Is there any good news in the world?
As I have watched events unfold over the summer – the heartbreaking return of the Taliban, the dramatic spread of the Delta variant, the wrangling over schools and vaccination and masking and the general Covid anxiety which has returned with great aplomb – I must say that I am having a hard time keeping my usually-reliable optimism in front of me. While the early part of the summer made it seem as though everything was moving the right way, those doors seem to have closed, and everything seems suddenly more stressful.
Is anyone else feeling that? Or is it just because I’m preparing for the High Holidays, which is, for rabbis, something like training for a marathon?
When you think about it, Elul is a pretty good month for anxiety. We are supposed to be taking stock of our lives, preparing for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur and the odyssey of teshuvah, of doing the hard work of repentance. We should be a little stressed. Facing our own misdeeds and failures is not meant to be a pleasant experience.
This season is also a time of returning to God, or at least that is how it is framed in our liturgy. We open Rosh HaShanah by saying, שָׁל֨וֹם ׀ שָׁל֜וֹם לָרָח֧וֹק וְלַקָּר֛וֹב אָמַ֥ר ה / Shalom, shalom, laraḥoq velaqarov, amar Adonai – Peace, peace to those who are near, and to those who are far, says God. We welcome those who feel close to God and to our tradition, as well as those who are returning from having been far off. And just before Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur, we give ourselves permission to pray amongst the avaryanim, the sinners, that is, those of us who have not been here for a while.
So of course it makes sense for us to be thinking about theology at this time. What do we mean when we invoke the term, “God”? What, or who, is God? How does God function? What is God’s name? Is God with us? Is God controlling anything? Is God actually working in humanity’s interest, or has God quietly exited through the back door? Has God created us or have we created God?
It is with that backdrop that I read with interest a pitch for God by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Mr. Douthat is a thoughtful political conservative and a faithful adherent of Roman Catholicism, and, as with many people of faith today, he is engaged in the project of promoting religious involvement.
Douthat’s essential argument is one that I have made myself, even from this very pulpit, and it is more or less this: Although scientific achievements have raised challenges to certain features of religion and perhaps to God’s very existence, the basic underpinnings to religious ideas that inspired our ancestors still apply. In other words, although some today might argue that a scientific perspective negates the Torah’s telling of how we came to be, there are many questions that science cannot answer, and it is within that sphere of uncertainty where religious ideas can still flourish and sustain us. And no matter to how many questions scientific inquiry DOES find successful answers, I am certain that there will always be a place for religious inspiration.
Put yet another way, it is perfectly reasonable, for example, to accept that the universe is 14 billion years old rather than 5782, that it was not created ex nihilo in six days, and yet still believe that the essential mitzvot and values of the Torah and rabbinic literature and all the human intellectual creativity that our tradition has yielded are still binding upon us. It is still possible, if we allow ourselves, to accept that our Torah scroll flows originally from God, even though it clearly exhibits the features of a human work.
I think it is worth remembering on this subject that science and religion offer answers to different questions. Science is trying to answer the question of, “How are we here?”, while religion tackles the “Why?” Science is the realm of cold, hard facts. Torah and all that flows from it is the realm of our spirit and of our origin story as a people. These are not mutually exclusive, but rather different lenses, both of which enable us to put our lives in perspective.
Mr. Douthat anticipates in his introductory remarks that the response to his piece will be something along the lines of, “I am down with the ethical teachings of religion, but I just cannot accept the idea of a personified God, as described in the Bible and in religious prayers.” And, true to form, the readership of the New York Times, at least on-line, responded predictably, with thousands of people “liking” comments that were more or less to that effect, if not openly hostile to the idea of religion.
There is no question that humans have committed all manner of transgressions in the name of religion throughout the ages; I am sure you can think of some contemporary examples, not limited to the extremism of the Taliban. And of course, we the Jews have had a complicated history in our interactions with other religions, from the dhimmi status forced upon our ancestors who lived in Muslim lands, to the slaughter wrought by the Crusades, to the dramatic failure of the Catholic church to attempt to save the Jews of Europe during the Shoah.
And yet, religion and religious involvement have also done so much good for humanity, from the constant reminder of our obligation to see the holiness in others, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless, to the inspiration that God’s presence in our lives has offered in challenging times, in times of grief and times of joy. People motivated by those obligations have created hospitals and schools and charities that care for the needy and the wretched, filling the gaps between commercial interest and insufficient government programs.
What are the mitzvot / holy opportunities of Jewish life for? They are there to provide a framework for holy living, for ensuring that we treat each other with respect, that we treat ourselves with respect and God’s Creation with care and responsibility. They are there to provide shape to our days and our years, to mark the holy moments and bring comfort when we mourn and to give us the words, in God’s own language, to help us express our innermost concerns and desires. When we need to cry out, we have those words; when we need to dance and sing with abandon, we have that language and music and movement.
Unlike secular law, Jewish law aims to be not only a moral compass, but also a practical guide for maintaining the holiness in our relationships with all those around us, a framework for holy living. No matter how arcane the mitzvah, there is always a fundamental reason behind it which makes our performance of the mitzvah a practical one.
While Ross Douthat sees understanding and relating to God as an essential part of that equation, I must say that I am more laissez-faire when it comes to God. Like Martin Buber, I cannot put any kind of condition on God that diminishes the foundational presence that God plays in our lives, immediately and constantly there and yet completely impossible to define or be limited by the boundaries of human understanding.
We should not be so arrogant as to suppose that our brains can actually interpret and quantify the way that God works through us and around us. Rather, we might want to simply respond by throwing up our arms and acknowledging Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “radical amazement” in response to God.
And let’s face it: however we might understand God, right now we need God in our lives more than ever. If not the personal, savior God to which some religious folks appeal, at least the process God, the one who works around and through us to make for good in this world, to help us in our moment of need. When I say, three times per weekday in the Amidah, “Refa-enu Adonai venerafe,” Heal us, Adonai, and we shall be healed, I may not necessarily expect God to personally heal those who are suffering, one patient at a time. Rather, I invoke the God-enabled framework by which we as humans, using the Divine gifts we have received, the intellect and technology at our disposal, do the best we can to heal this world.
When I say, at the end of every Amidah, “Oseh shalom bimromav,” May the One who makes peace in the heavens bring some peace down to all of us, I am hoping that, in partnership with God, we as humans find a way to lay down our swords and shields and to study war no more. God is on our team in both the healing of the world and the pursuit of peace.
And so here is the good news that we can take with us back into the anxiety-inducing, post-Shabbat world: This take on God cuts across all religious, political, social, ethnic, and international lines. We need God right now, perhaps more than ever; let’s stand together and bring those Divine values to all of us down here on Earth. And let us say, Amen.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 8/21/2021.)