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I always spend some time as Rabbi in Residence at Camp Tawonga in California each summer, and it is always a highlight of my year. Camp’s Jewish theme changes each time, and this year we are focusing on the word from Torah “Hineni,” which means “I am present.” Many biblical heroes, notably Moses at the burning bush, respond to a challenge or opportunity by proclaiming, “Hineni!” or “I am here and I am spiritually ready.” This week, we offered campers a way to cultivate a state of Hineni through a mindful eating practice.
The hardest part for most campers was when they were handed a raisin and instructed to refrain from eating it until the end of the exercise to get the most out of the experience. We placed a raisin in the palm of their hands and asked them to contemplate every aspect of the morsel. What does it feel like? Smell like? What were the physical forces in the universe that made it possible for this bit of sustenance to arrive into our hands? Who were the people who contributed to its creation?
Campers talked about the laborers in the grapevines, the wind, sun and rain, the workers at Sysco’s plant who packaged the raisins and the truck drivers who brought them to camp. They were especially cognizant of the water necessary to sustain the vines amidst California’s water crisis. What a miracle to be holding this piece of food that was the result of so many complicated forces!
Finally, we thought about whether the food about to be consumed came from a tree or the ground so we could say a Jewish blessing before eating it. Pausing to think about where our food comes from and choosing either traditional Jewish words or creating our own prayers can turn every eating experience into a moment of Hineni. Prayer can be a ritual reminder in a fast-paced world to stop for a moment, bringing to mind all of the varied forces that went into the production of that bite of food.
When asked about the experience, campers had many responses:
“A raisin has never tasted so good!”
“It really made me appreciate the raisin a lot more, because we stopped and thought about where it came from.”
“I never thought about what it takes to get a simple raisin to a box.”
Others remarked on the fruit bursting with more sweetness than they usually notice. And in a few rare cases, kids who previously hated raisins reported liking them for the first time. Some remarked that they felt Hineni in their bodies after trying out this practice. The campers thought about other moments that seem to pass by unnoticed in their daily lives that they could mark as notable and sacred.
Some people are naturally inclined toward Hineni. Most of us struggle to slow life down and be present for the moments large and small that make up our complicated lives. Watching the campers experience this exercise reminded me that being present or some might even say “spiritual,” is not necessarily an inborn character trait with which we are either gifted or denied. Most people need to cultivate those skills, but they are completely learnable and need to be reinforced throughout our lives.
This sense of connectedness to ourselves and the world around us is available whether or not we grew up within a religious tradition or with more than one religious background. Many interfaith families struggle with how they are going to manage “religion” in their homes. But a first step might be to identify spiritual abilities or skills we want our kids to possess to deepen their experience of being alive: being present, expressing gratitude, feeling connected to other human beings and our environment.
Here at camp, kids are learning that Jewish prayer is one tool for cultivating that mindset which we have at our fingertips. In past years, my own kids have returned from camp wanting to sing the Ha’Motzi prayer of thanks for bread at our home table. I believe this was in part because there was such a boisterous energy in the dining hall when hundreds of kids sang the words together. But perhaps they also unwittingly wanted to bring it home because the rote repetition of this prayer three times a day provided an automatic moment of reflection and pause, lending an aura of the sacred to a monotonous, daily occurrence. This is just one of the ways campers at Jewish overnight camps learn the tools to be more present in their lives and more attuned to who they are who they are becoming.
To learn more about the array of interfaith-friendly Jewish overnight camps in the Bay Area, including URJ Reform Camp Newman, Camp Tawonga, Maccabi Sports Camp, and the brand new Conservative Camp Ramah Norcal, get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out the list here!
When my kids were young, I introduced them to the practice of saying the Hebrew blessing, the motzi, before eating. Thank you, God, who brings forth bread from the earth.
My older child instantly connected not only to the routine of the ritual but the theological aspect as well. But a few years ago, my other son started to challenge the idea of God. At a young age, he was already an avowed atheist and didn’t want to thank God for our food. I explained that he still needs to stop for a moment and acknowledge what it took for that food to get to his plate.
As a pre-dinner ritual, we started to list all the physical conditions and individuals who made our food possible: the sun, rain, seeds, individuals who plant and harvest under harsh conditions without sufficient pay or job security, the people who process it, those who drive it to the store, the store clerks who sell it to us whom we see as we pay our grocery bill. And me, to make it into dinner.
Motzi is a moment of gratitude so we don’t take for granted the deep blessing of sustenance. I learned this practice many years ago when I helped organize a Passover seder for Worker Justice (laborers seeking justice) in Los Angeles. Included in our haggadah was this prayer as part of the Kiddush ritual:
A toast to those who made this wine!
