Monthly Archives: September 2009

A Post-Secular Jewish Dharma Bum

I have a review in this week’s Forward. My original title was the one on this blog post.

Everything Is God: The Path of Nondual Judaism By Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson is well known to readers of the Forward for his column, “The Polymath,” a title well chosen to mitigate the frequent changes in his byline, which varied from dot-com software designer, to doctoral student in Jewish mysticism, to lawyer, to environmentalist, to poet, to GBLT activist. As one of the founders of the journal Zeek, Michaelson was one of the instrumental creators of the new Jewish culture — the hip mixture of ironic and post-ironic aesthetic gestures — which moved Jewish culture beyond baby boomer concerns. Michaelson’s theology is as diverse as his former bylines and reflects the same shift to the values of the new Jewish culture.

In this new book, “Everything Is God: The Path of Nondual Judaism,” Michaelson’s regular stream of post-secular book reviews provided the framework to work out his own popular theology, and the book reflects that history, capturing his spiritual insights in edgy 1,000-word bursts.

Skipping to the ending

Nevertheless, Michaelson does not start his reader on the long journey of transformation, nor does the book speak from a point of nonduality, as the Hasidic or Eastern religious works do. Instead, we listen to his breakneck embrace of the nondual world: Talking breathlessly about meditation, creating myriad perspectives on oneness and meeting everyone there is to meet upon the path.

The book reminds me most of the 1960s wandering independent polymath Alan Watts — an earlier articulate proponent of Asian philosophies of nonduality. Watts scandalized his straight-laced Western audience by preaching an eclectic nonduality outside of organized religion; however, Watts is more famous for antagonizing the world’s leading Zen teachers by claiming that Zen has little to do with sitting but is in fact a path of nonduality justifying “sheer caprice in art, literature, and life” — a spirituality offering a radical new worldview articulated in jazz rhythms rather than in the contemplative flavor of Zen. Like Watts, Michaelson sometimes makes grand pronouncements based entirely on his own experience.

Read the entire review here

Here was my original penultimate paragraph that was removed to keep to the word count and to remain focused on the book under review.

As I once waited backstage, before appearing on a Jewish cable TV show to discuss Judaism and Buddhism, a senior Orthodox rabbi from a staid upper crust synagogue, seeking to make conversation on my topic, confided to me how he read Alan Watts as a youth and gained many lessons that stuck with him through out life. The Rabbi never again dabbled in any other Asian thought or non-dualistic thinking, but the brief exposure to Watt’s Beat-Zen offered many lifelong tools for thought.

Most of the book is available online as articles at Zeek, The Forward, Jewcy, Reality Sandwitch.

Walmart, Love and Universal Ethics

Pope Benedict of the Week

David Nirenberg a Jewish professor of (Jewish) history and social thought at the University of Chicago offers a review in the TNR of Benedict’s recent encyclical “Caritas in Veritate: On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth.” He likes the message of love over market values, but asks: Why does it have to be framed as Catholic and not universal?

Benedict’s teaching differs from that of his predecessors in at least two important ways. The first is evident in the key term in his analysis: “love,” rather than “justice,” “natural law,” or “human reason,” the terms that were favored by some of his predecessors

As Wal-Mart shoppers, for example, we must divide our attention between 1) a self-interest in the lowest possible price for whatever object we desire; and 2) the needs of that object’s producers, of the environment in and from which it was made, and of the moral and fiscal balance of global trade (hence “consumers should be continually educated regarding their daily role, which can be exercised with respect for moral principles without diminishing the intrinsic economic rationality of the act of purchasing”); and 3) an openness to the loving “spirit of the gift.” Benedict is not simply suggesting a moral yardstick for the marketplace. He is claiming that every commercial exchange needs to become a loving act modeled on the gratuitous gift of Jesus Christ.

And only Catholicism, Benedict tells us, can achieve the universal fraternity necessary for authentic community: “Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity.

The problem is that Benedict is claiming to offer general answers to global questions that affect people of every faith (and sometimes of no faith), while at the same time insisting that the only possible answer to those questions is Catholicism. Such a suggestion might be a plausible prescription for global peace and development in a Catholic world, but the world is not Catholic.

