My Jewish Seminary
וְנָהָר יֹצֵא מֵעֵדֶן לְהַשְׁקוֹת אֶת הַגָן
"kissing" mezuzah, Poland, 1930s
photo by Roman Vishniac
"The spiritual quest wishes for contact with divinity, symbolized by a kiss. Spiritually understood, the kiss is the co-infusion of spirit between one being and another. It is thus an overcoming of transcendent distance by immanent presence. The kiss is the desire to transcend individuality for a Higher Unity. The yearning for transcendence is not a nullification of the world but rather its transfiguration through a consciousness of divinity infusing all things. This is a spiritual transformation of the everyday. A seeker strives to see the world in the light of the divine radiance."
RABBI ART GREEN
Rabbi David Wolpe opened the door for me to the reality of the intangible. Rabbi Art Green knocked the door off its hinges.
In his words, the vision of "one Being and its many faces, of a One that is ever revealing itself to us within and behind the great diversity of life, calls for the sort of mind that can see Eden in our own backyard, that can feel the presence of Sinai on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon, or can make almost anywhere into a Promised Land. Open-eyed vision is what such a religion demands. Seeing the transcendence or the 'otherness' of God is epistemological rather than ontological (a wholly other way of knowing rather than a wholly other way of being.) I do not believe in God. I know God. I know God as I know myself, since this little individual human self is so very obviously a part and a reflection of the Universal Self. The radical 'otherness' of God is an otherness of perspective. Such a unitive view of reality is entirely 'other' from the way we usually see things. This view demands no leap of faith, rather a leap of consciousness.
"Those who have a rich language to talk about such subtle matters will be better equipped to open themselves to profound religious experience. Judaism's strength is in grandeur of vision, in an ability to transport the conversation about existence and origins to a deeper plane of thinking. This shift profoundly enhances our understanding of our own lives and of the world in which we live. There is nothing mere about this vision, nor the richness of myths, symbols, metaphors, and poetic imagination that contain and reveal its mystery and depth.
"The task of theology is one of reframing the accepted accounts of origins and natural history offered by the scientific consensus, helping us to view them in a different way, one that guides us toward a more profound appreciation of that same reality, and inspires us to preserve it. Recognize the scientific consensus, but be willing to go beyond it in response to a search for meaning that is couched in essentially religious terms. Reattach the Tree of Knowledge (detached intellectual inquiry) to the Tree of Life (the pursuit of spiritual wisdom and refinement).
"Myth addresses a deeper level of the self and consciousness than history. Myth lives in that place within you where great poetry and music lives. Myth's greatness is that it stirs the soul. Historical claims are just footnotes. Open yourself to the myth and let it stir you. Don't be afraid."
The abstract below reflects Rabbi Green's thoughts and words, verbatim, not mine. I stitched them together--with the greatest affection and admiration--from his books, interviews, and lectures. My only original contribution here was categorization.
Rabbi Green once remarked to a student, "You are a vessel through which the text speaks. Make Torah important for people and help them love it. Give them a glimpse into your love for it and allow them to participate in that love through you. Read Torah in a way that attracts them and pulls them toward it. I’ve read and heard beautiful, interesting, spiritually powerful interpretations that were very transformative in my life. I enjoy sharing them with other people in order to help them live better, richer, fuller lives. The mountaintop I’ve occasionally been on is worth evoking for other people so they can go there, too."
My sole motivation here is to be a vessel through which Rabbi Green's teachings speak. I love them and hope you reach the same mountaintop to which he led me.
ONE: There is a One that underlies, overlays, precedes, follows, fills, and surrounds all things, a harmony in which everything plays a part. That One is constantly flowing and extending into multiple forms of being, revealing itself through tangible and intangible means. It reveals, we discover. We discover, it reveals. I can have a direct, unmediated experience of that One through my soul, which is my eternal innermost essence, apart from anatomy and matter, where there's no separation between me and the One, where my individual self takes root in the universal self.
The relationship between God and the world is not of creator and creation, but surface appearance and deep structure. Penetrate the surface and you’ll find the deep underlying Oneness that is God. There is only One and we are part of it. Where you thought there were many there turns out to be One. You thought there was separation but it turns out to be unity. God is the One (aleph - א) hidden in the duality (bet - בּ). The religious quest helps us catch a glimpse, every now and then, of the One that lies behind all multiplicity. The task of the mystic is utterly simple: the One and the many, God and the world, need to be unmasked as two modes of the same reality, two perceptions of the same truth.
