5771 Yom Kippur Sermon by Rabbi Julie Greenberg
JUDAISM AS A SALVE FOR THE PECULIAR HUMAN BRAIN
I started to understand something in a new way recently. It's my own High Holy Day revelation. I was thinking about how our brains have learned through thousands of years of evolution to scan for threats to our survival. We needed to know if the tiger was about to pounce or the beloveds that provided protection and nurturance were about to disappear. I was thinking about how our brains are ever alert for disaster. Not just Jewish brains. All brains.
"Oh everything's great," and then going into detail about the one thing that isn't great whether it's a hassle with a delivery or a computer glitch or a medical problem. Even when things are going basically well, or even really really well, our brains seek out what isn't okay and dwell on it. We have a human tendency to worry, to feel anxious, to fear isolation, and to scan for the possible problem.
I was pondering this phenomenon and realized that religion, Judaism in particular, is designed to address this exact human peculiarity. I think all religions probably function in this way but I will focus on Judaism. Judaism is designed to soothe and hold the deficit-seeking brain.
Judaism gives us axes of connection which I will talk more about. When you feel connected, your brain is less likely to be assessing threats at every juncture, less likely to be hyper-vigilant and reactive. If a tiger were really lurking, and you sensed it because of your terrific brain-based survival skills, your adrenaline would surge, your heart rate would go up, and every muscle and idea would be ready to help you prevail. But if there isn't really a tiger around, it's pretty dysfunctional to be so panicked.
When we experience losses, great or small, or any other kind of trauma, our brain reads it as threat to survival. And you can't be human without experiencing loss. Life is about loss. The baby loses the safety of the womb, the toddler loses the fulltime connection to a caregiver as she sets forth on her wobbly legs into necessary autonomy; the college kid loses the nest of the family as he goes off to learn, we lose stages of life, we lose loved ones, we lose hopes and dreams that turn out not to be realistic, we often lose our abilities and faculties and eventually inevitably we humans lose life. So at key junctures of our lives, such as when we lose a physical ability, or a loved one, or a dream, we are vulnerable to serious suffering.
Judaism addresses this reality of human fragility by grounding us in the following dimensions. You know how we pray in the name of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel again and again? There's a purpose to this. This repetitive litany teaches us that we are embedded in meaningful continuity, in generation to generation. We are connected to our most ancient ancestors and we are a link in the chain to the future of humanity. In traditional Judaism you say the prayers that name these generations three times every single day. That's the amount of reassurance that we are grounded and connected, that our tradition recommends.
But not only do we call out those generations again and again, we are expected to do so in a minyan, in a community that has a minimum of ten members. The message resounds that you are connected to the past and the future and the purpose of the minyan is that you should feel connected in the moment to other people. So you now have generational connection, current community connection and all this is so that you can experience a transcendent connection with the One. That connection gives you the message We are all a part of the Whole, there is something bigger than your tiny self and you belong to it. You are held in all these dimensions. I picture us being woven into this embrace just as a child is strapped into a car seat with the vertical shoulder straps, the horizontal seat belt, held tightly for the journey of a lifetime.
These days most of us don't pray three times a day, and most of us don't join a regular minyan and we often have rational doubts about the transcendent connection. Deprived of this spiritual nurturance, the result is often isolation, anxiety, depression, low level despair. I am not saying we can go back to a simple world where religious practices are prescribed. I do think that understanding our tradition in this way is incredibly reassuring because it teaches that we can and should put spiritual supports in place to hold us through life.
What spiritual resources look like is evolving. Congregations such as Leyv Ha-Ir~Heart of the City are at the forefront of asking these questions and developing creative responses. It is validating to know that my own human pain about change in my life is a universal pain, of course expressed in the unique terms of my particular life circumstances and that humans were designed as religious creatures because we need the soothing, the holding, the grounding, the faith to over ride the negativity of our own brains.
I began to imagine a world in which every human being, including every member of the Jewish world, was rooted and held in all these dimensions so that we didn't have to focus so much on threat and fear of disaster. I began to imagine what a world would look like if each of us really absorbed the message of the psalms that life is good and we can trust.
There is evil in the world, there are real threats, sometimes there is a tiger, real or figurative and we do need to be aware and secure. But our over-active, threat-scanning brains may have outlived their usefulness in this respect when what we really need now is a world in which we can see the unity, a world of more compassion and interconnection. If we are over-reading the bad stuff that lurks in reality, we are missing joy and truth and ultimately salvation.
I'd like to mention two areas that might look different if we approached them, not assuming danger, not overly scanning for threat and possible trauma, but instead if we approached them seeking co-operation and inclusion.
We've all been hearing a lot about the Mosque, Park51, that is proposed for a site two blocks from Ground Zero in N.Y.C. I'm sure there are many feelings in this room about this subject and a diversity of opinions. The Reconstructionist movement has taken a strong stand in support of those who want to build this Muslim community center. This position is based on an understanding of our own American Jewish history: we came to this country as a religious minority in need of religious freedom.
As Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer writes in a much-circulated piece for the Huffington Post, "While individual cases are always full of nuance, the American trajectory is easier to grasp. The story of religious minorities in America is a story of one group after another moving from maligned outsider to part of the multi faith fabric of our country. As Jews, we know about the stumbles along the way. But we also believe the arc of history is inclined toward a more respectful, unified and accepting society. I want to be on the side of the future."
I think that when we feel a secure, safe sense of our own spiritual abundance, we can offer others our welcome to this land of religious freedom. I do not think it is productive to let our crisis-oriented brains run the show on this issue. Rather than responding to the Muslim proposal with alarm, I hope that spiritually infused brains will respond with an attitude of calm, mutual problem-solving.
The other area I'd like to touch on today with the hope that exploring this more deeply will become one of the themes of our year together, is the question of what it means to belong to a Jewish community. There is a paradox in Jewish community life that needs to be resolved for us to move forward. It's almost like our arteries are clogged by this dilemma and we have to find a way past the blockage. I am hoping this year we will devote time for study, discussion and creativity around this issue.
The paradox is that it takes money to sustain Jewish life and yet it is offensive and painful for Jews to have to pay to pray. How do you pay for a Rabbi and for space and for outreach and for community events that involve food and music and a choir director and more without having membership dues that become a barrier to entry? When we approach this issue with fear-based brains that there isn't enough, that some people might want to shirk their share, we stay stuck. But there are bills to be paid and the stakeholders have legitimate concerns about how to keep the whole endeavor going.
I don't have the solution to this paradox. But it pains me. And I'd like to open this discussion wide this year and to encourage us to approach it with a real commitment to managing our own negative, worried, suspicious, hopeless human brains. I invite you to join in with your ideas and concerns to see whether we can be a community that self-sustains and where all seekers fully belong. Should we abolish membership dues? How would we pay our bills? Let's bring consciousness to exploring this conundrum together.
Let's be aware that Judaism can serve as a salve for the peculiar human brain. Judaism can help us ride up over our own brain-based limitations so that we can truly accept the blessings of life. When we let our traditions in, we drink deeply from a well that nourishes the spirit, inspires our best selves and brings us together in community.
Many blessings for a joyful and conscious journey into the New Year.