On Monday, October 12, 2009, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Maggid Yitzhak Buxbaum, Rabbi Yaakov Kellman, Rabbi David Ingber, Pir Zia Inayat-Khan and Deborah Rabia Povich met at the Abode of the Message in New Lebanon, New York for a full day of private dialogue on Judaism’s contribution to the world today, with a public dialogue offered that evening. We have chosen to post the raw transcript from the public dialogue, for you.

Seven Pillars House of Wisdom
The Promise of Judaism: A Dialogue

RAW TRANSCRIPT (Mostly Unedited)

On Monday, October 12, 2009, Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Maggid Yitzhak Buxbaum, Rabbi Yaakov Kellman, Rabbi David Ingber, Pir Zia Inayat-Khan and Deborah Rabia Povich met at the Abode of the Message in New Lebanon, New York for a full day of private dialogue on Judaism’s contribution to the world today.

The private dialogue was followed by a public dialogue that evening. The evening portion began with an attunement lead by Rabbi David Ingber, who shared a chant in Hebrew and Arabic.  The dialogue then began with an introduction by its moderator, Deborah Rabia Povich.

A summary of the public dialogue can be found here. A video clip from toward the end of the evening, of Rabbi Kellman speaking about his son in Israel, can be found here. Photos from the event can be found here.

Rabia: Thank you so much for that attunement. It helped bring us into this special place where we want to explore some of the wisdom of a very ancient religious tradition. My name is Rabia Povich and I have the pleasure of serving on the board of trustees of Seven Pillars, and I’m going to do very little talking tonight. I had the extreme pleasure of spending the day with these wonderful gentlemen, and witnessing, largely, a very lively and meaningful discussion. We invite you to do something similar now, and later on in the evening we’ll offer the microphone around for some questions, if you should have them. First, Pir Zia will give a little bit of a frame of where this Judaism dialogue fits into Seven Pillars.

Pir Zia: Thank you all for coming. I’m very happy to see all of you here tonight. Thank you, Rabia, for introducing the evening, and to you, Rabbi David, for that beautiful chant which took me back to a year ago, to your attunement with us on that day, which was such a unifying moment.

We are brought together here by Seven Pillars House of Wisdom, which is a forum for interspiritual collaboration and cultural creativity. It was established just a year ago, and it has subsequently grown and hosted a number of seminars and conferences and dialogues, as well as offered online articles and, essentially what we are undertaking is to build a conversation. That conversation is one that is inclusive, but it is not random and haphazard — it is oriented by guiding voices, by individuals who come from diverse traditions — spiritual as well as scientific, artistic, and cultural disciplines — who come together to facilitate a conversation that allows us to deepen our connection with some of the most basic questions of contemporary human existence, and to approach these questions bringing to bear the sum of all available knowledge.

So this endeavor has had as its organizing frame, four primary areas. The first is Cosmology, which has to do with locating our place in space, drawing on ancient indigenous cosmological law, but also drawing on the very latest evidence of contemporary astrophysics. It has to do with the intersection of science and spirituality, the relation of person and planet.

And then there is Prophetology — Revelation, which has to do with reckoning with, coming to terms with, the legacies of the great prophetic figures who are the fountainheads of the universal spiritual traditions of the world. And coming more and more to understand these prophets as a single planetary lineage.

Thirdly, Mysticism, which is to say, the personal inner experience of a deepening encounter with the divine, the totality of that which is vaster than the boundaries of one’s personal self.

And fourthly, Chivalry, which is the way of purposeful action, heroic idealism, ethical engagement, to transform the world. These are our four subject areas, and within the subject of revelation, we have sought to convene deep practitioners of the world’s faiths in dialogue. Our approach has been to begin by bringing together practitioners of a single faith, working towards eventually bringing together multiple faiths, but feeling that we should begin by undergoing a deep engagement with open-ended exploration of each of the three major Western religious traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam — the religions that have exercised the most significant influence on the formation of what we call “Western civilization.”

Of course, when we speak about Western religions, there’s more to it than these faiths — there’s the indigenous traditions, and now we live in a cosmopolitan, pluralistic world where every religion of the world is present amongst us, and our sincere intention is to include all without exclusion, without boundaries. But we are just beginning, and our approach has been to work first with the religions of the Book, the Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage.

We had a Revelation dialogue last year bringing together practitioners of the Christian faith, an all-day dialogue between ourselves, and then an evening like this. And now following the same model, here we are tonight. Having had this day-long discussion of Judaism, we’re excited to be in your midst and carrying our conversation forward with all of you, and looking forward to your participation and questions. So without further ado, thank you for coming, let’s begin.

Rabia: One thing I would also just like to begin with is a recognition that we have a little lack of gender balance here. We are just going to recognize that. We are not going pretend it isn’t happening. We’re going to tell you that it was not our intention, nor do we feel that it’s reflective of the Jewish community. Quite honestly, there are many wonderful women Jewish scholars and practitioners, and it is a combination of an unforeseen set of circumstances and other commitments where all of the Jewish women that we invited could not attend. That being said, we recognize that Judaism has both a masculine and feminine aspect to it and I am quite assured that these men will be able to shed light on the feminine aspects of Judaism as well as the masculine.

I’m going to ask each one of them to spend two minutes speaking to you about who they are, because one of the things we felt we have learned with Seven Pillars is that people like to know who’s speaking to them. So you got a little bit about their bios, I’m going to start here with this wonderful Rabbi, Yaakov Kellman, on my right. He lives in Albany. I’m going to let him tell you about himself.  He has been to the Abode before, twenty-five years ago, as well, leading various practices.

Rabbi Yaakov: Thank you. I’m still trying to figure out who I am. I can identify myself as Yaakov Kellman. Some would want to put me in this box of being Orthodox, but I like to escape, so I come to the Abode. Those who were here during the summer know that I have a tendency to be a little bit funny on this level, but really I’m sitting beside four wonderful, special teachers and so to some degree, since I’m trying to find out who I am, I’m a student. I’m meeting everyone along the way, along my path, and looking to see how much I can learn from them and from you, and share a little bit.

Back to the box: I live in Albany, I run a non-profit organization called Jewish Educational Resources of New York, which we call JERNY, connecting Israel and the greater Capital District Region, on all different levels, involved with some very interesting things that way.

I’m for 22 years a prison chaplain for the State of New York, maximum security, and do a little food work on the side. Hobbies — when I interview someone else I’m like “what are your hobbies?,” it really tells me what’s going on. My spring-summer-fall work is outdoors, believe it or not, in Albany with a nice-sized organic garden, and my winter retreat is filled with skis, snowshoes, and in Hebrew the word is “???” which is books, holy books — I take a month off and do that. I’m glad to be here tonight.

Rabia: Thank you, and we’ll hear more. Next, Rabbi David Ingber, who is also not a stranger to the Abode. He’s been here a couple of times. He comes to us here from New York City, and a special thing about him is that he is a new father, so thank you for coming and having your child share you with us tonight.

