An Interview with Maurice D. Harris, author of Moses, A Stranger Among Us
(Buy the book)
When I first met Maurice D. Harris, we were just high school kids in St. Louis, Missouri sharing a French class. I'll never forget his introducing me to Jamaican food and Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream...on the same day. I think my mind exploded that day.
Since then, Maurice has become a rabbi, writer, teacher and parent who lives in Eugene, Oregon, a town my mother, a native Oregonian, described today as "a very clean place." Maurice was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2003 and now teaches courses as an Adjunct Instructor at the University of Oregon. His writings have appeared in Jewish Currents; PresenTense; Peacebuilder; The Register-Guard; The Oregonian, The Texas Jewish Post; The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle; Washington Jewish Week; The Florida Jewish Journal; The Palestine-Israel Journal of Politics, Economics, and Culture; and The Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.
Maurice has created a wonderfully erudite book about Moses, a re-telling of the Moses stories beyond what you may have learned from your spiritual leaders or from epic old movies. And in doing so Maurice has made Moses accessible to our lives today. The book is informative, welcoming and full of Maurice’s strong and calm spirit.
Mary: You speak at length about a kind of mixed-marriage of ideas, “creative open systems” and how Moses was open to solutions outside of his faith and culture. Your interpretation of Moses also brings in many diverse ideas outside of Judaism. Have you received any criticism to this interpretation of Moses? Or that speaks to the fact that your reading is so informed by ideas such as feminism, civil disobedience and chaos theory?
Maurice: I haven’t personally received any criticism on these counts, but then again I think that the people who are most likely to read this book are a bit of a self-selecting group. I’m mainly hearing feedback from people who are religious progressives, and, unsurprisingly, they’re enthusiastic about these aspects of the book. I have no doubt that the aspects of the book you cited would be uncomfortable (or even blasphemous) to folks with deeply conservative understandings of Judaism or Christianity. If the book gets read widely enough, I have no doubt that it’ll be critiqued in reviews from these perspectives.
Mary: You also speak about a spiritual congregation that is “engaged vs. commanded” and of being a participant vs. a follower. There seems to be many people in our communities who are very uncomfortable (and sometimes just disinterested) in dealing with ambiguities, in challenging their core ideas about the world and themselves, and of thinking things through with any small research or great effort. What are your thoughts about this phenomenon, why it exists, if the situation is fixable, and if not—how to proceed in dialogues with people who wholeheartedly desire to be followers?
Maurice: Great questions, all of these! These are questions I have wrestled with for my entire career as a rabbi. The metaphor I tend to use when talking about this subject is that religion is like fire. It’s value neutral in and of itself but, like fire, it’s also an indispensable part of human social existence. Just as fire can be used to create warmth, constructive energy and community, fire can also be used to burn every damn thing down. I personally believe that when people make the decision to be “followers” rather than critical participants of their religions, they create a serious “fire hazard” in terms of their use of religion. It is rigidity and absolutism in religion that drives religiously inspired violence.
You ask why this phenomenon exists and it’s hard for me to say because I’m the kind of person who can’t feel comfortable in an authoritarian, rigid religious environment. So I can only speculate about what appears to be motivating the decision of others who turn to religion for precisely that kind of authoritarian, absolutist framing of reality. I think that there are folks who simply find some measure of comfort and solace in the offer of existential certainty that fundamentalist or absolutist versions of religion offer. Unfortunately, I think that there’s a lot of collateral damage that results from this orientation towards religion. In terms of dialogue between religious progressives and fundamentalists; the few occasions I’ve been part of these kinds of dialogues they’ve been pretty discouraging. I’ve left feeling that my dialogue partners can’t get past seeing me as a threat and a heretic, and I’ve tended to spend the entire time on my guard as well.
Mary: You talk about cultural hybridization, globalization and the rapidly interconnected world. How do you see faith communities evolving in modern society? What changes have you seen in your lifetime? As a leader in your community, what do see as dangerous and beneficial in the Internet/technology revolutions of our time?
