Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On Taoism

Following are the contents of another of our interfaith seminary take-home exams, which use Huston Smith's The World's Religions as a guidebook in addition to other sources as cited herein. 

     Consider the story about Confucius meeting Lao Tzu.  What do you think is meant by his legendary remark, “Today I have seen a dragon?”

The quote attributed to Confucius following his meeting with Lao Tzu: “I know a bird can fly; I know a fish can swim; I know animals can run.  Creatures that run can be caught in nets; those that swim can be caught in wicker traps; those that fly can be hit by arrows.  But the dragon is beyond my knowledge; it ascends into heaven on the clouds and the wind.  Today I have seen Lao Tzu, and he is like the dragon!” 

A dragon is powerful, mysterious and mythical.  Confucius said that the dragon was beyond his knowledge, because the dragon lives in the realm of ideas and cannot be observed, categorized and defined.  Nonetheless, the image of the dragon has a powerful pull on the human mind.  I interpret Confucius’ comment as both a compliment and an insult.  Confucianism is a structured and precise moral teaching that aims to hold up society and bring out the best in its members through formality and systematic observance.  Taoism is a “way” of life that is fundamentally at odds with that kind of a definable belief system.  It is like the dragon of the animal kingdom because it is majestic and enduring, like the idea of the dragon, but one cannot wholly grasp it in a precise moment or describe it with words.  The Tao cannot be made a prisoner of human observation, and this is consistent with the concept of God held by the world’s great religions.  So in that way, Confucius paid Lao Tzu a compliment.  However, dragons are not empirically real.  Confucius valued concrete reality and substance.  So characterizing Lao Tzu as a dragon was also saying that Taoism lacks a foundation in observable reality; according to the values of Confucianism, this is an insult. 

2.     Read “The Three Meanings of Tao.”  What does Tao mean literally? Consider carefully what is said about the three basic meanings of the Tao.  List the meanings and add any notes to help clarify them. 

Tao literally means, “way.”  The three ways of Tao, as defined by Huston Smith, are as follows:

A.    “Tao is the way of ultimate reality.”  The Tao is the primal force behind all existence, the transcendent source of All.  The Tao is inherent in all things; it is inescapable, yet undefinable.  The Tao simply cannot be captured, formulated or described by the human mind.  However, humans can connect with the Tao and be carried along by its current.  

B.     “Tao is the way of the universe, the norm, the rhythm, the driving power in all nature, the ordering principle behind all life.” The Tao is “immanent.”  As explained in A above, even though it is transcendent, humans can touch the Tao, because in this mode, the Tao “assumes flesh.”  

C.     “The Tao is the way of human life when it meshes with the Tao of the universe.”  When a human being is able to let go of the banks of existence, where the water snakes dwell (the limited self), and flow with the current of the Tao, the third meaning of Tao is illustrated. 

3.     Describe the three forms of Taoism, paying special attention to their essential features, such as their nature, purpose and methods.

A.    Describe ‘te’: Te, as in The Tao Te Ching, simply means “power,” as it flows through the universe and humankind. 

B.     Efficient Power: Philosophical Taoism: This method of Tao practice is reflective and centers on aligning the self with the Tao, so that te, or power, is optimally channeled and conserved.  A Philosophical Taoist adopts a particular attitude toward life that applies to all thought and activity.  According to this practice, our life force is a precious resource that is never to be wasted or improperly expended.  A Philosophical Taoist learns to embody grace and precision in his or her movements and interactions with the world.  There is no room for abruptness, anger, nervousness or worry.  Think of someone you know who always seems able to go with the flow, unruffled.  Arriving at this place of peaceful efficiency may be inherently easier for some, but takes years of practice, dedication and training the mind. 

C.     Augmented Power: Taoist Hygiene and Yoga: The word “hygiene” can be defined as practices which are conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease.  This is the sense of hygiene we are looking for when we talk about Taoist “hygiene and yoga.”  This approach to Taoism is a holistic sort of training program which goes beyond the mere conservation of ch’i (breath, or vital energy) and te to their maximization.  Practitioners of this type of Taoism learn how to power themselves up, increasing the flow of energy that runs through them, resulting in better health and optimal functioning.  They work with the three M’s: matter, movement and the mind.  They augment ch’i by following a certain diet and using a wide variety of medicinal herbs.  They practice nuanced forms of bodily movement, such as qigong and t’ai chi chuan, and they use acupuncture.  Often they practice specific breathing exercises and even certain sexual maneuvers (less common and more historical) to balance yin and yang energy.  To work with the mind, these practitioners follow Taoist meditation, which is similar in many ways to raja yoga meditation; this psychophysical form of meditation is aimed at sense withdrawal, tuning out distractions and emptying the mind to allow a direct connection with the self.   “Taoist yogis sought to harness the Tao directly, drawing it first into their own heart-minds and then beaming it to others” (Smith, 202). 

D.    Vicarious Power: Religious Taoism: Taoism was born in China.  This third approach to Taoism is the one that was historically most suitable for the majority of Chinese.  Philosophical Taoism requires a considerable time commitment for reflection and work on the self, and Taoist health regimes are time consuming and also somewhat expensive.  The ordinary villagers and workers needed solutions to meet their needs, and the Taoist priesthood came in with their set of practices to supply them.  “Church Taoism” developed in the second century A.D., revolving around a pantheon of deities, the major originating one being Lao Tzu.  An important thing to keep in mind is that this sort of polytheistic approach is not equal to the Western concepts of theism and monotheism, in that merging with the Tao is more like living in accordance with nature.  In addition, there is no union with an eternal spirit, as in the Hindu belief system. 

Religious Taoism included practices which look a lot like magic, superstition, faith healing and shamanism.  This ritualistic, cosmic sort of approach was appealing to the masses because it allowed them to believe that they could “harness higher powers for humane ends” (Smith, 206).  In his chapter on Taoism, Huston Smith warns the reader against being overly dismissive of magic, by including this quote from the Lutheran mystic, Jacob Boehme: “Magic is the best theology, for in it true faith is grounded.  He is a fool that reviles it, for he knows it not and is more a juggler than a theologian of understanding.” 

