Think Tank Meeting, ז’ טבת תשע”ד, December 9, 2013
Minutes: Yael Valier and Emunah Fialkoff. Write-up: Anne Gordon
The fourth session of the year 5774 at the David Cardozo Academy Think Tank began with a fill-in-the-blank statement, “I think God is happy when….”
As always, the responses were thought-provoking, with a wide array of theological conceptions represented, and (this week) in response to each other:
- God is never happy because God doesn’t have feelings, but God pretends to have feelings, as it were, to have a relationship with us – and that happens when we behave in the right way, and might appear in the form of rain, and other indications of God upholding His side of the deal.
- Breaking down barriers – clapping and singing and telling God, “I love You,” – we then respond to God from a place of such joy that He cannot help but be affected.
- Sometimes, when we pay attention to the minutia of Halakhah, I say, “Good. God is happy” – recognizing that we are emphasizing what we have decided is important. And yet, that same focus on the minutia can get in the way of getting close to God.
- When we express the part of us that is “in the image of God,” and make ourselves God’s companions, then He is happy.
- Let’s recognize that God’s happiness is a metaphor, and that we are not truly thinking God is manifest in human terms (qua idolatry). But, as Avraham Joshua Heschel explained, if you believe that God has no feelings, then you cannot have a relationship with God, so we believe that Goad has feelings “as it were.”
- But emotions change, so it doesn’t make sense that God can have them. Rather than focusing on when God is “happy,” the philosophically correct thing would be to focus on when we are personally, deeply fulfilled. In that vein, I would say, “I am deeply connected to God when….” If I am connected, I assume I am actualizing more of my purpose.
- Ah, but the moment we start trying to talk about God specifically, we’ve already lost meaning. If God is Infinite and we are finite, and the two can never meet, then we have no means to discuss the Infinite – even though we do so anyway. But truly, that discussion is pretend.
- God has the complete perspective. By analogy, if you have an electron, you can know where it is or how fast it is moving, but not both. Thus, it is a contradiction in terms for God to put forth effort – because God is Omnipotent to begin with.
- And yet, when *I* was growing up, people would say, “God should have nachat from you,” in the same way that there was hope that your parents and rebbe would take pride in your accomplishments as well. Being unable to connect to this (more kabbalist approach, perhaps) is presumably the result of Maimonidean, rationalist influence. Thus, we have a “functional truth” – how to handle ourselves with regard to God – that is pleasant and useful, and I will end up doing things that I may not want to do for the sake of providing nachat. This view lines up with Heschel’s approach that God is angered when people hurt their fellow human beings and is happy when we are good to others.
- A lot of people do bad things in the world and claim that they are making God happy….while I identify with both competing approaches, I like that the “functional” approach aligns with the way the Torah speaks of God – with emotions.
R. Cardozo summarized: This last view, which provides a language in which we are able to contextualize God, as it were, is beautiful because it creates a relationship without which we cannot live. The Maimonidean reaction to this approach is that it risks converging on idolatry – and that is also a legitimate concern. Rambam’s understanding of God made Him so great that human beings almost cannot connect to Him. Spinoza went a step further and essentially moved God out of the picture, asit were. Thus, we have one of the tensions within Judaism – a desire for closeness to the Divine and a fear of the idolatry to which this may lead. Thus, as one T”T participant put it, we have the paradox of God being close and distant at the same time. Indeed, continued R. Cardozo, we feel very familiar with God – we address Him with a certain comfort level, and even arrogance. This is both childish and beautiful. And, from a different angle, Jews do not talk much about God; rather, they talk TO God, or about the Law instead.
How do we feel when non-Jews use this language? Jesus is happy when….Allah is happy when….One T”T participant acknowledged that she is uncomfortable with the language of the question then too – and no differently for the question with regard to Jews. R. Cardozo suggested, however, that the question may mean something different to Jew and to non-Jew, making it a harder comparison to evaluate.
Deuteronomy 4:26-31 (focus on v. 29); Jeremiah 29: 11-14 (please see the verses inside); text from Rav Amital z”l (see below)
[This week, the learning took place as one large group discussion for the biblical verses, and then smaller groups to discuss the passages from R. Amital z”l.]
On the biblical text:
What is the nature of seeking God here? What is “misham”?
You will have to set out to do your own seeking. You can no longer assume God will come find you, for example. We will seek God, and return to Him – and as we do teshuvah, so too will He.
Are we required by teshuvah to seek God with all we have?
The verse says, “U-Vikashtem mi-sham” – when you are completely down, that is when you call out to God with your entire being.
Could we read these verses as meaning a need to search for God from an authentic place within ourselves?
No – the verses describe bad things happening, and when bad things happen, we cry out to God!
The only way to rectify the situation (of the bad things) is to cry out.
The verses mean – you cannot find God unless you have been in total crisis. Only then can you authentically find God. Any other time you get close to God, it’s given to you on a silver platter.
You are forced to be authentic because you are in crisis (there are times, however, when one can be authentic without being in crisis).
Is there a difference between “authentic” and “genuine”? These verses seem to give a “genuine” vibe – and it is we who are trying to move authenticity in that direction.
An excerpt from the excerpts of R. Amital’s words:
…Observant youth …have developed a new ideology. We are faced with a fascinating but frightening phenomenon, characterized by the term “hitchabrut” – emotional identification, connection, or attachment.
Youth today seek “identification” with mitzvot, but not a “commitment” to them. Authority and obligation – two foundations without which it is difficult to imagine living in accordance with the Torah – have become irrelevant in these circles. Not only are these concepts not spoken about, but worse still – the very mention of these terms by someone else “turns off” these youth, since the “connection” they seek is personal, individual and experiential.
From the discussions of R. Amital’s word…
- What he is describing is truly the maturing of the Jewish nation, and therefore not necessarily negative.
- Our communities are strong because of social pressure. Can people live a Jewish life in a non-Jewish environment? Perhaps not…perhaps the insularity is necessary – unfortunate, but at present, we have nothing better.
- I disagree – “hitchabrut” is not an acceptable alternative, and by calling it acceptable, we accept a new definition of what is acceptable in Orthodoxy.
- This brings us back to the question of whether “authenticity” is a Jewish value. There’s a loss of that sense of obligation, majesty, even coercion, when one succumbs to too much “hitchabrut.”
- But when *I* hear “obligation,” my first reaction is: who’s gonna make me? There has to be some component of personal choice.
- In the generation after the Shoah, the concept of God and our obligation has been challenged by the experience of the Shoah. The Jew’s relationship to God has changed, and the manner it has done so is not yet clear.
Questions to Ponder:
- Do you relate to God in the “functional,” relationship sense or as a Maimonidean, rationalist, who makes God great and also distant?
- Do you accept the validity of the question, “what makes God happy?” – and if so, what do you think makes God happy?
- What enables you to call out to God?
- In your search for God and religiosity, to what extent do you seek “hitchabrut”? What are the advantages and/or disadvantages of this approach?