Maurice: I see two simultaneous trends going on in the world regarding faith communities: an increase in fundamentalism and an increase in progressive, pluralistic, and open-minded approaches to religion. I agree with the religion scholar, Karen Armstrong, who argues that both of these trends are post-modern, hi-tech, post-scientific-revolution phenomena. At first glance we might think that retreats into fundamentalism are reactionary and pre-modern, but Armstrong argues that today’s fundamentalist movements are unconsciously using very post-modern, scientific-era ideas and technologies to shape their worldview. In their hyper-literal readings of their sacred texts, they apply 20th and 21st century ideas about history, writing, and scientific accuracy to the Bible/Qur’an. Armstrong argues that pre-modern religious traditionalists didn’t read their own sacred texts like this and had a much more nuanced sense of metaphor and myth in their sacred texts. And in their use of the Internet and other current communication technologies, fundamentalist movements are highly post-modern. Similarly, the religious movement I am aligned with—the progressive, pluralistic religious movement—draws on the elements of our era you have mentioned: cultural hybridization, globalization, interconnected communication, etc. In the case of progressive, pluralistic trends of religion, the impulse being acted upon is the desire to discover truth that emerges from the interaction of scientific knowledge, human lived experiences, and religious traditional wisdom. I think that the Internet/tech revolutions of our time amplify the power of both trends in the religious world, and accelerate the pace of change of both trends.
Mary: Do you see the evolution of social ideas (racial intermarriage, gay marriage, having children out of wedlock, people who abstain from marriage altogether) as they are incorporated in faith communities as progressing along a linear line of eventual incorporation or as something that goes in cycles of conservative to progressive and back again depending upon historical events?
Maurice: If I have to pick between these two alternatives I’ll pick progressing along a linear line of eventual incorporation. I say that because the way that we, at least in the West, understand marriage has evolved and changed so drastically over the past 3000 years, and this includes even conservative religious folk among us. Even among religious conservatives in the West, men can’t marry lots of women and have concubines, people are assumed to marry for love and the use of brutality and violence to control wives is considered an outrage. In biblical times, marriage was between a man and a bunch of women, fathers expected a bride-price from the groom’s family based on the monetary value of her virginity, and men who raped young women were required by biblical law to marry the women they had raped. Even among the most religiously conservative folks in the West, we don’t think of marriage in the same basic terms as our biblical ancestors. So I would argue that over hundreds and thousands of years, there’s an evolutionary trend in the way we understand things like love, sex, family and marriage.
Mary: You say, “If the outsider-insiders all leave the various religious communities of society, then the religious ground will all be ceded to those who find existential security in dogma and rigidity.” In your view, how critical is the situation now?
Maurice: I don’t know. My best read is on the North American and Israeli Jewish communities, since those are the populations I know best. It seems to me that on the one hand, there are loads of young people with progressive values who are walking away entirely from Jewish religious life at this time. On the other hand, there’s never been more robust activity and enthusiasm for progressive approaches to Judaism in North America and in Israel. New learning centers for non-traditional approaches to Judaism have sprung up in the last two decades in Israel, and many progressive synagogues (including LGBT-focused synagogues) are flourishing with members, financial support and activity. And simultaneously, fundamentalist and charismatic movements within the Jewish world, such as Chabad/Lubavitch, continue to grow and attract a significant number of young people. It’s a very complicated picture.
Mary: You seem to have found a place of worship within your faith that matches your value system. I’m sure there are people of many faiths who yearn for a spiritual community but worry they will never find a place where they will fit in. Do you have any advice for them, such as where they can go to start a search that will locate their community?
Maurice: Yes. I think that people with progressive values lose out on a lot when they make the decision that there’s nothing of value for them or their families in the religious community. There are so many amazing progressive religious communities—Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Unitarian, Baha’I, etc—doing incredible things. There’s also an amazing network of LGBT-positive churches and synagogues. These are religious communities where a person doesn’t have to check her mind at the door of the church, so to speak. They welcome critical inquiry and, to borrow Rev. Marcus Borg’s phrase, they take their sacred texts and traditions seriously but not literally. What these places provide is what I like to think of as “healthy religion”—an encounter with genuine community and the rich metaphors of the sacred and a commitment to work with religion in a way that opens minds, embraces doubt and puts compassion first always. In the Christian world, denominations like the United Church of Christ, and liberal churches among the Congregationalists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Quakers abound. In the Jewish world, there are countless synagogues of many denominational stripes embracing similar values. Organizations like the Community of Welcoming Congregations and similar groups identify churches, synagogues and other faith centers that are affirming of LGBT folks. Interfaith organizations committed to religious pluralism, peace-building and mutual appreciation also abound.
