A Wild and Dangerous Joy: The Exuberance of The Comforting Whirlwind

This was my second of two papers for the class Job and the Problem of Suffering, taught by Prof. Michael Coogan.  Click the link below for the paper along with feedback.

In this paper, I analyzed Bill McKibben’s book The Comforting Whirlwind along with other commentators on Job whose views were related to McKibben’s or to my argument.

A Wild and Dangerous Joy (pdf format)

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Remarks at HDS Seasons of Light Service

(I gave these remarks as the reading on LGBT Spiritualities for the Seasons of Light Service at Harvard Divinity School.)

Somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high
There’s a place that I heard of, once in a lullaby.

This familiar little song’s simplicity and candor should not be mistaken for lack of spiritual heft.  Having little to do with the plot of The Wizard of Oz, but much to do with the thoughts of a Jewish composer in 1939, the song expresses the undying hope of scorned and oppressed people everywhere who seek the simple joys of life, friendship, and love in a place free of societal oppression, where they are free to undertake their own path in life and face its dangers squarely.

Somewhere, over the rainbow, skies are blue
And the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.

The significance for early LGBT activists of the shift from the black-and-white world of oppressive laws to the full-color world of hope and possibility cannot be overstated.  The black-and-white reality of LGBT experience in 1939 was cruel, oppressive and often murderous.  But that could not quench the full-color hope of a better world which respects the testimony of love and creation instead of the perjury of pretended piety.  Because injustice is always perpetuated by a brokenness of hope, the first step to freedom is always imagining that it is possible.

Someday I’ll wish upon a star,
and wind up where the clouds are far behind me.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops,
away above the chimney tops is where you’ll find me.

If all oppressed people could only live in such a place, where the light of all colors makes everything glow with its own intrinsic joy!  Free of the oppressing blasphemy of black-and-white distinctions, each child of God is free to sing God’s praise from the depth of her or his own heart.

Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly,
Birds fly over the rainbow.  Why, then, oh why can’t I?
If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow, why, oh why, can’t I?

In the blameless bluebird we see God’s intended joy in its created freedom.  God didn’t create us to be divided into rigid, narrow categories of imaginary Thou-Shalt-Nots.  Reverence for God requires us to appreciate creation as it plainly is, not to enthrone our human narrowmindedness as the judge of whether God’s work is or is not good.  “For I am filled with joy, O God, by what you have done” (Psalm 92:4).  If the first step to freedom is hope, we join the bluebird in hope — in the hope that has made it possible to look out the windows of our classrooms and chapels and see the world changing, from black and white into full color before our eyes.  If the second step is to fly, we join the bluebird in flight — away from rigid assumptions and prejudiced lies, and into the bright rainbow reality of God’s magnificent full-color handiwork.

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Syncretism, Syntheism and Exclusive Beliefs: Heresy vs. Multiple Religious Belonging

This was my second of two papers for the class Introduction to Ministry Studies, taught by Professors Stephanie Paulsell and Dudley Rose.  Click the link below to see the paper with feedback.

In this paper, I coined a word, syntheism, to describe the demonstrably common view that multiple religions offer paths to truth, but that they must be taken as integral wholes as opposed to the syncretist idea of cherry-picking ideas outside their religious context.  Based on readings and news clippings offered within the class, I identify several different ways of relating to multiple religions, critique theories of multiple religious belonging, and offer recommendations on providing pastoral care to people who experience multiple religious belonging.

Syncretism, Syntheism and Exclusive Beliefs: Heresy vs. Multiple Religious Belonging

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What Manner of Lament? Form-Critical Classification of Job Chapter 3

This was my first of two papers for the class Job and the Problem of Suffering, taught by Professor Michael Coogan.  Click the link below to see the paper with feedback.

In this paper, I argue that Chapter 3 of the Book of Job should be classified as a lament, even though it displays few of the characteristics of lament within Hermann Gunkel’s form-critical analysis.  The paper includes a chart surveying all of the psalms classified as laments by Gunkel, in form-critical analysis by verse.

What Manner of Lament?  (PDF format)

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The Story of the Four Sages in Jonathan Rosen’s Joy Comes in the Morning

This was my first of two papers for the class Introduction to Ministry Studies, taught by Professors Stephanie Paulsell and Dudley Rose.  Click the link below to see the paper with feedback.

In this paper I trace the Talmudic story of the four sages entering Pardes through the characters in Jonathan Rosen’s novel Joy Comes in the Morning.  I argue that Rosen is using the novel to make a statement about faith and theodicy.

The Story of the Four Sages in Jonathan Rosen’s Joy Comes in the Morning

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How can it be?

Today I made a full fast, for the first time in my life, for Tisha b’Av.  Fasting makes it more difficult, not easier, for me to think, but in a way it puts me more in touch with the people who were there when the calamities in Jewish history took place.  Luxury was not available to Jews who witnessed the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the expulsion from Spain, the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, and on and on.  They didn’t have water when they wanted it.

There are two questions we might ask about Tisha b’Av.  They are why and how.

We already know the who, what, when, where.  Jews, calamity, throughout history, everywhere.  The stark reality of those truths should not mask the undying hope of a people that nevertheless refuses to die.  Tisha b’Av is a sad holiday (as I’ve written about before here) but it is also a holiday of hope.  The genius of our observance is to learn to get through the adversity, to accept it, and to realize that accepting it is the key to hope.  And hope is the key to survival.  Jews are not a victim people, forever lumbering from one punishment to the next.  We are a timeless people, a people linked with the world’s intrinsic preference for justice over injustice, a people whose history is inextricbly bound to that of the world itself, and who for that reason cannot perish as so many conquerors and empires throughout history have done.

