Judaism Unbound

R'Sherril Gilbert

Judaism Unbound – What My Faith has Taught me about Building Community in a Multicultural World

Rabbi Sherril Gilbert

April 2018 

Lakeshore Unitarian Universalist Congregation 

In a sermon I gave recently, I announced to my congregation that I had decided to sign my emails with the tag line “My religion is love.” I had fully expected my congregants’ responses to range from outrage at this possible heresy to relative indifference. Instead, after the service, just about everyone came up to me and said they thought it was a very good idea. 

I came to this decision after I became aware of the convergence of thoughts and feelings that had been swirling around the edges of my psyche and soul for a long while. These thoughts and feelings all had to do with the overarching theme of boundaries, separations, and distinctions. 

Now, rabbis are trained, when faced with interesting questions, to go back to the sources, as far as we can, and then to move forward in time to explore related concepts. In my tradition – in fact, in all the Abrahamic traditions, – separation as a concept is introduced at the very creation of the world. Actually, it starts in the moments just before creation. The Jewish mystics tell this story; listen closely – for them, this is how it all began. 

Before there was time and space, 

there was a place 

where there was only Infinite Oneness. 

In an infinite moment, 

there arose an awareness and a desire, 

within that Oneness 

to bestow goodness, to love, and to be known. 

We know these desires because they are our deepest desires. 

But then there was only Oneness, 

and so there was nothing to give to, 

no way to be interactively known. 

And so, by a process called tzimtzum, the Oneness withdrew, 

and with that withdrawal, there was created an empty space. 

It was into this space that Four New Worlds were brought into being, 

four levels of meaning in all experience, 

four layers of organizing reality, 

four aspects of consciousness: 

and these were the worlds of 

physicality, relationships, the intellect, and the spirit. 

And into this space, into these worlds, 

the Infinite One created ten vessels of the universe 

and then took some of Its fresh new Light 

and poured it into these vessels, 

which were also made of light. 

But, such a powerful light was stronger than the vessels, 

And, in the very process of their emergence, they burst apart, 

shattered by the intensity of the Divine energy 

that had poured into their creation. 

The precious sparks of light spilled out, 

falling down and down through the Four Worlds, 

until they reached into the farthest world, this one, our own. 

And as the sparks fell they took on form, 

embedding themselves in physical things: 

water, trees, fruit and earth, and living creatures. 

And ever since that time, 

the sparks yearn with great longing to return to their Source, 

to the single Holy Light from which they fell.1 

1 Adapted by R’ Sherril Gilbert from R’ Marcia Prager who adapted it from Wings of Awe 

That story is the first indication in my tradition that there was once only unity – and then there was not. Separation. 

The second story of separation involves one that many of us have learned over the years. It is the story of creation that we read about in the Hebrew Bible, the Older Testament, the Torah. And in that story there were many separations. 

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Separation number one. Then, day by day, we learn about many more separations. Day and night; sun, moon and stars; fish and birds and land creatures. And finally, the genesis of humanity occurs as God creates the first human being, and then a second human being is created from the first. 

All this busyness in the creation story reminds me of those films we used to see in high school in Sex Ed – you know, where there is first only one cell, and then it is bursting to explode into two and then four and then those cells exponentially grow until they form some sort of identifiable living being. Separation. 

Fast forward to about 15 years ago when a certain book fell into my hands. This was a book that pretty much changed my entire perception of the world. It was written by an astronaut named Frank White, and was called The Overview Effect. 

The Overview Effect is an intellectual – and I would say spiritual – shift in awareness reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during spaceflight: often while viewing the Earth from orbit, in transit between the Earth and the moon, or from the lunar surface. 

It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality that the Earth is, in space, a tiny, fragile ball of life, “hanging in the void,” shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. The experience of seeing the earth from space often transforms astronauts’ perspectives on the planet and humanity’s place in the universe. 

In the Overview Effect, several astronauts are interviewed. Every single one of them reported being changed in some deep way by their experiences seeing the earth from space. Here are some of their comments. 

READER 1: Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan, Gemini 9, Apollo 10, Apollo 17: 

Without question, when you are in Earth orbit, you get a new perspective. I can talk about it for a long time. It is one of the deepest, most emotional experiences I have ever had. One minute, you are over the United States, the next minute you are over another area of the world. When you leave Earth orbit, all those coastlines and rivers you see in orbit become oceans and continents. You can see from pole to pole and ocean to ocean without even turning your head. Something different is happening. You see a multicolored three-dimensional picture of Earth. You can watch the sun set across North America and then see it rising again over Australia. You look back “home” and say to yourself, “That’s humanity, love, feeling and thought.” You don’t see the barriers of color and religion and politics that divide this world. You only see the boundaries of nature from there, boundaries God created, not those that are man-made. You wonder, if I could get everyone in the world up there, wouldn’t they have a different feeling – a new perspective?2 

