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The Emergence of Aliveness

On Rosh HaShana we say “hayom harat olam” – today is the birth of the world. But it isn’t just a birthday that happened in the past. The daily morning blessings remind us that God creates the world anew every day. So this High Holiday season is a time to celebrate a process of on-going creation.

It brings up the question: what do we even mean today when we talk about God’s creation of the world? I certainly don’t mean a fundamentalist idea that God is a Being in the sky who spoke 5,777 years ago and created the world. By creation I mean that there is wisdom, beauty, value and holiness that are embedded in every atom and molecule, every particle and wave that makes up the cosmos. “Kulam B’chokhmah asitah” – “You made all with wisdom.” And, this value, wisdom, holiness wasn’t just planted in creation sometime in the past. I also mean that there is something about this creating that is dynamic: that keeps on emerging to create even more complex forms of beauty, value and holiness.

When I say “emerging” I mean it technically: There is a new science of Emergence that has come along mostly in the last 30 years or so with Chaos theory and Complex System thinking to re-evaluate the way that we think about the world. Emergence basically says something new can emerge when parts come together to form a whole and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

So, for example, a long, long time ago there were atomic elements floating around. Two hydrogen atoms got connected to an oxygen atom to form H2O, or water. Neither hydrogen nor oxygen had the properties of water such as wetness, the ability to dissolve many things or the ability to put out fires. But together hydrogen and oxygen form something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Molecules kept on mixing and forming more complex patterns. At some point in that distant past, the molecules reached a point when they crossed an amazing threshold – out of those molecules of matter, those separate parts, an entity emerged that was alive. The wisdom embedded in creation had brought forth something so new it was a world apart from its component parts. And we still find it amazing that this quality we call life emerges from mere matter.

The crazy, creative, sometimes cruel, sometimes kind, process continues. A being evolved that can use symbolic language: the ability to create our own worlds of culture; our own environment of society that seems to surround us like a bubble with assumptions, concepts, manners and customs. This being creates not only tools but technologies that can literally change the face of the earth, change the climate; even change our own bodies.

The Torah tells us that we are created in the Image of God – and it is true – we can be as gods, to create or destroy. The Talmud follows up on this idea and says that each human being is a world – and we have the ability to create or destroy that world we call a human being.

But we also have the ability to destroy our physical world here on earth. With our amazing brains we have evolved the ability to take apart, to analyze, break down and separate all the miraculous aliveness that has taken eons to emerge. We have raised ourselves up so high in our godliness that we imagine that we are separate from the aliveness of the world. We even imagine that the world is not essentially alive, but rather is to be likened to one of our creations: a machine. If the world is a machine we can stand above it, control and predict everything about it. We have believed that we truly are gods of the world.

But, the wisdom embedded in the world won’t let this falsehood endure. We are finding that it doesn’t always work to stand above and break things down. We are starting to realize, hopefully not too late, that aliveness only emerges in the connections and patterns that hold us together. We truly are partners with God in creation – but only when we have the humility and wisdom to realize that we are a part of creation – not apart from it. We can continue to join in, even sometimes lead, the dance of emergence. We can create and witness creation of new patterns, a kinder, more just and more beautiful world. The choice is ours: to destroy ourselves and the earth in our arrogance, or to join in the dance of creation with humility, creativity and joy.

This essay was originally posted in Earth Etudes, a project of Ma’yan Tikvah. For more Earth Etudes see their website:

Shana Tova!


Two Ways of Thinking

When I was a kid my parents would try to tell me to think about not just the immediate gratification, but also about the longer-term results of my actions. I find myself telling it to my kids. It’s not easy for a little kid to stay away from too many sweets because we tell them “it’s bad for your health.” It’s even harder for a teenager to not to get into that car with that boisterous group of “friends,” not to tell that lie about their age at the bar. We also tell our kids not to blame others but to take responsibility for their own action. “He did it first,” “She jumped over the fence so I did, too” remind me of phrases I was using from age 3 to age 10 or so. But, hopefully, we grow up we gain more ability to think about the long term, the bigger picture, and to see how our actions are sometimes part of the problem, and not just blame others.

Unfortunately, that is not what I’m seeing when I turn on the news. “Brexit” the British vote to leave the European Union seems to be only one example of people expressing their frustration, fear or anger in ways that look to blame others, but will likely have harmful consequences for everyone in the long run. In our country, we are seeing a frightening number of people attracted to racist and anti-immigrant scapegoating as an easy way to push off those same feelings of frustration, fear or anger.

