Posts Tagged ‘God’

The world as a dinner party

March 26, 2013

We don’t throw formal dinner parties. It’s both generational and demographic; my husband and I came of age in the era of Laurel’s Kitchen potluck dinners filled with dreadful lentil-nut loaves.

We’ve moved beyond lentil-nut loaves, but we still tend to entertain in a casual way. Good wine, but no crystal glasses. Delicious food, but stainless-steel flatware rather than the sterling silverware that my mother had.

There’s one occasion a year that’s different, our Seder. White tablecloths, flowers on the table, and the silver wine goblets and serving platters that I inherited from my mother’s family. I always scramble to polish them at the last minute, since they haven’t been used since the previous Seder and have accumulated tarnish.

Our seder table / Photo by Ilana DeBare

Our seder table / Photo by Ilana DeBare

We also make place cards for the guests. That was always Daughter’s job before she went to college, writing elaborate versions of their names with colored markers. My part of it was figuring out where to place the guests.

So Monday afternoon, I took a little break from the Passover cooking and table-setting to sit down with the list of 22 guests and figure out who was to sit where.

It’s a job that takes  consideration. You want to keep parents and children next to each other, but you also want the kids to be near another kid of their age. The strong singers shouldn’t be bunched up at one end of the table. The guests who don’t know anybody shouldn’t be stranded in Siberia at the far end of the room.

Mostly, I try to place people next to each other who will connect in some interesting way — the bass player and the soccer coach? the two Kaiser doctors? the 20-something surfer and the 50-something Qi Gong practitioner?

Getting ready for our Seder sometimes makes me feel like a Virginia Woolf character — Clarissa Dalloway or Mrs. Ramsay, preparing a social gathering with small deliberate steps that no one really notices, but that create order out of chaos.

Then yesterday I thought of myself as God.

Suppose the world is a large-scale version of a dinner party, and God makes the seating plan. God sits there with the guest list and table chart and thinks about whom we should meet on any given day.

Now, those of you who have read this blog for a while know that I don’t believe in God. Not a God who favors one sports team or army over another, or cures individuals of cancer, or decides who we will meet as we blunder along in the world.

So I’m talking hypothetically here.

But just imagine that some God has made a dinner-party-style seating chart for your life — has sat there, putting careful thought into why you should encounter certain people. The co-worker in the cubicle next to yours. The Starbucks barista who makes your morning coffee. The homeless guy who begs for money at the freeway off-ramp. 

Imagine that there is some reason you are meant to encounter these people — something you have in common, something you might enjoy together, or something you might learn from each other. There is a connection, a reason to get to know them, even if you don’t have a clue what it is.

And then relate to them like that.

Forget the God part. You can believe in God or not. The God bit is optional.

Just relate to them like that.


In Conversation: Rabbi Andrew Straus

July 27, 2011

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 fourth in an occasional series of interviews with the rabbis of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif. 

Rabbi Andrew Straus may be 50 and a veteran of three congregations, but he’s the new kid on theTemple Sinai block, having taken over as senior rabbi on July 1st after the retirement of Rabbi Steven Chester. Still, less than a month into his rabbinate here, it’s already clear to me that he is a wonderful addition to the Sinai community.

Rabbi Andrew Straus

Rabbi Straus — whose wife Karen and three children accompanied him from his previous pulpit in Tempe, Arizona — brings warmth, humor, energy and intellectual vigor. During his first Shabbat service at Sinai, he turned the d’var Torah into a room-wide back-and-forth on that week’s Torah portion.

He seemed to already know the names of half the attendees, and the other half he learned by asking them to introduce themselves as they made comments. I suspect that two decades from now, people will be saying the same thing about Rabbi Straus that they said about Rabbi Chester: I can’t imagine Temple Sinai without him. 


Q: Tell me about why you became a rabbi.

A: I was entering my senior year at Brandeis, about to graduate with a history degree. I didn’t want to go to law school, and I didn’t want to pursue a PhD. So I said, ‘Let me find the longest graduate program that will put off the real world longer than anything else.’ And rabbinic school was another five years of graduate study.

That’s the joke answer, although there’s some truth to it. But more seriously,  I was looking at what I wanted to do with my life. I loved working in the Jewish community, so I started looking at getting a master’s in Jewish education or possibly in Jewish social work. At that time they would teach you education, and throw in a little bit of Judaism. Or they would teach you social work, and throw in a little bit of Judaism. The major focus was on the professional degree, not the Jewish studies.

What I wanted was to study Judaism in a more serious way – and then figure out what to do with it afterwards.

What I’ve since come to realize is that the rabbinate allows me to dabble in all of those areas. I get to do the social work stuff and the counseling; I get to be involved in education; I get to be involved in community organizing and community issues. Sometimes I think I’ve become a jack of all trades, though I’m not sure I’ve mastered any of them.

Q: What kind of Jewish upbringing did you have?

A: I grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where my parents were very involved in the Jewish community.  They don’t use the term ‘refugees’ to define themselves, since they left Germany right after Kristallnacht and didn’t go through the camps. But that experience certainly shaped them and how they were involved in the Jewish community.

I very clearly remember going down to New York for Israel Day parades or for Free Soviet Jewry day marches. I remember the Yom Kippur War, just before my Bar Mitzvah, sitting with my father at the J.C.C. and making calls about who was going to donate what to support Israel. I remember some of the doctors in the community leaving to go to Israel for the Yom Kippur War.

For my parents, it was very important we have Shabbat dinner together. And more often than not, we went to Friday night services together too.

Q: Was your family Reform or Conservative? 

A: It was a Conservative congregation, a very liberal Conservative congregation. The first Shabbat that Conservative synagogues were allowed to count women in a minyan, our congregation was doing it, and at the first Shabbat where the Conservative movement gave permission for women to read from the Torah, we called women to the Torah.

Choosing Reform Judaism

Q: What drew you to become a Reform rabbi rather than Conservative? 

A: At the time, the Conservative seminary was not accepting women, and that didn’t make any sense to me. And at the time, it was understood that you would be shomer Shabbat — traditionally observant of Shabbat and kashrut and the mitzvot. If you didn’t do those things, it could be grounds for expulsion.

I didn’t want someone forcing me to do those things. I might choose to do them – but I didn’t want someone forcing me.

I realized that, if that’s where I was, it was really more of a Reform Jewish attitude than a Conservative one. So maybe I belonged at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.

Q: Are there parts of Reform Judaism that remain uncomfortable for you?

A: Growing up as a kid, I remember going to my aunt and uncle’s Reform congregation in Springfield, Massachusetts, and walking in and hearing the organ and the big choir and thinking, ‘God, I’ve walked into church!’

I’m not sure I could be in a fully classical Reform congregation – one that was still using the Union Prayer Book with services largely in English, where the cantor is hidden and there’s a pipe organ with a large professional choir. But the (Reform) movement has become much more traditional over the past 30 to 40 years. This embrace of tradition made it much easier for me. And I think I’ve become more liberal.

Rabbi Straus leads an interfaith program at Temple Emanuel in Tempe, Arizona / Photo by Temple Emanuel

Q: What are your favorite aspects of being a rabbi? There are so many different components of this job – the pastoral counseling, the Jewish scholarship, the social action, the interfaith work. 

A: Of the things you mentioned, I certainly enjoy the social action, the Jewish education, the pastoral counseling. If I could eliminate all the administrative pieces, that would be great. But that comes with the territory. I love teaching, I love counseling, and the social justice stuff often gets me jazzed, especially when you can see where it makes an impact on the community.

Broadening the meaning of Kashrut

Q: Do you personally feel more of an affinity for the spiritual/reflective aspect of Judaism or the tikkun olam/community-building aspect of Judaism? 

