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Welcome To Jewish Universalism

Shalom!

As a rabbi and member of the Union of Jewish Universalist Communities (UJUC) I feel that it is critical for all Jews to begin thinking about Judaism and in a new way for the 21st Century. Too often our religion and our people have been stuck in the past with outdated concepts and even outdated scripture. This must change for Judaism and the Jewish People to move forward. That is the purpose of this website and the motivation of my rabbinical path.

 

 

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Politics Ruins Judaism

It is understandable that individuals desire to interpret their religious faith to conform with their political views.  Since we can analyze almost any scripture in a way that endorses our beliefs this is easy to do.  The question becomes if it is the right thing to do.  Should Judaism be a worldview that supports all Democrat positions or one that supports all Republican positions?  Should we reduce Judaism into only another platform for partisan politics? 

I know Jews on both political sides who are excellent people.  One political side does not have all truth, nor should they ever believe that they do.  It would be extremely arrogant for anyone to believe that their truth is right for everyone. Therefore, to state that Judaism only agrees with one political position is to try to force every Jew to agree with you.  I sincerely believe that we don’t have the right to try to force anyone to agree with us. That is the attitude of the Spanish Inquisition.  

One person told me that they are a Democrat and therefore a Jew.  This is also not true.  The terms are not synonymous.  Jew and Democrat are two very different definitions but for some they mean the same thing. To think of Judaism as simply another form of being a political partisan is harmful, not helpful.  Politics is divisive.  It does not bring people together it divides them into winners and losers.  Politics is amoral although some would say “immoral.”  People will say or do almost anything to win in politics.  

Politics is also about power – the ability to control others.  Is this really what we want for Judaism?  To force our political will on others because we believe that our truth is the only truth. Didn’t we object as Christianity tried to force their worldview upon us?  Is our worldview now so arrogant that we will do almost anything to have it forced upon people who don’t agree with us?  Will we call them names and think of them as less than human?  Don’t we know where that path leads?

Most of all politics destroys the primary commandment in Judaism – to love our neighbors. Do we truly believe that politics will help us think better of our neighbors?  And yes, I am talking about your fellow Jews and Americans not people coming across the border.  If we can’t love our fellow citizens we can never fulfill this beautiful goal of Judaism. The commandment is not to only love those who agree with your political positions – it is to love everyone.     

Therefore, to replace our unique faith by interpreting it to only agree with certain political viewpoints is ruining Judaism.  It destroys a foundational belief of Judaism that no matter what our personal beliefs are we should never hate or ridicule our neighbors. It is the demonization of any group, including political groups, that lead to the Holocaust.  It is a dark path in human relations that we should avoid at all costs.  Love your neighbor no matter what their political beliefs are.  If that is not the most important goal we have in life then what is our worldview?    

Judaism Without Halacha

Let’s face it – too much of traditional rabbinic Judaism is outdated and archaic.  The entire halachic system is based on poor information, biased opinions and ethnic supremacism.  If we continue to give credibility to this system Judaism itself loses honesty and truth.  If there is one thing Judaism should never sacrifice for any reason – it is truth.  By using convoluted reasoning to get around the obvious meanings of Torah, Mishna and Talmudic sayings we are sacrificing truth and intellectual honesty for Judaic pride.  We can do better than this.

Maimonides (Rambam) has told us that truth must be our highest goal and we should accept it from wherever it comes.  He studied Aristotle, a Greek philosopher, to discover truth.  If Rambam studied Aristotle, shouldn’t all Jewish rabbis and scholars study Aristotle as well?  One reason some of us won’t study Aristotle is because he is a Greek and not a Jew.  Why is this important?  Do we seriously believe that truth only comes from Jewish sources?  Are we going to put our intellectual blinders on and only read Torah for truth?  If the Torah has every answer why did Maimonides study Aristotle (and other philosophers)? 

Judaism needs to rededicate itself to truth, not tradition.  If truth conflicts with the Torah, the Torah needs to be reinterpreted or the conflict removed from the Torah.  It is this important to retain the intellectual honesty of our religion/civilization.  The rationalizations of the rabbis and sages for verses in the Torah that are incorrect is intellectually dishonest.  We all know this.  Yet we continue to allow this to happen because no one has the courage to call for removal of wrong or extremely offensive material based on archaic values.      

