Yom Kippur 5777 (2016)

There is no Judge! There is no Judge! There is no Judge!

The very first grown-up book I remember owning was a small volume of poetry and sayings about flowers. My best friend Naomi and I would sit by a small stream in the County Park and read it aloud until we were wrapped in a quiet reverie.

To see the world in a grain of sand, and Heaven in a wild flower; hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour. (William Blake)

When we spoke those words, our eyes were opened, our hearts settled, our breath deepened. The sounds of the trickling stream, the gentle breeze, the buzzing of bees, held us mesmerized. We didn’t have words for this mystery, but we knew enough to sit still and let God touch us.

Then, in synagogue on Saturday mornings, I sat next to my Dad, who wove intricate harmonies into the tapestry of prayer. The sound of Hebrew was magical and moving in the same way that the music of water, wind and bees touched me.

But then there were times when I looked over at the English translation, and thought, “This is wrong. This is just plain wrong.” What I saw there was a picture of a God who judges us, who is angry, punishing, spiteful and downright petty. I knew it was wrong because God had touched me, because I had had a glimpse of the infinite, held it in the palm of my hand. I also knew how fragile, how precious each moment was, like that wildflower that opened the doors of Heaven, but could be blown away in an instant by the next gust of wind.

The God I knew would hold me through all of it, through every storm. To fear God made no sense. It seemed absolutely ridiculous.

When I was 14, I found my way to Jerusalem to place a question into the cracks of the Western Wall. “Do I need to fear you?” I scribbled. I came back two hours later, sure that God had read my question and would answer me. I placed that crumpled scrap of paper in my wallet and left it there until it turned to dust.

It was my rejection of fear that distanced me from the synagogue of my youth. I set out on a spiritual journey that felt more consistent with the promise of the infinite that I had held in my hand, with the mystery and beauty that touched me and opened my heart.

I’ve learned that Fear goes hand-in-hand with judgment. The liturgy of the High Holy Days that we have inherited brings us face to face with a god who is judging us. Will our names be written in the Book of Life? Are we worthy? Avinu Malkaynu, we have sinned before you. We beg for mercy before you, our father, our king… our tyrant. We tremble in fear of your judgment.

Meister Eckhart noticed the debilitating effects of judgment way back in the 12th century. He said:

I find nothing more destructive to the well-being of life
than to support a god that makes you feel unworthy and in debt to it.
I imagine erecting churches to such a strange god will assure
endless wars that commerce loves.

A god that could frighten is not a god — but an insidious idol
and weapon in the hands of the insane.

A god who talks of sin is worshipped
by the infirm.

I learned about judgment through the microcosm of my marriage to Rachmiel. Time and time again I saw that when I held fast to my judgments, he only resisted. And shame could enter with its poison. Time and time again I saw that if I was able to let go of my judgment of him, Rachmiel had the space to grow, learn from his mistakes and become his best self. I learned that by releasing judgment, I was making room for love.

Now, when judgment arises, my practice is to gently release it and breathe deeply into the spaciousness of radical acceptance. For my marriage to thrive, I still must be in keen discernment of my true needs and be able to express those needs… but without the CHARGE that judgment brings.

If this is true in the microcosm of my earthly and conditional marriage, how much more so must it be true in our relationship with God, who loves us unconditionally. To receive that love is to step on to a path of self-realization, becoming worthy, clearing away the obstacles that keep us from shining our unique and precious light. Those obstacles consist of shame, guilt, illusions of separateness, and a state of being at war with ourselves.

I also learned about judgment in the microcosm of my meditation practice. I sit with the intention of being in God’s presence. Just being. When I notice that a thought has hijacked my attention, I gently release it, returning to my intention to be in God’s presence… to just be. In that return, I feel embraced by a Great Mystery, a vast Unity.

I have learned that in that crucial moment of noticing that I’ve been captured by a thought, if I fall into judgment, then I won’t be able to return and receive the grace of Divine presence. If I realize that I’m thinking and say, “What a bad meditator you are; you’ve been lost in that stupid thought for the last 5 minutes!” then the charge of my judgment keeps me on the surface, and that deep place of surrender is inaccessible. And so, my meditation practice teaches me to let go of judgment, moment by moment. I learn to be a compassionate witness, moment by moment. From my meditation practice I learn that by releasing judgment I am making room for love.

If this is true in the microcosm of each moment of meditation, how much more so must it be true for our practice here on Yom Kippur, when we are journeying together in compassion, towards a vision of our essential purity, and our profound connection with all Life. At the climax of the ancient Yom Kippur ritual, the high priest enters the Holy of Holies, and sees something so very essential, so extraordinary. He comes out, speaks the Holy Name, then looks at each and everyone of us and says “Tit’haru!” You are Pure!

There is a story about the Kotzker Rebbe, spread by his enemies who are trying to prove that he had become a heretic. They say that it seemed like a storm was brewing within him. He locked himself in his room, paced and roared like a lion all night as a deep sorrow enveloped his entire being.

When it was time to welcome Shabbat, they say, he lifted the Kiddush cup and proclaimed, “There is no judgment and there is no judge.” This was considered a moment of blasphemy that was tragic for the Chasidic movement which then splintered into factions. The Kotzker Rebbe went into seclusion for the next 20 years until his death.

But perhaps the Kotzker saw clearly what the high priest once witnessed in the Holy of Holies. Perhaps rather than it being a denial of God, his proclamation was an affirmation of the true God who sees us all as PURE, and worthy. We are already forgiven. If “there is no judge,” then each of us is worthy and empowered to stand in covenant with the Holy One, to bring beauty and justice to our world.

I came back to Jewish practice when back in the 1980’s, I met The Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley, a zany group of hippies who insisted that Jewishing could be a fun, creative, inspiring adventure. When I was asked to help lead the High Holy Day services, and dove into the liturgy, I was once again shocked to meet a judging God, who seemed to me… in Eckhart’s word,“an insidious idol and weapon in the hands of the insane.” But instead of walking away, I took the Jewish path of engagement. I wrestled with the images of Judge, Father and King. Those metaphors felt infantilizing at a time when I was searching for empowerment.

This song came to me back then. I stopped singing it after a while because it got me in a whole lot of trouble. But it still feels true, and even necessary to sing it in order to break the spell of Judgment. I offer it today in order to clear the way for a relationship with God that is nurturing, empowering and intimate.

No More Big Daddy
The Monarchy is dead
I take responsibility
  for the Devils in my head
My love is like a circle
  that spins to set me free
My heart belongs to the Lord
  who doesn’t Lord it over me.

Sometimes we feel like children
Sometimes we feel grown up
Sometimes we look for God below
  and sometimes we look up
When we keep God in the sky
  we put Religion on the shelf
I pray with all humility
  to find God in my Self.

Chorus: No more…

Let’s take our rightful place
  beside the throne of the Divine
Open up our hearts
  and leave our fear and pride behind
Let’s cross that mighty river
  into the Holy Land
Just open up your fist
  and find the truth inside your hand.