A: I’m not sure I see the two as separate. I understand Judaism as asking us to be God’s partners in healing this world. My understanding of the mitzvot is they are designed to help me live a conscious life – to help me think about these issues both interally for myself and the Jewish community, and for the external community. If I can use kashrut as an example, I think kashrut is about conscious eating. What am I about to eat? How was this animal slaughtered? Am I eating dairy or am I eating meat?

It takes an instinctive part of who I am – as an animal, I have to eat – and brings it to the head and heart. My pet dog doesn’t use his brain when he eats. I’m a human being, and I have to use my brain and my soul when I sit down to eat.

Q: I feel that kashrut often emphasizes the letter of the law rather than the meaning. I can understand putting attention into buying local, or into how food is produced. But that’s totally different from separating milk and meat and using margarine rather than butter at a meal. 

A: What I find really interesting is this whole new movement called eco-kashrut. The Conservative movement has taken the lead with a new certification called Hechsher Tzedek or Magen Tzedek.  Traditional kashrut only looks at the last ten seconds of an animal’s life – how is it slaughtered? The Conservative movement is saying that’s not enough. We have to look at how that animal is treated through its entire life, how the workers in the slaughterhouse are being treated, how the farmers are being treated. There’s a lot of wisdom to that.

In my own home, we eat very little meat. But when we do, we don’t look at whether it has been properly shechita’ed (slaughtered), because most meat in America today is slaughtered with relatively little pain — which is what kashrut is really about — but we do look for natural or organic or free-range. We expand the definition.

This doesn’t fit my Orthodox brothers’ categories. But it fits my categories, and it fits what you were saying about looking at the broader picture.

A God constrained by the laws of nature

Q: Let’s take a leap into the abstract and talk about God. What is your conception of God? 

A: It’s very much an evolving conception. I often joke — but am also serious — that the day I think I know with absolute certainty who and what God is, that’s the day I’ve stopped growing as a human being and a Jew. That’s certainly the day I should get out of the rabbinate, and probably the day I should die.

I am very much influenced in my thinking about God by writers like Mordechai Kaplan, Harold Schulweis, and Harold Kushner. They teach that God is not a supernatural God who can come down and fiddle in the laws of nature.

Kushner has written that we ultimately have to choose between a God who is all-just and a God who is all-powerful. And given that choice, I choose a God who is all-just. This means that God has created the world in such a way that the world operates by certain laws – the laws of genetics, physics, chemistry, all those laws that scientists are discovering on a regular basis.

It’s not that God chooses not to interfere with those laws, but that God cannot intefere with those laws. So when someone gets cancer, I can’t blame God for that cancer. At the same time, it means God doesn’t pick and choose and say, ‘Mrs. Schwartz, you’re going to be cured from your cancer but Mr. Cohen, you’re going to die from your cancer.’ That’s got to do with all the other scientific laws.

Where is God in all that? God is with the scientists and doctors inspiring them to discover cures or provide the best possible care that they can. God is with the community saying, ‘How do we support Mr. Cohen and Mrs. Schwartz through their healing process, and how can we be God’s partners in doing that?’

Q: If God is with the doctors studying cancer, is God also with the vandals who come and break into Mrs. Schwartz’s house while she is in the hospital? 

A: No. I would argue that the vandals – or the terrorists, or whoever you want to substitute into that sentence – are people who have chosen not to listen to the will of God.

Q: But people who do horrible things often believe they are hearing God. Think of all those popes who carried out crusades and pogroms in the name of God. 

A: That’s not the God that I believe in. The God I believe in couldn’t possibly condone actions like that. And that goes for the jihadists, crusaders, or whomever you want to substitute there, who says ‘I’m acting in the will of God.’ No God that I believe in could condone that.

Q: But they’re as confident as you are in their view of God. Why should I put greater credence in one, rather than conclude it’s all subjective and everyone is making things up to justify what they want to believe? 

A: There is admittedly an element of subjectivity. That’s why I can do the interfaith work I do. Because I believe that ultimately there is not just one path to God. I don’t believe there is ultimately just one ‘true religion.’

Judaism is the best way for me to understand my role in the world and my relationship with God. Committed Christians find that Christianity is their way, and committed Muslims would say the same thing. But to me, any religion that teaches hate and violence in the name of God goes beyond the realm.

Baseball as a metaphor for spirituality

Q: In your own life, do you feel that you have ever communicated with God or experienced the presence of God?

A: I’m not sure I would use the word ‘presence.’ I might use the word ‘ force.’ But yes. There are moments when we sense that force. As Danny Syme once taught me, when we think about love, we can’t see it, touch it, smell it, or feel it with any of our five senses. But we all know when we’ve been in the presence of love and when we’ve felt loved.

It’s the same thing with God. We can’t experience God with any of our five senses. But we know when we’ve been in the presence of God. Although often we don’t know it till after the fact.

Q: Have those moments for you been in prayer, or in nature, or in driving the carpool? 

A: Rarely in driving the carpool! But there are times when a kid will make a comment, or I’ll see a beautiful sunset while driving. There are moments while teaching. There have also been moments when I’ve been with families in a hospital room, saying a prayer, and something happens.

Each time it’s different. But there’s a sense: God was present in this moment.

I often use an analogy of baseball. The greatest baseball players right now are batting 350, which means they only get a hit 35 percent of the time at bat. They go right back to the dugout 65 percent of the time. But they know – to get that hit, they’ve got to work on their batting 350 days a year. And they’ve got to be willing to fail time after time after time.

The same thing is true for us in our experience of God. Too many of us walk into the sanctuary and think that every time we’re going to get a home run.  If you think hitting a baseball at 90 miles per hour is hard, true experiences of God are harder yet. So as a community we have to learn to say: When I open myself up to those possibilities, more often than not, nothing will happen. I’ll go right back to the dugout. There will be those times I get a single. Very rarely will I get a home run.

As my father would say: If I go to services, the odds of having a deeply spiritual experience are pretty slim. But if that doesn’t happen,  hopefully there’s been some beautiful music. And if there wasn’t beautiful music, maybe the rabbi said something that was intellectually stimulating. Or maybe I saw a friend and it was a great social experience. And if worse comes to worst, maybe there was something good to eat at the oneg.  There’s lot of different reasons to come to services.

“It’s not just about Shabbat or Passover”

Q: You did a lot of interfaith work in Arizona. What is one thing you wish more non-Jews understood about Judaism? 

A: That Judaism is not monolithic. And that Judaism today is not Biblical Judaism. That what they read about in the Hebrew Bible — what they call the Old Testament — is not how any Jews worship or practice today.

Q: What do you wish more Jews knew about Judaism? 

A: I wish they would get the sense that Judaism is a way of life, with something to teach us about almost every aspect of our lives. While we might not always agree with it, we have an obligation to study and learn from it. Judaism can help us make our daily lives richer and more meaningful. That’s part of what I think Orthodoxy gets. It’s not just about Shabbat or Passover, but about how to see the world through Jewish eyes.

The other piece I wish more Jews would pick up on is Shabbat. When I work with people for conversion, I hear time and time again ‘Ahh! My life is so much richer now that I’ve embraced Shabbat.’

I don’t necessarily mean an Orthodox understanding of Shabbat, but an understanding that  ‘I can take a seventh day. I can take Shabbat and make it holy, in whatever way that word means for me – make it special. I don’t have to do chores and I don’t have to go to work.  I can make this a special day for me and my family.’


This is the fourth in a series of interviews with rabbis connected to Temple Sinai. Click on these links to read previous interviews with  Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-MuchinRabbi Andrea Berlin, and Rabbi Steven Chester

In Conversation: Rabbi Steven Chester

May 31, 2011

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 third in an occasional series of interviews with the rabbis of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif.

