Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Losing My Religion

This time of year is when Jews are supposed to do self-assessment in order to be forgiven for our sins and to live better in the year to come. I've been doing a lot of self-assessment lately and I'm staying home from synagogue today to do a little journaling.

For a variety of reasons I haven't been attending synagogue lately. I'm not feeling the community thing, so much, and in fact my Judaism is in a bit of a crisis right now.

My life for the past year or 2 has been really stressful. Up until May of this year I had two demanding part-time jobs, one with Kansas IPL and the other with the synagogue in Lawrence. I also have three children who are troubled in varying ways, ways that I find difficult to manage. We also have severe financial stress, which is leading to us declaring bankruptcy, a process that has been underway for over a year.

When I told my friend Rabbi Alex that I wasn't going to shul or daven some months ago she said, “How are you taking care of yourself spiritually?” I said that I was finding the my political activity was sufficiently spiritually fulfilling. She expressed skepticism, rightly as it turned out.

In March of this year an ongoing conflict I had with the then-president of the synagogue culminated in me yelling at her in a meeting. This started a process which led, a couple of months later, to me losing that job. I can't really say too much about this because I agreed not to discuss it publicly.

But the incident made it clear to me that I was not handling the stresses skillfully. So I began a program of self-care which included daily meditation and exercise, and not long after that I began therapy.

The meditation practice that I began is in Buddhist in nature. It started off as mindfulness but it didn't take long to realize that there isn't much of a line between mindfulness practice and Buddhist practice. There is a secular form of mindfulness but I'm not really a secular person so the spirituality piece rose up prominently pretty quickly.

So why didn't I double down on Jewish practice? I've gone through long periods of near-Orthodox practice, including when I first moved to Kansas City where I prayed almost every week for more than a year at the Orthodox congregation near my house. Yet when I was in crisis I didn't choose that path – why?

The three main reasons are: services are boring, I've lost my faith in Jewish community, and Israel is a mess. Taking these in order:

I like leading services, and I'm sufficiently innovative that I am able to keep myself, if no one else, entertained. But I'm not doing that anymore, and sitting in the pews through a 2-1/2 hour service, all in Hebrew and with a long Torah reading, and (God help us) musaf, is just absolutely excruciatingly painful. I'm not finding it spiritual in the least. And in the Conservative context it's impossible to change because they're beholden to the myth of Jewish law.

The Reconstructionist movement to which I am a (rather distant) member emphasizes the synagogue as community, and that's something I've emphasized that in my rabbinate wherever I've gone. “We're here to be here for each other, to bring out the best in each other, etc.” I probably will eventually write more about the problems with this, but for this moment suffice it to say that I have not, since I graduated rabbinical school, been part of a community that wasn't happier, in the long term, not to have me as a member. I've always cared about them a lot more than they've cared about me, and I'm burnt out on it now. 

And third is politics. Since the Gaza episode in 2014 my feelings about Israel have concretized, perhaps even radicalized, and it's having a huge impact about the way I think of the Jewish world in general.

This summer the Iran deal was hugely controversial. As I've said before, I believe that Netanyahu uses Iran to distract from his unwillingness to deal with the Palestinians. I also believe that he and his backer, Sheldon Adelson, have a long-term project to drive a wedge between Jews and the Democratic Party. In other words, Netanyahu's opposition to the Deal should have been taken with a grain of salt, to say the least.

Yet the institutions of the American Jewish community, and hundreds of rabbis, fell in lockstep behind this disingenuous man to claim that the Iran Deal was an existential threat to Israel, and that anyone who supported it was naïve at best and antisemitic at worst.

Yet Israel has maintained a violent military dictatorship over a subject people for nearly 50 years. It steals their land and allows the most violent, racist and revanchist elements on society free rein to commit violence on their persons and property. The government is made up of, and represents, those violent, racist and revanchist elements. It has no intention of ever giving the subject population political or economic rights.

Forget about not taking in Syrian refugees: Israel is trying to rid itself of African refugees. How a people that within living memory was refused safe haven from violence and oppression can turn around now and commit the same wrong is astonishing to me. (For more on this, read Daniel Sieradski's recent post on the subject on Jewschool.)

And we American Jews defend every one of these actions.

Every element of this is anathema to my understanding of Jewish values. “Care for the stranger, for you were strangers,” the text says, and it couldn't be more clear. But we ignore it, or rationalize it, or claim that criticism of our actions that violate it it are motivated by antisemitism or the refusal to grant the Jews a state of their own. It's intolerable.

The point is that you can go to the vast majority of synagogues pretty much forever before you'll hear anything about any of this. In fact, you're far more likely to hear defenses of this, or justifications, or dismissals. Or no mention at all. Rabbis have contracts that need to be renewed, after all.

So what we have is a situation where the Jewish state, the main project of the contemporary Jewish people, acts in ways that are clearly (to me) unjust, and the mechanisms of American Jewry, which are supposed to be teaching ethics and values, instead spend what little remaining moral capital they have left defending or ignoring what should be indefensible.


This situation is causing a rupture within Judaism. What's appears to be happening is that the more committed and religiously observant people are becoming more particularistic and right wing, and those who (like me) hold on to the values of democracy, anti-racism and social justice are either finding non-synagogue organizations to belong to (like Mazon or Bend the Arc) or they're dropping out completely – keeping their Jewish identities but despairing of an opportunity to belong to a Judaism that reflects their values.

I love Judaism. I love the people who are doing great work in bringing the theology into the new era, like Arthur Green and Jay Michaelson, or into political awareness and activity, like Arthur Waskow and Brant Rosen, or into new forms of spiritual connection, like Shefa Gold and Marcia Prager and Marcia Falk. We're also in a great period of cultural flowering as well. I feel blessed that I have access to such people, through their books and other publications, through the internet, and in some cases through personal connection.

In some cities there are a wider range of options for someone like me, but in Kansas City the kind of community that I would want to belong to – even just as a member, not the rabbi - just doesn't exist. The opportunities that are available to me here are either not particularly compelling or are in actual opposition to these values. If the more "religious" people defend the indefensible, it's a problem. To put it mildly, it interferes with my ability to find spiritual sustenance in contemporary Judaism. 

So while I maintain my identity, and much of my practice (next week I'll fast for Yom Kippur, and then I'll build a sukkah), when I'm in need of spiritual succor, I'll follow my breath, thank you very much.