Nourishing Myths: The Journey of Being a Rational Person of Faith

Delivered at Temple Sinai, Rosh Hashanah 5776/2015

Shanah Tova! I am delighted to be celebrating the New Year with Temple Sinai. Thank you all for welcoming me into your community.

Next to my desk hangs a poem with a line I go back to often: It reads: “I can’t talk about God and make any sense, and I can’t not talk about God and make any sense.”  I want to start with this line because it can be vulnerable and difficult in the liberal Jewish community to speak about God and faith – yet they are the huge and holy elephants in the sanctuary, so to speak, when we come together on the High Holidays. 

We liberal American Jews have an easy time identifying as people of community, education, text, social action, acts of loving-kindness, even of spiritual seekers. But in our innermost lives, my experience is that not many of us easily identify as "people of faith."  

As I find myself in powerful gatherings where the identity of People of Faith is what brings the group together, the question of faith and liberal Judaism has gotten more urgent for me. What does it mean to be people of faith in a religious context that does not require us to believe in God, and in a social context that trusts and relies on science? What does it mean to be people of faith in an ancient religion that has historically placed more emphasis on action than creed?  In short, what does it mean to be rational people of faith?

I really want to ask this question because in my life and work I have seen the power of faith in social justice work, in healing from trauma and addiction, in reconciling with loved ones, in staying alive after devastating loss. The orientation that there is something bigger than ourselves that we can never fully understand but that we are in intimate relationship with – this orientation toward life seems to be incredibly helpful in building resilience and a life of meaning. 

I think the question of faith begins with our relationship to Myth, that the great human endeavor of sacred story, what Carl Jung understood as the collective human subconscious, or our communal dreams.

Part of why the word faith can be hard for liberal American Jews is that some faith, which I would call unreasonable, believes myth literally. My teacher Sol Schimmel calls the grip of this faith the tenacity of unreasonable beliefs. In a Jewish context these beliefs include (among others) that God created the physical world in six days, that God gave the Torah to the Israelites on Mount Sinai on a day in history, and that he land of Israel was promised to the Jews by the God of the universe. 

Joseph Campbell, scholar and master of world myth, strongly refutes this stance. He writes: “Holy tales and their images are messages to the conscious mind from quarters of the spirit unknown to normal daylight consciousness... [I]f read as referring to events in the field of space and time – whether of the future, present, or past – they will have been misread and their force deflected...”(Myths to Live by, pp.26). In other words, when read as fact, myths actually lose their power to dynamically guide our lives.

Yet the tendency of modern people to dismiss and critique our myths as false can also rob us of their deep psycho-spiritual force. As my husband scribbled in the back of a book on myth, “Blame the Enlightenment! Those bastards killed mythology!” 

So how can we walk the middle path between unreasonable belief in and scornful dismissal of myth? The answer for me begins with direct experience, with allowing ourselves to be immersed in the myth before analyzing or dismissing it. Jewish tradition has many ritual opportunities to physically experience our heritage myths, the sacred stories of our tradition. When we sit in a sukkah in a few weeks, we will be enacting the story of God's protective presence hovering in the desert while the Israelites wandered. When we sit around a seder table, singing songs and eating matzah and maror, we are enacting the myth of the Exodus from Egypt.  

The great myth of the High Holiday season is that we – and the whole world – are standing on trial before the Holy One of Blessing, and that our lives hang in the balance of this courtroom. For many of us, this myth incites protest from our egalitarian and democratic values. So  I invite you to notice the protest inside yourself if it's there. But I also invite you to let yourself experience the myth the way you might get absorbed in a good book or movie. 

There you are, in the defendant’s seat, taking your turn, as we all must today. Imagine it. 

If you place yourself before a God who represents all your values of love and justice, if you really put yourself into this story, how does it go for you

How closely have you lived according to your values? What reasons have you had for not living up to them?

Rosh Hashanah is the Day of Judgment, and it is also God’s coronation day. So let's step into that myth. Imagine yourself in a great hall with trumpets sounding and a crown waiting for the Sovereign. Who is coming down the aisle in a scarlet robe? What do you crown as sovereign in your days? What God, what values, what guiding principles do you aspire to serve in your life?  What, today, are you swearing allegiance to?

I think that if we can really sit with these questions and feel around the edges of them to the beginning of some working draft of an answer, we are being people of faith. If we can show up again and again to the values we hold sovereign, we are acting on our faith.  Whether we sense a personal or cosmic God, or we do not, we can lead our daily lives with these aspirations as arrows, guiding us and inspiring us, even obligating us to live with more devotion, more love.  That is the power of the heritage myth of Rosh Hashanah.