Describe the relationship between the three kinds of Taoism: All three types of Taoist practice focus on building up and disseminating te: Philosophical Taoism conserves and utilizes it optimally, Taoist Hygiene and Yoga work to increase the base amount of it, and Religious Taoism aims to gather te and spread it out to the masses. 

4.     Define:

A.    Wu Wei: This is a beautiful Taoist concept of the optimal approach to life.  This Chinese phrase is often inappropriately translated into English as “inaction,” but wu wei is not idleness or stillness.  Smith describes it as “pure effectiveness and creative quietude,” or the merging of two conditions, “supreme activity and supreme relaxation” (207).  It is effective action without strain and struggle.  I think of Yoda who said, “don’t try; do.”  A Taoist teacher also said that to me, once.  I also think of it is the moments we find in our work where we are truly experiencing flow.  All of life can be like this, according to the Taoists and the Jedi. 

B.     Ch’i: This enigmatic word is sometimes translated as “breath,” and it means “life force” or “vital energy.”  In Yoga, a very similar concept is that of prana, which is also translated as “breath.”  Acupuncturists, trained according to Chinese medicine, attempt to facilitate the correct balance of ch’i in the body.  Ch’i can be excessive or deficient, or both, within the same person.  When our ch’i is balanced, we are healthy and radiant. 

C.     Yin and Yang: These are the two sides of the coin of existence.  They come together to form a balanced whole.  I have always learned that Yin is the softer, more feminine, receptive and passive side of experience.  Some say it is darker.  Yang is the active, strong, masculine and productive side.  As an example, in my experience meditation feels more Yin and prayer feels more Yang.  When I pray, I talk to God, often out loud.  When I meditate, I am quiet, still and receptive.  The Yin/Yang polarity is meant to encompass “all of life’s basic oppositions” (Smith, 214).  When thinking about Yin and Yang, it is important to remember that according to Taoism, and the majority of Eastern philosophies taken together, the notion of relativity is key: “All values and concepts…are ultimately relative to the mind that entertains them” (Smith 215).  So even though Yin and Yang represent oppositional forces, there is no absolute value attached to any side of a polarity, such as our concept of Good vs. Evil in the West. 

5.     Describe one feature of the Taoist tradition or teachings that is most meaningful to you personally and how it relates to your own experience and self-understanding. 

The single most powerful lesson I have learned from this tradition, through personal experience with acupuncture, Chinese medicine and study of the Tao to treat an illness, is this: resistance prolongs suffering and prohibits the healthy flow of energy.  There is a famous saying by Carl Jung, “what you resist persists.”  That is one of the principles of Taoism.  Resistance takes us out of the flow and mires us into the quicksand.  If we want to remove energy blocks, we have to let go and let everything flow.  This is not easy, and it’s what keeps acupuncturists, doctors and therapists of all kinds in business.  In Star Trek, the Borg say, “Resistance is futile.  You will be assimilated.” We can assimilate into the Tao, once we let go of resistance. 

6.     Identify the following names:

A.    Chuang Tzu: China’s first historian, Ssu-ma Ch’ien, provides the major source of historical information about Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu.  Chuang Tzu was a Chinese scholar and philosopher who lived around the time of the 4th century BCE.  Along with Lao Tzu, he is one of the two defining figures of Taoism.  He was a fierce critic of Confucius and his disciples, and he was a pioneer of relativist philosophy.  Subjectivism and holism are two other words that aptly describe his skeptical philosophy.  He believed that we learn best through observing the natural world, and that we cannot establish any universally objective standards when it comes to our experience.

B.     Confucius: Confucius was born in 551 BCE.  He came from a warrior family, and though he was raised mostly in poverty by his mother, a widow, he rose to the position of Justice Minister.  He is known as China’s greatest thinker and social philosopher.  His teachings have been grouped into the school of philosophy knows as Confucianism, which has also been observed as a religion in China.  No texts have been proven to be directly authored by him, but his teachings can be found in the Analects of Confucius.  Confucianism is an ethical, socially based system of teachings that provide a stable and enduring cultural model for family, society and government.  Confucius observed ancestor worship and taught extensively on family loyalty and respect for elders.  He believed the family to be the basis for ideal government.  Like other great religious teachers of the world, he taught the ethic of reciprocity, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.”  His teachings are practical rather than metaphysical, and he championed the importance of study for arriving at truth.  His works were translated into European languages by Jesuit scholars living in China, and his teachings influenced Western Enlightenment philosophers. 

C.     Lao Tzu: Lao Tzu is reported to have been born in approximately 604 BCE.  His name is translated as, “The Grand Old Master.”  Most of what we know about him is based upon legend.  It is said that when he became disillusioned with his people’s refusal to “cultivate […] natural goodness,” he climbed on top of a water buffalo and started on a journey towards Tibet (Smith, 197).  At the Hankao Pass, a gatekeeper tried to persuade him to turn around, and when Lao Tzu would not, the gatekeeper asked him to write down a record of his beliefs to leave behind as a legacy for his people; the result of this was the Tao Te Ching, the 5,000 character volume which is the basis of Taoism.  Many scholars reject the idea that a single person wrote the Tao Te Ching, and some postulate that it reached its current form in the second half of the 3rd century BCE. 

7.     Write a response to a selection of your choice from the sacred text The Tao Te Ching.

True to the comparative and equalizing spirit of this interfaith study program, the following analysis is a side by side comparison of similar verses from the Tao Te Ching and the New Testament of the Bible.  

