Tag Archives: theology

Creation, Animals, and Diet: A View from Torah and Soloveitchik

Between Heaven and Earth from Eden to the Flood and Beyond:

a Torah study by Rabbi Rick Brody

Genesis, theology, and the role of humanity in relation to other animalsin conversation with the wisdom of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik and classical commentaries

[Some material adapted from Rabbi Yonatan Neril and Evonne Marzouk of Canfei Nesharim]

[Translations of Biblical Hebrew adapted by Rabbi Rick Brody]

Soloveitchik citations from: The Emergence of Ethical Man, Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2005, pp. 31-38

I. The basis for the relationship between human and non-human creatures

בראשית א:כד–ל

כד וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים תּוֹצֵא הָאָרֶץ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה לְמִינָהּ בְּהֵמָה וָרֶמֶשׂ וְחַיְתוֹ־אֶרֶץ לְמִינָהּ וַיְהִי־כֵן: כה וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹקים אֶת־חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ לְמִינָהּ וְאֶת־הַבְּהֵמָה לְמִינָהּ וְאֵת כָּל־רֶמֶשׂ הָאֲדָמָה לְמִינֵהוּ וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים כִּי־טוֹב: כו וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ וְיִרְדּוּ בִדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה וּבְכָל־הָאָרֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶמֶשׂ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל־הָאָרֶץ: כז וַיִּבְרָא אֱלֹקים ׀ אֶת־הָאָדָם בְּצַלְמוֹ בְּצֶלֶם אֱלֹקים בָּרָא אֹתוֹ זָכָר וּנְקֵבָה בָּרָא אֹתָם: כח וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם אֱלֹקים וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹקים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁהָ וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּה הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל־הָאָרֶץ: כט וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹקים הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת־כָּל־עֵשֶׂב ׀ זֹרֵעַ זֶרַע אֲשֶׁר עַל־פְּנֵי כָל־הָאָרֶץ וְאֶת־כָּל־הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ פְרִי־עֵץ זֹרֵעַ זָרַע לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה: ל וּלְכָל־חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ וּלְכָל־עוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם וּלְכֹל ׀ רוֹמֵשׂ עַל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה אֶת־כָּל־יֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב לְאָכְלָה וַיְהִי־כֵן:

Genesis 1:24-30

And God said, Let the earth bring forth animated life, [each] according to its species, beast and creeper, and earth-life, [each] according to its species; and it was so. 25 And God made the earth-life, [each] according to its species, and the beast(s) according to its species, and every ground-creeper according to its species; and God saw that it was good. 26 And God said, Let us make a grounds-keeper (humanity) with our imprint, like our character; and let them have dominion with the fish of the sea, and with the fowl of the sky, and with the beast(s), and with all the earth, and with the entire [range of] creeper that creeps upon the earth. 27 So God created the grounds-keeper with God’s imprint, with the Divine imprint God created it; male and female God created them. 28 And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion with the fish of the sea, and with the fowl of the sky, and with all life that creeps upon the earth.” 29 And God said, “Look, I have given you every seed-bearing herb, which is upon the face of all the earth, and the entire [range of] tree that has a seed-bearing tree-fruit on it: to you it shall be for food. 30 And to all earth-life, and to all fowl of the sky, and to every creeper upon the earth that has animated life in it, [I have given] every green herb for food;” and it was so.

Soloveitchik

Let us be clear that this rule [regarding diet] was not given to man as an ethical norm but as a natural tendency; it is absurd to speak of a law imposed upon ʻevery beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps upon the earth.ʼ …. [T]his injunction was a physiological pattern that dominated manʼs sensory drive. Primordial man neither desired nor was tempted by any food other than of the vegetative realm. The verse concludes ʻand it was soʼ: the ethical norm became a behavior pattern, an expression of the ontic order. Man and animal were not driven toward killing or devouring other living creatures.”

Questions

  1. Soloveitchik points to a similarity between human beings and other animals, a shared place in the cosmic order and a shared reception of a natural tendency. Is the word “species”) / min used in reference to the creation of humanity? Is humanity / adam a “species” in the same way the other creatures are categorized? What might our answer teach us?

    1. God says “Let the earth bring forth…” in regard to animal life, but then the text says “God made.” Then, God says, “Let us make…” in regard to the grounds-keeper, but then the text says, “God created.” What is going on here?

    2. Was God talking to the animals when God said “Let us make adam…”? Do (or did) the animals possess the Divine imprint and character (since God says “our”)? Did the appointing of a grounds-keeper take some of that quality away from the other creatures? If so, is that Divine quality ever available to them again? Can any creature be adam? (See question 3.)

    3. What is the difference between the dietary rules for adam and for the other creatures? Why might this distinction exist and what might it teach us about our relationship to food today?

  1. We know that this (mythic) natural order did not persist, either for human beings or for many other animal species. How might the Torah want us to understand that divergence in real life (i.e. not simply through the flood narrative)? Should we understand that divergence to have occurred similarly for humanity and the other species?

  1. What, then, distinguishes humanity? Is this distinction guaranteed or might it be conditional? Is it fully realized from the start or is it a potential state within an evolving humanity? Is it a distinction that is necessarily limited to the biological species homo sapiens?

בראשית רבה ח:יב

:יב וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם: אמר רבי חנינא: אם זכה, רדו ואם לאו ירדו. אמר רבי יעקב דכפר חנין

את שהוא בצלמנו כדמותנו ורדו, את שאינו בצלמנו כדמותנו ירדו

רבי יעקב דמן כפר חנן אמר: יבא צלמנו ודמותנו, וירדה לשאינו דומה לצלמנו כדמותנו

Bereishit Rabbah 8:12

AND HAVE DOMINION (REDU) OVER THE FISH OF THE SEA (Gen. 1:28).

Rabbi Chanina said: If [humanity] has merit, [God says,] ‘ur-du’ (and have dominion); while if they do not have merit, [God says,] ‘yerdu’ (let them descend) [or ‘yeradu’(they shall be dominated) / they will be taken down / let other [creatures] rule over them)].

רשי בראשית א:כו

זכה רודה בחיות ובבהמות. לא זכה נעשה ירוד לפניהם והחיה מושלת בו

Rashi: If he merits, he rules over the living things and over the beasts. If he does not merit, he becomes subservient to them, and the living things rule over him.