Rabbi David: I definitely got the night off. I’m really glad to be here. I’ve been here before and it’s always a pleasure. It’s worth a trip. And it’s hard to believe a place this special is so close to New York, and it doesn’t seem that far away. I live in New York City, and I am newly married and I have a new baby, in the year since I was last here. I work in a place that I started, out of the box in New York City, called “Romemu”, and it’s been around now for three years. We offer services, from Friday night and Saturday morning services to Zikrs along with other interfaith work that we do, and we have a good time doing G-d’s work in New York City. I think that’s about it.  Oh, hobbies… I’m addicted to ice hockey, I play late nights after I finish teaching, I go down and play and then come back in and give a kiss to my wife and baby.

Rabia: And Rabbi Rami Shapiro, I believe this is your first time with us. Though he has shared presentations with Pir Zia before, and he comes to us from central Tennessee.

Rabbi Rami: Yes, I am a virgin here at the Abode. Which is always nice, I suppose. I live in a small town east of Nashville, where I don’t do G-d’s work, I do Johnny Cash’s work. I had a synagogue for 20 years in Miami, Florida, and I retired from that, and took a year to work at a meditation center in LA, and then I moved to Tennessee. Basically I write books, and that’s what I do.

I work part time at the University where I’m Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies, but most of the time I’m sitting at a keyboard, trying to think through my ideas, and find ways to get you to buy them. I have no time for hobbies — who has hobbies? I have too much email. So no, I can’t think of a hobby.

My spiritual practice, maybe, is my hobby. I walk. I rarely go to synagogue — no, to be more honest, I NEVER go to synagogue unless I’m paid to go, and for 20 years I was paid to go but when that stopped I suddenly lost interest! So my spiritual practice is primarily walking and chanting, and I wonder if that’s not my hobby also. Maybe I have a little hobby there going.

Rabia: We now move on, setting up Maggid Yitzhak Buxbaum, who has been with us before, a couple of times at the Abode, and comes to us from Brooklyn, New York.

Maggid Yitzhak: Are all Rabbis comedians? It’s a great pleasure to be here. Even in this room — I was here last night, and I felt the clarity of the spiritual atmosphere in this room, and felt that we had to give thanks, not only to G-d when we enter a holy room like this, but to all the souls that preceded us and cleared out the air to make it such a vibrating holy environment for a discussion like this. Rabia said we should speak just a short bit about what Judaism means to us now — none of the previous panelists answered the question [joke].

Rabia: I do appreciate that that you can follow directions. We’ll go right ahead with that.

Maggid Yitzhak: I became involved in Judaism in my mid-20s, forty years ago, and I’ve been made happy by Judaism. I believe that all the religions are true, all the religions are good, and for me, I know personally that my religion is good for me. It makes me happy. I know the meaning of my life, though I don’t claim to know the meaning of your life, so I’m grateful to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

Rabia: Just to frame, if this works, the piece of the question that we’re now each going to address. We are all living in a fragile time. I think we all know this. We are living in a time of environmental crisis, a time where religions and people are killing each other over beliefs, in a time when too many have too little and a few have excess, and yet an interesting perspective I had in preparing for this was to think that this religious tradition Judaism has lasted for almost four thousand years, through many difficult times. Perhaps this one is unique, perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps this is another one of the very tough times that humanity is moving itself through.

So with that as a bit of a frame, we want to say that we are not hopeless. In fact we are very hopeful. That there are things, for instance with Seven Pillars, that we want to explore that will help give us the tools, the vision, the knowledge, and the experience to work through these challenging times in our lives.

One of the things we think can give us insight and information are the revelations from religious traditions, and here we have the opportunity to ask, and have each of these panelists respond to, and then have a dialogue about, what they feel Judaism has to offer to the non-Jewish world at this time. So this is what we’ve asked them to talk about and we will let this just be free-flowing. Yitzhak, would you like to start?

Maggid Yitzhak: When I was thinking about this question, when it was first sent to me, the first thought that occurred was that Judaism has already provided to the non-Jewish world great gifts. Monotheism, not that Jews created it, but the monotheism that provides the consolation and meaning of life to masses of Christians and Muslims, was delivered or got to them via the Jewish people’s faith. So that’s pretty well known.

What’s less well known is that Judaism is the source of religious humanism. Anciently, religion was not necessarily connected to ethics or morality. We take it for granted now, because it’s so embedded in the Abrahamic religions. But this centrality of loving your neighbor as yourself, as the center of the worship of God, is something that the Jewish people gave. We didn’t invent it, that’s obvious, but we were God’s channel to the non-Jews. The question is, “Do we have anything still to offer?”

Many Jews find the concept of the chosen people difficult. And I tell them, historically it’s a fact: the Jews were chosen to spread monotheism to these hundreds of millions of people. The question is, “Are the Jews chosen for anything today?”

One of the thoughts that I’ve had about this is that the Jews are a rare example of this ancient thing where each individual people or nation had their own God. A people, a nationality, and a religion in one. It’s ancient, in a sense primitive. The Jews are one of the — I don’t know if there’s another people who exist, with this. But one of the things this gives Judaism is that the Jews have taken their peoplehood and offered it up to God. That we’re not supposed to be after our aggrandizement as a nation, for power or money, but at Sinai we gave our people up to God. And we can teach that to the nations. In other words, it may be today that the Poles or the Mexicans are individually much more religious than the Jews, but as a people, the Jewish people has given up its ego to God, is connected to God in a way no other nation is. We haven’t succeeded in that fully, it doesn’t mean the Jewish people have done a totally wonderful job of that, but we have made a beginning, in a sense, and that’s something we can teach the nations — how do you take your nationhood, and being Americans or Mexicans or Portuguese, whatever your nationality is — how do we take that nationality, that cultural unit of great power, and sanctify it by making your food connected to God, your clothes connected to God, your dances connected to God — to connect every aspect of nationhood to God. That’s one area where the Jewish people can perhaps offer something to the world.

Rabbi Rami: I’m impressed. Thank you, I feel very honored to be in that group. What I would say that the Jews have to offer, not just at this time but one of the things that Jews have offered for almost the entirety of our existence, is a radical iconoclasm. You may not hear it so much from all of us, but I think it’s really at the heart of Judaism.

One of the stories we tell about Abraham, who is the founder of the tradition, is that he destroyed the idols of his father. It’s like Muhammad cleaning out the Kabba. Abraham destroys the idols of his father. I think being a Jew means destroying the idols of the previous generation. When we look at our understanding of the Holy of Holies, the most sacred part of the most sacred temple in the Holy City of Jerusalem, there was nothing in it — it was empty. Our G-d is, in a sense, a placeholder.

