The New Shul

Rabbi Wasserman’s Rosh Hashanah Drashah – Sept. 10 2018

In 1955, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a scathing critique of American Judaism as it existed in his time. The 1950s were a time when traditional faith – both Jewish and Christian – was on the defensive in this country, and secularism seemed to be winning all the arguments. Science and rationality, liberal democracy and enlightened capitalism seemed to be the forces of the future. Religious faith – at least to educated people – seemed to be a vestige of the past.

Much of American Judaism, at that time, adapted to the new environment by adopting secular values as its own. Rabbis and other teachers emphasized how rational and scientific Judaism was, how compatible it was with liberal democracy and enlightened capitalism. In fact the kind of Judaism that many rabbis taught in those days was practically synonymous with liberal democracy and enlightened capitalism. Jewish leaders were trying to ally American Judaism with what appeared to be the forces of the future, at the same time that much of Christian America was doing the same thing.

But the problem with that effort to get on the right side of history was that it drained much of the authenticity out of American Jewish life. By emphasizing how rational and enlightened Judaism was, they took much of the transcendent poetry and spiritual energy out of it. By turning Judaism into something safe and middle-American and respectable, they robbed it of its passion and intensity.

That is what Heschel railed against in 1955. He complained – concerning not just Judaism but Christianity too – that the decline of religious life in this country was religion’s own fault.  Religion had no one to blame but itself for its plight. This is how he began his famous book, God in Search of Man.

“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.”

Heschel may have been a little bit unfair blaming religion’s decline entirely on itself. Secularization was – and still is – a powerful, all-pervasive force in Western culture, which affects religion in profound ways from the outside, as well as from the inside.  Maybe a fairer version of Heschel’s charge against American religion would have been to say that the ways in which religion was attempting to survive in a more secular America in the 1950s were hastening its decline. Its strategy was backfiring. By trying to get on the secular bandwagon, it was making itself irrelevant.

Now, two generations later, things are still the same in some respects, and very different in others. What is the same is that the long march of secularization, the gradual decline of traditional religious faith as a force in Western society, continues apace. All the demographic studies show that, by conventional measures, the Western world continues to become less religious. Western Europe leads the way, but America is not that far behind. The fastest growing category of religious identity in this country is what demographers call “the nones,” those who claim to have no religious identity at all.

So that much is the same. But what is different today is that, to a great extent, religion is responding to the challenge in exactly the opposite way. Today the most dynamic forms of Judaism (and of Christianity too for that matter), the movements within both faith traditions that seem to have the most energy – certainty the ones that attract the most attention – are those that are responding to modernity not by getting on the secular bandwagon but by attacking modernity head on. Today the greatest energy in American Judaism is on the traditionalist right, not the liberal left. In that respect, we are again mirroring what is happening in the Christian world.

Some forms of Judaism today that push back against modernity are militantly reactionary. They have a hard edge. They are proudly anti-science, anti-liberal-democracy, anti pluralistic. They teach that the modern world, with all of its openness and ambiguity, is irredeemably corrupt. They look back to a time when lines of authority were clear, when women and minorities knew their place, and LGBT people were invisible. They tend to wall themselves off from other streams of Judaism, and from the modern world in general. They live in enclaves, cut off as much as possible from the internet and other kinds of media.

Other forms of traditionalist American Judaism – though no less opposed to modernity – push back against it in a milder, less angry way. They are less openly antagonistic. They have a softer edge. Instead of walling themselves off, they engage and try to persuade. But they are similar in that they still traffic in nostalgia for a supposedly simpler past, when roles were clear and everybody knew what was expected of them, when everyone believed what they were supposed to believe. They still teach that unlike modern secular society, with its multiple points of view, religion knows with certainty what is right and wrong. Unlike secular society, with its openness to people who think differently, true faith does not need to make room for alternative points of view because it has the truth. In a world where everything seems to be so complex and ambiguous, reactionary faith – both in its hard and soft forms – pushes back against modernity by offering the polar opposite of all that modern ambiguity.

If you want evidence of how influential that way of thinking about religion has become today – how common it is that people think of religion, in contrast with modern culture, as something that offers one simple answer to every question – consider that many people who don’t subscribe to that kind of faith at all, who don’t buy the claim that truth is simple, feel that, for exactly that reason, they cannot be religious. They don’t believe in single, simple answers themselves, but they assume that all religious people do, and so they conclude that there is no room in the religious world for them. That tells you how pervasive this way of thinking about religion has become.

In the 1950s, Heschel complained that, by being too accommodating to modernity, American religion had sold its soul. It had watered itself down, and surrendered its whole reason for being. Its efforts to deal with the challenge of modernity by uncritically getting on board had backfired.