The One is eternal and doesn’t die. It dwells in my body just as it exists elsewhere in the infinite variety of human beings. God is One dressed in the garb of multiplicity. Why does the Torah begin with the letter bet (בּ), which has a numerical value of 2? Because the story of Genesis is the beginning of duality. Everything comes in pairs: heaven & earth, light & dark, sun & moon, male & female. Genesis is about separation. The world we live in is a world of duality and multiplicity: the One dressed in the garb of the many, all that potential realized in concrete but ever-changing existence, partaking fully of all the variety of life, evolving, growing, changing in each moment, borne within each being.
Put another way by the German theologian Meister Eckhart: "The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. My eye and God's eye is one eye, one sight, one knowledge, one love."
The One delights in each of the forms into which it flows and exists. What I do with my form, my hands and my heart, is up to me. God's power is not to control and intervene, but to call out to me to live a life of joy, peace, love, kindness, mercy, compassion, humility, honesty, gratitude, slowness to anger, justice, and the avoidance of despair.
The Hebrew name for God -- יהוה -- is a configuration of the verb “to be” (היה – was, הווה – is, יהיה – will be). It is past, present, and future all at once, transcending time….that which is, was, and will be all in the same moment. When God says “I will be what I will be” אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה (Exodus 3:14) it means that God will not be defined in a box. God will remain elusive despite all attempts to make God a noun. יהוה is not a thing, not an entity. It is.
The ten "let there be" statements in Genesis are called ma’amarot – מאמרות, the root of which is אמר – "to say." The latter
refers to unspoken thoughts, e.g., “he said in his heart” (ויאמר בּלבּו). The Torah is telling us that God doesn’t speak in words. Let there be (יהי) is a shortened form of the Hebrew name for God -- יהוה -- which only has breath sounds. All God uses is breath, silence, and we translate it into language. God is the silent presence, and we give that elusive breath sound. Language is a human invention. We have to articulate God.
In the Sinai myth, "the people saw the thunder and the lightning" וְכָל־הָעָם֩ רֹאִ֨ים אֶת־הַקּוֹלֹ֜ת וְאֶת־הַלַּפִּידִ֗ם (Exodus 20:15) They saw the audible as well as the visible. They reach an inner state that precedes the senses, where the senses are all one, where what you hear and see are two versions of the same essence: it is neither audible or visible, but transcends them both. That confusion is good because it doesn't lead to a breakdown but a breakthrough to a new level of understanding.
"And there was evening and there was morning, one day" - Genesis 1:5. Both are needed to be part of that same One. Our struggle against darkness cannot be abandoned as long as we are in this world. There is no answer to the question of why there is suffering & misfortune; nature is indifferent to our needs (עוֹלָם כְּמִנְהָגוֹ נוֹהֵג - Avodah Zarah 54b, 14). The One is in suffering as in the most obviously glorious moment, in no less measure and fully present. The One is in all the natural processes: the transformative evolutionary victories as well as the blind alleys. It is our job to help shine light into a suffering life as much as we can. The same divine energy, presence, and Oneness of being radiates through everyone and can be seen in everyone.
The Shema (the essential declaration of Jewish faith: "Hear O Israel, יהוה is our God, יהוה is One") is not a prayer. It is not addressed to God because, in that moment, in terms of contemplation, there is no separation: everything is One. We are on the inside, not the outside. The Shema transitions from two to One through love. That’s why the Shema is preceded and followed by the Hebrew word for love - ואהבת. We enter Oneness on the wings of love and we go forth into the world on the same wings. In loving we transcend the border between self and other and become One. You make a bridge from the world of “I and Thou” and separate identity to Oneness through love.
The Baal Shem Tov asserted there is one singular love in the world, and it is the greatest of God's gifts: the ability to be compassionate..."God's mercy is bestowed on all things God has made" וְרַחֲמָיו עַל כָּל מַעֲשָׂיו (Psalm 145, Ashrei)
INSIDE: The joy of finding God is an inward journey because the divine qualities reside within. The action begins with us. It’s about us turning toward ourselves, doing spiritual work on oneself. We have to dig and find what we have inside us. But the journey inward is not a journey to the self, rather it is a journey toward God. The latter happens by an inner process that begins with opening the heart.
