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Drash, Envisioning God's Presence

Drash by Stan Dorn, February 2015

God isn't present anymore.

That was the thesis of Bill Galston's fabulous remarks last month, which inspired my comments today. I'm unlikely to do Bill's account justice, so I encourage you to read it. (See Drash, Divine Justice, Divine Responsibility by Bill Galston, January 2015).

In sum, Bill noted that Judaism is a religion of historic phases. During one period, the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible, was put together. But after it was canonized, no new books were allowed. The Talmud grew over centuries and was eventually written down, after which no additions or changes were permitted. Prophecy flourished, then ended.

Let's go one step farther, urged Bill, and say that the period when God was involved in our lives and in our history has also ended.  Bill took that step to avoid morally unacceptable implications. If an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-benevolent God is still in charge, how do we explain such things as the Holocaust? Believers that an infinitely good, infinitely knowledgeable, infinitely powerful God let the Holocaust happen could infer that the victims were punished for their sins, that the Holocaust was justified because it led to a greater good, or that the Holocaust was ultimately positive in a way that transcends human understanding.  Far better to say that God is no longer active as portrayed in the Tanach than to endorse such morally obscene propositions, whether about the Holocaust  or other horrors of contemporary history.

God's residues are still with us, Bill added: our freedom, our reason, a natural world that can be understood through the use of reason, and our moral sensibilities. But God's presence, God's involvement is over.

Bill's vision is brilliant and clear. It offers intellectual integrity and moral courage. And it forces us to confront the following question: can we envision God's presence in a way that steers clear of moral absurdity and intellectual dishonesty? If we have only two choices--declaring God absent or finding redeeming social value in the ovens of Auschwitz and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge--then surely we, like  Bill, must  pick door number one. But can we find another door to open? 

I'm going to describe two ways to think about God's involvement in the world that I believe avoid the morally unconscionable and the intellectually untenable. But first, we must disenthrall ourselves, in Abraham Lincoln's wonderful phrase, to identify two ways in which God is not present, either in our lives or in the most ancient Jewish texts.

The God We Don't Believe In

Reb Zalman Schacter-Shalomi was once flying on an airplane. After he and the person sitting beside him became acquainted, Zalman's new friend said, "Rabbi, I'm sorry to tell you this, but I don't believe in God."

Reb Zalman smiled. "That's OK. Please tell me about this God you don't believe in. I probably don't believe in Him either!"

A menagerie of philosophical quandaries emerges from a God we don't need to believe in--namely, God of the omni-omnis. This God is omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, the unmoved mover who knows all all that is and all that will be, who exerts complete control, who never changes. Jewish process theologian Bradley Artson points out that this vision of God comes from Aristotle, not the Bible or Rabbinic literature. It was grafted onto Judaism by Maimonides and other medieval Jewish philosophers. Artson urges us to dispense with it and return to Judaism's roots. (God of Becoming and Relationship: The Dynamic Nature of Process Theology, 2013, Jewish Lights Publishing.)

Think about how the Bible begins. God creates light, assesses it, and finds it good. God does likewise with dividing up the heavens, creating the sun and moon, etc. Finally, God creates humanity, steps back to view all of creation and pronounces it "Tov M'od," or "Very good!"

Fast forward a few hundred years or so. Humans do a great job with the Divine commandment of Pru U'Rvu, "be fruitful and multiply."  Other orders we ignore, but this one gets carried out with alacrity. When God observes the teeming crowd, however, the scene is anything but "very good." People are acting terribly. "God regretted that He had made humanity, and it grieved Him to His heart." (Gen. 6:6) God resolved, "I will wipe off the face of the earth humanity, which I created," along with all the animals, "because I regret that I made them." (Gen. 6:7)

Fortunately, God finds one virtuous person, Noah, whom God saves, along with his family and the animals Noah gathers on the Ark. After the flood recedes, Noah emerges from the Ark and offers sacrifices of Thanksgiving. Smelling the sacrifices, God observes that "the heart's desire of Man is bad from his youth," and God resolves never again to destroy the world. (Gen. 8:21). 

Does that sound like a perfect and unchanging God who foresees all? Or a God who is surprised by events, reacting as they unfold?

Some Rabbinic literature went even farther. Genesis Rabbah interpreted "Tov M'od" as follows: "This universe is very good, but those earlier universes--yuck!" Rabbi Abbahu explained that God created a universe, destroyed it, created another universe, destroyed that one, etc. After numerous failures, God finally created our universe, which at last received Divine approval. (Gen. Rabbah 9:2)

So much for omniscience. What about omnipotence, the Aristotelian conception of an all-powerful God, in complete control of events? Abraham Joshua Heschel used to say that, far from being all-powerful, the God portrayed in the Bible was continually frustrated that people almost never did what God wanted. 