But we need not wait for a holiday to lean on our heritage myths. When we long for a child we are Abraham and Sarah yearning to conceive. When we feel jealousy we are Joseph’s brothers. When we feel trapped or stuck, we are the Israelites longing to leave Egypt.  When we are in the embrace of a loved one we are the people at the foot of Mt. Sinai, receiving the beloved Torah. When we grieve the loss of a dream we are Moses weeping at the edge of the Promised Land. One of my favorite thinkers and authors on the psychology of our myths is Dr. Avivah Zornberg, whose books use Torah to plumb the depths of the human psyche.

Being a rational person of faith means learning our myths, so that we can hear their echoes in our liturgy, in our holidays, in our communal discussions, and in our own moments of joy and struggle.  When we find ourselves in these stories we are doing what the theologians call Narrative Theology. We feel supported by the knowledge that our experience is not unique, that we are not alone, that our sacred stories have been telling of the same human dramas for millennia.

But I also think that our heritage myths are not enough for us today.  They are not enough because while we can find ourselves in them, they are made of characters and symbols that we are always translating in our minds and hearts. Heritage myths are descriptive of the great human experience. But my rational mind wants something to lean on that does not call for interpretation.  I crave a story that I can fully believe about nothing less than the meaning and purpose of my own life. 

To be rational people of faith, I think, means to choose what I would call a Personal Myth for ourselves. We are not handed these Personal Myths clearly, the way we are handed the Heritage Myths. And the criteria are different. While Heritage Myths are supernatural, dreamlike, symbolic, a Personal Myth needs to be congruent with the world we sense and experience so that we don’t need to suspend our disbelief, but can stand within the glow of the myth and look out from within it at our world moment to moment.

All human beings have a Personal Myth (usually more than one!) that we tell ourselves about our lives. Often these myths come from our families of origin, our psychological wiring, or our traumas, and I’m sure the many of you here today who are therapists or have been in therapy will recognize what I’m referring to! 

“The world depends on me to run right so I better not slack on the job” is a Personal Myth. 

“I am a worthless piece of nothing, and don’t deserve love” is a Personal Myth.“

“ I deserve what I want without effort.” is a Personal Myth. 

Often we are not conscious of these myths, or of the ways they affect us, but they are there nonetheless.

I want to suggest that being a rational person of faith means taking two steps in relation to Personal Myth: The first step is being conscious of the big story or stories we are already telling ourselves about our lives. The second step is actively choosing to have faith in a Personal Myth that affirms life and love. 

So I want to share with you a few Personal Myths that I have articulated for myself to lean on: I and every living being, in every moment, are an expression of the Divine creativity of the cosmos.  I am loved by God, and am worthy of love and belonging. I am a spark of the great Consciousness that has developed through evolution with the goal of ever better understanding itself and accompanying itself through the loneliness of Oneness. I am a link in the chain of ancestors and descendants, striving for ever more fulfilling and meaningful lives from generation to generation. I am part of a planetary immune system that is fighting against forces that would squander the future to satisfy greed in the present.

While these affirmations can’t be proven as objectively true, neither can they be proven false! My prayer is that we can each let our rational minds make room for the mystery of the heart, which so badly yearns for story and meaning. This is the work of a person of faith.

The word for faith in Hebrew is emunah. The root for emunah – aleph, mem, nun – has its origins in the concept of trust. It is the root of Amen, the great affirmation. It also connotes support or steadiness, and, fascinatingly, it is the root for the Biblical Hebrew word for nursemaid. From these meanings of the root, we learn that having faith in our myths means allowing ourselves to lean on them, allowing them to be steady hands for us in this wavering world. We also learn that having faith in our myths means letting them nourish us as sources of love and heart-opening compassion. They must give us spiritual and psychological sustenance to help us face our lives.

The steady hand and the hand of nourishment are also the archetypal father and mother figures. In other words, the myths we live by and place our faith in are our species way of parenting itself.  They are our inherited wisdom and they are our birthright. 

It is not only for our own sake that we cultivate intimacy with myths; it is for our communal wellbeing, too. As Campbell writes, “the society that cherishes and keeps its myths alive will be nourished from the soundest, richest strata of the human spirit” (Myths to Live By, pp.51). This is our Torah study, our liturgy, and our heritage. 

I invite you this High Holiday season to renew and deepen your relationship with our Heritage Myths, and to articulate your own Personal Myth, your own big story you can tell about your own life as you eat dinner, drive to work, read a book, check email. May you take the time to try on a Personal Myth that that affirms life and love, and that you can lean on, that you can say Amen to! 

Shanah Tova.