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Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg on finding a spiritual community even you feel like they’re not your people

First, a reminder that even if the rabbi of a synagogue is preaching stuff that does not align with your political beliefs–that does not necessarily mean that every single person in that community is similarly aligned. There may be other folks who are much more kindred spirits than you might think at first blush — and it might take a second or two to find them, but that does not mean that they are not there or impossible to find. Synagogues are often comprised of communities within communities, and it may be possible for you to find yours. How? Well, first you have to start showing up to things where you might be able to meet people. Is there a social justice or social action committee doing stuff? Are there other subgroups within the synagogue that feel like they might be more likely to have folks on your wavelength? Is there a younger folks group — even if they call it “Young Professionals“ or some such thing, you may find some true kindred spirits there — you never know. I say this from experience, as someone who showed up to a Conservative synagogue in my early 20s, as the youngest (by about 15 years) and queerest (by far) person I could see for miles. With some patience and digging, eventually I connected with an amazing intergenerational group of people (some of whom knew each other before, some not), some of whom I am still in touch with today, many many many years later. 

Second of all, even though it is lovely and comfortable to go to community that has been built, don’t discount your own power to build community. You can (eg) host Shabbat dinner for a motley group of people–some of whom may be Jews, some of whom may not be, some of whom may be familiar with Jewish practice, some of whom may not at all. ‏ Make it potluck, or do a simple pot of soup and salad and frittata. Or make a vat of chili get some chips and guac you’ve got dinner. Get some wine or juice and challah– bam! Get this going as a monthly thing and see if you can get enough of a community together to get some text study or prayer action before or after dinner (davening first, study after). Etc. Do a lunch! Make it a picnic when the weather improves! Host holiday things! Get creative! Start slow, build.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenburg – You asked I answered

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Vesuvius Challenge

This is fascinating. A library was buried in Herculaneum when Vesuvius erupted, and there were 800 or more scrolls buried in ash that crumble when you try to unwrap them.

A mix of advanced CT scans, machine learning and incredible research activity is digitally unwrapping them and finding what’s inside. 

They’ve got a first sample of text from the first scroll, and it’s a previously unknown text, looks like Epicurean philosophy.

Vesuvius Challenge 2023 Grand Prize awarded: we can read the first scroll!

I also love the reflection on how they structured the competition to maximise progress and collaboration rather than information hoarding.

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Jürgen Moltmann on revenge, peace, justice and the disarming child

It certainly sounds more realistic for people in darkness to dream of God’s day of vengeance, finding satisfaction in the hope that at the Last Judgement all the godless enemies who oppress us here will be cast into hellfire. But what kind of blessedness is it that luxuriates in revenge and needs the groans of the damned as background to its own joy? For to us a child is born, not an embittered old man. God in a child, not as a hangman.

He will establish “peace on earth,” we are told, and he will “uphold peace with justice and with righteousness.” But how can peace go together with justice? What we are familiar with is generally peace base on injustice, and justice based on conflict. The life of justice is struggle. Among us, peace and justice are divided by the struggle for power. The so-called “law of the strongest” destroys justice and right. The weakness of the peacemakers makes peace fragile. It is only in the zeal of love that what power has separated can be put together again: in a just peace and in the right to peace.

This love does not mean accepting breaches of justice “for the sake of peace,” as we say. But it does not mean, either, breaking someone else’s peace for the sake of our own rights. Peace and righteousness will only kiss and be one when the new person is born, and God the Lord, who has created all things, arrives at his just rights in his creation. When God is God in the world, then no one will want to be anyone else’s Lord and God anymore…

But is this really possible here and now, or is it just a dream?

Jürgen Moltmann in The Power of Powerlessness. I read it in “Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas”. Emphasis mine.
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The wise men and Christmas gifts

I’ve got an uneasy relationship with Christmas and gifts. I’m not great at gift giving in general. And I don’t feel much on the receiving end – it’s clearly not my love language! The forced-ness of gift giving at Christmas, combined with the overwhelming commercial advertising and expectation, combined with remembering something else that’s supposed to be remembered in that season, combined with thinking about our level of consumption and it’s impact on the environment… I’d personally prefer to opt out of the whole thing but that feels too grinch-like so we continue quietly.

