Confessions and Covenants of a MoTranshUjU

Shefa Tal: Raising of the Hands during the Priestly Blessing of Judaism. #LLAP

Like many of the readers here, I was raised Mormon. That means I come from pioneer stock, and among my ancestors were personal friends of the seer Joseph Smith, colonizers, polygamists, members of the Mormon Battalion and the murderous Mountain Meadows militia. I advanced through the orders of the male-only Mormon priesthood, met my high school sweetheart in seminary, wrote to her every week during my two year mission, married and was sealed to her in the temple six months after my return and witnessed the birth of our first child two months after our first anniversary. But part of me doesn’t fit the Mo-mold and never did: my father is a Jew, and my parents were never married.

My mother was a Mormon 19-year-old babysitter and my father a recently divorced, Jewish, young single dad. He decided to keep my existence a secret from his three other children until five years ago, when tragedy forced his hand. I had very sporadic contact with my father growing up, and saw him only once between the ages of 8 and 25. As I was finishing my last year of college and preparing to take the medical school admissions test, I learned that my father’s second wife, a wonderful woman who knew me as a young child, was dying of ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease. It was her last wish that my father tell his other children about me and bring my family into theirs. It happened on Father’s Day 2010. In what was for her a Herculean effort, she spelled out with her big toe, her last movable appendage, the words “God didn’t want me home until we made this right.” She died two months later, after changing my life.

With this story I would like to share how my experience growing up with my head in Mormonism and my heart in Judaism has shaped my understanding and appreciation for covenants.

Getting to know my Jewish family filled a hole in my life that I had felt from the time that I was little. I had always felt close to my Jewish heritage, and even taught myself a little Hebrew at age 16 and practiced with the only Jew in my high school. I had always felt especially special being a Mormon and a Jew, both peoples of the covenant near and dear to God’s heart. I would joke that no-one could call me a gentile! But after these two worlds collided for me, my already tenuous equilibrium was thrown off.

This watershed moment happened during an already tumultuous time in my own life, as my wife and I were in the midst of a crisis of our childhood faith. Our concerns stemmed from many issues, mine primarily included truth claims in direct contradiction to scientific facts about the origins of Native Americans, humans and the rest of life. Issues that my wife had, which I also came to adopt in time, were the hidden history, gender inequality, mistreatment of our LGBT brothers and sisters and intolerance of sincere questions and doubts by other people like us voiced in public. We were also deeply saddened by the excommunications of intellectuals, feminists and LGBT activists for their open dissent from the theopatrioangulogerontocracy, while the likes of Bruce Jessen, the mastermind behind the “advanced interrogation techniques” used on the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay, who was not just given a free pass, but was called as a Bishop. Our crises culminated as the scales of our inner Pascalian Wagers tipped away from the church to which we had covenanted our time, talents, everything we possessed and even our own lives if necessary. It was not an easy or trivial matter, and we experienced a great deal of grief, loss, guilt and pain.

My Jewish family was a source of light to us in this time. We saw in the traditions of reform Judaism an equality of the sexes, an openness to people of all genders and sexual orientations, and a liberal, progressive ethos. One of my older brothers is gay and yet remains a Jew in good standing! My other older brother is a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat politician in a very red state, but his Jewishness is unassailable no matter how he votes.This was refreshing, and ironically the teachings and values I heard preached by the Rabbi reminded me of the original message of Jesus, whose gospel was one of social justice!

Our first year back in contact we went to the synagogue with them for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) and heard the Shema (Hear, O Israel: Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is the one) and read out of the Torah scrolls of the covenant they made with Yahweh, and tried to keep with mixed success, to be His people and keep his commandments, or mitzvot. We celebrated the Passover, and remembered how God had delivered the Jews from slavery in Egypt. We covenanted to continue this work of liberation for all people from all types of slavery until the whole world had been healed and there was peace in Jerusalem. We prayed that it might be so not just within our lifetime but next year (L’shana haba’ah ve yerushalayim!). If the messiah comes to help us, great, but we’re not gonna hold our breath and wait.

There is no direct translation for the word "covenant" in Hebrew, but the words that are used in the Bible that we replace with the English word "covenant" include a pact, treaty, to tighten a wrap or to put in a bind. The covenant made with Yahweh evolved over time: initially their promise was only to put away other gods (such as Baal and Asherah, popular fertility cults in the ancient Fertile Crescent), not necessarily to deny their existence or power, but just to remove the other options that were once there and be loyal to Yahweh, who calls himself a “jealous god.” In much of the Hebrew Bible this relationship between Yahweh and Israel is compared to a marriage that is both joyous and strained, punctuated by infidelity on the part of Israel followed by righteous anger and forgiveness on the part of God.

