Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A process that changed my life!

Seeking God
We seek God so earnestly, Eliav reflected, not to find Him but to discover ourselves.”
from James A. Michener, The Source
Hillel and the Golden Rule
Once there was a gentile who came before the distinguished rabbi Shammai, and said to him: "I will convert on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot”. Shammai pushed him aside with the measuring stick he was holding. Later the same fellow came before Hillel, and made the same offer, and Hillel converted him, saying: “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary. Go and learn it."
Popular story from the Talmud, told of the two famous rabbinic leaders of the first century CE. 
The Miracle of Life
     This is the story of metamorphosis. In fact it is the story of yours, mine, and every human’s metamorphosis. If it were a screenplay, we would say it was fantasy, incredible.  But it is reality - it is your history. It is the story of cells dividing and producing daughter cells that take paths very different from that of their parents.
     If a caterpillar could speak, could it tell you that it was about to become a butterfly? And if you had not even seen it happen already, would you believe it? Who would believe that from eight identical cells, clustered together in the shape of a mulberry, could become a human?
From Gerald L. Schroeder, The Hidden Face of God

Our Tuesday in Chapel themes are never simplistic or superficial. For this New Year, the Chaplains have posed a challenge that really makes you stop and think – “books or events that changed my life”.

Well like the speakers before me and those still to come, I grappled with this for a while. Certainly, one very significant life changing event for me – and for my twin brother Ray was getting accepted to MIT. That really changed everything. Before then, I had always assumed I would live somewhere close to our old neighborhood - if not the same house where we grew up in on Chicago’s North Side.  That’s what our father and uncle Gene did.

The change that MIT brings to a young person’s life is not a new story, though. It has been by so many so eloquently over many decades.  Just this Sunday, we had a fascinating “Class Connections” event in which three of my ’67 classmates spoke of the respective journeys that began – way back in 1963 - from provincial towns throughout this country and the transformations an MIT education made possible in their lives.  Then we heard from freshman, today’s class of 2017, with similarly auspicious stories. 

And just a week ago, many of us heard very compelling narratives from young students at the annual Martin Luther King celebrations.  I am particularly looking forward to a film which follows the development and dreams of four African students coming here to MIT. It is called “One Day Too I Go Fly” and it is being produced by young alum from Ghana named Arthur Musah. In a year or so, Arthur’s film will be ready and, frankly, I think it will be a much better story than I could ever tell.

So instead I chose to talk about a second life changing event in my time on the planet. This was my conversion to Judaism. Unlike the “jump” to MIT as a teenager, this transition wasn’t so much an event as a decades long process. It certainly is not a very common journey, but it is one that suited me well, and I’d like to share some of my thinking on why it made sense and why I am very comfortable in the Jewish tradition and find it to be a very beautiful religion.

Though I have been married to Deena, a Jewish woman, for over 40 years, the idea of conversion never entered my mind for most of that time. Though we respected each other’s cultural backgrounds – my Catholic and her Jewish - we were busy raising kids, working hard, and getting to know our community of Acton, where we moved for the good schools.

In the very late 1980s, Deena somehow got selected maintenance chair of the local congregation, a job to which she was not particularly adept. In fact, she had no qualifications whatsoever. So I really had to get involved, getting to know the HVAC, heating, and other creaky subsystems. One thing led to another and I moved up from Assistant Maintenance Chair to be the Vice President of Operations, a job I did for a number of years. In fact, we had to expand the synagogue and it was my privilege to head that effort. We created a beautiful building for Congregation Beth Elohim, one that served us well. In any event, as I got to know the building, I inevitably got to know the people and the religion also. And I really grew to care for and respect both. My wife never pushed me in the least to convert; she knew it had to be my choice.

So in the late-1990s, just a few years after I changed employers from Raytheon to MIT, I started in a conversion class. There was a ton of very interesting reading and lots of discussion. But the book I loved the most was James Michener’s “The Source”, a brilliant work of historical fiction which traces the development of Judaism through the millennia; Like all of Michener’s novels, it is set in a particular place – in this case a town in Galilee in northern Israel – and then takes a cross-section slice of history, as seen through the eyes of a contemporary, at various times from the distant past to the present.

Michener’s wants you to experience the history of the place – as it actually lived and experienced by people. I found “The Source” gave a sense of the evolution of religion, of how practices and beliefs change to help people meet the challenges and mysteries of their eras. And he traces an admittedly speculative chronology on how Judaism itself might have evolved to from a tribal cult to a more universal religion.