So this reading from “The Gospel in Solentiname” hit home. Ernesto Cardenal the priest apparently “does not believe in sermons” and so facilitated small group discussions to help his people understand the stories. The perspectives they share are from such a different world to my own – they were among the poor in Nicaragua at the height of the cold war.

And the comment from Olivia astounded me with its clarity:

When they saw the star again
They were filled with joy.
They went into the house;
they saw the child with Mary his mother,
and they knelt down and worshipped him.
Then they opened their boxes
And gave him presents of gold, incense and myrrh.

Tomás: “They come and open their presents – some perfumes and a few things of gold. It doesn’t seem as if he got big presents. Because those foreigners that could have brought him a big sack of gold, a whole bunch of coins, or maybe bills, they didn’t bring these things. What they brought to him were little things… That’s the way we ought to go, poor, humble, the way we are. At least that’s what I think”.

Olivia: “It’s on account of these gifts from the wise men that the rich have the custom of giving presents at Christmas. But they give them to each other”.

The Gospel in Solentiname. I read it in “Watch for the light, readings for Advent and Christmas”.

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Knowledge and movement (the wise men and the scribes)

A very simple observation from Søren Kierkegaard on the difference between knowledge and action (commenting on the story of the Wise Men consulting the scribes in Jerusalem for the location of the Messiah):

Although the scribes could explain where the Messiah should be born, they remained quite unperturbed in Jerusalem. They did not accompany the Wise Men to seek him. Similarly, we may know the whole of Christianity, yet make no movement. The power that moves heaven and earth leaves us completely unmoved.

What a difference! The three kings had only a rumour to go by. But it moved them to make that long journey. The scribes were much better informed, much better versed…

Who had the more truth? The three kings who followed a rumour, or the scribes who remained sitting with all their knowledge?

Søren Kierkegaard (from Meditations from Kierkegaard, edited and translated by T.H. Croxall. I read it in “Watch for the Light”)
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Blogging as an “ideas garden”

Mark Carrigan has a post “How blogging is different from tweeting“. I particularly loved his description of blogging as an “ideas garden”:

It occurred to me recently that I feel extremely differently about ‘outputs’ via Twitter than blogs. I first came across the notion of the ‘ideas garden’ via Doug Belshaw and it suggests a blog can be seen as a place where you help ideas take root and grow.

This contrasts with the inherently performative feel of Twitter where the focus on immediate feedback means that individual item becoming a focal point for your reflection. In other words I care about the reaction a tweet gets because it is self-standing and immediately public whereas a blog post is an element of a large whole. It is a contribution to growing my ideas garden, for my own later use and whatever enjoyment others find in it, rather than something I have expectations of receiving a reaction for.

The blog itself then comes to feel like something more than the sum of its parts: a cumulative production over 13 years and 5000+ posts which captures my intellectual development in a way more granular and authentic than anything I could manage by myself. Over time I see old posts I’d forgotten about resurfacing as people stumble across them and this long tail heightens my sense of the emergent whole. It’s become an ideas forest which people wander into from different directions, finding trails which I had long since forgotten about and inviting me to explore a now overgrown area to see if I should begin tending to it once more.

https://markcarrigan.net/2023/05/22/how-blogging-is-different-from-tweeting/

Other people I’ve seen do this really well:

I’m inspired to try do a bit more of my thinking publicly, particularly about my work in the software industry (both cutting code and leading people).

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An anchor for the soul

  1. In many times and in many ways, God speaks
  2. We may drift away
  3. It was only right
  4. Where you’ll find God
  5. “Stay soft”: Sabbath rest
  6. The difference between right and wrong
  7. An anchor for the soul
  8. Our great desire

Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can have great confidence as we hold to the hope that lies before us. This hope is a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls.

