God is re­lo­cat­ing


To­day, in many Or­tho­dox cir­cles, Ju­daism’s be­liefs have be­come more holy than the pope. Sud­denly, there is an at­tempt to outdo old-fash­ioned Catholi­cism

Lately, a strange feel­ing has got­ten hold of me. I am not yet able to fully ar­tic­u­late it, but some­thing tells me that God is re­lo­cat­ing to a dif­fer­ent res­i­dence.

He has hired a mov­ing com­pany, and the movers are at this time load­ing all His fur­ni­ture and pos­ses­sions into a van and await­ing His in­struc­tions as to the des­ti­na­tion.

The truth is He’s been think­ing for a long time about mov­ing but has not yet done so, be­cause we, in our ig­no­rance, are still busy vis­it­ing His old home, com­pletely blind to the fact that the cur­tains have been taken down, most of His fur­ni­ture has al­ready been re­moved, and He is stand­ing in the door­way, dressed in His jacket and ready to go. He nev­er­the­less lis­tens to us, smil­ing and feel­ing sorry for us that in our ut­ter blind­ness we still be­lieve we are sit­ting com­fort­ably in His liv­ing room, chat­ting and hav­ing cof­fee with Him, while in fact He is sit­ting on the edge of His chair, gaz­ing long­ingly at the door, dream­ing of His new home.

Syn­a­gogues – whether Or­tho­dox, Con­ser­va­tive or Re­form – are no longer His pri­mary res­i­dence. Surely some of the wor­shipers are pi­ous peo­ple who try to com­mu­ni­cate with their Cre­ator, but over­all, the ma­jor­ity of these places have be­come re­li­giously ster­ile and spir­i­tu­ally empty.

So God is mov­ing to un­con­ven­tional minyanim and places such as cafés, de­bat­ing clubs, com­mu­nity cen­ters, un­af­fil­i­ated re­li­gious gath­er­ings and atyp­i­cal batei midrash. The rea­son is ob­vi­ous. In some of those places peo­ple are ac­tu­ally look­ing for Him. And that is what He loves; not those who have al­ready found Him and take Him for granted. He is mov­ing in with the young peo­ple who have a sense that He is there but can­not yet find Him. It gives Him a thrill.

In some of these cafés He en­coun­ters young men sport­ing pony­tails, with­out kip­pot, but with tz­itziot hang­ing out of their T-shirts, pray­ing in their own words, at­tempt­ing to find Him. In sec­u­lar yeshivot, He meets women in trousers and miniskirts who are earnestly ar­gu­ing about what it means to be Jewish and who kiss mezu­zot when they en­ter a fash­ion show. Then there are those who, to His de­light, are keen on putting on tefillin once in a while and do this with great ex­cite­ment; or who en­thu­si­as­ti­cally light Shabbat can­dles Fri­day night and can get into a se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion about Bud­dhism and how to com­bine some of its wis­dom with Kab­balah and in­cor­po­rate it into Jewish prac­tice. NO, THEY don’t do so be­cause it is tra­di­tion, or nos­tal­gia, as their grand­par­ents did, but be­cause they sin­cerely want to con­nect, to grow and be­come bet­ter, deeper and more au­then­tic Jews, but at their own pace and with­out be­ing told by oth­ers what they ought to do. They won’t go for the con­ven­tional out­reach pro­grams, which try to in­doc­tri­nate them and are of­ten ter­ri­bly sim­plis­tic. No, they strive to come closer be­cause of an enor­mous urge and in­ner ex­plo­sion of their ne­shamot (souls). No bet­ter place for God to be, even if these at­tempts may not al­ways achieve the cor­rect goals and are some­times mis­di­rected.

At these un­con­ven­tional sites, the­o­log­i­cal dis­courses take place over a glass of beer, and the par­tic­i­pants talk deep into the night be­cause they can’t get enough of this great stuff called Ju­daism. Many of these peo­ple want to study God and un­der­stand why He cre­ated the world and what the mean­ing of life is all about. What is the hu­man con­di­tion? What is a re­li­gious ex­pe­ri­ence? How do we con­front death? What is the mean­ing of Halacha? What are we Jews do­ing here in this strange uni­verse? They re­al­ize that life be­comes more and more per­plex­ing, and these ques­tions are there­fore of rad­i­cal im­por­tance. These are, af­ter all, eter­nal is­sues. Who wants to live a life that passes by un­no­ticed? It is in this mys­te­ri­ous strato­sphere that God loves to dwell. He can’t get enough of it.

