Spirituality and Health hitting the newstands

I just got my first article in a glossy magazine -- Spirituality and Health -- October issue. This is the piece I wrote awhile back on 'under God'

While I proudly placed the mag on the radiator by the toilet (I got an advanced copy in the mail) it has a bizarre ad for a biofeedback video game on the back cover that is freaking me out.


Under God

By Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled not to hear the “under God” case, and to basically let this insertion into the pledge stand, I think that we as a nation have become stuck, theologically speaking.

As a child sent to a religious day school I could not help but feel that God was watching me from above every time I sat on the toilet. I also sensed that God watched sporting events, occasionally guiding basketballs into hoops from half-court (Dick Vital yelling “Hail Mary!”). In fact, all people were living under God – a deity above us peering down like the manager of the A&P from his perch atop the customer service desk. Where did we get the idea that God was on top of us? How did we get under God in the first place?

I ask this question because as my theology has matured, I have come to learn that God, as conveyed in the Five Books of Moses, is not only up in the sky, but very down-to-earth. God is present in rocky valleys, bushes, even inside of tents. Jacob wakes up from sleeping on a stone pillow and says, “God was in this place and I, and I did not know it!” God in a thorn bush says to Moses “I will be what I will be,” a cloud called “God’s glory” enters the sacred tent before the children of Israel.

So how did God become on high – and as a result we become under God? The source for the phrase “God on high” is an obscure name for God in the Book of Genesis that is uttered by Melchizedek of Salem, one of the Kings who tries to butter-up Abraham. In doing so, he praises Eyl Elyon, which literally means “God on top” but is translated as “Most High God” or “God on High.” Interestingly, none of the patriarchs or matriarchs ever refers to God with this name. Rather, they have a more expansive knowledge of God, and elsewhere in Genesis, we can hear it echoed in Jacob’s blessing: “by the God of your father, who will help you, by El Shaddai, who will bless you with blessings from the sky above and blessings from the deep, lying below, blessings from the breasts and the womb.”

One of my teachers in seminary, the historian Tikve Frymer-Kensky, spoke of the Biblical God as one that is synthesized from the ancient sky gods and the ancient earth gods (as well as a few other gods with varying genders) into one deity. The innovation was to create one unified name for all of the powers that compelled the natural world. And in the Bible, God speaks from within these forces-- "Out of the heavens God let you hear His voice to guide you,” we read in the fourth chapter of Deuteronomy, “and on earth God let you see His great fire, and you heard His words from the midst of the fire.”

So, from this expansive Biblical vision of God in which God permeates all of reality, in both the elemental and the human realms, how did we get into thinking of ourselves as simply ‘under’ God?

The vast majority of the metaphors used to describe God on high come in later books, most notably the Psalms, which are replete with poetic language that describes God in this way. God is ‘above the heavens,’ is the ‘King of Kings’, is the ‘Judge on high seated on his throne’. Those metaphors would surely place us under God - but the author of the Psalms also includes conceptions that are more earthbound. God is a rock, God a fortress, God a dwelling place. And there are conceptual names for God – God as truth, salvation, exceeding joy – that have nothing to do with location.

Why does it matter so much for us to dissect the phrase under God? In part this matters because we are increasingly becoming a more religiously diverse nation.

At a time when religious totalitarianism is making a comeback around the globe, we should recognize our diversity – the fact that while some Americans do envision that believers are below and God is above, others see God within, God as permeating all things, God as manifest in multiple realities or God as a force that by definition can not be limited to human conceptions. There are even a few folks who proudly call themselves ‘godless.’ In short, if the pledge were an actual reflection of America's theological diversity it would have to have a section with a "fill in the blank."

But there is a more important reason for us to revise the language ‘under’ God. We live in an era where it is not only up to God’s watchful eye whether we live or die – but also up to us. As we continue to poison the planet and march faster to ecocide, both God’s immanence in creation and human responsibility as caretakers for the earth should be implicit in our theology.

