September 29, 2014 § Leave a comment

Faith is not a constant thing: life can be wounding when you least expect it: an unforeseen tragedy, an unforgivable betrayal, or an unwelcome diagnosis can waylay the best of us.

And when that happens, we find ourselves doubting the existence of God.

That’s when we stop coming to services, when we stop participating in the holiday celebrations, when we let go of what we thought was important.

I remember, for example, going on a youth group trip with my home congregation in California. We visited Fremont, in northern California, and enjoyed home hospitality among the congregants there. I was staying with a woman who had all sorts of questions for me, once she heard I was about to go study to become a rabbi.

She explained to me that she no longer lit the Shabbat candles every Friday night because her mother had died. So long as her mother was living, she could believe that God loved her and cared for her. But when her mother died, her closeness to God died as well: how could God love her yet take her mother from her?

And, newbie that I was, I did not know precisely what I could say to her that would make everything okay again for her.

‘How can we believe in God when bad things happen to us?’ I wondered. ‘And what can I tell her that will restore her faith.’ Yet there is no magic formula that makes faith possible. Rather, faith is the product of a long process of wrestling.

What I learned in rabbinical school, in fact, is that faith is a very old paradox, one that every generation has faced at one point or another.

For example, we each find that we would like to make the following assertions regarding God:

1. God is good
2. God is all-powerful
3. Evil is real

But those three assertions, taken together, simply do not work. Any two of them together are fine; it’s when you put all three side-by-side that you run into trouble.

Most of the attempts at working on the problem of evil will deny one of those three. Usually, the denial will be that God is all-powerful, or that evil is real – though some will deny the ‘God is good’ but reinterpreting what is meant by ‘good.’

For example, in the wake of the Holocaust, there has been a line of thought that God is perhaps not all-powerful. We find images of God suffering alongside us in the rabbinical literature – the idea that God went into exile with the Jewish people, suffering from the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. One could argue, therefore, that (for whatever reason) God cannot prevent these tragedies from happening. That is one possibility.

Or we affirm that God is all-powerful but deny the reality of evil. Much of Hasidic thought, such as CHABAD, takes the position that evil is merely an illusion. The world is a veil that obscures the view of the Divine. The suffering we experience is not actually real.

Except that it feels real.

I have a friend who lost her child to cancer this year. I am not about to tell her that her suffering is not real, that it is merely an illusion obscuring the view of the Divine.

When you are in acute mourning, it is the pain that feels real; it is the rest of your life that appears to be a dream.

Another response is to interpret tragedy as God’s will. God is punishing us, or God is teaching us a lesson. For example, there are folks who will say, in response to a tragedy, ‘God only gives us what we can handle.’

The rabbis like this line of thought: they argue that the many difficulties that Abraham faced were tests, God-given tests, to demonstrate his character and faithfulness.

Except, of course, that one of those tests was the near-sacrifice of his son. Was that a test of his son, too? And did God already know that he would succeed?

The problem with these kinds of frameworks is that it makes God out to be quite cruel. This point, in fact, is the force of the story of Job: God makes an idle bet with ha-Satan, the accuser, and lets ha-Satan ruin Job’s life just to prove a point. They take away his fortune and his children and his livelihood and his house and his health, just to settle a bet. It is breathtaking in its cruelty, if you think about it.

Another problem with this God-concept is that it makes cruelty seem to be okay. If God does it, then we should be allowed to be cruel too. And I don’t think that helps our basic problem in any way. If anything, it makes it worse.

Maimonides has his own answer, of course. Ever the rationalist, he has an explanation.

In Maimonides’ view, there are three types of evil that befall humanity, some of which is in our control and some of which is not:

1. The first is the evil associated with being made of matter, which is changeable and subject to decay. This evil is inherent in the way humanity is made, and cannot be overcome.

2. The second kind of evil is the result of “tyrannical domination” of some people over others. Usually, it is limited to an isolated individual outrage rather than a constant threat, except in times of war.

3. The third kind of evil is that which an individual brings on himself or herself. These are our bad habits and personal vices, large and small, which account for much of our misfortune. This third kind of evil (i.e., the most common kind) is the product of our own doing.

