Although I was raised in a traditional home, was ‘brissed’ and ‘barmitzvad’ I have never had any faith or “religious” belief. I am now aged 34 and would describe myself as an atheist. I have no wish to be buried in a Jewish cemetery and have married a non-Jew in a civil ceremony.”
“My question is (this), can I consider myself officially non-Jewish, by my effective opting-out, or do I need some sort of form or dispensation to be officially no longer Jewish? Many thanks for your help with what is perhaps an unusual question. Best wishes, Edward”
This is the beginning of an online exchange found on an ask the rabbi website. The Rabbi, Rabbi Moss from Australia, answers as follows:
“Dear Edward, I would like to help you, but I feel there’s nothing I can do. According to your question, you have done everything possible to negate your Jewishness: in practice you do not keep Jewish tradition; in belief you are an atheist; in family life you have married a non-Jew and thus won’t have Jewish children; and even in death you are determined not to be buried in a Jewish cemetery.
One would think that all this would be enough to confirm your un-Jewishness. But no! For some reason, you are still unsatisfied: you still feel Jewish! So much so, you feel you need official dispensation!
And so, being an atheist, who do you turn to to solve this problem? A doctor? A psychiatrist? The civil celebrant that married you? No… You turn to a rabbi! I’m reminded of the child who ran away from home, but ended up just going around and around the block because his parents told him never to cross the road by himself.
I’m sorry, Edward. There is nothing more you can do. You are as Jewish as Moses, Ariel Sharon and the Chief Rabbi of Wales! In fact, it seems that being Jewish is the most dominant factor of your personality. It is even influencing the place you want to be buried! (Why else would an atheist care about where they are buried?)
Edward, Jewishness is not a belief, a feeling, a conviction or a lifestyle. It is a state of being. We can either celebrate it or fight against it. But it will always be there. So why not celebrate it?”
Genius! Isn’t that response just brilliant? I don’t know who this rabbi is, but I sure like to get to know him!
That being said, I can understand Edward’s issue with all this. This “state of being” the rabbi speaks of is entirely intangible. Edward doesn’t do anything that makes him Jewish; he’s clearly not culturally Jewish, and he probably doesn’t even look Jewish, whatever that means. So what exactly makes him a Jew?
And yet, the rabbi is responding that while all that is true, there are things in life that are intangible, imperceptible, and yet, are entirely real. And so today, I’d like to speak about this intangibility, this “state of being” known as our soul, our Neshama. A recent poll found that 70% of British citizens believed in the existence of a soul. I imagine the statistics are no different in America, and I imagine and hope, that all of you believe in a soul as well. Our tradition certainly does; Elokai neshama shenasata bi, or most famously in Modeh Ani, we thank G-d for returning our soul, she’hechezarta bi nishmati.
But what is it? What is a soul? Forget making it tangible. How do we define it?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the soul as, “the immaterial essence, or actuating cause of an individual life.”
Echart Tolle, dubbed by the New York Times as the most popular spiritual author in the US, describes the soul as, “your innermost being. The presence that you are beyond form… who you are in essence.”
Others describe the soul as our animating force. Without it, we’d be like a light bulb with no electricity.
In 1612, Rabbi Shabtai Shefel Horowitz(, a nephew of the great Kabbalist, the Shlah Hakadosh, and a great mystic in his own right, in a book titled, Shefa Tal) suggested the following, now popular, definition of the soul: “Cheilek Eloka mi’ma’al, a portion of G-d from above.” The soul, he explains, is not simply our animating force, it’s not limited to our id, ego, or superego. It’s all of that and it’s more. Our soul is a part of G-d. Talk about intangible and imperceptible! Right?
And yet, as intangible as these things are, I imagine I’m not the only one in this room who has had moments where they felt their soul. Or perhaps more accurately, where I have felt like my soul was reuniting with its Source, with G-d. That feeling you get while watching a sunset, praying on a mountaintop, studying deeply, sitting at the ocean, where there is this sense of warmth, a sense of connection, transcendence.
But it’s fleeting. And before you know it, the moment is gone.
And I struggle with those moments, I wonder if they’re real. What’s a feeling after all? Am I tricking myself into thinking that I am having a G-dly experience? And I struggle further, because even if it is real -which I believe it is – how do I capture it? How do I bottle it up? How do I access it when I want to? Where do I find those moments of G-dliness in my life? Do I have to buy a beach-house? Go hiking more often? Where is G-d? Or at least that sense I get of connecting to Him.
In a few moments we will read Unesaneh Tokef, the chilling prayer that speaks of our mortality; “who will live and who will die.” And it describes there the judgment that takes place on this day; how we stand, each and every one of us, alone, before G-d. It’s the most evocative passage in today’s service, without a doubt. And yet there’s one part of Unesaneh Tokef that truly puzzles me; “Uvashofar gadol yitokah, the great Shofar will blow,” to herald this judgment. And then we read, “V’kol d’mamah daka yishoma, a thin, still voice is heard,” or, “a sound of silence is” then “heard.”
