Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Unbinding Isaac

A d'var Torah (sermon) given at Congregation Shir Libeynu for the second day of Rosh Hashanah on Genesis 22:1-19.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be holy and acceptable in your sight, Adonai our Strength and our Redeemer.
What an honor to be asked to give a talk for the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I told Rabbi Aviva in the spring.  And then the realization. Oh great. The Binding of Isaac.
Let's start here: God does not desire, God has never desired, the death of children. I'd go so far as to suggest that any healthy and humane and yes, any truly devout and righteous reaction to this story involves an element of visceral revulsion. It's a great credit to the tradition of scholarship on the passage that Jewish exegesis has for many centuries made space for such responses. The early midrash Bereshit Rabbah imagines God as saying "I never considered telling Abraham to slaughter Isaac," distinguishing between the verb for slaughter and the verb for sacrifice. The Spanish Rabbi Yona Ibn Yanach in the 11th century followed in this tradition when he wrote that God demanded only a symbolic sacrifice. A later Spanish Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi in the 14th century wrote that Abraham allowed his imagination to lead him astray, making him believe that he had been commanded to slay his son. Ibn Caspi asked, "How could God command such a revolting thing?"
Another possibility is that the test is actually not whether Abraham will be willing to sacrifice Isaac, but whether he will have the moral integrity to reply to God, "Are you out of your freaking mind?"--a test he fails.
I find great comfort in these voices of exegetical dissent to the disturbingly broad current of interpretation that in considering this story represses empathy and accepts without hesitation the legitimacy of God asking anything God wants, or at very least the legitimacy of God testing Abraham by asking for something so outrageous that he never intended for Abraham to go through with it. "Hey, just kidding," says the angel, which supposedly turns it into a story of God's mercy and favor to one so righteous that he's assented to an atrocity. Such interpretations remain blind not only to the monstrous pressure this puts on Abraham's motivations, but to the trauma suffered by Isaac--a trauma that some have identified as scarring Isaac for life and leading down the generations to some of the spectacular relational dysfunction that follows in the later chapters of Genesis. That kind of emotional dissociation in the interpretation of scripture has led to some heartless attitudes in all three of the Abrahamic religions, as English biologist Richard Dawkins has gleefully pointed out in his ongoing sophomoric rant against all religious faith.
But this morning I want to invite you down a path that begins by looping back for its starting point to Yosef ibn Caspi's suggestion that we might read this story as an account of Abraham being awakened, in the nick of time, from a delusion into which his own imperfect perception of the Divine had led him. I invite you to consider the story as exemplifying the possibilities of our developing understanding of God--through all human religious history, through the history of Judaism, and through the course of our own individual spiritual journeys.
In other words, we have to make  a radical distinction between what Abraham perceives God as saying to him, and what HaShem, the Ground of our Being, could possibly whisper in the hearts of the righteous. So I'm asking you to entertain the possibility that when the text says that God spoke to Abraham, we can read this as stating Abraham’s own point of view at the time, not an absolute point of view that establishes the demand to sacrifice Isaac as the genuine will of God. We might support this argument by observing that the description of the command to sacrifice, at the beginning of the parshat, is notably distinct from the last-minute command to stop. We hear at the very beginning of the reading that Elohim tests Abraham. Later, it's not Elohim but an angel who speaks, and more perhaps to the point, God is referred to this time not as Elohim, but by the Divine Name, as Adonai. Some modern scholars have suggested that this represents a splicing of originally separate narratives, or alternatively, that the prevention of the sacrifice represents an interpolation that reflects the unease of later redactors with the story. In any case, if we put pressure on this distinction of language, it's also striking that the voice of deliverance is not the voice of Elohim Godself, but of Adonai's messenger.