I like this framework because it allows for the possibility of randomness in the system. But this answer is only partially satisfactory, in my view. He has a confidence that it all works out neatly, a confidence that I don’t quite share.

Specifically, he believes that if we’re smart enough we can transcend much of the evil of this world. We can, ultimately, become like the stars, ageless and contemplating.

That structure does not quite work, however, not just because the science behind his assumptions is suspect.

We often blame ourselves for not being smart enough to see trouble coming, but the reality is that it can blindside us. The illusion that our intelligence will protect us from most things is a comfort to us, but it does not work in practice.

Rather, I believe that God created a world that allows for chaos. It is what allows for change and growth, for new species and new traits to arise, for artistic expression and for new ideas. But that same chaotic space also allows for unwanted mutations, cancerous tumors, destructive events, and natural catastrophes. It is built into the very structure of this world, which is why God does not intervene to change it.

It means that we live in a world where 8-year-olds can die of cancer.

It also means that we live in a world where there are 8-year-olds.

We are given no guarantees: we are all vulnerable, all of us. None of us know the bounds of our life or the bounds of the lives of our loved ones.

In the context of this realm of chaos, the laws of science reign; we can use the laws of cause and effect to predict what might happen next.

There are, of course, novelties: there can be new mutations or new ideas that develop that change the very notion of what’s possible. But it still takes place within a basic framework.

Beyond that framework is a kind of energy that we are able to feel, even if we are not able to name it. It is the energy that is present at weddings and ball games, the electricity that you find in group events and some kinds of prayerful encounters.

It is present in the hospital room of a dying person when you hold his or her hand and sing. It is the divine energy, the same energy that makes you cry at weddings and marvel at the fine sweet scent of babies. When we sing the mi sheberach prayer, it is precisely that kind of energy that we are trying to harness.

Belief in that source of energy takes a leap of courage, because it is the belief that these events have real meaning. It is the belief that they are connected in a deep sense.

This is what I want to say: things can be better than what you have known, what you have grown up with, what you might believe to be the case. In that sense, then, hope is real, and necessary and good.

Having worked with people across the spectrum of practice and belief, I can also tell you this: Life can be exceedingly difficult at times, even overwhelming. And we all know that, objectively speaking. It offers no guarantees. Nonetheless, those times when you feel the least religious are also the ones when you need religion most.

Somehow life is better – even the awful parts – when it is shared.

In other words, you don’t need perfect faith. What you need is the courage to try, and the support of a group willing to make the journey with you, step by step.

Counting my blessings

September 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

I think that I may have told you this: when my son was very young, he could not eat soy. It was an inability to digest soy protein, similar to an allergy, more serious than an intolerance. And, as I discovered, soy is in everything.

He could not eat fast food, chain restaurant food, frozen prepared foods like pizza or pot pies, ice cream products, most snack crackers, most cereals, most breads — and so on. We learned quickly which places prepared their own food and which ones had it trucked in pre-prepared.

It was a royal pain, and as a working single mom and a full-time graduate student, I did not really have the time or money to stop and make every single one of his meals by hand. That was the curse.

But, like any parent, I did what was needed to be done. I simply had to. I had known how to make a few dishes prior to that point, of course, but like most folks I leaned on the prepared foods as well. In response to this changed circumstance, I learned how to cook.

That’s when I learned how to cook Indian food, in fact: realizing that vegetarian meals might be cheaper, I went to the local Indian grocery in Cincinnati and asked the clerk for a recommendation for a cookbook. He called his auntie to come and help me and she selected a copy of ‘Indian Vegetarian Cooking’ for me – “it’s what we give all new brides,” she said. I’ve made just about every dish in that cookbook.

For four years straight I made everything from scratch, in large batches, and froze individual portions in little plastic containers. Everything he ate was made by me. Everything. Because he would be violently ill if it wasn’t.

And that was a blessing, actually. In those same years, it would have been very easy — and quite reasonable — to pick up a serious fast food habit. The dollar menu is cheap and easy and it makes kids happy. But it would have been profoundly distructive to my own health.

