The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Lodge of Exemplification; Jewish Renewal

Last night was amazing. The officers of eight lodges met at the Arlington Masonic Temple. The Grand Lecturer and the District Deputy Grand Master held court as, over the course of the evening, the officers of each lodge performed the Entered Apprentice degree for mock candidates. The District Deputy Grand Secretary called the role for the officers for each lodge, and the attendance was noted (the higher the attendance among the officers, the better the lodge's evaluation), the DDGM gave us instruction as to how the evening would proceed, and then it began.

This is how it worked: our lodge was called up first, and we all took our places in the lodge room. As we did not have a full compliment of officers (no lodge had a 100% compliment of officers, for various reasons. One officer of ours is a police officer, and was on duty that night. Another was in a government meeting he could not avoid, etc.), officers from other lodges substituted for our officers. With this new line of officers consisting of mostly our officers, and a few substitutes, we opened the lodge on the First degree, and did the long form of the opening. When the opening was done, the Grand Lecturer stopped us and critiqued our performance, and then opened the lodge to questions about procedure. The Grand Lecturer is astonishingly knowledgeable about ritual, and it was astonishing to see him display that knowledge. I was fascinated to see the level of detail of the questions on very precise technical matters. I really felt like I was taken to ritual school. It is worth pointing out that Grand Lodge has a certain way they want ritual done, but that being said, there still is much room for each lodge to demonstrate their own particular style or customs. This is especially the case in older lodges. There are at least three lodges in my district that have enjoyed a bicentennial (I call them bicentennial lodges), and have preserved a lot of lodge-based customs. As long as this does not contradict the guidelines for ritual given by Grand Lodge, this is perfectly acceptable, even encouraged.

After a brief Q&A period, the next lodge was called up. They did not have an Inside Sentinel, so I stayed in my chair and continued with the ritual as an officer of their lodge. One or two other brothers from my lodge stayed in their chairs as well. After about ten minutes of ritual, the Grand Lecturer stopped us, and critiqued our performance. Then the floor was opened up to more Q&A. There were again very detailed questions, which led the Grand Lecturer to explain some very fine points of ritual. Then the third lodge was called up. They had an Inside Sentinel, so I was relieved of my post, and could watch the next six lodges exemplify from the sidelines with the rest of my lodge's officers.

With very few exceptions I will not relate, everyone did an excellent job. It is the duty of the Grand Lecturer to point out every single error made during the ritual. If the lodge being exemplified is doing a good job, there's nothing for him to say. If even one brother messes up his bit, he is called out in front of everyone and corrected on every erroneous detail. That can be very painful, but necessary because the ritual we perform is supposed to exemplify the correct ritual. It can also be uncomfortable to watch. There was not much of that last night, however. All of the lodges did a very good job.

One lodge in our district is a Spanish-speaking lodge, and it was very interesting to see the ritual being done in another language. In North American and British lodges, the ritual is memorized, but in Continental lodges, the ritual is read out of the ritual books. This lodge read their ritual, which was very confusing to a lot of brothers present who did not know that this was the custom. My Spanish is very weak, but I still could make out some of the ritual, knowing the English. I still don't know how to say worshipful in Spanish.

I got there a bit late (commuting from work) and I wish that I'd had more time to socialize. It was really remarkable to see so many excellent masons congregating in one place. It was also very satisfying to know most of the officers in three other lodges, and a few in two or three more. Some I know from Scottish Rite, others from visiting their lodge or they visiting mine, and some from meeting them at Grand Lodge communication. We really have a great district, and since the redistricting earlier this year, we lost two excellent lodges but gained five, so I would say we've come out ahead. I ended up driving home a past master of another lodge whom I know through Lodge of Perfection at the Scottish Rite (we were in the 6th degree ritual together).

If you are a Master Mason in the State of Massachusetts, even if you are not an officer, and your lodge is competent at ritual, I would strongly encourage you to attend the next Lodge of Exemplification in your district. You will learn an enormous amount and meet most of the active senior masons in your district. Our mock candidate was raised in March, and I could tell this was an eye-opener for him, and I'm delighted he got to see it. You get to support your blue lodge, and meet people from every other lodge in the district in the bargain. And they feed you dinner. What could be wrong with that?

