Tag Archives: Judaism


I remember the moment I decided I did not believe in God. It was the year after I’d graduated from college and I had been called home from abroad by my family because my grandmother was in the hospital. A non-serious condition had taken a turn for the worse and surprisingly, my family was faced with the dreaded choice of whether or not to keep her on life support. The decision was made to turn off the machines with the expectation that she would die soon after, probably before I could get home. But instead she lived for two weeks.

I stood by her bedside with others in my family as she struggled to go from life to death. I watched this soft-cheeked woman who let us kids eat all her honey cough drops and gave me pearls for my 21st birthday, plead to be set free of her body and I thought, “There is no God.” No God because this woman was kind and gentle. She kept kosher. She didn’t deserve this.

My friend who studies Buddism thinks this is a very “American” idea of God. That Americans believe life should not be hard or painful. If this is true, then when something really awful happened it shattered my idea of fundamentally how things should be. I blamed it on God.

I never really had an articulated sense of what God is. In Judaism it seems the concept of God has some agency; God wants, God commands, etc. This trips me up. It just doesn’t seem possible.

Recently I began reading Letters to a Buddhist Jew, a book of correspondence between an American Buddhist (who was born Jewish) and a rabbi. The Buddhist is trying to figure out if he can find a place for himself in Judaism and his questioning is very direct. The reading is mostly over my head. It is like listening in on a conversation between two people who are arguing points of physics. I want to understand.

Early on, the Buddhist tells the rabbi, “Although Zen Buddhism does not deny the existence of a Divine force at work in the Universe, it does not focus on a God who must be obeyed, or more importantly, believed in.”

The rabbi responds:

There cannot conceivably be anything more important than the existence of God. In the light of God’s existence literally everything takes on vastly greater proportions; not only do moral obligations, for example take on meaning in the deepest sense, but the very notion of meaning itself comes to life. In a godless Universe, does anything really matter? … This is not a matter for simply “not denying.” If one comes to the conclusion that the Universe has a conscious Creator and Master, all one’s investigations and subsequent conclusions will be radically different in the deepest way. And if one comes to the opposite conclusion, then quite frankly, for me on a personal level the discussion loses most of its flavor.

This struck me. I will not choose to believe, but I am impressed by the rabbi’s assertion that life is flat and flavorless without God. What is he talking about? I wonder if there is a problem of words. Creator and Master, these make me uncomfortable. I’m open to a new understanding of the concept.

Both traditions, Buddhism and Mussar (a form of Jewish practice), are adamant that the spiritual path is not self-help. There should be an acceptance of an ultimate truth. Sometimes I feel like a faker, but I know that in Judaism the act of questioning is welcomed and expected. What matters is what you do.

Question the doubt

"The Doubt" by Domingo Millan

There’s a voice in my head that says I can’t really do this. This whole spiritual searching thing I’m doing, who am I kidding? I’m not a wise one. Or sometimes the voice tells me that I’ll do meditation and Mussar for awhile, but then I’ll go back to my normal life. Or if I do really become a more spiritually connected person, I won’t be able to write about it well. I’m not smart enough. So probably I should just quit. I mean really, it’s embarrassing.

Mussar teachers call this voice my yetzer ha’ra, or negative impulse. In Buddhism it’s known as one of the Five Hindrances. In both traditions, there is a recognition that as a person engages in elevating their inner life or creating mindfulness, there are inner hurdles to overcome.

The Five Hindrances include desire, which is the wish to add something more to the present moment; aversion, which is the opposite, wanting to take away from the present moment; sleepiness or sloth and torpor, which is the waning of physical energy, as in maybe I’ll go to sleep instead of meditate; restlessness, which is the impulse to get up and do something (usually associated with worry); and finally my friend, doubt, see paragraph above.

In Mussar, the yetzer ha’ra is more attuned to the individual person. It appears in moments of choice that reflect the battle lines within your character. So if you’re very clear on how you will behave in a situation, let’s say, whether to give a dollar to a homeless person, your yetzer ha’ra won’t get involved. But if generosity is a struggle for you, there might be a moment of real questioning once you reach into your pocket. It’s at that moment of choice that the yetzer ha’ra will appear and tempt you to make the “wrong” decision.

It isn’t an impulse to do harm, says Alan Morinis in Everyday Holiness.