Rabbi Steven Chester

Rabbi Steven Chester, our senior rabbi at Temple Sinai, is retiring after 22 years at Sinai and 40 years in the rabbinate. Seventeen years ago, he conducted our daughter’s baby naming ceremony. Earlier this spring he officiated at my adult Bat Mitzvah. We’ve known he was retiring for a long time — this is actually his second attempt at retirement, since his first got derailed by the recession — and I felt lucky to have the chance to study with him for my Bat Mitzvah.

Rabbi Chester was in fact the reason Sam and I joined Temple Sinai. We had just moved back to Oakland from Sacramento and were “congregation shopping.” We walked into his office, saw the United Farm Workers poster on the wall and felt his personal warmth, and we were hooked.

Rabbi Chester combines that personal warmth with a commitment to social justice, powerful public speaking skills, a “big tent” approach to Israel that welcomes both AIPAC hawks and J Street doves, an intellect that moves easily from ancient Jewish history to contemporary novels, and a humanistic theology in the tradition of Abraham Joshua Heschel.

And let’s not forget a sense of humor that, every Purim, gave us our rabbi in drag as Esther Chester.


Q: You’ve spent 40 years in the rabbinate. Do you view Judaism differently now than when you entered? 

A: I don’t view Judaism differently, but the ways that people manifest their Judaism have changed. People are much more inward today.  If you want to hang a word on it, they’re more spiritual, whatever that word means.

Reform Judaism of the ’60s, when I was in rabbinical school, was completely social-action oriented. Rabbis spoke about social issues and how Judaism connected to those issues, but they did not speak about prayer or God. The movement’s emphasis was 80 percent on the social action side of Judaism and 20 percent on the inward side – on self-fulfillment, prayer, and God. That’s been the major change.

In Jewish life and especially in liberal Jewish life, we’ve always balanced on two tightropes. One tightrope is the tension between particularism and universalism, or between Jewish issues and universal issues. The other is between individuality and community. It’s not that the values have changed, but the weight put on one or the other has changed.

Q: Is that change for the better or the worse? 

A: Ten years ago, I definitely thought it was for the worse. One would go to conventions and there was a preponderance of workshops on turning inward and self-searching rather than the outward and community action. Now social action is coming back and there’s more of a balance. That’s positive. There has to be both.

Rabbi Chester leads Becca's naming ceremony in January 1994 / Copyright by Ilana DeBare

Q: How about you personally? Has your relationship to Judaism changed over these 40 years? 

A: My relationship to tradition has changed. I’m not speaking theologically; I’m speaking ritually. I’ve become more traditional in the service, where davening or body movement has become more significant, and where there’s much more Hebrew in the service.

I look much more to text than I did in my early rabbinate. Very little text was dealt with in the ’60s and ’70s. Now the emphasis is that when you do something, you base it on text. You’re looking at text and examining text.

In terms of Jewish values, I haven’t changed. My emphasis remains the parallel relationships (with people) and not the vertical relationship (with God).

I’m much more concerned with what Judaism says and with what I do — the Jewish values by which I live my life — than with prayer. My main connection is still to the social, and to social justice.

“I still see people as basically decent”

Q: You’ve spent 40 years dealing with people in moments of intimacy, trauma, and joy. Do you view human beings differently now? 

A: No. I view people as basically good. I try as hard as I can to not be judgmental. There are some people who have difficulties – family problems, psychological problems and so on — that prevent them from reaching their true potential as a person. But I still see people as basically decent.

One thing I’ve learned in my rabbinate is: Don’t react immediately, and don’t overreact. Listen to what someone is saying and then try to figure out why he or she is angry. I’ve learned that if someone comes in very angry about something in the congregation, generally there is something going on in his or her personal life – illness, divorce, conflict in the home.

The congregation may be the one place where this person feels a sense of ownership, and so takes out his or her frustration on the congregation.

Q: What has been the biggest surprise in being a rabbi?

A: What they didn’t teach in rabbinical school that surprised me was the practical aspect – from budgets to how boards work. That was probably the most difficult thing to understand.

The second thing that surprised me, and still angers me, is what I call the “gas station” approach. People bring their kids in for a bar or bat mitzvah, and when the last one is done, they leave the congregation. What angers me isn’t that they don’t have an interest in Jewish life, but chant the phrase, “We don’t use it any more.”

If everyone thought like that, where would the next generation of children go to be educated? It’s a very selfish way of looking at things. If the majority of people did that, we would have no synagogues.

Another thing that surprised me — and that I now understand — is that you can’t play the numbers game. If x number of people come to services or take a class, then your job is to make it a meaningful experience for them. You can’t say something is not a success if it only has 10 people and not 40.

I’ve served three different sizes of congregations, and you’re essentially going to have the same percentage of people actively participating. I no longer judge in the way I did when I was young. My first high holiday sermons were, “You all should be coming to services more!” Well, that doesn’t do any good. As a matter of fact, all it does is take away from the importance of the other points you want to make in the sermon.

You want to be creative and try to bring people in. But you can’t lament that not everyone is going to be doing everything. That approach will destroy you. You’ll be emphasizing the negative as opposed to the positive.

Rabbi Chester and me before my Bat Mitzvah service

God as a part of us, not as a puppeteer

Q: I liked your phrase about being more “horizontally” focused than “vertically” focused. Let’s talk about the vertical. What’s your conception of God? 

A: Someone once said about Abraham Joshua Heschel: “The ineffable name of God was mensch (man). That belief is the touchstone of so much of what Heschel wrote and did.”

I don’t believe that God is in control of my life like a puppeteer. I go back to some of the Chasidic rebbes who said that when we are born, a piece of God is placed in each and every one of us. And when we bring out our potential, then God is present. God is acting through us. When there is evil in the world, it’s not that God isn’t there – it’s that God has not been activated. That part of the human being, godliness, has not been activated.

Do I believe God can heal people, as it states in the mishaberach? No. But I do believe that when I reach the end of my rope, when I feel helpless and hopeless, there is something inside that gives me extra strength. That, to me, is God.

But there are also times when I hear the cantor sing and all of a sudden, my mind goes back to the traditional belief that God can heal or answer prayers. Because there are emotional moments when things happen in our lives, and we sometimes need something more concrete to rely on.

One doesn’t have to believe in one way. One can be eclectic. We are human beings, and we are not consistent. Those of us who are parents are not consistent in parenting; most of us don’t have only one kind of art in our house; we eat different types of foods. Why do we always have to be consistent about our belief in God?

In the old temple building, three or four times a week I would go sit in the Harpham Chapel and look at the colors of the stained glass windows. I knew the times of day when the colors would bounce off the white of the walls, with the colors mixing. Did I say a formal prayer? No. I would just look at that, the awe and the wonder of it, and God would be touching my life.

It comes back to Heschel, and that every facet of life is a miracle or godly. Heschel said that when we say blessings for everything, it isn’t because God needs the blessings. It’s that we need the blessings to realize the miracle of everything God has given us.

Rabbi Chester and adult b'not mitzvah (from left) Ilana DeBare, Karen Tanner, Jane Simon and Sydney Firestone, May 2011

A personal story behind decades of grief counseling

Q: You’ve spent a lot of time over the years working with people in moments of grief and mourning. What drew you to this? 

A: It’s not that I really l dwell on doing grief counseling. It’s something I became qualified to do. But the reason why may be a little bit deeper.

I had a girlfriend my first semester in college — a brilliant young woman, a year ahead of me at UCLA, second violinist in the L.A. Philharmonic, a talented, bright, sweet young lady. She was probably my first love. I was home in Pomona for winter vacation and I received a call from her mother, saying she had fallen off a horse and was in the hospital and probably wouldn’t be able to go out New Year’s Eve.