I was happy to discover that this idea of evolution is not at all foreign to Judaism. It is imbedded in it. Each generation must interpret and add to a continuing revelation that develops through the ages. Even in modern orthodoxy,” the original revelation at Sinai was a start, but it did not stop. God is not revealed today through prophets and miracles. Modern divine revelation is in daily events, science, history, and the development of culture”. Moses’s role was to get this chain going, not provide the final answers Trying to understand why we are here and what we should do is an ongoing process

So it incumbent on today’s Jews to keep advancing, questioning, and inventing new applications of their faith. It is hard to be dogmatic in these circumstances. This is just one of the many characteristics that I deeply appreciate about Judaism. Here are three more aspects of this religion that I especially like.

First, Judaism is people-focused. So much of Jewish teaching is about treating others fairly. Nobody gets a free pass to salvation – no indulgences, divine intervention, or predestination shortcuts. You have to do it the old-fashioned way – being decent …even when you don’t want to. The selection we read from Hillel on the “Golden Rule” exemplifies this so well. If we can’t treat other folks well, this religion is non-starter.  

Another story in the Talmud expounds on seven questions God asks in reviewing our lives. The afterlife is not a prominent feature of most Jewish belief, but in this story the very first question God asks is “Did you conduct your business affairs with honesty and with integrity?”. On the other hand, the theology – at least for most congregations – is much less prescribed. In my home congregation of Beth Elohim in Acton, we even have a few atheists. One is a fabulous guy, an MIT alum from Burton House.

Second, Judaism seems to be a good partner with modern science. If anything, Judaism promotes and embraces the inquisitive, searching nature of science, which also is a process of continuing revelation/discovery. If anything my experience is that Judaism is quite complementary to science.  It seeks to explain and guide the areas where science really does not operate.  

Third, so much of Judaism brings an appropriate sense of awe of wonder for the created world.  You will see this in the prayers in the liturgy.  This great planet that is home to such abundant life, set in an unimaginably vast universe. Again, if anything, I think science helps deepen that sense of awe. For example, the astrophysicists explain how we are made of stardust – quite literally – as the material of our bodies was created in supernovas.

I especially resonate with the observations of Gerald Schroeder, a MIT-trained Ph.D. physicist, who wrote an engaging book called “The Hidden Face of God”. My middle sister, Gen, a very devout Catholic, found it and insisted I read it. It was great advice.

The science alone is absolutely informative and engaging. Schroeder takes the reader through the recent discoveries and the deeper questions in the realms of both quantum and cosmic scale physics. And then he investigates the far more complex tapestry of life. Computer scientists would enjoy his viewpoint. There is this molecule DNA that encodes information so effectively. As he sums it up, “The essence of life is found in the processing of information. The wonder of life is the complexity to which that information gives rise. The paradox of life is the absence of any hint in nature, the physical world, as to the source of that information”. In a word, where did all this dazzling complexity arise?  Each of us is comprised of a trillion (mostly) cooperating cells and magnitudes more neuronal connections.  

So this is my short lesson on Judaism, albeit from a fairly new practitioner.

In our final readings I’d like to share with you two absolute staples of this religion. The first conveys the reverence for life, present in all Judaism’s many variants. The second reading is Judaism’s central, most recited prayer – the Sh’ma. It reflects many of the elements mentioned here – except of course for the atheism. 

I hope you feel a little closer to the wisdom of Judaism,  a wisdom to be found in so many of the world’s other great religions as well.  And we have touched on some of Gerald Schroeder’s and James Michener’s wisdom, too. In fact, I’d like to close with a great quote of Michener’s, which seems especially appropriate for MIT.

“Scientists dream about doing great things. Engineers do them”.

May we treasure them all - our scientists (the dreamers), and our engineers (the doers), and our humanists (like Bob Randolph and Hillel)!

Value of Human Life
“Whosoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whosoever that saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world." 
Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 37a 
Sh’ma Yisrael - 
the central prayer of Judaism, to be said every morning and evening. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
Blessed be the Lord’s glorious kingdom for ever and ever.
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might.
Set these words that I command you this day upon your heart.
Teach them faithfully to your children.
Speak of them in your home and on your way,
And when you lie down at night and when you rise up in the morning.
Bind them as a sign upon your hand,
Keep them as a symbol before your eyes.
Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
From Deuteronomy 6:4-9

Bob Ferrara '67
Senior Director for Strategic Planning
and Alumni Relations