We don't have to look far into the record of religious self-assurance to see Abraham's deluded certainty at work. We can see it in the collusion of multiple Christian denominations in the tragedy of the residential school system, with its decades of attempted cultural genocide against the First Nations. We can see it in theocratic tyranny  over the lives of generations of women and children in Ireland. We can see it in the rise of Hindu fundamentalist violence in India. We can see it in Buddhist violence against the Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar. We can see it in the horrors of Muslim-on-Muslim violence in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria. We see it in the refusal of ultra-Orthodox settlers to cease from further illegal appropriation of West Bank land to which they have no rightful claim. We can see it in stabbing attacks on marchers in the Tel Aviv Pride parade. We can see it in American Christian fundamentalists picketing the funerals of men who died of AIDS in the 1990s and the funeral of Matthew Sheppard when he died of a brutal queer-bashing outside Laramie, Wyoming. In all these cases, it's the certainty that there is no gap between God and our understanding of God and God's will that has laid Isaac on the altar and put the knife in Abraham's hand.
In and of itself, this isn't a hard lesson for most of us in this particular congregation to absorb. Shir Libeynu exists in great part because many of us have had the experience of being Isaac, laid on somebody else's altar. Many of us had the experience of leaving the faith communities of our origin because of the marginalization we felt as feminist women, as queer, as intermarried, as not Jewish enough, as not Jewish at all. Speaking for myself, I'm here not only in spiritual solidarity with my partner Jonathan, but because of the deep, solemn joy I derive from being called to account in light of the original goodness of my created nature, our created nature; the deep joy I derive from being called in these Yamim Noraim to take part in the sanctification of time itself--a joy I simply cannot find in the self-abnegating penitential practices of Lent in the Christian tradition in which I was reared, and in which I still participate, albeit with a wary, critical edge.
That said, it's incumbent on us this holy day to remember that we're called to account for the ways in which we've also been Abraham with the knife in our hand, in which we continue to be Abraham, ready to do something terrible if we're not listening for a voice that comes from beyond the limits of our imagination to call us back from the brink. The paradox of our lives is that we can be both Isaac and Abraham at once--even when our liberal, freethinking credentials are impeccable. In our own small way, we participate in Abraham's misguided zeal every time we justify our behaviour toward others by imagining that there's no gap between our conception of the Divine and the Divine itself. Every time we're not prepared to hear the angel say, "Dayenu, already. That's your child on the altar, and any god you imagine might desire his death is not Adon Olam, the Rock of your Salvation and the Sustainer of heaven and earth."
We let ourselves too easily off the hook when we imagine it's only others who can set up their own sense of divinely sanctioned certainty like an internal mental idol on whose altar we're prepared to immolate love. Today's parshat invites us to recognize that our conception of the Holy One is always imperfect, always provisional, always fall short. It warns us that we're likely to go the farthest off course when we forget that and forge ahead, using our own understanding of truth and righteous action to ride roughshod over the dignity, the livelihood, even the lives of others.
More optimistically, today's reading reminds us simultaneously that humanity is capable of spiritual growth, that religious traditions are capable of spiritual growth, that we as individuals are capable of spiritual growth, and that our errors, even our truly terrible errors, once we put them behind us, are themselves part of the path forward. Abraham hears the angel and lowers the hand that he held ready to strike. Ireland votes for same-sex marriage. The Confederate battle flag comes down from the South Carolina Statehouse. Parents who've ostracized queer kids come around to love and inclusion and celebration of their children's lives. Kids who've shut out newly self-declared queer parents, or divorced parents, or polyamorous parents, come around to empathy and acceptance. An eighteenth-century slaveship captain turns his boat around in mid-Atlantic and sails back to Africa, goes on to write Amazing Grace, and spends the rest of his life as an abolitionist. We let go of our self-assured knowledge and stop using God, or God's will, or our notion of Truth with the dreaded capital T, in order to justify making those around us into objects of our sacrifice. We open our eyes to the fact that beyond our imperfect understanding, it's the beloved who lies at risk right before our eyes, it's the beloved we're ready to slay who shows us the genuine presence of the Holy One, and the deeper Truth. The angel not only stops Abraham in the nick of time, but blesses him for the worthiness of his desire to serve God that has coexisted with his delusion.
We're all Abraham. At the same time, we're also all Isaac. And I invite you, as these Days of Awe continue to unfold, to engage in some midrash of your own, imagining what it was like as Abraham unbound his beloved child. What passed between them? Did the angel hang out for a while coaching them through a sort of personalized Truth and Reconciliation process? Or just disappear, as angels so often do? Did they break down weeping together at the side of the road, as Jacob and Esau will do two generations on? Did they succeed in the work of healing as they went back down the mountain, rejoined the servants, made their way back to Sarah?

