Sunday, October 27, 2019

There's work left to do

Taku and I went to a Bat Mitzvah ceremony yesterday for the daughter of dear friends.

As I've said dozens of times before, if I were ever going to return to organized religion, it would be Judaism that I'd most likely to turn to.

It was a surprisingly moving service. The mother of the girl becoming bat mitzvah is Japanese and the father is Jewish, an Israeli-American who, like most of the Bay Area Jews I know, is comfortable in both Jewish and Buddhist thought. One of a large group of folk we like to call JewBu's. I'm not sure he would describe himself that way, actually, but his contribution to the service was to share his daily meditation with the people gathered before leading us all in a period of silent meditation:

May all beings be happy
May all beings be enabled
May all beings be free
May all beings live with ease.

At lunch after the service I got into a very nice conversation with a Taiwanese-American married to a German. We talked about her two daughters, one of whom has no use for Chinese food but loves good bread. The other shows a great fondness for things stir-fried. 

I shared with her my mixed heritage upbringing back at a time when we were expected to be American, not immigrant, Scottish not German, etc. (to use a couple examples from my own experience). We both agreed that the solution to many of the world's conflicts is to refuse to be drawn into either/or choices and insist on both/and wherever possible. I celebrate the fact that my marriage is ethnically Euro-Asian and our household is anthropo-canine.

The bat mitzvah girl is still a young 7th grader, so she is at an age, between 13 and 14, when according to many traditions, not just the Jewish, kids are expected to take on adult responsibilities. It's a coming-of-age ceremony.

Naomi, when told she would be expected to come up with a "mitzvah project," chose to throw her support behind Days for Girlsa program which offers access to menstrual care and education for girls around the world.

So here we are, at a Jewish ceremony, where at one point the Torah is brought out and carried through the congregation for all to feel close to it and to honor it, and at another part in the service this lovely sweet 7th grader dressed in her great-grandmother's kimono covered by a prayer shawl is telling the congregation about how there are still many places in the world where girls are forced to use rags, banana leaves, feathers, mattress stuffing, and even cow dung, to handle their menstrual flow. Lofty - meet mundane. Both/and.

Naomi's mentor, rabbi Camille Shira Angel, is a personification of the both/and approach to things. She is "rabbi in residence" at San Francisco's Jesuit University, the (Catholic) University of San Francisco. She is a lesbian. Her view of her role in life is expressed on her web page: "Everyone needs a rabbi and you don't have to be Jewish."

Since this is the start of the Jewish calendar year the reading (and therefore the theme) of the day happens to be the very first words of Genesis, "In the beginning...."  Taking up the theme as her drash (homily), the rabbi took up the two different takes on the Hebrew creation story that both made it into the text, and what we should take from both of them. One version speaks of creation as an unfinished project. God, the story goes, got tired and had to rest, leaving a lot of stuff undone, which then becomes our job to finish.

Naomi's project, making menstrual kits for girls, is doing just that - finishing, if you frame it in the Jewish way, the work of God. What's not to love about that? 

When I see religion being understood in that light, all my natural misgivings give way. That has happened to me on more than one occasion at Jewish events. The first time I felt the full impact of not only Jewish culture, which is easy for me to love, but Jewish religion, which is not, was at Harvey Milk's funeral, when the cantor came out and sang the kaddish, the mourner's prayer for the dead. It was a gifted cantor and I've seldom, before or since, heard a more stunning example of the power of music - in this case the millennia of Jewish suffering. 

Another thing I think Jews are good at is metaphor and symbolism.  At one point the torah was handed to Naomi's grandparents, then passed (very carefully, to be sure) to Naomi's parents, and finally to Naomi. I don't know why, but I couldn't stop the tears. Passing on the tradition of Jewishness in such a vivid way, welcoming the child into the community in such concrete fashion, really got to me. I've complained so often about the downside of religion, complained that the religious notion that God wants Israel to be for Jews and Jews alone is among the chief stumbling blocks (and may well be the chief stumbling block) keeping Jews and Palestinians at loggerheads. But here is religion in a different manifestation. Here it's the tie that binds, and whether one is a "believer" or not, it works to mark the importance of belonging to a community and being embraced by all the people from that community that have come before, passed on, but left you with a sense of connection to life.

There are so many things going on that lead you to despair - the portrayal of immigrants as "rapists and murderers," the betrayal of the Kurds (who are then faulted for not helping us in WWII!), the now routine California wildfires, the denial of climate change, our inability to get rid of guns, to provide accessible health care for all, as they do in most modern nations, and on and on and the fearsome prospect that Democrats may not unite behind an electable candidate in 2020.