2 Eugene A. Cernan, Gemini 9, Apollo 10, Apollo 17; page 179 

READER 2: Astronaut Byron K. Lichtenberg, who flew on the STS-9 and STS-45 shuttle Spacelab missions: 

The biggest thing in going around the Earth is that your perspective really changes. You look down and see land that you can identify. You don’t see any of the borders, you don’t see any of the cultures, you don’t see the different languages, and it just flows right on in. You say, “I wonder where the border is between India and Tibet, Nepal and China, or Afghanistan and Pakistan.” You just don’t see those, and that’s so striking because on every globe you look at, the lines are there, and it’s always brought home to you. It would be interesting to put out a globe that had no borders, no names of countries, just continents and physical features. So there’s the sense of no differene, just a subtle blending from one region to the next.3 

3 Byron K. Lichtenberg, STS-9, STS-45 shuttle Spacelab missions; page 210

READER 3: Astronaut Marc Garneau, the first Canadian to go into orbit on Challenger in 1984 and then on STS-77 mission on the Spacelab in 1996: 

Responding to the question, “What was the experience of looking at the Earth for you?”, Garneau replied, “There’s a mixture of things. One is just the sheer wonder of looking down at the Earth. It is very, very beautiful. There are wars going on, there’s pollution down there, but these are not visible from above. It also makes you realize that this is a friendly place where humans can live, and … so you become conscious about the fact that we shouldn’t be doing things on Earth like fighting and filling each other. I’m sure this is a commonly related thing: you lose your feeling of national belonging. You coudn;t tell when you crossed from Canada into the United States. I was almost expecting to see those boundary lines, and they weren’t there. They are not there when you go through all of South America and through all of the Asian continent, and after a while you realize it’s a very artifical thing to put boundaries between us. In that sense you become more of a global citizen and less concerned with your own petty problems, at least during the time that you are up there.”4 

4 Marc Garneau, Challenger (1984), STS-77 shuttle Spacelab mission; page 219-220 

So there you have it. Different astronauts with different belief systems, some religious, some philosophical, all scientific, all saying pretty much the same thing. Some say it with more eloquence, enthusiasm or energy, but they all share the same opinion that this is one planet, one gi-normous system, there are no country lines embedded in indelible ink on the surface, and we are all in this together. 

Which makes me wonder all the more about how and why we have come to build such powerful boundaries and divisions between and among us, in so many ways. Divisions between countries, skin colours, socioeconomic status, education, ability and disability, language, and religion. 

I was asked to talk today about how my faith helps build community in this multicultural world. As I feel my Jewish faith increasingly and persistently unfolding into a faith rooted in love, I want to share my thought processes about the need to move beyond denominations in Judaism and perhaps in other religious traditions as well. 

It’s fairly common knowledge that there is not just “one” Judaism today – that in fact, there are many. Jews who identify as Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative, Orthodox or Ultra-Orthodox have made clear decisions about what their Judaism looks like, acts like, and feels like. These decisions create boundaries around the denominations that keeps people in or out. The problem is, our cleaving and our proximity to these boundaries prevents us from experiencing the Overview Effect, that radical experience of understanding that all things are connected, and that there really aren’t boundaries and divisions that should be keeping us separate. 

For the past 20 years I have been a member of a movement in Judaism called Jewish Renewal. It is not a denomination, but rather it is a movement, in the sense of a wave in motion, a grassroots effort to discover the modern meaning of Judaism as a spiritual practice. Jewish-renewalists see “renewal” as a process reaching beyond denominational boundaries and institutional structures, more similar to the non-localized civil-rights or women’s movements than to contemporary denominations. It is the ongoing creative project of a generation of Jews seeking to embrace a global vision of the role of all human beings and spiritual paths in the transformation of life on this precious planet. 

At its centre is the concept of the underlying deep flow of Oneness in the universe, a Oneness that we see as woven into the fabric of our collective consciousness and it is this river of Oneness which underlies the notion of Deep Ecumenism. 

Matthew Fox, the American Episcopal priest and theologianmight have been the first person to articulate the term Deep Ecumenism. He taught that every religious tradition is a path to the One. Many wells, one river, he would say, with each religion being a wellspring tapping into the same underground river. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who was the founder of Jewish Renewal and a good friend of Matthew Fox, would often teach that each religious tradition is an organ in the body of collective humanity. 

We need each organ to be uniquely what it is, said Reb Zalman, and we also need each one to be in communication with the others. If the heart tried to be the liver, we’d be in trouble, but if the heart stopped speaking to the liver, we’d be in even more trouble! Each community of faith – including those with members who identify as atheist, agnostic, or humanist – needs to live up to its own best self, and each needs to be in dialogue with the others. 