There are a lot of things that we can say to try to explain why this is happening now. The many factors of history, economics and politics will fuel conversations and arguments for years to come, but one article in the Sunday New York Times caught my eye as particularly relevant. It was called “When Paranoia Replaces Piety,” by J. D. Vance (that was the title in the print edition. Online it was titled “Bad Faith in the White Working Class,” Vance makes the point that religious observance, in his case, regular attendance at church, meant that he actually learned things like self-examination, self-control and being kind to others. He laments the fact that, in recent years there are a growing number of people, he describes the case of Evangelical Christians, who still count themselves as believers, but whose attendance at church has dropped off to near nil. They still watch the televangelists and listen to the politicians who whip up fear and anger at The Other (liberal elites, Muslims, Immigrants, etc) in the name of religion, but the harder lessons that one actually gets by going to church week in and week out have mostly gone by the wayside.

Vance writes, “research suggests that children who attend church perform better in school, divorce less as adults and commit fewer crimes. Regular church attendees even exhibit less racial prejudice than their nonreligious peers.” He points out that the relationship is causal: the church attendance isn’t just correlated, but actually helps to bring about the better behavior; and that it doesn’t matter which religion. They all seem to work in the same way.

The picture Vance paints of evangelical religion gone bad, seems to me one more piece in the larger picture of our society becoming more fragmented, more focused on customized, individualized experience. It’s becoming a more two dimensional society in which we have exchanged a lot of our real, embodied interactions for the convenience of screens. Even our religious life has become less about meeting real people in brick and mortar synagogues, churches or mosques, and more about self-confirming exhortations to blame others.

Of course, a church or synagogue or any other real life religious meeting place is going to be somewhat self-selecting. Each religion, denomination, group and sub-group will gather together, but even then, there will be some variety. Geography sometimes counts for more than ideology when selecting a place of worship. You can’t always choose who you sit next to the synagogue dinner or church fellowship gathering. Whatever it is: the rituals, the strengthening of social ties, the music and prayers, working together on committees — religious life seems to promote values and a sense of belonging that tends to make people not less tolerant of others, but more tolerant.

It takes energy to join and participate in a synagogue or any other religious group, and it’s becoming less popular to do so. But we are seeing the results of choosing the convenience of staying home with our screens. It can get complicated dealing with old acquaintances with whom we have too much history, with new members who don’t share our history, and with looking inside ourselves to question what part I am playing in this greater enterprise. But we need to see the faces, hear the voices and touch the hands of our communities. We need to gather together in song and prayer to remind ourselves of our deepest commitments and take the time to meditate on how each of us is doing in our service of a something or Someone beyond ourselves, whatever name we give it.

It’s only one piece of the puzzle and coming to synagogue isn’t going to solve all the world’s problems. But over the long term it is proven to promote a kind of thinking and being that is more adult, more responsible and more values-driven than the alternative of staying home. And that looks pretty important these days.

Case Study in a New Paradigm for Rabbinic Training

Note: Natan recently published this piece on Click here to read the full article.

Last month my student of six years became ordained as a rabbi. The ordination took place in the wood paneled Braun Room at Harvard Divinity School’s Andover Hall – as far as anyone knows, the first time there ever has been a rabbinic ordination on the school’s grounds. He was not ordained into any denomination of Judaism, and he didn’t attend a Rabbinical School. My student, (now Rabbi) Jeremy Sher, besides studying privately with me, had also attended Harvard Divinity School in an “M.Div.” (Master of Divinity) program. I would have been much more leery of ordaining him simply on the basis of our study together, and I also wouldn’t have ordained him only if he had come to me straight from receiving an “M.Div.” from a multifaith graduate program, but the combination of the two worked extremely well. Read More on eJewishPhilanthropy >

A Distillation of Life

The snow is on the ground and winter has finally arrived here in New England. The roads are beginning to narrow with the snowplow’s sloppy drifts piling up around the curbs and our mud room is starting to pile up with wet boots, socks, hats and jackets spilling onto the floor.

And I’m thinking of my old home in Hawaii where we’d walk out of the house with shorts, a t-shirt and flip flops and that’s it.  All year.

