Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Speak Up

John Mayer's song Waiting on the World to Change came out at just the right time to really speak to me. It was 2006, I had just graduated high school, and I was looking forward to becoming an adult with real power over my life, which seemed woefully out of my control.

I had been politically frustrated since 2001, when 9/11 had shocked me into paying attention to the the political world around me. I was old enough to start to understand the effects of political decisions on my life, but too young to have a say, and by 2006, I was frustrated with an American political landscape in which we fought two seemingly endless wars against the idea of terrorism and domestically failed to come together, even in the face of Hurricane Katrina.

I had been spiritually adrift for years and my frustration with the world at large only made me more skeptical of God.

My universe literally changed when scientists announced that Pluto was not a planet after all. My beloved Cubs could not change their terrible luck and ended the 2006 season in last place in the National League.

In August, when Waiting on the World to Change was released, I was saying my last goodbyes to my high school friends and packing for college. As an 18-year-old college-bound woman, I stood on the edge of adulthood. I looked into a future that was set on a political trajectory that I did not like, but that was, nonetheless, full of promise, because, as John Mayer pointed out, it would soon be our generation's turn to try our hand at running things. College and adulthood would bring with it a chance to have some real power in my own life. All I had to do was wait a little while longer for the world to change.

It's been seven years and many things have changed. Personally, I have graduated college, held two full-time jobs, lived in three different cities, converted to Judaism, and gotten married. When I actually take the time to reflect on them, my personal accomplishments bring me real joy and fulfillment. From time to time, I feel like a real adult who has intelligent things to say and relevant life experiences.

The world around me has changed too. Some of those changes give me real hope that I live in a good and reasonable world. My first presidential election saw young voter turnout increase in numbers that surprised analysts and I thought that maybe my generation wouldn't have to wait that long to start making a difference. Encouragingly, the Affordable Care Act was passed to make strides toward real needed health care reform, Don't Ask Don't Tell was repealed, and support has swelled for gay rights, and during the last GOP primary, candidate Jon Huntsman warned Republicans against becoming the "anti-science party." I am also heartened by the possibility of Hillary running for president again in 2016 and becoming the first female president.

Despite all this, the world is not changing fast enough. The last seven years has also given rise to the Tea Party and a dangerously antagonistic Congress that seems intent not on moving forward as a nation but on stopping anything constructive from actually getting done. As I write this, Senator Ted Cruz is going into his 10th hour of continuous railing against the Affordable Care Act. It is the second time that the Tea Party has tried to use the nation's budget as a negotiating tool to change laws that they do not have the power to change in the way they were meant to. We have seen more mass shootings than I care to count anymore. After each successive Tuscon, Aurora, Sandy Hook, and Navy Yard, we are left less and less time to mourn before the screaming matches and blame games begin, all of which lead us nowhere. These things and so much more frustrate me and I am tired of waiting on the world to change. I have run out of patience for the unreasonable people on all sides. If we continue to wait for our turn, I'm afraid we will inherit a world so completely screwed up that we won't be able to fix it at all.

At the same time, underneath my frustration, I try to remind myself that loudness does not equal political support. If there really is a silent majority out there of sane people, please, for the love of God, speak up now. At this point, I don't even care what you have to say as long as it is logical and you can argue it without resorting to the negativity that pervades current discourse. I will work on finding my voice and gaining the confidence to speak my mind and I can only hope that others will do the same.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Heschel in Short: Man Is Not Alone

Man Is Not Alone by Abraham Joshua Heschel
Heschel's point: God is ineffable, indescribable, incomprehensible, and un-prove-able, but I can feel that God is here, there, and everywhere. I will spend this whole book trying to describe the feeling of God's presence to you. I'm sure you've felt it too. It is brief, like a dream you can't quite remember upon waking, but it leaves you with a feeling of certainty that you are not alone in the universe. Hold onto that feeling when the modern everyday doubt and skepticism start to set in. Believing in God is not logical by scientific standards, but when you look at the wonders of the world, it is illogical to think that there is not some power out there at work.

Select Quotes from Man Is Not Alone
"When in doubt, we raise questions; when in wonder, we do not even know how to ask a question."

"There are more songs in our souls than the tongue is able to utter."

"While the ineffable is a term of negation indicating a limitation of expression, its content is intensely affirmative, denoting an allusiveness to something meaningful, for which we possess no means of expression."

"The ineffable is there before we form an idea of it."

"Science extends rather than limits the scope of the ineffable, and our radical amazement is enhanced rather than reduced by the advancement of knowledge."

"With information we are alone; in appreciation we are with all things."

"There is so much more meaning in reality than my soul can take in!" 
I like this so much, it has already been one of my Quotes of the Week!

"Faith is not a product of our will. It occurs without intention, without will."

"Thus, awareness of God does not come by degrees: from timidity to intellectual temerity; from guesswork, reluctance, to certainty; it is not a decision reached at the crossroads of doubt. It comes when, drifting in the wilderness, having gone astray, we suddenly behold the immutable polar star." 
Here, Heschel captures perfectly (and much better-said) my long path to Judaism.

"But there is no man who is not shaken for an instant by the eternal."

"In trying to prove or disprove the existence of God, we are like dancing puppets which, incapable of knowing for what end and how they are capable of dancing, presuming to judge about whether or not anyone is pulling the strings."

"In sensing the spiritual dimension of all being, we become aware of the absolute reality of the divine."

"Faith is the fruit of a seed planted in the depth of a lifetime."

"The greatest obstacle to faith is the inclination to be content with half-truths and half-realities."

"God is not an explanation of the world's enigmas or a guarantee for our salvation. He is an eternal challenge, an urgent demand. He is not a problem to be solved but a question addressed to us as individuals, as nations, as mankind."

