December 1, 2023 /
The Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, the seminary where both Rabbi Glasser and I were ordained, while a fantastic seminary, has not always been good with talking about God and spirituality. For example, I was in my 2nd year sitting at a table with my friends in the “CL.” The CL is the floor that in other buildings would have been called the “basement.” I’m not sure why for us it was called the “CL.” It probably stood for the Conference Level, but we all affectionately called it the Crypt Level. Back when I was in seminary, it was dark and grey, and it was one level down under the streets of Manhattan. There was a weird skylight that would enable strips of sunlight to seep through in an odd sort of twilight way. There was also a classroom on the far side that felt dangerously close to the subway. We were always waiting for a train to jump track and come crashing through the drywall with a lit-up letter “Q” that would give better illumination to our CL. There were tables down there that we used to eat at, and back then it was quite possible to be seated at one of them and not know your friends were down there as well, even if they were just a few tables over. It was probably more inviting than this, but I just remember the space being dark and miserable. I was back not too long ago, and it’s much better now.
Anyway, so there we were one afternoon when suddenly we heard the shouting of two of our teachers. This caught us off guard for two reasons; the first was because we didn’t know they were down there having lunch within earshot of us and second because neither of them were prone to angry outbursts like that. Although the ambiance of the CL did tend to make people a little edgier. One professor was pleading with the other that we needed to start talking more about spirituality and God and urge congregants to live spiritual lives if we were to fight off the downward trend of synagogue affiliation. The other Professor started shouting back, stating that spirituality was just a made-up word that “hippies invented to talk about their feelings.” He finished by exclaiming that, “Jewish spirituality is not real. It is a made-up term, and don’t ever talk to me about that hoozy foozey mumbo gumbo made-up fantasy world of yours again.”
Well, one of them lost that argument because four years later, the school had added two different electives to our available course load. The first class was called “God and Spirituality,” and the second was “Jewish Meditation and Mindfulness.” Both courses were taught by two rabbis from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. They had to outsource the staffing of the class because none of our teachers knew how to speak about or even teach Jewish Spirituality.
I had a professor at the seminary, he retired before Rabbi Glasser began her journey to become a rabbi, His name is Lenny Kravitz and not he was not the 5’10 African-American rock star but was instead a 4’5 white bowlegged nebbishy Jew. Dr. Rabbi Lenny Kravitz maintained that the only appropriate class to be labeled as “spiritual” is one that is taught while drinking scotch. That was as spiritual as our seminary got; it just wasn’t part of our culture. We did a lot of talking about what we think God wants of us, what our liturgy tells us about God, how we understand the theology of God, but we never, until my very last semester in seminary, talked about how we see God in our lives or what God means to us. So I figured with one year to go, why not take the courses offered by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.
I learned a couple of things that year; the first is that I was not super big on Jewish Mindfulness and Meditation. I understand that I might be “yucking someone’s yum” right now, and please know that I have great respect for those who are into mindfulness and meditation, but back then, I had a tough time with it. It was a semester of deep breathing, yoga, and sitting still. It was the same 3 credits as my Rabbinic Codes and Responsa class where I needed to fit 2,000 years of rabbinic literature inside my head so I could regurgitate it out in a 4-hour final which was perhaps the single most challenging task I had to do in seminary, more so than writing my thesis on the Book of Job (which wasn’t hard, just really depressing). So there I was, with a few of my colleagues in a dark room in the CL not too far away from where the shouting match occurred, lying there on a Yoga mat in some odd position (that I think I am still sore from) with a rabbi telling me to focus on my breathing as I breathed out the sounds of God’s ineffable name, which sounds like the sound of breath.
Again, for me, at that moment, I could not feel the profound impact of the class, just that I thought this might actually be, “hoozy foozey mumbo gumbo.” It wasn’t until I was sitting and watching my father die from the Glioblastoma that I began to understand what Jewish Spirituality was.
A trope that our instructor would use was, “notice the feeling you are having and acknowledge it with a breath, be still and compassionate with yourself and breathe out. As you breathe out, let your heart call out to God.” During the class, I found it hard to not audibly laugh. “I am noticing that I am feeling silly or frustrated with this class, breathe in, dear God, get me out of here, breath out.”