Sinai is a vertical metaphor for an internal event. If God is in heaven you have to build a ladder and climb a long distance upward. If God is in the heart the journey is more like smashing a shell (קלפּה) than climbing a ladder. It’s not that you have to go far away, it’s that you have to break through shells to see the One inside you. Breaking through shells is hard, and those shells have a way of rebuilding quickly, so you have to break through again and again, sometimes in the same day. Break through them to discover our innermost self, where we are rooted in the universal self called God.
The Torah says "וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם" (Exodus 25:8) -- "Let them make me a holy place and I will dwell in their midst." The last word can be translated as "within them." So the real Mishkan (tabernacle) becomes the dwelling place in your heart you make for God. That requires opening your heart in order to be intimate and close to God.
The deepest inner self is no longer your own self but is the self of something beyond you, the self of the universe. The trick is to open your inner eye and see there is no separation between God and world. God is not something “other than” but God is the world we see if our eyes are truly open. The essence of our religious life is in the deep inward glance, a commitment to attachment to the One. You go to a deeper level and new questions open up. You face those and grow through them. That leads you to a new series of questions. It's hard sometimes. But it's rewarding to see there's always new challenges, more to ask, and more to grow. You learn from everything that happens along the way. You discover that the trip itself is a fun, wonderful trip. This quest is a lifelong process.
The finding is in the seeking. Abraham’s ongoing spiritual quest is symbolized by his journey to the Negev: “Abraham journeyed by stages to the Negev” (Genesis 12:9). The question in Judaism is: do you hear God speaking? The question is addressed to us by the instinct, the voice within us, to make meaning and do something worthwhile. Where are you? (as God asks Adam in Genesis 3:9) What are you doing with your life? Observance is a means to respond to God.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught that great souls are not sent into the world by God. They are developed over the course of a lifetime, though spiritual growth, by exercising that soul and keeping it open. Our souls are all the same. The question is what we do with them.
HALACHA: Don’t worry about divine authorship and whether there’s a God who cares that you do these things in exactly this way. When observance becomes a goal, an end in itself, Judaism becomes dangerous idolatry. There’s so much obsession with details of observance you forget what you’re doing it for. I have to be free to say that a form of observance is inadequate because it’s constricting me more than it’s liberating me. If the goal is spiritual elevation and liberation, then I’m not doing myself a favor by doing that which doesn’t bring me to God. God is not worshipped only by study of Torah, performance of commandments, and recital of prayers. Judaism is not about proving God’s existence. It is about openness to a certain level of experience, an awareness of what life is.
Law is observed because there is punishment. Law is about obligation. Halacha means “walking.” It comes from Deuteronomy 28:9 - “walk in his ways” (וְהָלַכְת בִּדְרָכָֽיו). In halacha there is no punishment. It’s much more about how to walk, what the path is through life, and using tradition as a guide: “this is the path I walk” rather than “this is the law I observe.” Halacha is about relationship to God, manifest in the way we live and act. The goal is an intimate relationship with God, to be aware, to open your mind and soul. Everything we do in life is an act of walking in God’s ways if we do it with the proper awareness and openness of heart to having God guide our steps. The ideals are simplicity and serving God in joy.
The important questions are: have you come out of Egypt? Have you come out of what enslaves you? Do you feel yourself present to receiving the Torah? Are you enhanced by the spirit that speaks to you from within its pages? How do we open the outer form of the Torah and find the wisdom within? Opening the text makes possible ongoing growth, investigation, and seeking. If the Torah is just a book of stories, we could write a better book in our own day. There is other great literature. The Jewish tradition says the Torah is pointing to something else. Judaism wants to lift the veil and see beyond the surface appearance of the text, beyond the surface appearances of the world and people. What’s beyond? What’s inside? How do I discover what someone else’s soul is like? How do I relate to people, and myself, on a deeper level?