Here's a second vision of God that is incompatible with reality: God as Ultimate Helicopter Parent, swooping down to prevent God's children from hurting one another. We all know that people have the capacity to inflict harm on each other. But doesn't the Bible paint the comforting picture of God as loving Parent?

At a very early stage of the Biblical account, God let a quarter of the human race perish in senseless slaughter. Cain murdered Abel.

Surely if there was ever a time for God to act as a helicopter parent, that was it. Cain and Abel were the first brothers. Fraternal jealousy had never existed before. How could Cain be expected to handle the situation wisely, or even understand what he was experiencing? But God stood aside and let events unfold.

To be sure, God warned Cain. He gave Cain brilliant advice, roughly as follows: "Are you so upset? Think about your emotions. If you do right, you'll be lifted to a higher level. Even if you don't do right, and sin crouches at the door, you still can master it." (See Gen. 6:7)

God encourages Cain to do the right thing, but Cain is free to ignore God--and does, with tragic results.

God, as portrayed in the Bible and experienced in our lives, is likewise not a Superhero on Steroids. Superman may swoop in and save a child from being hit by a car, but neither our lives nor the Bible feature a God who swoops in and saves all the little children from being hurt or killed.

The God we see in the Bible, interpreted according to its plain sense, is not in complete control and doesn't appear to know the future. God may encourage us to turn away from wrong and do right, but God leaves us free to choose, without knowing how we will use that freedom. 

By surrendering the vision of an omni-omni God, God as helicopter parent, God as super-hero on steroids, we rob theodicy of its sting. Such surrender doesn't lessen the pain of suffering. But when we are asked how an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-benevolent God could permit horrible events like the Holocaust, we can answer by saying that we don't believe in such a God, nor is such a God portrayed in our most foundational Jewish texts.

Mi Yodea Patterns

How can we see God as involved in our world without abandoning what we know is true and right?  Time is short, so I'll limit the discussion to two approaches out of many.

The first sees God's actions expressed in Mi Yodea patterns. "Mi yodea" is Hebrew for "who knows?" It comes from a pivotal moment in the book of Esther, which we read on Purim. 

Genocide against the Jews has just been decreed. Mordechai urges Queen Esther to go to the King and ask him to let the Jews live. When Esther objects that such a step could cause her death, Mordechai replies, "Don't think that you, among all the Jews, will be safe in the Palace. If you remain silent at this time, deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, but you and your family will be destroyed. And mi yodea, who knows if you have not reached the throne for precisely a time like this." (Esther 4:13-14)

Mordechai doesn't use the word, "God," but he sees an apparent pattern of Divine action. In fact, his sense of the pattern is strong enough for him to predict that, if Esther remains silent, God will find another way to save the Jewish people.

The entire book of Esther never once mentions God's name, but we, along with Mordechai, see the pattern of God's involvement. Of course, Esther's courage and Mordechai's integrity were essential to saving the Jewish people, but what were the odds of a Jewish queen, loved by the King, sitting on the throne just in time to foil a genocidal plot? What were the odds that, at precisely the right moment, a bout of Royal insomnia would lead the King to hear a story that happened to feature Mordechai's earlier actions to save the King's life?

The holiday commemorating these events is "Purim," named after the casting of lots ("pur") in a game of chance. The game was played to select the date of the Jews' destruction, but that very date became when those who sought to kill the Jews perished instead.

What a name! "Purim," the random casting of lots, utter chance. On the surface of history, perhaps randomness prevails. But in the depths? Mi yodea, who knows!  

Long before reaching this late stage in its depiction of Jewish history, the Bible is filled with Mi Yodea patterns. Consider the example of Abraham's loyal servant, Eliezer, who is sent back to the old country in Mesopotamia to find a wife for Isaac, Abraham's son. Along with his 10 camels, Eliezer approaches a well outside a town and beseeches God: "If a young woman comes out to the well, and I ask her for water, and she not only gives me water but also wants to help my camels, may she be the woman you have ordained for Isaac."

What a fantastic test! Eliezer seeks not external beauty but kindness, initiative, and energy--the very qualities that made Abraham great (and perhaps the qualities needed by a mate who will complement Isaac's character, which differs greatly from his father's).

Eliezer barely finishes speaking when Rebecca emerges from the town. She's drop-dead gorgeous, in Vice-President Biden's immortal phrase. Not only that, Rebecca passes Eliezer's test with flying colors. She hastens to give the stranger water, volunteers to help all 10 camels, then rushes to quench each one's thirst.