Deep Ecumenism teaches us that we can best serve the needs of all humanity when we respect other religious paths and collaborate with them in our shared work of healing creation. No one tradition contains all the answers, but every tradition can be, in the words of the Buddha, “a finger pointing at the moon,” directing our hearts toward the Source of all Life. 

Because in engaging with the other, we learn about ourselves. When we learn from and collaborate with fellow-travelers on other spiritual paths, our own practices are enriched — and we come one step closer to a world without religious prejudice or fear. As an innovator of ecumenical dialogue with practitioners of a wide variety of spiritual paths, Reb Zalman was fond of saying “The only way to get it together… is together.” 

One of the most beautiful and extraordinary sentences in all of Torah appears in Deuteronomy, and it goes like this: “You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and daughter, your male and female slave, the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow in your communities.” (Deut. 16:14) 

Now, the festival referred to here is Sukkot, but it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. Because this short passage teaches us about a number of universal spiritual truths. Truths we can use right now. Truths that the spirit of Deep Ecumenism rests on, and which Jewish Renewal nurtures and knows well. These are the truths: 

Number 1. Kindness and generosity heal the world 

Number 2. Hospitality makes for peace 

Number 3. Triumphalism and arrogance divide us 

Number 4. Fellow travelers must be loved and treated with dignity 

The first truth concerns kindness and generosity. The Talmud establishes kindness as one of the three core pillars of human behaviour. (“The world rests upon three things, Torah, avodah, and gemilut hasadim.” Pirkei Avot 1:2) Kindness is considered a core value because it can be done not only with money, but also with one’s person. It can be extended to the rich and the poor, the living and the dead. 

The Talmud teaches that “the reward for charity depends entirely upon the extent of the kindness in it.” These acts of kindness and generosity form a sort of social contract that, if done with intention, have the ability to engage people in relationships of deep understanding and compassion. 

The second spiritual truth refers to hospitality. There is a river of kindness that flows through Jewish tradition that often manifests as generosity and hospitality. The Talmud teaches that (Shabbat 127a): “hospitality to guests is even greater than welcoming the presence of the Shekhinah – the feminine Presence of God.” At Passover, the cornerstone of the seder meal revolves around the line, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” That means anyone who is hungry is welcome at the table. 

A beautiful image comes to mind from the Talmud (Baba Batra 93b) about a fine custom in Jerusalem: a piece of fabric was spread over the entryway when meals were being served. As long as the fabric was displayed, guests entered.” Deep Ecumenism asks us to hang up our pieces of cloth so that all may enter and be welcomed. Generosity, kindness and hospitality are part of the deeply ecumenical soul. 

The third spiritual truth relates to post-triumphalism. As Jewish Renewal spread its shoots into the world, Reb Zalman became a catalyst for the shift from triumphalism to universalism. Triumphalism is the belief that one’s own religion is the best and only way. In contrast, universalism is the recognition that, in Gandhi’s words, “it is of no consequence by what name we call God in our homes.” 

The Hebrew word for “triumphal” is m’natzeyach, from the root netzach. Netzach is one of the qualities on the Jewish mystical Tree of Life, and refers to stepping forward boldly, overcoming obstacles, and honouring our power. There is nothing inherently wrong with netzach, except when it is not balanced and tempered by its opposite quality on the Tree of Life, hod – which is humility and gratitude. Netzach let loose and unbounded is triumphalism. Deep ecumenism and Jewish tradition ask us to be better balanced, knowing when to step forward, to celebrate our tribe, but also making space for the humility that allows for including and learning from others with appreciation for the unique gifts that each person can bring. 

And that leads us to the fourth spiritual truth, which concerns Jews’ love for our Fellow Travelers. Jews have never travelled alone. From the call to Sarah and Abraham, to the Exodus from Egypt, to who was allowed to pray in the Temple of Solomon, we have always walked with fellow travelers. The most often-mentioned mitzvah in Torah deals with the treatment of the fellow traveler, the stranger. The mistreatment of strangers seems to be a basic aspect of human nature throughout the world, but Torah forbids this. Torah proactively instructs us to overcome human nature with the mitzvah of ahavat ha-ger, loving the stranger, as it says, “You must love the stranger as yourself, for you too were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” 

Deep Ecumenism is a conversation we can all have – Jew, Unitarian, Muslim, Christian – rooted in our competence as evolving, seeking, curious human beings capable of kindness and love. Being deeply ecumenical people means carrying forward the best parts of who we are and where we have been, sharing our gifts with the world and drawing out and being blessed with the gifts from others. In this way, we get to participate in the Overview Effect that the astronauts talked about, partaking in the universal human journey. In this way – individually, in our communities, and in the work of healing the planet – we join in the great, single, wild and alive river of Oneness that flows under and within all living things. 

Rabbi Sherril Gilbert, 2018-04-22