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchiv (1740-1810) taught, "When the Torah was given the people Israel said 'we will do and then we will hear.' How can you say you'll do it before you know what it is? The answer requires understanding this verse in the song Dayenu from the Passover Haggadah: 'Had God brought us to Mt. Sinai and not given us the Torah it would've been enough.' That makes no sense unless you understand Abraham, who observed the entire Torah before it was given. Abraham observed the entire Torah from his own inward journey. He found Torah within himself. When Israel came to Sinai and Moses said to prepare for three days, Israel reached the same level that Abraham did, by discovering Torah from within themselves. That's why Israel could say, 'we will do it before we hear it' (Exodus 24:7)...because they understood it already. But those moments of understanding don't last. To be sure the people didn't fall to a low rung after that moment, they had to have the Torah given from without as well. The real giving of the Torah is a discovery from within, while the Torah of 'authority' is just a backup system. The real task is to discover the Torah within ourselves, just like Abraham and the Jews at Sinai did. We have a backup so we don't fall too low when we stray from the inward journey."
FALLING: We learn through struggle. Yisrael means “wrestle with God.” Yisrael in the Shema is universal, referring to everyone who “wrestles with God.” The Shema’s message is “Listen strugglers, there is only One.” We gather the four tzitzit before we say the Shema because before you can proclaim God one you have to be one. You have to be a whole self. So you take the four corners of yourself and symbolically bring them all together. Stop the war against yourself and accept that you live on two levels: expansive consciousness (gadlut - גדלות) and small mind (katnut - קטנות).
There is a gap between our awareness (da'at) and the way we live (middot). We struggle to make the quality of our lives match what our real awareness is. There are moments of great understanding, but even the person who has reached the most profound levels can fall and have moments of smallness and ordinary mind, when all of those insights go away and have to be discovered again. There is no permanent enlightenment at which point you no longer sin. Everyone rises and falls. You can climb the mountain, but there are also valleys and ordinary days when you lose that consciousness. There is an ebb and flow (“running back and forth” – Ezekiel 1:14 - רָצ֣וֹא וָשׁ֑וֹב) You can have the highest moment and then the next moment be down in the pit; sometimes that can happen more than once a day.
Hearts are covered with a shell (“the thickening about your hearts” - Deuteronomy 10:16 - עָרְלַ֣ת לְבַבְכֶ֑ם) created when we worry about little sins. The more you worry about them the further away you feel from God. Therefore, if you commit a transgression, regret it and then go back to serving God in joy. Don’t let it burden you. Anything that takes us away from joy is a dangerous distraction. Humans have a tendency to sadness, insecurity, excessive self-examination and things that lead us away from joy. Judaism is not about feeling guilty and burdened and counting how many things you did wrong. Judaism is about joy.
Repentance is not only about what’s bad in you, it’s also about what’s good in you. Forgive yourself and don’t judge yourself too harshly. Treat yourself with mercy. Then you can move yourself from evil to goodness. We are called upon to let ourselves change, to trust ourselves enough to say, yes, I am capable of change. Work on yourself. You have spiritual work to do. You have to work at opening your heart, and making yourself more aware, and being a more moral person. Open the toolbox and get to work.
The joy, pleasure, and love that come from a life of faith aren't constant and don't last forever. One day, your heart won't be paying attention, and you'll turn aside and slip in some way. Not because you're evil or a terrible person, just...whoops! How quickly you will feel you've lost your moorings. All of a sudden you will feel your faith has abandoned you, all is lost, there is nothing left, and you're devastated. Everybody goes through that back-and-forth in a life of faith, from the rich, rewarding moments to the "oh my, I don't feel a thing, I feel empty, I was kidding myself" moments. What is the life raft you hold onto at such a moment of being lost? Judaism offers the gift of ritual. The forms will bring you back and keep you going. Place the Torah's words upon your heart, tie them around your arm, put them between your eyes. You'll be more than thankful you have the words wrapped around your hand and written upon your doorpost. Those simple and down-to-earth things will bring you back to life, carrying you to the place where you will enjoy heavenly days right here on Earth. Rituals are instrumental. They exist to give you inner content, the spiritual essence. The outer shell helps us pass on the precious kernel. The form contains the great jewel within it. But we have to bring it out. We’re not just passing on a collection of forms. We pass on the essence because we pass on the form. That doesn’t happen if we do it on automatic pilot. It doesn’t happen automatically.
We are not charged to forget. Forgiving happens, sometimes, because we remember more rather than less. We forgive others because we remember our own faults. We remember how much we've done and how much we, too, need to be forgiven. Our memory is not a grudge-bearing memory, rather it's a transformative memory. It carries us to better places. We remember our whole past and carry it with us as we go forward, but it's not meant to burden us and keep us down. We take our past and use it to construct our future. When remembering is total it has its own power of allowing us to cleanse and let go. When we remember selectively--when we remember what people did to us but not what we did to others--then we filter out what might help us transform that memory.