Hebrews 6

These words and metaphors have been ones I’ve found myself clinging to and meditating on through what has been a pretty rough ride in my life this year.

Fleeing to God for refuge. A hope that gives us confidence. An anchor to hold us steady.

These images have helped give my soul a sense of stability when life has felt incredibly unstable.

But I’d usually imagine the anchor holding us in place in the storm. Then I listened to Krista Tippett (host of On Being) interview Kate Bowler (host of Everything Happens). Kate was diagnosed with terminal cancer as a young mother at 35. Somehow, she’s still here, and so her take on “Hope” carries extra weight.

Tippett: What at this point is your working definition of hope?

Bowler: I think before I would’ve said it was something like certainty. I might have looked from a doctrinal perspective and been like, “Well, Krista, thank you for asking, I actually have six things about God I’d love to tell you.” Because depending on your story of faith, it’s a long timescale — that it’s the consummation of the earth and the great triumph of good over evil, et cetera, et cetera. But I think hope now feels like God and love is like an anchor that’s dropped way in the future. And I’m just, along with everyone else, being slowly pulled toward it. And that feeling won’t always feel like the details of my life have somehow clicked into place and that I get to feel the fullness of my life. But that, ultimately, that this is a good story. It’s just not only mine.

From an interview with Krista Tippett and Kate Bowler on the On Being podcast

Not an anchor holding us in place, but “an anchor that’s dropped way in the future. And I’m just, along with everyone else, being slowly pulled toward it.”

That’s hope.

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Barbara Brown Taylor and “This Hunger for Holiness”

“On Being with Krista Tippett” has long been my favourite podcasts, and this interview with Barbara Brown Taylor is a new favourite episode. In their conversation they follow Taylor’s life and some of her teaching, exploring the wandering and wilderness of a life of faith, the idea of the body, ecology and the incarnation being crucial to spiritual life, and what “the death of God” and “the death of the church” look like in a world where churches are emptying but “spiritual but not religious” or “none” just don’t do justice to the new thing that people are seeking and experiencing.

I think it is so true that people are talking about loss of faith, loss of God, and I think it’s loss of church. I really think it’s church that’s suffering now. And it was suffering long before COVID put it in isolation. But I think a lot of people during that couple of years, I’ve talked to them, who discovered either how eager they were to get back or that they weren’t going back. So I do think this is about church. And I didn’t understand Altizer this way, and his colleagues. He wasn’t the only guy. He just got famous for saying, “God is dead.”

But I remember not too long ago looking back into that theology again, and realized that at least some of those people were talking about God emptying God’s self into the world. That’s a familiar thing for people who’ve been initiated into Christian language, that Jesus poured himself into the world, emptied himself into the world. So I am intrigued by the idea of what it means for the church to be emptying now. And I am still naïve enough to believe…

… I trust the Holy Spirit, Krista. That’s where I’m still real religious, is I still trust that wind that blows things around, and you don’t know where it came from and you don’t know where it goes, but it’s going to blow. And it’s blowing all the time.

Barbara Brown Taylor, in interview with “On Being with Krista Tippett”
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Where you’ll find God

  1. In many times and in many ways, God speaks
  2. We may drift away
  3. It was only right
  4. Where you’ll find God
  5. “Stay soft”: Sabbath rest
  6. The difference between right and wrong
  7. An anchor for the soul
  8. Our great desire

Christ, as the Son, is in charge of God’s entire house. And we are God’s house, if we keep our courage and remain confident in our hope in Christ.

Hebrews 3

When I hear a phrase like “God’s house” the image that comes to my mind is usually a giant building. Perhaps one of the cathedrals of Europe, perhaps a more modern auditorium setting, or perhaps an imagined palatial setting that’s giant and magnificent and heavenly. But in my mind, it’s usually a building.

But here the writer reminds us very clearly that we are God’s house. It’s not a building, it’s people.

