To Raise Dust with Our Feet: Opening Up Our Definition of Spirituality

wrestling-image(delivered by Rabbi Maderer at Shabbat service 12/18/16)  Last week I shared with you a time when I lived in the suburbs and my family overdid it in the area of home security.  I made fun of the way that, even with a burglar alarm in our house, we added to the front porch, an extra security measure: a big dog-food bowl.  Even though we did not have a dog.  I went on to make fun of — and to be clear, I was making fun of my mother– I went on to make fun of the way that, to make it seem real, we painted onto the bowl the name of our fake dog: Shomer, Hebrew for “guard.”

Funny story:  Last week, here in Philadelphia… you guessed it.  My garage was broken into.  Who here believes in karma?

Now, seriously, do you think there is a connection?  One week I am making fun of my mother for over-securing our house all those years ago, and days after I write those words, a break-in.  Coincidence?  Karma?  God? There was a time I would have said: there is no such thing as coincidence.  I believed God influenced the details of our lives.  Yet as my life and rabbinate move forward, I find my response to the world changes:  more questions, less certainty of God’s role, judgment, or expectation.

And yet, I do not feel further from what I would call God, or spiritual search.  As my God-idea changes, I know that my journey has a home in the Jewish community.

This week, in Parashat Vayishlach, Jacob wrestles with a mysterious divine being, he injures his hip but triumphs, and he refuses to let go.  Every time we encounter the story, we imagine a different interpretation: he struggles with an angel, with his brother, with himself, with God.  The struggle evolves depending on how we understand Jacob that year, and how we understand ourselves that year.  As one rabbi, Laura Geller, teaches: all theology is autobiography.  For many in our community, a strong sense of faith in God’s role in the world endures, and Judaism offers rich foundation for those beliefs.  Many others who are in the Jewish community, or who could potentially connect here, feel alienated by typical religious faith language and religious institutions.

Some Jewish leaders bemoan the disinterest out there — why don’t more people come to our building and do Judaism as we do?  Two years ago, the Pew Portrait of Jewish Americans asked: Is your belief in God, a) absolutely certain; b) less than certain; c) no-belief; or d) don’t know.  With a multiple-choice question inherently lacking in spiritual imagination, of course many respondents appeared to be uninterested in spiritual matters.

So many Jews, potential Jews, seekers — yes, even and especially the millenials, and the generation that follows — so many are engaged in intentional journeys, asking profound questions about their spiritual lives and ethical purpose, and about our institutions and the world in which we live.  There are many who have not yet brought their questions inside our walls; but that is not because their spiritual life is absent.  For some, it is because Jewish walls—Jewish institutions—do not appear to be a home for spiritual wrestling. I believe that when we listen to them– when we open our understanding of what is spiritual– not only do we make space for the next generation, we learn from their curiosity and empower them to lead us all in spiritual revival.

Through the greater Philadelphia Jewish community, especially through the Center City Kehillah, which is a network of Jewish organizations, start-ups and initiatives comprised of many people who are not members of congregations, I encounter all generations of seekers are out there on a journey. Empty nesters moving into town and rediscovering their identities.  When it comes to the next generation, I encounter young adults in search of mindfulness creating Shabbat in their home, I encountered a young attorney who is creating an organization to advocate for abused Jewish women, I have encountered couples who create their own chuppah, hipsters with tattoos of Jewish or spiritual symbols, activists who volunteer or who quietly feed the hungry person on their own sidewalk.  I encounter lovers of Israel who advocate both for a two-state solution and for the rights of Palestinians, and will not stand for leaders who liken them to Jews who aided the Nazis in the Holocaust.  I have encountered people choosing careers, homes and schools in ways that directly express their Jewish and spiritual values.

I find one of the great spiritual lessons of the next generation is their commitment to align their outer and inner lives, their refusal to disconnect who they are from what they do (Krista Tippett).  Where my peers and I are likely to bring reusable bags to the grocery store; the next generation is likely to ride a bicycle to that grocery store.

In her book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Krista Tippett offers an interesting example:  Now, I’m not sure how history will judge the economic impact of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  But when Hurricane Sandy hit New York, it was the Occupy Wall Street folks who initiated the relief effort, had the first website up, the first place on the ground where people could deliver supplies.  And to where did they turn, when they needed collection sites?  Churches.  Occupy Sandy reminded us in the most grassroots, authentic way: when religion serves not an institution, but serves people in their hearts and souls, in their ethics and integrity, religion can be the place for spiritual wrestling.

There are people who have never stepped through our door, but are wrestling– with God, with themselves, with their brother, with consumerism, with institutional life, with global injustice, with disappointment, with fear, with purpose.  I think that we within these doors need to challenge ourselves to more and more make the synagogue a place where we wrestle and invite others to do the same.  And I think we need to stretch ourselves beyond these walls, to bring our open, inclusive quest to seekers, wherever they may be.

That image of wrestling is so interesting.  We sit right now in perhaps the most glorious room in the city of Philadelphia.  But a beautiful room–as awe inspiring as it is– does not always invite people to wrestle.  Wrestling is messy.  Torah commentator Rashi noticed that the root of the Hebrew word, 1st used in the story for wrestle, is the word avak.  Avak means dust; when we wrestle, we raise dust with our feet.  True wrestling is not always neat and tidy.  Sometimes it does not arrive in a beautiful sanctuary in high heels.  Often, it arrives in a bicycle helmet.

Rashi adds, avak, also means “to become bound up.”  Picture 2 wrestlers.  When Rashi imagines them he sees that, although sometimes they raise dust with their feet, other times wrestlers appear bound up as if they are hugging.  We kick up dust; and we hug.

Judaism does not demand theological certainty.  We may attach to some of the many Jewish God ideas from our texts.  Our perception of God may simply be a connection to that which is greater than ourselves.  Although many in the next generations are inspiring us to challenge traditional ideas about God and community, their questions have been with our people for the ages; they are simply introducing new language.  When, in our annual Introduction to Judaism class students ask if belief in God is a requirement, I respond that a particular belief is not required, but don’t reject the spiritual journey.  To skip the wrestling with curiosity about deeper meaning, would be to miss out on the depth of Jewish life.  Contemporary commentator Rabbi Jonathan Sachs teaches: the most important part of Jacob’s wrestling match with the divine being, is that Jacob refuses to let go.

In Jacob’s story, the 2nd Hebrew word for wrestle, shares its root with Yisrael, the name bestowed upon Jacob and upon us, the people of Israel, meaning, One who Wrestles with God.

Sometimes it’s a dusty struggle.

Sometimes it’s an embrace.

We are all wrestling!

I know I am.  My hip is killing me.

But I refuse to let go….

May we wrestle together.