The Stories We Tell Ourself


By Gregory

Each of us tells a story about our life and the world. It is our story, and family, culture, media, economy, and religion influence and informs it. Our ego embraces the story and forms a self-image that becomes the core of our identity.

Yet problems arise when we hold onto stories too small for us – when our story runs up against larger conflicting stories – when this happens, we have no choice but to either let go of our story, thus altering our identity, or to invalidate the new story, sometimes at the cost of the truth about ourselves and the world.

To mature into full persons, we must give up all other stories except to the one in which we truly belong.

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People have, with the help of so many conventions, resolved everything the easy way, on the easiest side of easy. But it is clear that we must embrace struggle. Every living thing conforms to it. Everything in nature grows and struggles in its own way, establishing its own identity, insisting on it at all cost, against all resistance. We can be sure of very little, but the need to court struggle is a surety that will not leave us. It is good to be lonely, for being alone is not easy. The fact that something is difficult must be one more reason to do it.

To love is also good, for love is difficult. For one human being to love another is perhaps the most difficult task of all, the epitome, the ultimate test. It is that striving for which all other striving is merely preparation. For that reason young people—who are beginners in everything—cannot yet love; they do not know how to love. They must learn it. With their whole being, with all strengths enveloping their lonely, disquieted heart, they must learn to love—even while their heartbeat is quickening.

—Rilke, “Letters to a Young Poet”

To Love Is Also Good


By Gregory
My last post discussed the spiritual importance of listening – of taking the time to reflect rationally about nature, including our own human nature, and the rhythms and meanings contained within.

When we stop and attune ourselves to the world, and rest in the quiet of the moment – what do we hear? What does reality tell us?

Many would argue that nature is silent, containing no meaning. There is no “voice” to reality or the natural world.

I take an opposite approach, believing that reasoned reflection of reality yields a consistent message of intertwined meanings. I find the voice of nature to be a metaphor for the voice of God, and vice versa.

At the center of Jewish spirituality is the concept of mitzvot – the notion of commandments or responsibilities that comprise our duties in the Covenant and as human beings. These commandments, traditionally 613 in number, are expressed throughout Torah and codified in Halacha. They include obligations that most modern Jews accept – such as aiding the poor, practicing justice, showing mercy, and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Judaism is, however, not necessarily a religion of legal positivism. The mitzvot do not have to be understood as originating only in Torah or being matters of simple Divine command.

Rather, the Mitzvoth are what Jews “hear” when they listen to the world, to nature, and to human nature in particular. Each generation is asked to pause, to listen, and to reflect – so as to hear the voice of the Divine in its own age.

Liberal Judaism, for the most part, accepts the legitimacy of the ethical mitzvot, while downplaying or even rejecting the commandments relating to ceremonial and ritual purity.

Jewish philosophy and theology contains aspects of natural law thinking, a teleological way of looking at the world, and an emphasis on human reason’s ability to intuit the real nature of things, including the goods/values/circumstances required for their fulfillment.

Therefore, it is a legitimate Jewish position to argue that morality is not imposed on humanity or revealed by a deity or religious authority, rather it is an integral part of our natural identity. Our moral responsibilities and rights arise from our nature (a reasoned teleological reflection on such) and our relationship to others. This vision offers a formal framework within which to conduct moral reasoning. Our motivation for virtue is a matter of our own integrity, following the logic of our very being.

For example, when I listen – when I reflect rationally on my own nature, I can begin to understand how certain moral obligations and responsibilities flow from my very being and are rooted in my existing as a person, as a social creature, and as a creature of immense intrinsic worth and dignity.

In a sense, it is the voice of nature that leads me to hear the commandment to love my neighbor as myself, or to pursue justice, or show kindness to strangers. The mitzvot are the words some of us hear when we take time to listen to the world.

Humans experience the capacity of being called/commanded by something beyond ourselves, something that both speaks to our nature and is yet embedded there. This sense of being commanded is the Jewish idea of the mitzvot.

In moments of quiet honesty, we find ourselves with a given orientation – and that orientation offers itself up as an approach to our better selves – it is the voice of our own objective nature calling us toward fulfillment.

Torah is, in part, the record of our ancestor’s moral insights that they subscribed to Divine intention expressed in the world. We remain engaged with their writings because we appreciate their moral genius and realize their limitations and need for ongoing development. We continue to find meaning in the dialog.