Rather, they are pointing to the inner drives that arise from our lower selves. The drives themselves are certainly not appraised as bad; in fact, they are necessary and useful for human life. But whenever you try to control or overrule those drives because of an intention of your higher nature, or when one of those drives becomes exaggerated, you will have a struggle on your hands. The yetzer ha’ra will do everything in its power to subvert your higher self and to influence you to indulge your desires.

The challenges it presents are exactly the ones you must overcome in order to grow spiritually. So in its own rude way, it is helpful.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Sage is six years old. He’s a cheery fellow who has a good time wherever he goes. This past weekend he started his second year of Sunday school, where he spends about three hours at our synagogue mostly learning about Jewish holidays and the Hebrew alphabet. He’s also learned the Shabbat blessings and a couple of key prayers.

I don’t get the sense that they talk about God a lot, although of course it comes up. He’s never asked about it. Never pressed me on what it is or whether we believe in it. He never uses the term. I think the topic floats right over his head which is mostly filled with fantasies of fishing, boating, and biking.

Fine with me. I have no idea how to talk to my children about God.

Wendy Mogel, a Jewish clinical psychologist and author of the book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, suggests that parents say something like, “Just as a candle hidden from view sheds its glow all around, we can see God in God’s reflection: in the good things people do for one another, in the miracles of nature, in our ability to change and grow.”

I don’t see why those things can’t stand for themselves.

I understand that there are mysteries about life that people want explained. There is an intangible connection between human beings. Kindness, helpfulness, concern, these all strengthen that connection and that is good. Well, it feels good at least. But I don’t need to call that God. Maybe someday I will.

As for nature, it takes me two seconds to think of the “miracles” of Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti last January. Nature can be extraordinarily beautiful in ways big and small, but its forces can also be brutal and cruel. I am on this planet in awe of how we all got here, but however it happened it’s not warm and fuzzy.

Our ability to change and grow. This one holds some appeal for me. That is the nature of life, that it changes. It is impermanent, as the Buddha said.

One thing I do know is that unless I make some sense of this religion, the best I can hope for is that my kids will feel the same vague connection to Judaism that I do, based on enough time spent in Hebrew school and the enjoyment of holidays celebrated with our family. Then when they grow up, it will up to them to decide whether it matters. I fear it is not enough.

Scratching Beneath the Surface

I’m kind of in the weeds here. Trying to understand what these high holidays mean, I went online and Googled interpretations of Yom Kippur. I found this lame article on Huffington Post written by Rabbi Eric H. Yoffe, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “We know our urge to sin is powerful, we find comfort in proclaiming our errors, and we find hope in asking for forgiveness and trying to change our ways,” he writes. “When religion denies or ignores sin, it is irrelevant. When it acknowledges and confronts sin, it speaks to our hearts.”

Really this does nothing for me. Sin talk makes me squirm.

A friend of mine who has been a devoted student of Buddhism for a few years recently mentioned that she went to hear a talk by Norman Fischer, an accomplished Buddhist teacher who is Jewish. I looked him up and found his center in San Francisco called Everyday Zen. There on the homepage were links to recent talks he’s given on Jewish Meditation and the high holidays. This looked promising.

And indeed. I have only had the chance to listen to one of the lectures (there are three). It feels like I have finally begun to scratch beneath the surface of the meaning of this time of year. He discusses a book (name of book to come, I hope) that members were reading at Congregation Beth Sholom where the talks took place.

Just to give you a sense, the story of the Days of Awe as written by the rabbi begins like this.

You are walking through the world half asleep. It isn’t just that you don’t know who you are and you don’t know how or why you got here. It’s worse than that. These questions never even arise. It’s as if you’re in a dream. Then the walls of the great house that surround you crumble and fall. You tumble out into the strange street suddenly conscious of your estrangement and your homelessness. A great horn sounds calling you to remembrance, but all you can remember is how much you have forgotten.

Yom Kippur is like a dress rehearsal for our death. We don’t eat, we don’t drink, we don’t have sex. We exist as though we are at the end of our life and are suddenly accountable for all that we have done or not done. We admit to our shortcomings and commit to being a better person in the coming year. “This is the time of year when we remember we’re on that journey,” he says. “Remembering and mindfulness are really the same thing. Mindfulness really means the capacity to come back over and over again to what you’ve decided is important, to what you’ve committed yourself to.”

There is much more to this lecture than I can really deal with right now, but as I enter into Yom Kippur today at sundown, at least I have something more than sin talk to think about. Remembrance, mindfulness, courage, renewal.