Rabbi Ya’akov of Kefar Hanin said: Of one who is with our imprint and like our character [I say] ‘ur-du’ (and have dominion); but of one who is not with our imprint and like our character, [I say] ‘yerdu’ [or ‘yeradu’].

Rabbi Ya’akov of Kefar Hanan said: Let [the one who possesses] ‘our [Divine] imprint and character’ come and have dominion over the one who is not characteristic of ‘our [Divine] imprint and character.’

Questions

  1. What does dominion here suggest?

  2. What does merit refer to?

  3. What might it mean for other creatures to have dominion over humanity? Is this the same dominion that humanity would have over them?

II. The shift in the relationship

בראשית ט:א–ד

א וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹקים אֶת־נֹחַ וְאֶת־בָּנָיו וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ: ב וּמוֹרַאֲכֶם וְחִתְּכֶם יִהְיֶה עַל כָּל־חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ וְעַל כָּל־עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּרְמֹשׂ הָאֲדָמָה וּבְכָל־דְּגֵי הַיָּם בְּיֶדְכֶם נִתָּנוּ: ג כָּל־רֶמֶשׂ אֲשֶׁר הוּא־חַי לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה כְּיֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת־כֹּל: ד אַךְ־בָּשָׂר בְּנַפְשׁוֹ דָמוֹ לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ:

Genesis 9:1-4

And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth. 2 And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon all earth-life, and upon all fowl of the sky, with all that shall creep on the ground, and with all the fishes of the sea; in your hand are they delivered. 3 Every creeper thing that lives shall be food for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. 4 But flesh with its animation—its blood—you shall not eat.’

Soloveitchik

“Man-animal became a life-killer, an animal-eater. He became blood-thirsty and flesh-hungry.
“Is the Torah very happy about this change? Somehow we intuitively feel the silent, tragic note that pervades the whole chapter. The Torah was compelled to concede defeat to human nature that was corrupted by man himself and willy-nilly approved the radical change in him. ….
“Animal-hunters and flesh-eaters are people that lust. Of course it is legalized, approved. Yet it is classified as taavah [Num. 11:4, 34], lust, repulsive and brutish.
“The real motif that prompts such unquestionable antagonism toward slaying of animals is the aboriginal Jewish thought [that]….man and animal are almost identical in their organic dynamics that is equated with life, and there is no justifiable reason why one life should fall prey to another. Why should a cunning intelligence that granted man dominion over his fellow animals also give him license to kill?”

Questions

  1. According to Soloveitchik, what fundamental distinction exists between human beings and their “fellow animals”?

  2. How far does he believe that distinction should extend?

  3. What other fundamental value does that distinction come up against?

Ramban, Commentary on Torah, Bereishit 1:29 Flesh was not permitted for human consumption until the children of Noach, as our Sages have explained. And this goes according to the plain meaning of the Torah’s text. The reason for it is that mobile creatures have a certain spiritual attribute which in this respect makes them similar to those who possess intellect (i.e. people); they are capable of looking after their welfare and their food and they flee from pain and death. And the verse says, “Who knows that the human’s spirit is that which ascends on high and the beast’s spirit is that which descends below to the earth?” (Kohelet/Ecclesiastes 3:21) …

רמב׳ן, בראשית א:כט

הבשר לא הורשו בו עד בני נח כדעת רבותינו. והוא פשוטו של מקרא: והיה זה, מפני שבעלי נפש התנועה יש להם קצת מעלה בנפשם, נדמו בה לבעלי הנפש המשכלת, ויש להם בחירה בטובתם ומזוניהם, ויברחו מן הצער והמיתה. והכתוב אומר ׳מי יודע רוח בני האדם העולה היא למעלה ורוח הבהמה היורדת היא

… (למטה לארץ׳ )קהלת ג כא

Nevertheless, humanity was not given reign over the [animals’] life-force, for it was still forbidden to eat a limb off of a live animal. At this point it also became forbidden to consume blood, for it is blood that maintains life, as the verse states, “the blood of every living creature is associated with its life-force; tell the Israelites not to eat any blood, since the life-force of all flesh is in its blood.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 17:14). All that was permitted was the body of the non-speaking (i.e. non-human) animal after it has died, but not the life-force itself. This is the reason for shechitah (ritual slaughter); even though it is otherwise prohibited by the Torah to cause pain to animals (Talmud Bavli, Bava Metziah 32b), we nevertheless make a blessing “who has sanctified us with Divine commandments and commanded us regarding the shechitah.

ועם כל זה לא נתן להם הרשות בנפש ואסר להם אבר מן החי. והוסיף לנו במצות לאסור כל דם, מפני שהוא מעמד לנפש, כדכתיב )ויקרא יז יד( ‘כי נפש כל בשר דמו בנפשו הוא ואמר לבני ישראל דם כל בשר לא תאכלו כי נפש כל בשר דמו הוא,’ כי התיר הגוף בחי שאינו מדבר אחר המיתה, לא הנפש עצמה. וזה טעם השחיטה, ומה שאמרו )ב“מ לב ב( ‘צער בעלי חיים דאורייתאוזו ברכתנו שמברך אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו על השחיטה

Question: Why would God forbid the consuming of a creature’s life-force? What would such an act do or represent?

  1. After Noah: Continued limitations in the relationship to non-human animals

ויקרא יז:ג–ד

ג אִישׁ אִישׁ מִבֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁחַט שׁוֹר אוֹ־כֶשֶׂב אוֹ־עֵז בַּמַּחֲנֶה אוֹ אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁחָט מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה: ד וְאֶל־פֶּתַח אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֹא הֱבִיאוֹ לְהַקְרִיב קָרְבָּן לַהלִפְנֵי מִשְׁכַּן הדָּם יֵחָשֵׁב לָאִישׁ הַהוּא דָּם

שָׁפָךְ וְנִכְרַת הָאִישׁ הַהוּא מִקֶּרֶב עַמּוֹ:

Leviticus 17:3-4

3 Any man from the house of Israel who slaughters an ox, or lamb, or goat, in the camp, or who slaughters it out of the camp, 4 and does not bring it to the door of the Tent of Meeting, to offer an offering to the Eternal before the tabernacle of the Eternal: blood shall be imputed to that man; he has shed blood; and that man shall be cut off from among his people;

Soloveitchik

The implication is clear. Whoever kills an animal for non-sacramental purposes is guilty of bloodshed, of murder; the term shefikhut damim applies equally to the slaughter of man and animal. Under a certain aspect, the life of the animal has been placed on equal plane with that of man.”