We Jews understand these whispers of command that emanate from our own nature and the world as part of the foundation of our moral understanding and religious practice.

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By Gregory

Too much of contemporary spirituality and theology is comprised of talking.

The central Jewish prayer is the Shema – which is a command to listen, and which may be translated as “Pay attention, those who wrestle with the Eternal, the Eternal is our God, and the Eternal is One and reality is interconnected.”

What do we listen to?

First, we listen to nature – the cycles of agriculture, the seasons, the tides, the moon, and so on. Here we find the basic patterns of life, death, renewal, rebirth, growth, and regeneration.

Second, we listen to our own nature – and uncover the moral truth about humanity – the imperative to pursue justice, the necessity of kindness, the goodness of compassion, the drive that each of us has toward holiness – which best translates as fullness, wholeness, and thriving.

Third, we listen to the broader patterns of order, regularity, constancy, and cooperation that keep the unified system of life and reality flowing. In these patterns we can find existential meaning for our lives.

Fourth, we listen to the words of our ancestors, who also listened to nature and heard in it the voice of the Divine. Their hearing lead to their writing, thus generating Torah. We listen and engage with their writings – entering into the myths, reflecting on the sacred wisdom, and sifting through our modern thinking and their ancient insights.

Fifth, we listen to each other – especially those in our chosen communities, our teachers, authors, mystics, and prophets. We listen to what they have heard in the above. We listen to their insights. We listen to how the Voice of the Spirit is leading through them. Our listening is best done in the context of community and tradition.

The notion of listening is employed metaphorically – the goal being to strip away the unnecessary filters that block more accurate perceptions of nature, including our own human nature. Awakening to the world as it really is and living accordingly is the heart of spiritual realism.

Unfortunately, most of us go through life distracted or even lost in fantasies that have little to no correspondence to the way the world truly is. We also get lost in our own circumstances, the busyness of modern daily life, the complexities of our culture and society, the many messages that bombard us daily (marketing, religion, politics, interest groups, et al), and become subject to the various ideologies (isms) that eventually leave us deluded and blind to the true nature of reality.

The antidote is a combination of simple living, meditation, insight, observing nature, intellectual clarity, self-honesty, and courage – all that can aid us in living awake to the truth. In this sense, spiritual growth is a matter of uncovering new depths rather than attaining new heights – for meaning and sacredness resides in this world, not in another.

The process of listening is progressive.

Rabbi Nachman suggests that the new Torah to come through for us in listening will be a Torah of hesed, of loving-kindness (Likkutei Moharan 13). While the tradition says that the Torah we originally received at Mount Sinai was a Torah of law and judgment (gevurah, the dynamic opposite of hesed), Reb Nachman encourages us to open ourselves and listen for a Torah of hesed/loving-kindness instead.

The notion of listening presupposes that there is a still, clear, but quiet voice that permeates nature. Like the burning bush, or the whisper of reality that Elijah hears in Kings, we find the voice of the Divine in nature, in the wilderness, where Torah is given.

That voice, that presence, in essence, commands us to order our lives in a certain way. That voice bespeaks a presence that underlies it. This experience of being commanded is the root of the Jewish notion of Mitzvoth. It is the foundation for all Jewish spirituality.

Humans experience the capacity of being called/commanded by something beyond ourselves, something that both speaks to our nature and is yet embedded there. In moments of quiet honesty, we find ourselves with a given orientation – and that orientation offers itself up as an approach to our better selves – it is the voice of our own objective nature calling us toward fulfillment. We understand this command of our own nature as the foundation of morality and religious practice.

The presence that underlies that voice in nature is what I call God.

Is this a God who gives out gifts? No. Is it a God who hears prayers? I’m not sure. (I pray, even for healing, for I believe that uniting and offering our intentions to the Eternal sanctifies them, focuses them, and causes no harm. This is not magical thinking. This is an expression of love.)

Does such a God deserve worship? I’m not sure. But such a God definitely deserves that we align our lives, our best efforts, and our hearts and minds to its patterns of goodness, mercy, cooperation, and life.

In many ways, the Jewish God is an anthropomorphized Tao, a human projection of the Ground of Being. But that ground, that eternal still point is worthy of my attention – and my submission.

