In Memory Of Our Good friend
Akiva ben Gittel z.l.
I search for You at dawn, my Rock and Refuge
Morning and evening will I unfold my thoughts before You
I stand overwhelmed by Your greatness
For Your eyes perceive my deepest thoughts
What can my heart and tongue do
And what strength does my spirit possess
Behold, You desire the song of man
Therefore I shall praise You as long as my divine soul is in me
[Shachar Avakeshcha, Shlomo Ibn Gabirol]
Lord of the Universe!
I apologize in advance, but it has again become difficult to believe that You are actually living among us. Only three weeks ago, some of your most faithful devotees were standing, in the middle of their prayers, when they were suddenly attacked and brutally murdered in a synagogue in Har Nof, Yerushalayim. You didn’t stop the butchers but allowed them to savagely snuff out the lives of these husbands and fathers while You stood by without lifting a finger. They were speaking to You, praising Your greatness, and while conversing with You, they were struck down with guns, knives and hatchets. Don’t You think this is too much for us to bear?
I am sure You understand that I was undecided about going to synagogue that day. There was too much pain. Then I wondered whether we should perhaps all go to this holy place and declare before the Aron Hakodesh (Holy Ark) that we refuse to speak to You any longer and will cease to sing Your praises.
When I nevertheless entered the synagogue, I found a community of worshippers who could not understand why I was hesitant to speak to You today. They probably thought I had taken leave of my senses. But I wondered whether it was they and not I who had the problem. After all, isn’t my reaction the only sound one? How can one continue to speak to You after all that happened?
Although I could not look into the hearts of these worshippers, I found myself perplexed. No one said a word about what had transpired and the prayers were, as usual, boring to the core. How, I wondered, is this possible? Did we not hear the wake-up call? Why did the prayers not reflect the deepest of emotions – shock and despair? I looked at myself only to find that I was no better. I, too, said my prayers as usual, as if nothing happened. Only when I left this holy place did it hit me. Have we all become indifferent? What has happened to us?
But then I thought, isn’t it wonderful that the worshippers are still prepared to come and speak to You instead of throwing in the towel and deciding there is no longer any point in praising You? Doesn’t it show tremendous faith, in spite of it all?
A moment later, however, another thought came to my mind: Do we worshippers realize that we are addressing and praising the very God Who just stood by while these murders took place, and remained passive, as if paralyzed? Is this the same God we praise every day? Or, do we actually believe in two gods? Are we guilty of believing that the God to whom we pray has nothing to do with the God Who looked the other way during this massacre?
Perhaps we are simply hiding behind our prayers of praise, trying to escape the reality that You are a God Who not only seems to ignore us when we need You the most, but also causes earthquakes in which hundreds of thousands of people lose their lives, and brings upon us many diseases through which people suffer pain and die.
What astonishes me is that few people in the religious community seem to discuss this huge, religious, existential problem. Hardly anyone is asking why You allowed these murders to happen? Seemingly, not one person walked out of the synagogue grappling with a religious crisis. Or, were they hiding their true thoughts and feelings, not daring to express them?
As for me, I am not easily convinced by some of our great contemporary rabbis who claim that these murders are part of the chevlay mashiach (birth pangs preceding the messianic age). We’ve heard these claims all too often, for thousands of years, whenever Jews have been murdered. They have lost much of their power. After all, throughout the years, Mashiach has regrettably not appeared. So, I wonder whether this is wishful thinking and people are being fed false hopes. Oh, how I hope that I’m wrong! But why would these terrible events have to happen before we can enter the messianic age?
And then I heard the most unusual eulogies given by family members of the victims, who spoke with such love about You, with enormous strength of belief in You. I stood in awe. What do they know that I don’t?
Still, there will be few heads of Jewish high schools and yeshivot who will discuss with their students Your rather painful involvement in all this. Most of them will tell their pupils to continue learning Talmud and be silent. But as a teacher, I know that these questions are on the mind of many of the best students. They are simply suppressed, having been ignored by their mentors. Even more disquieting is that many others don’t even contemplate the problem. On the face of it, their minds and hearts have been silenced by the continuous denial of what happens around them. Have they been indoctrinated not to think, to the extent that they are not even struck by this huge problem? It seems that You get away with a lot.
But I wonder. Do we really still believe in You? Have we convinced ourselves that we believe in You while in fact we have adopted a type of atheism, or worse, some kind of idol worship, believing in two or even more gods without being aware of it? Are we just going through the religious motions but not actually believing that any of it is true?
I know that my questions concerning You are not new. We have been asking them since the dawn of history – from the killing of Hevel by Kayin until and beyond the Holocaust. We have always had this problem. So why, indeed, do we not cease praising You?
Surely I can ask why You need to do all this. If You want to teach us something, is there no other way? After all, the only thing You accomplish is that fewer and fewer people will believe in You. You provide them with all the arguments that atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens love so much. You know just as well as I do that all these tragedies work against You, causing much damage to Your name. I am most concerned about Your name. So why aren’t You?