Sometimes a curse is a blessing.

But it is very difficult, of course, to see how the curses in this week’s portion could ever be transformed into a blessing. They speak of famine and want, of starvation and degradation. And all this for ignoring God’s commands.

It seems wildly vindictive: how could such activities be punishments if God is just? There are times when we go astray, but why should God be so harsh in punishment?

So let me try and explain what’s really going on here.

According to the text, “Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of the Lord your God: Heed the Lord your God and observe His commandments and His laws, which I enjoin upon you this day.”

That is to say, Moses is about to explain the terms for the covenant with God. You are about to join in a covenant, he says, let me explain what that will mean.

So, to turn back to the text:

“Thereupon Moses charged the people, saying: After you have crossed the Jordan, the following shall stand on Mount Gerizim when the blessing for the people is spoken: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. And for the curse, the following shall stand on Mount Ebal: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphthali.”

In other words, this particular reading of blessings and curses is not a theological statement of what God will do to you if you don’t behave. Rather, this passage is explaining a ritual action, one taken in order to join in a covenant with God.

So what does that mean, exactly?

Our relationship to God is structured as a covenant, which is a very particular type of agreement. In the Ancient Near East, the great powers would enter into agreements with weaker nations. The powerful one would pledge to protect the weaker nation, and in return the weaker one would pledge fidelity to the powerful one.

Thus, the ritual that is enacted here parallels those enacted among nations in the Ancient Near East. In both cases, witnesses are needed: in the case of God and the people Israel, the witnesses are heaven and earth. And, in both cases, a list of blessings and curses are read out loud before the assembly: blessings if the covenant is kept, and curses if it is broken. Here we have a record of the blessings and curses being read aloud, as is appropriate for a covenant ceremony.

As a final step, a ritual action is taken in which something is split into two parts to symbolize the ‘cutting’ of an agreement. Usually it’s an animal. Here, though, the people are split into two parts, so that one half is on Mount Gerizim and one half is on Mount Ebal.

For the record, I suspect that this particular ritual is actually a projection backwards: it’s written after the first exile, as an explanation for what has happened to the Israelite people. There are two reasons why I make this suggestion: first, this ritual is heavy on the spoken word and light on the blood sacrifice, which would suggest a later date for its provenance. Second, the nation did split into two, the northern and southern kingdoms, with half of the people in one and half of the people in the other. So this passage might be a projection backwards, to make the case that the exile was part of God’s plan.

Now you might ask: why do they think in these terms? Why would these images of conquest and subsequent covenant appear here?

Some of it has to do with the ancient belief that there were a multitude of gods that were each assigned to protect a particular territory. That’s the context for the narrative of Jacob’s ladder: Jacob dreams of angels going up the ladder – these are the angels responsible for the territory he is in now – and angels coming down the ladder – these are the angels responsible for the territory he is about to enter. The dream is the realization that God transcends borders. The story teaches: if you must believe in local protective spirits, these might be conceptualized as angels guarding you in a particular territory. But God transcends all.

And that was a revolutionary concept. The common assumption in that time and place was that when one nation would conquer another, the newly-conquered peoples would take on the worship of the conquering peoples’ God.

The covenant ceremony, therefore, is a form of resistance: just as we might sign a treaty with the powerful nation that conquered us, it is also possible to sign a treaty with the power that is our ultimate ruler. And that power, Our God, demands our fidelity. Losing on the battlefield, therefore, does not mean that the other peoples’ gods have won as well. We remain loyal to our God.

In other words: the blessings and curses here are not a tit-for-tat litany of what happens to you if you sin. They are, instead, a statement of defiance: even if we become a conquered people, even if we experience exile, we will remain faithful to our God and our culture. We don’t just believe in God when good things happen to us; we have faith when things are difficult and all appears to be lost.

And that’s a more mature faith: it is moving past an idea that God is like Santa Claus and moving toward an understanding of the world that is much more nuanced and appreciative of all that does go well in our lives. And in that sense, it’s an important lesson for us as we move toward the holidays.

So I will pronounce a blessing upon you: May you be inscribed in the book of life.

Where Am I?

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