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The Meaning of the Mezuzah – or What Not to Say to Your Atheist Friends

By Gregory


A mezuzah is a Jewish religious symbol. It’s a stone, glass, ceramic, wood, or metal artistic case that contains a small scroll of scripture verses.

The Hebrew word mezuzah means “doorpost.” According to tradition, the mezuzah is to be affixed to the doorpost at the entrance to a Jewish home as well as at the entrance to each of the interior rooms except for bathrooms or closets.

The scroll inside the case contains the verses from Deuteronomy 6:4–9:

Hear, O Israel! The Eternal is our God, the Eternal alone.  You shall love the Eternal your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.  Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.  Impress them upon your children.  Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.  Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Why do some of us Jews affix mezuzahs to our doorways? What a great question! I’m glad you asked!

Having a six-inch glass case with Hebrew letters and a scroll behind it on your front door post sometimes gets attention. People see it and ask, “What is that?”

How I explain why I have a mezuzah on my doorpost matters. Especially since many, if not, most of my friends are atheists and secular humanists.

How I answer their question speaks to how I understand my Jewish spirituality and worldview.

Let me first tell you how I think we should not answer the question. One evening I was having several people over for drinks and appetizers. A Jewish friend of mine arrived early and was enjoying a glass of wine with me when some atheist friends arrived who had not yet been to my house.

One of them noticed the mezuzah on the doorpost and asked about. Before I could say much, my Jewish friend offered an answer:

“A mezuzah is a Jewish house blessing. It conveys God’s blessing to the homes that affix it. It blesses us as we come and go. We venerate it, since it contains a piece of Holy Scripture. We put a mezuzah on our doorpost because the Torah tells us to do so. The mezuzah is a sign to God that this household is part of the sacred Jewish covenant. “

Ah … sure … yes … right … but ….

I don’t necessarily or completely disagree with the above description, but it’s not how I would go about explaining the symbol on my doorpost.

My atheist friend seemed to agree with me concerning the inadequacy of the explanation. At the time, she politely nodded at the explanation. And after my Jewish friend left, she asked me, “Does that guy think his shit doesn’t stink like the rest of ours does?” She later asked if he was a fundamentalist. She was not impressed.

Obviously, she didn’t buy his explanation. In fact, she found it absurd, and even slightly offensive. Not a good first move in terms of establishing a productive dialog.

All right, so how did I explain the glass case with the small scripture scroll in it, hanging on my front doorpost?

I told my atheist friend that the mezuzah was a symbol for me that represented my commitments to a certain set of values – kindness, hospitality, compassion, love, and justice. How having it on my doorposts reminded me to embrace and practice these values at home and while out in the world. The mezuzah reminded me that I lived my life trying to live up to a Covenant of love that I accepted as true.

I also told her that the mezuzah was a symbol for her – that when she saw it, she should know that she was always welcome in my home, that my home was a place of hospitality, and that she should always find it a place of refuge and love.

She asked me if I thought God blessed my home because of it. I told her that I thought I was blessed because I embraced and practiced the values I mentioned, not because of any superstitious investment in the object itself.

Two weeks later, she asked me if it was all right for an atheist to put a mezuzah on her doorpost.

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Ecclesiastes names thee Almighty, the Maccabees name thee Creator, the Epistle to the Ephesians names thee Liberty, Baruch names thee Immensity, the Psalms name thee Wisdom and Truth, John names thee Light, the Book of Kings names thee Lord, Exodus names thee Providence, Leviticus Sanctity, Esdras Justice, creation names thee God, man names thee Father; but Solomon names thee Compassion, which is the most beautiful of all thy names.
—Victor Hugo in Les Miserable

Ecclesiastes Names Thee Almighty

Ethics, Scripture & Moral Truth


By Gregory

I was arguing … er … discussing scripture and morality with a friend the other day. The topic turned to slavery and I mentioned how the ancient Jews maintained the institution of slavery, but had placed significant restrictions on its practice so as to render it more benign that the slavery we typically think of as practiced in the US Southern States in the 1800s.

I added a comment that slavery is barbaric and that any culture that practices it suffers from a profound moral blindness.

My friend commented, “it would be unfair to judge ancient cultures by today’s moral standards.”

I understood what my friend was getting at – we today have the advantage of advanced communications, the benefit of modern learning, and the cumulative wisdom of many centuries.

