Posts Tagged ‘Afterlife’

In Conversation: Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin

November 18, 2010

One benefit of writing this blog is that it gives me an excuse to sit down and talk with our rabbis at much greater length than I normally would. This is the first in an occasional series of interviews with the rabbis of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif.

My favorite image of Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin comes from the end of a Friday evening service when her four-year-old daughter — a miniature replica of herself, like the pint-sized Archie and Veronica in those old Little Archies comic books — comes rushing up onto the bima in a pink tutu.

Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin / Photo courtesy of Temple Sinai

Rabbi Mates-Muchin has been the associate rabbi at Temple Sinai in Oakland since 2005. She didn’t set out to be a congregational rabbi. Fascinated by how people choose to make sense of the world, she initially planned to get a PhD after rabbinical school and become a scholar of religion. But she gradually realized that she relished the congregational role.

“I get invited into people’s lives at the most significant moments, and that is amazing,” she said. “Plus I’m able to talk about things like ‘What is our role in the universe?’, and what are we supposed to do, and human nature. In fact, people expect me to talk about those things!”

In our conversation, Rabbi Mates-Muchin spoke about her views of God, death, and the “box” that congregants often expect their rabbis to fill — and the ways in which she doesn’t quite fit that box.

Q: Let me jump right into the middle of things. Do you believe in God, and what is your conception of God? 

A: I believe that there is a oneness to the universe and a connection to every aspect of the universe. The things that make up our bodies are the same things floating out in space. It’s the same stuff that was there at the big bang and the same stuff that will be there when our sun explodes, however many billions of years from now. 

And ultimately what we do has an effect around the universe. By virtue of that connection, I believe we are commanded to behave in certain ways — in particular with other human beings, but with the world around us as well. 

That’s why within a Jewish context, the notion of “command” makes so much sense. It’s that idea that there is no other choice. When we understand what our actions mean, how can there be any other choice than for us but to behave in a certain way?

Q: With that idea of God as the oneness of the universe, how do you then make sense of the Torah’s portrayal of God as an actual consciousness that communicates with people? 

A: I think the Torah is a great story. It’s mythology like any other myth. What we learn from it is that there is a separateness that we have to be responsible to. It is on the one hand everything, but on the other hand it is so separate that we cannot mistake it for ourselves. That is ultimately what the Torah teaches by offering the picture of God that it does – to create that analogy so we understand what the separateness is, and how we have to be responsible to that. 

Visualizing God working in the same way we see people working  was a way to help people with the notion of “it’s not all me.” The problem with talking about everything being connected is that we can mistake the things we want with Godness. But that’s not what it (Godness) is. It has to be something more elevated and loftier than any one piece of our reality.

Q: So when you’re reading a part where God is speaking through a prophet – Moses, Jeremiah – what do you make of that? Is it the person’s conscience speaking, which they call God? Or is there something that was actually channeled through them? 

A: It is a person. We all use God-talk to motivate people in different ways. You can use it responsibly. You can use it irresponsibly too. I imagine the prophets believed things about how we have to respond to the world, and told the story in such a way that people could hear it. 

Q: So do you read the words of a Jeremiah as the words of a human making something up, or a human channeling oneness? 

A: I would say it’s an inner struggle with … how to encourage people to create a society that is going to be positive and productive. Each of those prophets is having an inner struggle that is very painful, and is also attempting to call up aspects of tradition and text to determine what is the best course of action. 

You can say it is a human being responding to God’s command, in that it is a human being recognizing that ultimate connectedness of everything and attempting to get other people to recognize it and respond in a responsible and positive way. 

Q: You’re saying the concept of God is useful as a way for people to understand the oneness that’s outside of themselves. Is there a point at which it also becomes limiting, and the metaphorical parts of God get taken as too real? When people think of God as having hands and arms and a face — the old white man with a beard – does the concept become more limiting than enabling? 

A: In a lot of ways, yes. That’s why so many people fall out of Judaism and its traditional institutions. They think of that kind of God and it’s far too limiting. It’s problematic because of the gender piece as well. Judith Plaskow talks about it: As long as God is considered male, we are going to mimic that hierarchy here. 

People say that we tell these stories because that’s how kids understand things, so we need to be concrete. But you can give kids a little more too. You can tell those stories but, from early on, hint that there is also flexibility in the idea of God. That a lot of the flexibility will come from them – what makes sense to them and what makes them feel good. 