If Heschel were alive today, I think he would be equally critical of the defensive, reactionary tendencies that are so prominent in American Judaism, and American religion in general today. Reacting against the modern world has backfired too, though in a very different way. In setting itself up as the antidote to all the ills of modern culture, by pretending that it can save us from the dizzying complexity and openness and multi-sidedness of our world – religion does tremendous damage to itself. In teaching that truth is simple –  that we know exactly who God is and what God wants – religion winds up twisting and distorting its own character. In its effort to survive – this time by standing in opposition to modern culture – it violates not only modern values but core religious values too. It undermines itself. It trades away authentic faith for idolatry.

Because when you simplify religion into frozen dogmas, when you reduce the great religious questions that all faiths have struggled with for all of human history to simple bromides, that is what you are really doing:  turning to idolatry. When you reject uncertainty and ambiguity, when you insist that there is only one correct perspective and that being a believer means having simple, one-dimensional answers, then you are no longer worshipping God at all – at least not the God that we know from the Bible.

One of the great themes of the Hebrew Bible is that we cannot know God, at least not in the way that we know people or things, because God is greater than we are. Ultimate truth is larger than our own capacity to understand, and therefore all of our truths are only partial. When Moshe meets God at the burning bush, Moshe asks to know God’s name. He wants to know who God is. But God won’t answer – or perhaps can’t answer in the way that Moshe wants God to. God responds, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh – I will be what I will be.” What God seems to be saying is: “You can’t contain me in a finite name. You can’t conceptualize me in human terms. I am a God beyond your understanding, a God of infinite possibilities, a God of mystery. Then God teaches Moses the closest thing that we have to name for God in Judaism, which we spell YHWH. But YHWH is not really a name at all. It is a mysterious, unpronouncable conflation of different forms of the verb “to be.” It means something like “the one who is, and was and will be.” But it says nothing about who or what God is. It suggests that God is fundamentally elusive because God does not exist in the way that you or I or a table or chair exists. God is being itself.

Later in the story, when we reach Mount Sinai and receive the Torah, one of the very first things that God teaches us is that, unlike the gods of Egypt, God’s identity cannot be captured in an image. We cannot carve a picture or a statue that will represent God. It’s another way of saying that we cannot know God in the way that we know physical things. We cannot put God in that kind of box.

When you try to make faith simple, when you try to sell religion by advertising that it has the one true answer to every question, you are doing exactly what God – at the burning bush and at Mount Sinai – taught us not to do. You’re trying to drain faith of its essential mystery to turn God into a graven image. Yes, you are offering what might be an attractive alternative to the dizzying ambiguity of modern life. But in doing so, you are rejecting what religion itself – or at least our religion –stands for.

The medieval kabbalists taught that one who worships idols is a kotzez n’tiyot, one who cuts down saplings. What they meant was that, when you take a partial truth and make it the whole truth, when you take something that is true sometimes, or from certain perspectives, and say that that is the complete truth, it is like cutting off a sapling from the soil that gave it life. You are taking something that was alive because it was part of something larger, because it wasn’t complete, and making it dead, frozen, immovable.

Making truth simple and one-dimensional is always like that. It means taking things that might be partially true – true at certain times or true from certain perspectives – things that are true precisely because they do not claim to be the whole truth – and making them into dead, graven images, dead because we have uprooted them from the deeper mystery that lies behind them, and treated them as if they were the final word.

And there is a terrible cost to that. The deep contemporary yearning to reduce God to something easily understandable, to turn the greatest mysteries that there are into a simple set of dogmas – almost always turns out to be destructive and divisive, because its rooted in spiritual arrogance. It is based on the idea that ultimate truth is something that we human beings can possess, that we can carry with us in our pocket, that we can own, in a sense control.  It means, in a very real way, putting ourselves above God.

Maybe the worst example of that kind of idolatry is when we draft God as a combatant in our various human conflicts – our national or religious conflicts or our culture wars – when we insist that God is on our side against our cultural or political or religious adversaries, against whoever happens to make us feel threatened. When we do that, when we try to enlist God as a partisan in our disputes, what we are really trying to do is make God something that we own and that our adversaries don’t.

And when we do that, we make those conflicts worse. Drafting God into our conflicts opens the door to terrible abuses. It gives us license to delegitimize those who disagree with us, to try to quash dissent, to turn complex moral dilemmas into simple struggles of us versus them. My teacher Arthur Green taught that one of the defining characteristics of idolatry is that it divides instead of unites. Because it makes the truth too simple, too absolute, too dead, it closes minds. When we worship a god that is too small, we become small. We become tribal and dogmatic. We lose touch with those who are different from us. When religious faith is all about simple truths, about nostalgia for a supposedly simpler past when every question had exactly one answer, it drives wedges between people. And when that kind of faith becomes so culturally dominant and pervasive that it turns into the public face of religion in general, it not only damages society but it damages the cause of religion itself. It gives religion a bad name.