You can’t pronounce G-d’s name, you can’t make an image of G-d, you can’t imagine G-d. All of the talk we have about G-d is a kind of idolatry — ultimately G-d is ineffable, and it leads us to this kind of iconoclasm that really calls us to smash the idols of theology and of -isms in general. And that’s why I think you see certain kinds of Jews, because Judaism becomes an -ism, and we have our idols, but there are certain kinds of Jews who just thrive on this idol-smashing. And I think that’s what we give to the world.

And that’s why Freud had to be Jewish, because he smashed the idols of Victorian society; that’s why Marx had to be Jewish. Now these weren’t religious Jews — because maybe religious Jews in their day couldn’t do this anymore. They were the iconoclastic Jews of the iconoclastic people. I think iconoclasm, idol-smashing, being able to live in a world without surety, without security, one that’s fundamentally — at least it seems, I’m not certain. It is very chaotic, to live with radical doubt and argument.

I don’t know if anyone went to see Amos Oz when he was in Manhattan, but he gave a talk on Judaism: the Civilization of Argument and Doubt. That’s part of — that’s the Judaism that attracts me, the aspect of my people. And I think that’s desperately needed now, to stand up and say that all the emperors, whether religious or political, none of them have any clothes. And I think part of the Jewish job is to say that. The struggle, of course, is to look ourselves in the mirror and see our own nakedness. We’re not so comfortable doing that, necessarily, but I think that’s the gift that Jews bring the planet, one that I think is desperately needed.

Rabbi David: I have a bit of an issue with the wording, it’s grating against me as I’m listening. I’m struggling with saying “what Jews give” or even “what Judaism gives.” What does that mean exactly?

So when I hear that — certainly when I was growing up as a kid, whenever I would hear inherent characteristics given to Jews, or “Jews are this, Jews are that” I would always — I grew up in a very Orthodox home, so they’d say “Jews are so spiritual” and I’d see people that looked anything but spiritual, doing anything but spiritual things, and that bothers me to no end, and I’m sure it bothers everyone on the panel.

So for me, just to focus a little more on what Judaism has given as a culture and a religion — the practices, the values — how those things are instilled. I wouldn’t say “the Jews give it,” but rather the Jewish path has always either — I don’t even know the process of dissemination or transmission, is it a morphogenetic field? Is it by means of inculcation? How those things work I have no idea, but one thing is for sure, the Judaism I experienced growing up put a heavy emphasis on a number of things that are already common in other religions. 

So, stakah — charity, the power of charity. That you can affect someone’s life with generosity and giving. That’s in every religion, but Judaism has it very strongly — an ethos of giving in charity.

An ethos of learning, obviously, of study, and being a people of the Book. It’s a very strong — maybe too strong, depending on your parents — sense of accomplishment in study.

Shabbat — obviously shabbat is one of the great gifts to civilization. Thich Nhat Hanh, in one of his books, actually recommends having a day of shabbat. I know many friends who keep shabbat in some way shape or form. We could go on and on and on.

And I think that if I had to highlight one thing, or get right down to the crux of the matter, I’d say that this notion of b’tselem elohim. It means being created as a divine fractal. B’tselem literally means image, and it’s an amazing thing. As a point of contrast with my esteemed colleague, impressive, to my right, the iconoclasm of Judaism is only matched by its deep, entrenched belief that human beings are the very image of G-d, and that should run very counter-intuitively to this notion of being iconoclastic. Aren’t all images to be erased?

So Heschel said, very famously, that the reason why it is prohibited for a Jew to make an image of G-d, is not because nothing can be in the image of G-d, but that there would be too many images of G-d, and they would fall short. They would not be able to reproduce sufficiently the image of G-d, so I’m working on this.

Immanent, descending and you’re going upwards, transcending and away from form, and I’m embodying form. But in embodied form, the Jewish proclamation that every human being has the stamp of the divine on their face, in an era in which that was certainly not self-evident at any level, and as has been at the core of humanism, the thrust of western civilization, and culminating, some would say, in {word missing?} and the great Western philosophical tradition he represents, in the human being’s face, in that image of G-d, the very ethical obligation is grounded in that moment, and I would say, that along with arguing with G-d — which I think you were getting at there — that Judaism has given the sense that you have holy chutzpah — that if G-d pisses you off, “go ahead!” go right at it, throw down the mantle and get right up in God’s face, Moses and Abraham and the like, all the way down to the {word missing?} in Hasidic lore. So those two moments, of being made in the image of God and by virtue of that being able to confront God and struggle with God — I think those are two things that I grew up with, certainly.

Rabbi Yaakov: It’s humbling to sit here tonight, being the fourth one and not being asked to impress the other three! What can you do? The other thing is, we’ve spent the whole day together since eleven o’clock this morning. As I was preparing in my head what to respond, much of what was said by my colleagues was what I was going to say. Does that get me out of responding? It could be heresy on some levels, and I’m not prone to be a heretic, but I sit here humbly tonight before you, on some levels representing 3500 years of continued tradition.

We call it “Judaism.” It doesn’t say that in the Bible. Judaism, this is what you call us. That’s okay, I accept. And it could be that what we have to offer the non-Jewish world transcends Judaism. It could be that what we have to offer the non-Jewish world is that sense of unity, seen through my 3500-year old glasses, which are not always that clear. That we can come together, and that we should come together, as people of faith, as people of spirit, and be able to share with each other, and to be able to give to each other and teach each other and learn with each other, that which is beyond and above all the -isms. Not to confuse you, but this, also, is from where I’m sitting what I see Judaism has to offer the world.

Rabia: The people of Israel are god-wrestlers, and David, I think you went there — the ability to argue with, wrestle with, the concept of G-d. What humanity sees happening around us when we don’t like something that’s happening. Since I framed this from the perspective of some of the challenges that we’re facing, now, in the environment, in world conflict, in disease and hunger. At a time when we’ve had much progress as well, as people, as nations, I wonder where you feel that “G-d-wrestling” might fit in there, in the context of some of the challenges we’re facing today — the relevancy — do you wrestle with G-d, and how, while maintaining the sacred?

Rabbi David: I just want to teach you something. The word in Hebrew for “thank you” is “toda.” “Toda raba” is “thank you very much.” The truth is that the word “Jew” comes from the word “Yehuda,” to be a Judean, someone who is from Judah. Judah gets his name in the Bible as the fourth son of Leah, because after three failed attempts to get her husband, Jacob, to love her, first with Reuben, she says “now he’ll see that I brought him a son and he’ll love me.” He doesn’t love her. Then Simon — “he’ll hear that I brought him a son” – he doesn’t love her. Levi — “now this time he’ll love me” – still doesn’t love her. The fourth son, Judah, she doesn’t care anymore if Jacob loves her, this time I will thank God — the word “Yudah” means to thank God — “I will have gratitude for its own sake.”

