Difficult Questions

Difficult Questions

16 Sep 2016

Rabbi Howard Cooper

Are we ‘in the hands of God’ - as traditional religious language might put it? Or are we ‘the hands of God’ - as contemporary religious existential language might put it? This is the season for a creative wrestling with this question.

Martin Buber recounts a Hasidic story about the Rabbi of Kotzk,

who surprised a number of learned visitors who had come to learn from him by asking them:

“So, tell me, where is the dwelling of God?” They laughingly replied: “What a thing to ask! Is not the whole world full of God’s glory?”

such laughter is often a psychological defence against anxiety; and who might not feel anxious when reflecting on this question; but that isn’t part of Buber’s story –

Then the Kotzker Rebbe went silent, before answering his own question: “God dwells wherever a person lets God in.”

In Buber’s telling, the Kotzker Rebbe has become a religious existentialist. The rabbi’s response to the question about where one can find the divine distances itself from traditional Jewish theology: his visitors’ answer gives voice to the standard religious trope that God, as Creator of everything, is present in all of creation, from the beating of a butterfly’s wings to the tropic storm to the unique pattern of each snowflake. But that answer – of divine immanence, of the daily, hourly, unfolding of a special dimension of reality, moment by moment – is not sufficient for the Rabbi of Kotzk. Note that he doesn’t disagree with that mode of thinking. But he points towards another dimension, the subjective human dimension, where the divine is brought into the world through human action.

We are not the passive recipients of the sacred dimension of reality, but the co-creators of it.

In this picture God, as it were, depends on us. Our job, as Jews, is to ‘let God in’.

So what does that mean?

In this month of Elul, as we prepare for our annual return to the basic questions of our lives during the so-called ‘Days of Awe’ – what our lives are about, where we find meaning and purpose, how can we make the world a better place for our having been in it – this question of how to ‘let God in’ can offer us a space for reflection.

Last week, in talking about the 15th anniversary of 9/11 and the presence of terrorism as an on-going daily possibility, I posed the question – one that every generation has had to face in one form or another –

‘How can we celebrate Jewishly, or how can we talk about a God of love and compassion, when we see that shocking, unforeseen things happen to us from the outside, randomly – bolts from the blue - that don’t distinguish between good and bad?...The innocent suffer and there is no explanation...’

Or, to put it another way, how do we live with both the reality of human suffering, in all its multiple forms, and any notion that “the whole world is full of God’s glory”?

Try telling that to someone suffering from cancer. Or to the more than 4 million Syrian refugees who have fled their homes; or to anyone who has left their homeland because of civil war, or drought, or poverty, or persecution, to seek a better life, a safer life, in Europe, and are part of the greatest humanitarian crisis Europe has faced in the last 70 years.

Living with this tension – between the omnipresence of human suffering and the alleged, supposed, omnipresence of the divine – is the central question that anyone involved in, or interested in, monotheistic religious faith has to face. I have never found a satisfactory answer to this question and I hope I never will. Because any ‘satisfactory’ answer would be a betrayal of the truth about the complexity of the human condition. Yes, there are plenty of answers that Judaism, Christianity and Islam will give you. I won’t rehearse them here. If you are interested, then just google ‘theodicy’ and read about the multiple attempts these great religious traditions have been making for millennia to ‘explain’ how God and suffering, or evil, can co-exist. For me, such rationalised ‘explanations’ all fall at the first hurdle – they are either insulting to our intelligence or to the lived, felt, pain of those who suffer.

I believe that ‘answering’ this question involves a failure of imagination, a refusal to bear with not-knowing, with doubt, with uncertainty.

It’s a moral and/or psychological failure. A spiritual failure. Having a religious or spiritual perspective on life means living with this question, wrestling with it – Yisrael, after all means ‘the one who wrestles with, struggles with, the divine’. And for me to be part of the community of Yisrael means to be part of a people who don’t privilege answers over questions, who see questions as acts of religious faith, as part of religious identity: Yisrael as meaning ‘the one/s who wrestle with, struggle with, questions about the divine, and divinity’.

But one thing I do know.

I will not allow others’ misuse of religious language and concepts stop me from using and thinking about such language.

Those 9/11 hijackers wrapped their political hatred and personal envy inside religious language. I am sure they acted in the spirit of righteousness and justice - as they interpreted it. Just as more recent Islamist terrorists do. Just as Dr. Baruch Goldstein acted with a sense of moral righteousness when he entered that mosque in Hebron in 1994 and slaughtered 29 Palestinians at prayer. One man’s sense of religious duty is another person’s act of blasphemy. Religious beliefs have always been used, and continue to be used, to justify the most cruel injustices and hatreds. Religious language and belief is tainted by association with those who pervert it in this way.

So what are we to do?

I think we have to rescue ‘God’ from those who hijack him. For me it would be giving a victory to those who want to commandeer religious language and belief for their own anti-human ends if I was to abandon my religious language in the face of this assault on it. The words of our tradition – they come up over and over during the Days of Awe - are powerful and insistent:

Adonai Adonai el rachum v’chanum - ‘the Eternal, the Eternal One, a force of compassion, a force for goodness’.

Yes, we struggle to understand these words, to find a way of making them more than platitudes; we might have to work hard to interpret this language and translate it into concepts that are real, that are living.

But in wrestling with this language we rescue it from its corruption by the hijackers and the terrorists.

In wrestling with Adonai we might come to understand that ‘God’ is not some super-parent in the sky looking down on us benignly or maliciously, God is not a giant puppeteer, but a force, an energy, that animates our lives: the breathe of life itself. God is not a noun but a verb - and we see fragments of ‘God’ in action all around us: in the love of parent and child; in the tender, passionate physical and emotional love of adult life; in the open-hearted grief of loss; in the selfless queuing to give blood after a terrorist act; in the daily acts of care for the ill, the suffering, the dying; in the political commitment for justice; in the on-going engagement with acts of tikkun olam...in all of these actions, small or large, that we engage in every day, Judaism affirms that we are ‘letting God in’. In this sense God is nearer to us than we know, closer to us than we may feel, more intimately part of our lives than we may ever consciously think. Because what do we really know?

Are we ‘in the hands of God’ - as traditional religious language might put it? Or are we ‘the hands of God’ - as contemporary religious existential language might put it? This is the season for a creative wrestling with this question.

The tension between our fragility and our power, our dependence and our strength, our human limitations and our human potential to effect change: this tension - a religious, spiritual and psychological tension – is at the heart of what we Jews are about as the New Year approaches, and as we approach the New Year.

Rabbi Howard Cooper is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice, Director of Spiritual Development at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, and a writer. He is the author of The Alphabet of Paradise: An A-Z of Spirituality for Everyday Life and he blogs on Jewish issues and current affairs at www.howardcoopersblog.blogspot.com

Photo credit: Margot Pandone

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