The Torah has not yet explicitly allowed for the non-ritual consumption of animal flesh (let alone a completely gratuitous taking of animal life).

דברים יב:כ–כא

כ כִּי־יַרְחִיב האֱלֹקיךָ אֶת־גְּבֻלְךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר־לָךְ וְאָמַרְתָּ אֹכְלָה בָשָׂר כִּי־תְאַוֶּה נַפְשְׁךָ לֶאֱכֹל בָּשָׂר בְּכָל־אַוַּת נַפְשְׁךָ תֹּאכַל בָּשָׂר: כא כִּי־יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר האֱלֹקיךָ לָשׂוּם שְׁמוֹ שָׁם וְזָבַחְתָּ מִבְּקָרְךָ וּמִצֹּאנְךָ אֲשֶׁר נָתַן הלְךָ כַּאֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ בְּכֹל אַוַּת נַפְשֶׁךָ:

Deuteronomy 12:20-21

20 When the Eternal your God shall enlarge your border, as God has promised you, and you shall say, I will eat flesh, because your life-force lusts to eat flesh; you may eat flesh, with all the lust of your life-force. 21 If the place which the Eternal your God has chosen to put the Divine name there is too far from you, then you shall slay from your herd and from your flock, which the Eternal has given you, as I have commanded you, and you shall eat in your gates, with all the lust of your life-force.

Soloveitchik

Nevertheless, the Torah again calls a desire for meat ta’avah, lust; while the Torah tolerates it, it is far from fully approving it.”

Questions:

  1. What have we learned about life-force / nefesh?

  2. Could we interpret the permission to consume flesh as contingent upon the continued existence of the Divine name in the place God has chosen (the Temple)?

  3. What might be the relationship between the expanding of borders and the lust of the life-force?

  4. How could we read “expand your borders” metaphorically and creatively—and potentially in a way that differs from or can prevent the lustful results that Deuteronomy anticipates?

 

In The Big Inning: Baseball, B’reishit, and the Quest for Wholeness

In The Big Inning: Baseball, B’reishit, & the Quest for Wholeness

by Rabbi Rick Brody

The National Pastime and the start of our Torah both capture our imaginations with their celebration of the idea of return to our primordial home.

The 2012 Major League Baseball postseason has, so far, been nothing short of spectacular in terms of drama, heroics, and very balanced competition. Today is the eve of the second pair of “final games” in the best-of-five, first-round, “division series.” In the 18 years since the start of the division series format, never before have all four match-ups gone to five full chapters. These games are reminding baseball fans why they love this sport and are injecting great spirit, excitement, and joy (and disappointment) into fan bases in cities across the country. Indeed, as I am finishing this post, the Yankees lead the Orioles in a tight 2-0 score a little more than halfway through the game.

Today is also the eve of Shabbat B’reishit, the Sabbath on which Jews throughout the world celebrate the sacred narrative that contemplates the origins of the universe, of humanity, and of meaning–and their relationship to the Divine. We read from the very beginning of the Torah, the parashah known as B’reishit, also the name (“Genesis,” in English) for the first of the 5 Books that comprise the foundational text of our people.

Baseball fans who appreciate the majesty of the Biblical tradition and its influence on world culture are likely to delight in the pun that appears in the title of this post: We can say that the Torah (in its most common English translation) asserts itself right off the bat (another pun, intended) as a treatise on the holiness of baseball. Its initial words are “In the big inning.”

So, as baseball teams march closer towards the end of their pursuit of a championship and our global Jewish “team” begins its annual journey through our sacred writings, I’d like to reflect on the majesty of this sport and relate it to Torah. How can some of baseball’s qualities inform our quest for meaning and inspire us in exploring our own big innings–and beginnings?

First, I should make clear that I have no intention to attempt to prove that there is anything inherently religious, divine, or magical about a sport. It is a game and it is rooted in competition, a feature of reality that often stands in contrast to cooperation, the latter usually and rightly considered the more proper feature in manifesting holiness . But I do believe that the basic structure of baseball and the way it has evolved, especially in the American imagination, lend itself very well–not unlike Torah–to analogies that we can apply to life more broadly, with uplifting results.

The primary poetic feature of baseball that makes it fit for religious interpretation is the manner in which a team scores. Unlike the two other main approaches to competition–the linear, battlefield approach (one team or player attempts to invade or conquer another’s territory), or the acquisitional approach (opponents are both attempting to reach a goal simultaneously and the victor is the one who gets there first, thus claiming that ground exclusively for herself or her team)–baseball’s approach is restorative: It’s about return, about coming home. Literally, every score in the game is completely the result of a player starting out in a given spot, journeying outwards, and completing a successful circuit (usually with the help of teammates), returning safely to the place of origin. Yet, the safe return bestows upon the team a new status–the accomplishment earns the reward of a run, a unit of transformation that becomes the building block of victory. The only trick is that this team also must play the foil–it must attempt to prevent its opponent from achieving a higher number of successful returns home.

Note that there is no conquest of “foreign territory” and no stealing of something that the other party in the journey has any access to. A runner ventures away from home but for the purpose of making it back. The journey is driven by the idea that the return will elevate the runner and his companions, that–to borrow basic language from this seemingly universal literary device–it will signal some growth or maturity to a new level of being, a greater understanding of self, and a greater fulfillment of purpose that benefits the collective.

These elements lead us to some of the critical features we find at the very beginning of the Torah. The most prominent theme of homecoming is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from their idyllic starting point, the garden of earth and vegetation that exists outside of time (note that baseball, inside its pastoral boundaries, has no clock!). The real challenges to the heroes begin after their acquisition of knowledge, which sends them into a life of toil and hardship and a hope of a future return to the Garden. Our sages teach that our experiences of true joy and connection, most notably under the chuppah at Jewish weddings and in the shelter of Shabbat, are the glimpses of eternity that the Garden symbolizes. They are our homecomings.

Our story has an earlier hero, the Creator (God). We learn nothing from the Torah text of a starting point or home for God. Some theologies might speak of God’s home “in the heavens,” but the Torah tells us that the Creation story is one of the formation of shamayim va’aretz (heaven and earth). God created it All, we are led to believe. The mystics suggest that at the real “beginning,” God was The All, existing before (outside of) time–in absolute, undifferentiated unity. Somehow (here is where mystery reigns), God developed an identity that was separate from something else. The Singular became Plural. And it was from this differentiated plurality that God, still fundamentally singular in Godself, began relating to that which was “not God” and shaping everything that remains “not God.” Yet, for many, the goal on our spiritual journeys is to reunite with that which is fully God, to come home to the Place of wholeness. In fact, the Rabbis of antiquity refer to the Eternal as HaMakom (“The Place”), suggesting that Divinity is the destination of our journeys.