This weekend, the president of my synagogue is stepping down, and we're having a celebratory oneg tonight, and kiddush tomorrow to celebrate his time in office, and to thank him for his service. He's a good man, and I really like him, and am very grateful to him for his extraordinary selflessness towards the synagogue. The synagogue has asked everyone to contribute something towards the oneg and kiddush, and I have have donated money towards them. Last Friday night, I sponsored the oneg on my own, to celebrate and express my gratitude for my new job.

My synagogue is in an interesting situation. The senior rabbi is on administrative leave until the end of this month, for reasons I'd prefer not to discuss. The junior rabbi just had a baby daughter the Tuesday before last, and is on maternity leave. That means we have no rabbi. We do not have a denomination, and we are very open to having people from differing denominations share with us the way that they enjoy ritual and learning. The Hebrew College in Newton has given us a rabbinical intern, and other rabbis throughout the area are stepping in to help until our senior rabbi returns. The Jewish chaplain at Mass General, the rabbi for MIT Hillel, some of the staff at Nishmat Hayyim: the Jewish Meditation Collaborative, and many congregant lay leaders have taken over Torah study, Psukei d'Zimra, Kabbalat Shabbat, Shabbat Ma'ariv, Shacharit, and Musaf services. It has been lovely having so many different Jewish perspectives presented to us, but I think everyone will be relieved when both rabbis return to work and everything gets back to normal.

I consider my own personal affiliation to be Jewish Renewal, and I regard Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi to be my rebbe (although probably not in the same way a Hasid does). My synagogue is unaffiliated, with the senior rabbi being ordained through Ohalah, which simultaneously calls itself Jewish Renewal, and transdenominational. The Hebrew College rabbinical program also considers itself to be transdenominational. The rector is Rabbi Arthur Green, a Jewish mystic who was a big influence on the formation of Jewish Renewal, and the havurah movement. Both he and Reb Zalman are considered to be neo-Hasids. This idea is very compelling to me. I will most likely never be an Orthodox Jew, but I am fascinated with, and committed to Jewish mysticism. That being said, I worry that most forms of Jewish mysticism are tainted with superstition (which I mean in a pejorative sense). Please allow me to explain.

To an atheist, any theism whatsoever is superstition, and the avoidance of religion in any form is the avoidance of superstition. The problem with that attitude is that there actually is a God. One God. That God is more real than even ourselves, the universe, or the aggregated consciousness in existence. One cannot make that go away merely by wishing it to be so, or failing to perceive the actual situation one finds oneself in. Because we are created with free will, we can dismiss our perception of God, but we cannot dismiss God, any more than an atom can dismiss physics. Most atheists I know equate God with a big angry bearded man in the sky who is always pissed off and smiting people for following their biological impulses. That's so stupid a conception of God that anyone who believes that the image of God is an angry bearded man in the sky sitting on a throne and scowling, is a total idiot, an idolater, and pretty much hopeless in a conversation like this. I cannot stress too highly how wrong that image of God is. I'd much rather have someone be an atheist than believe in an angry anthropomorph in the sky.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate of Palestine, which became the State of Israel, wrote:

“Atheism (heresy) comes as a cry from the depths of pain to redeem man from narrow and alien straights—to raise him up from the darkness of the letters and aphorisms to the light of ideas and feelings until faith finds a place to stand in the center of morality. Atheism has the right of temporary existence because it is needed to digest the filth adhered to faith for the lack of intellect and service.”
This is a fascinating idea. Atheism despises idolatry even more than any religion, and idolatry is absolutely unacceptable to any real monotheist. If you worship anything that isn't God, you are an idolater. Rabbi Kook would prefer an atheist to an idolater: even though he regarded atheism as a grave sin, he regarded idolatry as an even graver sin.

Two more quotes immediately spring to mind, one from a contemporary atheist, and one from a Hasidic rebbe.

"I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."
— Stephen F. Roberts
Once R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev saw the town apostate approaching. With a loving smile, he drew near him and embraced him: “Don’t worry,” he told him. “The G-d whom you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.”

