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Grace & Law

Many people who are not Jewish attend my weekly Wednesday 12:30 PM seminars, my Monday nights at the Silverlake Jewish Community Center, and my Shabbat morning teachings. I think one reason is that, as you know, I don’t push theology or religious doctrine. I see theology as the attempt to wrap the Infinite into tidy linguistic boxes. If we arrange our thinking to fit into that box we are a “believer” – part of that group.

Those who see themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (as I sometimes see myself) often are what I call “God-knowers” – in the interior dimensions of their lives, they have had an encounter with the Mystery. We name it so we can refer to it, but we must remember not to take our naming too seriously. I love the Buddhist saying, “You don’t point your finger at the moon, and confuse your finger with the moon.” Language points at and evokes realities, but can only contain them metaphorically. For example, when I call the Other in that mysterious encounter “The Infinite One” I don’t mean as in an infinite number. I am trying to suggest a reality, not define it.

In quiet moments when we experience that Reality, we can get to a point where it permeates us, suffuses our being. We can find ourselves rooted in a place where we know we are in this world, but not of this world. In the deep, interior moments of transcendence, that require so much quiet and single pointed non-concentration, it can feel so strange. That is when we sometimes find ourselves asking “why am I here?” and “what is my purpose?” I sometimes find myself quoting Psalms 119:19, “I am a stranger here on earth; don’t hide from your commandments.” Now that I am here, existentially thrown here into this life, much of it without my conscious choosing, what do I do now? What must I do now?

In answering that existential query “why am I here?” “what shall I do”, a religion of commandments, such as Judaism, has a basic orientation: In the little time you have left in this very strange land, do your duty. I recently counseled a young man at a crossroads. He listed the various options. I said, “You are married with kids. Those kids have one chance exactly for a happy childhood. Your wife has chosen you to accompany her on this journey to our deaths. Start there.”

Those of us who have gotten to that place of such deep knowledge of that Other Reality, and its accompanying existential strangeness, can find ourselves so non-attached to the ego self (“untethered” as one author puts it), that, from a Jewish perspective, we find ourselves deeply attached (“re-tethered”) to another way of being: of wisdom, of compassion, of courage, of clarity. Love, truth and grace. For reasons that I cannot explain, for I am not very good at theology, when we encounter that Other, deeply and resolutely, it pours into us with startling and wrenching clarity (wrenching us out of the ego self) what we must do, how we must be.

When I was a graduate student, I was at a Catholic bookstore and I picked up The Rules of St. Benedict. These monastic men, who had so deeply encountered the grace of God, knew that grace needs law. I bought and read that book and treasure it. It helped me understand Judaism, and religion, in general, so much better. Grace needs law. Spirit needs form.

I think one of the duties that I come away with from those deep moments is to help the “spiritual but not religious” understand that spirit, in its dimensions of wisdom and virtue, and so many other dimensions, is finely honed in a rightly conducted religious practice. If you do it right, it is unspeakably beautiful.

And the other duty I feel is to help the ‘religious but not spiritual’, or the ‘ethical but not spiritual’, to know: there is a universe inside of you that knows your secret name.

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