To be one with the subtle essence of the universe is to enjoy everlasting life.  Such a one will be preserved, even after the dissolution of his physical body. -TAO TE CHING, CHAPTER 16 
Everyone who drinks of this water shall thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life. –JOHN 4: 13-14
One who embraces the subtle essence dies yet does not perish and enjoys true immortality. -TAO TE CHING, CHAPTER 33
This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate, and died, he who eats this bread shall live forever. […] It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. -JOHN 6: 58, 63

Christianity emphasizes the concept of eternal life; the true believer is promised a life everlasting.  Along with Islam, Christianity is criticized for its insistence upon an afterlife and the belief that our existence on Earth is a mere preparation for eternity in the Kingdom of God.  What is meant by “eternal life?”
I was surprised to find references to eternal life in the Tao Te Ching.  Here was an opportunity to approach this concept from a different cultural perspective.
In placing these Taoist and Christian verses side by side, we see that the “bread of life” and “living water” are metaphors for the subtle essence of the universe.  They are a resource available to us, an ever present truth that is simple, yet impossible to grasp.  You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. -JOHN 8:32.  Grasp it, but it is beyond your reach. […] There is nothing that can make this subtle essence of the universe distinct. -TAO TE CHING, CHAPTER 14. The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit. –JOHN 3:8.

Our culture wants to make all things literal.  We strive to rationalize and simplify.  We have heard people say, “Every word of the Bible is true,” and other such meaningless statements.  Because the reported words of Jesus have been filtered through the lens of interpretation for over two thousand years, the truth in Jesus’ words is veiled in deeper layers of mystery.  This is why comparative study with other spiritual texts is so illuminating.

Those of us with strong faith believe that spiritual truth is universal.  We know it is omnipresent.  It has existed in all places from time immemorial.  Seeing it expressed by other writers, from other traditions, in fresh permutations can unlock new doors in our hearts and minds.

So what does it mean to have eternal life?  Which is the part of us that lives on? How may we drink living water and embrace the subtle essence of the universe?  According to Jesus, we must be born again, of the spirit.  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. […] unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. -JOHN 3: 3-5. According to Lao Tzu, we must renew ourselves.  Renewal and rebirth are parallel concepts. Yet, they all must return to the root again, each to its simple source.  Knowing to return to the root is to be refreshed.  This is called subtle revitalization. To know constant renewal is to have achieved clarity. -TAO TE CHING, CHAPTER 16.

Spirit is not evident to us.  The subtle essence of the universe is not apparent.  Jesus taught the “way”, indeed, he said that he is the way, the truth and the life.  The Tao Te Ching teaches the subtle way of the universe.  Jesus was tortured and crucified at the hands of men, wearing a crown of thorns, yet his emergence on the Earth changed the face of history.  Lao Tzu wrote, The subtle Way of the universe appears to lack strength, yet its power is inexhaustible. TAO TE CHING, CHAPTER 4.

8.     Write a description of your site visit/experiential:

While I do not have a report of a singular physical site visit, I am able to report at length on a long-term and physically concrete experience with Taoism, specifically the type of Taoism that Smith refers to as the “Taoist revitalizing programs,” or “Taoist Hygiene and Yoga.”  Because of my prolonged experience with Lyme disease and some resultant nerve damage, I regularly received acupuncture treatments for several years.  I saw four different acupuncture and Chinese medicine practitioners.  The first was a Chinese doctor in New York City’s Chinatown.  The second was an American practitioner in Brooklyn.  The third, and the most important for my experiential, was my long-term acupuncturist in Westchester, NY, who is also a qigong instructor and who follows Taoist teachings in his own spiritual life.  The fourth was an acupuncturist with a lifetime of experience as a practitioner, who also teaches qigong and Buddhist meditation and who is an adherent to Philosophical Taoism.  I am grateful for my experience with each of the gifted practitioners I saw, but as I mentioned, the third was the one who truly exemplified for me the way to heal according to the Tao.  

I first saw my long-term acupuncturist the very day I found out I was pregnant with my second child.  As this was an unplanned pregnancy, my feelings vacillated between joy and fear.  I cried on the way to the visit.  My acupuncturist was the first person to find out about the pregnancy from me because it was mandatory to disclose this information; acupuncture points for pregnant women differ widely from the norm.  From that moment, we had sealed a bond between patient and healer, and I was immediately centered by his energy.  I can say without reservation that my treatment experience with him changed my life.  I saw him weekly for a great deal of that pregnancy, and thereafter I saw him off and on for another year and a half.  I came into the experience knowing something about the acupuncture points that worked for me and with a general openness to Chinese medicine, including herbal medicine and Taoist teachings.  

Here is how a session would go: I would be invited to come in and get settled on the treatment table.  He would then take my wrist in his hands and touch certain points on it, close his eyes, and read my ch’i ; he was very quiet and focused.  He had other diagnostic methods, but the initial wrist reading always seemed to be the most important.  I started to notice that although I was always quiet, when I felt flighty or distracted, reading my energy seemed to be a bit more difficult for him, almost like listening to a voice when there is static on a telephone line.  That was the sense I got.  

I always felt a grounding and warming presence when I entered his office.  He maintained his own energy in such a way that it brought balance to me, every time.  As we got to know one another, sometimes he was talkative, but nothing ever seemed like idle chit chat.  It seemed to me that everything he did and said had a specific purpose.  The way he worked seemed effortless to me, in the wu wei sense. 
Physically, by manipulating my individual ch’i , my acupuncturist was able to treat a host of physical and psychological imbalances, ranging from pregnancy related nausea, back pain from nursing, chronic pain from Lyme, headaches, cranial nerve damage, sleeplessness and anxiety.  His methods worked better for me than any remedy I have ever tried for anything.  I remember a lot of my acupuncture points and I use acupressure on myself from time to time.  

I am describing this relationship as my experiential because it gave me a real feel for the Tao.  I learned so much from him about the dietary practices and the herbal remedies used by Taoists.  I learned about balancing the tastes and temperatures of the various foods I eat, to reach a palpable equilibrium within my body; this is a very intuitive way to approach diet, and I use it to this day.  Sometimes I need heat, and other times I want to be cooled by what I eat.  Sometimes I need to mix bitter with sweet, or I know that my body needs to ingest a certain tangy flavor.  I also learned about using movement to reorganize the energy in the body.  I took his advice in this area and adapted it to my yoga practice, even though he would have probably preferred to teach me qigong movements.  He talked to me about meditation and spiritual practice, and this was very helpful for me.  We were able to exchange views in this area, and I gained a lot from noticing the discipline and confidence that came out of his Taoist practice.