Truth will be found in sources other than Judaism.  To only study Torah or Judaism is to lock your intellectual growth into an ethnic and/or tribalistic prison.  No Jew should want to do this willingly.  We would be no better than those who only memorize the Koran but never expose themselves to secular knowledge.  They become bigoted religious zealots because that is all they know.  Our intellectual growth needs to be open as Abraham’s tent was on all sides.     

Judaism must be based on all intellectual advances in medical science and recent discoveries of moral truths.  It will be open to changing from year-to-year if necessary.  It shall recognize our history but be willing to change or remove anything that continues to be harmful in our current human society.  It should be able to accept truth from whoever it comes from and modify Judaism to conform to it.

Unfortunately, there are some who want to return closer to orthodoxy rather than move forward.  Even Reform is retracing its movement away from the early reformers.  This is the wrong direction.  All liberal Jewish movements should be moving further away from traditional halachic Judaism and make sure that younger Jews know that we no longer consider that path legitimate or authoritative.  Our new path is about truth, not ancient writings from men, and performing acts of human kindness as mitzvots not practicing arbitrary commandments to satisfy God.  God wants us to love our neighbor not dance at the end of a string. 

Most of all, this new Judaism will accept truth from any source.  We know that Judaism is not the only source of truth and never will be.  It wasn’t from the beginning.  By having an intellectually honest religion that conforms to advancing realities will be the only way that most Jews in the future will want to practice Judaism in whatever form it evolves into.   

Progressive Judaism

In a book titled “Jewish Religious Law” the author, John Rayner, argues that we can no longer consider rabbinic Judaism as valid.  The very foundational basis for rabbinic Judaism is that the Torah came directly from God and, therefore, everything it says has divine significance.  As modern Jews we know this is not true.  Progressive Judaism is not a different kind of rabbinic Judaism but a different Judaism altogether.  How should we think of this post-rabbinic Judaism that stand in contrast to the fundamentalist concept of Jewish orthodoxy?

First, we acknowledge why Judaism had to change.  It changed because human society no longer accepted religion uncritically or put religious claims above truth.  Due to the Enlightenment and advances in science we discovered that the Torah is not immutable or inerrant.  Our choice was to accept truth or a divine Torah.  We chose to accept science and truth as Maimonides would have wanted us to do. 

Rayner writes, “The first point to be made about Progressive Judaism is that it affirms the Enlightenment.”  He goes on to say, “We affirm the liberal values of intellectual and political freedom, of reason and conscience, of tolerance and diversity, of equality and democracy, and of hope, in spite of everything, in the ultimate future of humanity.”

Rayner also acknowledges that there are some who have criticized the Enlightenment as being too much in favor of reason.  He writes, “It is especially important to make the point because there are some in certain quarters who speak disparagingly of the Enlightenment as if it were somehow responsible for the Holocaust.  That, of course, is a terrible mistake.  It is a mistake because we owe our Emancipation to the Enlightenment.  It is a mistake, more fundamentally, because the values of the Enlightenment are Hebraic, in the sense that they are applications and implications of principles that are deeply embedded in Jewish tradition.  It is a mistake, most tragically, because it involves a view of the causation of the Holocaust which is exactly the opposite of the truth.”

He explains, “The Holocaust did not happen because they was too much liberalism: it happened because they was too little liberalism!  Because the liberal values of reason, conscience, justice, tolerance and democracy were too faintly cherished and too feebly defended against the onslaught of neo-paganism that mocked and, with its jackboots, trampled on every one of them.” 

The Nazis believed in the superiority of Aryan blood, emotional attachment to the past, glorification of feelings over reason and a paganistic belief in naturalism that led to only the strongest being able to survive.  They rejected a faith that taught us to love our neighbors and to believe that every human being is made in the image of a loving God.  It is their rejection of the liberal values of the Enlightenment that led to the Holocaust.

The Enlightenment not only made is look critically at our sacred writings but also supported many cherished Jewish values without religious dogma.  We could have tried to prop up rabbinic Judaism and made excuses for its mistakes or we could start a new form of Judaism that would coexist with orthodoxy.  By choosing Progressive Judaism we can embrace all of the advances of human civilization, including the most recent concept of equality for all human beings regardless of self-identity, and remain flexible for future revelations.     

There may always be orthodox Jews who believe in the inerrancy of the Torah and wish to practice rabbinic Judaism.  Progressive Judaism does not compete but forms a different kind of Judaism that embraces the values of the Enlightenment.  This view of Judaism, for us, is the only honest way of practicing Judaism into the 21st Century and beyond.   