Yes, God is cosmic. When I look up at the night sky, I see a reflection of God’s glory. But I also see it as I dig in the muck of growth and decay in the garden. And that time that I went snorkeling in the Gulf of Aqaba – that was a blessing from the depths. But most importantly, I sense God’s presence as a force that exists between people when they are reflecting the attributes of understanding, kindness, support, mercy, and justice.
So I think that it is unfortunate that the Supreme Court has passed this opportunity to examine “Under God” and recognize the phrases’ limits. The phrase reverts us back to the ancient sky god and reinforces the notion that God can only be understood as a judge or king who looks down on us. God is much more.


A Message for the New Year

Here is the piece that I'll be submitting to the String of Pearls newsletter:

Elohim, ten li et h'atikvah lekabel ma she'ein Ten li et hakoach leshanot et ma sheken. et haomets lenasot letaken et ha'olam.

G-d, give me the hope to accept what there isn't
Give me the strength to change what is
Give me the courage to try to fix the world.

These words, although they could have been chanted in a Psalm by King David, a poem by Yehudah Halevi, or a prayer by Levi of Berdichev, are from Israeli hip hop artist Subliminal. He writes:

You promised a dove, in the sky there's a hawk
Brother, poisonous twig pricks, this is not an olive branch
Living in a dream, everybody talks about peace
But they shoot, oppress, pull, squeeze the trigger
In a world of suicide attacks, the people are still talking
Living in an illusion of righteousness, they widen the rift in the nation.

Pass madness every day in order to survive
Don't want to live in order to fight,
I fight in order to live
Plant hope, send out roots Shield in my body for the dream so it won't be shattered to splinters
Enough, enough with the hurt, enough with the tears
A year that the land bleeds not sleeping and why?

The line I love to repeat is “plant hope, send out roots, shield in my body for the dream.”
And this summer I had an amazing opportunity to plant some hope within me. In July, Lisa and I traveled (sans kids – thanks Silbermans!) to the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Barcelona. This event, held every five years, brought eight thousand religious people from across the globe for religious dialogue. At a time when religious extremists seem to have grabbed hold of our global steering wheel, this gathering was like a collective act of putting on the brakes, saying, “Stop – What are we killing each other over?” Sitting on the floor of the Sikh Gudwara eating a simple bowl of lentils and speaking with religious leaders from Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere, I felt that perhaps voices advocating peace can take the wheel back and steer it in the direction that we all need to go in – towards a sustainable planet. But I know that it will take much work to do this.

The High Holidays are also about taking hold of the wheel. We ask: What direction am I headed in? How do I get back to that place where I did feel at peace? How can I drive through this storm?

To answer these questions we must stop our routine and enter into another space. We put the brakes on – and we reflect. At the end, perhaps we can plant some hope - Hope that will send out roots for the coming year.

Shana Tovah U’Metukah


Responses keep popping up to my article (originally in the Forward) about ground zero

from www.nickdenton.org

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you

A brilliantly counter-intuitive idea from Daniel Brenner about the rebuilding of the site of the World Trade Center. "Building a mosque on the site would also send a message to the Islamic world about America, and our commitment to the freedom of religion. At a time when many Muslims are being fed endless distortions about America and what we value, it will take more than a publicity mission by Muhammad Ali to change America’s image."

From Nick Bruner

Build a Mosque on Ground Zero
I love this idea. Daniel Brenner, writing on BeliefNet, suggests that we use Ground Zero in part to build an inter-faith center, featuring a mosque, a church and a synagogue. Personally, I'm an athiest, or agnostic at best, but I can't think of a better message to send to Al Qaeda and their like than to demonstrate the openness of our society with action.

On Humanism and "God"

Nothing drives me more crazy than when I hear an athlete thanking God for a 3-pointer, a twenty foot putt, or a touchdown. “Do you mean to tell me that God sits around guiding balls into particular places?” I wonder, “A God in the sky with two hundred channels of ESPN watching and working magic with each play?”