Then, before I had a chance to go in and visit her, I received a call that she had died.

I went to the funeral – it was the first funeral I had been to, ever. I was a pallbearer. Her mother was a Holocaust survivor and as we walked to the grave, I vividly remember her mother yelling, “Why did I ever survive the Holocaust? Why did I ever survive?”

We did the burial, and I didn’t go back to the house afterwards. And because I didn’t know what to do or how to act, I never visited her parents or contacted them again. I always felt tremendous guilt about that.

I think that may be one of the reasons, subliminally, that I started taking classes in grief and death counseling and became pretty well qualified to do this. In Stockton, I was one of the co-founders of a hospice and became the grief counselor for the hospice.

I know somewhere down deep it had to do with my own failure as a human being and as a young man – I was 18 years old – and not knowing how to handle that particular situation.

That’s also why in Stockton, and sometimes here in Oakland, I used to do a death and dying class for 10th graders. I wanted them to know how to act when they went into a house of mourning – not to be afraid, and to know what to expect if someone died in their family.

Creative chaos and the outlook for Judaism

Q: When you think about what Judaism will be like in 10 or 20 years, are you optimistic or pessimistic? 

A: I’m optimistic.  I don’t think Judaism is going to die out in the United States. More people are interested in it. How it’s going to look is another question.

The only other time in Jewish history that’s comparable to the Jewish American world today was 2000 years ago – only today you don’t have the oppression that existed in Roman times.

Back then you had the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the Essenes and the Zealots, and the secularists who wanted to become like the Greeks and Romans.

Today you have Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, secular, Modern Orthodox, Ultra Orthodox, Chasidic Ultra Orthodox, non-Chasidic Ultra-Orthodox, Renewal – all these things.

I call it creative chaos. It’s all very positive. The question is, where is it all going to go? Not just Reform Judaism – but what will all of non-Ultra-Orthodox Judaism look like 20 years from now? I have no idea.

Jewish values aren’t going to change. But how are they going to be manifest? And with all these developments in technology, how are we going to retain a sense of community? Do we want to become Facebook congregations?

One of the beauties of Judaism has been that we have been able to adapt. Mishnah was an adaptation, Talmud was an adaptation, Chasidism was an adaptation, Reform Judaism was an adaptation.

They were all responses to what was happening in the society, both internally and externally. That’s why we survive.

The heart of being a rabbi 

Q: What is the secret to being a good rabbi? What would you tell a young rabbi entering the rabbinate today? 

A: That’s a difficult question. Because I’ve loved what I’ve done. I’d do it all over again, mostly in the same way.

But the specific answer would be – love Judaism. Love being Jewish, teaching Judaism, love other Jews. Love the Jewish people, even with all our mishegas (craziness). That would basically be it.

You have to love what you’re trying to give to people. Also, you have to have respect for people — faith that they will try to further what you as a rabbi feel is significant in Jewish teachings and life.

Q: Is there anything you would change about your rabbinate? 

A: I am thrilled this congregation grew the way it did, almost doubling in size. However, it’s difficult to have a large congregation when you’re the type of rabbi I want to be. Essentially I’m a pastoral rabbi. I believe in seeing people as soon as possible. I fit in other things between appointments or at night. So I end up working many hours a week.

My first congregation, 100 families, was very intimate and I knew everyone. My second congregation was 325 families and I knew almost everyone.

Then, as I came here, to a larger congregation, both the congregation and I lost some of that intimacy.

I ended up not doing every bar and bat mitzvah, not interacting with the families in the same way as in a smaller congregation. If this congregation had stayed at 500 or 550 families, that probably would have been more fitting to the type of rabbi that I am.

To see the growth here is very thrilling and gratifying. But you become more of a CEO-type, and sometimes why you became a rabbi falls a little bit to the wayside.

About a month ago I had a day all filled with what I would call “real” rabbinic duties. I counseled a person who was going through tremendous difficulty, then had a bat mitzvah rehearsal, then I taught a class at night that was really thrilling.

That night I came home and said, “Today was a day that I really felt that I did what I went into the rabbinate to do.”


This is the third in a series of interviews with rabbis connected to Temple Sinai. You can read the first interview with Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin here and the second interview with Rabbi Andrea Berlin here


In Conversation: Rabbi Andrea Berlin

April 21, 2011
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 second in an occasional series of interviews with the rabbis of Temple Sinai, my Reform congregation in Oakland, Calif.

Rabbi Andrea Berlin

Rabbi Andrea Berlin came to Temple Sinai in 1998 and recently moved to a regional position with the Union of Reform Judaism. She exudes an infectious delight in Jewish learning, and inspired near-groupie enthusiasm among both adults and teens taking a class in medieval Jewish thought with her.

Rabbi Berlin, 40, has two children with her husband Jon. She was the rabbi for my daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, but I had never asked about her own beliefs until we did this interview.

Here Rabbi Berlin talks about her hybrid socialist/Orthodox upbringing, her personal connection to (and anger at) God, the challenges of navigating Middle East politics as a congregational rabbi, and the trend toward “cyber-Judaism.”


A “socialist Reformadox” upbringing

Q: Tell me about your Jewish upbringing. Were you raised Reform?

A: I was raised as a socialist Reformadox.

Q: That’s a great label! But what does it mean?

A: We’d have to start with my dad, who during World War 2 spent half his time in the United States and half his time in England. His birth father was an Orthodox factory owner who made women’s coats in England. The man who raised him here was an atheist socialist and one of the major movers behind the Ladies Garment Workers Union.

My dad came into the marriage with my mom being non-practicing, but having both socialism and Orthodoxy as very strong passions, with socialism the most predominant. My mom grew up in New York Orthodox family…not Orthodox herself but very involved in Judaism. Passover showed all the variety of my family.

Q: So tell me about Passover in your family.

A: We worked out of the regular Maxwell House Orthodox haggadah, with supplements from the union haggadah – not the Union of Reform Judaism, but union as in AFL-CIO  It had a lot of pro-labor, pro-union, freedom-for-the-working-class type poems and songs. Then as we got more and more involved in the Reform movement, we would bring home the Reform liturgy. It was all over the place.

I grew up having bacon and eggs, but God forbid you ever put milk on the table with the bacon because that was just not kosher. As I’ve become more religious, I’ve dragged my parents along in the process.

I went to Reform religious school in third grade. It took a while to get there. We started Orthodox, and then went humanist. When I came home and explained that God was the opiate of the masses, my parents decided to try Reform.

Q: What made you decide to become a rabbi?

A: I don’t know. I was very, very young. When I was nine, I was tall for my age so when we would play house, I would always have to be the mom. I would have to do the dishes, which I didn’t like. So the bargain I struck with my non-Jewish neighbors was that if we could play temple first and I could be the rabbi, then we could play house and I would be the mom. That’s one of my earliest memories.

Communicating with God

Q: Let’s jump straight to the serious stuff, like I did with Rabbi Mates-Muchin. What’s your conception of God?

A: It changes every day. I have both an immanent [personal] and a transcendent conception of God.

The immanent one is probably the more difficult to articulate. It’s instinctual, a gut relationship. I very much feel God’s presence. I feel I can communicate with God and, if I am quiet and open and humble enough, I can get a sense of God and of direction.

Then there’s a transcendent belief where God is the force behind Creation. It was a conscious, decisive force with the intent of creating the world. I believe that God is ever present, but God’s relationship to the world has vastly changed over the history of humanity.

Q: Focusing on the transcendent — God as a force behind Creation. Is there something you would call a mind?

A: I think there’s a consciousness. It’s something so vastly different from anything we can comprehend that to call it a mind would be giving it attributes that are probably inappropriate. We can probably perceive .009 percent of what makes this thing.