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sunday, September 6, 2015

S is For Sexual. E is for Ethics.

I know men who say they experienced no shame around being queer in their formative years. I try not to be unduly skeptical. But it’s a stretch. My personal pathologies aside, most of what I’ve observed tells me that for queer men, shame and sexual awakening are closely bound together--as indeed, they are for many more people, women and men, straight and not so straight, than the facile images and narratives of commercial culture might suggest. The widespread success of Alan Downs’ book, The Velvet Rage, suggests how many men who love men find themselves mirrored by its analysis of the role erotic humiliation and rejection have played in the lives of gay boys and youths. Nor am I convinced that even a Supreme Court decision affirming the legitimacy of same-sex marriage gets at the root of the shaming many of us experienced at the age of five, or twelve, or fifteen.

When we emerge into communities fully accepting of our erotic integrity, it’s like arrival in a Promised Land. I’m not talking here only about life in gay-positive neighbourhoods, work in queer-positive institutions, worship in queer-positive churches, shuls, temples. I’m talking about the moments of connection and, yes, I’ll use the word grace, that many of us have experienced in bathhouses, sex clubs, networks of lovers and friends-with-benefits, faerie gatherings, erotic workshops--moments so vividly captured by Mark Doty in the poem to which I included a link here a couple of weeks ago.
When we cross over into such spaces, our affirmation of one another is a natural extension of the affirmation we’re amazed and relieved finally to have experienced ourselves. Go to the Folsom Street Fair or to Dore Alley, or to the festivals they’ve inspired far from San Francisco, and, amidst what moralists are quick to condemn as hedonistic exhibitionism, you’ll see an affectionate cameraderie, even an innocence, that comes when when we can finally let go of fear.
It makes sense that we compensate for years of condemnation and rejection by doing our best to celebrate the difference of others’ erotic lives from our own--and to set aside our negative reactions to the sexual diversity of those around us. That’s part of our healing, and part of healing one another.
At the same time: on guard against ourselves becoming sexual oppressors, we’re capable of coming to view the very concept of “sexual ethics” warily, almost as a contradiction in terms. Instead of looking deeply for the roots of our erotic longings in the bedrock and groundwater of our souls, we throw up our hands, abandoning the work of self-reflection, as though the search for deeper awareness were itself tainted with repression.
Feminist analysis is way ahead of us on this. Women have ample occasion every day to see and experience all too directly the emotional and social havoc and violence wreaked by  unreflective sexual assumptions and practices. We kid ourselves if we imagine that being queer wipes our slate clean of the exploitative messages about sex-as-self-aggrandisement that pretty much all cisgendered boys and men in a society like ours begin absorbing from early childhood on.
We let ourselves off the hook, when what we need most authentically is the insight to distinguish what truly feeds us and enables our growth, and each other’s growth, from what leaves us stuck, dissatisfied, only half-awake to who we are--and oblivious to our failures to treat one another with reverence and respect.
We’re capable of failing to call ourselves and one another to account. We play mutual consent like a trump card to rationalize compulsive, abusive, or seriously dangerous behavior  when it creeps into our own lives--or say nothing when we see it creeping into the lives of those we know. By focusing on acting out our fantasies rather than on why they speak to us in the first place, we slough off the deeper work of coming to understand, and encouraging one another to understand, how and from where they arise , how best to accept their presence as seeds within us that we can choose to water, and when, and how--or not (to use a Buddhist metaphor).
One of the most satisfying aspects of John Cameron Mitchell’s wonderful film Shortbus is that the sexual explorations of pretty much all its characters involve their growth and their awareness of one another’s deep humanity. It’s a beautiful example of what the living out of an unapologetic queer sexual ethics might look like: unstinting in its acceptance of the lives of others on their own terms, full of detours and trips up blind allies, and at the same time mindful that what we do with our own and one another’s bodies, we do as well with our souls and theirs.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Guest Post: The Lingam Puja, Dear Love Edition – July 2015

Continuing the focus of some of my recent posts on the practice of Lingam Puja as a meditative ritual honoring the sacred dimension of queer men's desire and sexuality, here is a reflection by Br. Bob on his experience of leading the Puja as a daily practice for a week this July just past. Br. Bob is a full-time minister who has explored the embodiment of spirituality for the last several years through various workshops that he's attended and at which he's assisted. What he shares below bears vivid witness that authentic ritual grows from the roots up out of the practice of a community that takes ownership of the form.