Davening in Judaism

What is the best way to pray in Judaism?  We have structured prayers which are to be said daily, but is this the most effective way to acknowledge our relationship with God?  Maimonides said that the best prayer to God is silence.  Others say that we must pray in Hebrew but Rambam also maintains that a prayer is not valid if one does not understand what they are saying.  Are structured prayers in Hebrew the only holy way to communicate with our Creator?

A story about a rabbi and shepherd may help us understand.   

A rabbi who was passing by met a shepherd. The curious rabbi asked the shepherd how he prayed. The shepherd was embarrassed because he could not read Hebrew, so he quickly muttered the truth, that he prayed by saying he loved God so much that if God had sheep, the shepherd would take care of them for nothing. The rabbi was shocked because the shepherd did not follow the required content and order of prayers as laid out in the prayer book. The rabbi immediately began teaching the shepherd about the correct prayers to say. The rabbi, though, continued to think about the shepherd, impressed by the closeness to God that the shepherd felt when he prayed. Then the rabbi returned and told the shepherd to forget what the rabbi had taught him, that the shepherd’s natural words with God were much better.

May we see the wisdom in this story.   

Pittsburgh and Poway

Once again the ugly face of anti-Semitism rises in America.  It used to be the KKK who hated “Kikes, Katholics and Koons” according to a sign from a downtown march with over one hundred members in the early Twentieth Century in a town nearby and throughout America.  After World War 2 and the Holocaust there was at least a thin veneer of respect for Jews. In the 21stCentury this ‘respect’ is devolving back into the ancient blood libel against Jews under the guise of “anti-Zionism.”  Anti-Semitism never disappears forever.  

The Pittsburgh shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in October of 2018 murdered 11 members of the congregation including a Holocaust survivor.  The shooter was a white supremacist by the name of Robert Bowers.  The Poway, California shooting on April 27thof 2019 murdered Lori Gilbert Kaye and wounded a rabbi with several others.  The shooter was a white supremacist by the name of John Earnest.  Both shooters believed that Jews as a group were to blame for the problems of the world.  Earnest wrote in his online manifesto that “Jews act as a unit to enslave other races around him whether consciously or unconsciously.”  In other words, all Jews are the same and collectively responsible for the actions of all other Jews.   

Our current society is breaking up into tribes (or groups) based on arbitrary differences such as skin color, gender, nationality, religion, politics, etc.  Tribalism is never healthy for any society.  It causes disunity and competition between groups for government control, power, favors and handouts.  It is the most primitive form of society and one that has existed for virtually all of world history.  Tribalism is normative for human beings, not an abnormality.  Individuality is an anomaly.  A modern society should never encourage tribalism as a form of positive human relations.  It is the opposite.

Reverting back to tribalism is what happens when a modern society adopts identity politics, intersectionality and multiculturalism or any other type of grouping.  All of these concepts depend on group identification rather than viewing people as individuals.  It is axiomatic that once an individual is identified as a member of a group that they began to lose their individuality to the collective identification.  This, if not checked, will also lead to collective guilt, dehumanization and genocide.   

Jews are the ultimate tribe. Not only a tribe but even considered by some to be the “Chosen People.” Being a minority in almost every country tends to put a target on our backs for anyone who believes they are superior to Jews. Instead of viewing us as unique individuals we are thought of as a monolithic group that acts as a “unit.”  This grouping of Jews and assignment of collective guilt is the reason why the Holocaust happened and why Jews are constantly being dehumanized and murdered.  The 21stCentury is no different than any other century when it has new members of the US Congress who believe that Jews are only defined by this same collective guilt identity.  

Jew-hatred doesn’t stop with the Jews.  Eventually, societies will break up based on other identities (tribes) and the cohesion of the society will fail.  A country that constantly has its citizens fighting with each other will not survive in the long term.  America worked because we all came together to make it work regardless of our backgrounds and lineage.  If we continue to teach divisive concepts like identity politics and don’t recognize the tremendous harm they are doing the future is not bright.  

Identifying people as unique individuals is the only human relational cure for anti-Semitism.  We should be judged by our individual character, not by which group we may be put into.  Only this form of individualized judgment (which we use for our judicial system) should be promoted as the optimal approach to human relations.  All human beings are unique and our conceptual thinking about human relations should be based on this truth.      