To this day, Jewish marriages are only formalized under the canopy, or chuppah, after a very thorough, legally binding agreement called a ketubah has been agreed upon by the families of the bride and groom. Over time, with the later prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos and Hosea, the understanding of the covenant was broadened to include not just loyalty but responsibility on the part of the Jews to work out Yahweh’s will for Social Justice in all the world, and forego their contentedness with the outward piety of the temple ceremonies and their thoughts of privilege as God’s chosen people. This was a message that Jesus would make very clear during his ministry: God has no patience or love for those who profess to know Him while neglecting the poor, the sick, the slave, the widow and the orphan. Faithful Jews take seriously this responsibility to heal the world, or in Hebrew Tikkun Olam, an imperative that comes from the Mishnah and the Kabbalah, collections of Rabbinic teachings that comment and expand on the Hebrew Scriptures.

In Mormonism, there are many covenants that are made throughout life beginning at baptism, and culminating in the temple ceremonies of the initiatory anointing and washing, the endowment and eventually the sealing ordinance. I have promised not to disclose the specifics of these ceremonies, but will share that for myself, as a man (I cannot speak to what it may be like for a woman), those experiences were magnificent and sacred. In baptism, new members promise to take upon themselves the name of Jesus Christ, to always remember Him, keep His commandments, and serve Him to the end. They renew this covenant each time they partake of the sacramental bread and water on Sunday. Baptism is usually performed at age 8, unless you are a convert, or as of this week, unless your parents are gay -- it’s been a rough week for those of us who have LGBT family and friends who have been impacted by this terrible decision, and our thoughts are with those who are suffering.

When Jews think of the word covenant it is clear that this means a two way promise between themselves and God, “You will be my people, and I will be your God”. When Mormons think of a covenant, they are reminded of the promises they make at baptism and the added covenants made and heavenly blessings promised (which include not just salvation but exaltation if kept), during the sacred rites of the temple. These covenants are made once for living individuals and then countless times again for the dead by proxy. I thought Mormons and Jews had a corner on the covenant market. I never imagined I would find anything comparable in another faith, especially not in Unitarian Universalism.

When I first tried to imagine UU’s making a covenant, it sounded more like, “God, if there is a God, Please save my soul, if I have a soul.” When my wife first started going to a UU church in Arizona, I have to admit I was pretty skeptical. I had once heard an interview with the late Christopher Hitchens, of New Atheism fame, where he said that, “Unitarians are actually atheists who are just too ashamed to admit it.” Not knowing much about UU’s, I thought they were panentheists -- the Baha'is of the West. I thought being UU meant you can believe and do anything you want! And to some extent that is true, but I’ve been pleased to discover that when it comes to covenants we share a common source of strength, devotion and sacrifice.

Unlike the covenants of Judaism and Mormonism, UU’s covenant with each other, as equals, to love, respect and serve one another and to help each other flourish. Like the protagonist Michael Valentine Smith, the man from Mars in the great masterpiece of Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land, we say to one another, “Thou art God, and I am God, and all that Groks is God.”

While preparing this, my wife told me about a video produced for the UUA GA called “What Do We Promise One Another.” The video mentions a Unitarian minister named James Luther Adams, who travelled to Europe in the 1930’s and was deeply troubled by the rise of Nazism and the inability of liberal German Christianity to resist it. There were notable exceptions to the complacency and implied consent of religious Germans to the Nazi atrocities, such as the Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but they were few and mostly ineffective. This experience left an indelible impression on Adams, who is considered the greatest UU theologian of the last century. After returning to America from Europe he helped to expand the idea of what it means to be a Unitarian to include a responsibility to other individuals and the world to resist injustice, much like the late prophets of the Jews.

The one consistent and defining feature of all religions is the realization that things are not as they should be. The great German theologian Rudolf Otto describes this as the struggle between the sacred and the profane in his best known book, Idea of the Holy. It can be seen in the Fall, the resulting separation from God and the problem of evil in Judaism and Christianity, suffering in Buddhism, injustice and pride in Islam, and the cycle of death and rebirth in Hinduism. Religion takes our sense of this wrongness for granted and says, “Do this, which requires that you believe/have faith in this, and things will be made right.” Almost every religious tradition has independently discovered what we refer to in secular society as the Golden Rule: do unto others what you would have others do unto you. A version of this admonition can be found in the teachings of nearly every great religious leader, from Krishna to Moses to Buddha to Jesus to Mohammed.

Religion inspires “right action” with a burning, urgent desire called the “strenuous mood” and has shown itself the greatest social force in all of human history to change our behavior, from doing that which comes naturally and serves only ourselves, our kin or our group, to doing that which serves the wider religious community (the “Ummah” in Islam, the “Sangha” in Buddhism, “Beth Israel” in Judaism, the “Body of Christ” in Christianity or “the Saints” in Mormonism), and in some transcendent cases to all people, and even all life. I remember some of the last words of Socrates, who was sentenced to death for corrupting the youth of Athens, who said “I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the World.” I am also reminded of a favorite childhood poem, Outwitted by Edwin Markham,

He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

Inclusion, drawing bigger circles, showing that all people are of one family and that the well-being of each one of us is ultimately interconnected and dependent on the well-being of all: this should be another common denominator of every religion. It is the logically consistent conclusion which marries the the soul-felt conviction of compassion. This truth will bring the religious vision to life and usher in the Kingdom of God, Zion, Utopia, and Heaven on Earth. And this vision is a religious mission that science can assist with.