Mary: I feel like we’re living in somewhat desperate times politically speaking. I keep coming back to this quote from The Lord of the Rings. Frodo says, “I wish the ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened” and Gandalf answers, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.” Do you think the political climate can be spiritually damaging or depleting for us? Although many of us opt out, escaping into entertainments or closing our families off from society, others feel they can’t abandon the larger, albeit imperfect, community. Do you have any advice on how we can cope with the vitriol?
Maurice: Boy, you said it. These are painfully vitriolic times in American political culture. Maybe I have blinders on due to my being on the left, but I experience most of the vitriol as coming from a deeply threatened and defensive political right wing.
For what it’s worth, I love that Frodo quote. I’ll raise the nerd quotient even further. My wife and I sometimes enjoy quoting Aragorn from Return of the King when he is standing with his frightened troops before the Black Gate:
“A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of Fellowship, but it is not this day! An hour of wolves and shattered shields when the age of men comes crashing down! But it is not this day!”
I do think the political climate is spiritually damaging and depleting, as you put it. I think the healthiest way to approach it is to cultivate a personal life of balance, health, kindness and strength, and to combine it with some measure of energetic, creative, passionate political involvement. That’s my ideal for myself. I often fall short, believe me.
Mary: Are there other books out there like this one? Do you have any recommendations for people who want to continue learning about Moses or for people who want to consider religious figures from alternative angles?
Maurice: During the last couple decades there have been a bunch of books like the one I wrote that focused on Jesus. I enjoyed many of these books and related to the radical new approaches that the Christian spiritual leaders and scholars who were writing them used, though I read them as a Jew and an outsider to their traditions. At some point I began thinking that there didn’t seem to be a parallel trend in books about Moses and I thought there might be an opening there that would interest a publisher.
Other books written in a similar spirit to mine include Michael Lerner’s Jewish Renewal, Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith and Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but Not Literally, as well as some of the books by Rev. John Shelby Spong and Rev. Val Webb.
Mary: How did you organize your materials and research?
Maurice: This book began with a sermon I gave at the synagogue I served for 8 years. It was probably the best talk I ever gave as a rabbi. I told the congregation that there was a person in the Jewish community who had lived a very tumultuous and difficult life who I wanted to tell them about, a life full of painful ambiguities, confusing identity issues and moral regrets. I went on to describe this person as if he were a current member of our synagogue and about 10 minutes into the talk I revealed that I was talking about Moses. It was great fun, very entertaining, meaningful and effective. Later, I thought to myself that that talk could more or less form a chapter of a book about Moses, if I were to write 8 or 9 more “sermons” (chapters) like the one I had just given. I thought that the key would be for each chapter to look at some aspect of Moses that was generally overlooked or poorly known and then for me to take those elements of the Moses traditions and talk about them from a progressive, contemporary religious values system. I created a word processing document in which I collected notes and ideas for over a year or two and then I set up 10 separate word processing documents in a folder—one for each chapter that I eventually came up with. Then, using vacation and some leave time, I researched and wrote most of the first draft in a local café that shared a building with a used bookstore whose focus is on biblical studies and theology books. I did most of my research and writing there, using books from my own rabbinic library, some of the bookstore’s books, and online resources. I also asked for help and support from the library at the rabbinical seminary I attended, and I asked former teachers at the seminary to offer feedback on the manuscript.
Mary: What were the most challenging parts or points of frustration putting the book together?
Maurice: Collecting many rejection letters from various small publishers who looked like perfect fits for my book. I was fortunate with the writing process—I didn’t hit too many road blocks or obstacles moving the project forward through writing, editing and re-writing. But I had never had a book published, had no literary agent and no great personal connections to work. So I tried to get the book considered by smaller, independent publishers—some Jewish, some not—whose catalogs featured progressive or independent-minded books on religion for a general audience. I was beginning to think I might need to self-publish if I didn’t find a publisher soon.