This summer I had the opportunity to assist at a week-long workshop at Easton Mountain in upstate New York: Dear Love of Comrades, which is the first-level intensive offered by the Body Electric School. Each morning, the men attending the workshop were required to choose among several meditative movement practices, which included a yoga class and a meditative hike. I had experienced the Lingam Puja meditation practice offered by David Townsend two summers ago at another Body Electric week-long intensive. I had found it then to be a good meditative practice to begin my day, so I wanted to offer it for this new group of men.
I contacted David and asked for the ritual format, which he graciously shared with me, and set about assembling the necessary supplies before I left for the workshop. It was interesting for me to learn where I could find camphor to use as incense for the ritual, as well as a few of the other items. I was excited I could bring into the ritual the singing bowl I’d acquired a few months ago and that is part of my daily personal morning practices.
Arriving the day before the workshop, I found the area around the large carved and charred wooden phallus overgrown with weeds and wild flowers. David had told me about his experience of walking on the weeds when he created the space two years ago, and how it had been a meditative process unto itself for him. So, that Sunday afternoon in the high heat and humidity, I started doing the same thing, walking clockwise in ever-growing circles to flatten out the vegetation so others would perceive it as a ritual space. In short order the meditation circle began to be as evident as my sweat-soaked clothing! Finally, I decided it was time for me to get relief and go cool off in the outdoor pool to relax.
The next day, I enlisted the help of another man who would be a participant in the workshop. We used collapsed cardboard boxes to flatten the circle better and make the space even more welcoming. Being someone whose vocation involves celebrating rituals and leading others in them, I still felt some apprehension about how participants would receive this new-to-them ritual, and how I would feel in leading it.
The next day, I awoke early before my alarm, showered,  and trekked out to the remote area where the Lingam Puja circle was located to set the remaining ritual pieces in place: a sarong to decorate the lingam; small citronella garden candles for the perimeter of the circle to provide a sense of the holy – but also to help ward off the insects. I lit the candle near the lingam; chimed my singing bowl; lit a few pieces of camphor to incense the area; and set up three small vases to receive the flower offerings of the brothers who would gather.

Then I went to greet the brothers who would participate, and in silence we walked out to the Lingam Puja circle as they gathered a wildflower or two to make their offering. I welcomed them formally one by one into the circle and made a bindi on their foreheads using ritual powder obtained from an Indian grocery store near my home, where I also found the camphor. Then after being welcomed, they placed their flowers in the vases on the stump altar next to the lingam and chimed the singing bowl.

Then after an opening prayer, we took turns stating our intention for the day and having that intention bound to us by tying a red thread on our wrist. Following that, we silently walked clockwise at our own pace around the lingam until it was time to close the ritual. As we walked in meditation, men would reverence or embrace the lingam, light more camphor incense, or perform some other action meaningful to them. Once I chimed the end of our meditation time by ringing the singing bowl, we gathered arm-in-arm around the lingam and chanted Om three times to formally close the meditation and then offered each other a morning embrace.
I found that the challenge of leading the ritual and keeping track of time initially distracted me. But as the week progressed, I became more at home with it. My apprehensions decreased, and I felt more in union with the rhythm of it. I also found-- surprisingly, for I am NOT a morning person--that I would awake every day without my alarm and look forward to my solitary personal time when I would re-set the ritual space for that morning’s practice. I loved the peacefulness and connection with nature that it afforded me before I had to “be on” in exercising my leadership of the group’s practice. And I was challenged the one day when rain threatened and a brisk breeze made keeping the altar candle lit almost impossible!
I was also moved each day by the group’s practice - how different men would experience emotional connections in themselves and with the earth and with spirit through this simple yet profound action. It reminded me so much how our capacity and commitment to be “present” – fully focused and intent on an action – allows us to be connected to and become conduits of spirit. This then allows us to connect with spirit in others and in creation itself. This basic truth is something that I learn and experience and witness over and over again. It reminds me that I am always a student and learning all the time. No matter how regularly I engage in spiritual rituals or practices, there is always something new for me to be open to experiencing. I simply need to surrender to the spirit’s invitation and trust it will reveal what I need to do, if anything.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

On a California Mountaintop

A Lingam Puja at Body's Electric's Erotic Temple retreat, Wildwood, Guerneville.
Photo by Arnie Katz

Monday, August 10, 2015

Mark Doty: Homo Will Not Inherit

Here is one of our finest and most gifted gay poets, as he describes flesh ablaze with Spirit...

Friday, July 24, 2015

"God Expects Just One Thing of You...

that you should come out of yourself insofar as you are a created being and let God be God in you."

--Meister Eckhart

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Goal

The goal of an erotic spiritual practice isn't satisfaction.

The goal is to embrace desire as Life's unbounded and endless longing for Itself.
To take it as a teacher.
To see that what you have, you cannot possess.
To see that what you lack, you already have.