Monday, February 27, 2012

On Judaism

As I have done for our units on Hinduism and Buddhism, I am including the text of my take-home exam on Judaism.  All references to "Smith" are to the book, The World's Religions, by Huston Smith.  We use this as a base textbook, but we read scriptures and other source books for each of the faiths in preparing our exams and rituals.  The readings and site visits for the assignments are enriching, and I think it is useful to prepare these "cliff notes" style guides for each of the religions.  

         What are the four reasons Smith gives that history was of “towering significance” to the Jews?

A.      The first reason is that life cannot be removed from the context in which it is lived.  All of the events described in the Hebrew bible come out of a particular context; similarly, the presentation of biblical characters is inextricably linked to the circumstances surrounding their lives.  Our lives also take form in response to events, and events have history to them. 

B.      An emphasis on collective action follows from the great importance accorded to context.  The term commonly used for this in our society is social action.  For the Jewish people, cohesion was the result of oppressive circumstances; change was effected through group action. 

C.      History holds deep meaning for the Jews because of the opportunity for learning and growth inherent in each historical event.  Indeed, every calamity and trial presents a “learning experience” for the Jewish people.

D.     History is crucial because of the exceptionality of each historical event.  Decisive moments in history occur once, and only once; God intervenes in human history, and humans have a unique moment to answer God’s call, just as Abraham did when he ventured into new territory to establish a new nation.  Therefore, the Jews teach us to find the ultimate meaning in historical events by respecting their significance and seeing God’s hand at work within them. 

2.      Read “Meaning in Morality” noting that the “Law” came from the Hebrew word Torah, which means “instruction.” Read Exodus 20: 1-17.  Note how Smith connects the four “ethical” commandments to four “danger areas” in human experience.  Explain their connections.

Quote from Huston Smith: “There are four danger zones in human life that can cause unlimited trouble if they get out of hand: force, wealth, sex and speech." 

Each of these danger areas are connected, in that they all have profound effects on human passions and behavioral actions and reactions.  When unmonitored and unrestrained, force, wealth, sex and speech can incite people to commit destructive acts that threaten the stability of the society and the species.  

A.      Force: Thou shalt not murder, is essentially saying that killing within the cultural group or society will not be tolerated, since it “instigates blood feuds that shred community.” 

B.      Wealth: Thou shalt not steal does not discourage wealth, but prevents ill-gotten wealth; have as much as you wish to have, but you mustn’t steal from your neighbor’s pile to increase your own.  This restraint safeguards communal peace. 

C.      Sex: Thou shalt not commit adultery prohibits sexual gratification outside of the marital relationship because it “rouses passions the community cannot tolerate.”

D.     Speech:  Thou shalt not bear false witness is, according to Smith, a commandment aimed primarily at ensuring the reliability and efficiency of a system of justice for the community.  One must not lie when brought before a tribunal, because it is crucial for the judges to know the truth.  Order within society must be maintained to prevent the more passionate and destructive parts of our nature from destroying us.

3.      Read “Meaning in Messianism.” What three features have remained constant in Messianic hope? Summarize the underlying theme of Messianism in one sentence.

The three enduring features of Messianism are “hope, national restitution and world upgrade.”  The Messiah of the Jews would elevate their status in the world to its right place, and also spiritually and morally advance the population of the whole world. 
A Messiah coming to live among the people is the personification of hope, the embodiment of the best that is yet to come. 

4.      Read “The Hallowing of Life.”  What are the two “functions” of ritual, according to Smith? What is “piety”?

First of all, ritual anchors us in times of uncertainty and gives us something familiar and enduring to cling to when we feel lost.  This centering effect of ritual can be seen in some the most mundane aspects of life, such as introductions, public gatherings and all manner of initiations.  The second most important function of ritual, according to Smith, is to “channel our actions and feelings” during what is arguably the most challenging phase of life: death.  Ritual is a steadying force that places death into a universal context and paves a way through its trauma. 

Piety is the practice of recognizing God’s presence and magnificence in all of our experiences and sensory perceptions.  Preparing and enjoying a meal, gazing at the stars, witnessing a sunrise, celebrating the birth of an infant; when God is celebrated in each of these moments, piety is observed.  Through piety, the “sense of the sanctity of all things is […] preserved against the backwash of the world’s routine.”

5.      Read “Revelation.” Note that the Jewish understanding of revelation is grounded in the concrete event of the Exodus. 

A.      Define “revelation” in your own words: Revelation is an act of God directed toward humanity.  Implicit in revelation is the idea of a relationship between the Creator God and the creation.  Through revelation, God communicates a message to the beings He created, and the act is not complete until the message is actively received. 
B.      What are the three characteristics of God as described in Exodus? Through the Exodus, God revealed Himself to be powerful, loving and deeply invested in humanity’s concerns. 
C.      Read the account of the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17: 1-14.  The “sign” of this covenant is still practiced by Jews today.  What is it?  “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised.” Genesis 17:10.  The Jews still practice the rite of circumcision for every male child, eight days following his birth, as instructed in Genesis 17: 11-12. 

6.      Read “Israel.”  How do Orthodox, Reform and Conservative Jews differ re: Faith, Observance, Culture, Nation?

Orthodox: The Orthodox tradition claims to be the classical or normative representation of Judaism.  Orthodox Judaism developed in reaction to Reform Judaism, as an effort to retain what the Orthodox Jews interpret to be the original character of the Jewish faith.  Orthodox faith is based in the belief that God’s will is completely revealed within the Torah and the Talmud, and they are strictly required to observe all of the instruction contained therein.  The observance is therefore strict adherence without flexibility.  The religious observances of Orthodox Judaism include: study of the Torah, traditional prayers, daily worship, gender segregation in the synagogue, and dietary laws.  Orthodox culture is evidenced through preserving and prizing the Hebrew language in worship and otherwise, strict standards of dress, strictly construed Sabbath observance, and the insistence by many Orthodox Jews on living segregated from the gentiles.  The Orthodox Jews living within a mixed community of gentiles remain removed from the culture at large, insisting on a pure and conspicuous preservation of their own culture in all of their visible activities.  Orthodox Judaism’s ideas with respect to “nation” are evidenced in the preservation of the Hebrew language and a strong belief in the religious sanctity and supremacy of Israel as the Jewish state, the Holy Land of God’s Chosen People. 