We come upon the Divine journey amidst that which is not Divine in the cryptic and often overlooked second verse of the Torah (i.e. Genesis 1:2), which tells us of the “stuff” that God starts with. We don’t know if these materials existed eternally–either alongside or potentially even preceding the Creator who is the subject of our story. But we do learn that the problem God needs to “conquer” is one of Chaos (tohu vavohu), the unformed nature of this proto-creation. It is all potential, with no defined identity of its own other than being “not God.” God’s own pursuit of home, the Place (“within” God) of Divine wholeness, is challenged by these forces which, like the defenders in baseball, have no coherent goal of their own other than to foil the pursuit of the “other” (in this case, God). God the Creator (somewhat different than God, the Absolute Timeless Unity) has taken on a distinct identity, like a player who separates from her team to begin her journey to “create a run.” The journey takes stages–three bases or six days. The final base and the final day of the process is one of culmination, of return to the whole. We call it home. Or we call it Shabbat. It is a place of transformation and elevation, of complete safety, of the flourishing of our entire being, the emergence of soul.

We, in our journeys, imitate the Divine Creator by making our way through the elements that in their very nature conspire to thwart us. We exercise ingenuity and creativity to find ways to thrive in spite of our obstacles, and our passage through dangerous territory makes our homecoming all the sweeter. Each little return, especially each Shabbat, is an opportunity to feel more connected to a greater collective. It gets us not only a little closer back to the Garden of our human beginnings (big innings), but also engages us in the Divine homecoming, the cosmic repair to the original unity that existed before time.

Rosh HaShanah Sermon: What Do I Stand For?: “Some Nights,” “Psalm 27,” and the Metaphors of Conquest or Connection

“What Do I Stand For?”: Some Nights, Psalm 27,
and the Metaphors of Conquest or Connection

Erev Rosh HaShanah 5773
Rabbi Rick Brody

We are at war. The awful violence last week in Libya reminded us all too well of this sobering fact. Even here in our own country, fanaticism of all kinds and an ugly lust for violence has made our world, wherever we are, a very dangerous place. But there’s another war raging even closer to home—within each of us—a war of confusion, of conflicting feelings of purpose, of remorse, of struggle to be better people. It’s a war in which we try to manage the onslaught of responsibilities, concerns, and challenges that threaten our emotional security or a sense of stability in this life. And it is, in many ways, what the coming days are all about.

In the current popular song “Some Nights,” by the band Fun [on p. 2 of the linked lyric page: please click here], the singer cries out in the third stanza, “This is it boys, this is war,” words that I have put in bold-face. But if you notice in the stanza immediately above and below, the essence of the war he’s fighting is the asking of deep questions—which I have also bold-faced. “What do I stand for?” “Who am I?” These are the fundamental questions that lie before us in our own personal war of purpose and meaning.

The military metaphor—army versus army—is one approach to making some sense of the drama of these Days of Awe. But what’s its end point? First of all, we need to remember that it’s a metaphor—that mostly we’re not talking about real violence or real, physical enemies. Yes, we want to vanquish evil, yes we want to stop those who wish to harm us, yes we want to rid the land of vicious beasts—or, more in the spirit of repentance, to tame those beasts, to bring evildoers out of their darkness into the light of righteous living. But we also contend with existential obstacles that are more difficult– less concrete and more pervasive forces in our lives that prevent us from achieving the fulfillment we seek. We concretize them in the metaphor of a military enemy so that we can see them and face them. 

But even inside this metaphor there are limitations. What can we gain from the face-off? I would suggest that seeing ourselves at war can lead us towards goals of—at least—a feeling of victory that comes with vanquishing an enemy, but perhaps also a sense of security or maybe even a new era of peace—though usually real peace requires some radically different action in order to break out of a cycle of violence. Because when we focus on the vanquishing, the defeating of the enemy—as real as the threats might be from the destructive challenges all around us, physical and symbolic—what we’re still left with is the proverbial “zero-sum game.” We stay stuck in a place in which there’s a winner and a loser. And if we’re trying to be the winner, we need to recognize the grave possibility that we can wind up being the loser. The singer in “Some Nights” seems to suggest that his options are that he can “cash in” his bad luck, somehow get something out of his suffering and not give in to complete defeat; or he can call it a draw—no one wins; or, some nights, as he says, “I always win. I always win.” I can’t help but feel that he repeats this proclamation ironically, realizing that this win-lose-or-draw mentality is a sham. He’s stuck, feeling like he’s lost his soul, traded it in for false promises of fleeting satisfaction.

This view of win-lose-or-draw is not only scary or, to use the language of the season, awe-inducing. It’s also potentially toxic. We need to find alternatives to this black-and-white thinking. As the speaker in our song is suggesting, we need to get beyond “the hype,” “break the rules” that keep us stuck in a conflict-addicted mentality, a thinking that pervades our newspapers and other media—the literal “black-and-white” of twitter-style sound-bytes that trade in stark winner-loser modes of seeing the world.

So, the need for an alternative leads into the other metaphor I want to explore, one that also captures a sense of tension and conflict, but that also offers a greater promise than what we get from the military image. The image is one of intimate, personal relationships—between parents and children, between friends, and of course, between romantic lovers. On one level, these relationships aren’t metaphors at all—they’re very real parts of our lives that define so much of our existence, even more than the military model. But they also point to deeper activity that goes on inside each one of us and in our relationship to the Divine.

While any of these deep, personal relationships will necessarily involve disagreement, frustration, anger, and conflict, each one also offers profoundly rich feelings of connection that give our lives meaning. So, sometimes we find ourselves in conflict that feels like a military face-off of global proportions. But—even as we contend with all kinds of manifestations of real enemies that seek to undermine us, be they other people or just the vagaries of life—we also know that the prospect lies before us for not just protecting ourselves but for entering into warm, tender interactions. These interactions enable us to be more fully human and to discover the beauty within our fellow human beings and with the rest of Creation.