So “Jewish” means, every time I hear someone say “are you Jewish” I hear in it “are you grateful? Do you know how to thank? Where’s your gratitude practice? Are you gratefully alive?” And when you ask me if I’m wrestling, it’s an interesting thing, because the word “Yehuda” or “to thank” also means “to give up, to relinquish, to let go.”

So you have a paradox — you’re called “Israel,” the one who struggles — the word “Israelite” means “one who struggles with God,” and you’re also called a Jew, someone who surrenders and lets go. And in that dance, that dialectic between struggling and letting go, those are the two perspectives in the tango.

So, specifically there are things we need to struggle with in the tradition. First of all, as Rami said this morning, very beautifully, the first movement is always to own responsibility. So when we have a conversation about Judaism and the environment, let’s say, if that were on our agenda, the first thing we would have to acknowledge is that Judaism hasn’t always had a very healthy relationship with the environment, number one, and not only that, we have contributed in ways that we could own as part of our agenda, ways that have subjugated, and that have lent themselves towards misinterpretation and unfair power relationship with the environment, and with women, and all these things. So that would be the first step, to acknowledge that we made a mistake, to make amends.

But then from within the tradition, we can look for ways that the tradition can speak to current crises, and illuminate them, and speak to giving direction. “Torah” really means direction, the word Torah means “show me the way”. So there are ways that Torah can show the way on various issues, like torture, like not to make use of the environment in a way that’s inappropriate, not to waste.

All of these values can come to bear on a whole slew of issues that are at the core of what’s facing us, but in order for that to happen we need to be real with the tradition, and I think vis-a-vis the non-Jewish world, it would be to acknowledge that we are perceived, or want ourselves to be perceived as those who have this pure tradition of 3500 years without any blemishes, and those who have left Judaism and who come to my synagogue, cry and say “I never knew — just telling me that we weren’t perfect was a healing, just to hear that, that we could’ve done it better.” That would be the first place to wrestle. The first place is to give in.

Maggid Yitzhak: Rabia had asked us the question, “What does Judaism have to teach the world?” And one of my thoughts regarding that was that, when I study other religions, I don’t pay any attention to their deficiencies unless they absolutely pop out in my face. Because when I’m studying other religions, which I do regularly, I’m interested in what I can learn from them.

If I see something in Hinduism or Sufism or Buddhism that is beautiful, I’d like to see if I can incorporate it into Judaism. So I’m looking at their virtues, not at their deficiencies. So I don’t know what the other religions are missing. Non-Jews need to tell me, or us, what they see in us, from their knowledge, that attracts them, that seems curious, that seems interesting, that they don’t have in their traditions.

So it’s not as if I, my colleagues, or the Jewish people are going to teach others, because the others have to want to learn. And in fact, in America, we live in this great era, where all the religions are learning from each other, right? It’s awesome. Along with the women’s movement, that’s the great thing happening in our era, of historical significance.

So I have what I call my perspective religion — I’ve been involved in Judaism for 40 years, and I’ve been studying Hinduism for that equal amount of time. So I call it my perspective religion, because it gives me perspective on being a better Jew. Not a practitioner. And then I read so many books on Hinduism that I had to switch to Sufism. No books left to read.

So that’s a wonderful thing that goes on in America, but people, non-Jews, more rarely investigate Judaism for two reasons. One, people from a Christian background often think that “We know Judaism, because we read the Old Testament.” But Judaism has developed for thousands of years since then. So many things have happened and changed the religion since then, so that’s not really the case that a person who’s familiar with the Old Testament knows what Judaism is. Most Jews would hardly recognize their religion in what’s portrayed, if they actually knew what’s in the Old Testament.

The second reason is that non-Jews feel that Jews are pushing them off a little bit. The Jews are a bit insular. And there’s a bit of truth to that — there are segments of the Jewish community that are insular, and push us off as well as non-Jews. But it’s not generally true. The mainstream of the Jewish community, and certainly the spiritual end, would love to have people come and not learn to be Jews, but learn about how Judaism, if it’s attractive to them, can enhance their practice of Christianity or Islam or whatever their religion is.

Rabbi Yaakov: The thing about wrestling with God is that it never stops. And the minute I think it stops, I’ve fallen into a trance, a deep sleep. And someone needs to come along and wake me up. It’s very easy to be satisfied with the status quo. I don’t have regular plates available, so we’ll pull out some paper… then comes the plastic, then comes the gasoline, and so on and so forth. We are just one day away from eight days of living in eight days of the most environmentally unbelievable holidays of the calendar, which is the Sukkot holiday. Do you know what it means to live in a sukkah?

First of all, it’s unbridled joy. Second of all, I’m living in a hut. Oh, you have huts here — I was walking today and I saw huts here! I’m glad they have better roofs than the sukkah. But for the eight days that we live in the sukkah, we’re living under the canopy of G-d’s creation. And by the way, the s’chach, the roof of the sukkah, is the feminine presence of God manifest down, almost to our heads. What’s it made out of? A sukkah’s not a sukkah without the s’chach.

I once had to tell the Albany police that, when I had a sukkah that was built illegally. They came along and said, “you can leave the sukkah but the s’chach’s gotta go.” I said “a sukkah’s not a sukkah without the s’chach,” he didn’t understand. He had a red face and a big nose, but it’s okay. The s’chach is the leftovers — that which would be discarded from the threshing floor and the vineyard. So we take that which seems to have no other use, maybe it’d make good compost, and we put it on our sukkah and there we live in unbridled joy for seven days.

And Zalman and others have really taken the Sukkot holiday and used it as a means to bring out the environmental issues — what Judaism has to offer in terms of environmentalism — but also to remind all of us that we are stewards for the world. And we wrestle with each other about how to do this, what to do. But the idea of wrestling with God, the Talmud says that sleep is 1/60th of death. The greatest sin is to not be awake like that. David will call me up now, because we’ve become friends, and remind me that I have to get up in the morning.

Rabbi David: I’ll be up in the morning.

Rabbi Yaakov: What’s your son’s name? Bear? Bear will wake you up and then that’s how it works, because the teachers teach the parents.

Rabbi Rami: I want to pick up on the sukkah theme. I don’t know if this is true — I don’t know if any of it’s true — but this is what I was taught: that in the Messianic times, the only holiday we have left is Sukkot. You were told Purim? I was told Sukkot. See, there, now we have to — there’s a story for both? I’m going to go with the Sukkot one. But even if it’s the only one left, I don’t believe the Messiah’s coming, so we’re going to have to deal with all these other holidays too.

But I like the idea because, not so much about the environmentalism and other stuff with Sukkot — you have to live in the sukkah. It’s this absolutely fragile environment, and it says to me — “this is your life.” Absolutely no security in the sukkah. The rain comes and you get wet, the wind comes and you get blown around. And yet you have this unbridled joy. To me, it’s the gift that Judaism has given me. And that is the capacity to live without security, in the midst of life’s wildness, and yet find in that craziness, unbridled joy. That, to me, is quintessentially — wait, does that mean “only Jewish”? No, it’s quintessentially Jewish, not uniquely Jewish.

