Parashat Vayihi, 2021
Last Thursday night was Christmas Eve and like many Jews around the world, I celebrated with take-out Chinese food and Kung Pao Kosher Comedy. The garlic eggplant and moshu vegetables were delicious but the fortune cookies were extraordinary. My first fortune read “Ideas not coupled with action never become bigger than the brain cells they occupied.” Wow, that was a modern and politically motivating idea. The second read “A different world cannot be built by indifferent people.” WOW! There we go again. Modern and motivating, but where have we heard those ideas before?
Jewish tradition, even 2000 years ago, would have served as a great source for fortunes. In the Mishnah, Pirkei Avot, we read:
וְלֹא הַמִּדְרָשׁ הוּא הָעִקָּר, אֶלָּא הַמַּעֲשֶׂה
Study is not the most important thing, rather action.
2020 is thankfully in the rear view mirror and for most of us, 2021 couldn’t have come fast enough. Though the shift from 2020-2021 is an arbitrary one, and nothing magically changed at 12:01 this morning, we all breathed a sigh of relief. Or as my husband’s fortune cookie read, “A fresh start will put you on your way.”
I am up to my ears in reading and writing for my rabbinical thesis/capstone project which deals with different understandings of God over the span of Jewish thought. As I devour my readings, I’ve been thinking a lot about P’nai Tikvah, who we are as a community, who we are as individuals, and what are the unexamined assumptions that we each bring to the table. None of us come with labels on our foreheads. If we did, mine would read “My image of God, what He or She expects of me, what kind of relationship we should have, was formed by a strong Jewish cultural identification in my youth which that later was deeply influenced by the born-again Christian understanding of God I encountered in college, which was later reinforced by antiquated translations of Hebrew when I began to explore Jewish ideas and practice in depth.” Hmmm…I ask you, “How would your label read?”
As I read the piles of books on my desk, I am deep into what is known as Process Theology. Process Theology puts forth that God, is not an external, all-powerful, all-knowing being who can make miracles outside of the rules of nature. God is understood to be a participant in a larger creative process, so that God influences and is influenced by other entities. God participates and interacts with a changing world. Most importantly, God’s power to create change in the world is persuasive rather than coercive and exercised within the limits of natural law. Noted Jewish theologians who ascribe to aspects of Process Theology are Brad Artson, dean of the AJU Conservative rabbinical school in LA; Mordechai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism of which P’nai Tikvah is affiliated; and noted theologian, Martin Buber, to name just a few.
I am serious when I ask you “How does your label read?” I bring this up for two reasons. First, different ideas of the nature of God are playing themselves out all the time in our lives at P’nai Tikvah, we just don’t always note it head on. We see this in the effort it takes for us to write our community prayer and whether some of us feel comfortable saying “Oh, Most Merciful God” as we did at the beginning of this week’s prayer. A Process Theology understanding of God does not contain these human attributes of mercy. We see it in our Torah study where some feel that God has a clear plan for the Jewish people, and others feel that God is not sentient or planful around a specific people, rather that godliness is found in our kind deeds as we build a better world.
The second reason I bring up ideas of Process Theology and Reconstructionism is for a teaching moment. When I guide us in Shabbat candlelighting, we say the blessing “v’tsivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat” … who has commanded us to light the Shabbat candles. When I translate that for you into English, you hear me say “who has commanded/who has compelled us…” This is a purposeful addition to our familiar translation and it reflects my understanding of our relationship with God through the lens of Process Theology.
Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism wrote “God is the sum of the animating, organizing forces and relationships which are forever making a cosmos out of chaos.” With this understanding of God, we are persuaded to light candles because we are part of making cosmos, or order, out of chaos. I do not feel commanded to light Shabbat candles, coerced by the fear that if I don’t, a lightning bolt will strike me down. Rather, I feel compelled to light candles, pulled by the knowledge that in doing so, I am making sacred the time that I will spend with friends and family in learning and rejuvenation over the coming 25 hours. This urge, this lure to observe Shabbat and a day of rest to improve the world is God working though me.
Back to our fortune cookies… “Ideas not coupled with action never become bigger than the brain cells they occupied.” With all my reading and the insights I am gaining, it will be for naught if I don’t share it with you. P’nai Tikvah is an inclusive, warm, embracing community and quoting from our website “the Congregation has close ties to both the Reconstructionist and Renewal movements. Reconstructionism provides a progressive view of Judaism as an evolving civilization, a way of life rich with tradition, where the past has a vote, not a veto. In addition, the congregation is inspired by the emerging Renewal movement, dedicated to the Jewish people’s sacred purpose of partnership with the Divine in the inseparable tasks of healing the world and healing our hearts.”
My second fortune read “A different world cannot be built by indifferent people.” We are clearly not indifferent. By studying and understanding our roots in the Reconstructionist and Renewal movements, by identifying the unique lenses through which each of us views the world, by opening ourselves up to the myriad of Jewish ideas on the nature of God and what it means to be Jewish, we develop deeper, more self-assured, more meaningful, and grounded Jewish lives. More assured in who we are, we are moved to be active in the world, and through our actions, we will build the world we want to come, in 2021 and beyond.
Ken yihi ratzon. May it be so.