Thursday, July 2, 2015


The cat leaps onto the altar.
Settles. Then up again, steps across, 
nuzzles the lily aside
to drink from the bowl where it floats.
Jumps down, curls against a thigh.
A wren in the tree goes berserk with anxious chatter,
the cat creeps off.
The meditator
(who would be me)
calls her back,
calls himself back to the mala, to his breath,
though none of it was departure.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Very Partial Truth

If you're a gay or bi man who's never put your arms around a two-foot phallus under the open sky, I suggest you give it a try. You might be surprised what it brings up. So to speak.

I'm not being coy in saying that I have no idea what it could call forth in you. But I'll go so far as to suggest it may prove powerful.
If you're doing it somewhere you might be seen by others--like the public park where I lead a (relatively discreet) Lingam Puja ritual about once a month--it may elicit a very understandable unease. ("Oh, my God," a friend told me, recounting how he'd felt the first time he attended, with a succession of dog walkers passing on the footpath near the oak under which we gather. "I'm going to fly apart now.")
It may be a way of saying no to shame.
You may be repulsed, if it represents for you yet another expression of commercialized gay male culture's obsession with cock size and impersonal sex for its own sake.
Or it may feel like you're embracing an energy that informs your whole life, and that somehow is far, far vaster and more substantial than your own sexual experience, an energy that flows though you and unites you with all of nature, with your male ancestors, with your brothers, friends and lovers, with your sons and your sons' sons, with the sons of the men you love, that offers healing and regeneration and reassurance of your place in the world.
You may feel that, paradoxically, to embrace this energy fully prepares you better to honor and admire and relate honestly and equally to the miracle of women's sexuality, their bodies and their experience.
I can't tell you how you'll react, but I can share how I reacted last week. This is a very partial truth, not the truth for women, not the truth for trans folk, not the truth for all men. Perhaps the truth for you, and perhaps not.
Bending down to embrace the Lingam set up in my garden, a realization blossomed that had long remained curled as a tight bud in my soul. My penis was my lifeline as an adolescent, at the very time when I felt nothing but shame over my flowering sexuality, when I thought of it as an affliction and fought endlessly to pretend it didn't exist. Without my cock, without the longings of my body and its capacity for pleasure, declaring itself in every erection, in every wet dream, in every ejaculation after hours of edging as I tried to hold back, my soul would have imploded to a withered singularity. I would have become nothing more than my superego, a shell of repression surrounding emptiness.
My cock saved me. And its energy and reality was and is an energy and reality that's pulsed through the whole length of human history, and back beyond that to the beginnings of sexual reproduction hundreds of millions of years ago. It's the miracle of my father's orgasm that initiated my existence. It's tied from earth to heaven, from the male human to the Divine, by its representation in the phallic gods of every tradition. Egyptian Min masturbating the cosmos into existence. Hindu Shiva endlessly ejaculating the Ganges. Roman Priapus watching over the garden with his comically outsized erection. The Sacred Cock of Jesus, sanctifying men's embodiment and drawing it up into Divinity--as God's Holy Wisdom, the Womb of Creation, divinizes as well women's experience in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Cernunnos of the Celts, horned god of the forest. Pan with the flute he plays and the flute that juts out between his furry legs. Quetzlcoatl, the Feathered Serpent of the Aztecs.
This energy is within me. I am the bearer of this energy. I want to move through the world as the bearer of this energy. I want to embrace it, embody it.  I want to sit straight in meditation, stand straight in walking, my spine an erection, my torso a pump and conduit to draw the Kundalini energy of the Goddess from the earth and pour it out for the healing of the world,  the crown of my head a meatus shooting metaphysical semen into the universe. I want my seed to fall as an offering to the earth. In the cycle of longing and release, I want to embrace change and the impermanence of all things.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

A Prayer on Awakening

Modeh ani l'fanecha ru'ach chai v'kayam.

Thankful I am before you, the Abiding Spirit.

When I say modah (thankful), I connect with my sense of gratitude. Then ani (I) with my sense of self. I'm the one that's saying this prayer. Then l'fanecha (before You), and suddenly it's not about me. It's about You, God, the One is whose Presence I am. And so on. I'll go through each prayer like that and that's how my heart is able to connect. It's coming from inside me. It's not intellectual. I embody the prayer. I allow myself to say, then really experience, gratitude.

Rabbi Zari M. Weiss.
Photograph by the late Oscar Wolfman.