But it reminds me of a Zen story that you probably know that really gets at the same thing, about the guy who’s walking through the forest, and he falls into a tiger pit? And the tiger pit has the bamboo on the bottom that are sharpened. The tiger is supposed to fall into the pit and be skewered, but instead the guy falls into the pit and he grabs onto a vine before hitting the bamboo, so he lives.

And then he’s going to climb out, but just as he starts to climb out, the tiger shows up. Since the covering of the pit is now exposed the tiger doesn’t fall in, he looks in and he sees his lunch climbing out of the pit, right? So he’s going to eat that guy. So the guy says, “I’m not going to climb out, I’ll just hold on here, the tiger will get bored and he’ll go away.”

And then while he’s hanging there, a mole comes out of the side of the pit, and starts to gnaw away at the vine. And so now he knows that if he goes up he’ll be eaten, if he waits the vine will break and he’ll be skewered on the bamboo. He’s dead either way. Absolutely what Sartre was saying — No Exit. Nothing you can do. You’re doomed.

And then he notices growing out of the vine this strawberry. He plucks it, eats it, and says “this is the most delicious strawberry I’ve ever eaten.” And that to me is how you live your life. You’re dead either way! Can you appreciate the strawberry? And that is what sukkahs teach me. You’re living in this structure that reminds you of your mortality.

And then what do you study during Sukkot? Ecclesiastes, right? I have two favorite books in the Bible, Ecclesiastes and Job, so now you know. These are the most healthy books in the Bible. They offer you nothing but reality. No promises! So Ecclesiastes — everything you think you’re going to get out of life, all the places you place your treasure, whether it’s in finances or kids or power or politics or the court system or wisdom itself, ultimately proves to be unreliable. Ecclesiastes’ own teaching was, “you find it in friendship”. A three-stranded cord is stronger than two and stronger than one. It’s with friends. It’s building community. And so you invite your friends into being with you in the sukkah. That to me is the greatest gift that I’ve gotten from Judaism, and I think it’s a gift that has to be given to the world.

Judaism is too big to be “an -ism.” There’s no such thing as Judaism; there’s Jews with opinions. And sometimes the opinions coalesce, and when the Jews are dead their opinions get manipulated by the Jews who are alive, and we say “that’s what they said” and they’re not around to say “no, I didn’t.” But there’s no one Judaism, and that’s why there’s four of us (referring to panel), and there could be four thousand of us, because that’s just the way Judaism works.

So there’s these different strands, and the strand that speaks to me now, at this point in my life, is this strand of Ecclesiastes and Job, where you’re sitting in the chaos, in the horror of life, and yet you find the joy of friendship, and you find God — because God appears to Job. I won’t tell the whole long story about it but you find friendship, God, love, a strawberry — unbridled joy — in the midst of the madness. I couldn’t ask for a better gift at this time in my life. Or yours (referring to Rabbi David), with the little baby keeping you up all night, joy in the midst of the madness!

Rabbi David: Unbridled is right.

Rabbi Rami: Undiapered wildness!

Rabbi David: Have we said anything particular, or is it all universal?

Rabia: I think we have said something particular, and Pir Zia and I got to listen, actually, to some wonderful aspects of the particularity of Judaism today. Pir Zia, I wondered if you wanted to mention the term “midrash” which was used quite a bit, but it’s a methodology of exploring teachings that might be a unique, a particular flavor of Judaism.

Pir Zia: I thought one of the very interesting parts of our conversation today was the discussion of how you come to terms with a verse or chapter of revelation, of scripture, that is problematic. And Rabbi Rami challenged us, really, in that conversation, by expressing dissatisfaction with what is in many religions, in the mystical dimension, a response to that situation which is to attempt an allegorical explanation that takes it outside of history and reshuffles the terms of reference.

And what Rabbi Rami was confronting us with is that, at some level, that is not ultimately going to be satisfying. There are implications of the historical experience of peoples, as reflected in the scriptures, as reflected in the tradition, that has been conflictual, that has been non-egalitarian, that has given rise to violence. How do we address these elements?

And Rabbi Rami challenged us not to take the easy way out, not merely to explain these things away by some kind of mystical bypass, but really to come to terms somehow with the shadow, with that which is dark or dangerous within one’s heritage. And that’s when the subject of midrash came up.

A fascinating dialogue ensued, and I hope we can bring some of the spirit of that dialogue into a conversation this evening.  Perhaps here and now, the way that I might frame this, if I might give an answer from a very different perspective outside the Jewish tradition, not belonging to it, but regarding the question of what Judaism offers the world — it seems to me that the sense of history itself is very much a product of the Jewish imagination.

Prior societies held a view of nature and of time which was cyclical, which essentially revolved through the seasons. In Judaism one has the sense that there is a nation with a story that has its episodes, its characters, its ups and downs, triumphs and failures; one has the sense of a people moving through time, growing through time, changing, their relationship with god shifting, the whole sense of history. And with that history comes a great load, a great burden from the past. That past carries with it many blessings, but it also brings into the present all of the trauma of the past, of wounds, of conflicts. And so a major subject for us has been, “What do we do with this heritage?” I think it’s a question for the Jewish faith, I think it’s a question for the whole world. And Judaism brings it into focus for us, because this is a people with a history that it owns, that it grapples with, and continuously seeks to come to terms with, with different modes of understanding.

And you mentioned Freud’s Judaism, and that’s something that he himself called attention to, saying that psychoanalysis is a Jewish science, in the sense that recognizing that the transmission of impressions down the generations from parents to children has to do with this sense of historical continuity, the presence of the past. So how do we then illuminate the past in the present, and what can midrash do for us in this?

Rabbi David: Let’s be clear that psychoanalysis IS midrash. The very structure of psychoanalytic practice, the praxis itself, is grounded in a sense of narrative–what you’re saying. And that narrative — in, what book was it, the Jew in the Lotus, right? Rodger Kamenetz wrote this book — many of you know this book — there were a group of Jews, a delegation that went to Dharamsala to meet with the Dalai Lama, and the Dalai Lama asked the Jews for their secret of survival in the exile for over 2000 years. There’s a moment of tension between one rabbi and another rabbi. One of the rabbis wanted to give over the secret, which was, he thought, the seder, the Passover evening seder, which probably more Jews go to the seder than the High Holy Holidays. And it’s not for the matzoh ball soup — there’s something about the seder that historically grounds us in a narrative, and I think that’s true.