Our tradition celebrates both of these approaches to the Days of Awe. Over the course of my sermons this season, I want to look at various images and expressions of these metaphors—in our own sacred texts, in popular songs, and in the wisdom we discover in our own lives. My hope is that we can feel more fully engaged in the drama of the High Holidays in ways that can be relevant to us and that can connect us—not only back to our living heritage but also more deeply to ourselves, to those around us, and to God.

There’s an extremely popular teaching that connects the name for the Hebrew month that we’ve just completed, Elul, to a beautiful and very famous verse from Song of Songs. The verse is “Ani L’dodi V’dodi Li”—“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine”—and we can make an acronym from those 4 words to spell the word Elul—Aleph Lamed Vav Lamed.

The message is that the month leading up to Rosh HaShanah, to today, is one of courtship and bonding between God and God’s beloved—us. But this isn’t a new relationship—we have some history with God. So the rekindling of connection requires the work of reconciliation, of coming back, of return—which in Hebrew is t’shuvah, the same word we use for repentance and which is one of the main buzz words for the season. Rosh HaShanah begins Aseret Y’mei T’shuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, culminating of course in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement—which is a great English word that comes from the idea of “at one”-ment, meaning that’s when the reconciliation is complete, when we’ve fully arrived back into the relationship that we’ve—ideally—been actively seeking throughout the past month and that becomes more and more real to us over the coming days.

Yet, alongside this romantic metaphor—even with the recognition that it’s not all lovey-dovey but rather contains very difficult challenges—we also find much more violent imagery.

The Rabbis of long ago established that starting at the beginning of Elul—through this new month of Tishrei until the end of Sukkot—we would recite, each morning and evening, Psalm 27. [You’ll find the text to this psalm on p. 3 here.] Notice the first few verses, which immediately mention the fear the Psalmist might have in the midst of attack by wicked enemies who mount a war against him, seeking to destroy him, to devour his flesh. The really startling element here is that despite these grave threats, the speaker clings to a faith in God’s protection. Of course, the underlying emotional truth for him could be more a case of “the lady doth protest too much, methinks”—that he is so concerned about being alone and vulnerable and forsaken that all he feels he can do is express faith, even without any evidence to support it—an exercise in wishful thinking. How very human. We have no guarantees, but we can adopt an attitude of strength as a matter of choice.

And with this faith in Divine protection, we can develop images of contentment—images that are the polar opposite of the war we feel raging upon us and of the abandonment of loved ones that can add insult to injury: This contentment is captured in the image of dwelling in the presence of Divine shelter, of seeing goodness, of being moved to offer celebratory song as a sacred gift, of shofar blasts that express our unbounded joy.

In fact, I’d like to suggest that in verse 6, where the Psalmist begins imagining these reactions, that he’s describing a shift in his own consciousness. He is very deliberately and concretely moving his focus away from the military threats to a disposition of gratitude. He says, “my head rises over my enemies all around me,” meaning, in my interpretation, “I’ve gotten over them”—my consciousness has transcended a cycle of fear and has entered Divine space, God’s tent, where it now is overcome with joy. Even the shofar, which just as easily could be invoked as a clarion call on the battle field or an alarm of impending doom, is instead introduced as an instrument of expressing gratitude. Our minds and the tools all around us can all be transformed as we step out of harm’s way and into the shelter of the Divine.

But even that confidence is fleeting, because in the very next verse he returns to petitioning God and asking for assurance that he will be safe. His faith, like ours, is a precarious one, subject to the realities of living in a complex world where one wish or request does not magically dispel all fear. It’s an ongoing battle.

And it seems pretty clear as we move towards the end of the Psalm that just as the speaker might fear for his physical life or wellbeing, so too he struggles with a sense of being recognized, accepted, welcome. “Don’t forsake me, don’t abandon me like my parents did…” Like the singer in “Some nights,” he’s scared of being forgotten again, of being “half as liked” despite trying “twice as hard,” of being without friends, of not being understood, of his song being a “swan song”—a dying shofar blast, perhaps—of dying “alone, all dried up in the desert sun.”

I believe the Psalmist and the singer in our pop song both want to be in the presence of love, even though neither of them uses that word. They want not just protection but comfort and connection. These are basic human needs, and when we feel that they’re not being met, we can feel terribly vulnerable, like we’re being attacked by an army.

So, how do we achieve this sense of connection, this feeling of dwelling with the Divine? Obviously, there are no easy answers, and the struggle takes a life-time. But the great wisdom of our tradition, especially as it relates to this time of year, is to ask the big questions of ourselves. To engage in the process of cheshbon nefesh, an accounting of our souls. The Psalmist asks God to point him on the right path, but it’s up to each one of us to use our own faculties to see and hear God’s instruction, to figure out where we’re going, to make sense of the questions “Who am I? What do I stand for?” In the song “Some Nights,” beginning with its introduction [on p. 1 here]—the singer says, “I never look inward, try not to look upward, But some nights I pray a sign is gonna come to me.” The suggestion, as I hear it, is that the hard work is one of inner reflection or of developing an actual relationship with God.

But if you think you do that by literally looking upward or even of thinking and praying for some sign to come, you’re likely to be disappointed. In the Psalm, the request is “Horaini darkecha” show me your path. The root for “Horaini,” show or instruct, is the same one we find in the word Torah, the sum total of all our sacred instruction. There is a path we need to walk in order to get to God’s tent and it takes discipline and commitment. It’s not going to come as a flash from the sky to solve all our problems overnight.

Nor do we have to “stare at the calendar, waiting for catastrophes.” Fear of the worst isn’t the only shofar blast available to us to wake us up out of slumber and remind us to live more meaningful lives. It’s not just that we’re being pursued by our enemies or that we realize we might drown or burn in the coming year—“Who by fire? Who by water?” we ask as a way to scare us into change.

There’s probably a place for that approach in the grand palette of options for jumpstarting renewal and transformation, and we’ll dramatically engage that approach tomorrow morning and on Yom Kippur with “Un’taneh Tokef.” But “Some Nights” and Psalm 27 seem to be suggesting that it might not be the best way, and the psalm definitely presents an alternative of not living in fear but rising above it.

The singer in “Some Nights” is also struggling to find something more than what he currently has. And in some respects he’s gotten more specific than the Psalmist in introducing the big questions about his own place in the world. Of course, he’s still trying to avoid asking these questions, relying on some martyr to take away his worries, but I believe he’s being ironic, that he sees that this isn’t a solution. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” After all, the words that follow are “But I still wake up.” It’s as if he’s saying, “I can’t sleep in blissful contentment—life is not so simple. I do hear the shofar call that stirs me from complacency and I do see ‘your ghost.'”