In college, one of the most challenging and rewarding classes I had to (er, I mean got to) take was organic chemistry. My professor professed to be a progressive man, but had no mercy for the trees of this world as he forced us to hand copy his extensive lecture notes containing the exhaustive steps of complex chemical reactions, with electrons pushing and being pushed in all directions around endless hexagons representing organic molecules. Besides getting very good at drawing hexagons, I learned a valuable lesson in his classes: science does not tell us how things ought to be, only how they are, and even that is questionable because science does not claim to have the Truth. It is just the process by which we tell smaller and smaller lies about reality.

One of the lies that has gotten smaller through science is the concept of biological race. Once thought so obviously unquestionably true, it was used to justify the abominations of slavery and segregation, as if the authoritative weight of science were solidly behind them, which was never the case. Now modern genetics has shown without any doubt not just that all people are more closely related than we ever imagined, but that people are more closely related to the rest of life than we ever imagined. Science has even cast doubt on the still prevalent self-evident truth that humans are superior beings to other types of intelligent life. So this represents a rare convergence of the two traditionally non-overlapping magisteria of science and religion that should be leveraged to the hilt by people of faith and of science to heal the world. My vocation in the science of medicine has given me the means of carrying on this mission through covenants I make with my patients.

In medicine there are many models that describe the way patients and doctors relate to each other. There is the traditional paternalistic model, which many of my older patients seem to embrace, where the doctor is the final authority and the patient should acquiesce to what the doctor thinks is best. Then there is the consumer model, where the patient is an always-right customer and the physician little more than a highly specialized human health technician. And then there are covenant physician-patient relationships, where medical decision making power is shared, the doctor assumes the role of teacher (the Latin noun docere, the root of the word doctor, is “to teach”) and helps the patient understand enough about their problem to make a truly informed decision, based on their own values, which the doctor will respect and only seek to persuade and not to coerce. The great oaths of Hippocrates (a Greek who lived in the fifth century BC) and Maimonides (a Jew who lived in the 12th century AD) affirm the ideal of a covenant doctor-patient relationship with the following phrases:

From the Oath of Hippocrates:

"I will take care that they suffer no hurt or damage ... Whatsoever house I may enter, my visit shall be for the convenience and advantage of the patient; and I will willingly refrain from doing any injury or wrong from falsehood ... whatever may be the rank of those whom it may be my duty to cure, whether mistress or servant, bond or free."

From the Oath of Maimonides:

"The eternal providence has appointed me to watch over the life and health of Thy creatures. May the love for my art actuate me at all time; may neither avarice nor miserliness, nor thirst for glory or for a great reputation engage my mind; for the enemies of truth and philanthropy could easily deceive me and make me forgetful of my lofty aim of doing good to Thy children. May I never see in the patient anything but a fellow creature in pain."

Drawing upon these ancient sources of wisdom and our own hopes, my medical school class collectively wrote our own oath which we recited during our initiation into medicine, when we donned our white coats for the first time, and at our graduation where the title of doctor was conferred on us. I would like to share some of it with you.

From My Medical School Class Oath:

"We believe that a physician's responsibility to heal and the responsibility to educate are inextricably linked. We make it our duty to be generous listeners and leaders, empowering our patients to actively participate in their health and well-being.

"May we be humbled by our limitations, acknowledge our mistakes and learn from others for the benefit of our patients. Above all, we recognize the fragility of life and will strive to do no harm.

"We accept that our responsibility as leaders extends beyond our practice and into our communities. We aspire to bridge the disparity in access to care and will serve those in our community, be they rich or poor, young or old, friend or foe."

In closing, I leave you with the traditional Priestly Blessing. In ancient Temple Judaism, a member of the tribe of Levi, more specifically of the sons of Aaron the brother of Moses, would offer a prayer daily for those gathered to watch the sacrifices. He would make the sign of the shin with his hands to represent El Shaddai, the Almighty God -- and yes, the rumors that Leonard Nimoy, or Spock from Star Trek, borrowed this for his Vulcan salute are all true!

Priestly Blessing:

May the LORD bless you and guard you –
יְבָרֶכְךָ יהוה, וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ
(Yevhārēkh-khā Adhōnāy veyishmerēkhā ...)

May the LORD make His face shed light upon you and be gracious unto you –
יָאֵר יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
("Yāʾēr Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā viḥunnékkā ...)

May the LORD lift up His face unto you and give you peace –
יִשָּׂא יהוה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם
("Yissā Adhōnāy pānāw ēlekhā viyāsēm lekhā shālōm.")