And so midrash is a hermeneutic of — it’s basically assuming that there is something coherent called a narrative, and that, depending on your level of consciousness or your perspective, you are seeing the same story from a different angle and that same story will bear fruit. And so that’s what a psychoanalyst does — you sit down and tell your analyst your story, in theory, and then you interpret the story. You had your own interpretation of the story about how your parents were with you, and X Y and Z, and then your analyst says, “Listen, you might want to add this little piece to the story. You might want to fill it in this way, or you might want to turn the story this way. Or let us do a different hermeneutic on this story.”

So psychoanalysis is the very process of midrash, which is to take a verse, and as the rabbis say, hit it with a hammer, and it splits into seventy pieces. That’s the idea — it’s really early deconstructionism. It has the roots of Derrida’s system of deconstruction. You take a verse, and you read it in every which way imaginable, including the whitespace between the letters and under the letters and behind the letters, and you flip it around, and you put a vowel where it wasn’t, and you play with it, and it becomes almost — it’s a game, it’s almost lila for Jews or yoga for Jews, is twisting a verse into many different asanas. “Let’s see if the front of the verse can touch the toes of the back of the verse.” And we’ll bend it this way and that way, and back and forth, back and forth. Yoga is a really wonderful analogy to the way your mind begins to work when you first play with verses.

You say, “There’s no WAY that you’re going to tell me that THAT’S what that verse means.” And then a month later, thinking, “Oh, that’s what that verse means.” And it’s this kind of pliancy with your mind and playing with text which is at the root of midrash. Midrash means “to seek something.” The assumption is that something has been lost. So midrash is the process of finding that which has been lost within the text and asking it to come out, come out from wherever it is. That’s midrash.

Rabbi Rami: I teach at Middle Tennessee State University, in the heart of the Bible Belt, and when I teach Bible to my 20-year old undergrads who’ve been steeped in Bible in Sunday School, and we talk about the midrashic approach to Bible, or when I do workshops for clergy, which I do regularly, on the midrashic approach — they’re blown away that you can do that. And the rationale is so clear: if it’s the word of God, how can you reduce the word of God to a single meaning, it makes no sense! It has an infinite number of meanings, as God is infinite. And it creates a certain mindset, a certain pedagogy, that shapes — I’d love to say the “Jewish” mind, but I think it takes more than being born Jewish, you have to be raised and steeped in this midrashic mind and practice to let it happen — but I want you to explain the pedagogy, the Elu v’Elu.

Maggid Yitzhak: One of the things about midrash that’s so remarkable — I teach midrash, occasionally, and I still don’t understand certain aspects of its essence. One of the things about midrash is, is that you have a story in, say, the Torah, and it’s interpreted by creating another story — a meta-story, or a story to fill a gap. For instance, it says in the Torah that Abraham and Isaac were walking together to the attempted sacrifice of Isaac. So the rabbis will create conversations that Abraham was having with Isaac. It’s a form of interpretation. It’s a scenario, we might call it. And the rabbis create multitudes of scenarios, and they’re all considered — not right, but possible.  And the mindset that allows them to do this is — I still don’t have a complete grasp of it. It’s so remarkable.

I remember when I became religious, my fervor was to know the one truth, about life and about existence. And the idea that you can have multiple truths is mind-blowing. There’s a very famous Jewish saying — the two famous schools, this is right after Jesus, an older contemporary of Jesus was Hillel, the greatest rabbi of our tradition, in ancient times, and his opponent Shammai — sort of left-wing and right-wing, religiously not politically. And there was House of Hillel and House of Shammai, the two schools.

So it says in the Talmud that they would argue about many issues, these would say “yes,” and those would say “no,” absolutely divergent opinions. And the school of Hillel, when they taught the subject, they would teach their opinion and their opponent’s opinion. And in fact, precede with their opponent’s opinion. The school of Shammai would only teach their own opinion. And a heavenly voice was heard saying, “Jewish law, the ruling,is always like the House of Hillel, because they were humble, and because they respected the other opinion.” And the voice said, “Elu V’elu Divrei Elohim Chayim” — “These and those are the words of the Living God,” although the ruling is always like Hillel. “These and those are the words of the living God,” meaning you have totally divergent opinions, and God says, they’re both the words of God. Mind-blowing.

Now the Kabbalah interprets this by saying that it’s according to a person’s soul-root. For instance, one ruling is stern, and the opposing ruling is gentle. So if your root requires sternness, your truth is “no.” If your soul is rooted in compassion, and that’s what you need, your truth is “yes.” So the only trick that remains to be done, and I’m sure it’ll be done by the people in this panel, is applying this model not only to Judaism, but to all the world’s religions. “These and those” — they may be divergent, opposite — they’re both the words of the living God.

Rabbi David: I just want to piggyback on that, since — let’s come back to Freud again. I just want to say how that principle, and the principle we were discussing in Freud, they’re all from the same root, in a sense.  Adam Phillips is a British psychoanalyst who wrote a wonderful book, and in it he said the essence of democracy is that you allow as many voices as possible to proliferate within a container that then sees each voice as contributing to the biodiversity, in a sense, of the whole. The more voices the better. We don’t want anybody’s voice to be drowned out, so to speak, obviously within certain limits. As opposed to a dictatorship, or an autocracy, or some other sort of regime of hegemony, we want many voices to proliferate.

And this is sort of like the internal psychoanalytic position as well. We want as many of your inner voices to kind of come up out of the woodwork. You don’t have to have your voices making little committees on the side, in secret, making sure that nothing gets through. The superego says, “no, none of that id in here”.  Says the psychoanalyst, “No, no, let’s let all of the voices come up and let them be heard, and you can hold it. You don’t have to act, you’re a mature adult. You can hold those libidinal impulses that you couldn’t have as a five year old — they can all live within you, in one society.” This voice and that voice can also be in the same container — this religion and that religion, this truth and that truth. And they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

In terms of what Judaism has to offer in the 20th and 21st century, there are very serious political implications for midrash. Because there is midrash that is of the kind that you, Yitzhak, are speaking to, midrash aggadah it’s called, where you have multiple scenarios within a given narrative. Once you fill in the lacuna within a story and so on and so forth. Then there are what’s called midrash halacha, there are exegetical moments within the corpus of Jewish law. Like — it’s less akin to a literary culture of multiple perspectives in interpretation, and more like a Supreme Court where there are certain legal decisions within the Torah, within Jewish normative life, that we need to include multiple perspectives on a given law, say for example, within Jewish normative life, a woman can’t divorce her husband. Every divorce within Jewish normative life has to be initiated by the man, not by the woman. A woman cannot initiate her own divorce. So a woman whose husband is recalcitrant, who refuses to give his wife a divorce, that woman can be chained for years without getting a divorce.

Maggid Yitzhak: Make clear it’s not literally, David.

Rabbi David: No it is literally!

Maggid Yitzhak: You said chained.

Rabbi David: Oh, I don’t mean literally chained! In other words —

Maggid Yitzhak: We’re not going there.

