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Recently, my colleague in Los Angles posted a question that piqued my interest on her personal Facebook page: “Did any of my Jewish professional friends grow up with a Christmas tree?” I knew where she was going with this. She was betting that a number of rabbis and Jewish educators had grown up in an interfaith family with a tree, or in a family with a Jewish parent or parents who had a tree for whatever reason, or they were Jews by choice who had grown up with a tree and became Jewish as an adult and then Jewish professionals. In any of these scenarios, having a tree did not deter them from becoming Jewish professionals. I had to delve into this!
So, I posted the same question with credit to Rabbi Keara and an amazing thing happened. There were over 50 comments made to my post, and they’re still coming in. I don’t think I had that many comments when my children were born or when my Grandmother, of blessed memory, died.
The amazing thing is it started with Jewish professionals admitting that they had grown up with trees and how and why that was the case and then morphed into other Jewish friends who do not work in the Jewish world writing about having trees or not having trees. And, some people even wrote that they didn’t have trees, which was as much a statement about attitudes on this subject as anything else people wrote because I had only asked to hear from people who did have a tree.
Here is what I conclude:
1. Many Jewish leaders grew up with a Christmas tree. Many interfaith families today raising children with Judaism have Christmas trees in their homes or at a close family member’s home. There seems to be a disconnect between these two realities. Somehow interfaith families don’t see their lives and reality always mirrored in the lives and reality of their clergy and educators.
2. Judaism from on high (I’m not sure who or what this is or if most people can even articulate this. It’s just a feeling or perception) seems to judge negatively Jewish families who have trees. This has not always been the case. There were times when many American Jews had trees and it was seen as typical and normative in their assimilating American Reform circles.
3. People who are active in Judaism today have amazing stories of interesting family dynamics and experiences and there could be more venues or formats for sharing our stories, learning from and seeing ourselves in one another. This would inform our way of transmitting Judaism if we understood more about the context and lens by which people were experiencing Jewish messages.
4. Symbols matter. The American flag is a symbol. We feel something when we see the flag. We feel something when we raise the flag at camp or when we see it at a sport’s event. We feel something when we see brand logos. The tree is symbolic. For many it symbolizes warmth, beauty, good memories, family time, gifts, glee and togetherness. It is all positive. If we tell those who love the tree that it is inconsistent with Judaism, they might hear that their warm family times (void of theology and religiosity, but maybe full of meaning and richness) is inconsistent with Judaism. This is confusing and hurtful. It puts people on the defensive and can lead to shame. It makes people feel they must justify the tree and argue for it lest they be seen as hurting a Judaism they are trying to perpetuate. It pits lay person against professional. It creates an us versus them.
5. If Jewish leaders said that the tree is secular (as the Supreme Court has declared—that’s why they can be erected in public spaces) or just stopped putting so much emotion into encouraging Jewish families to not have them, then there is a fear that the tree will become like a jack-o-lantern on Halloween and be deemed “secular American.” Would Jewish families who had never had a tree suddenly feel free, open and welcome to try one? I have no idea. Maybe it would happen or maybe it wouldn’t. Would Hanukkah practice be threatened by this? Is that our fear? What really is the fear?
6. This Facebook thread made me ask a question I come back to often which is, “What is the role I play as a Reform rabbi?” I do not believe I am a gatekeeper for Judaism. I do not believe I can tell people what to do in their Jewish expression as a one-size-fits-all or even most prescription. I believe I am supposed to inspire and inform, love and accept. Some things are outside the realm of Judaism. Some things are cool but are not Jewish. Sometimes Jewish leaders are afraid of what people want because we feel it will water down, taint and hurt an authentic, recognizable Judaism.
This is the same fear that happens when a parent, let’s say, suggests that there could be more choice in Hebrew School such as having a tutor, or coming one day a week or trying other alternatives. The educator fears that “everyone” will want a private tutor, so no changes are made. If there is a feeling that everyone wants something different than what is offered but the Jewish professional deems that desire “bad” or “wrong” or for “people who just want an easy way out,” then the people will make their own decisions and they won’t chose institutional Judaism. They will do it on their terms in ways that work for them. At a certain point the people decide and Judaism adapts and changes. If our communities are inspired, literate and invested, we should have no fear. We can trust.
I for one don’t get to decide if you have a tree, don’t have a tree, put a star on your tree or make s’mores latkes (this I recommend). I decide what my Jewish practice is and I work on this daily. I decide to hear you and try to understand you. May your holiday traditions be meaningful and lead to our defining what we are dedicated to (as the word Hanukkah reminds us to do). May I refrain from putting my judgment or my assumptions on your customs and allow you to define what they mean to you.
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.