Moments like these make me tempted to buy into the philosophy of men like Sherwin Wine. Sherwin Wine, the Michigan Rabbi and chief proponent of Humanist Judaism has a lot to say about God. “God is an ordinary English word like ‘table’ ‘chair’ or ‘rug’”, Wine argues, a word which he is “sick and tired of using.” Wine views God-talk as irrational, and ultimately as a source of human confusion that undermines our ethical strivings.

So, would it be better to rid ourselves of the irrational God-talk that we hear from athletes, hurricane victims, movie stars, even public officials? Would it be in our interest to replace the outmoded prayers of synagogue life with poetic musings of a different sort?

After many years dwelling on this question, I’ve come to some conclusions.

The word “God” is not like “table” but a lot like the word “love”. Imagine writing a valentine to your sweetie which said “We are mutually compatible partners and we have developed a trusting relationship which I value very deeply”

They’d respond “What about saying ‘I Love You’?”

You’d argue—“Hey, I don’t ‘believe’ in ‘love’. But all the things that you mean by love are in my letter to you.”

They’d say “Just tell me that you love me!”

You’d reread the card. They’d begin packing their socks.

Here’s my analogy, “Love” like the word “God” is used to describe a totality of experience that we can’t fully describe.

For example, someone recovers from an illness, and they say “thank God”. I hear this a lot, but I don’t understand them as saying “thank the chief executive officer of bodily function in the sky”—what I hear is “I am in a state of gratitude to the totality of my experience—the doctors, the medicines, the nurses, the support of my family, the elements of chance, everything.” It is that everything which we cannot fully describe that we call God.

And that is what I use the word “God” to mean-- “the totality of connections that I can’t even begin to describe.”

Sherwin Wine would call my desire to reconcile with the word God a “apologizing, redefining, and explaining” of theology.

But I think that this definition of God is a healthy one, and one grounded in the tradition. The Kaddish says “God is beyond all blessings, poems, and worship” The Yigdal reads “God is unknowable, and there is no end to God’s unity” i.e. no language can capture what the word “God” means. In prayer “God” is a code word for “totality beyond description” like “love” is a code word for “feelings beyond description”

I could give other examples of how I understand Judaism to advocate for such a God. Yet the basic understanding is this—by removing God from the earth-bound (no idols or men are God) we have made “God” a force that is beyond body and language. And even though we may use body and language to speak of God, we are doing so poetically, conscious that the real picture is more than our personal descriptions.

The reality is that if we don’t take it into our own hands to “redefine” / “reconstruct” God, then we’re leaving it in the hands of some rather narrow-minded people. They will define “God”, and they have a pretty nasty track record concerning how their definition leads to irrational ends.
So there you have it, I believe in God. And though I cringe when I hear God attributed to a home run or a slicing backhand or a 7-10 split, part of me says “Yeah, this ball moving in such a way at this very moment is beyond description, and this person is experiencing the totality of existence…so, hey, why not?”

The Big Mess

The Big Mess about Messianic Jews
By Rabbi Daniel Brenner

As a rabbi who works each day with Presbyterian ministers and lay people at a historic Presbyterian seminary, I have to admit that I was deeply concerned when I received word that a “Messianic Jewish Community” opened in a Philadelphia suburb with over $300,000 of Presbyterian Church USA money. The new church (which does not call itself a church) is named Avodat Yisrael, which literally means “sacrifice of Israel”, and it opened in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. Since its first service, on Rosh Hashanah, I’ve heard that few people have actually joined the congregation but that many questions have been raised. Some have asked - What is so offensive to the Jewish community about Messianic Jews? Others want to know –Is there any way that Presbyterian churches can reach out to Jews without causing a media frenzy?

These are challenging times for those of us who are committed not just to individual clergy or houses of worship, but to national religious organizations. More people are choosing their religious identity the way they choose items at a salad bar, a story told best in books like Generation of Seekers and Spiritual Marketplace by Wade Clark Roof. As a result, there is theological fluidity, borrowing of ritual, and a general freedom to create religious life that is unprecedented.