Stephen Roberts is performing the virtue of idol-smashing that the Prophet Elijah did before him. But he suffers from the arrogance particular to many contemporary intellectuals. He assumes that the believer does not understand his/her own process, and that Mr. Roberts understands the believer better than the believer understands himself. Talk to a college freshman who has had their first serious complicated idea penetrate their brain-pan, and they will project their previous ignorance onto everyone they meet, and assume that nobody understands their new idea (which usually isn't their creation) but themselves, and possibly their teachers and comrades who share their idea. If you happen to run into one of them in the fulmination of their fervor, it will not matter that you have read the same books that have inspired them as long as you do not entirely agree with their slant on this idea. You are ignorant and they alone have wisdom. People who grew up forced into a religion that never really spoke to their condition, who reject that religion and all religions as an adult, often have the same close-minded zeal. I'm perfectly aware that religious people often make even more annoying zealots but I'm addressing atheist zeal here.

Roberts assumes that we dismiss false gods because they are rivals to our false god. If all gods are imaginary, then there really is no difference between any two such imaginary gods. He forsees a day in which we contemplate why we don't worship any of the myriad of fetishes that people have bowed before, and realize that our current worship is similar idolatry, that worship of any kind is idolatry. He believes that when we understand this, we will abandon our silly attachment to the concept of deity and join him in enlightened atheism.

The problem with his argument is that God is real. There is one God, a real God, a universal God. Every monotheist worships the same God. Every monotheist worships the same God. Every monotheist worships the same God. Most polytheists worship different aspects of God differently, and the more enlightened polytheists believe in a Supreme Being. Thus Vaishnavites worship the one God, and call God Vishnu, and focus upon the aspects of the one God that their religion focuses upon. Krishna, as an avatar of Vishnu, is the embodiment of the one God upon the Earth, like Jesus is for Christians. Jews are very uncomfortable with the idea of avatars, because our religion is very drastically wired against idolatry. In our region of development, we saw idolaters murder their children in front of idols, or sell their daughters as temple prostitutes, and were horrified by what happens when people petition dead objects for divine assistance. Indeed, every religious sentiment runs a drastic risk of being directed at something less than God, because conceiving of God with our everyday mentality is not possible.

Please understand, I know that Christians also worship the one true God. I don't understand the concept of the Trinity at all, and historically, many Jews and Muslims have accused Christianity of polytheism; of having three gods instead of one God. I give Christians the benefit of the doubt that the Trinity is one God rather than three gods, even though I don't understand how that works. I don't need to understand it because I'm not a Christian.

Because there actually is one God, any being conscious of that fact needs to contemplate their relationship with God. That is why Freemasonry insists that every brother believe in a Supreme Being.

Some people have a blind idiot god hypothesis: that no connection with God can be formed; or even a retired god hypothesis, that God created the world and set it into being, and then retired from Godhood (the Divine Watchmaker hypothesis). But when you experience God's love for you yourself, those hypotheses are proven false. When you experience God communicating with you, you become aware that a conscious, present God earnestly seeks to connect with you, and have a Vulcan mind-meld with you. This will obliterate you or drive you insane if you are not ready to handle it, so you have to practice. God is really big, much bigger than you, and wants to do this gently, but you have free will, so you can do this any way you choose, or not bother to do it at all.

A few thought exercises for non-believers:

  1. Assume for the purposes of this exercise that telepathy exists, that two conscious beings can link their minds together somehow. What would that experience be like? Spend at least five minutes playing out in your mind a true experience of telepathy, leading to a total mental connection with another conscious entity. If you despised that other being, this would be horrific, but if you loved that other being, it could be ecstatic.
  2. Imagine if you could connect with a stone, or a lake, or a hill, or a tree, and share consciousness with it. In order to do this thought exercise properly, you have to focus your imagination intently upon this experience. Spend at least five minutes imagining this experience, and how it would play out.
  3. Imagine a house where a group of people live. There are different interpersonal dynamics at play, lovers, parents and children, friends, rivals, tensions. There are shared meals sometimes, and other times individuals in the house are in isolation. Imagine that there is a mental connection between all of the people in the house, that they are barely conscious of most of the time. If each individual really focuses, he or she can get a fleeting sense of some sort of consciousness superstructure linking the people in the house together, along with the pets, the plants, the furniture, and even the walls, roof, siding and doors of the house. Focus on the consciousness superstructure I have described and try to sense what it is, what are its dimensions, and how it perceives. Continue this exercise until you can perceive the house as an entity in and of itself, even for a brief snatch of a glimpse of such an agregate consciousness.
  4. Stare at an analog clock, one with three hands. Stare at the minute hand, and try to mentally hold it back. Ignore the second hand, and just try to make the minute hand slow down. Alternatively, try to make the minute hand speed up. Try to make it slide from one number on the clock face, to the next adjacent one, at your pace. Play with a computer software calendar, and look up various dates in history using it, and keep returning to the present. Move to dates in the future, either within your lifetime or clearly beyond it, and then return to today.
  5. At this point, you can make the units larger. What is the aggregate consciousness of your block, your neighborhood, your town? What is the aggregate consciousness of the spot you currently find yourself in, from the creation of the world to the present? What is the aggregate consciousness of your entire network of friends, and their friends, and their friends, and so on? What sort of entity is the Israel referred to in the prayer, "Listen Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One"? Is the Earth conscious of itself as a whole? What about the sun? the Solar System, the Milky Way Galaxy?
  6. What is the aggregate consciousness of all of existence? How long is eternity? Imagine a consciousness capable of creating all of this but fine-tuned enough to zero in on you alone and engage you deeper than your current level of perception. An entity which includes everything and every consciousness in the universe but is not contained by it; which could in an eyeblink annihilate this universe and replace it with something totally different.
  7. Now imagine that the thing you imagined is trying to communicate with you specifically. It has watched you from your beginning and loves you with a love so deep it would literally kill you to feel so much love, and wants the best possible outcome for you, but respects your autonomy enough to leave you alone and let you figure out your own way. Who knows, maybe this entity is astonished by the choices you make (and only you in the entire universe could have made)? Maybe you provide a crucial component for this entity, and your purpose on this earth is to supply what only you can supply to this entity.

I strongly urge you not to worship the result of this thought exercise. But if any of this has any emotional, intellectual, or spiritual resonance for you, keep a channel open for you to continue these thought experiments.

I haven't told you what God is, because I don't know how to do that. I'm categorically not asserting that the result of your thought experiments is God. God is bigger than anything we can imagine. The Hebrew phrase Adonai Eloheinu is often translated as "The Lord is your God", but more accurately, the phrase is "YHWH who Gods you". See, the root Eloah, or God, is being used as a verb here. This is similar to R. Buckminster Fuller's idea: "I seem to be a verb." God is not really a noun, not even a proper noun. God is a quality that acts upon you.

All that being said, I define superstition as a behavior that steers one towards idolatry, a behavior that is not the result of being Godded but pretends to be. Jewish mysticism, as are all forms of esoteric knowledge, is laced with superstition like veins of mold in a blue cheese. Given a new spiritual practice, how can you tell the method that will bring you closer to God from superstition? I don't always know, but the rabbis tell us that if you take one step towards God, God takes two steps towards you, and if you lift an ounce to get closer to God, God will lift a ton to get closer to you.

I'll give you an example of what I feel to be superstition: the Hasids wash their hands before morning prayers. The opinion has been expressed by Chabad that when a Jew sleeps, demons perch on his/her fingers, so that the fingers are corrupted by sin, and the Jew has to wash that corruption off before doing anything devotional with the hands. I regard that as superstition, although I am willing to be proven wrong. Some mornings I wash my hands when I first wake up, because I'm willing to test the hypothesis, but my intuition about God does not urge me to wash my hands when I wake up, for the most part. I have a lot of trouble believing that demons perch on my fingers while I sleep, and I therefore regard this as a superstition. The Jewish tradition has a number of things like this, and they do not feel right to me. They feel like residual anguish from millenia of oppression, of living in ghettos in terror of the surrounding populace, of powerlessness and disenfranchisement, rather than a path towards God.

I want to have a religious life free of superstition. I believe that, within Jewish mysticism, there are techniques to bring me closer to God, and I want to master these techniques. But I don't want to assume the emotional baggage of a terrified, abused, traumatized people in order to master these techniques. And I don't feel I have to. What appeals to me about Jewish Renewal is it encourages me to know God better without insisting that I adopt a lot of superstitions.

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