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Hattan Torah Speech: Dan’s Crazy Judaism

Dan Woods, November 11, 2018

The title of this talk is “Dan’s Crazy Judaism.” My goal is to explain how my journey to greater participation and engagement in Judaism has progressed. In short, I simply want to tell you what Judaism means to me and what I am doing with it.

The last time I was able to speak to SAJ as a whole was during the Rosh HaShanah talks a few years ago. At that time I explained how my nerdism and yearning to live a fully examined and realized life had attracted me to Judaism and how the mitzvot and covenant had come to mean something to me.

Since then, I’m happy to say that in a meaningful way I’m living an important part of my life inside Judaism. I will explain how I am living inside the covenant and ritual structures I have adapted to my needs. But most all this means living inside the SAJ community, and the most important part of that for me is living inside the Tish.

That’s the first definition of Dan’s Crazy Judaism, learning from other Jews about Judaism and the Jewish part of their lives. When I sit and learn and when I sit and teach, and most of all, when I am in a discussion about Jewish learning, one that matters to everyone involved, that’s when I feel most in tune with the world.

I would be shirking my duty if I didn’t mention that there are still 15 open spots left on the Tish calendar.

Part 1: My Journey to Judaism

In an important sense my journey to Judaism is just the latest chapter in my continuing struggle to understand my life and make it meaningful. As a boy, I was raised Roman Catholic and worked through all the sacraments of that religion. I was, and still am, attracted to the ideas of purity, of the dignity and value of each individual, of service to others. I sincerely tried to find a home for my mind and spirit in Catholicism but could not.

In highschool and college, I explored many things. Retreats, personal growth groups, reading widely about religion and philosophy, and was rewarded for my efforts. Having an intense conversation then and now is perhaps the pinnacle of joy for me, especially over great food.

But the practice of religion didn’t become real for me until Daniele and I decided to get married. I couldn’t see raising children without giving them the benefit of all of the cultural dimensions of religion. If you decide to let your children choose for themselves what religion they will be when they come of age, in my view, you are depriving them of the childhood experience of growing up with songs, food, stories, and a cultural perspective. Religion helps many of us know who we are, even if you decide to change later, as I have.

Daniele was on board with providing are religious-themed upbringing despite the fact that she had been raised in a vigorously secular home and was, and is, dedicated atheist. But Daniele as a Roman Catholic? Not a recipe for success.

She said yes to religion but it had to be Judaism. I knew a fair bit about Judaism and felt that it would fit the bill. Because Daniele had two Jewish parents, the children would be Jewish in a sense that all denominations of Judaism would accept.

At this point, I must recount the marquee joke of my life with Daniele. When she told her stridently secular, but culturally Jewish father, that I wanted to raise kids Jewish, he replied, “See, that’s what happens when you marry out!”

And then we had Fiona and had a naming ceremony, but didn’t do much else. And then we had Eamon had he had a brit milah, and that was Daniele’s wakeup call to get busy. And she led our family’s journey to Judaism.

We then took the Derek Torah class at the 92nd street Y and Daniele realized there was a lot in Judaism for an atheist to enjoy. We attended tot shabbat and the nursery school at Ansche Chesed. We met Rabbi Michael and followed him to SAJ. Daniele did activism on bed nets through the Tikkun Olam Action network. She took the Meah, now ConText class, and then one other follow up class and connected with many SAJ members through that. We attended services with increasing frequency. Daniele learned Hebrew and did an Adult Bat Mitzvah and became a leyner and a gabbai. The kids learned Hebrew for their Bat and Bar Mitzvahs. I started attending services regularly and fell in love with the Tish program.

We became part of the SAJ community. As I said, before I knew it, I was living inside Judaism through the SAJ community.

Then one day Fiona, Eamon, and Daniele all leyned Torah together and Larry Zelnick said, “You should be up there.” I realized he was right.

Daniele and I had never considered conversion for me. We thought in a way that it was impossible. Our thinking was bound by the genetic view of Judaism. But after I had more experience with the content of Judaism and the perspective of Reconstructionism, I realized that I could make my conversion to Judaism something that fit me. Rabbi Michael helped me through it. He and Rabbi Joy were part of a gentle and supportive Beit Din. So here I am, about to tell you all about it.