But sitting there with my father in the hospital, with the nurses and doctors of whom I will never forget and will always cherish, especially our own Dr. Beth Poplin, who held our hands as she helped us make decisions. I found myself focusing on his raspy aspirated breathing, and I was immediately pulled back to that class in the CL. He wasn’t responsive for quite some time. We had the beeps of the machines turned off, and we had bright hospital lights turned down. We attempted to get rid of the sterile feeling of the hospital and make it homier. We were playing for him the music of Glenn Gould, a classical pianist whom he loved to listen to. And I sat there, still, and breathing, acknowledging all the feelings flooding in, acknowledging the inevitable truth of what was only hours away and breathing out one simple prayer that my father would be at peace and in the loving wings of God’s Divine Presence.
At that moment, I had a conversation with God about the ways of the world, my thoughts on “Cosmic Fairness,” which I don’t believe exist, and on how I could honor my father appropriately. I spoke to God in words of kindness and in words of anger, breathing in, and breathing out. I found a spark of Jewish mindfulness and spirituality within me.
I think, as Jews, we often have trouble with the world of spirituality. I would imagine that many of us would say that we think of ourselves as being spiritual, but might have a hard time explaining what it means. For the Sages, spirituality was undoubtedly not a thing. Being Jewish was about being observant, maybe they found spiritual fulfillment in the study of Torah, in prayer, or writing their texts, but in all their work, I have trouble finding anything that talks about spiritual fulfillment as being a part of Judaism. Sure they wrote piyutim, poems, that expressed the longings of the heart, but there were no books written that we might find on a shelf marked “spirituality” at Barnes & Noble. They cared deeply about thought and action, study, and knowledge. So much so that for many of us, as Jews, we would rather dwell within the realm of the mind than the heart.
To go back to Lenny Kravitz (again, the bowlegged Jew and not the self-proclaimed “Minister of Rock & Roll”), he taught a course on Medieval Jewish Philosophy, and there was a lore about him, and that class, which Dr. Kravitz confirmed for us was real. The lore was that when he was marking the papers, he would gather them as a pile on the top of the stairs and would give them a little toss and the ones that plopped straight down as a rock would be marked with an “L” and then graded and the ones that would float for a step or two before coming down would be marked with a “G” and would have to be redone. What do the “G”s and “L”s stand for? Well G was for Galitzyaner, those – in his words – “lufttypes ones,” they would need to be redone, and the “L”s were for Litvak, the cold, heartless scholar. He prided himself on being an “uncaring Litvak” (again, his words, not mine), hence the spiritual class that only would contain scotch.
The New York campus of HUC – JIR had a way of training us to be Litvaks. And while I studied there, I found myself enthralled with the musings of Franz Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig believed that the Bible is not a philosophic document, but a collection of histories, stories, law, poems, and wise sayings. He believed in an intellectual maturity of religion, which would include the rejecting of any of the God images that were “mystical” in nature. He came to understand Judaism, our place in the world, and God through a term he once coined as absolute empiricism. Feelings wouldn’t show up anywhere. It should be no surprise then that the theologian that he had his famous debates with was none other than Martin Buber, who coined the phrase I-Thou.
For Rosenzweig, A living, personal relationship with God as part of the Jewish people mandates a life of Jewish duty, of the discipline delineated by the sages. These are the laws, the rules, the behaviors, doing them is what will give you a relationship with God. Buber rejected this line of argument. He wanted no precondition, not even the content of the law, to stand between him and what God might or might not command. In a living relationship, one responds to the other in terms of what is asked of them now, not what once seemed appropriate.