So which one is it? Is our standing before G-d a loud and explosive moment, that great Shofar blast? Or is it one of stillness? Of silence? Of the kol d’mamah daka?
To answer the question, we have to look at the biblical source of these evocative words; an encounter between G-d and Elijah the Prophet. The Book of Kings describes Eliyahu HaNavi hiding in a cave; why he’s there and what led up to this moment is not relevant for our discussion today. What we need to know is that Elijah the prophet is awakened to the sound of great powerful winds and he correctly intuits that G-d is behind that great sound. And so, Elijah steps outside into these winds, hoping to get a glimpse of G-d. But G-d, the Torah states, is not found in the wind. And then he experiences an earthquake. And Elijah looks again; looking to find G-d. And G-d is not found in the earthquake. A great fire appears. “Lo va’eish Hashem, G-d is not in the fire” either. Until a kol d’mamah dakah is heard. Until he hears that sound of silence. And then Elijah, the Torah tells us, experiences G-d.
Because you see, G-d is found in silence. There are shofar blasts that wake us up to G-d, like great wind, earthquakes, and fire; these are the big events in life that shake us, they remind us of a powerful force beyond. But to experience Hashem, to experience an intimacy with G-d, to do that we need the stillest of silences.
And if that’s true, if the way to encounter G-d is in silence, then we, my friends, are in BIIIIIG trouble. Mankind has perpetually stunk at embracing silence. Blaise Pascal, the great Catholic theologian, who lived in the early 1600’s once said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
And he was so right! A joint study between Harvard and Virginia University placed people in a quiet room with nothing to do except for, are you ready for this? Shocking themselves with an electric shock. There were no phones, no other people, no pads of paper, just them and this electrical shock which, by the way, they were first shocked with to know how painful it actually was. And it was painful. They were told they could do whatever they want in this room. They could sit and do nothing, just be, or if they so choose, they could shock themselves. Guess what happened?
Over half the participants shocked themselves, despite the pain! One guy shocked himself 190 times?!
Okay, he’s a wacko. But over 50% shocked themselves! Why??? To reduce the even more unbearable pain of silence.
So no, this inability to sit in silence is nothing new, but the noise level has certainly gotten louder. I recently read that songbirds, birds that sing songs, who live in urban settings, have been forced to change their song due to the high level of traffic and noise; some of the high tones just couldn’t be heard over the city noise. And it’s changed their lives! This tone-change has impacted their ability to attract mates and defend their territory from rivals. And because of all this the birds are acting differently, strangely, to the point that some are describing the birds’ behavior as a form of PTSD; they’re experiencing trauma in response to the incredible increase in noise!
Without a doubt, we live in a world getting noisier by the moment; those little pings going off every second from our cellphones that are louder than our connection to our loved ones, the heated political debate that drowns out civility, all the medication we’re imbibing to smother any sense of reality. It’s mighty hard to hear that kol d’mamah daka, that thin still voice, that silence over all this noise.
But here’s the good news. You, ladies and gentlemen, have the antidote to this malady of noise. It’s sitting in front of each and every one of you. It’s called the Siddur, the prayer book. Because you see, prayer is an opportunity to block out the noise of the world around us and to focus inward, to listen to our heartbeat, or more accurately, our soul-beat. Three times a day we are asked to quiet the world around us, and to focus inward; to stand in almost-perfect stillness and to touch our soul, and by extension to touch G-d.
The high point of the services is called the Shemoneh Esrei, or alternatively, the Amidah. Amidah means to stand. Because that’s what the prayer is all about. It’s not about the words, per se, it’s about recognizing that we are standing before Hashem.
So many of us are so intimated by praying; what do we do here? What do we say now? The essence of prayer is not about standing or sitting, not even about the words. It’s about closing our eyes and seeing ourselves in G-d’s Presence. (see ma’amar 8 in Pachad Yitzchak Rosh Hashana)
Try that. When we get to the silent prayer, say the words, don’t say the words – just stand there. Close your eyes and imagine yourself standing before G-d. Capture that silence and feel G-d’s Presence.
But I suppose that even that is not so easy. That’s why we live in such a noisy world, that’s why we can’t stop moving and doing and talking and yelling. Because standing still is actually really hard. And forget standing still! Even if it’s not the essence of prayer, prayer, is after all made up of a whole lot of words. And not just words, but the same words over and over again. That doesn’t seem to be a good model for the 21st century. We want, no we need something new. All the time.
And the real question is why? Why do we crave this noise? This change? This never-ending flurry of messages and activities? Why can’t we stand still?
So I’d like to share with you a quote from a modern-day poet, an atheist turned believer by the name of Christian Wiman. He writes likes this: “We crave radical ruptures when we have allowed the nerves of our inner lives to go numb.”