AWARENESS: Deuteronomy 31:18 says "I will hide, hide My face on that day” (הסתר אסתיר). Why is the word “hide” repeated? There are two kinds of hiding: 1) you lost something, you know it’s hidden, and you search for it, and 2) you don’t even know something is missing or there’s something to look for. Judaism’s message is that there’s something to look for: sparks of divine light are scattered and hidden everywhere. Our task is to seek them out and discover them, even in the most unlikely places, in order to raise them up and join them to their source. It is precisely going to new places, in new adventures, that makes spirituality exciting. It’s a journey of discovery.
There is no place, no moment, and no event that is not filled with the presence of God if you know how to see it. Spiritual work is opening your eyes to see God everywhere, even in the most unlikely places. Evil is a cover. When you penetrate that cover you find the divine presence everywhere. “The entire world is filled with His glory” (Kedusha, Isaiah 6:3) This aspect of divinity is called adonai (אֲדֹנָי֒), which is related to the word for "fittings" (אֲדָנִ֛ים) by which the tabernacle boards were held together. The immanent God is the structure of the universe just as the "fittings" (אֲדָנִ֛ים) were with the tabernacle, in microcosm.
The challenge of religion is taking great moments of insight about God and experiencing an echo of them on an ordinary Tuesday afternoon. The challenge is creating a bridge between peak moments and ordinary life. Judaism takes you to a direct, unmediated encounter with God, brings you back from it, and integrates it into your life. Convert the insight about God into ordinary moments, in order to keep it close to you. All of life becomes a way of finding God, discovering, uplifting, and transforming the divine sparks in the world. Each day and each moment offers a new, unique opportunity to see the face of God that exists within and behind everything we encounter. Every place, moment, event, and person is filled to the brim with the presence of God if you know how to open your eyes to it.
The spiritual adventure is to look for God in the places where it’s hardest to find God. Ritual commandments are the tools our tradition gives us to achieve and maintain awareness. They are means rather than ends, concrete embodiments of the heart’s inward quest. Religion is a great vehicle for deepening the responses, making them more profound, sharing them across a wide culture, cultivating, teaching and preserving them. Judaism is a set of tools for spiritual discipline, a way of training the heart to be open so you can see. A commandment (מִצְוַה) is understood by Hasidism as coming from an Aramaic word "tzavta" that means "together." The letter "mem" at the beginning of מִצְוַה means "a place of." So, in this understanding, a mitzvah is not a heteronomous commandment (the violation of which gets punished) imposed by a governing authority, but simply an opportunity for you and God to be together. God is only where we let God in.
Awareness of that possibility transforms consciousness. On Yom Kippur “you shall afflict your souls” (Leviticus 23:27) means to make yourselves responsive to the sound of my beloved knocking (Song of Songs 5:2). God is knocking on the door to awaken us and see if we will open the doors of our hearts. The sound of my beloved knocking can’t be answered if we are angry. Anger is something to be overcome, not developed and given free expression.
SILENCE: It’s easy to distinguish one sound from another. When we say words to each other, we somehow know what we’re talking about. But it’s very hard to distinguish qualities of silence from one another. There is a silence of discomfort and squirming. There is a silence of energy, anticipation, and about-to-burst-forth. There is a silence of loss, deprivation, and emptiness. There is a silence of mystery and wonder. If we share silence, where you are and where I am may not be the same place. I have to be careful not to project what’s in my silence onto you without understanding what’s in your silence. Each person brings to a silence a different set of baggage.
I will walk into a service and do some chanting, and breathing, and silence and eventually get to the liturgy...having first gone to the place of inner quiet from where we call forth liturgy.
There is a pair of twin silences. One is our inner silence, filled with joy, pain, fullness, emptiness, and all the things within us that language can never quite convey. The other is God's silence, which needs to be brought forth into language by humans. These two silences meet at the bridge of sacred speech, where religion is born, creating the pathways by which we walk our sacred journeys.
PRAYER: “Here is a place near Me” (הנֵּ֥ה מָק֖וֹם אִתִּ֑י - Exodus 33:21) is God's way of telling Moses: There is room for you in my world. I will move over, reduce my all-filling presence to make space for you. It is possible to have a direct, unmediated encounter with God. Prayer, along with everything else in religion (music, stories, dogmas, history), is there to take you to that experience, bring you back from that experience, and plant it into your daily life and uplift it.