Rabbis Andrea Berlin and Steven Chester at a Bat Mitzvah at Temple Sinai

Q: Did this consciousness communicate with our forefathers and the prophets? Was Abraham actually talking to some one or some thing? 

A: The reason I’m hesitating is that I have a foot in both doors.

If I were answering from my religious instinct, I’d say that Abraham certainly received communication from God. I’m not sure it would have been in words, but the medieval Jewish philosophers talk about God placing thoughts and images in the minds of the prophets.

On the other hand, looking at it from my academic view, Abraham didn’t exist. But the Torah still contains divinity even if Abraham didn’t exist. It was a way of giving us very important information that we needed to have through the voice of this Biblical character.

Torah as holy, but not to be taken literally

Q: When instructions like the Ten Commandments were conveyed to the Jewish people, were those actually the words of God, or of a prophet, or of a writer of the Torah?

A: I think there’s a divine spark in all of it. I would make a very sharp distinction between the written and the oral Torah [rabbinic commentaries].

To me, the oral Torah is an example of human beings struggling with written words. This is where I would break from Orthodox theology – I don’t believe in the infallible tradition, that somehow the oral Torah, everything a rabbi would come up with, was handed down by God at Sinai. I do believe that our brains are holy, our seichel [wisdom]  is incredibly holy, so that must come from God. But we invent it in each era.

Q: What do people mean by “written Torah” and “oral Torah?”

A: The written Torah ends at the end of Deuteronomy. The oral Torah is Talmud and Mishnah and the codes and everything that comes after. With written Torah, I feel it’s irrelevant where it came from – the fact is it’s holy, and we’ve treated it as holy. Whether written by God or human beings, it was designed to be studied in concert with our human instinct. Therefore it is a living, ever-evolving book. The mistake we make is to take it literally. As long as we don’t do that, it can have a holy influence in our world today.

Q: Let’s take some of the stuff that you wouldn’t follow today, like stoning people. 

A: Not only shouldn’t we take it literally, but we’re meant to struggle with it. I also think it’s possible that God has evolved. God’s relationship with humanity has changed – not only because we’ve changed, but why couldn’t it also be that God has changed as well?

Even though God exists out of time, God is learning about human beings as we’re growing. So I don’t necessarily think that God today would repeat that you take a child outside the gates and stone him if he curses his father.

Q: But do you think God actually had anything to do with that rule or was it just what people did at that time?

A: I teach Torah from a historical perspective, where we look at the Near Eastern codes. So when the authors wrote that, they were borrowing from what they knew of society. At the time, it was the only way you could maintain order and control.

But talking about me personally? I think it’s irrelevant. Even the words that cause me pain are holy and I have to treat them as such – that doesn’t mean follow them, but argue with them and change them. The rabbinic tradition I share is called pilpul, where you change the words so much that you come out with the opposite conclusion. The unholy thing would be to ignore them.

Q: And those words are holy because they’re our tradition? Or because they were inspired by God?

A: Because they exist in a holy book, inside the Torah. Even the words I believe are wrong are holy.

Different holy books for different people

Q: Would the words in any holy book be equally holy? Are the words of the Quran or Hindu scriptures equally holy?

A: To Muslims and Hindus, yes. But Torah is mine. It’s holy for me.

Q: So is there an objective God or truth? An imam says “the Quran is holy,” and a priest says “the Gospels are holy” —

A: Judaism teaches that I am bound to Torah because my people accepted it. I chose to accept it; it’s a covenant I have with God and the Torah. It does not apply to someone who does not want to join that covenant. It’s not the same theology as saying, “This is a holy book, everyone needs to adhere to it.” Only the people who are part of the covenant need to adhere to it.

Q: But if there was a God powerful enough to create the entire world, wouldn’t that God have created one set of moral rules for the whole world? 

A: No, I don’t think so. I return to the text. When the Ten Commandments were given, it says that “God spoke all these words, saying….”

The question is why those two words [said and saying], why the redundancy?  God spoke the Ten Commandments to one community so we’d all hear them together, and also said them individually in everybody’s ears because we all learn and hear differently.

While that was true for the Ten Commandments for the Jewish people, I feel it was also true for the greater objective truth of the world. There can be this one God but because we’re all different, we’re going to understand God differently. And what’s nice is that the fundamental principles that thread through all these books are the same. You can’t murder. You can’t commit theft. There are things you can’t do, and they’re pretty consistent across the board.

Walking with God while climbing Half Dome

Q: Let’s talk about your immanent or personal sense of God. Is this  something you’ve always had? 

A: As long as I can remember. It’s not consistent with any sort of intellectual attempt to articulate or understand it.

Q: Does it come to you at particular moments, like through praying or being in nature?

A: It’s like any relationship. I always have it, but there are times when I access it more often. It ebbs and flows. There are times I feel more distant from it, usually when I’m angry.

But it’s also something I talk very little about. My job as a congregational rabbi is to help people articulate their own views of God. So I don’t bring mine into that, since it would disrupt that process. It’s very rare that I actually talk about my relationship with God.

Q: Well, now you get to talk about it! It’s interesting to me because it’s completely alien from my experience. I have never experienced anything remotely Godlike on a personal level except a sense of being part of the universe when I’m in nature.

A: It might be the same thing, only we have different labels for it.

Q: I’d still say on my end, it’s pretty minimal. So… what is it you actually feel?

A: It’s hard to define. A closeness to an entity. It’s different from a human being, but I assume the feeling of being in relationship is similar. I feel I am “in relationship” to something else.

When you were talking, I remembered when I climbed Half Dome and there was this moment when I was exhausted. I had my pack on, it was hot, I couldn’t get enough oxygen – I was done. I ate a fruit bar and found my second wind. But from that time until we got to our stopping point, a couple of hours, I was walking with God. It was suddenly crystal clear to me. The mountains around me still had snow on them, and I felt like an artist was standing next to me showing me his work. It was an incredibly powerful experience.

On a more mundane scale, this morning I led minyan [prayers]. When I’m davening, I don’t always pay great attention to the words, but when I do, it’s almost like reading a diary given to me by someone else. Then in the moment when we’re quiet, I really do feel like someone is listening to me.

And often during the day, if something comes up, I can communicate to God and I feel like I’m being heard.

Q: Does God respond in terms of giving you answers?

A: Not answers. Sometimes I get a sense that I’m being cared for. Or there are coincidences that couldn’t possibly be coincidences. It feels like what Rabbi Larry Kushner calls “the invisible lines of connection.” It feels like there’s something bigger there than just a coincidence. That will often give me confidence about what my next step should be.

Q: When you pray, are you praying FOR things? Are you praying that your new job goes well? That God will be there for you? Are you talking to God?  

A: When I teach Torah study, I always pray that I’m accurate and that the class is exciting! So basically, I pray that I’m not going to make stuff up.

I pray for strength. Usually it’s not about getting something; it’s about what aspect of myself I need. I do always pray that Jon and I can raise our children to be happy and healthy mensches. We’ve gone through some very frightening health crises with them, and I’ve prayed very hard at those times.

Q: But during a typical morning minyan? 

A: There are prayers of supplication and prayers of benediction — benediction meaning “gratitude.” So most of my prayers are prayers of gratitude where I think about the kids, about Jon, my sister or friends. Sometimes on a Friday night I’m looking around the congregation and thinking about the work I get to do and am grateful for that. I always close with a “happy healthy mensch” prayer for the kids.

Q: Your sense of being cared for by God — is it fleeting or does it stay with you? 

A: Again, I would compare it with a human relationship. My sister lives in Boston. When I talk to her, she’s right there. But when I’m giving the kids a bath, she’s not in the front of my mind. The same thing is true with God.

Rabbi on the (relative) right

Q: How would you describe your Jewish practices compared to the majority of Reform rabbis? You are the most traditional of our three rabbis at Sinai.