Reform: Reform Judaism developed in the 19th century as a movement that would enable Jews to successfully integrate into western European modern culture.  Religious innovation and creativity were a part of the European Enlightenment; the Reform movement applied these ideals to Judaism.  Reform Jewish faith is distinct in its belief that the laws and rituals of the Torah do not require strict observance in the modern world.  According to this faith, the Torah and Talmud are divinely inspired but not divinely authored.  Reform observance is flexible and therefore does not require adherence to prohibitions against labor on the Sabbath, strict dress codes, gender separation rules and a large number of other traditional Jewish laws.  Reform temples have dramatically altered traditional Jewish worship, adding features such as organ music, clerical gowns worn by rabbis and cantors, and Christian inspired architecture.  At one point, there was a movement within Reform Judaism to do away with the insistence on circumcision.  Circumcision is still retained as a mandatory practice, and many of the traditional rituals are being incorporated back into Reform Judaism, but observance is the most divergent aspect of Reform Judaism that separates it from the other branches.  The Reform Jewish concept of “nation” is significantly diluted in comparison to Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, since the Reform movement removed many of Judaism’s nationalistic elements.  Initially, many of the prayers and rituals that focus on the separate national identity of Jews were removed from Reform Judaism, but these have gradually been incorporated back into practice.  Reform Judaism stands out in its interpretation of Messianism; the restoration of the ancient kingdom of Israel is the classical Messianic hope, but for Reform Jews universal peace and brotherhood are the pinnacle of the faith.  This view illustrates the more liberal construction of Jewish nationhood in Reform Judaism. 

Conservative: Conservative Judaism developed in the 19th century as a third alternative to Orthodox or Reform Judaism.  Conservative Jews hold more traditionally to rabbinic beliefs than their Reformed siblings, retaining the original flavor of Judaism while fully integrating into the modern world.  Conservative faith retains the belief that the Torah was wholly inspired by God.  The study of the Talmud and the rabbinic codes is also endorsed within Conservative Judaism, but their interpretation and legal rulings are more flexible than in the Orthodox tradition.  Views on the afterlife are the same as in the Orthodox school, other than the rejection by Conservative Jews of a literal belief in the “resurrection of the body.”  Conservative Jews observe the Sabbath and all major festivals and rites just as the Orthodox Jews do, yet they are more flexible about many restrictions such as driving on the Sabbath.  The culture of Conservative Judaism is reflected in the temple architecture, which is modern and functional; there is no elevated section or gallery for women, since there is no gender segregation, and the central bima (reader’s stand) has been replaced with an altar from which cantors and rabbis officiate.  Conservative Jews support full gender equality and recognize the rights of homosexuals.  Their idea of nation is traditional in that they are the most Zionistic of the three major branches of Judaism (supporting self-determination of the Jewish people in their own national homeland); however, Conservative Jews encourage interfaith dialogue and embrace a universal outlook.  Conservative Judaism strikes a true balance between the Orthodox and Reform traditions. 

7.      What, according to Smith, are the four reasons that led to the establishment of the state of Israel?

The first reason was a need for security; following the Holocaust, there was little to no hope for true security and freedom for the Jewish people within Europe.  The second reason was psychological; it was not healthy for the Jewish people to live as minorities in every location.  The third argument was cultural; Jewish culture had been progressively beat down and diluted to the point of near extinction, hence the need for a place where it could safely reemerge and predominate.  The final reason was the utopian argument; Israel was the answered prayer of the dreamers and idealists who longed for a land where divinely inspired principles could take root and flourish. 

8.      Describe one feature of the Jewish tradition or teachings that is most meaningful to you personally, and how it relates to your own experience and self-understanding.

The most meaningful aspect of the Jewish tradition in my view is the belief in a loving creator God who is actively present and concerned in all human matters.  I believe that I am a child of God and created in the image of God, and I know that this belief originates in Judaism.  I believe that God is present in all aspects of my life and provides for me at every turn, and even though I cannot understand all of the events in my life, God relates to me in each one of them, teaching me and guiding me. 

9.      Identify the following names:

Aaron: He was the older brother of Moses, and a prophet.  He is frequently referred to as Aaron the Levite, and his great-grandfather was Levi.  The tribe of Levi was set apart for priestly service.  Aaron was the first High Priest of the Israelites.

Abraham: The name Abraham means, “the father of a multitude.”  He is the originator of the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), and it is through Abraham that God initiated his monotheistic covenant with the Jews.  He was the son of Terah, the tenth of line in descent from Noah.  His name given at birth was Abram, and he was called Abraham when he entered into the covenant relationship with God at the age of 99.  It was then that he was promised by God that he would have a son by his wife Sarai, and God gave her the name, Sarah.  Their son was Isaac, the father of Jacob and Esau, and one of the three patriarchs of the Israelites. 

The Baal Shem Tov: He was a Jewish mystical rabbi and the founder of Hasidic Judaism.  He was born in 1698 in a tiny village (Okop) in Ukraine.  His name is usually translated in English as, “Master of the Good Name.”  He taught that the entire universe, down to our very minds, is the manifestation of God.  He believed that nothing can be separate from God and all things are form in which God reveals himself.  He taught that Evil exists within God, and is not bad in and of itself, but only in relation to mankind.  He fought against the practices of asceticism and contempt for the world, and his doctrines were remarkably optimistic in nature.  He taught that the goodness of God is inherent in every human being and that sins are to be explained rather than condemned.  One of the most famous sayings attributed to him is that no person can ever sink so low that they cannot raise themselves to God.  Many of his followers believed him to be a direct descendant of David.