Maimonides said prayer is a Torah commandment, but that doesn't mean that prayer is only saying the words in the siddur. To pray is a more important mitzvah than to daven the specific words of other people.
“God blew the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils” (Genesis 2:7). That moment did not happen just once. God is always blowing the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils. “Let every breath praise God” (Psalms 150:6). In every moment God is breathing the breath of life into our nostrils, and we are returning it in the breath of prayer. Prayer is to open my heart to gratitude, to giving and receiving love to and from others. The validity of prayer does not depend on whether there’s anyone listening. Prayer is not a telephone conversation. Prayer itself is of the divine essence.
I keep the language of classical Jewish piety as inherited from prior generations because I need to remind my ordinary weekday self of the greater, deeper truths, and that’s the language it speaks. We need to say “this is what Judaism stands for” so the tradition doesn’t become poisoned. That means being people who still speak the language of classical Jewish piety and are spokespeople for it. Ensure Judaism is used in a way that is humanizing, spiritualizing, and will bring us to be the kind of religious human beings we want to be. If secularism rejects the Jewish religious tradition, it leaves the tradition in the hands of literalists and fanatics who do things in the name of Judaism that are desecrations of God’s name instead of sanctifications of God’s name.
EVOLUTION: The evolution of species is the place to find God. Evolution is the greatest religious drama of all time, in that we have a sense of appreciation, awe, and wonder about the magnificence and mystery of evolution and our place in it. Religion provides a language (a) for the sense of appreciation, awe, and wonder, and (b) to tell the evolution story in a harmonizing way where every creature has a legitimate place: there is a One that underlies the whole evolutionary process, and we are all part of the same body of existence.
We don’t know what evolution’s purpose is, where it’s going, or how we got here. Evolution has produced aware beings. We are aware the One goes through the process of evolution, flowing (hitpashtut, התפשטות) into multiple forms of being (hitlabbeshut, התלבשות)--i.e., a coat of many colors--through natural selection and mutation. Therefore, harming the other is like harming a piece of ourselves.
Every species is addressed through instinct by the One that inhabits it: thrive, survive, reproduce. But humans also have an instinct, beyond creaturely things, to find out what we’re doing here, to make meaning. All of religion is our response to this instinct, which is the voice of God that calls out to us: know me, and share this awareness with others.
We say every Shabbat in the Kiddush שָׁבַת֙ מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֥א אֱלֹהִ֖ים לַעֲשֽׂוֹת, which can have different meanings depending on the translation of "לַעֲשֽׂוֹת". It can mean "God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done" or "...the work of creation to be done." The latter translation offers the notion of human partnership (שׁוּתָפוּת) with God. Evolution is not finished; there is still something "to be done." We are here to enrich the evolutionary process, to give something to the next generation that no prior generation had, to improve and get better genetically, spiritually, and culturally. We are part of that ongoing "לַעֲשֽׂוֹת" process.
GOD’S IMAGE: Why is the Torah so concerned with idolatry? It's not because God has no image. It's because God has an image: you. The medium through which you make the image of God is your life: the way you live and treat others. You’re an image of God like none other that has ever existed. To take a piece of canvas or marble and say "that's the image of God" is to lessen God's image.
"You shall be holy for I the Lord am holy" (וִהְיִ֤יתֶם לִי֙ קְדֹשִׁ֔ים כִּ֥י קָד֖וֹשׁ אֲנִ֣י יְהֹוָ֑ה - Leviticus 20:26) is not a commandment, it's a statement: You are holy because I (God) am holy and I live inside you.
"We're all made in God's image" (Tzelem Elohim) means that “no one can say my ancestors are greater than yours” – Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5. You can’t dehumanize others because of the color of their skin or their origin. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” – Leviticus 19:18 can be constructed too narrowly: only people like you and not everyone.
The “kaddish” is a way of saying: "I affirm through my memory & celebration of this person’s life that God's image in this world was greater because this person lived, and that image has been diminished because of this person's death. We need to replenish what's been lost."