Days of Awe

Here’s what I don’t believe. Today, Rosh Hashanah, God opens the Book of Life and writes down the names of all the righteous Jews to be inscribed for another year. If you’ve been less virtuous, you have ten days to right your wrongs by seeking forgiveness from others before God shuts and seals the book. If you don’t make it in the book I don’t think it means you’re necessarily going to die, but it isn’t good. Kind of like getting on Santa’s naughty list: you don’t want to go there.

The holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – the New Year and the Day of Atonement – are considered to be the most holy in Judaism. Growing up, my family did not regularly go to synagogue to pray, but we never missed going to services during this time of year. I don’t think my parents prayed then either, but it was just what you do. We went because we were supposed to. If it fell during the week, I would miss school to be there.

Not much has changed for me since that time. Out of some mysterious obligation, I go services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, dreading the boredom and unease I feel at hearing phrases like God our Father, King, Protector, etc. Blah. I usually leave early, knowing I can call home to wish my parents a happy new year and say that I went.

But there is this: the music in the service can have a kind of transformative effect on me. I hear the same tunes or prayers sung in Hebrew that I’ve known all my life and I begin to see images of Jews in the past hearing and singing these same songs. The melodies are sad, or at least they make me feel melancholy. I think of people hiding and praying. I think of musty old synagogues. I think of the Eastern European world my grandparents came from. I am part of all that.

And so like every other year, I have made my plans to go to temple later today.

Last night I opened Anita Diamant’s book, Living a Jewish Life, to try to understand what these holidays might mean beyond the story of the Book of Life. Here’s what she had to say about prayer:

The Hebrew word for prayer, tefila, which can be translated as “self-judging,” contains the notion that prayer is not about getting God to do something for you, but is a way of affecting change in yourself, a process of meditation, reflection, and stock-taking.

With all the singing and sitting and standing that goes on, I never experience prayer in temple to be a meditative exercise. It’s a communal event, in which I check out other people and wonder about their lives, practice reading Hebrew, and periodically check the prayer book to see how many pages are left until the service is done.

Diamant says that the Hebrew word for sin is chayt, a term based in archery that means “missing the mark,” as in, I could have been kinder or more generous, but I missed the mark. Interesting concept, the mark. How do you know when you’ve hit it?

Diamant quotes Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, a teacher and author. “Rosh Hashanah is about reverence and gratitude for life, the mother lode of all religious insight. Yom Kippur is about telling the worst truth about yourself, and getting new life from that.” These are the Days of Awe.

Something to think about while I’m counting pages later today.

Welcome to Jubuhoo

Last spring, I stood in the parking lot of my child’s school talking with a friend and explaining that while I consider myself Jewish, I am not religious. “If I want to pray,” I told her, “I’ll take a yoga class.”  It was a quip designed to ease the awkwardness that arises when people talk about religion, but later it occurred to me that what I said was true enough. I don’t know what it means to pray, but in my busy life, yoga is where I go to experience calm.

But what is also true is that I can’t seem to walk away from the heritage of Judaism that I was born into. It would be like walking away from my parents and my grandparents. The candles, wine, and bread of Shabbat. The Passover seders that I giggled through as a kid. And the fact that, as my friend Joel’s father said, when (not if) they come for you, and they will come…

I turned forty last year and suddenly it seemed that time was running out. Would I go on for the next forty years doing the same guilt-inspired trek to synagogue for the high holidays? Would I keep going to yoga classes, ever trying to spring my legs back out of crow pose and into plank position, chanting in Sanskrit about compassion for all living things, but never really knowing where all this comes from and if I even agree with it?

The main question I have for Jubuhoo is how to live. Is there a path better than the one I am blazing out here on my own? Can Judaism be a source of soul comfort and wisdom for me even if I don’t believe in God? Can I be a Buddhist and be skeptical of reincarnation? (Yes, I am aware that yoga comes from the Hindu tradition, but there are many overlapping concepts. Here’s an interesting article on that topic.) Can either help ease the terror that my time is passing? What do I want to teach my children about who they are and what it means to be human? What should I eat? What should I do? Can I still curse?

I am beginning this blog on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year and a time for renewal. There are many Jewish Buddhists who have wrestled with the same questions I am asking. Their writings will undoubtedly inform and inspire me. I hope you will bring your own questions and insights to the conversation as well.

Shalom and Namaste

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