In a de-secularizing age, and with our faith in self-interest shaken by economic crisis, we should want to draw on the wisdom in that ocean of thought. But if those teachings are to contribute to global “unity and peace,” they will have to be taught in a way that seeks to transcend the boundaries of the traditions that produced them. This does not mean, as Benedict fears, that Christianity (or any other religion) must become “more or less interchangeable with a pool of good sentiments, helpful for social cohesion, but of little relevance,” or that “there would no longer be any real place for God in the world.” Values are not a zero-sum game. God’s place in the world is not lost when one religion tries to translate some of its truths into helpful good sentiments for those of other or no faith

Full review

To which Michael Sean Winters replies at NCR and at his blog at America that he likes the perspective of the historian but disagrees with the need for universalism

his article is so refreshing and so frustrating. On the one hand, he understands that the advent of capitalism and its values represented a “reversal of a millennial moral consensus”

If Nirenberg truly believes that Benedict’s vision is narrowed by his insistence on truth to the point of preventing dialogue, why write a review of the encyclical? Nirenberg’s effort disproves his own claim.

Who is correct?

I think A Jewish Call For Social Justice by Shmuly Yanklowitz is closer to David Nirenberg in that he discusses social justice without any claims of truth or higher values. But is Jewish pragmatism enough? Is Winters correct that David Nirenberg, and most Jews, are more utilitarian than principled?

John T. Elson, Editor Who Asked ‘Is God Dead?’ at Time, Dies at 78

Elson died last week and this is a good vantage point to look at the changes of religion in the last half century.  Even though many proclaimed the end of God in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, God returned with a vengeance to show his public face in the public sphere in the 1980’s and 1990’s. But the story is not so simple:

The New York Times Obit notes that the cover of Time magazine posed a question: “Is God dead?” But “the article’s actual headline was ‘Toward a Hidden God,’ and it was a scholarly, careful look at how secularism, urbanism, and all the other ‘isms were changing people’s ideas about God.” “Secularization, science, urbanization — all have made it comparatively easy for the modern man to ask where God is and hard for the man of faith to give a convincing answer, even to himself,” Mr. Elson wrote.

Quotes from the original Tine magazine article: Friday, Oct. 22, 1965 Theology: The God Is Dead Movement

They say that it is no longer possible to think about or believe in a transcendent God who acts in human history,

Buddhism & Blake. There is a strong streak of mysticism… whose eclectic theology borrows from such diverse sources as Buddhism and William Blake

Paul van Buren is an advocate of linguistic analysis, which attempts to clarify language by examining the way words are used and denies the objective truth of statements that cannot be verified empirically.

//

Harvard’s Harvey Cox… whose book The Secular City concludes with the idea that Christianity may have to stop talking about God for a while, complains about the writers’ imprecise language. “Is it the loss of the experience of God, the loss of the existence of God in Christianity, or the lack of adequate language to express God today?” he asks.

Yet we indeed do have a more hidden limited deity.  Eliezer Berkovits is the author to be credited for the idea that we no longer have direct contact with a theistic God and now we follow halakhah without a direct presence. His lines about halakhah as substituting for a living presence are now associated with almost any modern pan-halachic approach.  But Berkovits was the one to respond to the hidden God by saying we now have halakhah.

Mysticism and Kabblah which were not in vouge in the first half of the twentieth century are useful in diverse ways. We have the symbolic realm of the Kabbalah to deflect from a personal deity onto more benign, God is sefirot. Even those who read Ramhal to be Haredi have deflected their God away from a person to a closed mechanism of sefirot and inner divine drive. We also have the spirituality version of Kabbalah and Neo-hasidism where God is functional to provide human happiness and religious experience. We also now have the Elie Wiesel Hasidic deity whom humans argue with. We have the tzimzum deity whom we can no longer know through doctrine.

And finally we have a variety of Jewish based kitchen deities, where one prays for everyday miracles, prosperity, and that the kugel comes out OK There is one recent semi-yeshivish popular book on Jewish prayer that encourages one to pray for one’s daily concerns. Even as God has come back in the public sphere, the deity is more therapeutic than theistic.

Is Outreach Judaism like Tribbles?

Here is an article on how Pentecostals have morphed into almost everything. They started as more conservative evangelical but now are more liberal, at times, than liberal churches. They are concerned with making you rich, helping you lose weight, helping you manage your time, and giving tips for successful middle managers. The artile asks at what point are they no longer just silly but actual heresy or truly in bad taste.

Heresy, Bad Taste, or Capitalist Adventure: Is it Still Pentecostalism?

By Anthea Butler  Posted on September 13, 2009,

If an animal could describe the Pentecostal movement, it would be the tribble, a cute furry fictional animal, well-known to Star Trek fans. Tribbles, the story had it, were born pregnant, reproduced at a staggering rate, and ate everything in sight: if the ravenous creatures hadn’t eaten a store of poisoned grain, they would have destroyed the Enterprise. To follow the analogy, Pentecostalism and certain segments of the movement (namely, the “Prosperity Gospel” and the “New Apostolic Movements”) have mutated like tribbles, choking off their Pentecostal origins, multiplying to such a degree that it is difficult to distinguish the broader Pentecostal movement and historic churches from the mutants.