For Buber, authentic human existence is found in “meeting;” in the reality that arises between people, not in reality suggested by theories or Jewish codes. Buber maintains that there are two types of relationships, I-It relationships, and I-Thou relationships. I-It relationships are mundane or even profane. It’s how we mostly interact with the world. Me and my chair, me and my task, assignment, gig, what I have to do. Here is this thing I am relating to, and in my mind, it is just a thing. And sometimes, we, unfortunately, treat people in this fashion as well. I-It relationships cannot enable us to know a person as a person. I-Thou relationships are where there is real meaning and relation between two individuals. This encounter is far different than the I-It. It demands participation, not distance, giving of oneself, and not objectifying. If the other person is to know you, you cannot hold back part of yourself from the communication.
You can be truly known as a person only when someone knows you as a whole, and that can only happen when you open your heart to another. What is the difference between I-It and IThou? It’s the hyphen in-between. That hyphen is the essence of ourselves or the intent that we bring to the meeting. In Hebrew, the kavanah. That is what transforms the “It” into a “Thou.” And what, therefore, does God want of us in this world? To have I-It relationships with things that are genuinely “its” and I-Thou relationships with those that are genuinely “Thous.”
You see, for Buber, evil comes into the world when we treat people as abstractions or objects rather than people and treat objects as if they contained the Divine Image. Much like how many of us are treating the new iPhones with this type of longing and desire. It was disconcerting to me that our society was treating the Apple tech announcements as if Tim Cook was Moses coming down from Sinai when he walked out onto that stage in California. Society treated those phones as if he were holding the stone tablets.
When we treat things as people, or even more important to us than people, we turn away from God and evil comes into our world. But, we can always change our ways and “turn” back. Turn back to other people and thus to God. That is teshuvah, repentance. If we make an effort, relationships can be restored and becoming one with God again – atonement.
So what is God to me? Well, I think of the George Harrison song, “My Sweet Lord.” If you trim out the repetitions the lyrics go:
My sweet Lord/
I really want to see you/
really want to be with you/
But it takes so long,
My sweet Lord/
I really want to know you/
I really want to go with you/
want to show you, Lord/
There is such emotion in his lyrics both of a knowing God, but also of a yearning to know God. The words of this song match nicely with the second of the Ten Commandments. Do not make for yourself a graven image. Not with any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down or serve them.
In other words, this commandment warns against reducing a God who is “all that is” to one idea. When God tells Moses that God’s name is “I will be what I will be” it is a lesson to us that God is not one thing, and to some of us, God is many things. This, by the way, was a drash that I was taught by our upcoming Reitman Scholar-in-Residence, Rabbi Irwin Kula.
I believe that God is a force that binds us all together. I believe that this force arises when we truly meet and know someone. When we care for others, no matter where they come from or what their beliefs may be. I believe that God is the force that brought this universe into existence millions upon millions and billions of years ago. I believe that God is the force in our lives that calls us to be holy and to serve others and create holiness in the world around us. And I believe that what we are seeing around us is a supreme lack of Divinity as a result of our collectively rejecting the Divine Image of ourselves and others. And I believe that God will mostly be a mystery to me throughout my life. That I will simultaneously long for God and yet still feel close to God.
Over the next several sermons, I will wrestle with you on topics like Israel and the soul of our nation. I will share my struggles with you and how I attempt to make these conversations “I-Thou” and not “I-It.” I will not withhold a part of me as Buber urges, but I will not do it in a way that makes anyone of you feel like an “It” and not a “Thou,” and hopefully, I will do it in a reasonable amount of time. I hope that when you leave here you will feel as though you know me more and understand why I believe the issues I address are issues that are moral and religious challenges for which God is calling us to action.
I believe our whole society requires Teshuvah, a turning. A turning from hate and violence, a turning away from politically motivated behavior to relationship-based behavior. A turning away from hostility and anger towards the “other” and instead, a pursuit of understanding the other. Life is messy. We will never stay above the muck. Never, but we will have moments when we can rise above it. We rise above it when we can have I-Thou conversations with others and with ourselves. How do we make sure that when we respond to the muck we do so in the best possible way? By making sure that our responses are rooted in our faith and heritage. Not in political whims and fancies, not in vanity and not in opposition to the image of God. But it takes great humility and vulnerability for us to do so. May we each have this courage, may we each have this strength and humility, and may we each find each other and God in the process.