He explains, “Our goal (must) ((should)) be to refine a consciousness that is capable of registering the most minute changes in sensation, feeling, faith, self. Unless we become aware of the transitions that are occurring all the time within us, unless we learn to let experience play upon our inner lives as on a finely tuned instrument, we will try to manufacture inner intensity from the outside, we will bang our very bones to roust our own souls.”
You see, man naturally craves change, newness, freshness. But we all make the same fatal mistake by looking outside of ourselves to find that excitement! Our lives, our inner lives are brilliantly exciting! There are changes that are occurring every moment within us; every success, every failure, every relationship gained, every relationship lost, every interaction, every observation, all of that changes us, if only we were to pay attention to it. There is this unbelievably rich adventure going on within, but we’ve allowed the nerves of our inner lives to go numb.
And if we understand this, if we truly understand this then prayer, even the words of prayer are not boring, because even though the prayers do not change, we are always changing and that makes every prayer an entirely unique experience. Let me share with you an example of how this works:
Over the summer I had the opportunity to view one of the largest collections of Monet paintings. It’s in Boston, Massachusetts, at the Museum of Fine Arts. The famous, Claude Monet, the great painter, the founder of the Impressionist art movement. And there on the wall were five paintings of the same exact haystack in a valley surrounded by greenery. At first glance, I didn’t get it. Five pictures of the same thing?! But the guide explained to us the genius of Monet; the idea which became the bedrock of the Impressionist artistic movement was his ability to recognize that the same stack of hay can be depicted in so many different ways. Sometimes it was the change of the season. Sometimes it was the changing light of the day. And sometimes it was simply looking at it from a different angle.
(As I was standing there taking this all in, I had this far-away look come over my face. My wife tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I know you are probably crafting a drasha in there, but we are supposed to be on ‘vacation!’” I denied it at the time but, honey, you were right.)
Prayer is a form of impressionist art! Every time we pray, we read the same words, yes, but we have the opportunity to give them an entirely new meaning. It’s not monotonous! It’s only boring if we’re bored with ourselves! If we are attuned to our soul, if we are aware of how different we are from one day to the next, how much we’ve changed from one moment to the next, then we can experience the Siddur, tefillah, differently every single time we pray. You see, our inability to connect to prayer is not so much a function of the monotonous words or that we’re reading the same thing over and over again. Our inability to connect to prayer is a victim of our lack of self-awareness, of our soul-consciousness. If we were in touch with the powerful changes that are constantly taking place within our being, within our soul, then every time we read those same words, we’d see them in a whole new light.
So let’s pull this all together: We live in an exceptionally noisy world. A billion pings, and rings, and beeps and tweets, all the time! 24/7! And as crazy as we all know it is, what’s even more frightening to us is the alternative —- silence. We crave excitement! We crave change! And so we don’t allow ourselves to stop. And the great irony is that silence isn’t at all boring. The irony is that our inner lives are most exciting of all! We are always changing! If only we were to listen to ourselves, if we were to pay attention to our inner world.
And that’s where prayer comes in. It forces us to stand still. Prayer forces us to get in touch with the intangible; with our inner world. And in its silence, we can touch our being, and we can even touch G-d. You know that famous picture in the Sistine Chapel, the picture where G-d and man are reaching out to one another. There’s a little white space that stands between their fingers. That’s prayer.
On January 10th, 2012, Alan Gilbert, the Conductor of the New York Philharmonic did something completely out of the ordinary. “Gilbert not only stopped a performance in the middle, he did something even more shocking. Towards the end of the Philharmonic’s performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, someone’s cell phone began to ring…
Gilbert motioned to the musicians to stop and then he turned towards the corner of the music hall where the sound was coming from and with the help of the audience narrowed down the possible violators until he identified the perpetrator. He then stared him down for what felt like an eternity and refused to continue with the Symphony until the individual verbally acknowledged that his phone was now off and wouldn’t interrupt again.
In the interview after the performance, Gilbert said the following, and this is what really struck me: “It was so shocking what happened,” he said. “You’re in this very far away spiritual place in the piece. It’s like being rudely awakened. All of us on the stage were stunned.”” (as told by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg)
If we’re going to tap into the powerful spirituality of prayer, if we’re going to touch our soul, if we’re going to experience G-d, none of that can be done without silence. And so,
Let’s be awakened by the powerful shofar gadol, the great shofar blasts, that wake us from our slumber, that remind us of the deep spiritual experiences that we’re missing from our lives, and then –
Let’s experience together the kol d’mamah daka, the sound of silence. Let’s revisit those words that we’ve seen so many times before – from a new angle; we have changed, allow the words to take on a new meaning. And even if you can’t bring yourself to saying a single word, just stand still. Let’s use this time to just stand in the presence of G-d. Imagine yourself before His throne and allow yourself to be swept up in the powerful music of this great spiritual symphony called prayer.