Still, I didn’t hesitate to turn the question back on him, especially since he believes that many of the ancient moral insights of scripture are authoritative today and are morally true.

If it’s unfair to judge Iron Age cultures by modern standards, why is it fair to use Iron Age standards to judge modern cultures?

My friend isn’t a strict literalist. But, my friend does believe that scripture should guide our moral behavior and serve as a source of moral truth. I strongly disagree.

I acknowledge that the scriptures contain many powerful moral truths – love your neighbor, welcome the stranger, be generous with the poor, and stone the unruly child, the person who wears mixed cloths, and require any woman raped by a man to marry him.

Obviously, the scriptures are not moral textbooks. They contain some outrageous commandments, including multiple commands to commit genocide.

The same God who commands mercy and kindness also commands killing innocent women and children on multiple occasions.

My friend argued that God and scripture are the arbiters of moral truth. Again, I strongly disagreed.

The scriptures are the result of our ancient ancestors’ wrestling with God, meaning, and morality. The texts are their words, not God’s – this is the view of Modern Liberal Judaism.

Modern Jews accept that it would be absurd to try to use the Bible as a moral text or guide. First, the texts contain no self-imposed hermeneutic. No text can be self-interpreting. Second, the texts are clearly fallible on many issues, no less moral ones.

How then should a person of faith engage with the Bible morally?

First, we must recognize that morality is a natural discipline that does not require any appeal to the supernatural. A person can be good without God, moral truth can be known without God, and human reason properly (although not perfectly) intuits right and wrong.

Second, we must recognize that our responsibility is to engage the texts, not submit to them. The text does not trump modern moral thinking nor does modern moral thinking trump the text.

What is needed is ongoing dialog. Earnest engagement. A serious effort to try and understand the context and meaning of what the ancient authors were wrestling with.

Moral truth is reached externally from the scriptures. The scriptures are not the arbiters of moral truth.

We are free to, in fact, we are required to, dismiss, reject, and put aside any scriptural commandment we deem untrue, unfitting, or inappropriate.

We read the scriptures selectively all the time, applying external criteria and standards to the texts. That’s the right way to read the Bible.

The bible is fallible on all sorts of issues, why should we not expect it to be fallible on moral issues as well?

What then is the possible value of reading the Bible with an eye toward morality? I would argue that the poetry, powerful prose, and decisive wording of many moral insights in the scripture are worth engaging. Second, I would argue that our ancient ancestors possessed a moral genius worth engaging – albeit, not an inerrant moral wisdom.

We today are within our spiritual rights and proper thinking when we reject the patriarchal structures, family models, gender roles, misogyny, notions of sacrifice, war, blood redemption, sexuality, and other issues mentioned in the scriptures.

How then should we read the texts?

Let’s consider the example of the moral prohibition against wearing mixed cloths. What is the context of this teaching? The full context is likely lost on us. Much of it likely has to do with reinforcing cultural and religious identity. Our moral thinking today quickly realizes that there is no inherent moral issue with mixed cloths. We are right to therefore ignore these teachings.

What about women teaching or assuming religious leadership roles? Again, what’s the context? I would argue that the context is ancient culture that is not that friendly to women and awash in philosophical notions of female inferiority. The gender roles that flowed from such flawed thinking are equally as flawed. We are again free to ignore the teachings, and should.

What about love your neighbor as yourself? We today would agree that such a teaching and commandment is true. Why? Not because the scriptures said so, but rather because we recognize the truth of the teaching through reason, experience, and insight. We honor the teaching because we understand, apart from the scriptures, its truth.

To use the scriptures as a mythic, religious reinforcement of our better moral thinking is a powerful practice for spiritual growth. To engage the scriptures earnestly on moral issues is a good way to build moral insights. To allow the texts to challenge our own moral thinking is healthy.

To use the scriptures as a moral textbook or as the arbiter of moral truth leads to spiritual insanity, mental gymnastics, abuse, moral absurdity, and dishonesty.

