Self, faith and the challenge of modernity

September 29, 2011

Last spring on the staff retreat our facilitator asked us one of those questions that facilitators like to ask—something like, “What words or phrases would you associate with Temple Micah?” 

Teddy Klaus, Meryl Weiner, Rachel Gross, Deborah Srabstein, Rabbi Lederman and I all began to respond as our facilitator started filling up several easel pads with our responses—all the way these things are done in these brainstorming sessions.  We were having a great time.  At the end—our very savvy facilitator circled one answer—Self, Faith and the Challenge of Modernity. 

This is my theme for this evening—or put in other words—

Modernity or what some call post-modernity has brought with it new challenges which as biological beings we are having a very difficult time coping with.  This, I believe is our new challenge --to navigate  ourselves through the enticing, seductive—even addictive enticements we face—often unknowingly every single day.

This theme brings certain words to mind, as well. 

Some are words that I like—reticent, hesitant, introspective, thoughtful, knowledgeable.

And it makes me think of words that I don’t like- bravado, boastful, bombast, bluster—among others.  The latter seem to be on the up-swing.  The former are in increasingly short supply.

Let’s begin with the first part of tonight’s theme – self.

Modernity has given rise to the notion of a “self,” and with the passage of time this notion, that each of us is an individual self, has in itself created a newer need or desire or craving for celebrity or publicity.  Making friends in a traditional manner has given way to networking and our very language is being re-created or redefined before us, or — to put it another way -- “friend” has become a verb.  All of this change is being made, I think, at the expense of our souls.

Consider these words of William Deresiewicz:

“What does the contemporary self want? The camera has created a culture of celebrity; the computer is creating a culture of connectivity. As the two technologies converge…  the two cultures betray a common impulse. Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized…connected: … visible-- if not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us; this is how we become real to ourselves — by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.”  (William Deresiewicz, The Chronicle of Higher Education)

Reticence and introspection  are not seen as the vehicles to visibility: Weave to be out there selling ourselves—friending, tweeting and twittering.  Mere self-confidence is a thing of the past—it is not robust enough—we are in an age of infinite self assuredness and endless promotion. Is it only me or has being smug become acceptable behavior while I wasn’t looking?

As I think about what Deresiewicz calls the post-modern self and its craving for celebrity, I worry about the challenge to a life of deep faith and with it the absence of real, interwoven, thick community and wonder if there is not a relationship between the two. 

Community has become a buzz word—Deresiewicz   is on to something when he uses the word connectivity.  We mistake connectivity for community and hubris has replaced humility.

As tomorrow morning we will be reading the Torah’s great and terrifying story of the Akedah wherein Abraham at God’s command binds Isaac on the alter with the intention of slaughtering him as an offering to God, I like to read the wisdom of my friend now passed away--Henry Zapruder who wrote me these words several years ago after sitting in this very sanctuary on this very holy day and listening to this very portion. 

“The Abraham story has a little twist in it which has always interested me,” Henry wrote. “It is God who tells Abraham to take Isaac to the sacrifice; it is an angel of God who withdraws the decree.  I want to reason that no one should be so certain that he acts in the name of God (or at God’s command).  We should all be open to listen to voices from other sources.  After all, had Abraham thought he acted under the mantle of God, he might not have hesitated at the mere suggestion of an angel of God.  What is an angel of God, how do you know the angel speaks with authority, etc.  In every act, with every idea, behind every argument, there should rest a grain of doubt and a willingness to listen—even if you think you act in the name of the Lord (or whatever).”

We should be humble enough to listen to someone other than God.

Cherish your doubts—walk humbly with your God.

My dear teacher Rabbi Larry Hoffman has taught me a great deal.  Perhaps, above all I have learned from him that being Jewish has always been the immediate knowledge of being part of something more:  a people and a purpose…part of history and a grand plan with God at its center.

Or—I might say—our lives are very important—in a very humble way.

The medieval kabbalists—those Jewish mystics of Spain and Southern France who ended up in the beautiful village of Safed in Israel — had a vision of creation that was magnificent and that told their story. In the beginning all was God. God’s infinite presence was just that—infinite. Then in an act of divine generosity and grace- God contracted God –self to make room for creation, the universe—us.  In order to make a space for the created universe, God contracted.

We call this divine act of contraction—of cosmic reduction if you will- TZIMTZUM. God made him\herself a little smaller so that there could be space for the world.  And so creation ensued in the space that God removed him\herself from.

This is still a tale for our time: God made him\herself smaller so that we could exist.