These forces are not necessarily detrimental to traditional religious communities. As a rabbi, I have viewed genuine Christian interest in Jewish ritual and practice as an overwhelmingly positive development, one that is by no means a new phenomenon. The many Christian communities who hold Passover Seders are just one example of this flowering of Jewish ritual in the church. Rabbis across the country who serve on local clergy councils have truly enjoyed teaching for Christian groups and have seen first hand the sincere desire for spiritual dialogue that exists between Christians and Jews. It is of no surprise to me that some Christians are even interested in learning Hebrew, studying kabbalah, and reading Chassidic tales. I know that many Christians have discovered the Judaica section of their local Barnes & Noble or independent bookstore and have begun to read about Jewish history and religious life. The vast majority of Presbyterians and others who seek out Jewish practices and Jewish insights, or even read a Bruce Feiler book on the Bible, do so in a desire to deepen their relationship to Christ and do so with a genuine respect for Judaism.

It is also true that in a society that is increasingly open, people choose to convert to a religion that they did not grow up with. The latest National Jewish Population study found that many Christians have found homes in the Jewish community and that many Jews have chosen to join Christian communities. In working with Presbyterians, I have heard stories of the Jewish men and women who have become active in churches across the country. Many of these folks are Jews who have married committed Protestants, but some fall into the category of intellectual or spiritual seekers. In their new homes they have found the religious community that they were seeking. Lauren Winner’s recent book Girl Gets God tells her story of a Jewish seeker finding Christ, and in my work I have met not only Christian lay leaders, but Christian ministers who grew up in Jewish homes. Their spiritual journeys led not simply to an embrace of Christ’s teachings, but to a decision to become part of the Church, to enter the covenant of the church community, and to carry on the church’s historical legacy. These folks do not call themselves Messianic Jews. Rather, they are proud to be Christians, and carry in their hearts the Church’s struggles between tradition and innovation.

Messianic Jews are a different type of spiritual seeker. In contrast to Jews who become Christians, most Messianic Jews do not want to be called Christians (hence the title “Messianic Jews” instead of “Hebrew Christians” – an earlier manifestation of their religious community) or to call their congregations churches. Instead, they emphatically state that they are Jewish – Jews who pray in the name of Jesus. Among Messianics there is some disagreement about what type of Judaism they are. To quote one Messianic Jewish leader, Michael Wolf, his mission is to “Commit to, and grow in a lifestyle of faith called Biblical Judaism.” A leader of another wing of Messianic Jews, Stuart Dauerman, claims that “Messianic Judaism is a Judaism, and not a cosmetically altered "Jewish-style" version of what is extant in the wider Christian community.” Many Messianic Jews view Christianity from the third century onward to be an aberration of Christ’s teachings and they argue that to join a Christian church would be to “assimilate” into a European Christianity that is antithetical to Jews. The Union of Messianic Judaism’s recent paper Defining Messianic Judaism calls Presbyterians and others “the Gentile Church”. In some communities there has even been heated discussion about whether Christians who join Messianic Synagogues must convert to Judaism to be full members or to participate in all activities in the congregation – for example, the Union has stated that “Gentiles are certainly welcome within Messianic Jewish Congregations…but congregations remain Jewish, not expressions of ‘one new man’ that is neither Jew nor Greek. Much of their life is based, not strictly on Scripture or on universal precepts for all believers, but on Jewish teaching and tradition. Gentiles moved by Ahavat Yisrael will participate in the Messianic Jewish congregation on these terms.”

Messianic Jews are creating an interesting hybrid religious identity – one that satisfies their personal desires to carry on talmudic based religious rituals and one that gives them a Hebraic path to accepting Yeshua, Jesus. They have taken two traditions that were often at odds with one another (with Jews often the persecuted party) and have inherited the theological, ritual and historical confusion inherent in syncretism. And while both Catholic and Protestant church bodies have worked to correct the bloody legacy of crusaders and church sponsored persecutions against the Jews, and have affirmed that Jews still remain in covenant with God, Messianic Jews continue to target Jews for evangelization – often in deceptive ways. As a result, their eclectic mix does not fly well in a Church or Synagogue. For these reasons, both Jews and Christians have declared Messianic Jews to be a “fringe religious development” – one that stands outside the boundaries of both the Church and the established Jewish religious movements.