A: I am to the right of most of my colleagues on everything — politics and ritual. With maturity, I’ve become a lot more relaxed. I used to be very uptight about what I thought Jews should and shouldn’t do, but age changes things.

For example, I keep less strictly kosher now than we used to. I don’t mix milk and meat when we’re at home, although I’m willing to do it when I’m out if I can’t avoid it.

Q: Given your preference for tradition when it comes to ritual, why are you a Reform Jew rather than Conservative?

A: The philosophy. I might choose to practice this way [traditionally], but I absolutely believe in Reform’s intent of combining Torah with seichel — our common sense and ability to interpret.

I love that we don’t lose the forest for the trees, that we don’t allow the letter of the law to corrupt the intent. I love the way we do holidays. I love the way we mobilize around social action. That’s a huge reason why I’m a Reform Jew. I believe the Torah’s basic mission is to bring light to the world, and how else are you going to do that if you’re not out in the street actually doing it? I love the way we do education. I love the way we allow modernity to enhance our Jewish experience.

Q: Have there been challenges as a congregational rabbi who is on the more traditional side?

A: Being politically right has been more of a problem. It’s mostly around Israel. I was raised with the understanding that Jews supported Israel, period.

Q: And Jews shouldn’t ever criticize Israel? 

A: If I’m not living there, I’m hesitant to do so. There’s plenty of criticism of Israel, but you still need to stand behind her and her survival.

Q: How does that come out in congregational life?

A: People take umbrage with our curriculum in preschool and religious school, or with the sermons. Rabbi Chester usually gives the pro-Israel high holiday sermon. People talk to me about it afterward, complaining, and don’t realize I’m actually to the right of where he is. Or they’re uncomfortable with the word  “Israel” itself – forgetting that’s our name, who we are, having nothing to do with the country. But people react to it in our prayers and that’s hard for me to navigate.

I can listen to people say whatever they want about God and there’s no personal response from me. But Israel’s a different story.

Q: Well, God’s a little more powerful than Israel! 

A: I believe in the two-state solution. I don’t want to sound like Meir Kahane. And thinking about people in the world, the Palestinians are probably in the most precarious situation. We need to take that into account.

But what I have trouble with are people who start the conversation with the premise that Israel’s existence is not a foregone conclusion. I find that here [in the Bay Area]. And I don’t know how to be a caring professional rabbi around that discussion.

The coming of cyber-Judaism

Q: Off of politics and back on ritual…  where do you see Reform Judaism going with ritual? The movement as a whole is more traditional than it was 20 years ago.

A: I believe we are heading toward post-denominational Judaism, where the lines between the movements are much more fluid. How that will look, I have no idea.

Cyber-Judaism is going to have a huge influence on brick-and-mortar Judaism, and I don’t think cyber-Judaism is delineated by denominations. Rather than Reform ritual, we’ll be looking at “modern ritual” that encompasses Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal, Conservative, Modern Orthodox — ritual that will bring the movements into a more intimate working and sharing relationship.

Q: What do you mean by cyber-Judaism?

A: Communities will evolve from people knowing each other in person into the cyber-world, or from meeting in the cyber-world into knowing each other in person. Even right now, I can think of several colleagues who have become very close in the cyber-world and they see each other at conferences. I can see the same thing happening with congregants.

Q: Would it replace going to services?

A: I’d see it as a supplement. I know we have live Web streaming, but I don’t think people will find it sustainable in terms of getting what they get from bricks and mortar. But socially, that’s how we’re going to network, and synagogues will do a lot of their business in the cyber world.

Q: What is your hope and fear for the next generation? 

A: My fear is like this old rabbinic story. A man goes to his rabbi and says,  “I can’t get to services so much – I live far away, and it’s so cold and there’s snow, so I daven at home and that’ll have to be okay.” And they’re sitting there and the rabbi moves one ember out of the fire and they sit in silence and watch the ember die.

That’s my fear – that being together in ritual and prayer cannot be recreated in the cyber world. It’s like a spark of flame. You have to be present to be ignited with that flame.

My hope is that we will figure out a way to use cyber-Judaism to underscore and enhance the values of Judaism. To use it as a mobilizing force around political issues, or the needy or literacy. If we can use it to keep people in touch when not physically together, that would be fantastic.

Anger at God

Q: Anything you’d like to talk about that I haven’t covered?  

A: The one thing I’d like to follow up on are the times that I get really, really angry at God. Mostly it’s when we bury kids. I don’t think I’ve ever forgiven God for the times we’ve had to do that.

But what’s important for people to know is that I’ve never found any reason in Judaism to feel threatened by expressing that emotion to God.

Q: Meaning you’ve never felt like a bad person for being angry at God? 

A: Yeah, or that God’s going to take vengeance. My tradition gives me the right to be very angry at God.

Q: Have you ever gotten an answer? 

A: No. And that’s probably why I can’t forgive God. If God expects me as a woman to bring children in this world, and as a rabbi to help people go through that kind of loss, I deserve an explanation. And it’s one I’m never, ever going to get. So it makes me mad.

Q: A lot of people would simply say, “I don’t believe in God.” 

A: I wish I could. Then I wouldn’t be so angry.

Q: Well, do you ever step outside yourself and say, “My connection with God could just be a neurochemical reaction?” 

A: Of course! But it’s irrelevant if that’s what it is.  You could also say that falling in love is a neurochemical reaction, but I‘m not going to divorce Jon.


This is the second in a series of interviews with rabbis connected to Temple Sinai. You can read the first interview with Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin here.

Jews without God

February 6, 2011

What does it mean to be Jewish without God?

That was the question at the core of a half-day seminar Sunday on “Belonging Without Believing,” co-sponsored by Lehrhaus Judaica and the San Francisco Jewish Community Center. It’s a question I have a good deal of interest in, as I’ve tried to meld my secular, atheist Jewish background with increased participation in synagogue ritual and life. (Case in point: Becoming a bat mitzvah.)

The keynote presentation was an on-stage conversation between KQED Forum host Michael Krasny and U.C. Davis professor David Biale. Both had recently published books related to the topic — Krasny’s “Spiritual Envy: An Agnostic’s Quest,” and Biale’s “Not in the Heavens: The Tradition of Jewish Secular Thought.”

Michael Krasny (right) and David Biale (blurry)

Krasny was even more erudite live than on the radio, with a prodigious memory for aphorisms and a tendency to drop names of an astonishing array of  major intellectual figures whom he’s interviewed.

(Example:  Recounting that his friend Jane Smiley says, “I used to be an agnostic, but now I’m an indifferentist.” And then seguing right into mention of a conversation with Julian Barnes, who said “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”)

Krasny talked mostly personally, about his own search for something to fill the place God had held for him as a child — “the certainty God was watching over my life, he was there for me.”

He posed a question to Biale: Given the dominant role that God plays in Jewish liturgy, with almost every line of prayer a glorification of God or a plea to God, is it really possible to have a Judaism without God?

I didn’t feel like Biale ever really answered that question directly, on its merits. Instead he focused on what is apparently the thesis of his book — that there is a long history of Jewish secularism that predates our modern era and grows out of organic roots within Judaism itself. He suggested that Maimonides was a precursor to Einstein with his argument that the only way we can know God is through God’s works, or nature. He found foreshadowings of Spinoza’s pantheism in 12th century Jewish neoplatonists in Spain.

“Starting with Spinoza, we have a tradition of Jews rewriting Judaism in a way that is not religious,” Biale said.

So Biale seemed to be defending secular Judaism from a historical point of view, as one of a number of legitimate streams of thought within Judaism. But I didn’t hear an answer from either him or Krasny on how they reconcile all those “Baruch atah adonai’s” in Jewish worship with their denial of or skepticism about God.