Part 2: Foundational Beliefs of Dan’s Crazy Judaism

So far, it doesn’t sound so crazy.

And perhaps by the end of this talk you will realize either I’m not crazy or you are crazy just like me. It is important to remember that getting wild and crazy happens all the time in the world of Judaism. My favorite example is King David dancing in the parade in front of the ark and getting scolded by the queen. He explains that if he needs to jump and dance and appear naked in public to express the glory of the holy name, well then so be it.

I always found sympathy with the Hasidic masters who were said to stand on their heads and otherwise get lost in ecstatic dance.

My crazy Judaism starts with some basic principles:

First, I approach religion from a humble perspective. I believe the world is not affected by my beliefs. What type of God there is or isn’t, what the nature of the soul is or isn’t, whether there is any aspect of me that will survive my death, it will all happen no matter what I believe. What happens in the neurochemistry of my brain does not change the nature of reality.

Second, I am quite impressed with religion in general and with Judaism in particular. While my relationship with God is a bit complex, my relationship with religion is much simpler. I have faith that engaging in the practices of Judaism will improve my life and the lives of those around me. One article I read called this attitude religious agnosticism.

Third, I am agnostic in a sense but I am a believer in another. My agnosticism comes from the fact I don’t have a tangible relationship with God. I know many people who feel they communicate with God directly. In my previous talk I explained how my Aunt said how she made many decisions based on a quiet voice inside her that indicated what to do.

Like everyone else, I do get thoughts from mysterious sources. I’m not really concerned whether or not God is the source.

On the other hand, God is a presence in my life. It seems I can provoke the arrival of new thoughts from unknown parts of my mind or from God by engaging in what most people call prayer. By asking for help, by asking for ways to solve problems, by asking for help for others, it seems that ideas come to me. So, I am happy to ask in the name of God for help. As the psalm says, “I called out to God in the moment of my distress. God answered me.” So do I believe in God, no. Do I believe in creating a relationship with God, yes I do. Do I find that the Jewish liturgy, rituals, songs, and basic texts are an excellent and fruitful way of making God part of my life. Yes they are. For me, they are.

Fourth, I believe in the equality of the believers. I have often heard from people who came to Judaism later in life or who had less rigorous training in Judaism that they admired the learning and knowledge of people who were “born and raised Orthodox”. I too admire Jewish learning and knowledge and I have learned much from people who grew up with an intense Jewish experience. If I studied hard with the time available for the rest of my life, I would never catch up with Rabbi Lauren or Rabbi Michael.

But for me, the amount of Jewish knowledge you have is neither a guarantee nor a barrier to the best parts of Judaism. I believe we are all equal before the body of knowledge and practices that comprise Judaism. What is important is not how much we know, but that we do something with what we know. It is the creative act of adapting Jewish learning and the precepts of Judaism to your life that unlocks the very best of Judaism. As the passage in Deuteronomy tells us, it is not far away, not at the top of the mountain, not across an ocean, not brought to us by someone else. It is close, in our minds, our words, and in our hearts. This creative act is called Reconstructing Judaism.

Fifth, I believe that the point of practicing Judaism is to increase and maintain awareness. Rabbi Heschel taught us that “Judaism is a reminder of life.” In his work, “A Book of Life”, Rabbi Strassfeld explains how Judaism increases your awareness. But awareness of what? To me practicing Judaism reminds me that I should be grateful for the miracle of existence, for my life, for those of the people around me, for the government, technology, and infrastructure that sustains life. Practicing the mitzvot increases my awareness of my responsibility to make good decisions, that my actions matter. I must always remember to be grateful for the many good things happened to me.

At the center of this practice are two notions of the covenant: The covenant of grace, the gifts we were given for no reason, and the covenant of obligation, the gifts we get from serving God through the mitzvot. Gratitude is the gift I get from the covenant of grace. Awareness is the largest reward I get from the covenant of obligation.

