, God the parent and God the companion. God can be merciful or wrathful, judgmental or sympathetic. There is the Biblical God who intervenes in human affairs and the God who simply orders the universe, gives us free will and then stands back to see what happens. For some, God is a cosmic force and, for others, God is a real and constant Presence.

All of these are God, for the one thing that all of these visions have in common is that they encompass something beyond ourselves. We are here today to do teshuvah, to turn, but to where can we turn for the strength and the wisdom to change our lives? To where can we turn to still the anguish of our souls? To where can we turn for hope and for the vision of a better day? To ourselves? To each other? No, for we are only human and, therefore, share human shortcomings and limitations. To go beyond ourselves we must first turn to the One who is beyond us; to move beyond our daily lives into the world of the Eternal.

I cannot prove the existence of God but, for me, the alternative is too horrible to contemplate. A universe without God would be existentially lonely and desperate; humanity would be at the pinnacle of creation but with no place else to go. The idea that our existence is some sort of cosmic accident, rooted in nothing and to nothing do we return, is shattering beyond words. I want to know that there is a source of strength and wisdom that is available to me beyond my own. Particularly, as the years go by, I crave a belief that God has a plan for my life and that God’s plan for me is part of a larger plan that will provide meaning to my existence. I want to stop living my life as though I was in complete control and have enough faith to turn my life over to God.

I asked a member of our congregation who has shared with me his experience of turning his life over to God, what that concept meant to him. Here is what he wrote:

So, these days, when I doubt decisions I have made, when I’m scared that I’m always going to be alone, when I’m worried that I won’t be able to make my dollar stretch until the next payday, and that I’m always going to be in debt and struggling …… what I remember to do when I wake up, when I go to sleep, and anytime in between, is to turn it over to God, He’s in charge, He knows what He’s doing, He’s got an incredible plan for me – I just need to trust Him and this process… and in the end, it’s going to be ok, because I have abandoned myself to God.

My teshuvah on this Rosh Hashanah is that I want to be more like that guy. Faith alone is not enough and, believe me, the person who wrote that understands that faith must be accompanied by deeds. I still do thoroughly believe in the truth of Al Shalosha Devarim, that the existence of the world depends on our living in accordance with God’s will as expressed in Torah, in sincere prayer and ritual, and in performing acts of loving kindness towards others. But I no longer can find meaning in these actions as ends in themselves. I need more. I want walking in God’s way, as I understand it, to be a vehicle for faith; the kind of faith that allows me to say that I trust in God’s plan for my life. In contemporary terms, I want to do more this year to get over myself, to recognize and revel in my limitations, so that I might feel more of God’s concern and rely less on my own.

I have been much blessed in my life. I have the most wonderful wife in the world, three daughters of whom Lori and I are extremely proud, the continued presence of loving parents and great sisters. I also have the blessing of being able to serve you and to serve God as a rabbi. My Christian colleagues often speak in terms of having been called to the ministry, not an expression that I have used to describe my journey. To me, a calling implies living in response to God’s plan for one’s life. I always thought it was a little chutzpadik to claim that kind of attention, to claim that God has taken note of and remembered me. But now I am not so sure about that and I want to begin the journey toward finding a God that has a hand in my life as well as holds the universe in Her hands. Besides, if I don’t entrust my life to God, then how can I ask you to? I do not know where this path ultimately leads, but this Rosh Hashanah, here I go. Would anyone care to join me?

Friday, September 4, 2009

Why I Root For The Yankees

I was born in Woonsocket, RI, in 1950, some 45 odd miles from Boston, MA. A reasonable person would assume that as a sports fan I would root for the Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics and Patriots. Well, no, no, yes and sort of. Let me explain myself!

My father was a proud New York Yankees fan. It was all Yankees all of the time in our house. As I recall, Dad’s allegiance to the Yankees stemmed from reading and hearing about Lou Gehrig and Bill Dickey as a youngster. Since Dad’s father was a Red Sox fan, I think that a lot to do with Dad’s love of the Yankees was his strong relationship to his Uncle Tom (Pothier) who was married to Dad’s mother’s (Elzia) sister (Aunt Ernestine – aka “Sitsit”). My siblings and I were brainwashed from birth to be Yankees fans. It stuck with my brother (Tim), nearest sister (Lynette) and me. The youngest sister (Jane) is a Red Sox fan, most likely just to piss off Dad. I have a photograph of me at 18-months-old dressed in a Yankees uniform!

When the Yankees were playing a night game Dad and I would often attempt to listen to the game on radio from a New York station. He would back the car part way out of the garage and angle the car just so in order to get acceptable reception on the car radio. On games from the west on a school night, we always ran the risk of it getting past my bedtime and incurring the wrath of Mom, not to mention running down the car battery. If the Yankees lost, especially if they blew a lead and some “crunchy” won it for the other team by blooping a cheap hit over a drawn-in infield or squibbling a “seeing-eye” grounder up the middle, Dad would get an awful headache that lasted until the next Bronx Bomber victory. Dad’s idea of a good game was when the Yankees would score 10 runs in the first inning and slowing pull away.

Needless to say, the Yankees were dominant in the Majors when I was a kid. I was there in body for Yankees World Series wins in ’51, ’52, ’53 and ’56, as well as a World Series loss in ’55. I do not remember these years at all. I remember the Yankees losing to the Braves in ’57, the Pirates in’60, the Dodgers in ’63 and the Cardinals in ‘64 and beating the Braves in ’58, the Reds in ’61 and the Giants in ’62. All in all, it was great being a Yankees fan then. As a consequence, however, I was hated for being a Yankees fan by all of the Red Sox fans in the neighborhood and at school.

I liked hockey a lot as a kid. We all rooted for the Bruins in the NHL as well as the minor-league Rhode Island Reds of the AHL. Most of the guys in the neighborhood had tabletop mechanical hockey games, akin to foosball table games of today. We had a league of sorts and drew straws to choose team names. Other guys got to be the Bruins and Reds, and I had to settle for the Chicago Black Hawks, who happened to be in first place that year. I began to follow the Black Hawks, becoming a fan and following the careers of Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull, Glenn Hall, Eric Nesterenko, Pat Stapleton, et al. While my interest in professional hockey has waxed and waned through the years, I still root for the forlorn Black Hawks.

Of course I root for the Celtics! I hate the Knicks, the Bulls, the Pistons and especially the Lakers!

In the 1950s the only professional football around was the old pre-AFC NFL. In Rhode Island, our choices were the New York Giants. Period. A few folks rooted for the Cleveland Browns – not the ersatz Cleveland Browns currently inhabiting the Mistake by the Lake, but the team that moved to Baltimore to become the Ravens. Some miscreants may have rooted for the Philadelphia Eagles but I do not remember them. The Colts were still in Baltimore, the Cardinals had only recently left Chicago for St. Louis and the Rams were in Los Angeles. In Woonsocket, you rooted for the Giants: Y. A. Tittle, Charley Conerly, Frank Gifford, Del Shofner, Rosey Brown, Dick Modzewleski, Sam Huff, Jim Katcavage, Dick Lynch, et al. They were pretty good, although they lost the NFL championship to the Colts in what may have been the greatest NFL game ever.

It was in the 1960s that things began to change with the advent of the American Football League (AFL) that morphed into the AFC after the merger. It was only in 1960 that the New England Patriots were born, originally called the Boston Patriots and actually playing some games at Fenway Park! In the AFL most of us rooted for the Patriots. Later, after the merger it became necessary to root for either the Giants or the Patriots. Old habits die-hard and I have remained loyal to the Giants, especially when the two teams played head-on in the Super Bowl. When the Giants suck, I root for the Pats!