Part of the wisdom of wringing hope from misfortune is to understand the misfortune.  It strikes me that the Book of Lamentations (called Eichah in Hebrew after its first word) does not ask the question why but how.  Eichah!How!–is the lament of Jeremiah.  He does not question the justice of God’s punishment of the people.  He does not wonder why anyone would bother believing in a deity who seems to have forsaken the people.  He knows why God has acted, and it doesn’t need to be said here.  God has acted because the people of Israel have sinned.

This is a severe religious idea, and we must be careful lest it appear we are saying everything that happens in the world happens for the best.  I am saying no such thing.  Nor does it follow that every calamity of the Jewish people was brought upon them by their own misdeeds.  It is impossible in a post-Holocaust theology to endorse any such idea.  Nevertheless, in Eichah Jeremiah says that these particular calamities are a result of those particular sins by the Israelite people.  The Temple was destroyed because the Israelites would not follow God’s teaching.

It is useful for us ot acknowledge the reality that our actions have consequences, and often sin can lead to real-world consequences that are exceedingly bitter.  It does not follow that every sin is punished, and it does not follow that every unpleasant event is punishment for sin, but both of these arguments are spurious.  It is important to acknowledge that our actions do have consequences, and if we ignore God’s warnings about them, reality will intrude.

The destruction of the Second Temple is an example; the Rabbis give us a record of the political chaos that led to community disarray against the Roman threat (Yoma 9b).  Their explanation is at once historically plausible and instantly recognizable for its similarity to situations we all see regularly today.  Baseless hatred (sinat chinam) poisons a community from within and makes it impossible to unite against threats.  It was a community’s sin, and the destruction of the Second Temple was the real-world consequence that was to be expected.

But how?  What went wrong?  The hope for change, for learning from our mistakes, depends on answering that question.  We need to examine everything.  We should have open minds to our own innocence — religion is not an exercise in gratuitous self-incrimination.  Besides, we might learn to be better able to assess and prevent similar threats in the future.  But we should also have open minds to where we might learn about our own behavior.  We understand the why, we accept that the horror happened.  The more interesting question for us is Eichah, How?

When we ask Eichah, we aren’t challenging God or wrestling with questions about God’s justice.  Those are fine questions to ask, but they’re not the questions we ask in Eichah.  It’s important on Tisha b’Av to acknowledge, where necessary, that things went wrong, and to go back and ask without defensiveness what went wrong.  How have we come to this?

The key to hope is confidence that we not only survive these calamities, but grow wiser.  The Jewish people has been tempered by flames that have destroyed countless other nations.  In the Book of Eichah itself, the tone changes from lament to hope when the writer, Jeremiah, acknowledges God’s justice with a total finality, and expresses complete trust in God’s covenant with Israel.  Accepting the otherwise crushing weight of these oppressions, not driving ourselves mad with rage at reality, but staying firm in the hope that comes from believing in a God who loves us, has allowed our people to withstand oppression after oppression and grow stronger.

What is the point of believing in a God who punishes?  I would ask, what is the point of not believing that reality includes consequences for our actions?  Isn’t that awareness an important part of wisdom and life experience?  It is an unpleasant reality because we are prone to error.  We are also prone to find ourselves in the crossfire of other people’s sins and their consequences.  Still, it strikes me that the most important question is Eichah?  How?

Eichah is the antithesis of despair because it shows that there is another step toward the Light after tragedy.  This is why we refuse to die.  Our plodding, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other insistence that tragedy is not the last word, that lament leads to wisdom, that we are still here to ask Eichah, is the Jewish people’s timeless key to survival.

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The Flickering Ner Tamid (Parshat Vayigash, Hanukkah 5772)

This week’s d’var Torah is an academic paper I am writing for my teacher, Rabbi Natan Margalit of Organic Torah.  Reb Natan asked me to read Jon Levenson’s book Creation and the Persistence of Evil as well as Nehemia Polen’s book The Holy Fire, a translation and commentary on the unfinished work Esh Kodesh by Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro, known as the Piaceszner Rebbe and the Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust.  The paper is an investigation into the views of Rabbi Shapiro, Polen and Levenson with respect to the problem of evil considered in a Jewish context.  The paper’s thesis is that both books seem to converge on a form of process theology in which divine ominpotence is accepted on the basis that God inevitably wins all struggles, even though those struggles are currently still going on.

The paper is unfinished.  I really thought it was going to be an 8-page paper, but then I wrote two sections out of my planned eight and have already got 40 pages and 107 footnotes.  (Sigh.)  So below is a link to the most current draft, and the link will change as I proceed toward completing the paper.  For now, I am laser-focused on getting my divinity school applications in on time, so I will have to return to the paper after those are done.

The current text presents in Chapter 1 a conceptual introduction to the problem of evil in the context of divine omnipotence, including a consideration of what miracle could mean to a scientifically enlightened mind and an attempt to demonstrate that this sense of miracle corresponds to traditional Jewish notions.  It proceeds in Chapter 2 to an investigation of Levenson’s and Rabbi Shapiro’s views of cosmogony, history and eschatology, with an argument that both seem to embrace a “process theology of divine omnipotence,” with the observation that Israel’s struggles in history echo God’s struggles in suprahistory (that is, in cosmogony and eschatology) and vice-versa.

Enjoy and please comment!  Because this paper is currently unfinished, I especially appreciate comments, which can be of great value to me in finishing the paper.

Read “The Flickering Ner Tamid” here.

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