Is the ghost himself, an image of what he could have been and still could be, the soul he has lost? Is it the fleeting, intangible “You” with a capital Y, the Divine presence that continues to haunt us into asking the essential questions, that draws our attention to what we still don’t know: “What do I stand for?” The key awareness on this first night of the new year is that we are standing, and we’re actively engaged in the search to figure out why.

The Psalmist suggests our search is about walking the Divine path and that the walk will ultimately lead us to God’s presence, where we can live in contentment. But even then, there’s an uneasiness: He wishes to dwell in God’s house all the days of his life but then also wants to visit in the palace of the Eternal. He knows that as much as he’d like to be completely with God always, he’ll need to step out and step back in, making regular return visits that can keep the relationship fresh and renewed.

The singer in “Some Nights” has a similar feeling of a push-and-pull in his relationship. In the Intro, he says, “there are some nights I hold you close, pushing you to hold me.” Pushing someone in a relationship doesn’t usually get the other person to hold you, to pull you back in. We struggle for our own space—“it’s for the best we get our distance” is the sad way “Some Nights” ends. “It’s for the best you didn’t listen. It’s for the best we get our distance.” But we know he wants to be heard and wants to be held. Even as he pushes, he yearns for the loving pull—for presence, for connection. The Psalmist wants the “You” he’s addressing to listen—“Hear my voice!” he calls. He knows he won’t always be in the safety of God’s space, but he wants to be able to keep coming back, wants to have a clear path of return that he can walk.

Perhaps we’ve spent a lot of energy pushing away our loved ones and pushing away the Divine presence in our lives. Perhaps we’re afraid no one will listen, or that those who listen won’t understand us, and that we’ll be left all alone. These are important fears for us to recognize. The beauty of Rosh HaShanah is that, through the holiness of time, we have entered Divine space. We are on a sacred path that can lead us deeper and deeper into the pleasant chambers of God’s presence, into the assurance that we will be heard, we will be understood, we will be held close. Perhaps walking that path begins with the welcoming calls of the shofar that we’ll hear tomorrow, God’s answer that we are free to enter—or perhaps even God’s cry of wishing for our presence. It’s an invitation to arise, to figure out what we stand for—and maybe to just start walking even before we have it all figured out, but to not stop asking the question, as long as asking it doesn’t paralyze us.

Many nights we can feel confused and stuck. “Most nights I don’t know,” the singer laments. This night, our tradition says, on Rosh HaShanah, we can rise—we can stand with the confidence, or at the least the hope, that we are on a journey back towards a loving embrace, a holding, a connection, back to our own soul and into the shelter of an even greater Soul that not only keeps us safe, but that leads us to joyful, shofar-blasting jubilation.

Is Prayer Selfish?

Response to “Is Prayer Selfish?” | Alternet

by Rabbi Rick Brody

Prayer is an exercise in both humility and in strengthening our own capacity to achieve fulfillment.

I dislike the title of this article from Alternet (we can also ask, “Is Breathing Selfish?” no?), and it’s helpful to note that the author, Valerie Tarico, penned the book, “Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light” because it seems a lot of her own baggage is seeping out in her critique.

I wish Ms. Tarico didn’t spend so much time inveighing against intercessory, “bad prayer” and presenting ridiculous straw-man examples of religious extremists faking the efficacy of such prayer to gullible children. In the middle of the article, she states that “The answer [to why we pray, given the apparent inefficacy of petitionary prayer] is that there is more than one kind of prayer.” But it is not until her 3rd-to-last paragraph where she offers any constructive comments about the importance and possibility of such different prayer as a fundamental part to living fully and deeply:

There is an alternative, another kind of prayer that isn’t about requesting or celebrating special treatment at the hands of an interventionist deity. Instead it is about something within us, about our struggle to live in alignment with our deepest values. In fact it is about resisting the self-serving impulses that drive so many bowed head moments.

I fully affirm the idea that prayer is about articulating — and attempting to live in alignment with — our deepest values. For many of us, that articulation is connected to our yearning for connection with something beyond ourselves. I think there’s a big difference between yearning for the benevolence of a Divine benefactor and falling into the childish, magical thinking that assures us that whatever we want and ask for, we will get. When our articulations take the form of traditional petitions and invoke the imagery of the benefactor, we can and should take the liberty of reminding ourselves that we’re not expecting “direct responses.” Rather, it is the act of asking, of recognizing a degree of our own powerlessness in the face of the enormity of existence — and the act of actively hoping to harness some strength to achieve the alignment we seek — that is the ikar, the essential component to this ancient human activity. It troubles me to no end when those who so cavalierly dismiss religious language out of a humanist impulse seem to lack any faith in our amazing species to be able to think with a degree of sophistication such that we can continue to employ symbolic language, to use words that say much more than their literal meaning.

And even in this endorsement of “good prayer,” I am troubled by Ms. Tarico’s rejection of the centrality of gratitude. She herself, as I quote below, seems to appreciate the way we can joyfully and humbly drink of the gifts of being alive — and I agree with her that much of the bowed-head prayer that proclaims “there but for the grace of God go I” fails to take note of the problematic messages embedded within such statements. But she seems to argue that in general, prayers of gratitude (as well as the petitions that precede the presumed Divine benevolence that yields such gratitude) almost necessarily spiral down into the absurd pettiness of a zero-sum game, whereby because God helped my team win, that means God made your team lose, or because God diverted the hurricane from me, God sent it to you. Our gratitude doesn’t have to include a perfectly rational explanation for “how God works” (if God wanted me to survive my car crash, does that mean God didnwant your friend to survive hers?). If you’re trying to articulate such a coherent theology at a moment of genuine gratitude, you’ve completely missed the point — and are suffering from a much deeper psychic problem of emotional paralysis that, presumably, prayer seeks to address. A lovely counter-example of the purity of gratefulness comes from Adam Frank, at NPR’s “Cosmos and Culture” blog, who states simply and poignantly, as a self-proclaimed atheist, in an entry before Thanksgiving:

I will feel the mystery and be thankful to it, to [my family] and to the world entire.

What else, after all, is there to do?