Q: What do you think happens after death? 

A: I don’t know. To me, that’s the most honest answer. There are things that I hope. Every idea about death is either what we’re hoping for, or what we’re really afraid of. I have a feeling it’s probably nothing. But I don’t know. 

Rabbi Mates-Muchin with congregants / Photo courtesy of Temple Sinai

Q: Is it difficult to minister to congregants with a different idea of God or an afterlife? For instance, what if you’re counseling someone who’s just lost her husband and really wants to believe he is waiting for her in a world-to-come? Or someone who believes in a God who intervenes to get him a promotion at work?
 
 A: The concept of God and reality has got to be an individual thing. It is how you understand the way that you are supposed to function throughout life. I can’t say it has to be my way. Most of the time it doesn’t matter what it is, as long as you have some concept that grounds you. The only problem comes when your concept infringes on and hurts other people. It’s about trying to understand what grounds you, how life works and what our purpose is – to me, that’s what religion is. 

My concept is what grounds and centers me. Believing that I am not any more significant than the particles floating in the sky actually comforts me more than it would (to believe that) that God is paying attention to my every move. That’s how I have to see the world in order to function appropriately. 

The tricky part is when we use the word God, we all have a different concept of what that word is…. When I talk about God, people probably assume I’m talking about something very different from what I am actually talking about. That’s okay, because the God concept serves the same purpose in people’s lives even if their concept is very different. 

Q: One question I was going to ask was about evil. If there is a God, how can God allow random evil? But it sounds like from your conception, that’s not an issue because God is not an actor or director, not a “puppeteer God,” and the universe is just unfolding according to scientific principles. 

A: I think evil is the rejection of those commands to behave in a way that is positive. To have some kind of puppeteer would suggest that nothing is good or evil because there is no choice involved. Ritual and discipline would be unnecessary if people didn’t have (the freedom to choose between) positive and negative tendencies. 

In Judaism, it doesn’t matter what your thoughts are: It matters what you do. If you have thoughts of hurting people but don’t act on it, that is a very strong measure of your character because you have recognized the difference between (positive and negative) human tendencies and the way we should behave to be a positive influence on the world. 

Q: Let’s shift back to being a rabbi. What has been your biggest surprise in being  a congregational rabbi? 

A: That’s hard to say. When you start in a new place, the adjustment can be difficult, for the rabbi and for the community.  Some people are really excited, and others are frustrated and even angry that they have to get to know somebody new.  It is such a disruption within the community that it’s hard to become part of the community. 

Q: How long has it taken you to feel a part of the Temple Sinai community? 

A: I think it takes a good two years. I’ve started in a new place twice now, and it’s such an interesting situation to be in. Coming in, most people want to have very positive feelings about the rabbi. Either you behave in such way that you support those positive feelings or you destroy what people’s image is, and that becomes a problem. You are trying to work with people’s concepts of a rabbi. 

Q: Do you feel like there’s a preconception, a box that people want to put you in? 

A: Absolutely. 

Q: What’s the box?  

A: The box is that I am expected to be what people would call “very religious.” Whether it’s keeping kosher, or celebrating certain holidays, or fasting on Tisha B’Av, they expect me to be more “religious” than they are. People assume things about how I think about God, or that I believe God wrote the Torah. 

There are some people who are really disappointed when I don’t fit the box. And there are people who are relieved when I don’t..

And I don’t fit into that box at all. Although there were times in my life when I kept kosher, I don’t now. My husband, who grew up as a Conservative Jew, does and I don’t. So I always joke that he’s the religious one. 

But it is interesting. Even in the context of this conversation. What do I want to reveal about what I really think, and how is that how going to hurt our relationship, and how I can give you something of the tradition in a way that’s positive for you? 

I don’t know that it was surprising , but it’s the hardest part – gauging at what point it’s okay for me to talk about what I think. 

Q: Do you kind of feel like you’re “in the closet?” 

A: Sometimes. I think with the “God thing” especially. Only recently have I found a way to articulate it that I’m really comfortable with, and for the longest time I was just creating something that I thought would work for other people. 

People would say “What’s your concept of God?” and I’d throw something out that would answer their question well enough, so they wouldn’t think I was some kind of heretic. And because of the box, everyone assumed that’s what it would be anyway. 