To the holy-oneness of everything whose creation gives us sweet fruit for the mouth, eye and nose to enjoy
To those who put passion, dreams and capital into wine and entrepreneurship
To those who plowed the fields
To those who planted the vines
To those who tended the vines
To those who picked the grapes
To those who fermented the fruit
To those who cleaned and maintained the winery
To those who bottled the wine
To those who loaded and trucked the bottles for delivery
To those who sold the wine
And to those who served the wine here this evening!
We give you our thanks!
This got our family thinking about what we were really trying to accomplish when we said the motzi. We talked about the most important part of that moment: taking time to stop and appreciate our food. But those particular words we say are human–made. Yes, they have survived thousands of years, but they are the expressions of a certain group of rabbis a long time ago. We make these ancient words into idols, enshrining them while depriving us of a creative thought process—the kind of passionate engagement with ideas and words that must have inspired those rabbis to formulate such poetry so long ago.
Liturgist Marsha Falk encourages us to exercise our creativity: “No convention of prayer ought to become completely routine; lest it lose its ability to inspire authentic feeling.” My son would probably agree with her assertion that our traditional opening blessing formula “is an example of a dead metaphor… a greatly overused image that no longer functions to awaken awareness of the greater whole.” (The Book of Blessings, p.xvii)
Greatly influenced by Falk’s ideas, I have been crafting my own prayers for years. So I asked my son what he would want to say instead of the motzi. This is what my young atheist came up with: “Thank you, source of stuff, for the food.” Sometimes he says, “Thanks to the universe and science and all that stuff… for the food.”
These days, we take turns saying a blessing at our table so everyone’s interests and concerns are heard. I don’t want to lose the traditional prayer language completely and I want my kids to know those formulations. When we say the motzi in the usual way, I talk to my kids about how I infuse those sacred words and sounds with my own theological understanding of the universe; how we are interconnected with the food, the sources of that food and the people who made it possible for such bounty to reach our plates. To me, that holy process is God.
Other nights, our sons offer their favorite renditions. Lately as they start to cook parts of the meal themselves, the son who helps gets to offer his favorite way of blessing the food. But we always stop, appreciate and bless.
Here’s what my “To Do” List on a recent day looked like:
And that was only about the first third of the list. I like having to “To Do” lists. They give order to my day, and ensure that I (usually) don’t forget to do what I need to get done on a given day. Plus, there’s that little rush I get when I cross something off the list. Even if it’s a simple task that I’ve completed, I have at least a momentary sense of accomplishment and the thrill of seeing the number of things that have to get done lessened … at least until a few minutes later when I think of something new to add to the list.
I always have lots to “do”—and I’m really good at getting things “done.” But often, at the end of the day, it’s not a sense of accomplishment that I feel, but a sense of exhaustion. I may have crossed many items off my “To Do” list that day, but I already have a whole new list for the next day. And then there are those things—really important things—that too often haven’t gotten the time and attention that they deserve; things like: hanging out with my kids (not in the car on the way to some activity or errand, but just on the couch); eating a relaxed meal; having an uninterrupted conversation with my husband; relaxing and reading a book; or meditating. These are things that aren’t about “doing” but simply about “being,” and on most days I don’t get to all, or sometimes any, of them.
And even worse, sometimes I’m so busy “doing” the things on my oh-so-important list—usually something like writing a text or email, or looking something up on my computer, something that involves being “connected”—that when one of my kids is talking to me, sensing that I’m not fully present for them, they’ll say: “Are you listening?”
I’ll respond half-heartedly: “Of course I am,” as I go about my typing.
And then, they’ll call me on it: “What did I say?”
“Um, I don’t know exactly,” comes my lame response, as my kid’s eyes drop and they walk away.
Sometimes I’m so busy doing … and so “connected” … that I become “disconnected” from the people that matter the most.
Fortunately in Judaism we have a built-in mechanism that encourages us to “disconnect” from our phones and other devices so that we can “connect” with the people that matter to us … and to our own selves. It’s Shabbat. Shabbat reminds us of what we truly are: not “human DOINGS” but “human BEINGS.” (For more on the idea that we are “human beings” and not “human doings,” you can read my blog on The Spirituality of Mindfulness Meditation.)
Observing Shabbat in a traditional manner involves lots of things that one can’t “do.” For example, if you’re Shomer Shabbat (i.e, if you “keep Shabbat” according to the rules of traditional Jewish law) you don’t drive on Shabbat, or use electricity or make phone calls. Often, I hear people who, like myself, aren’t Shomer Shabbat, say that observing Shabbat in a traditional sense sounds too difficult, perhaps even unpleasant. Most of all, they can’t imagine being “unplugged” for an entire day.
