Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Pittsburgh Principles

In last month’s column I alluded to the Pittsburgh Principles of 1999 in which Reform Rabbis set what was intended to be the direction for the Reform Movement at the turn of the century. These Principles defined what it is to be a Reform Jew in terms of Dialogue with God, Dialogue with Torah, and Dialogue with the Jewish Community. I mentioned then that William Isaacs, in his important book Dialogue, defines dialogue as ““a conversation with a center, not sides. It is a way of taking the energy of our differences and channeling it toward something that has never been created before.” Isaacs goes on to say that “The intention of dialogue is to reach new understanding and, in doing so, to form a totally new basis from which to think and act.”

In that context, what does it mean to say that a fundamental of Reform Judaism is dialogue with God? What is the center of the conversation, and what are the differences we will channel toward a new understanding, a new basis from which to think and act?

The other book I mentioned, which the Thursday night study group is using as a base text, A Vision of Holiness by Rabbi Richard Levy, makes short work of the naïve notion that a conversation or dialogue with God would take the form of a conversation between people, with each party speaking and listening. Rather, he places the center of the conversation on the human side, in a person’s communing with the Infinite, seeing God in nature, in ourselves, and in other people, from our side speaking with God, and trusting in listening from God’s side and even in God’s answering, though not in words or in a voice as we understand it (Richard Alpert, aka Ram Dass said “if you speak to God, you’re praying; if God speaks to you, you’re crazy).

So if the center of the dialogue is within each of us, what are the differences that give the dialogue its energy? Well, first of all, God is God and we are not. God is infinite and we are finite. At the same time, as Jews, we live inside a covenant with God that we would be chosen to bring God’s word to the world and in turn we would be “a realm of priests and a holy people.” Levy notes that the Priests and Levites in the days of the temple wore a band on their forehead that read “Holy to God,” so that the were, in a sense, never off duty, and suggests that if we saw each ,people and to the world very differently. If we saw everything – people, sunsets, trees, empty bottles, oil, and even our enemies as “Holy to God” we would, indeed, have “a new understanding, a new basis from which to think and act.”

Most of us live here at Lake Tahoe out of some sense that the mountains, the lake, the weather, and the opportunities to live closer to nature are more to our liking than we would find most other places, particularly in cities. Levy suggests that the Dialogue with God may consist in appreciating God in each of these natural phenomena and recommends the Jewish practice of “a bracha for every occasion” as a kind of what the Buddhists would call a “mindfulness practice” to remind ourselves that yes, nature is awesome, but nature is a manifestation of God and we are no less a manifestation of God, created b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. So when we say Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, oseh ma’aseh v’reishit (Praised are you God, Ruler of the Universe, who continues the work of creation) we are creating a conversation with ourselves as the center, highlighting the difference between the Creator and the created, and creating a new basis from which we can interact with nature.

Similarly when at the end of Shabbat we wish for a good week for ourselves and others, and on the succeeding Shabbat we notice that it was a good week, we have created a conversation in the form of a request and God has answered. And if we have the thought that it wasn’t such a good week, but then we notice that at the week’s end we are here, we are healthy, and we have another opportunity to have a good week, we can take the opportunity to understand that, in God’s way, our prayer has been answered.

So the Dialogue with God the Rabbis created in the Pittsburgh Principles is, I believe, accessible to all of us – even those whose conception of God is not of an all-powerful old greybeard on a throne surrounded by angels singing hymns of praise and those who are not sure, and even those who do not believe in God – because even making the effort not to believe creates a dialogue.

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