Q: I fall into the exact assumptions you’re talking about – I was surprised to hear your “cosmic” concept, which is actually really close to my concept. The most spiritual book I’ve ever read is Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” He explains all the elements and conditions that went into making the galaxy, and the big bang, and organic life, and you come away with a sense of what an unlikely miracle it is that we are able to exist on this planet. To me, that is holy. That is the miracle, that this all came together and here we are. But that’s not what you expect to hear from a rabbi. Even a Reform rabbi. 

A: My parents are doctors, and I am sure their scientific way of looking at the world had a huge influence on me.  Science helps us describe the nature of the universe, and religion helps to give us purpose.  It seems to me they are both necessary and they work very well together.  

Q: Do you get to a certain point where you go so far with science and universalism that it’s not Judaism? An Orthodox rabbi might look at your conception of God and say “She’s a Buddhist. Or she’s something, but not Jewish.” 

A: Being Jewish is about what you do. And what we are doing is forwarding the tradition of this particular people, the Jewish people. 

This particular way of life means that we do certain kinds of things. There are also a lot of emotional pieces, such as family traditions and history. It gives us that sense of belonging. 

But there’s nothing more Jewish about the universe than from any other tradition. Our texts say we are the chosen people because we wrote them. If you look at the texts of any people, they say the same thing. They might not use the word ‘chosen’ but they say the same thing. We are choosing a particular way of life (and) of course we’re going to want to pass down the sense that this is the right way to live. I think every people has that. 

Q: What would you say if a young person came to you and asked, “Why should I stay Jewish rather than become Buddhist or Unitarian?” 

A: If it were my own kids, I would talk about our family, and family history. With other kids, I would ask if there are things about other traditions that are drawing them in. And I’d ask what their parents say. And what are the things about Judaism that have been positive or negative for them. I would want to help them explore what they are looking for and why they may not have found it in Judaism.  

It breaks my heart that kids want to leave, because I do think it’s a rich tradition with a lot to offer to the world and to people in the community. But the truth is, everybody has to have that feeling of centeredness – and for the individual, however you get it is the most important path to follow. 

I feel a pull between wanting to encourage that one particular person to follow a path that feels right, and at the same time a responsibility to Judaism. Sometimes I struggle with whether I’m doing a disservice in teaching Judaism the way that I do – in looking at the bigger picture, or not talking about Judaism in the particular ‘chosen’ way, or saying that there is nothing necessarily more true about our texts. 

For instance, when I talk about Torah being the result of a lot of political negotiations (rather than the literal word of God), is that doing a disservice to Judaism ? 

Or in the end will Judaism live further in some places because people have an opportunity to see it in a way that makes more sense to them?

Invasion of the Jewish Undead

January 9, 2010

If adding a few zombies can put Pride and Prejudice on the bestseller lists, why not this blog? 

Sad to say, though, I’m not really writing about zombies today. Nor even about vampires or werewolves. Instead, let’s talk about Jewish conceptions of an afterlife! 

(Clunk. That’s the sound of my readership plummeting to rock bottom as all the zombie fans realize this is not their kind of undead discussion.) 

As part of my ongoing meetings with my rabbi, I recently read two books about Jewish ideas of an afterlife – What Happens After I Die: Jewish Views of Life After Death, by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme, and The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought, by Neil Gillman. 

What Happens After I Die is a short, easy-to-read summary of how various Jewish thinkers have approached this issue. (Like Sonsino and Syme’s other book on Finding God, it’s kind of a Cliff’s Notes for Jewish theology.) Gillman is a little weightier. 

A lot of this was new to me, since I’ve never paid much attention to what Judaism says about death. Here’s my 30-second summary: 

  • The Torah barely makes mention of the idea of an afterlife. It often talks about death as a return to dust. (“Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:19)  
  • Sometimes the Torah refers to a shadowy underground place called Sheol to which all dead people go. This isn’t a place of punishment like later descriptions of Hell, just a dark silent  place. For instance, Job says, “As a cloud fades away, so whoever goes down to Sheol does not come up.”
  • By the time the Talmud was compiled around 400 C.E., Judaism had developed a doctrine of physical resurrection – that someday when the Messiah comes, the dead will rise up and God will restore them to their bodies.
  • There are various historical theories about why the resurrection doctrine developed – for instance, during an era of massive oppression and killings of Jews by the Romans, it filled a psychological need for justice. Bodily resurrection as a doctrine had its opponents (the Pharisees were pro-resurrection, while the Sadducees believed that once dead, you stayed dead). But whatever its genesis, resurrection of the dead ultimately became a key point in Orthodox Judaism.
  • Meanwhile, the Greek concept of an immortal soul that is distinct from the body was also incorporated into Judaism. Maimonides included resurrection of the dead among his Thirteen Principles of Jewish Belief, but  gave much more of his attention to immortality of the soul:

“In the World to Come, there is nothing corporeal, and no material substance; there are only souls of the righteous without bodies…. The righteous attain to a knowledge and realization of truth concerning God to which they had not attained while they were in the murky and lowly body.”

  • There are lots of inconsistent, sometimes conflicting, ideas about afterlife running through the past 2,000 years of Jewish thought. There’s even a Jewish version of reincarnation in the Kabbalah  – gilgul neshamot, or “revolving of souls”!
  • When Reform Judaism arose in the 1800s as an effort to bring a modern, scientific world view to Judaism, it renounced the doctrine of bodily resurrection. The Reform liturgy removed the traditional wording praising God for giving life to the dead (mechayei hametim), and instead praised God for giving life to everything (mechayei hakol).

Rather than bodily resurrection, Reform Judaism followed Maimonides’ lead and focused on the immortality of the soul. Some Reform thinkers went even further and treated immortality as an abstraction – i.e., we live on after death through our good deeds or through people’s memories of us.

Recently, though, Reform has stepped back from its historical antipathy to the language of bodily resurrection. In a bow to tradition, the latest version of the Reform prayerbook gives congregants the option of saying mechayei hametim instead of mechayei hakol.

Yow! Maybe we’ll get some zombies into this blog post after all.

 Zombies in the synagogue social hall! Zombies in the sisterhood gift shop! Zombies on the JCC basketball court!

(Although I do need to add that the Reform movement doesn’t intend for people to take the revived mechayei hametim language at face value. “Most Reform rabbis don’t accept bodily resurrection literally,” my rabbi said. “Instead, they’re talking about things that are inside all of us — parts of us that may feel dead but we want to resurrect.”)

In any case, this is all historically interesting. But what does it mean for me personally? Not much.

I can’t even begin to take the idea of dead bodies rising up from their graves seriously. I don’t buy into ideas of heaven (Gan Eden) and hell (Gehinnom). Nor do I believe that I have a soul that will live on after I’m gone, although I’d be happy to be proved wrong. And the abstractions about living eternally through good deeds or others’ memories? That always feels like empty rationalization to me – no one short of a Shakespeare or a Lincoln is really remembered beyond their children and grandchildren. And in any event, I don’t want to be remembered: I want to be alive!

Ironically, the Jewish description of death that most speaks to me is the oldest and least sophisticated one – the Biblical one.

We return to dust.

To me, that is eloquent in its stark honesty. It doesn’t sugarcoat anything or succumb to wishful fantasy. It forces us to face the painful fact of our mortality.

And as a corollary, it challenges us to live a meaningful life since it is the only life we have. That’s kind of existentialist. It’s also very Jewish – do good, be just, be kind, not to win rewards in some future heaven but because it is the right way to live life here on Earth.

It also reminds me of the song When I’m Gone, by the brilliant, under-appreciated late folk singer Phil Ochs (download it! download it!):

Phil Ochs' I Ain't Marching Anymore (1964)

There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone
And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone
You won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

And I won’t feel the flowing of the time when I’m gone
All the pleasures of love will not be mine when I’m gone
My pen won’t pour out a lyric line when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

Won’t see the golden of the sun when I’m gone
And the evenings and the mornings will be one when I’m gone
Can’t be singing louder than the guns when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here
And I won’t be laughing at the lies when I’m gone
And I can’t question how or when or why when I’m gone
Can’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

Since posting this blog entry, I learned from my old college friend Eliot that Ochs was half Jewish on his father’s side! (See the comment section for this entry.) He was not actively Jewish, and I suspect he looked at all organized religion with a jaundiced, crap-detecting eye. But that song (I’ve included  just a partial excerpt) is one of the most moving and spiritual statements I’ve heard. It belongs in a siddur.