Rabbi Rami: Dr Freud, calling Dr. Freud…

Rabbi David: So there is a need to increase imagination within many realms of the Jewish experience. For example, Judaism has used for the last 2000 years this kind of imagination — these imaginal leaps — in order to eliminate morally and ethically problematic texts and laws, and to further a more moral conscience. Now in our generation it’ll be homosexuality, right? Two years ago, the conservative movement finally had the exegetical courage to say that homosexuality can be read THIS way, the same way we’ve been playfully reading texts for 2000 years, but it took a Rabbinic will, and as someone said, if there’s a Rabbinic will, there’s always a Rabbinic way. Which means, using imagination to progress God’s more ethical and moral understanding of the world.

Rabia: Alright, you’re all looking at me. I think at this point I’m going to look at our audience and ask if there are any questions. We did sort of discuss this and what we’d like to invite are questions and if you have someone to direct them to, that would be lovely, and if you don’t, whoever feels inspired might reply in any case. So the mic is going to come over to you to get the questions.

Question:  My current teacher, Dhyani Ywahoo, indigenous and Buddhist, sent me an email suggesting I come tonight. She has urged me, before I do anything else, to go back to my Jewish roots. So a question I have is the following: It seems to me that the nation of Israel is the people of the exodus, then and now. “I am the Lord your God who freed you from slavery, out of the land of Egypt.” Military, cultural, economic superpower — something higher. And I think we are people who come with a certain degree of dignity and a certain degree of humility. No way to be Pharaoh and be Biblical. No way to be oppressed and to be the people whose God was on the side of the oppressed. I think the parashot (weekly Torah portions) we read, speak very clearly: today you leave. You know you will have left when you come to the land God has promised you, present, past future, all in one. We remember by repeating. So the question is: the prophets of the Hebrew scripture speak to social justice. It seems that even with the elegance of people like Aryeh Kaplan dwelling in the chariot-vision, the Jews have a particular flavor of the mysticism and that is the absolute rootedness in God’s concern for the suffering. So I’m interested whether that rings any bells, or just… totally crazy?

Rabbi Yaakov: To me it’s so clear what it means to be a light unto the nations. To me it’s so clear what I have to do. When I wake up in the morning, from this week’s parsha, when I’m lost in the garden, having eaten from the tree of knowledge, many things that speak about, and I try to hide from God, and God is asking me the question everyday, “where are you?” I’m offering my answer. So I never met another human being that wasn’t created in God’s image. I never met a speck of dust that didn’t have some element of light, some lesson for me to learn, some way for me to deepen my approach to Judaism, my approach to all the -isms, my approach to the world, my approach to holiness. It’s just a question of how aware I can be. And that’s the challenge, because coming at us in our day-to-day are all sorts of those challenges.

How do you be spiritual when someone is standing at you, yelling at you for this, that, or the next thing? Where are you? You know, it’s very easy to be spiritual in a spiritual environment. Take me out of that environment — wow. Now, you would think that 3500 years of tradition would yield spiritual environments. I’m sorry to say, it’s not always true. So how am I then spiritual in those environments that say they’re spiritual, and on some levels want to be there, but, y’know, they sit in the sukkah and don’t see the same thing. They take the {word missing?} which we take also during Sukkot, which means *sweeping noises*, really fast, you know?

When you have four species, four different types, when you have all different levels coming together it’s the unity of the world, and you’re sending the energy out and drawing the energy in. I can’t be so fast. But how am I going to relate to the others in my environment? Put on {word missing?} every morning. Make it quick, clock’s ticking! So, you know, that’s the challenge. That’s what our life’s work is. And if we think we can run away from it, we’ve stopped wrestling with G-d. If we think we can stop wrestling — well, we can stop wrestling with G-d, go to the movies and McDonald’s or wherever we want to go, but somehow or other it comes back to us, and hopefully it will come back in a good way. And for someone who drove five hours to get here tonight, from the western side of Lebanon, New Hampshire, I’m hoping that even a small amount of what I offered here, and others will offer, will be there for you as a blessing.

Rabbi Rami: I need to say something, because if we’re not going to deal with this… I HATE to be the person to deal with this. I loved what you said, I love the idea that Jews and Judaism are all about the suffering and alleviating the suffering, and one of the things we tend to do in spiritual talk, especially in the United States, is to individualize it. And when we do that, we excuse corporate evils. And I don’t think you can talk about Judaism as a light unto the nations without talking about our Achilles heel: the Palestinians.

I’m not an expert in this. I’m not going to go into anything specific. I just think it’s like in the United States where our Achilles heel is slavery and the genocide against the Native Americans. Every empire, however big or small, every civilization has its Achilles heel. And we have to own ours. And it’s very hard for us. We don’t like to see ourselves as the cause of suffering. We like to see ourselves as the victims of suffering. We like to imagine that we are still the canary in the mine, and I wonder if that’s true. I wonder if it’s not, in fact, women, who are in this day and age the canary in the mine. And you don’t look to see how other civilizations treat Jews to see how moral they are, you look to see how they treat women.

But I think to us, like to the Chinese, how do you treat the Tibetans? To Jews, it has to be, how do you treat the Palestinians? Now we are always saying — and I’m going to stop after this, because I get very upset — where are those Imams? Where are those Muslims who stand up and decry all the violence of Islam? Well, they’re there. I don’t want to hear them, because it means that I’m elevating their moral status.

Where are the Jewish leaders who decry the treatment of the Palestinians? And we can have absolute legitimate differences about the fate of Israel and what should happen there, and I don’t know if I even have a strong understanding to even say, but with this new Goldstone thing that just came out and we won’t even look at it, and we’re saying that he’s a self-hating Jew, this guy who’s an ardent Zionist and a member of the board of Hebrew University, he’s a self-hating Jew!  And that’s why he’s holding us to account. He’s only holding us to our own standard. I don’t want to hold Jews to a higher standard. I want to hold Jews to OUR standard. And that should be our standard — and we don’t live it out. And that just kills me, it just hurts.

Maggid Yitzhak: Just formally, I disagree with Rami. I don’t want to talk politics, either —

Rabbi David: I just disagree with one thing. I don’t want to say a lot. I agree wholeheartedly with the last thing that you said. That should be our standard. And I agree that we don’t own our Achilles heel — some of us. And there are many, many, many — myself included — Rabbis and other leaders who — like J Street, and {word missing?} and {word missing?}, there are so many organizations that say the truth, that are not afraid to say from the pulpit.

Rabbi Rami: Oh, I didn’t mean to say that. If that was the impression I gave — that’s not what….

Rabbi David: Okay, I just hope to clear the air that there are many organizations that are calling for Jews to live up to —

Rabbi Rami: In Israel, as well as here.

Rabbi David: I agree.

Rabbi Rami: I mislead you, and that’s not what I meant.