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Art and Life

by Rebecca

“All sorrows can be born if you put them in a story or tell a story about them.” –  Karen Blixen

I wasn’t aware before today that Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen’s pseudonym) was an inspiration for Hannah Arendt. This idea of the importance of storytelling for culture – for the human condition – for policits in the broad humanistic sense – is, I think, very important:
“I take it that what we are trying to do here is very much like what Arendt was trying to do in addressing Dinesen. We want, that is, to engage with our own moment, with the world as it discloses itself to us here and now, but we also recognize that the only way in which that is possible is through a self-constituting practice of speaking aloud to those who might share the world in which we aim to live. We must fabricate, together with the others, the world that appears to, in us and through us.”

I’ve long been fascinated by the question of how aesthetics enables us to deal with the world – not so much in the sense that art gives an escape, or that beauty will actually, literally, save the world (though it may save a moment, as in the brief reconciliation at the end of the Iliad, when Priam and Achilles look upon one another with “wonder”) – but in the sense that the practice of making and engaging in art, especially story-telling, provides us with forms and coherence enabling us to live fully and personally, out of our free center as persons, and not as reductions to cogs in the utilitarian system. My long-ago MA thesis on Nietzsche and Scheler was an attempt to discern how the tragic provides redemption for the world’s woes not only within the work of art, but in lived experience. I recently resuscitated some of these ideas in an conference paper exploring the extent to which the idea of aesthetic justification is tenable within a religious context – and distinguishing it from the use of beauty to “justify” atrocity (as in the case of Nabokov’s vile but persuasive HUmbert).

“Only as an aesthetic phenomenon is the existence of the world justified” – Friedrich Nietzsche.

Sometimes I am convinced by this. Other times I am not so sure. Is there a flavor of first-world privilege in thinking that art really can redeem life – even tragic, grotesque, horrifying art (more effective, I think, than the beautiful or the sublime)?

Art and Life

 Times there are when I would turn from the prose of the cookstove

and seek the others who have known  that sorrow can be mended by poetry

(though just a little, just the sliver of light through the crack of a door, that separates

hope from despair).


Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that :

“only as an aesthetic phenomenon can the world and existence be justified,” –

and I agree, oh how I agree, especially after the third glass of cheap red wine.

And Yeats saw it, too – the cracks and imperfections in the work of art

that make it just so good.

And what Dinesen said, that there’s no sorrow that can’t be borne

if you can just put it in a story: it’s perfect, and perfectly true,

and I’ve done my research, and know she knew it well.


If I could gather them here, the shades who linger

somewhere in the space between their books and my brain,

I think the main thing on which we might agree is:

It doesn’t help much, after all. That’s what I’d like to talk about.

I’d like to have that consolation,

of knowing consolation’s poverty.

Interview with Planet Shifter Magazine & Blog – Myth and Today’s Religious Trends

perek 4-19 crows in wheat field vincent van gogh-749569

By Gregory

I was honored to be interviewed by one of the Pacific Northwest’s most influential ecospirituality blogs and magazine – Plant Shifter.

Read the interview here –

As always, I welcome your comments, thoughts, ideas, and disagreements.

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God in Need of a Stiff Drink


By Gregory

While I believe Jews and Christians worship the same God, I will admit that often they approach the Eternal One rather differently. Reading the Hebrew Scriptures as a Jew and no longer a Christian has certainly opened my eyes to some differences – especially differences in how Yahweh is portrayed in the Tanak versus the Christian scriptures.

The Hebrew Scriptures, when read closely, with open eyes, portrays God as often on edge, anxious, and even unsure. Some Jewish scholarly commentary even hypothesized that God needed several attempts to get creation even partially right. Consider this teaching from the Talmud, a commentary on the opening lines of Genesis:

“Many attempts preceded the present genesis (creation), all of which failed. The world of humans has arisen out of the chaotic heart of the preceding debris – easily exposed to the risk of failure and a sudden return to nothing.”

“‘Let us hope it works’ exclaimed God as he created the world once again with hope. And let us recognize at the outset that this history is always branded with marks of radical uncertainty.” (Halevy Sheyaamod)

Very often in Torah, Yahweh seems very nervous about what he is getting himself into and is often found getting down in the dust with his creatures talking, arguing, caring for, and getting angry with humankind. On a few occasions Yahweh gets into a scuffle with humans, grows angry, regrets what he has done and wants to start over, but has to be talked in off the ledge by humans trying to dissuade him from acting rashly.

Indeed, Abraham and later Moses have to reason with God not to act rashly.

In stories like these I appreciate the need for the seventh day when even God needed a break.

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