It seems there is something about You I will never grasp. In fact, there is nothing that I really do understand about You. You are “a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.” You see everything sub specie aeternitatis (from the aspect of eternity). And that I could do only if I were You. But I am not. I know that I am not the measure of all things. I know that I am far removed from the reality of Your essential existence. Trying to understand You is like explaining a three-dimensional reality with the help of a flat surface. I realize that there is a huge expanse beyond the shore of my reason. I see your fingerprints everywhere and hear a constant metaphysical murmur from the “other side,” which I know nothing about. It attempts to penetrate my thinking but is unable to get through and stops halfway, in order not to crush my skull. I am fully aware that I continue to convert Your realities into my opinions, thereby rendering myself guilty of transforming Your sublimity into silly clichés.
You are more than existing. Existence is Your minimum capacity. If You were merely to exist, I would probably not believe in You. But you are more than infinite, truer than real. I am aware that I borrow words, phrases and philosophical language from the general sphere of our limited human experience, and that will not do. Faith is mostly starved of language. When I confront You, all my words evaporate into near meaninglessness.
There is really nothing that we know. We don’t know who You are and why You created the world. We are completely ignorant about why You need us to exist. You are not a Who, What or even When. The world around us, including baby universes, black holes and millions of stars, just alludes to one mysterium magnum (great mystery). How, then, do we dare challenge You regarding, murders, earthquakes, tsunamis and human tragedies? “I know nothing,” said Socrates, “except the fact of my ignorance.”
I am jealous of the atheist who need not deal with the problem. Your total Otherness doesn’t bother him. He simply denies it. He doesn’t have to deal with the terrible tension that exists between what I want You to be and Who You really are. I don’t have that luxury. While he allows himself a childlike escapism, I am forced to face the problem head on.
I realize that Your miracles far outdo Your tragedies and that I continue to live by Your ever constant mercy. I am aware that I live in two realms simultaneously: one that overwhelms me with the ineffable feeling that there is majestic spiritual scenery, which makes it clear that You are there; the other where we see chaos, nothing makes any sense, and all is random. We are suspended between these two realms and find ourselves in utter confusion and solemn terror, realizing that our wisdom is inferior. And then comes the thunderbolt in which a flash of the unknown hits us, and Your being is revealed.
I know that it is more than surprising that we don’t experience waves of terrorism and earthquakes on a daily basis and that the laws of nature stop many of them. The grandeur of all creation is too powerful to allow us to deny You, though Your constant hiddenness is so very painful.
So I will continue to believe in You, but I cannot deny that, emotionally, it is a tour de force. How, after all, can I live with Someone Who sometimes violates all that my own limited thoughts and feelings can grasp and express? Oh, how wonderful it would be if I were an atheist! But how fortunate I am that I was not granted that possibility.
Perhaps my fellow worshippers are wiser than I am, and I should judge them more favorably. Maybe they have already worked through all these thoughts and have concluded that You are a necessary Being within Yourself, and all our questions are meaningless. Perhaps they have read Spinoza, who put an end to the possibility of knowing anything about You. Probably based on Jewish ideas, he concluded that not only can we not know anything about Your plan with this world, but the very idea of a plan – which means a notion within time and space – is completely inapplicable to You.
But then, God, do my fellow worshippers not have emotions as I have? Are they simply cold, philosophical, mathematical minds that have really thought this through and are thus able to pray to You? I have a hard time believing that. Nearly never have I heard them utter a word about You in relation to earthquakes, tsunamis, or other tragedies. Never have they said to me that You are the grundnorm of complete Otherness and therefore there is nothing to ask. In fact, they hardly ever speak about You. They only speak about Your Halacha. So, am I praying in a kosher minyan? Or, are we all guilty of having made You into a deus absconditus, (an absent god)?
On the other hand, perhaps I am mistaken. Maybe they live by emunah peshuta, an ingrained, deep-seated but simple belief in You, which is indestructible. Perhaps their belief is much more real since it is prior, and independent of human knowledge and experience. But why can I not reach this? Should I perhaps not pray in their minyan since it is my thoughts that are misguided? Maybe I am the one who undermines the integrity and authenticity of their prayers.
Whatever the answer may be, I still have to tell You that I am, first and foremost, a human being. So, I repeat the question asked by my forefather Avraham after You told him of Your intention to destroy the cities of Sedom and Amora. He asked, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” This, God, is the great human question. True, man is only a reed – the weakest entity in nature – but he is a feeling reed.
Perhaps, God, You could have a little more pity on our finite minds. It would make it easier to live with You.
So, forgive me for having asked these simplistic questions, but I had to give voice to them. After all, “men are but children of a larger growth.”
In humility and awe,
Nathan ben Ya’acov Lopes Cardozo