In an age of bravado, we need to imitate God. We live in an era where we need to perform on ourselves a kind of spiritual tzimtzum, a contraction of the human ego.  We, with our talents and degrees and connections and corner offices and success stories and exotic vacations and countless Facebook friends --have crowded God from our lives.  Nothing is bigger than the individual self.  

David Elcott Taub, (Professor of Practice in Public Service and Leadership at the Wagner School of Public Service at NYU)  offers this:  At the very moment that Jacob becomes aware of God’s presence, he exclaims, (“v’anochi lo nodati”) “It is I that I do not know.”  Only when I am not filled with myself, when I empty myself of the ego and self-serving explanations that encrust me, can I truly experience God’s presence.  It reminds us how ever-present God can be and how easy it is to say, “but I did not know.”

I know that I crowd out God every morning at home almost from the get go as I wait impatiently for the shower water to get hot.  It almost is imperceptible, this morning arrogance or taking-for-grantedness.

Each morning as I prepare to take my shower, I feel myself getting mildly impatient with the length of time—maybe twenty or thirty seconds for the hot water to get really hot.

I then drive to Micah on a hot day in an air-conditioned car. On a cold day I put on a little heat. 

My home is cool in the summer and warm in the winter—as is Temple Micah. 

I wonder about that—I wonder and worry at our ability to control our world around us or to think we are controlling our world around us. 

I worry about what this is doing to our planet Earth.

This evening I worry about what it is doing to our souls.

When I feel my impatience for the hot water, I try and remember to step back and say my morning prayer—“Modeh ani lefanecha—  I stand grateful before you oh living and Great God that you have returned my spirit to me in kindness. Great is your faith.”

I read James Kugel’s poignant and beautiful recent book this summer, “In the Valley of the Shadow,” which relates his personal religious coming to grips with being diagnosed with cancer.  As he puts it in his words, he hears the diagnosis and then—

He writes: “The main change in my state of mind was that—I can’t think of a better way to put it—the background music suddenly stopped.”  (p2) 

Kugel at this moment achieves a kind of clarity on his place in the world. We might all learn from this.

Kugel continues: “There you are, one little person, sitting in the late-summer sun…. You think: If I could make it through five more years that would be generous…how could I have ever thought that life would go on forever?  I did, of course; that’s what the music does…”

“It’s what we all think,”  concludes Kugel.  (p. 2)  And then the music stops.

The music stopping for Kugel is the story of his discovery as if for the first time his place in the universe. 

 This is what I pray for each year during these days stretching from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur—what is my place in the universe and to find that place, I know more fully each day I must strive to follow the path of our very own prophet Micah—who urges us to “walk humbly with our God.”

What have I done to deflate my own ego and serve others?  What have I done to bring a taste of redemption to someone’s life?  What have I done to exalt the image of God that resides within me and all human beings?

 Kugel shows us a way to tzimtzum-- spiritual shrinkage--in order to see ourselves as part of God’s realm. 

Kugel relates this story of an Iraqi Jew who comes to the West after fleeing Baghdad in the 1950’s.

“Back in Iraq, he said, there had been all sorts of Jews; some were ‘traditional,’ and others were, like his own family, ‘modern.’ (That is they had given up traditional practice and lived a wholly secular life.) ‘But all of us, traditional or modern, knew one thing; God is very big, and man is very little. Once, some years after I had left Baghdad for the West, I went one evening to hear a famous theologian speak.  I hoped that he would give me some piece of wisdom.  But the more he spoke, the more his ideas and mine swirled around together in my head and the more upset I became.  I could not get out of my mind this new thought: Man is very big and God is very far away.”  

“Man is very big and God is very far away”--  this burden of modernity and its excesses.

I cannot help but wonder if our Sovereign Selfness is not also related to our self-imposed isolation from each other.  We like our right to privacy.  We even pay extra for it.  How many of you read David Brooks’ wonderful column just a few weeks ago—“The Hamish Line,” wherein he reflects on the personal toll of our self imposed social isolation—what he calls—“crossing the hamish line..”

“You’ll find multiple generations at a Comfort Inn breakfast area, and people are likely to exchange pleasantries over the waffle machine.  At a four star hotel’s breakfast dining room, people are quietly answering e-mails on their phones.”

Just this summer I ran into an old teacher of mine by a waffle machine in a Hampton Inn.  It was wonderful. 

As we gain in elegance and privacy—we lose a part of our humanity.  Everything has a cost.  But I wonder and wonder deeply as we become more and more entrenched in our privacy, our privileges and our powers—are we giving up something very basically human that  connects us to each other and ultimately to God.