Perhaps it is odd to equate a movement with a sci-fi creature, but the multiplication of the Pentecostal movement and its “mutations” have reached a point where some clarification and reevaluation of the broader movement is needed; especially in light of the shifting belief systems that each offshoot has engendered. From the calls to investigate Prosperity ministers Creflo Dollar and Paula White, to Sarah Palin’s New Apostolic Reformation movement connections, Pentecostalism and its progeny (Charismatic, Third Wave, Full Gospel and non-denominational churches) have multiplied so rapidly that it is difficult to discern what the original movement is and where the offshoots are.

Read More

The same question can be applied to the various outreach, kiruv, and engaged yeshivish in Judiasm. When do they cross the line into kitch or bad theology? The question is less if they are true or convincing but when have they crossed a line into seeming like Elmer Gantry? There are now Jewish outreach versions of prosperity gospel, 12 step, and positive thinking. We have popular outreach versions of “The Secret.” There is even a Torah’s plan for weight loss. Rabbis are now using evangelical material, especially stories, in their own sermons and books. In addition, Joel Osteen is very popular in my neighborhood; his religion is so light and his message of prosperity so in tune with Orthodoxy that he is a model rabbi. When are they no longer Orthodox? Does it matter?   When do these outreach approaches becomes indistinguishable from various flavors of renewal or havurah? Is it OK to reduce Judiasm to the latest in motivational speakers?

Avodah: Priests, Angels, and bestiaries

AVODAH: An Anthology of Ancient Poetry for Yom Kippur (2006) YAHALOM, Joseph, SCHWARTZ, Michael D.

I finally got to read the excellent work Avodah – a beautiful translation of the various versions of the Avodah for Yom Kippur.

The book shows that the avodah piyyut, even though it is based on the Mishnah, makes the avodah a narrative entirely about the priests. It removes the Mishnah’s granting to the Sages the ability to give oversight to the priests. It also removes the Sages’ distrust of priestly groups.

Here we have more theology of 6th to 9th century. The book focuses on tracing these images to DSS and Heikhalot and offers little on the actual 6th-9th centuries

In all the versions, the world was created to worship God in the Temple and they give a history of the world including early creatures. The book points out how the use of  myth and mythos in the piyyut. Adam was originally of great size and appearance and was originally worshiped by the other creatures. The piyyutim describe how the high priest overcame the hostility of the angels, but from a theology perspective I missed any reference to the debates of Scholem, Idel, and Schaffer.

Is this still relevant? Well, we still use the version called Ata Konanta  but we do not use versions like “Az be en Kol” which describe rivers of fire, cosmic ice, demigods, and adam kadmon.

For an alternative reading, see  Rav Soloveitchik on the Avodah

On Spiritual Choice

Over at Synagogue 3000, there is a post and my rsponse. I have been told there will likely be 2 more responses.

Beyond Spiritual Consumerism. . . Or Not

Rabbi Michael Wasserman, The New Shul, Scottsdale, AZ

He wrote in his opinion piece:

Lawrence Hoffman …  envisions people taking advantage of a wide menu of synagogue offerings according to their individual tastes, much as they shop for clothes (Rethinking Synagogues, pp. 174-175).  If we ask for no sense of shared responsibility, then aren’t we treating people, in essence, as spiritual consumers? Aren’t we inviting them, in effect, to “buy” spiritual experiences?

I commented:

Choice Does Not Always Mean Consumer Choice

On Sunday nights, I am glued to my TV watching the hit show Mad Men The show ostensively focuses on an ad agency in 1962 portraying the rise of advertising and consumer culture in America. But the real story is the sense of falling and anxiety that occurred when the certainties of the nineteen fifties gave way to the individualism of the 1960’s. I find that this post “ Beyond Spiritual Consumerism. . . Or Not” confuses the plot with the real story.