I know how I deal with it: I tend to do a little mental sleight-of-hand, saying “God” but thinking “the universe” or “life.” So when I say a blessing, the motzi or shehecheyanu or whatever, I am thanking the universe itself for its beauty and its miraculous existence.

(Or as I jokingly told a friend the other night: Whenever I reach a point in the liturgy that says God is great and God is holy and God rules over all, I just mentally cross out “God” and think “Bruce Springsteen.”)

Along with the Krasny/Biale keynote, I attended a fascinating workshop on whispers of secularism within the Talmud by another Davis professor, Moulie Vidas. Vidas was brilliant — engaging, informed, provocative. He used a couple of passages from the Talmud to argue that the authors were tacitly encouraging people to bring the mindset of a critical reader to Jewish sources  — to consider who is making an argument, and to question why they might be making it. 

“Secularism is a way of behavior,” Vidas said, suggesting that studying Talmud has similarities to modern secular studies of science and history.

Vidas would be a wonderful guy to get as a guest lecturer at Temple Sinai if we ever have a chance. There were also other workshops on the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, American cinema and secular Judaism, and Russian Jews and secularism that people seemed to enjoy.

But overall, I wish there had been a little more of a manifesto to the day. A little more of a declaration by someone that “I don’t believe in God, and I am proudly and actively and sustainably Jewish, and here’s why.”

Because I do believe that. I even feel kind of militant about that, since there is such a presumption in American society that religion means believing in a puppeteer God who smites enemies and rewards friends and helps you get rich or get well or pass the bar exam if you just pray hard enough.

I am confident you can be profoundly spiritual without believing in that kind of God. You can be profoundly ethical without believing in that kind of God.

So I would have liked the conference to address more explicitly — what does it mean to be profoundly Jewish without believing in that kind of God?

(P.S. This blog has touched on this topic before. For a non-puppeteer view of God that is close to my own, see this interview with Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin. For some of my own thoughts on God, see posts like this one that are archived on the blog home page in the category called Belief (or not) in God.)

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?

Let’s keep God out of Haiti

January 27, 2010

It’s felt strange to continue posting about personal matters like studying  Hebrew while the whole world is focused on the devastation in Haiti. But honestly, I haven’t felt like I’ve had anything to add to the chorus of horror, sympathy and analysis. There are plenty of people with more experience and knowledge than me who are writing about Haiti. 

But I did want to weigh in on one small point – God and Haiti. 

There have been all sorts of sound bites and stories trying to connect God with Haiti’s tragedy. On the crudest and most repulsive level, there was Pat Robertson’s now-infamous comment that Haitians brought their suffering on themselves by making a pact with the devil to win independence from France back around 1800. 

On a more thoughtful level, people have raised the classic question that goes from the Book of Job up through the Holocaust – how could a just God allow this kind of tragedy to hit innocent people who were already among the poorest on the planet? 

But I don’t see the Haiti disaster as something that God is responsible for, either actively or passively. 

To me, the most telling fact to me was presented by David Brooks in a New York Times column: The size of the Haiti quake was almost identical to the 1989 Loma Prieta quake in San Francisco. 

Yet in San Francisco, just 63 people were killed, while in Haiti the death toll is estimated in the hundreds of thousands. 

The quake was so devastating precisely because of Haiti’s history of underdevelopment and poverty. The country and its people continue to suffer from a legacy that includes slavery; neo-colonialism; alternating bursts of military intervention and neglect by the U.S.; and local ruling elites characterized by greed, despotism and viciousness. 

With that history of oppression and poverty, of course they didn’t have adequate building codes. Of course they didn’t spend money on well-built housing, schools or hospitals. Of course they didn’t have all the emergency equipment and systems in place that we do in the Bay Area. 

It doesn’t seem like rocket science to understand that “natural” disasters are particularly disastrous when they occur in poor, underdeveloped countries. 

And we’re going to see a lot more such disasters over the next century due to climate change – as it hits Third World countries that don’t have the resources to build things like seawalls and desalination plants, or relocate their populations, or diversify their economic base. 

Geological forces – not God — created the quake in Haiti. Human forces – not God — created a society that would be particularly devastated by it.

And we humans have an obligation not only to provide emergency aid when a once-in-a-century disaster strikes — but to foster just, democratic and economically viable societies that can ensure decent lives for all their people, all the time.

So let’s keep God out of the Haiti discussion. 

Except to the extent that God — or the universe, or nature (take your pick of whichever concept works for you) — gives us humans the intelligence and power to take care of each other.

And along with that, gives us a moral obligation to do so.

God, back atcha

December 21, 2009

Okay, so here I am back with this God concept again.

One of the books my rabbi suggested I read was called Finding God: Selected Responses, by two Reform rabbis, Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme. 

The book is a simple – VERY simple, embarrassingly simple,  like 8th-grade-level simple  – summary of how different Jewish thinkers approach God. It starts with concepts of God in the Bible and rabbinic literature, and goes on to figures such as Maimonides, Isaac Luria, Spinoza, Martin Buber, Mordecai Kaplan, Erich Fromm, and Abraham Heschl.

Finding God

You remember the concept of God that I disavowed in my earlier blog posts – the old white dude with the beard who grants prayers and punishes bad people? Sonsino and Syme give this God concept a name, “classical theism.” (My rabbi, Rabbi Steven Chester, calls it the “puppeteer God.”)

And they spend only the first 33 out of about 170 pages on this classical theist/puppeteer concept of God. That’s not even one-quarter of the book.

So their message is: There are lots of other ways for Jews to think about God:  

“Most Jews tend not to talk about God. Accordingly, the great majority of Jews receive the implicit message that ‘the’ Jewish God idea is the theology known as ‘theism.’ The fact is, there is more, much more….

“Though classical theism may be the most common Jewish theological position, it is by no means the only one possible. Atheism, therefore, is frequently not a rejection of God but rather a rejection of classical theism. A self-styled nonbeliever may be surprised to learn that he or she is really a Jewish religious naturalist, a Jewish humanist, a Jewish pantheist, or other.

“No single interpretation qualifies as ‘the’ Jewish God concept.”

I like this! I like that they’re trying to create a big tent for all kinds of Jewish believers, non-believers and sort-of-believers. And I found myself nodding in recognition as they described the ideas of certain modern Jewish thinkers.

Take Mordecai Kaplan – someone I’ve heard about for years but never actually read. He was the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. (His daughter was, incidentally, the first girl ever to become a Bat Mitzvah, in 1922.) One of his books is called “Judaism Without Supernaturalism.” In it he writes:

 “To most people God is not really God but a magnified demon. That is why they cannot disassociate religion from supernaturalism.”

Or take Erich Fromm, a radical humanist psychologist whose writings inspired me as a teenager. Although he spun his own interpretation of Judaism in a book called You Shall Be As Gods, he wasn’t a rabbi or any kind of muckety-muck within organized Judaism. I don’t know if he even belonged to a synagogue. So I was surprised and excited to see that they considered him part of a canon of Jewish thinkers.

Fromm described his belief system as “non-theistic mysticism” – meaning God exists only as a concept in our minds, yet it’s possible to have a spiritual connection to the universe. He defined the ultimate religious experience as:

“The experience of oneness with the All, based on one’s relatedness to the world as it is grasped with thought and with love.”

Non-theistic mysticism! That doesn’t sound too far from my own leanings.

So this all makes me want to go a little deeper and read (or re-read) folks like Kaplan and Fromm in their own words.

But I also had some questions about Rifat and Sonsino’s “big tent” approach to Jewish concepts of God:

Can they really say that all these more modern God concepts are as authentically Jewish as the old puppeteer God? Take Spinoza as an extreme example. Sure, he was Jewish. But he was excommunicated! Doesn’t it seem a bit of a reach to include someone who was excommunicated as part of the Jewish canon?