Fortunately, also out there in the big bad world are the likes of this gutsy 16-year-old, Greta Thunberg, bringing folks into the streets by the thousands in practically no time. And Naomi, this 13-year old kid discussing menstruation in a religious setting and getting us to open our wallets to join her. Slivers of hope that we might yet pull through.

Religion has great power. Those who convert often embrace their new faith with a fanatic enthusiasm. Those who leave the church often show equal enthusiasm in wanting to demonstrate the folly of religion, and I'm sure I fit into that second category. I have a distinct memory of reflecting on the notion back in my early 20s that God is supposed to have made man in his own image. Is it not infinitely more likely, I began asking myself, that it is the other way around? That man creates the God he wants there to be, projects his hopes and fears onto the universe and comes up with a super hero, somebody to take care of him and allow him to sleep at night? That question, I came to understand, is one of the great universal questions that plagues anyone who has even the slightest inclination to be philosophical. And I'm persuaded that, if you're honest, you'll admit that it never really gets answered; it only gets accommodated. 

Because I view religion as man-made, I've followed organized religion closely over the years, confirming over and again that one's character is revealed in the notions one throws out about the nature of a Creator-God. When Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson told us that the hurricanes along the East Coast were God's punishment for America's embrace of feminism and homosexuality, I concluded that Falwell and Robertson, being rotten on the inside, had merely come up with a rotten view of what their Grand Deity must be like - somebody who would murder thousands of children and other innocents simply because other people had misbehaved. The Roman Catholic Church seems to be divided down the middle between those who place primary focus on the authority of their leaders, on the one hand, and the compassion, generosity and forgiveness preached by Christ, on the other hand, as expressed in an emphasis on pastoral care. It's not, unless I am mistaken, what God says and does so much as what you want to believe God says and does.

Naomi's view of God, if her choice of these two poems by Cynthia Rylant, included in the ceremony, is any indication, is one I can embrace with enthusiasm, even as a non-believer. I cite them here. One is God Went to Beauty School. The other is God Went to India.

God Went to Beauty School
He went there to learn how
to give a good perm
and ended up just crazy
about nails
so He opened up His own shop.
"Nails by Jim" He called it.
He was afraid to call it
Nails by God.
He was sure people would
think He was being
disrespectful and using
His own name in vain
and nobody would tip.
He got into nails, of course,
because He'd always loved
hands were some of the best things
He'd ever done
and this way He could just
hold one in His
and admire those delicate
bones just above the knuckles,
delicate as birds' wings,
and after He'd done that
He could paint all the nails
any color He wanted,
then say,
and mean it.

God Went to India
To see the elephants.
God adores elephants.
He thinks they are
the best thing
He ever made.
They do everything
He hoped for:
They love their children,
they don't kill,
they mourn their dead.
This last thing is
especially important
to God.
Elephants visit the graves
of those they loved.
They spend hours there.
They fondle the dry bones.
They mourn.
God understands mourning
better than any other emotion,
better even than love.
Because He has lost
everything He has
ever made.
You make life,
you make death.
The things God makes
always turn into
something else and
He does find this good.
But He can't help missing all the originals.

Bravo, I say to Naomi's rabbi. Bravo for your take on the Book of Genesis, on your inclination to read into it the notion that God's work is unfinished and that we, as the children of God, have to take up the task of finishing the job. You make me, as a non-believer, and even somebody highly suspicious of any and all religious dogma, want to embrace you, to help encourage religious people like yourself to build on your religious and your ethnic traditions. You expose the either/or folks of the world as limited in imagination and the both/and folk as people who give us all cause for hope. We, the Chinese married to Germans, the Americans married to Japanese, the girls celebrating their bat mitzvahs in their great-grandmothers' kimonos, can all work together without fear there might not be room for all of us.

People committed to both/and are automatically committed to lifting the other's interests up to the level of their own. There's no better definition of love than that kind of commitment, whether it's a parent's willingness to sacrifice for a child, a willingness to straighten up and fly right in order to set a good example for a loved one, or a willingness to spend time making menstruation packets to give to girls on the other side of the planet so they don't have to sit at home and miss school when their period comes.

Mazel Tov, Naomi!

Note: The bat mitzvah girl's name has been changed. If she is willing to have me share it here (I haven't asked her yet), I'll go back and repost and remove this note.


Dwight said...

And Bravo to you, Alan! One of your best—and one I know I'll return to.

Bill Sweigart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill Sweigart said...

Well, you know if you can turn the head of a curmudgeon like me toward a positive view of anything regarding religion, you've done something remarkable. I read every bit and was moved by it.