Ms. Tarico herself goes on, in her final paragraph, to offer a similarly inspiring perspective on a relevant form of prayer:

A prayer may be nothing more than a deep, centering breath; a moment of silence; a thrill of delight; or a surge of love that brings tears to our eyes, reminding us beautifully, painfully, quietly of our small place in the greater whole. In a world with gods or without, in our world today or even a world beyond belief, that is a kind of prayer worth praying.

I just wish she could have arrived at this approach earlier in her article, devoting less energy to railing against the bad forms of prayer.

In addition, while perhaps all prayer needs to include an element of selflessness, it is — as I sarcastically suggested above in my parenthetical comparison to breathing — a crucial aspect of our self-care. Hillel asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” To express poetically or passionately our fervent desire to live in good health and to fulfill our potential, with the intention that naming such desires will bring us closer to realizing them — and to offer prayers of gratitude for achieving those realizations — are steps that, while not sufficient to living fully (Hillel’s next question, of course, is “But if I am only for myself, what am I?”), almost necessary come early in the process of building our relationship to the Divine. The author herself suggests breathing — a very selfish act! — as a form of prayer. (But isn’t that taking away oxygen from others who might need it more? Isn’t a zero-sum game?!)

I also wish the author didn’t present (Jewish) Biblical theology in such a reductionistic fashion and without any comment on the evolution of ideas within religious communities. She misses a golden opportunity to describe how the Jewish and Biblical tradition does tell the story, essentially, of “a nubile 17-year-old” being wooed and chosen by a powerful and handsome man — we see this imagery throughout the Prophets and especially in Song of Songs. She also inappropriately conflates Jewish and Christian ideas by introducing promises of immortality into the same sentence that begins by discussing the choosing of a “tribe of wandering herdsmen” (which is, itself, both inaccurate — we can say the Torah depicts the choosing of “one wandering herdsman” or a “tribe of redeemed slaves” — and also possibly a bit demeaning to Jews with its emphasis on a “wanderer” status, which was not the case at all during the First Commonwealth, when much of the Biblical material was likely written).

In Ms. Tarico’s all-too-easy dismissal of the chauvinism inherent in the traditional Jewish morning blessings that thank God “for not making me a gentile, a slave, or a woman,” she neglects to note the almost universal modifying of these blessings in non-Orthodox prayerbooks into positive statements, thanking the Source for “making me a Jew, a free person, and with the Divine imprint.” Also noteworthy is vocal criticism from those within the Orthodox community, particularly an article by Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of Los Angeles (it appears the original piece that set off the firestorm is no longer online) and other posts that followed.

As the above example should make clear, I don’t believe that all traditional prayers are salvageable. And I recognize that for some people, petitionary prayer is simply not the manner in which they interact with the Divine. For me, such prayers are quite likely very different than what they were to people of long ago. But the basic human need to express our needs and the desire to connect with a Power that can help us meet them are not aspects of the human condition that necessarily hold us back. I believe we ought to own them. Yes, we ought to respond to these human qualities responsibly and intelligently. But they will not go away, so the challenge lies before us to make our prayer life as rich, exciting, and relevant as possible.

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Coming Back to You: Leonard Cohen and Elul

Coming Back to You: Leonard Cohen and Elul Rabbi Rick Brody This post is mainly a shell, since I don’t have time at the moment to write a full interpretation or reflection. In many ways, the brilliant songwriter’s lyrics (found … Continue reading

New Ways of Understanding Soul

New Ways of Understanding Soul

by Rabbi Rick Brody

Soul is not some thing, no “stuff” that is (temporarily) attached to (but fundamentally separate from) my body. No, soul is the totality of my body, all its experiences, and all the meanings it both internalizes and externalizes — through both my brain (my inner life — my impressions, my sensations, my feelings, my cognition) and my self’s interaction with the world “outside of me” — my relationships to others, my deeds, my communications, my contributions to a greater whole.

People are fond of quoting C. S. Lewis as saying, “You don’t have a soul. You are a Soul. You have a body.” Also popular is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s quip that “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” I think that simply throwing around these pithy statements as wisdom actually reduces them to pablum. We need to examine them. Both of them trouble me. While I think there is truth in these words, I do not think they tell the whole story; at the least, they are misleading, suggesting to the naive reader some kind of mythical narrative about a soul (or spirit) that lives eternally, enters a body — or, better, takes on a bodily form — and then maintains a conscious existence after it “leaves” the body — or “sheds” it, like snake-skin (some contemporary critics of classical theology derisively refer to this presumed process as a “soul-ectomy”!) — leaving it behind as an ultimately irrelevant tool that mainly obscures our awareness of a deeper, disembodied truth. I see some elements within this narrative that meaningfully characterize our experiences and our place in the Cosmos, but I think there are also aspects to this narrative that themselves are obstacles to enduring meaning.

Teilhard de Chardin’s statement is more troubling. Am I, at my core, not a human being? As I will discuss below, I believe I start out entirely human, and my journey of self-conscious interaction with the world outside my human body opens up a process of “spiritual” or soulful growth, discovery, and becoming. But the human experience isn’t “part” of my journey — it is my journey; it just happens that this journey extends beyond the limitations of my physical human body. But all of my experiences are physical — or at least are necessarily mediated through the physical (this view fits in with a current outlook in philosophy of science and philosophy of mind called “nonreductive physicalism”). Without my physical brain, “i” will lack the apparatus to have conscious, subjective experiences. I will “live on” in ways that I believe are part of the soul-process, but I do not expect to have awareness of that life.

I am a human being. Or, more appropriately, I am a human becoming. It’s the becoming that I think we tend to identify as “spiritual,” but I fail to see how that quality has a fixed essence that could be described as a “spiritual being.” It is certainly more a process than an entity. But more to the point is that it requires the body. There is no spirit that is me that precedes my body. Rather, that quality of transcendent becoming, that sense of participating in something greater than “me” is one that emerges from the reality of our bodily existence, a reality at the core of our being/becoming, of our sense of self — and not one I wish to undervalue.

I believe there are levels of self and that indeed we are restricting ourselves if we confine our understanding of self to be synonymous with our bodies. Clearly, Lewis is worried that people see the soul as something “smaller” than the self-defined-as-body, contained by it, subservient to a “greater” self that possesses a soul. It seems right to want to debunk this misconception. But it also seems dangerous to want to dismiss the fundamental role that the body plays in defining and constructing self, in making me me. And I believe that level of reality precedes that of soul. I believe there is a “me” that is smaller than my soul — a “me” that mediates between what seems to be a completely inner life of mind and an outer world that we touch through our bodies and that in turn touches our bodies and, in rapid succession, our minds. Soul is a process that encompasses all these other processes and that begins with the body.