But honestly, I long for a day of being totally unplugged … totally “disconnected.” And that’s why I’m going to participate in the National Day of Unplugging on March 4-5, 2016.
Why am I so excited about unplugging from Friday at sundown until Saturday at sundown? Because if I can’t “do” things like check my email, texts and voice messages, it’ll force me to put a lot more focus on “being.” After returning home from Shabbat morning services and lunch at my synagogue on Saturday, I’ll be able to: spend time hanging out with my husband and kids; read a book; play with my dog; or maybe just take a well-needed nap, not worrying that the sound of my phone ringing will wake me up.
I know it won’t be easy to spend an entire day totally unplugged … I’ll miss that rush of dopamine that I get when I see a new text or email come in. But I also know of the benefits that can come if I resist the cravings to connect to technology for a whole day. And if I’m lucky, really lucky, I may just be able to sense what the rabbis meant when they spoke of Shabbat as “a taste of the World to Come.”
Rather than making a “To Do” list for the National Day of Unplugging, I’ve made a “To Be” list, and here’s what it says:
Will you join me in unplugging on March 4-5, 2016? Here are some ideas of ways to unplug with your family.
Last week, my son started wondering about the edge of the universe. What is at the end? Is there an end? What does the word “everything” really mean? Is there anything outside of “everything”?
I could tell as we talked that his mind was trying to expand enough to picture our expanding universe. We weren’t just talking big. We were talking about something larger than our imaginations could hold. He was awe-stricken.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement… To be spiritual is to be amazed” and, “Wonder is an act in which the mind confronts the universe.” Sometimes we are privileged to experience or think about something that religious mystics would say lifts the veil, exposing something deeper, clearer or more intense about the universe and our place in it. At those moments, we become overcome by a sense of the grandeur of life that is hard to describe. Religious writers would say it is ineffable, impossible, to convey in words.
When my son had this experience, we wanted him to know that some people call that expansiveness, that interconnectedness, or that feeling he was having—G!d. The medieval Kabbalists called that expansiveness, “Eyn Sof,” literally describing G!d as “Endlessness.” But do we need religion to feel that sense of being connected to the entire universe? Do we need to call it G!d?
Of course not. Some people may label such experiences “holy,” “miracles” or even “G!d,” while many others would not. Richard Dawkins, contemporary atheist and scientist, imagines himself as a child lying under the stars, “dazzled by Orion, Cassiopeia and Ursa Major, tearful with the unheard music of the Milky Way” (The God Delusion, p.11).
Although no two experiences of awe are alike, the feeling of interconnectedness and awe in the face of the vastness of the universe Dawkins describes is akin to the writings of many mystics across religious traditions. He wonders in the book why he could have such an experience and become a scientist while his friend could have that same type of experience and go into the priesthood. This is his premise for undoing religion. For me, his observation only reinforces that it doesn’t matter what we call it. His friend called it G!d. He didn’t. Why should it matter, when what is truly important is that they both had an expansive experience of awe as young children? They both went on into lines of work where they could cultivate that skill, living in awe of the universe. For Dawkins and the rest of us, those moments of clarity can influence the way we live our lives.
Dawkins is far from being alone. According to a Pew Research study, a rising number of Americans across the religious spectrum report that they often feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being as well as a sense of wonder about the universe. But what is more surprising, especially since fewer and fewer Americans affiliate themselves with any religion, is that a rising number of atheists also reported feelings of wonder about the universe. That number rose from 37 to 54 percent from 2007 to 2014, which means that their sense of awe is even higher than those within some religious traditions.
What has changed for atheists that they are reporting a sense of increased wonder? Perhaps one of the reasons that the “nones” and atheists are finding awe is that it has become clear that wonder in no way negates the intellectual, the scientific. For Dawkins, a feeling of “becoming one with the universe” is eventually tied to his reverence for science.
The 20th century Jewish thinker, Aaron Zeitlin, warns us in a poem that if we look at the stars and yawn, then we have been created in vain. Although Dawkins rejects any religious explanation of his experience, he would never look at the stars and yawn. In the words of sociologist Ryan Cragun, “It could be that those who are now admitting they are atheists … are also more willing to admit that they do experience what many people consider ‘spiritual’ feelings. Perhaps normalizing “atheism” has benefitted those seeking non-religious language to express wonder.