My life has taken me all around the world, but especially as grey winter starts to close in, the lush warmth and vibrant colors of my old home start to pull at my dreams. The place where you grew up imprints itself on your soul, and so the green land, swaying trees and crashing waves of Hawaii are a part of me.

But, strangely enough, when I grew up and went off looking for my soul’s deepest roots my path took me all the way across the world to Israel, and not only to the land, but also to the beit midrash, the study house, where I learned Jewish texts like the Talmud and Mishnah and Midrash.

How could my Hawaiian soul find its deepest connection in ancient Jewish texts?

It’s because Judaism is not a philosophy. It isn’t a science. It isn’t “theology” or “psychology” or any other “ology.”  It is a way of life that goes as deep and strong and free as life can go. It started with an ancient people living on their land.

The ancient Hebrews were very connected to their land. The hilly boondocks of Canaan were not good for the big, “industrial agriculture” that made Egypt and Mesopotamia the superpowers of their day.  Those countries grew up around great river basins.  Their material wealth was a result of organizing many slaves and serfs to work the irrigated fields and the technology of canals and pumps to move the regular rhythm of the rivers. No, Canaan was a hilly country dependent on the rain of heaven falling in its season. When it fell you knew it was a blessing from God.  It was a land where you needed to improvise, to care about the details of the local eco-system. One side of a hill was not going to get the same rainfall as the other side.  You needed to maintain good relations with your neighbors who would help with the tasks of small farming and raising flocks and you needed to respect the land if it was going to sustain you and your family for generations. You needed to create the kind of society that God would want to bless.

So the religion of ancient Israel was very much a counter-culture and an alternative to the big powers. It was a religion and way of life that depended on relationships with the whole network of natural and human and divine partners.   Within those relationships the fruits of the earth, the fruits of one’s labors, were seen as gifts, to be valued, as all gifts should be, not just for themselves, but as outward signs of a relationship.

If I were a farmer in those days I’d bring my first fruits up to the Temple in Jerusalem to present to the Kohen.  It was a way of showing that I valued the land and its fertility as a sign of my relationship with the Source of All.  And that relationship was not just with me, the farmer, but when I presented that fruit at the Temple, I recited the whole story of my people. In fact, the core of our Passover Hagaddah, is derived from this first fruits recitation: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt with meager numbers . . . but God brought him up with an outstretched arm….” (See Deuteronomy 26)  Beyond my personal life history, I was a part of a centuries old relationship between the Israelite people and God.  My relationships were not just about the present moment, but stretched into the past and future as well.

It was this religion and way of life that the Rabbis, after the Romans destroyed the second Temple in 70 C.E. and exiled the Jews from their land, managed to transform into texts: the Midrash, Mishnah and Talmud.  It was as if they needed to bottle a way of life, a way of being, and make it portable.   The ancient Israelites would become the Jews, the People of the Book, but not a book the way we think of it. These new genres of literature were not written by one author but were distilled from the wisdom of many rabbis and from generations of people.  They were not meant to be read sitting in a library, silently scanning the page.  You needed a teacher to guide you, and a partner with whom you could discuss them.  You studied them aloud, getting them into your bones and your sinews.    This was because the Rabbis knew that even if we had books, the real home of the Torah was inside the person.

And not just inside the individual person. The life of the Torah resided in community.   When you got together in the beit kenesset, the gathering house (which translated into Greek is synagogue) you could feel yourself part of that same past and future that the ancient farmer would invoke when he brought up the first fruits.  Wherever ten Jews gathered to pray or study, when we used our ancient holy language, it was as if the nation, past present and future were there.

So, Judaism is a tradition that starts with our agrarian roots which taught us to appreciate life as a gift and a network of relationships.  It evolved into an intellectual and religious tradition that distills the rich life-giving sap from those roots. This distillation of life is flexible and strong and ties us to our bodies, to eating, family, community, beauty, work, play and rest. Perhaps that’s why when I was a young man ready to explore the world, I went from the lush trees, beaches, green mountains and blue water of Hawaii, to the study houses of Israel, and I found as much life in those texts as my soul could desire.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Hawaii or Israel or Massachusetts. Life is where you are, and Judaism is a resource for appreciating and enjoying life to its fullest and for working to see that all of our relationships are healthy and all our relationship partners are thriving: the land, the animals and plants, the air and water, our communities, families, all peoples. It is through all these relationships that we truly find home, find our soul and connect to the Soul of the World.