Healthy religion and religious mythic stories

Religious myth provides people with enduring stories and metaphoric frameworks for making sense out of their lives and the world.

I believe that all religious myths have been created by human beings, as opposed to revealed by a deity to human beings. That doesn’t mean that I think myths have no spiritual truth. On the contrary, myths are deeply important to how we human beings seek to understand ourselves, the cosmos, and the meaning of life.  In fact, if we assume that we are intimately connected with the universe around us, then myth also holds the potential of being one  of the ways that we express or reflect deeper realities. Acknowledging that myths come from us, and not from “out there” somewhere, simply implies that the impulse and the creativity to see the world in a sacred way is embedded within us.  As Jean Houston writes:

“Myth remains closer than breathing, nearer than our hands and feet. I think it is built into our very being. … Myths serve as source patterns originating in the ground of our being. While they appear to exist solely in the transpersonal realms, they are the keys to our personal and historical existence, the DNA of the human psyche. These primal patterns unfold in our daily lives as culture, mythology, religion, art, architecture, drama, ritual, epic, social customs and even mental disorders.”

So what makes a religious myth more or less healthy?

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A Purim D’var from some years back

D’var Torah – Purim 5751 / March 18, 2011

Rabbi Maurice Harris

Shabbat shalom.  Tonight I’d like to focus on Purim, since it comes but once a year and arrives tomorrow night.  Edith Deen writes, “Like many of the great characters in history, Esther makes her first appearance as one of the humblest of figures, an orphan Jewess.”[1]  Deen is right.  Esther – also known by her Hebrew name, Hadassah – is introduced to us as an adopted child.  The scroll of Esther states at its outset that her parents had died, and that she was raised by her cousin, the pious and virtuous Mordechai.

As many of you know, Esther is not alone in the Tanakh – the Hebrew Bible – as an adopted child who goes on to become a hero.  The same holds true for Moses, who was adopted by the Pharaoh’s daughter and raised in the Egyptian court.  Like Esther, Moses also redeems his people from catastrophe.

Joseph, of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame in the Book of Genesis, comes to mind as well.  Although he lived to be a teenager under his father’s roof, his mother died when he was young and, when his jealous brothers sold him to slave-traders and told their father that he was dead, Joseph became an orphan of sorts.  Bereft of his birth family, the sheltered and pampered youth goes on to save the day.

So what is it with orphans in the Bible, or for that matter, in the great stories of mythology and even Hollywood fame?  We humans, the world over, seem to love a good story about a child overcoming this form of adversity only to rise to greatness.  The Torah is emphatically clear that wronging the orphan is a sure way to invite God’s wrath.  In Exodus chapter 22, God tells us: You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn…  And the prophet, Hosea, says about God:  In you the orphan finds mercy.

I’ve been teaching a unit in my 7th grade religious school class on the many ways the Jewish people have conceived of God over the centuries.  One of the things that stands out when you look at how our biblical ancestors described God’s attributes is that God cares especially for the poor and the most vulnerable.  God feels a special closeness to orphans, it seems.  Psalm 68 includes a verse with some striking language about orphans.  God is called avi yitomim, the father of all orphans.  Maybe this explains the intensity of the warning God gives against harming orphans in Exodus 22.

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Santa Was a Mensch

This was a short piece my wife, Melissa Crabbe, and I co-authored back in early 2008, just a few months after our newly adopted kids had arrived.

Saint-Nick

It’s based on actual events. A version of this story appeared that year in Jewish Currents magazine. Melissa and I wrote the piece together even though it is in first person singular in my voice. 

*  *  *

I remember the first time I was in the mall in early December with our newly adopted children, Hunter and Clarice, ages 5 and 7. After years in foster care, they had come to us eight months earlier. Overnight they went from never having known any Jews to becoming a rabbi’s kids. And though they had already come to think of our synagogue as a second home, there were still things from their former life that they found comforting, things my wife and I hadn’t quite decided how to handle. Like mall Santa.

The kids spotted him as we walked past the cinema. Suddenly I was a rabbi whose kids wanted to sit on Santa’s lap.

We had already talked to them about how we don’t celebrate Christmas, and they had seemingly accepted that. They were intrigued by “Hanukkah Harry” who, we said, brought Jewish kids Hanukkah gifts and belonged to the same union as Santa.

“How does he get the presents to all the kids at Hanukkah?” my daughter had asked.
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Our Sukkah without Walls

This year our sukkah is unkosher. It has no walls.

According to traditional Jewish law, a sukkah is supposed to have walls – four of them, actually, though one of them can be the side of a house if it’s been built up against a house. The walls can be made out of any material, but they have to be strong enough to withstand some wind without falling down.

Our sukkah has no walls because, in the midst of many challenges, we didn’t get around to putting them up. But that’s not the only reason. I confess that my wife and I also kind of like the way the sukkah looks and feels inside this way. A sukkah without walls is an appropriate religious symbol for our family.

image
Our sukkah this year. As you can see, despite the Oregon Ducks’ train wreck of a loss last week, we continue to welcome them symbolically into our sukkah.

Our nuclear family consists of four people and two dogs. It’s me, a liberal rabbi; Melissa, my spouse, who was my intermarried partner for part of the time I was a rabbinical student, before she converted; and Clarice and Hunter, neither of whom was born Jewish, and both of whom were old enough at the time of the adoption to have the right to decide whether or not to become Jewish. So far, they haven’t, at least not formally. On a day to day basis they alternate between identifying Jewishly and not. So, while neither of our kids identify with another religion, because, at least halakhically (according to Jewish law), they’re not Jewish, we are what gets referred to as an interfaith family.

For me, our sukkah without walls symbolizes Melissa’s and my core value of openness to welcoming the stranger deeply into our home and life. There’s a framework, a structure to our sukkah, as well as a roof made of foliage, and a lulav and an etrog too. Anyone who knows what a sukkah is who saw ours would know that it is a sukkah, or someone’s good try at erecting a proper sukkah. But our sukkah, perhaps inspired by Abraham and Sarah’s tent, is literally open on all sides. Like a sukkah with the traditionally prescribed walls that won’t fall down in a gust of wind, our “open architecture” sukkah also can withstand a gust of wind, but it accomplishes that feat not by resisting the movement of the air with sturdy barriers; rather, the changing winds blow right on through. (Metaphor now fully expressed, and possibly even overdone…)
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What if those warning labels on cigarette cartons…

…which are much more clear and direct in other countries, by the way, also appeared on the teenage boys who go out on dates with our daughter?smoking kills

I’m imagining the guy showing up at our door, and around the mid-section of his shirt, there would be a rectangular box with a white background and bold black letters saying: Jerrod drives recklessly, or Anton Disrespects Women.

Just a thought.