Eliezer conceives of a second test. "Whose daughter are you, my child? And is there a place in your Father's house where one could spend the night?" Perhaps Eliezer wants to know whether Rebecca is a kind young woman from a kind family, a family so kind that Rebecca knows, without any need to ask, that her parents will surely consent to house a stranger.

"Of course you can stay at our house!" she replies. "We have plenty of straw and rooms." The family will put up the camels as well the camels' owner, it seems. "And by the way, I'm the daughter of Bethuel," whom Eliezer knows to be part of Abraham's extended family.

Eliezer falls to the ground and thanks God: "Blessed is the Eternal, God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken His steadfast kindness with my master, and who led me on this journey to the house of my master's kin."  (Gen 24: 25-27) Eliezer sees the pattern of God's involvement, as do we. But note: the Torah itself doesn't say a word suggesting that God played any role in these events! 

Biblical characters like Mordechai and Eliezer have learned to see implicit Mi Yodea patterns, and we can, too. Contemporary Jewish theologian Neil Gillman describes much of religious education as training to see the traces of God in our lives and in history. He uses the analogy of educated basketball fans watching a game and commenting on a team's "passing game." They don't see the "passing game" in the same way they might see John Wall's arms, but they see it nevertheless. Another analogy involves child psychologists watching a child at play, one of whom observes, "Look at the ego on that kid!" The ego is not visible in the same way as the child's toy, but it is still visible to knowledgeable observers, who see it expressed in the child's actions. (Traces of God: Seeing God in Torah, History and Everyday Life, 2011, Jewish Lights Publishing; Believing and Its Tensions: A Personal Conversation about God, Torah, Suffering and Death in Jewish Thought, 2013, Jewish Lights Publishing; Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew, 2009, Jewish Publication Society)

These are not purely subjective observations.  They receive intersubjective confirmation (or not) based on the perceptions of multiple observers trained in seeing particular kinds of patterns.

In modern history and in our lives, do we still witness Mi Yodea patterns of possible Divine involvement? When the State of Israel was born in 1948, the courage and the brilliance of the Jewish settlers were essential to the nation's creation and survival. But was that all? What were the odds of the United States and the Soviet Union reaching agreement in the United Nations?  Who could have imagined a band of outnumbered and outgunned farmers and Holocaust survivors defeating the armies of multiple Arab nations? Maybe something else was going on as well--mi yodea, who knows?

In our own community, consider the survival and flourishing of the Jewish Primary Day School, JPDS, despite obstacle after obstacle, many of which seemed, at the time, almost impossible to overcome. The persistence, wisdom, and dedication of the school's leaders and supporters were essential, but maybe something else was involved, too. That was the theory of Susan Koss, JPDS's first head of school. Mi yodea, who knows?

Another, more personal example: I don't remember whose Bar or Bat Mitzvah it was, but I'll never forget the mother's comments to the Congregation: "We've been feeling God's presence a lot in our lives lately. This morning, I found a clean pair of underwear!"

One final point about the book of Esther: After the Jews were saved, the text says that the Jews "Keemu v'Kiblu," they fulfilled and they accepted. (Esther 9:27) According to the verse's plain meaning, the Jews were accepting the holiday of Purim, but the Rabbis read the text more deeply. They saw the Jews as agreeing not just to Purim but also to the covenant at Sinai itself, the Jewish people's acceptance of the Torah's obligations, and our collective entry into partnership with God.

On some Rabbinic accounts, our acceptance of the original agreement at Sinai wasn't entirely voluntary. God suspended Mt. Sinai over our heads, then made the following generous offer: "If you accept the Torah, great. If not, kiss your tush good-bye, because this place will become your grave!"

No such coercion surrounded the events retold at Purim. Without any threat or inducement, we entered into the covenant, with a completely full heart--for the very first time! (Shabbat 88a)

I wonder whether the Rabbis were hinting at something else. Even without the fanciful suspension of a mountain over the Jews' head, could the acceptance of the covenant have been entirely voluntary after all the wonders and miracles the Jews had just witnessed--the outstretched arm and mighty hand that liberated a lowly mob of slaves from the most powerful nation in the history of the world; the miraculous splitting of the Reed Sea; the daily fall of manna from the heavens; and finally the black clouds, thunder, shofar blasts, and lightning at Sinai? 