Name-calling and Judaism

Name-calling of any kind is very harmful for human relations.  It is particularly damaging when applied to groups of people but very detrimental for individuals as well.  If we are trying to improve human relations and create a more peaceful and harmonious world, we will never resort to name-calling as a part of our verbal or written expression.  A common way of doing this is to call a person a name such as “liar.”  Why is this kind of name-calling wrong?

Besides being an easy way to ridicule another human being (it starts on playgrounds) if you call someone a “liar” it makes an assumption which is very difficult to defend.  Naming an individual as a liar means that you know the truth.  A national journalist recently stated that a certain individual lies about “everything.”  To be able to honestly say this one would have to know the truth about everything.  No human being knows the truth to this level of perfection.     

Truth is very elusive for anyone who actually pursues it.  People have spent their entire lives searching for the truth on only one subject – let alone all of them.  Since no one can possibly know the truth about everything then no person can be told they lie about everything.  This type of name-calling is only for the purpose to denigrate someone, not to say something accurate or descriptive about the person.  In other words, it is an attempt to verbally abuse someone.  This is what the journalist was doing because the person was a political opponent.    

The Jewish tradition says that lashon hara (evil speech) is equivalent to murder.  This is true in the secular world as well.  Purposely damaging the reputation of someone is extremely harmful for the individual, their family and career.  It is similar to destroying a person’s life and, in some cases, has done this.  There was a young girl in the UK who committed suicide because of being ridiculed on social media.  We are told to be very careful about the language we use when talking with and about other people.  We are never instructed to needlessly call other people names or verbally abuse anyone even if we know it to be true.

Our guiding principle of “Love Your Neighbor” again comes into play.  Name-calling violates the instruction to love our neighbors.  We can agree to disagree and go our separate ways without ever calling anyone a name.  Ridicule is extremely harmful for human relations as is trying to bully someone into agreeing with you by verbally abusing them.  Let us return to loving each other by never calling any individual or any group a name and be a positive influence for all human relations.      

The Essence of Being

Every human being is 99.9% biologically identical according the Human Genome studies.  In other words, we are all biological twins.  As animals we are one specie – homo sapiens.  Nonetheless, we are also all unique.  No human being is ever identical to another.  Since our biology does not make us unique – what does? What is the essence of our unique being?

It is not our physical bodies.  Our bodies may have different sizes, skin colors, genders and many other differences but they are still human.  We never become an alien species simply because we may grow up in a different culture or geographic area. Even our appearance, whether physically attractive or not, does not define our being.  There are many other human beings who may look like us in the past or future.  Identical twins physically look like each other yet are still unique.  The uniqueness of each human being is not found in our outward appearance. 

The French philosopher Rene Descartes made the statement in his Second Meditation that, “I think; therefore, I exist.”  Descartes was trying to build on an absolutely indisputable truth in his philosophy and went to extreme skepticism about all of his senses.  He knew that his senses could deceive him and he wanted something that could not persuaded by any deception.  Where he ended up is in his own mind.  Only his mind, his consciousness, his ability to doubt, could prove to him that he exists as a unique being. 

We know that no one else can get into our heads and see the world exactly the way that we do.  We also know that every human being is shaped by their environment in almost infinite ways that will never be duplicated for any other person.  There will never be another person whose being is exactly like ours or whose experience in life is understood in the same way.  We are unique in mind, not body.  The essence of who we are exists in our mind.

This is the reality of human life.  We are unique and, from a certain perspective, we go through life alone in our minds.  Every value we have is shaped by our mind.  Every judgment we make about our lives comes from our mind.  Our ethics, religion and every other worldview we have is a conscious free-will decision after evaluations of other options.  Other than the biological determinism that all human beings share, such as the instinct of self-preservation, we alone decide our attitude about life.    

By understanding this reality and having empathy for others we will know that every human being is unique and should never be judged by which group we can put them into.  Group judgments can never be correct because they deny the essence of our being.  No two human beings think exactly alike, act exactly alike, or fall into any stereotype that we assign to groups of people.  Stereotyping is not only harmful; it is not a truthful representation of any unique individual.   

In summary, the essence of our being is found in our mind or character.  The corollary of this is that our physical bodies really say nothing about us.  Since our minds are unique to each and every human being we are, by nature, irreplaceable individuals. Therefore, we are biological twins and distinctly separate minds. We are how we think.