Rabbi Yaakov: I feel that I have to say something now. I operate an organization that tends to be on the right side of the political spectrum. I have friends in the settlements, my daughter works in the settlements, my son was in the army in Israel. I want to tell you, during the Gaza war, the TV stations came to me, four of them in Albany. They had just come from a demonstration put on by {word missing?} and they came to me. And I said to them, all four stations, that I am pro-Palestinian. I think they wanted to pack up and leave — they were looking for a good fight, looking for me to say so.

One of the proudest moments I’ve had as a father — my son called me up, ten o’clock at night, that would be three o’clock, four o’clock in the morning in Israel. He was in the Army, he was at a checkpoint, and he said to me, “Abba, what do I do? My soldier friends are treating the Palestinian people that are coming through the checkpoint like they’re beneath human beings. But I know that’s not right. But on the other hand, look where we are. We don’t know who’s walking through that checkpoint.” And I said, “You have to be a little bit like I am at the prison.” I work at a maximum-security prison. You don’t get into our prison by jaywalking. I said, “you have to remember where you are, but you can never take the image of God away from any single human being. Never.” And the two can work together — that’s the challenge. And there are people in Israel who come from my community, or the community I tend to align with, who see that very clearly.

And let’s not talk about the Palestinian leadership that I feel has defeated their people, let’s talk about the individuals and friends of mine, before Arafat, who were friends and worked with and were colleagues with and benefitted individuals in the Palestinian villages. I don’t mean to bring it up in a negative way, because the truth is there’s pain on both ends. Like I said when I was here during the summer, the blood of a child of a Palestinian, and the blood of a child of a Jew, is… blood. And everybody’s wounded. Everybody’s wounded.

And I would take the side of Rabbi Frohman and Eliyahu McLean and others, and Shahabuddin, and others who are now working towards religious dialogue — dialogue with spiritual leaders — Jews, Sufis, Muslims, Christians, whoever will come along. And look towards a solution that says, “Hey, let’s get above the politics. Let’s get above the hatred, the hurt, and the pain. Let’s heal from the pain.” I just read that there’s an organization in Israel I was familiar with that has victims of terror, on both the Jewish side and the Palestinian side, dialoguing with each other. To me that’s a beautiful thing. I just read — and if I’m wrong, correct me and forgive me — Leonard Cohen was just in Israel, and this was his choice of charities. And he did a concert in Israel and believe me, there were those who questioned this, because there will be those who question it, because when you’re in so much pain you can’t always see the light and pick up on the spirit. He did the concert, and was not permitted by the Palestinian leadership to do the same concert for the same charity in the Palestinian territories. Sad, sad, sad. I could go on about this, but I think there are other things that we need to work with.

Rabbi Rami: So let me just point out one thing. This is what Judaism can give the world.  Just, you. That talk. That presentation. This is wrestling with God. Not the high spiritual stuff, that’s all sweetness and light. This… this is the dirt, the compost that can really bring out something fresh. Thank you. This is why I’m a Jew, because this is what we do, and that was very powerful.

Question: So I sort of have an answer inside my mind, but I’d like to ask you all — it seems to me that the biggest thing that you share, that you’re expressing in terms of the Jewish tradition you share, and also what you would give to the non-Jewish world, primarily is a very strong ethical relation. We talked about the Levinassian, face-to-face, the encounter with the other, the ecological, so a strong ethical, almost imperative, and a strong textual dimension — the hermeneutical, and the midrashian deconstructive, and Freudian… so my question is, if the essence really seems to be the ethical and the textual, why do we need God? Why do we have God? What’s the relation to the Jewish divine? Why do you need God?

Rabbi David: Since we just finished a whole talk about the territory… I was in the occupied territories, two years ago, with my wife, and we went as part of a group of women that go to the checkpoints to make sure that the soldiers are acting ethically, called {word missing?} watch.

We were leaving. It was a very powerful experience for me and for those who were there. I’ll never forget the feeling I had walking through the parking lot there with my yarmulke on and then breaking that silence, that wall, and just talking with people, and witnessing, and being with them, and talking to soldiers, and as I was leaving there was a little van — they don’t let them drink, on one side of the maksom, the border — and now the soldiers started allowing them to bring in drinks.  So a guy had a van and he had a little ad hoc shop and was selling soda and I walked over to him and said, “Can I get a Coke?”, and he looked at me and said in Hebrew, “Are you a semite? and I said, “No”, and he said, “But you are wearing a yalmulke.”  Hear that?

And I said, “But I am not a semite and I do not think that God wears a yalmuke either.” Our God isn’t Jewish, which is obvious, right? What I was trying to say is that tribalism is what got us into this.  And it is transcendence of the tribal God – the capacity to transcend the tribal God but still maintain divinity and not have it reduced to a totem, or to “My God is Jewish. Is your God Jewish?”  That kind of thing. “Hey, does your God come here often?” That kind of thing. So that is one side. The Jews hold onto a God that they can put on their dashboard or they can sing some songs to that God.

Or the other side of the Jews are those who have walked away from God completely. They have what I call Post Traumatic God Disorder.  PTGD. PTGD is a real syndrome and it afflicts more than you can imagine.  Definitely something maybe like 3 out of 4 Jews I have ever come across hate God because the God that they were taught was traumatic, that God beat them up, that God wanted them to do silly things. Who would worship that kind of God? So we have these two extremes.

And somewhere between these two extremes, or above these two extremes, or beyond is the sense of God as Tillich’s ground of all being. So Judaism has gone through its own evolution of God and I wouldn’t remove God from any conversation about Judaism. Judaism has given to the world its own flavor of God, like French has given the world French, and English has given English, and Swahili, Swahili.

We have our own flavor of God and it has grown up in much the same developmental sequence as other Gods around the world have grown up. So our God also went through the terrible twos, and then grew up into adolescence, and then our God was in high school, and then college, and then had long hair and was smoking pot, and all that, and hanging out, and that’s our God. Our God has gone through all of those stages.

Our God has shown up as a woman, our God has shown up as a lover, our God has shown up as a friend, our God has shown up as an angry God, our God has as an uncle, as an aunt, as a grandfather, as a grandmother, our God has shown up as the ineffable, unknowable source and ground of all being, the divine player. You name it.

We have just as much mysticism and esoteric wisdom as any other tradition and its rich, and its vocabulary is complex. And its sentences are well-structured. It is all beautiful stuff. Kabbalah is gorgeous. And Jewish philosophy is gorgeous. So its all there.

So I think any ethics that is not grounded in the divine ultimately worships itself and cannot justify itself. So any ethics that is its own means and its own end is a silly circle that will always end up aggrandizing human beings at the expense of other human beings.  And so a sense of divinely inherent intrinsic value rooted in spirit and such that transcends all other values, transcends ecology and environment, all those things are all part of a system but are not the system. So if you ask me, this is a long soapboxy thing, but the ground of being is the soap box. It is the ground of being. So all those things are just little important moments but not the ground.

Promise of Judaism