In the 1950’s people learned to accept culturally constructed institutions and model ideal attitudes whose expectations might not have been experienced privately. In the 1960’s people started to seek their own individual directions and overcome the split between the institutional and the personal. They moved from dwelling to seeking. By the 1980’s and 1990’s this individualism became the norm.
Jews aspired to a collective idea of peoplehood and accepted institutional attitudes toward Judaism, family life, and society. Mordechai Kaplan’s important re-evaluation of Judaism was based on the descriptive ideas of Durkheim in which individuals express themselves in collectives. But what comes after Durkheim, and the evident decline in self-definition through Jewish institutions?
Charles Taylor in his recent work A Secular Age points out that Durkheim’s approach — in which individuals expressed themselves in collectives and institutions — no longer holds true in its original meaning. Religion today, Taylor argues, can be found in “the continuing multiplication of new options, religious, spiritual, and anti-religious, which individuals seize on in order to make sense of their lives.” Taylor stresses the complex ways in which religion is now even more a part of our daily lives, and the importance of a multiplicity of practices and interpretations to deal with this variety.
In the post –Durkheim reality described by Taylor, we need to reframe the issue away from peoplehood to individual meanings and smaller social units, in short, religion in the human life.  We need to think in terms of changes based on the small changes of meanings and moral orders.
Take, for example, the variety of religious experiences and moral orders that could be found among the pews in a single congregation on Yom Kippur 2009. We will find people from whom Judaism is of varying importance in their daily lives, but for whom the content of that Judaism is different and varying. There will be those who adhere to old-time theology, those for whom Judaism is about being a politically conservative ADL supporter, those who are progressive, another who stresses social action, another who understands reality using 12-step language, and another who eclectically combines Chabad, feng shui, and Buddhist spirituality, those who are uplifted through art, and even moral majority Jews who embrace Judaism for its strong “family values.” There are dozens of other Jewish moral orders, no congregation has even half of them. People choose to obligate themselves to these diverse meanings because they help make sense of their lives.
Recently, many analysts of the Jewish community have picked up the phrase “spiritual marketplace” (first used a generation ago) and proceed to compare the Jewish choices made by today’s Jew to the choice of a “grande soy latte” in Starbucks – a simile implying a degree of pampering and meaningless luxuries. Viewing Jews making life decisions as Starbucks customers, their policy proposals emphasize the need to reach younger Jews through better marketing. However, religious choices, as Robert Wuthnow has stressed, reflect an attempt to create meaningful lives and a structure of moral orders. Multiple choices do not lead to the banal market pluralism, but to a variety of constructed finite religious identities.
When entering the contemporary spiritual landscape, the contemporary Jew experiences not three or four denominations, but dozens of flavors. Synagogues and Jewish organization become specialized into single products for specialized audiences. So of course, people enjoy the Synaplex model because it gives them a possibility, a chance, to experience what they find meaningful. If they are lucky, they can find their personal vision validated.
To return to the original issue of equating choice with consumer choice, we need to look at moral orders and meanings created.
Seekers, as Wuthnow categorized them, are not a single category but are many approaches and many moral orders. While some still seek naturalism, other seekers embrace traditional concepts of God. The literature in the field of spirituality divides spirituality into anywhere between four to ten different types. Many of the books from Alban Institute place the number at four.
Rabbis need to know that these different types of spirituality are not interchangeable and that congregants are not choosing them just for consumerist variety. Some congregants seeking certain forms of spirituality are actually repelled by some of the others. No one congregation can attempt all of the current varieties of spirituality. No Rabbi can offer all of them. But there is shopping because there in fact several different unique types of spirituality, each with their own sense of meaning, not because they have internalized the marketplace values.
The blog post asked “If we ask for no sense of shared responsibility, then aren’t we treating people, in essence, as spiritual consumers?”
The answer is no!  Judaism is capacious and has the possibility of many meanings constructed and many moral orders formed. That is, unless, the vision is to return the community to the 1950’s. We watch Mad Men to remind ourselves how much we have changed.

New Journal on the History of Ideas

New journal: “Republics of Letters” Intellectual History with a concentration on the Early Modern period First Issue

From the Editor Dan Edelstein

But intellectual history has considerably evolved since the days of Arthur Lovejoy. As the foremost practitioner of the genre in the United States, Anthony Grafton, describes in “The History of Ideas: Precept and Practice, 1950-2000 and Beyond,” a chapter of his most recent book, intellectual historians have long abandoned the Platonic world of ideas and stepped back down into the earthly cave, examining how printing techniques, political debates, legal traditions, university curricula, and philosophical controversies shape the ways in which ideas are received and disseminated. No longer do historians view ideas as astrologers viewed the stars, as exercising a powerful influence from afar; the new intellectual history studies what happens when ideas and individuals, groups, or nations collide in the linear accelerator of history. As William Sewell demonstrates repeatedly in his brilliant 2005 collection of essays, Logics of History, the study of culture as a web of meanings is not at all incompatible with the study of culture as a set of practices—they are in fact necessary complements.

As I read this, I am reminded that in mainstream Jewish studies Moshe Idel sticks to Lovejoy, a parthenogenesis of ideas.  Rabbinic history of modern denominations  still uses Manheim’s 1929 definition of ideology.