INTERPRETATION: Historical claims are unimportant. There is no evidence the Torah is a historic claim about historic events. Religions are terrible things if you take them literally (e.g., the 2nd paragraph of Aleinu says “God will remove abominations from the Earth.”) The people in the Torah are spiritual paradigms. The events are described in the language of Jewish spirituality. Religion is an art not a science. You have to use your imagination. Torah means teaching, so what does the text say to us today, in our own language? The quest for spiritual relevance is central. What does it have to say to the person who is seeking to stand in God’s presence, who is seeking to making his life more spiritually open and rich? A new insight wakes you up and puts you into another mode of consciousness. That’s a moment of opening the mind.
Rote, boring, dry legalism/behavior (Isaiah 29:13) is the enemy. Take a verse and read it in a transformative way that opens the mind. Be creative. The blessing after the Torah reading says “God gave us the Torah” (אֲשֶר נָתַן לָנו תּוֹרַת אֱמֶת). That is the written Torah. Then it says, “implanted eternal life within us.” (וְחַיֵּי עוֹלָם נָטַע בְּתוֹכֵנו) That is the oral Torah. It is our relationship to the text. Only when the two come together does the verb “to give” change from the past tense to the present tense: “Blessed is God who gives us the Torah”. Through the process of our reinterpretation God is always giving us the Torah. The Torah that lives for me is the Torah that is being given again and again. God said to Noah "Go into the ark with all your household" בֹּֽא־אַתָּ֥ה וְכָל־בֵּיתְךָ֖ אֶל־הַתֵּבָ֑ה (Genesis 7:1). תֵּבָ֑ה also means "word." God is saying "come into the word with your whole household. Don't leave part of yourself outside. Make windows in the word, let the sun shine in so you can see the lights behind the letters." The Talmud says a righteous person can nullify a decree from God. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchiv explains: Once a king issues an order, it’s final and you have to obey it. But if you catch the king while he’s still speaking, before he issues the order, you can change his mind. Since God is eternally speaking through the Torah, you can and should enter into that eternal stream of divine speech and therefore change the Torah.
If there are bad ideas there stand up and preach against them. Evolve and leave primitive things behind. The world has changed and what was done in ancient times is done no longer. Anything that doesn't agree with "we're all made in God's image" (Tzelem Elohim) has to be reinterpreted in terms of that idea. How does my reading of this text help me to see people in God's image, and help them to see themselves that way, to recognize the image of God in themselves and other people? Any practice or ideology that doesn’t increase the sense that every human being is in God’s image is violating that most basic principle of Judaism and has to be re-examined. The purpose of reading the Torah is to help us discover the image of God in people.
Judaism has worked hard to develop tools of reinterpretation. We renegotiate what the text means in order make us more deeply spiritual people. What do I see in the text? Reinterpret it constantly. “The Torah is not in heaven...but in thy mouth and in thy heart” - Deuteronomy 30:12,14. Our spiritual lives are in the 70 faces of the Torah - Or HaChaim Genesis 1:1:26. How much freedom should you take in re-making the text? You are a vessel through which the text speaks. Make Torah important for people and help them love it. Give them a glimpse into your love for it and allow them to participate in that love through you. Read Torah in a way that attracts them and pulls them toward it. Have faith that something new and exciting can still happen in the ongoing project of Talmud Torah. Judaism has an active sense of engagement; there's always more to be found in the Torah, so dig into the verses, argue.
You don't have to move beyond paradoxical thinking. It's rich and wonderful because it embodies a truth that no resolution of the paradox ever will. You're always in a dialectic. Enjoy dwelling there and don't avoid paradoxes.
COVENANT: Judaism has a distinctive covenant by its own choice, born out of slavery and based on the belief that every human is the image of God. When God says “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6) that means a career of service, not a declaration of superiority. A priest is not there to be holier than others. A priest is there to serve people. We choose to make people aware of the Oneness of being and to live a morally exemplary life as a community.
Chosenness is an outdated formulation that is pernicious and morally dangerous. It leads to a dehumanization of non-Jews. It was a necessity when Jews lived as a persecuted minority. The exclusivism of Judaism, the idea that we have the only truth, if mine is true yours is false, the idea that God spoke to only one people and cares much less about others, are obstacles to be left aside. Pluralism has replaced “my tradition against yours, mine is right and yours is evil.” Be wary of myths that are only about one people. Myth is a valuable tool if it is universal, so it must be used with discernment. There are many kinds of religious personalities and paths. What kind of obligation do you want? What is worth putting a stake in the ground for? Are you serious and committed?