We certainly do not need religion to feel a sense of the grandeur of life and the universe. But religion at its best is about the cultivation of awe. Embedded in most religious traditions is a deep sense of wonder, and an examination of the self in relation to the vastness of the universe. We all begin life with innate curiosity, but where is that ability to live in awe cultivated as we grow up? Our religious spaces could—and should—be the places we take those questions that shake us and challenge us. Not to answer them, but to provide the space to wonder. And religious practice can serve as a catalyst to invoke these feelings. Many religious rituals are designed to lead us to those spaces of awe and wonderment on a regular basis, and encourage us to feel gratitude at the magnificence of the universe.
Judaism has a blessing for everything, from the appearance of a rainbow or an unusual sight to the seemingly mundane, daily miracles of eating food and using the bathroom (yes, that is truly awe-inspiring when you think about it). Daily life is filled with large and small moments of awe. Amidst the busyness of our everyday lives, from time to time we slow down for long enough that we are allowed to glimpse something deeper: the magnificence, the terrifying immensity of it all.
Because the blessings are associated with specific moments or acts, they are not allowed to pass by unnoticed. We learn how to better notice and embrace these moments. I hope to teach my kids not that one needs religion to feel awe, but that religious rituals and language can help us cultivate a sense of awe and express gratitude for the universe we live in. I want to give them a religious language to talk about wonder and perhaps to feel comforted by the fact that people have been feeling that sense of grandeur and awe for ages.
However you find your sense of awe, embrace it. Don’t worry too much about what you call it. But at the same time, don’t be afraid to seek it out within religious structures. You might find new language and more opportunities to discover your own Radical Amazement.
Note on the spelling of G!d’s name: Traditionally the divine name is written G-d. But here I use G!d to connote the idea that the divine is one way of expressing Radical Amazement.
It’s 1972. An off-duty, dark haired young cabbie drives by a young blond woman. Slowing down and noticing that the woman is attractive, he switches his light to “on duty” and backs up to pick her up. He drops her off at the school where she teaches, then watches as she walks in. Flash forward to the end of the school day and as the teacher leaves school, the cabbie’s there waiting to pick her up. A montage unfolds: The good looking couple walking over a bridge in New York’s Central Park with their arms around each other; him playfully chasing her; the two of them kissing in the back of the cab; kissing more by the bridge. And then, they finally speak:
Woman: “You know, this is crazy. I don’t even know your full name.”
Man: “Bernie….Steinberg. What’s yours?”
Woman: “Bridget….Bridget – Theresa – Mary – Helene – Fitzgerald.”
Then they both say at the same time: “I think we have a problem.”
So opened the pilot episode of Bridget Loves Bernie (you can CLICK HERE to see it yourself), about the interfaith marriage of Irish Catholic Bridget (played by Meredith Baxter) and Jewish Bernie (played by David Birney).
Bridget Loves Bernie had a primetime Saturday night slot between two very popular shows and it was the fifth highest rated TV show of the 1972-1973 season. But it was cancelled by CBS executives in response to hate mail from viewers who opposed its portrayal of the couple’s interfaith marriage. To this day, Bridget Loves Bernie is the highest rated TV show to be cancelled after only one season.
I was a young girl when Bridget Loves Bernie was on TV, but I still remember the show. And I remember the atmosphere in which it aired, at least in the Jewish community—and certainly in the tight-knit Conservative synagogue where I grew up. It was a shonda (a shame, a pity) if you were Jewish and you married someone from another faith. People assumed you didn’t care about Judaism. When you “married out” you were seen as “writing off” your Judaism. I heard stories of parents who “sat shiva” (performed the Jewish mourning rituals) for a child who “married out.” The parents wondered what they had done wrong. The married children usually cut off ties with the synagogue and the Jewish community. (Can you blame them?)
To a large extent, things have changed. The days when I grew up, when Bridget Loves Bernie’s interfaith marriage was too controversial for primetime television, are fading—at least in a large segment of the liberal Jewish community. In today’s world—a world in which, according to the 2013 Pew Portrait of American Jews, 71 percent of liberal Jews who are getting married are marrying someone who isn’t Jewish—it’s not a shock when Bridget loves Bernie (or, for that matter, when Bridget loves Bernice). And now, with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s recent decision to allow inter-partnered candidates apply to the school, it may become less of a big deal when Bridget loves RABBI Bernie or Bernice.
If you identify as a liberal (non-Orthodox) Jew you almost certainly have friends, and most likely family members, who are in interfaith relationships. If you belong to a Conservative, Humanist, Reconstructionist, Reform, Renewal or unaffiliated synagogue, you almost certainly know fellow-congregants who are in interfaith marriages. And you probably know parents who aren’t Jewish who are actively involved in the Jewish education and upbringing of their children.