Martin Buber:  He was an Austrian born Jewish philosopher who created the “philosophy of dialogue,” a form of religious existentialism outlined in Buber’s book, I and Thou.  He was a cultural Zionist, and had a great deal of influence in the Zionist movement, which he considered to be primarily a vehicle for social and spiritual enrichment.  He was a scholar of Hasidic Judaism, which he viewed as a source of cultural renewal for Judaism.  Within Hasidism, he focused on the unification of daily activities and a direct experience of the unconditional presence of God; this is consistent with his philosophy of dialogue which interprets the relationship with God as a kind of mystical union, free of structure, concepts and objectification (the Ich Du, or I Thou encounter).  He believed that the majority of our experiences and interactions are based in the Ich Es or “I It”context, rather than the “I Thou,” wherein all interactions become objectified and tainted by mental separation of what is in essence not really separate; he believed the structure of modern society and most social interaction to be ultimately dehumanizing.  For Buber, living in the spirit is living in the power to relate. 

Elijah: The name Elijah means, “The Most High is My God,” or, “Yahweh is My God.” He is commonly known as the greatest of the Hebrew prophets and his story is found in the Book(s) of Kings.  He is most known for confronting King Ahab and defeating him and his Pagan gods in battle, hearing the “still small voice of God” in a cave, calling fire down from the sky and being taken up into a whirlwind in a fiery chariot.  He was a mentor to the prophet Elisha. 

Esther: She was a Jewish queen of the Persian king, Ahasuerus.  Her story is the basis of the celebration of Purim in Judaism.  She was an orphan, raised by her cousin, Mordecai.  When she was chosen to be the queen of Persia, she had to hide the fact that she was an Israelite.  When she was queen, Mordecai asked for her help to save the Jewish people from being killed according to the orders of Haman.  She approached her husband the King asking that her life and the lives of the Israelites be spared, thereby revealing her identity as an Israelite.  The King granted her request. 

Eve: She was the first woman created by God, according to the Abrahamic creational narratives.  She was the wife of Adam, created from the rib of Adam.  According to the creation myths, she was tempted by the serpent and ate fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thereby initiating mankind’s fall into the sinful condition.  She was the mother of Cain, Abel and Seth.  Noah and the whole of modern humanity are said to be descended from Seth. 

Hagar: She was the second wife of Abraham and the mother of Ishmael, patriarch of the Ishmaelites.  The prophet Muhammad, founder of the religion of Islam, came through Ishmael.  Hagar was Sarah's handmaiden. 

Rabbi Hillel: He was one of the most revered scholars and sages of the Jewish tradition, a rabbi who was born in Babylon in approximately 110 BCE.  He was descended from David on his mother’s side and Benjamin on his father’s side.  He lived in Jerusalem during the time of King Herod and the Roman Emperor Augustus.  He is most known for his formulation of The Golden Rule, or the ethic of reciprocity: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn” (Babylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat 31a).

Ishmael: He was Abraham’s first-born child, son of Hagar, Sarai’s handmaiden.  Sarai had offered Hagar to Abraham to bear him a son, since she was barren at the time.  When Hagar was pregnant with Ishmael, she was visited by an angel of Yahweh who told her that Yahweh’s promise to greatly multiply Abraham’s descendants throughout the Earth would be extended to Ishmael, and the angel said this of Ishmael: “he shall be as a wild ass of man: his hand shall be against every man, and every man’s hand against him; and he shall dwell in the face of all his brethren” (Genesis 16:12).  Ishmael was circumcised with the rest of the house of Abraham at the age of 13.  Islamic traditions proclaim Ishmael to be the father of the Arab people. 

Jacob/Israel: The name Jacob means, “heel catcher,” and was given to Jacob because at his birth he was holding onto the heel of his twin brother, Esau.  Jacob was later known by the name Israel, which means “persevere with God,” or “one who wrestles with God.”  He was the son of Isaac and Rebecca, grandson of Abraham and Sarah.  He was the third patriarch of the Hebrew people and ancestor of the tribes of Israel, named after his descendants.  Jacob deceived his brother Esau, stealing his birthright and blessing. 

Miriam: She was the sister of Aaron and Moses.  She is called a prophetess.  She is the woman who hid the baby Moses by the side of the river so that he would not be killed along with all other Hebrew boys according to the Pharoah’s order. When the Pharoah’s daughter discovered Moses, Miriam suggested that a Hebrew nurse (Jochebed)  take care of him so that he would be familiar with his Hebrew background. 

Moses Maimonides: He was a well-known and highly respected physician and Torah scholar of the Medieval Era.  He was a philosopher, physician and rabbi in Morocco and Egypt during the twelfth century.  He authored the fourteen volume Mishnah Torah, a codification of Talmudic law.  He is known for having adapted Aristotelian thought to Jewish Biblical faith.  He is said to have greatly influenced Saint Thomas Aquinas.  Maimonides supported many neo-Platonic theories and was a proponent of Apophatic or Negative Theology (defining God by what He is not rather than what He is) and he wrote extensively on theodicy and Jewish eschatology.  It is interesting to note that he struck a unique balance in the arguments surrounding the resurrection of the body by stating that some instances of resurrection would occur as foretold in the book of Daniel, but that resurrection was not a permanent attribute of the afterlife for the righteous. 

Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel: These women are the original mothers of the Jewish people, the Hebrew matriarchs.  Sarah and Rebecca are identified above (mothers of Isaac, Jacob and Esau).  Leah and Rachel were the sisters that Jacob married, and who protected the young Jewish nation from being infected by the Pagan customs and thought of Jacob’s father-in-law, Laban. 

Solomon: He was the son of King David, a King of Israel, one of the 48 prophets and the builder of the First Temple in Jerusalem.  He possessed great wealth, power and wisdom, yet his sinful deeds led to the division of the kingdom during his son Rehoboam’s reign.  He is known for the large number of women he possessed: 700 wives and 300 concubines. 

10.  What is the Kabbalah and how is it related to Jewish Mysticism?

The name applied to the whole range of Jewish mystical activity is Kabbalah.  Kabbalah is an esoteric discipline and set of philosophical teachings that complements Rabbinic Judaism while existing outside of it.  Kabbalah deals with the cosmological questions and the mystical elements of the Jewish faith, issues that are not addressed in the basic and traditional study of the Torah and Talmud.  There are a few hints in the Talmud pointing to a mystical school of thought that was reserved for advanced students; this school of thought came to be known as Kabbalah.  Many of the mystical teachings referenced in Judaism were written down in the Middle Ages in books such as the Zohar (a foundational text for Kabbalah).  Traditionally, Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism were not taught to a person until they reached the age of 40. 