Is crossing the Hamish line -also crossing the faith line, the God line—if you will?

[Peter Berger, in writing about traditional societies notes,

“There is no conception of the individual as sharply distinct from his collectivity.  The individual’s innermost being is considered to be the fact of his belonging to the collectivity—the clan, the tribe, the nation…the identification is... inevitable….he cannot deny it unless he denies his own being…” (Berger-The Sacred Canopy-page 60)]

Judaism is a journey lived through community, guided by Torah and searching for meaning.

Consider this account of a journalist in Africa--

“ in Africa (individualism).. is synonymous with unhappiness, with being accursed…. African tradition is collectivist…collectivist survival.. One day a group of children surrounded me.  I had a single piece of candy, which I placed in my open palm.  The children stood motionless, staring.  Finally, the oldest girl took the candy, bit it into pieces, and equitably distributed the bits…”

Kugel writes, ”for centuries we were small… dwarfed by gods and ancestors and a throbbing world all around us…...we were, for untold millennia small. Is it too much of a stretch to suppose therefore that our brains...are still designed for this old way of seeing ourselves and fitting into the world, even though our current way of life and understanding of things have changed radically..? (p34)

This is the biology of who we are that has been seduced by the beautiful, wondrous opportunities and gadgets that our world offers us.

Have we then created for ourselves this post-modern sense of anomie?  We are simply not biologically prepared by evolution for the lives we try and live.

How might we rediscover the simpler life of walking humbly with our God?  What is the response to my theme:  self, faith and the challenge of modernity?

We all perhaps know the tale of Rabbi Zusya who trembles with fear at the question he will be asked as he approaches the heavenly throne on judgment day—He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, "Why weren't you Moses or why weren't you Solomon or why weren't you David?" But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, "Why weren't you Zusya?"  How can we each discover the authenticity of our inner selves?

Less well known is the story of Rabbi Rafael who taught “When I get to heaven, they’ll ask me, why didn’t  you learn more Torah?  And I will tell them that I wasn’t bright enough.  Then they’ll ask me why didn’t you do more kind deeds for others?  And I’ll tell them that I was physically weak.  Then they’ll ask me, why didn’t you give more to charity?  And I’ll tell them that I didn’t have enough money for that.  And then they’ll ask me: If you were so stupid, weak, and poor why were you so arrogant?  And for that, I won’t have an answer.”

R. Joshua b.. Levi taught : One who sacrifices a burnt offering, shall be rewarded for a burnt offering; one who sacrifices a meal offering, shall be rewarded for a meal offering; but one who offers humility to God and man, shall be rewarded as though he had brought all the offerings in the world, for it is said, The sacrifices of God are a humbled spirit. And furthermore, his prayers are not ignored, for it is written, A humble and contrite heart, God does not ignore. (Sanhedrin 43b)

But how do we go there? What do we do?

I began by getting rid of my smart phone and holding to my resolution to not have a Facebook page.  This is how I have begun to meet the challenge of modernity.  Technology and social networking does have its place, but it should be used intelligently; we should not succumb to being defined by our electronic connectivity.  We should realize up-front the addictive quality.  There is a measurable kind of high from getting a text and an e-mail.  Just read Sherry Turkle’s book— “ Alone Together.” You can break away. I discovered that even getting the instant White Sox score was not that critical.  You can rediscover that beauty of being unplugged also. 

It is a question of finding the right space for you.

A place where you can be yourself—a place that is supportive and quiet and accepting—a place within your heart and a place filled with real people, as well. A place where we can share stories that shape our lives.

I wish for Temple Micah to be such a place.

Alan Moriniss, a Jewish scholar, tells a wonderful story about humility.  After delivering what he takes to be a brilliant public lecture, he is approached after the talk by a woman who says to him, “You have a wonderful, wonderful…”  The woman was speaking slowly, so Moriniss in his own mind finishes her sentence with the word “voice,”then “way with words” and then “presence.”  The woman finally gets to the end of her sentence and says: “You have a wonderful, wonderful wife.”

Moriniss takes this as a lesson in humility. It is. It is a good place for all of us to begin.

On Rosh Hashanah we stand as one to hear the teaching of Torah. This year –take an oath—be true to yourself.

Seek community, walk humbly.

Connect to something larger than yourself.

Come to Micah and find your story.

 Experience  Shabbat as a day to un-plug. 

Come to Micah and tell your story.

Find that loving, accepting God –

who is here, with us--

waiting to hear your story.

Shananh Tovah

Daniel Zemel is the rabbi of Temple Micah in Washington, D.C.

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