That said, though, perhaps someday Messianic Jews will have the makings of a genuine religious movement – a well articulated philosophy and theology, an accredited seminary, a national network of religious schools, shared educational curricula, a mechanism to provide social services for those who are in need - and the other components those of us affiliated with religious movements work so hard to sustain. But today they are a loosely connected group (or groups – they have numerous “national” bodies) with a unknown number of adherents. From my initial research, I see that their “seminary” amounts to one class taught by an adjunct faculty member at an Evangelical seminary and their “Yeshiva” is a series of audio lectures. Their teachings and practices vary greatly from congregation to congregation, and with a few exceptions (the minister in Plymouth Meeting one of them), they are currently served by leaders who have little or no formal religious training. Some of them call themselves rabbis, other ministers. Perhaps half of their adherents come from Jewish backgrounds.

So what does this all mean for Presbyterians who wish to grow the church and to reach out to new communities?

It is obvious to me as an observer of the Presbyterian Church that the new energy brought into the church by Chinese, Korean, and Pakistani Presbyterians has given many communities new hope. But when one funds a new religious category in the name of attracting new members, such as Messianic Judaism, one has generated the opposite effect. Instead of evangelizing in a way that welcomes people into the Church community, the Church has funded a separate entity – one that borrows from both Christianity and Judaism - and only further distances both Christians and Jews from their spiritual homes. It is clear to me that the Messianics do not want their followers to become Presbyterians nor do they personally want to follow Presbyterian practices. But apparently they have no problem spending money collected from the members of the Presbyterian Church USA to fund a congregation that not only hides the cross and baptismal font, but advertises to Jews in a manner that has been described as deceptive. The minister of this Messianic Jewish congregation took a great leap of faith to leave Judaism and to join the Presbyterian Church and become an ordained minister. I imagine that when he was ordained he vowed to uphold the theology and practice of the Presbyterian Church - isn’t it ironic that he does not urge his followers to do the same?
It is no surprise to me that my fellow Jews view the new church Avodat Yisrael as a cheap advertising gimmick. It is as if mainstream Jews funded a savvy Conservative rabbi to sing Amazing Grace, recite the Lord’s Prayer and read selected New Testament verses in an attempt to lure inter-faith couples.

So how should the Presbyterys respond to inter-marriage and outreach to inter-married families? There are other, more dignified paths. Many churches already have adjusted to new American religious trends and now offer classes for young families entitled "When mommy is Jewish" or "When daddy is Jewish" to help inter-faith families face their issues in an open, non-judgmental environment. Others offer classes particularly on Hebrew Scripture or create a book group that includes a book of Jewish interest. Some have invited in rabbis to teach. Probably the most interesting development in this arena is the award winning local television program in Larchmont, New York that features a Presbyterian minister and a rabbi discussing theological issues over breakfast at a diner. These activities send the message to Jews that they will be welcomed without judgment and spoken of with respect within the Church. When that happens, inter-married families will not only join churches but become amazing assets for furthering the Church’s goals. I’m sure that many of you have seen this with your own eyes.

Decades of work have gone into building a strong relationship between Presbyterians and Jews. In the wake of the holocaust, theological dialogue led to new understandings of an ancient connection. Both Jews and Presbyterians are challenged by America’s new religious realities. It is my hope that Presbyterians across the country will continue to affirm the spiritual journey that Jews and Christians walk together in light of God’s teachings and that further efforts to outreach to inter-married families can be done with true sensitivity and compassion. I hope that in the upcoming assembly that the Presbyterian Church USA’s membership will raise their voices, put an end to further allocations to Messianic Jewish groups and reaffirm the Church’s historic principles regarding Jewish-Christian relations.


Praying With Lior

A few months ago, I met with Ilana Trachtman, director of Praying with Lior which is in the final stage of development. I saw a rough cut of the film, which is about the remarkable prayer skills of Lior Leibling, a young man with Down's Syndrome who just had his bar mitzvah. Ilana is doing a phenomenal job with a difficult subject.