11.  Write a response to a selection of your choice from the Torah.

Genesis 27:36-40

36 Esau said, "Isn't he rightly named Jacob? He has deceived me these two times: He took my birthright, and now he's taken my blessing!" Then he asked, "Haven't you reserved any blessing for me?" 37 Isaac answered Esau, "I have made him lord over you and have made all his relatives his servants, and I have sustained him with grain and new wine. So what can I possibly do for you, my son?" 38 Esau said to his father, "Do you have only one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!" Then Esau wept aloud. 39 His father Isaac answered him, "Your dwelling will be away from the earth's richness, away from the dew of heaven above. 40 You will live by the sword and you will serve your brother. But when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck."

In the twenty-fifth chapter of the book of Genesis, we learn some differences between the twin brothers, Jacob and Esau.  We learn that Esau was the more physical of the two, strong and hairy and a good hunter.  Jacob was the more reflective one, spending his time in tents (sheltered from the sun and the elements).  We learn of Esau’s selling of his birthright for a bowl of stew from Jacob.  The birthright was not only the ability to pass on titles and claim a larger portion of the inheritance, but it was also a claim to spiritual authority.  In his temporary hunger, Esau had little regard for the sanctity of his birthright and cared more about his immediate physical needs.  He swore to Jacob to give away the birthright in that moment.  

While it is easy to sympathize with Esau who was probably less clever than Jacob, and it is easy to see Jacob as cunning, it is difficult to ignore the foolishness and profanity of a move like selling one’s birthright for a single meal, irrespective of the level of hunger involved. 
We see in this story a foretelling of the fate of those who consistently prioritize the carnal over the spiritual.  It is undeniable that we all differ greatly by natural inclinations, strengths, personalities and talents.  In spite of these differences, we possess free will and we can choose to value the enduring over the fleeting.  Esau, by the selling of his birthright, demonstrated that he valued his momentary physical satisfaction over an enduring and much greater benefit than a bowl of stew.  There are natural consequences of such an action, and Esau suffered them.  He was told that he would later have an opportunity to get out from under the oppression of his poor choices, “…when you grow restless, you will throw his yoke from off your neck,” nonetheless.  There are spiritual laws by which the Universe operates, but God is merciful beyond our comprehension and finds ways to restitute even the shallowest people who walk the Earth.  

12.  Write a description/impression of your site visit/experiential.

1.      I attended the Friday evening Kabbalat Shabbat service at Congregation Sons of Israel in Briarcliff, NY (Conservative).  My friend Leah chose this site visit for me as it her favorite temple in our area.  I really enjoyed hearing and participating in the singing of songs and prayers in the Hebrew language (very often I was unsure about pronunciation but after hearing my friend sing I picked some of it up).  I hadn’t really known exactly what a cantor does, prior to this service; the name “cantor” should have clued me in, but I needed a demonstration.  This cantor had a lovely, strong singing voice and I felt like his singing “filled up” the room and the hearts of those in it.  Most of the service was devoted to singing and the rabbi spoke for a relatively short time, but I remember him explaining the different cycles of Torah reading, and referring to the Triennial cycle wherein the entire Torah is read in services over the period of three years.  I found this interesting, but what most interested me was reading the translations in English of the songs and prayers in the Siddur (Jewish prayer book).  I saw references to mystical prayer and generally a more mystical message than what I could have expected.  I would like to read through the entire Siddur when I get the chance to do so. 

I found the mood to be light and relaxed.  I noted the rabbi hushing two preteen girls who kept chatting at an audible level.  When he hushed them there was no strictness or annoyance in his gesture and the girls seemed completely unperturbed.  No one seemed overly serious or uncomfortable.  Everyone seemed quite happy, actually. 

2.      I am including as a second site visit a recent bris I attended for the son of a close friend.  The bris was at her parents’ apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and it was a very happy occasion.  The Mohel was a woman and I thought she was quite adept (the baby boy barely made a peep during the circumcision).  The readings, prayers and songs that made up the ceremony were beautiful and inspiring.  I did not feel out of place as a non-Jew.  Everyone present was warm, friendly and happy for my friend and her family.  I particularly loved hearing the stories of the child’s namesakes as told by the relatives.  I also enjoyed drinking the wine and simply soaking in the love emanated by all who were present.  As compared to a Christian baptism of which I have attended many, including my sons’ dual baptism, I found the bris to be a longer and more joyful ceremony.  I was very touched by what I saw and heard that day.  I had attended one other bris in the past, and it was a similar experience, except that the more recent bris was attended and officiated by Reform Jews and the first one I had attended was performed by a Conservative Mohel.  That ceremony was a bit shorter and slightly more formal.  Both were beautiful occasions that I will always remember and I hope to be involved in the lives of both children (I am already seeing a lot of the first child and we say L’Chaim with his sippy cup). 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Ethos of Lent

 Lent has a certain feel to it, and a specific cultural code.  My choice of Lenten "sacrifice" is gauche and offensive by pretty much any Catholic or Lutheran standard.  I knew this going in, more or less, but after attending Ash Wednesday services in our local Catholic parish yesterday, there could be no doubt in my mind that my new 40 day commitment is inappropriate for Lent.  Hearing the priest talk about "the extent of our depravity" and the way our Lenten sacrifices come to show us how helpless we are, I felt a little out of place to say the least. 

The bad habit I am sacrificing is celibacy within marriage.  Traditionally, people who observe Lent have done the opposite of what I have chosen to do; giving up sex for Lent is apparently more of a done thing than giving up marital laziness. 