Perhaps we could consent, with full freedom and autonomy, only when God was acting through Mi Yodea patterns--patterns of Divine involvement that cannot be proven, patterns that cannot even be made the subject of falsifiable scientific experiment. These are not reliable patterns, present everywhere we look; God is not a coke machine, guaranteeing refreshment each time you insert a quarter (nowadays, more like $1.25). Perhaps only when God manifests through subtle patterns--simultaneously graspable and evanescent, at once visible and hidden--can we step forward and truly assume responsibility, without ulterior motives, as full partners in the Covenant. Perhaps. Mi yodea? 

Daas and Devekus

A second way to envision God's presence involves the Chasidic concepts of daas and devekus. These are Hebrew words, rendered in the Ashkenazic pronunciation used by Chassidim. With modern Israeli or Sephardic pronunciation, we would say, "Daat" and "Devekut," meaning "knowledge" and "clinging," respectively.

"Daas" does not refer to the knowledge of facts, the grasp of information. Instead, "daas" alludes to immediate, even intimate awareness, as in the Biblical verse about Adam knowing Eve.

"Devekus" also hints at Edenic sexuality. After woman is created from part of Adam, and Adam exclaims, "This one is bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh," the Torah explains, "that is why a man leaves his father and mother, clings to his wife, and they become one flesh." (Gen. 2:24) The word for "clinging"? Devekus.

In referencing daas and devekus, Chassidic masters emphasize the importance of being constantly aware of God's presence, which always surrounds us. In every person, in every object, God is present.

One helpful framework for thinking about these concepts distinguishes between "outer" and "inner." It comes from the Sfas Emes, a Chassidic Master of late 19th and early 20th century Poland. Everything has external aspects, but the innermost core of everything consists of God. That inner core of Godliness is where we should focus our attention.

Every time you encounter a person, within that person is a "chelek Elohim mi'maal"--literally, a chunk of God from above. When you eat a delicious apple, experiencing its goodness, God's goodness is present in the apple and your experience of it. As Isaiah overheard the angels' cry, "M'lo kol ha-aretz k'vodo," the whole world is filled with His glory.(Isaiah 6:3) 

The Meor Eynayim, a very early Chassidic master, teaches that the key choice we make, at every moment, is whether to focus on the external dimension of what surrounds us or the Godliness present within every person, every object, every situation.

This choice is the core of the liberation from Egypt, in the Meor Eynayim's interpretation. As we've all heard, denial isn't just a river in Egypt. Likewise, the exile in Mitsrayim--Hebrew for "Egypt"--remains present in our world. With a slight re-reading of its Hebrew letters, "Mistrayim" becomes "Meitsar Yam," or constriction of the sea, which is a symbol of wisdom, according to the Maor Eynayim (and many other Chassidic teachers).

Daas was in exile in Egypt, explains the Meor Eynayim. We lost our awareness of God's presence in the world. We experienced the world as existing on its own, without the inner Divine spark. Just so today: if we relate to a security guard, for example, as a security guard, we are in exile in Egypt. If we relate to the security guard with clear awareness of God's presence within that person, we are leaving Egypt. Exile and redemption are functions, not of our circumstances, but of how we perceive our circumstances. Chassidic masters teach that both we and the world around us become transformed when we focus our awareness on God's presence within our surroundings and within ourselves.

Jewish practice is filled with aids towards daas and devekus. Before and after eating, we say brachot, blessings, that direct our grateful attention towards God's presence in the food. Even after going to the bathroom, we say a blessing to thank God for the miraculous functionality of our bodies. "If it weren't for these channels and ducts opening and closing, it would be impossible to stand before You," we acknowledge. This may sound silly, but ask someone whose organs no longer function properly about the preciousness of what most of us take for granted. Or ask a physician about the miraculous workings of a healthy human body. "Radical amazement," was Heschel's rendering of the awareness stressed by Chassidism, the spiritual discipline of remaining in touch with the miraculousness of what we usually see as routine.

God is also present within ourselves in a more fundamental sense. When we are far from where we should be, relating to the Godliness within can start the process of "Teshuva," or return. Early Chassidic texts, relaying the words of Chassidism's founder, the Baal Shem Tov, or Besht, provide examples of a thief or adulterer. This person had the life-force of God within his or her soul, but used it for an improper purpose. Focus on your own, internal link to God, the Besht urges the thief or adulterer. It's still there. Experience it, and redirect your God-given energy towards good!

God can be experienced as present within, not just an object or entity, but a situation, even a difficult situation. In Deuteronomy, Moses speaks of God taking outcasts who were scattered to the far heavens and bringing them home from "sham," from "there."(Duet. 30:4) According to the Besht, sometimes it is only by being fully present right "there," by grappling with the difficulties of the hard place where you are, that you can find your way home.