The metaphor of an ecosystem is instructive here. It seems that much of the quest for meaning, particularly within religious contexts, involves an effort to transcend that sense of “small self” — an individual tree, for example — and become fully in touch with the greater self that is not just an intermediary, but rather the great forest itself, the entire system. But the system, as grand and impressive and awe-inspiring as it is, consists of the individual trees. You can’t have a forest without them. They comprise the whole, each one playing a vital, necessary, and sacred role. There is no “other side” where we can arrive by climbing a ladder of enlightenment, transcending the role of being a singular tree to simply being the entire forest. Rather, we are constantly becoming more and more of a tree, and that becoming contributes more and more to the becoming of the forest, of which we are a part.

I start out as a body. The problem is that I am not really an “I” yet. I am “mere fluid,” a clump of cells, a mass of tissue, and ultimately an intricate network of physical processes that is ready to engage the process of interaction with the world that will give birth to new soul. That new “soul” will interact with the wider soul-process to which it contributes and with which it grows, evolves, and becomes.

My soul doesn’t “live” inside of “me.” My mind lives inside of me. (Some philosophers of mind wish to talk about “mind” the way I am speaking of “soul,” as extending beyond the body. I find it helpful to distinguish between the two and keep “mind” as the “inner life,” with “soul” being the resultant interactions between these various networks of inner lives.) It dwells entirely in my network of nerves (my nervous system) — the mode of communication of sensation — which is headquartered in my brain. My soul, however, is the sum of all that is “me” (bodily, including my brain) and all of the extensions of me beyond my bodily definitions. It is “me plus.” I cannot contain it — I am subsumed within it. And it depends on me, on the entirety of my bodily existence. My body is a necessary predecessor to my soul, just as it is to my mind. The soul emerges as a result of the body’s obtaining of consciousness (mind) and its interaction with its environment — which not only reacts to and is transformed by its interaction with such a conscious body but simultaneously engages in a partnership wherein it exerts influence on that very body and its mind. This mutuality, this complex of interactions, this ecosystem, is the matrix in which soul “lives.”

There is no “part” of me that is not “part of” my soul. My soul continues to grow and evolve, throughout my biological epoch and forever after as my legacy. It doesn’t “go” anywhere — it doesn’t “leave” my body. It is always extending beyond my body through the world of meaning, impact, and influence. This quality, in theory, my body shares with all of physical existence. What most physical bodies lack, however — as far as we know — is the internal experience, the consciousness that allows me to identify myself as a subject. It is this quality that we are referring to when we speak of subjective experience. If “i” have no subjective consciousness, then it seems i am not (directly) involved in a soul-process. And what if there is no external consciousness to have an internalized awareness of what “i” have done, my influences, my legacy (e.g. if I were alone on the proverbial desert island)? Does that absence also negate the soul-process, or at least suggest that the entire process is completely terminated with my bodily death (or however else my consciousness ceases to function)?

Perhaps it is more helpful to say that we participate in our souls. These souls include our body, the entity that has a sense of self, a sense of participating in the activity of soul-ing. It can be correct to say that “i am a body” — “i” as small self that is physically bounded; and that “I am a Soul” — “I” as larger Self that emerges from the interaction between my “self” and the world, especially those “parts” of the world that consist of other “i” entities, other selves that comprise the ecosystem.

The degree to which we enhance our own consciousness and our interaction beyond our bodies is the degree to which we participate in soul (and that participation is still morally neutral, filled with potential for good, evil, or nothing). So, I’m not really any more comfortable saying that I am a soul that has a body than I am saying that I am a body that has a soul. I might be comfortable saying that “my soul” emerges from my body’s participating in a greater whole and that with that emergence, my soul becomes the “greater I,” “greater” than the “i” that is my body, continuing its existence — through meaning — even after my body has decayed. Rabbi Brad Artson has offered his own contribution to the conversation, shifting towards classical Biblical language and claiming, “You don’t have a nefesh; you are a nefesh.” Note that he does not echo Lewis by adding the qualifier, “you have a body.” I believe that the nefesh Artson is referring to—in keeping with its Biblical meaning—is the totality of processes that “i” experience that lead me towards “I” (or it might be “I”). This idea is not the same as what English speakers or translators tend to mean when they speak of “the soul.”

I don’t believe that this “greater I” has consciousness separate from the consciousness that my body experiences — at least I cannot conceive of such a consciousness. But I do believe that the “greater I” that our ego-selves, our individual trees, seek to know or commune with — the totality of the forest in which our individual trees participate (“foresting”) — may be the goal to which we aspire during the quests for meaning throughout our bodily human existence. So, yes — “I” am a soul, and that soul consists of the bodily “i” that is an integral part of that soul-process. And my body will sometimes know or commune with that “I” during its existence. And yes, “I” will continue to exist even after my body no longer does, but “i” won’t know about it, and as far as i know, “I” will have no knowing at all without my conscious body. It is thus my opportunity and my obligation to get my conscious self, my “i,” to know the “greater I” of my soul-process — that which “i” am creating and that emerges from my completely human experience — as much as possible during my limited time of human consciousness. This is my time.

The Touch of the Divine

In my theology class this morning, I was facilitating a discussion that was building a bridge between Yehudah HaLevi’s rejection of the philosophical approach to God and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s similar effort to transcend the realm of rational speculation in theology.  One student hit upon an idea that I have distilled in the following manner, with additional commentary:

The philosophical or scientific approach to religion is trying to touch God; the truly religious or spiritual path is one of being touched by God.

I think this sums up so much of Heschel’s approach.  After all, one of his books is “God in Search of Man.”  To clarify beyond the sound-byte, Heschel definitely sees a 2-way (I-You) relationship with God in which we have an impact on the Divine, but he’s more interested in framing God as the “I” (subject) and us as the “You” (object).  He also doesn’t dismiss the philosophical or scientific approach and there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to “touch God,” by which we meant today being able to point to God, identify God — as if under a microscope.  It’s just that such “contact” is inherently objectifying and limiting and so simply isn’t enough; it therefore can’t be our chief activity in the religious enterprise.

We can also, by the way, say that the philosophers are trying to figure out the ways that God “touches” us from a sensory or rational perspective, but are not necessarily in touch (no pun intended, at least not consciously!) with how God might be touching us in a more penetrating, transforming, soulful manner.