It is noteworthy that Martin Luther, by historical accounts, did not advocate giving up sex for Lent and he and his wife apparently always had a very regular schedule of intimacy.  In the book, Luther on Women, I read that Luther believed marital sex to be "a remedy against worse sin," and this is consistent with late medieval thought.  His approach was progressive for the time, since he thought marital sex should not be overly circumscribed during prohibited times such as Lent.  Nonetheless, he advised a good deal of restraint, even for married couples, so that the marital bed would not be turned into a "manure heap and a sow bath" (Luther on Women, 12).

I do understand that Lent is a time to be morose, rather than jubilant.  We can get happy again at Easter.  Last year, when I was rediscovering my Lutheran roots, I got into the suffering ethos of Lent.  I cried reading Psalm 22 and did most of the other "done things."  I was sincerely experiencing the sorrowful emotions that go with Lent, and meditating on Christ's sacrifice.  I even enjoyed looking at the more gory crucifixes.  I am not writing this to be disrespectful to Christians who experience their faith this way, and I can still relate to it.  However, I don't find that this type of practice does much for me.  When I have done this in the past, Lent ends and then I am right back where I started.  Nothing changes.  Jesus' triumph still stands and I am apparently still saved.  No one is any better off for my momentary wistful sadness and small personal sacrifice. 

One the one hand, Christians teach that there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation and all our striving amounts to stealing the glory from Jesus.  He did it and it's done, end of story.  The priest said yesterday, "because of what Christ did for us, we don't have to give into every new self-help fad that comes our way; we cannot help ourselves."  That is why I can't understand the need to mope around for 40 days before Easter every year, proving that we can forgo pleasure; "it's the least we can do, given how much Christ suffered for us."  Really?? I thought the point in the first place was that we can't do anything to pay it back to him.  So are we doing it to prove our love for Jesus?  Are we doing it to preserve an ethos from the Middle Ages?  I love reading about that time period, and in fact, I specialized in medieval literature in graduate school.  I prefer the mystical ethos to the Lenten ethos.  What I love about both (medieval Lent and medieval mysticism) is that they are not intellectual in nature.  Nowadays, people like to observe Lent and top it off with pseudo-rational arguments about how it should be done (people like me, evidently).

Truthfully, I don't care how other believers want to get nearer to Christ during this time.  I think it is beautiful to connect in some way to his suffering, if that allows us to more fully enjoy our freedom from sin and death.  I think about the night when Jesus asked his disciples to watch and pray with him at Gethsemane, and that is the type of prayer and meditation I want to engage in during Lent.  That goes with the correct ethos.  However, when it comes to a daily spiritual commitment, I like choosing something that will constructively affect the way I live my life year round, and something that will uplift me and others around me. 

During my recent Sadhana (another 40 day spiritual practice) the daily written messages sent to us by the yoga teachers exemplify a spiritual practice that enhances life and nourishes the soul.  I don't know that it makes sense to try and change the ethos of Lent, but the excerpted passages below exemplify the type of ethos that feels right to me, and that seems more appropriate for effecting positive change in ourselves and in the world.  I think this type of spiritual practice is a wonderful commitment, during Lent or anytime.  This is not the stuff of "self-help fads", by the way:

"Spiritual practice, by uprooting our personal mythologies of isolation, uncovers the radiant, joyful heart within each of us and manifests this radiance to the world. We find, beneath the wounding concepts of separation, a connection both to ourselves and to all beings. We find a source of great happiness that is beyond concepts and beyond convention. Freeing ourselves from the illusion of separation allows us to live in a natural freedom rather than be driven by preconceptions about our own boundaries and limitations.
~ Sharon Salzburg, Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness

Let your practice be your archaeological guide, uproot your personal mythologies, uncover your radiance, free yourself from the illusion of separation and limitations! Venture bravely beyond the preconceived notions which condition you to think small. Discover and recover who you are at the very core and find the connection to all beings. It's day 21, go ahead, let your heart shine with love and compassion!" -Ellen Forman

~ Swami J

Yoga sutra 1.12, These thought patterns (vrittis) are mastered (nirodhah, regulated, coordinated, quieted) through practice (abhyasa) and non-attachment (vairagya). (abhyasa vairagyabhyam tat nirodhah)

I can really appreciate the clarity and simplicity of Swami J's words, Never Give Up, Always Let Go, to explain this yoga sutra!

Abhyasa (practice) and vairagya (non-attachment) are two core principles of yoga. Abhyasa is to cultivate an attitude of consistent effort towards lifestyle, actions, speech, and thoughts, that lead us towards equanimity and stability. It means consistently making mindful choices to serve the highest good. Vairagya (non-attachment) is to consciously explore and let go of the many attachments, aversions, fears, and illusions that conceal our true nature. Practice helps us navigate in a positive direction, while non-attachment keeps us from getting stuck in the old grooves and repeating the same minds loops or patterns over and over.
Stay the course, go the distance, take this mantra with you: Never give up, always let go!" -Ellen Forman

"Yoga practice is about expanding and strengthening circuits in the mind-body that are less frequently used and repatterning those that are inefficient. This is called "nirodha".  Nirodha is the releasing of habitual patterns or fluctuations of the mind-body, but it also describes the energy that comes from the letting go of old patterns.
~ Richard Stone
This quote is referring to the yoga sutras, Book One, sutra II: yogas chitta vritti nirodhah, the restraint of the modifications of the mind stuff is yoga. When we commit to our practice we begin to rewire the mind so that we stop repeating the same old patterns that lead to suffering and pain, and begin to live a life that is happy and free. This is your birthright, go ahead and claim it!" -Ellen Forman

"Paramahansa Yogananda once said,

"Change yourself and you have done your part in changing the world..."

Do you know, can you accept, that what you are doing will influence the world? The changes you continue to make within and outside of yourself will indeed change the world! How you carry yourself effects everyone around you, who in turn affects everyone around them, and everyone around them, and everyone around them, and so on. 
It is the web of life and we are all in it, all a part of it and all making it and breaking it and rebuilding it.
We have sixty four people on this email list and fifty on our Facebook page. Some of you may have decided to be on both lists but even considering the few who have done that we have a really nice sized group working for personal change that will in turn affect change around them and throughout the world! 
You have done your part to make the world a better place for the last thirty two days! That's something to be proud of!" -Siri Chand Kaur