A true story: Shirley Chisolm was the first African-American woman elected to Congress. She was brilliant, with as finely-honed and creative a mind as has ever passed beneath the Capitol dome. The white Southern barons who ran the place in 1969, when Chisolm took her seat, thought it would be great fun to assign this representative of inner-city Brooklyn to the Agriculture Committee. There aren't too many farmers in this new member's district, we can imagine them cackling to one another.

Frustrated, hurt, and angry, she got a call from one of her constituents. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, wanted to meet with her. "I know you're upset," he explained, "but God has given you a great blessing. Take that fantastic mind of yours, and figure out a way, from the Agriculture Committee, to bring excess agricultural commodities, the food that farmers grow but can't sell, to feed poor, hungry people in your district and throughout America!"

From her perch on the Agriculture Committee, Chisolm proceeded to join with newly elected Senator Bob Dole to pass a major expansion of the Food Stamp program. She also played a leading role in creating the WIC program, which still provides agricultural commodities to millions of poor pregnant women and infants. At her retirement party from Congress, Chisolm spoke of the Rabbi who taught her that a challenging situation can truly be a gift from God.

Think about the model of God implicit in this view of daas and devekus. If God is present in every person, every object, every situation, God is not a super-hero on steroids. God is not an entity fundamentally like you and me, making decisions apart from the rest of the world and trying to influence other entities. God is what philosophers like Paul Tillich call "the ground of being." A metaphor in the Chassidic literature pictures God as the root of all, present within each particle and aspect of the universe, a root from which sprouts and flowers everything and everyone we encounter.

Our tradition teaches that this Divine root, the God-energy within each object and moment, goes beyond sustaining existence. It also confers value. Foreign to this perspective is David Hume's classic philosophical distinction between "is" and "ought," which sharply divorces the realm of the real from the world of value and moral direction. In the Chasidic view of daas and devekus, God's internal presence lets each of us exist, but it also makes each of us infinitely precious.

As finite creatures who evolved on the African Savannah, we do not remotely have the capacity to conceive or explain how the ultimate source of all reality, the font of quasars and quantum paradoxes, gives rise to an existence inherently intertwined with beauty and value. Perhaps the closest we can come is with a Midrash, an exercise of ancient Rabbinic imagination.

You can't find a single blade of grass, says Rabbi Simon, without a constellation in the Heavens telling it, "Grow," even going so far as to hit it (perhaps using starlight to awaken the blade from herbal complacency). (Gen. Rabbah 10:6)

"Grow," exclaims the constellation--not "be happy and comfortable," not "may you always have abundant sunshine and water," but "Grow!"

The science of the time, astrology, held that constellations contained ultimate causative power. Nevertheless, our Midrash does not picture the constellations as forcing a blade of grass to grow. Rather, they urge it to grow. (In the words of the classic joke about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb, the blade of grass must want to grow.)

And most important of all, every blade of grass matters. Deeply matters, with an entire constellation of stars rooting it on, dedicated to its growth. Not just every Jew, not just every person, but every blade of grass matters.

And so my wish for you and me, for all of us, is that we learn to experience God's presence in all people, all things, all situations, finding the preciousness in what surrounds us and fills us, and that this awareness becomes a mighty force that brings us all to ever-higher levels of joy and service.  

From the Questions and Answers that followed the Devar Torah

Q. You seem to suggest that, by focusing on their Godliness within, wrong-doers can begin Teshuvah, or return, ultimately redirecting their energies towards accomplishing something positive. But what about people who do terrible evil, people like Hitler? Did Hitler contain Godliness? And is there a point after which Teshuvah is no longer possible?

A. Hitler obviously had extraordinary leadership talents and skills. Imagine what he could have accomplished if he had used those gifts for good purposes, rather than evil ones. Those foregone possibilities only heighten the tragedy of Hitler's actions. And people who commit terrible crimes can do Teshuvah. Convicts serving life sentences sometimes turn their lives around in prison, even as they continue to be punished for capital crimes.

Q. Does the Chassidic vision of God as present in every part of life involve a supernatural element?

A. You can apply this vision to either a supernatural or an entirely naturalistic conception of God. Some Chassidic thinkers say that, ultimately, there is no difference between God acting within nature and, as in the splitting of the Reed Sea, God acting outside the bounds of natural law. Either way, what counts is God's presence in events. Many Chassidic thinkers characterize the Bible's account of the miraculous departure from Egypt as showing the entire world that God is always present, "renewing the action of creation every day, always," in the language of our morning liturgy. In other words, the purpose of the singular miracle was to change how we look at all of life, so that we can see the miraculous core within even the superficially mundane.