Sixth, I believe believe in the pleasures of being alive. In this sense, I accept pretty much all of the precepts of Epicureanism, which I was introduced through the book Swerve, which Helene Schiffman brought to my attention:

  • The Epicureans believe that that the pleasure of being alive is good and sufficient. We don’t need more than that to be joyful and grateful about our lives.
    • My life is good because it is full of food, intimacy in all forms, exercise, singing, food, like doughnuts and cheese, intense conversation, creating, working hard in a team, service to others, food, like Indian dinners and waffles and macaroni and cheese and tasting menus and herring and coffee and tea with cream and half and half and cardamom.
    • In fact, when I think about my death, I refer to it this way, as the time, “When I stop eating doughnuts.”
  • I am also on board with other Epicurean assertions, that Gods if they exist are not concerned with us and do not act in the world.
  • That the soul does not survive the death of our body. Remember, whether I believe that it does or doesn’t doesn’t change reality in my system. If you asked me to bet, I would say we are completely gone when we die. But according to me, this belief is not of great consequence. In this sense, I am profoundly not like Christians or other religions in which personal faith in an eternal soul is primary.
  • That religion can fall into negative patterns that are not beneficial.
  • In short, I believe that life is good, and life is enough.

Well now we are starting to get a bit crazy. Dan says he is a Jew who is also Apikoros, the Talmudic work for Epicurean, which means a Jewish Apostate, a non-believer. I suspect this is not a frequently asserted proposition.

Part 3: What Does it Mean to Be Jewish? The Many Readings of Judaism

So, Dan, what you are saying is that by learning about Judaism and adapting it to your life you unlock the best that Judaism has to offer. Dan’z Crazy Judaism is not about quantity of knowledge but about quality of engagement. It is about about the sincerity of the desire and the level of effort to find a way to make the practice or learning work for you.

But what does that mean in practice?

What it could mean is that you study the Torah, the body of Jewish learning, guides to what to do like the Shulchan Aruch, and work with a rabbi to make sure you understand it the right way,

This is not what I do, and not what most of us here do.

Instead, we all have what our own visions or readings of Judaism. Reconstructing Judaism is both finding practices that mean something to us and constructing a way to make sense of it all.

I find inspiration for this idea of constructing my own reading from a variety of sources.

James Kugel, who wrote “How to Read the Bible”, is an Orthodox thinker who accepts the documentary hypothesis, that the bible was assembled from texts from different sources. He asserts Judaism is the reading of the Torah created by the rabbis, who were divinely inspired. Unlike most Orthodox thinkers, Kugel has no problem with the idea that the bible was assembled from many sources, not provided to Moses in complete form at Sinai. In Kugel’s view the reason you read the scriptures to fulfill the commandment to serve the lord, which is the point, not the texts. That’s his reading of Judaism.

I find much inspiration from Maimonides who was fearless in setting forth new readings that he felt made sense.

In Halbertal’s book on Maimonides, he explains how Maimonides re-created the theory and practices of Merkavah mysticism, acknowledging that the tradition had been completely lost. What did he do? Maimonidies recreated it based on what made sense to him.

Maimonides also embedded his own reading of Judaism in the Mishneh Torah, his codification of Jewish law. He was criticized for departing from accepted ruling opinions, but he goes way beyond that in asserting many aspects of his philosophy.

Of course, Reconstructionism itself is a profound and novel reading, one that presents a vast reinterpretation of Judaism.

In all of these readings something is being asserted that makes sense to those who constructed the reading.

The Epicureans were the first to assert that the entire universe was comprised of the same raw materials, Atoms.

This vision, which turned out to be confirmed by scientific experimentation was at the time that felt right.

Dan’s crazy Judaism is my reading, and it feels right to me.

Does it matter? Well, who knows.

There is no Pope in Judaism. There is no central authority. In this way Judaism is crowdsourced. Maimonides hoped that the Mishneh Torah would be accepted as the central expression of Judaism over time. While it has had vast influence, it didn’t shut off debate.

I am much more humble. I don’t expect anyone to be influenced by my reading. But creating my reading has meant a lot to me. Constructing my reading has taken me out of the stands of Judaism and onto the playing field.

Part 4: Creating Your Reading and Practices of Judaism: The Central Creative Act in Dan’s Crazy Judaism

So, what am I doing on that playing field. You cannot practice Dan’s Crazy Judaism in theory. You must do things.