It’s also not a single person – it’s plural. They don’t say “and I am God’s house” or “and we are God’s houses”. All of us, together, are where God chooses to live.

And so if you want to find God, your best bet is to look where other humans are gathered.

And that’s what the word church actually means – the gathering, the assembly of people. The building isn’t where God is found. We, the people, are where God is found.

For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”

Jesus in Matthew 18

You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by people, but he was chosen by God for great honor. And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests.

Peter in 1 Peter 2

Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

Paul in 1 Corinthians 3

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’

Jesus in Matthew 25
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Dead Stars by Ada Limón

I was listening to an interview with Krista Tippett and Ada Limón, and it was a beautiful, fun, hilarious interview. When she read the poem “Dead Stars” near the end of the interview I was brought to tears.

Here’s the interview.

And here’s the poem:

Out here, there’s a bowing even the trees are doing.
Winter’s icy hand at the back of all of us.
Black bark, slick yellow leaves, a kind of stillness that feels
so mute it’s almost in another year.

I am a hearth of spiders these days: a nest of trying.

We point out the stars that make Orion as we take out
the trash, the rolling containers a song of suburban thunder.

It’s almost romantic as we adjust the waxy blue
recycling bin until you say, Man, we should really learn
some new constellations.

And it’s true. We keep forgetting about Antlia, Centaurus,
Draco, Lacerta, Hydra, Lyra, Lynx.

But mostly we’re forgetting we’re dead stars too, my mouth is full
of dust and I wish to reclaim the rising —

to lean in the spotlight of streetlight with you, toward
what’s larger within us, toward how we were born.

Look, we are not unspectacular things.
We’ve come this far, survived this much. What

would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?

What if we stood up with our synapses and flesh and said, No.
No, to the rising tides.

Stood for the many mute mouths of the sea, of the land?

What would happen if we used our bodies to bargain

for the safety of others, for earth,
if we declared a clean night, if we stopped being terrified,

if we launched our demands into the sky, made ourselves so big
people could point to us with the arrows they make in their minds,

rolling their trash bins out, after all of this is over?

The lines that cut through me: “Look, we are not unspectacular things We’ve come this far, survived this much. What would happen if we decided to survive more? To love harder?”

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Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg on the scriptures in Leviticus used to justify homophobia

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg has been one of my favourite religious teachers for a few years now. Recently she’s written up two posts exploring what she calls “clobber” texts: verses in the Bible (Hebrew Bible in this case) that are used to clobber the LGBTQ community and justify homophobia / transphobia.

Links to the two articles:

Her analysis is useful (and entertaining) and I imagine I’ll be coming back to these if I ever find myself in a discussion with someone trying to justify homophobia based on the Bible.

Beyond her unpacking of these verses and ways to interpret them, two things stood out to me. First: the role of scripture teachers in a world where religious fundamentalism is taking hold again. She lives in the USA where fundamentalist Christians are gaining significant political power and shaping laws to force their worldview onto others. The reality in Australia’s politics is different, but you see the same religious fundamentalism play out in power structures at the level of families and schools and communities.

Because in the days when drag bans are getting passed and gun bans aren’t, knowing your text inside and out matters.

We have to fight against the encroaching theocracy in many ways at once. One of those ways includes disemboweling bad readings of sacred texts—especially the bad readings that are used to harm people—at every available opportunity.

The other thing that stood out was her willingness to criticise the patriarchal and homophobic ideology when that’s what is in the text. Growing up evangelical, I had been taught “all scripture is God breathed”, and when something in there was completely out of step with our contemporary values, we either tried to change our values to match, or tried to reinterpret the text in some way that downplayed the parts we disagreed with. The Rabbi on the other hand isn’t afraid to question and criticise the scripture itself and the major rabbinic commentary through history – acknowledging it as tainted by human prejudices – even while somehow approaching it with care, treating it as sacred, and allowing it to speak.

As much as I love to hold up the more optimistic texts in my corpus, it’s still a very patriarchal tradition and we have plenty with which to reckon.