" have faith is to abide rationally outside, while spiritually within, the mystery."

"It is extremely easy to be cynical."

"God begins where words end." 
If you couldn't tell so far from these excerpts, Heschel often seems to struggle with words to express his complex thoughts about God. His struggle to find language that can capture the uncapturable creates beautifully poetic literature.

"We were never told: 'Hear, O Israel, God is perfect!' It is an attribution which is strikingly absent in both the biblical and rabbinic literature."

"It is suspiciously easier to feel one with nature than to feel one with every man: with the savage, with the leper, with the slave."

"For the cardinal question is not what is the law that would explain the interaction of phenomena in the universe, but why is there a law, a universe at all."

"Divine is a message that discloses unity where we see diversity, that discloses peace when we are involved in discord. God is He who holds our fitful lives together"

"God means: No one is ever alone; the essence of the temporal is the eternal; the moment is an image of eternity in an infinite mosaic."

"To worldly ethics one human being is less than two human beings, to the religious mind if a man has caused a single soul to perish, it is as though he had caused a whole world to perish, and if he has saved a single soul, it is as though he had saved a whole world."

"...unity is that which the uninterrupted advance of knowledge and experience leads us to, whether or not we are consciously striving for it."

"Monotheism in teaching that God is the Creator, that nature and man are both fellow-creatures of God, redeemed man from exclusive allegiance to nature. The earth is our sister, not our mother."

"Our trust in God is God (Deuteronomy Rabba 1, 10)."

"A man entirely unconcerned with his self is dead; a man exclusively concerned with his self is a beast."

"The shift from the animal to the human dimension takes place when, as a result of various events, such as observing other people's suffering, falling in love or by being morally educated, he begins to acknowledge the other selves as ends, to respond to their needs even regardless of personal expediency."

"Man reaches a new vertical dimension, the dimension of the holy, when he grows beyond his self-interests, when that which is of interest to others becomes vital to him"

"The self, the fellow-man and the dimension of the holy are the three dimensions of a mature human concern."

"If life is holy, as we believe it is, then self-regard is that which maintains the holy. Regard for the self becomes only a vice by association: when associated with complete or partial disregard for other selves. Thus the moral task is not how to disregard one's own self but how to discover and be attentive to another self."

"The statement: 'Thou shalt love they neighbour as thyself,' concludes with the words: 'I am the Lord.' It is this conclusion that contains the ultimate reason for that solemn command. True and timeless is that command; but if God were not God, there would be no truth, no timelessness and no such command."

"Zeus is passionately interested in pretty female deities and becomes inflamed with rage against those who incite his jealousy. The God of Israel is passionately interested in widows and orphans." 
This made me laugh out loud on the train when I read it.

"God is everywhere save in arrogance."

"We are attached to two centers: to the focus of our self and to the focus of God. Driven by two forces, we have both the impulse to acquire, to enjoy, to possess and the urge to respond, to yield, to give."

"His concern is wrapt in the independence of the universe which is so well arranged that we are often led to believe that there is no need for occasional repairs. Our perception, therefore, is like listening to a foreign tongue: we perceive the sounds, but miss the meanings."

"The mark of Cain on the face of man has come to overshadow the likeness of God. There has never been so much distress, agony and terror."

"To have no faith is callousness, to have undiscerning faith is superstition."

"evaluating faith in terms of reason is like trying to understand love as a syllogism and beauty as an algebraic equation."

"Faith without reason is mute; reason without faith is deaf."

"To have faith means to justify God's faith in man."

"As we have seen, religion is not a feeling for something that is, but an answer to Him who is asking us to live in a certain way. It is in its very origin a consciousness of duty, of being committed to higher ends; a realization that life is not only man's but also God's sphere of interest."

"Judaism insists upon establishing a unity of faith and creed, of piety and Halacha, of devotion and deed. Faith is but a seed, while the deed is its growth or decay." The idea that faith is not enough, that action is required in addition to faith in almost all cases, is one of my favorite things about Judaism.

"Yet, reason is a lonely stranger in the soul, while the irrational forces feel at home and are always in the majority."

"Animals are content when their needs are satisfied; man insists not only on being satisfied but also on being able to satisfy, on being a need not only on having needs. Personal needs come and go, but one anxiety remains: Am I needed?"

"...the essence of man is not in what he is, but in what he is able to be."

"Our existence seesaws between animality and divinity, between that which is more and that which is less than humanity"

"Man is 'a little lower than the angels' (Psalm 8:5) and a little higher than beasts. Like a pendulum he swings to and fro under the combined action of gravity and momentum, of the gravitation of selfishness and the momentum of the divine"

"There is only one way to define Jewish religion. It is the awareness of God's interest in man, the awareness of a covenant, of a responsibility that lies on Him as well as on us."

"Some Greeks said: 'Passion is a god, Eros'; Buddhists say: 'Desire is evil.' To the Jewish mind, being neither enticed nor horrified by the powers of passion, desires are neither benign nor pernicious but, like fire, they do not agree with straw. They should be neither quenched nor supplied with fuel. Rather than worship fire and be consumed by it, we should let a light come out of the flames. Needs are spiritual opportunities."

"Eternity is not perpetual future but perpetual presence. He has planted in us the seed of eternal life. The world to come is not only a hereafter but also a herenow."

"This is the meaning of existence: To reconcile liberty with service, the passing with the lasting, to weave the threads of temporality into the fabric of eternity."

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Quote of the Week: Faith

"Faith is taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase." -Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Quote of the Week: Whatever you are...

"Whatever you are, be a good one." -Abraham Lincoln
Here's to new beginnings. L'Shanah Tovah!