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Filling the Empty Space

Judy Gussmann's Adult Bat Mitzvah Talk • June 18, 2016 

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Judy Gussmann has organized and facilitated dialogue groups of many sorts, including between Jews and Palestinians, Jews and Germans, and Jews holding different points of view about Israel. She lives in Berkeley, and is organizing a peace builders tour of Israel and the West Bank to take place April 30 to May 12, 2017.

I grew up in an atheist family, Jewish by descent and cultural proclivities. When I was 13, I had no interest in bat mitzvah, or Judaism. But, there was an empty space inside of me. It’s taken me until now, at age 72, to see if that empty space might be filled within the religion of my birth.


I initially decided to become bat mitzvah in honor of my ancestors, who through millennia had cared enough about being Jewish to not forsake it, even in times when life would have been much safer if they had. 


When I first approached Rabbi Bridget, I told her I wasn’t sure if I “fit” as a bat mitzvah. Was I really Jewish in the “right” way? I didn’t (and don’t) believe in a grey-bearded God sitting on a throne perched on a cloud. 


Rabbi Bridget explained to me that Jewish descriptions of an anthropomorphic God who has hands, talks, gets angry, and so on are metaphors, and that they are not meant to be actual descriptions of God. Most relevant to me, she said that the closest Judaism comes to having a name for God is an unpronounceable combination of letters that means something like “what was, is, and will be.” This is the word that Christians understand as Jehovah.


I still find God indefinable, but what Rabbi Bridget said gave me a smattering, and it fits with my rudimentary conceptions. Looking at God as the present, past, and future — that God is the foreverness of the universe — resonates deeply.


That, connected with the very Jewish concept of Oneness, means for me that within Judaism there is room for my understanding of God, which is the infinite oneness, the interconnectedness between all matter and life, which exists before and beyond our lifespan, lies deeper than the five senses, and is a beautiful mystery.


In my bat mitzvah studies, I have found much which feels familiar and in keeping with my life choices.


First, how one treats the stranger: In Jewish practice, numbers can stand for words, and 18 stands for life. In the Torah, one and only one admonition is repeated 36 times, giving it double life power. And that is to treat the stranger with love, understanding, and welcome.


About how to approach differences: First, one of the most important Jewish prayers starts with the word, “Shma” -- Listen, or Hear.


Second, in the first century BCE, there were two major houses of Jewish study, the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel. They often came to different conclusions about Jewish law. The story is written that the House of Hillel was chosen as the final authority since they were calm and humble, and because they not only taught the decisions of Shammai, but did so before presenting their own.  


And, about peace: Tikkun Olam — which means in Hebrew to repair the world — signifies the Jewish obligation to bring wholeness to the earth in the here and now and for the benefit of here and now. In the writings of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, we are urged to turn swords into plowshares and study war no more. And, two quotes from the Torah:


Justice, justice you shall pursue.


To do what is right and just is more desired by the Lord than sacrifice.


All of these Torah teachings echo my life’s work. I taught English to refugees and immigrants so they would feel less the stranger and more empowered in their new country. I’ve facilitated dialogue, a practice focused on hearing widely diverse narratives to understand and learn from them, rather than contest them. My current efforts in arranging a tour visiting Israeli and Palestinian peace builders is dedicated to the hope of helping bring justice and peace to both peoples.


Rabbi Bridget once showed us a page of the Torah as it’s traditionally studied. In the center was the text. In a side panel, the earliest translation from the original Hebrew to Aramaic, which, at the time of translation, had become the spoken language of the Jews. In other columns were a variety of commentaries from different times, places, and points of view.


The inclusion of diverse commentaries on the Torah page holds a special significance to me. It provides a graphic model of dialogue. And, for me, it analogizes the fact that today, while we are celebrating the Jewish path, it is but one of many other religious and secular paths.


Even when I disagree with parts of the Torah, I’ve found I can still learn from it. In a section of today’s Torah portion, a jealous husband mistakenly suspects his wife of adultery and she is put through a Salem-witch-trial-type test. She’s found innocent. 


My first reaction was abhorrence. But, then I realized my tendency to decide someone has done something unkind to ME, but — like the jealous husband — the feeling stems from MY own internal insecurities and not from any reality. The Torah can teach me about what is fruitful to do, and also what is harmful, self-destructive.


Besides realizing how much of my life is based on Jewish teachings, I have learned about prayer. Rabbi Bridget suggested we read a book called Making Prayer Real, a compilation of writings by Jewish spiritual voices. Prayer is something I was never able to relate to. I saw it as a conversation with that man on the throne, in whom I didn’t believe. So it had no meaning to me.


But the book offered the idea of prayer as a form of meditation, and suggested meditative prayer walks. I tried it. When I took walks in that spiritual space, I experienced everything more intensely. Remember the movie, The Wizard of Oz? It was like the moment Dorothy opened the door into Oz and drab sepia brown turned into bursting color.


That’s what happened to me. It wasn’t just color that exploded, but the scent of roses and jasmine, the feel of smooth or splintery tree bark, the sound of birds chirping and toddlers giggling. Each moment a little prayer of thanks for the richness of the universe and my innate connection to it, all a part of that beautiful mystery.


I also discovered how very Jewish my parents actually were. Both had such a love of books, a reverence for words and curiosity about others’ ways of seeing things. Around their dining table, guests discussed literature, piecing wide-ranging opinions into deeply analytic and inquiring conversations. When my parents fronted the sale of a house to the first African-American family in the neighborhood, they treated “the stranger” with respect and walked the path of Tikkun Olam. These core aspects of Judaism had, indeed, filtered down through all my ancestors, even to my totally secular parents.


But, in becoming bat mitzvah, I’m not only honoring those who came before me. I found so much in Judaism that reflects the values which are important to me. It is a religion which fosters inquiry and analytic thinking. It allows room for a range of understandings, thereby giving space for an orthodox observer who follows Torah literally, and someone like me who picks and chooses what to incorporate into my belief system.


So, there it was, just waiting for me, all along. I found the “there” in my empty space, the foundation upon which my feet now stand.


I cannot end my talk without mentioning the tragedy early Sunday morning in Orlando, Florida. A man totally disconnected from — and perhaps feeling excluded from — humanity’s oneness killed 49 people in a gay bar, and wounded another 53. President Obama proclaimed this an act against all Americans. He was saying, in essence, we are all one. 

Let’s have a moment of silence in memory and support of those lost and wounded and those who love them.  


And, if it is comfortable for you — only if it’s comfortable — really look at the other people gathered here together, and hold the wonder of human connection.

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