Mary: Can you share any help you received from mentors or any outside ideas that helped you get the project done?
Maurice: I received lots of help. Several of my rabbinical school professors read drafts and gave me feedback. A former editor of a Jewish publishing house took a look at a couple chapters as a favor to a friend. Local clergy of different faiths read versions of the manuscript and gave feedback too. The main “outside idea” that was helpful was looking at what was in the religion sections of mainstream bookstores. I wanted to know whether my book had already more or less been done by someone else and whether it fit into any trends in popular books on religion, theology and spirituality.
Mary: What books are you reading now? Anything surprising?
Maurice: I’m reading Like Catching Water in a Net by Val Webb, Judaism in a Post-Halakhic Age, by Rabbi Jack Cohen, The Misunderstood Jew by Amy-Jill Levine, The Queer Bible Commentary, and Trenton Lee Stewart’s children’s books about the Mysterious Benedict Society!
Mary: I love the Proust Questionnaire; it spawned so many copycats in the early 2000s. I’ve picked out only those questions that relate to our topics: values, human connections and writing. What is your favorite virtue?
Maurice: Curiosity about people
Mary: What do you appreciate most in your friends now?
Maurice: Kindness and generosity
Mary: Who is your favorite author (and why)?
Maurice: Thomas Pynchon. I am endlessly engaged by several of his books and feel like I’ve learned so much about the world as it is in our era from him.
Mary: Who is your favorite poet (and why)?
Maurice: The writers of the ancient Hebrew psalms. Biblical poetry is exquisite and amazing in the original Hebrew.
Mary: Who is your favorite pop or rock singer (and why)?
Maurice: Probably Bob Dylan for all the reasons other people admire and enjoy his work. Or Leonard Cohen.
Mary: Who is your favorite fictional hero (and why)?
Maurice: Atticus Finch. Why? He’s probably the coolest fictional dad ever created and since I lost my dad when I was 18 I suppose I may be drawn to him from a place of fantasizing having him as my dad.
Mary: Who is your favorite reality hero (and why)?
Maurice: I’ll say Nelson Mandela. He inspired positive social change as one of the more ethical revolutionaries in history, and then when he came to power he wielded that power in a judicious idealistic way that enabled a genuine transition to democracy. And he looked good doing it!
Mary: The reform I admire most (actual Proust question):
Maurice: Probably the daring of Enlightenment era Bible scholars to openly state their theory that the Hebrew Bible was written by multiple, human authors and woven together over time by editors (as opposed to revealed directly by God to Moses). This was heresy in Christianity and Judaism, and yet their daring opened the door to the possibility of progressive, pluralistic approaches to religion.
Mary: How I wish to die (Proust answered “Improved—and loved.”)?
Maurice: With a Democrat in the White House. No, more seriously, I’ll go with Proust’s answer, though I’ll add that I’m afraid of dying in a physically painful or scary way, so I hope that’s not my fate. My wife and I share a wish that we die together (at a ripe old age).
Mary: What is your present state of mind?
Maurice: I’m going through a patch in which I’m feeling both optimistic and piss-scared at the same time!
Mary: …and finally, what is your favorite portrayal of Moses in a movie?
Maurice: The animated Moses in Prince of Egypt.
Mary: Thank you Maurice. I really enjoyed this conversation. What is the next project you’re working on?
Maurice: It’s a book for religious progressives and “spiritual independents” about the most disliked book in the Bible, Leviticus. I’m happy to share that it was just accepted for publication by the same publisher who is doing the Moses book. The working title is Unexpected Offerings: Progressive Insights from Leviticus, but I’m considering a title that’s bolder and more tongue in cheek like: Leviticus: You Have No Idea. I’ve written about two-thirds of a first draft and am hoping to finish the draft by September. I dig into the difficult and alienating parts of Leviticus, including its anti-gay verses and I offer a liberal religious perspective on how we can acknowledge our values differences with the book while still mining it for relevant spiritual and ethical insights.