Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Fierce Mystery

“Between the God of the universe and the God of a tribe, between inclusion and exclusion, between the imperative of liberty and the imperative of law, explodes Moses. What we know about him is exactly nothing, exactly everything, he is a fierce mystery.” -- Alicia Ostriker, THE NAKEDNESS OF THE FATHERS

My congregation's mission statement describes Kolot Chayeinu as a community "where doubt can be an act of faith." When that first came out, I thought that meant either, oh goody, I can not believe in God and still join a Jewish community, or, oh fantastic, Kolot is all about truth to power and challenging Pharaoh, or, oh wow, I can join in this place without checking my brains at the door. This is all true, and this is also very limiting.

The God I didn’t believe was a child’s God, learned in a Conservative suburban “temple” of the fifties and sixties that wouldn’t let me, as a girl, have an aliyah, wear a tallit or chant Torah, and which discouraged complexity, at least in its young people. I was right to not believe in that God, but it also never occurred to me that there was an alternative. My Jewish education at my tedious and soul-destroying Hebrew School was so poor that I had no knowledge of or access to the thousands of years of rigorous study of Jewish texts and customs. So I thought being religious, which for me meant being Jewish, was by definition tedious and soul-destroying.

I was disappointed in that God and that Judaism but I was (and am) a contrary sort so, if only to piss off the powers-that-were, I demanded alternatives. No answers were forthcoming and I didn’t actually expect them. It never actually occurred to me that there actually might be a Judaism that rewarded someone like me whose main talent was an ability to ask the next logical question.

Think about the “god” you don’t believe in. Is it that you don’t believe in God or is it that you are stuck on one particular name, one particular metaphor that doesn’t name your experience of God? Might there be a different metaphor, another name that opens up the possibility of encounter with a power grander than yourself, with a web that can connect every person to every other person? –Rabbi Laura Geller

Then I grew up and asked, what could God mean if I made the same kind of demands of God-ness that I made of anything else? What if truth to power doesn’t just mean truth to the powerful but means truth is power? What does that demand of me? And what the heck is in all those books written in Hebrew and Aramaic? I began to study. Now, with my teensy bit of Jewish knowledge, I try to reconcile the ancient with the modern, I attempt to interpret laws, ethics and stories that come from a culture that shares almost no references or paradigms with the culture I live in and I look for a linear rationality in a people’s creation myth that was never meant to be linear or rational. I accept that I am a religious person, whatever that means, with a desire for faith as strong as my need for doubt.

So, what is to be done? How do I reconcile my doubt with my religiosity? Thus far I have found five possible strategies:

1. Scoff at the contradictions and walk away from the whole thing.
I was fourteen when I invented atheism.

2. Live with inconsistency.
I used to think that the only way to have intellectual integrity was through consistency. I thought that if God as I was taught God as a child was nonsensical, then I had to reject everything else that came along with that God. So at the very beginning of my God-search I decided I could resolve this by giving up consistency. I said, okay, I want rational empirical thinking and transcendent religion and Torah knowledge in my life, I will just wall them all off into their separate worlds, I won’t try to make them gibe and will enjoy them all just as they are but separately.

Question: Am I not capable of holding more than two opposing ideas in my mind at the same time without my head exploding?
Answer: No.

3. Intellectualize the contradictions away.
But then I started to do study, really started to see a glimmer of the coolness of Talmud and Midrash. Those guys, they wanted consistency, too! Who knew? And they were gonna make it work, no matter how tortured the logic got, reasoning their way through all the permutations until they came up with rationales for why the Torah is sometimes inconsistent, nutty and/or creepy. Much of their work is brilliant, some of it is kind of sad and ridiculous but dazzling nonetheless. I love this stuff. I’ve barely dipped my toe into how the rabbis and scholars have worked to understand the anomalies, or as Larry Kushner calls it, the “not fitting of ideas”, but it’s fascinating and deep. I’d happily spend the rest of my life learning this cumulative and associative way of thinking. But it easily becomes nothing more than a mind game, thrilling but devoid of emotion.

4. Use transcendence and feelings to understand intuitively.
Midrashic and folk stories can be the Jewish equivalents of the Zen koan, the sound of one scroll clapping, more or less, and they make intuitive sense that isn’t dependent on logic. Music and poems describe basic human needs and feelings and perceptions within the framework of Jewish thought. They sound right and feel good, capturing the essence of what we know to be true, bypassing the logical next questions by going straight for the heart. Jewish meditation unlocks a spirituality that is Jewish but also universal. All of this is a very acceptable strategy for assimilating basic Jewish values, culture and God-ness and works for many of us lot of the time. But too much intuition without enough rational judgment leads to sloppy thinking and precisely the kind of faith I don’t want.

5. There are no contradictions or inconsistencies.
Clearly what I need to do is to tolerate, intellectualize and intuit the contradictions all at the same time, if possible, and even run away from them when it’s necessary. When this approach is even remotely successful, I then begin to glimpse the possibility that there are actually no contradictions to reconcile. I begin to see that it’s all a part of a larger understanding of connection and learning and yearning, that it’s okay if I can’t always see those connections. I can just let them be there and if at some point I manage to put it together (unlikely, but you never know) that will be great and if not, that’s fine, too.
In other words, I begin to have faith that it all makes a kind of sense, even if I cannot and will never perceive it. Gosh.

“...the sign of wonder can only impress the one who is psychologically prepared to be convinced.” - Neshama Leibowitz

Each approach is just one aspect of a mindful Jewish life. God’s presence, for me, is in the questions not the answers, and in the arguments not the resolutions. This is truly doubt as an act of faith. What a fine life that could be, to scoff, ignore, intellectualize, poeticize and accept it all and live within the connections and contradictions, whether I call that God (however I understand that at any given moment) or not, to give oneself permission to live within the fierce mystery.

Blessed HaMavdeel, that which Divides Time
And separates the whole into increments that we may comprehend it,
Blessed Adonai Echad, that which Unites All Existence
And connects us that we may be one,
Blessed Ruach HaOlam, that which Cannot Be Known
And provides us with so many questions:

Thanks for being so interesting.


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