One of the great themes of Rosh Hashanah is that God is one – and being one, is greater than all the partial truths that we turn into idols. In Malkhuyot, the part of Rosh Hashanah mussaf that reminds us of God’s kingship over all the earth, we speak about the dream that someday all peoples will give up their false gods, break their idols, and worship the one God, the one who transcends all of our differences.

But that requires the willingness to live with mystery, to give up the possibility of owning God. As Milton Steinberg put it in another context, it means paradoxically embracing God with open arms, embracing what we know we cannot get our arms around. It means struggling to engage with the ineffable, to live in a relationship with the inexpressible.

There are sacred, usually fleeting moments in our lives when we succeed in doing that, in standing in the presence of the mystery – neither running away from it nor trying to assert control over it, but just being present in God’s world, standing as finite human beings before the inexpressible mystery at the heart of our existence. Those are the moments, I believe, when we are most alive. It is at those moments that we are the most true to the image of God within ourselves.

I believe that all of Judaism – all of Jewish practice, all of Jewish thought and wisdom – is a way to help ourselves to do that. Judaism is a way of training and equipping ourselves to stand in the presence of the mystery at the heart of all that is, and therefore to be truly alive as human beings. When we pray as Jews, we use the power of language to try to move beyond what words can express, to reach out to the one who is “l’eila min kol birkhata v’shirata, tushb’hata v’nehemata, higher than all of our blessings and poetry, all praises and consolations.” From Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur, by the way – this time when we especially try to break the idols in our lives – we double the word “l’eila.” We speak of God as “higher, and still higher, than all of our blessings and poetry.” All prayer is like that. It is a struggle to embrace, with open arms, what we can never truly get our arms around.

Observing Shabbat is about the same thing. Each week, when we celebrate Shabbat by putting aside our work, our power to produce, what we are really doing is putting aside our sense of mastery and control, our sense that we possess the blueprint of creation, that we know ultimately what to do. To celebrate Shabbat is an act of radical humility, a recognition that whatever we might hope to create pales in comparison to what God has created, that the creative energy that brought this world into being is utterly beyond us. We can celebrate it, but we cannot own it or control it.

Caring for one’s neighbor is about that too. When we honor other human beings through acts of kindness and support, what we are really doing is acknowledging that there is holiness that we all share, which has nothing to do with what we know or think we know. It has nothing to do with who agrees with us or disagrees with us. In reaching out to other human beings in love, we are acknowledging that there is a mystery at the heart of our shared humanness that we call Tzelem Elohim, the image of God, a mystery that we cannot understand or control but we can feel, we can experience when we make ourselves small.

Real Judaism isn’t mainly about knowing things, or believing things. It is about struggling to experience, to express and celebrate, and to respond to that which we can never truly know. It is not about arrogantly claiming to have answers. It is about humbly living with the questions. It is about being spiritually alive in the presence of ultimate mystery.

Those of us who believe that that is what religion ought to be – who believe that the spiritual arrogance that we see so much of in the religious world today is the very opposite of what religion is supposed to be about – have our work cut out for us. If the religion of simple one-dimensional answers is reactionary push-back against the ambiguity of modern life, then it is our job to push back against the push back – not just for modernity’s sake but for religion’s sake. We have to fight to keep religion from becoming rigid and divisive, not just because, as citizens of the modern world, we believe in equality and diversity and openness and pluralism, but also because, as Jews, we believe that spiritual humility lies at the heart of any true religious faith. We believe that true religion has the power to be a redemptive force in this broken world, but only if we save it from those who would distort it for the sake of recreating a lost world that never really existed.

My teacher, Rabbi David Hartman, was a master of that kind of resistance against the idolatry of simple answers. In his gruff, incisive, and sometimes funny way, he loved to challenge those who thought that the truth ought to be one-dimensional. When people came to him who were searching spiritually, he would warn them that his institute was not a place for those who were looking for easy answers, but a place to struggle with deep and ultimately unanswerable questions. He would try to guide them toward a more open-ended and authentic notion of what truth is.

I would like to think that, in a very different way, this shul stands for the same thing, for the humble recognition that we cannot own God, that the search for transcendence, the work of being spiritually alive, requires the courage to live with partial truths, and ultimate mystery. Two generations ago, Heschel said that Judaism should not passively surrender to modernity. His critique still stands today. But to do the opposite – to push back against the modern world by indulging in nostalgia for an imaginary past when truth was simple – is not the answer either. Instead we ought to learn from the contemporary world, and speak to the contemporary world, in the most authentic religious voice that we can find. We ought to say, without apology, that we believe in a God who is alive, alive precisely because God cannot be frozen into easy answers, alive precisely because God cannot be owned. When people say that old-time religion, the religion of easy answers, is the most authentic kind of faith, we should not be afraid to stand up and say that the very opposite is the truth, that authentic faith was never like that, and that ours should not be either.

I pray that, in the coming year, we here at The New Shul will continue to contribute in our own way to the work of serving Elohim Hayim, the living God.