And that leads to the bigger question of who determines what is authentically Jewish.

Orthodox rabbis would probably deny legitimacy to most of the modern thinkers in the book. Fromm and Kaplan would have no place in their canon.

So who defines Judaism – the Orthodox establishment, the Conservative and Reform movements, or …. (you fill in the blank) ??? 


Shifting gears quite abruptly, happy holidays!

A belated chag sameach to my Jewish friends, and hopes that the smell of cooking oil has started to fade from your kitchen.

Happy winter solstice to everyone.

And a joyful Christmas to my Christian friends. One of these years I would love to go to a midnight Mass. (I’ve never been.)

But not this year.  Sam and I are going to Kung Pao Kosher Comedy — a two-decade-old San Francisco Christmas tradition of a Chinese banquet with Jewish stand-up comics. Intrigued? You may still be able to buy tickets here.

Oh God – Part 3 (An atheist in shul)

November 19, 2009

My friend Melissa in Sacramento has a knack for getting to the heart of things. She wrote after one of my recent posts: 

Since I don’t believe in God, I don’t go to synagogue because I am alienated by a service full of prayers to a God in whom I don’t believe. And I don’t envision a Bat Mitzvah, because it surely would involve worship of same. I wait with great anticipation to see how you reconcile these seemingly conflicting beliefs (non-beliefs?) Carry on!

I’ve spent the past two blog posts more or less talking about what I don’t believe.

So let’s give a little time now to why I in fact love the Reform Jewish liturgy – why I enjoy going to services even if they are full of God God God – and why I’m studying to become a Bat Mitzvah.

Services are a rare place in our modern American world where people talk about the big stuff. Mortality. The meaning of life. Forgiveness. Becoming a more loving, generous person.

Most of the time we run around completely preoccupied with daily life. There’s the whole materialistic drumbeat of buy! buy! buy! But even those of us who don’t buy into all the buying still get caught up in the scramble to get dinner on the table, hold on to our jobs, volunteer at our kids’ school, fix the broken toilet, keep up with the latest convoluted turns of the health care debate.

We don’t talk about death. (Well, except for those famous death panels.) We don’t talk about how precious life is. We don’t stop to remember how utterly long-shot miraculous it is that our temperate, water-filled, oxygen-filled planet with its millions of forms of life even exists.

But in services we do that. And for me, all those “Gods” in the liturgy are a stand-in for life, or for our universe. For creation.

When I say Baruch atah Adonai Eloheynu – blessed are you, Adonai our God – I am expressing my awe that all of this exists.

I am reminding myself to feel awe that it exists.

I am reminding myself that I am just a minuscule piece of a very big picture.

Going to shul (synagogue) gives me an opportunity to do this on a regular basis — even if I haven’t had a particularly awe-inspiring day, even if I have just spent the last four hours fighting with traffic jams or a moronic boss or a sulky teenager.

And it lets me do this in public, out loud with a bunch of other people, which is more powerful than thinking it silently by myself.

One reading that I love within the Reform siddur (prayer book) cites a Chasidic leader from Poland around the year 1800, Rabbi Simcha Bunam, who said:

Keep two truths in your pocket and take them out according to the need of the moment. Let one be “For my sake the world was created.” And the other: “I am dust and ashes.”

Wow! I don’t think you need to believe in God to find that profound.

So yes, sometimes all the God-language in shul (synagogue) gets to me like it would get to Melissa. But most of the time I take it as a metaphor.

And there’s a lot in the Reform siddur – like the Rabbi Bunam saying – that speaks to me with a depth and “big picture” perspective that is missing from other parts of my daily life.

P.S.  Want to read a Yom Kippur sermon by a modern rabbi on that saying by Rabbi Bunam? It’s here.

Oh God – Part 2 (An atheist without a foxhole)

November 17, 2009

So why am I an atheist?

There are two ways to approach this kind of “why do I believe xxx” question. One is to address its substance – to articulate the reasoning behind my conclusions. 

The other is biographical or psychological — more of a novelist’s approach. No matter how much we might admire Spock or Lt. Data, most of us don’t reach conclusions about things like God on a purely logical basis. We’re products of our families, our experiences, the things we cherish and the things that cause us to run from the room screaming.

I pretty much grew up an atheist. I’m not sure my father or mother would have used  that word to describe themselves, but religion was a non-factor in our home. We didn’t belong to a synagogue or go to Hebrew school. We were Jewish, and we had a Passover seder and lit Chanukah candles, but we also decorated a Christmas tree and dyed Easter eggs and cooked a Thanksgiving turkey and watched fireworks on July 4th. These all seemed like secular, cultural holidays – excuses to be happy, eat, exchange gifts, and see relatives. God never entered into any of it.

When I got older and claimed a Jewish identity for myself, it was a cultural and political one rather than a religious one. My most wonderful experiences as a teenager were in a socialist-Zionist youth group called Hashomer Hatzair, which had ties to the kibbutz movement in Israel.

Hashomer at the time was a quirky mix of early 20th century European socialism and American 1960s idealistic radicalism. Religion was the opiate of the masses. Passover and Chanukah were holidays of freedom and national liberation. Zionism was an effort to create a state where Jews could live securely like any other nation, not an effort to fulfill a divine mandate.

God, once again, never entered into any of it.

That’s the biographical back story. But shifting now from background to substance…  the common conceptions of God just make no sense to me.

Disclaimer: I haven’t read any of the recent spate of books on atheism, and don’t have a battle-ready arsenal of reasoned arguments. No Christopher Hitchens here!  But on a gut level: 

  • Science is able to explain so much of our world these days – including many of the mysteries that people traditionally ascribed to God. Even those near-death experiences where people talk about seeing a tunnel of light – there’s brain research that suggests such visions may be a neurochemical phenomenon.
  • The concept of God changes whenever humans’ need for a God changes. In ancient times, we needed some way to control rain and crops! So people prayed to rain gods and fertility gods. Well, now we have weather maps, fertilizer and  even GMO seeds. And we don’t pray to rain gods any more. To me, it seems so obvious that people create God rather than God creating people.
  • Then there’s the Holocaust. (As simply the most extreme example of unprovoked evil.) If there were a God that acted the way the Bible says – a God that rewards good and punishes evil, a God that cared enough about the Jews to take them out of Egypt — how could such a God have let this happen?

Recent take on the pilots who overshot the Minneapolis airport by the S.F. Chronicle's wonderful Don Asmussen

Honestly, I don’t think you need God to be spiritual. I don’t think you need God to be a good human being.

It is totally possible to be in awe of the miracle of existence — this planet, this universe, life, nature, human beings, love — without believing in God.

You can strive to do justice and love mercy without God.

When asked to sum up the teachings of Torah in one sentence, Rabbi Hillel said: “What is hateful to thyself do not do to another. That is the whole Law, the rest is Commentary.” No God in there.

Of course, someone far less eminent than Rabbi Hillel also said, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” And I must admit that my own atheism has never been tested in any foxholes.

I’ve never been in war. I’ve never starved. I’ve never watched a child die. I’ve never faced a deadly disease or extreme pain. I’ve never (yet!) been old and felt death tiptoe closer each evening.

I’d like to think I would be able to maintain my principles –  could live under duress and not turn to the theological equivalent of Superman or Batman for help. I’d like to think that I would be able to acknowledge the pointlessness of suffering and the end of consciousness that comes with death and the limits of my own power without blinking.

 But who knows? I haven’t been there. I wouldn’t presume to say how I would respond.

And I suspect that facing adversity, just as you can have a crisis of faith, you can have a crisis of no-faith.

 Next: So why go to synagogue? Why become a Bat Mitzvah?