Today, there are lots of real couples like Bridget and Bernie, each with their own unique stories, and we can’t just “cancel the show” and ignore reality. (For years, the Jewish community’s response to intermarriage was to preach against it. Not only did intermarriage rates continue to rise, but people in interfaith relationships often felt alienation from and resentment toward the Jewish community.)
If Bridget and Bernie were real people living today, InterfaithFamily, and many like-minded people in the Jewish world, would see Bernie’s marriage to Bridget not as a threat to Jewish continuity, but rather as an opportunity. We’d want to celebrate Bridget and Bernie’s marriage (they could even use our free clergy referral service to find a rabbi or cantor to officiate at their wedding), to provide Jewish resources and support and a safe, non-judgmental space to explore the role of religion in their lives and their marriage. If Bridget and Bernie decided to move to Philadelphia (or one of the other cities that has an InterfaithFamily/Your Community office) they could take our “Love and Religion” workshop and meet with other interfaith couples to discuss how to have religious traditions in their lives together. When they had kids, they could take our online “Raising a Child with Judaism in Your Interfaith Family” class to consider “how” and “why” to bring Jewish traditions into their lives.
Bridget and Bernie are ready for primetime. And for InterfaithFamily, “primetime” is the month of November, when we celebrate Interfaith Family Month. This is a time for synagogues and Jewish organizations to publicly acknowledge and thank those members of our community who aren’t Jewish; to let them know that we don’t just tolerate them, but we are grateful to them for their commitment to Judaism and Jewish continuity. It’s a time to let those Jews who have partners who aren’t Jewish know that not only are we not “sitting shiva” for them, but we hope that they will fully engage in the Jewish community, and that we don’t see their choice of a life-partner as a reflection on their Jewish commitment. It’s a time to declare that rather than fighting against intermarriage, we are working for a vibrant Jewish community—and we welcome anyone who wants to join us.
Interfaith Family Month is a time to let all of the “Bernies” out there know that we don’t love them any less because they love “Bridget.” And for all of the “Bridgets” out there, we hope that just as you love “Bernie,” you will come to love his Jewish community too, because we are committed to building a Jewish community where the two of you can truly feel at home.
I’ve been seeing a lot of trends on Facebook over the past few months surrounding gratitude and if I’m honest, they mostly make me roll my eyes. I’m all for gratitude but these posts more often than not seem contrived and part of a fad rather than a real look at gratitude. That being said, it’s a much better fad than the latest reality show or diet. Especially during the month of November, when we are asked to think about gratitude and of course have a holiday approaching devoted to this notion. But are we just paying lip service to this yearly concept or do we actually feel a real sense of thanksgiving as we sit around our Thanksgiving tables?
There is something so special about genuinely expressing gratitude. It seems to lighten my soul and give me a much-needed sense of perspective amidst the chaos of daily life. When I really see all that I have, all that I am privileged to do, I am less stressed, I smile more, I treat those around me better. But sometimes that chaos is overwhelming and I don’t remember to take the time to see all that I have.
Much like the lone Mitzvah Day which takes place once a year in many synagogues, this single day of Thanksgiving does give us the opportunity to put a spotlight on our gratitude, but what about the next day (*shudder* Black Friday) or the next month? (For the record, a fantastic antidote to Black Friday is Giving Tuesday, and InterfaithFamily would love to see your gratitude on Dec. 2.) And once we have gone around the table and said what we are thankful for, do we do anything more with it or is the ritual of stating it enough?
Here at InterfaithFamily, we have dedicated the month of November to our InterfaithFamily Shabbat and have themed it, “30 Days of Abundant Appreciation.” Our goal was to have communities all over the country, in whatever way they choose, express appreciation and gratitude for the interfaith families in their midst (see which organizations are participating in Boston here). As you might imagine, this takes many forms depending on the community and its makeup. But no matter the form, the message is incredibly important. For how often do we really take the time to appreciate those in our communities who might feel on the periphery? How often do we simply acknowledge the diverse composition of our communities and celebrate it?
But here’s the big question, yet again: How do we keep it going? How do we continue to be appreciative and take those moments out of our day to feel a sense of personal gratitude for all that we have? How do we do it in a ways that feel authentic and not hokey? And in our communities, how do we do the same thing, whether for the interfaith families among us or just simply for belonging to a warm and open community?
I would love to hear your thoughts on gratitude. How can we be reminded in our own lives and in our many communities? Let’s come up with some ideas together!