Let me start out by expressing my limitations. I have no working Hebrew. I know some blessings and songs, not that many. I can trudge through learning a passage to leyn. I’ve read through the Torah closely in English. I have read widely about Judaism.

But, as I said, it’s not the amount of knowledge but the energy you put into the construction of your reading and your practice that matters to me. Here’s where Dan’s Crazy Judaism comes into full flower. Here are some of the practices that I’ve been doing in addition to coming to the Tish, may that practice be a blessing to us all, and coming to services.

High Holiday Fasting: For the past 8 years I have done an 8 day master cleanse fast from the second night of Rosh HaShanah to Break Fast on Yom Kippur. At first I did it because I wanted Break Fast to really mean something. In this I was quite successful. But now the practice is more important in that it helps me quiet myself and calm myself and feel grateful for the fact that the rest of the year I get to eat delicious food all the time. It also helps me reflect on repentance.

“Getting my slave on” at Passover: In attempt to highlight the difference between being a slave and being free, I have tried to feel like a slave in the runup to Passover so I could feel like I was freed at the Seder. This has not worked well and has been roundly rejected by almost everyone I have presented the concept to, including a large group who came to my house for a potluck on the subject.

Modeh Ani: I have developed a long backstory to the Modeh Ani that is based on Big History that traces the development of the universe from the big bang until now and touches on all of the reasons I have to be grateful.

Shema: I have developed a narrative of the Shema that is essentially a restatement of some of the essential principles of Dan’s Crazy Judaism. I feel the third paragraph is incredibly important in its emphasis that we must expect distraction from our bodies and our minds and practice the mizvot to stay on track. My view is that the central role of the tzitzit in maintaining awareness should be adopted as a central metaphor and practice in liberal Judaism. We must reconstruct the tztzit. Stay tuned.

My name: I chose the name Israel as my Hebrew name. Why? So when I said the Shema it would be personal. “Yo, Israel, listen up.”

Morning blessings: I have created a new order and choreography for the morning blessings. I’m having a lot of fun with this and plan on sharing it at a Tish when I have it ready.

Asher Yatzar: This is the blessing associated with bodily functions. Every since I read the words “nekavim, nekavim, chalulim, chalulim” I was obsessed with this blessing. I have reworked it many different ways and now use it in whole or in part to maintain gratitude for the amazing workings of my body.

Mussar: Abe Clott and I are joyfully plodding through the “Every Day, Holy Day” mussar text. It has many rewards.

Repentance: In my study of repentance for the dvar torah on Shabbat Shuvah, I was struck by the recommendation that one must repent out loud. I since have practiced this and found that it is a powerful way to move beyond mistakes.

The Sheet Meditation: When I say the Modeh Ani in the morning I cover my face with a sheet. When I say the blessing for the Tallit, I cover my face with the Tallit. In both instances I imagine myself laying on a table after I have stopped eating doughnuts. I can feel the sheet now. Then I will not be able to. May I stay aware of the beauty and joy of life from this moment until that moment.

Shin Greeting: One of the innovations I’m most proud of is what I call the Shin Greeting, or Shai Arbisser calls it, the Sha-Greeting. It is my attempt to create a fun, if not so secret, handshake for SAJ and liberal Judaism. I’m going to teach it to you now. [Demonstrate the Shin Greeting]

These are some of the experiments going on in Dan’s Crazy Judaism.

Part 5: Why does this work?

At some point I think it is important to understand why the mitzvot are beneficial. I find that some of the latest research in neuroscience helps explain why the mitzvot work to increase awareness and happiness. I also feel it is important for liberal Judaism to develop a non-racial explanation of Jewish success. Is it possible that the practice of the mitzvot or the cultural attitudes created from the precepts are the source of so many Jewish Nobel Prize winners? These are tough questions I hope to explore in the future.

The rewards of Judaism for me are many. They are the rewards of life. Whatever I want to do, whatever I want to think about, Jews have done and thought about. I can start my journey by learning from them. And that’s what I did. I learned from all of you at the SAJ. I feel so blessed to share my life and the life of my family with such a wonderful group of crazy Jews.

Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share my story. And thanks for all of the wisdom and encouragement I have gotten from all of you, especially from Shel, my partner in organizing the Tish, which, by the way, has 15 open spots.

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