Re­gret­tably, His in­ter­est wa­vers when He en­ters con­ven­tional syn­a­gogues. He finds lit­tle ex­cite­ment there. Many of His wor­shipers seem to go through the mo­tions, ac­ti­vate their au­to­matic pi­lot, do what they are told, say the words in the prayer book, and go home to re­cite kid­dush. Few are ask­ing ques­tions on how to re­late to God, why they are Jewish and what their lives re­ally are all about. Many do not want to be con­fronted with these nasty is­sues. They only dis­turb their peace of mind. A nice, con­ven­tional dvar Torah is good enough. Af­ter all, ev­ery­thing has al­ready been dis­cussed and re­solved. Reg­u­lar syn­a­gogue visi­tors speak to Him only when they need Him, but al­most no­body ever speaks about Him or hears Him when He calls for help in pur­su­ing the pur­pose of His cre­ation.

SO GOD is mov­ing to more in­ter­est­ing places. He laughs when He thinks of the old slo­gan “God is dead.” It was a child­hood dis­ease. He knows we learned our les­son. It is too easy, too sim­plis­tic, and has not solved any­thing. He knows that He has not yet been re­placed with some­thing bet­ter.

Oh yes, there are still run-of-the-mill sci­en­tists who be­lieve that they have it all worked out. Some neu­rol­o­gists sin­cerely be­lieve that “we are our brains,” and that our think­ing is noth­ing more than sen­sory ac­tiv­ity. They seem to be­lieve that one can find the essence of Beethoven’s Ninth Sym­phony by an­a­lyz­ing the ink with which the com­poser wrote this mas­ter­piece. There are even No­bel Prize win­ners who be­lieve that we will soon en­ter God’s mind and know it all, no longer need­ing Him. They are like the man who searches for his watch in the mid­dle of the night. When asked why he is look­ing un­der the street lamp, if he lost his watch a block away, he an­swers: “This is the only place where I can see any­thing.” These sci­en­tists have still not re­al­ized that there are more things, on earth and in heaven, than their re­search will ever grasp. They have con­vinced them­selves that they are merely ob­jec­tive spec­ta­tors and have not yet un­der­stood that they them­selves are ac­tors in the mys­te­ri­ous drama of what is called life.

And God sim­ply winks. Dur­ing the du­ra­tion of this longterm dis­ease be­gin­ning in the 19th cen­tury, an­ti­bod­ies have been de­vel­op­ing to fight against the de­nial of His very be­ing. Although athe­ism is still alive and kick­ing, many have be­come im­mune to all these sim­plis­tic ideas. Over the years, more and more an­ti­tox­ins have ac­cu­mu­lated, and we are now stunned by the fact that He, af­ter all, may in­deed be in our midst. Sud­denly, an out­dated hy­poth­e­sis has come to life

again. God is a real pos­si­bil­ity, and we had bet­ter be­come aware of that.

But here’s the catch: While the re­li­gious estab­lish­ment is now shout­ing from the rooftops “We told you so,” it has not yet grasped that this is com­pletely un­true. The dis­cov­ery of God did not hap­pen be­cause of con­ven­tional re­li­gion but in spite of it.

The truth is that the great shift con­cern­ing God took place far away from the of­fi­cial re­li­gious estab­lish­ment. It is in fact a mir­a­cle that some peo­ple con­tin­ued be­liev­ing in God while re­li­gion of­ten did ev­ery­thing to make this im­pos­si­ble. For cen­turies the Church blun­dered time af­ter time. Since the days when Galileo proved the Church wrong, it was con­stantly forced to change its po­si­tion. And even then it did so re­luc­tantly. The enor­mous loss of pres­tige that re­li­gion suf­fered be­cause of it is be­yond de­scrip­tion. God was pushed into the cor­ner. Not be­cause He was not there, but be­cause He was con­stantly mis­rep­re­sented by peo­ple who spoke in His name.

Since the Re­nais­sance, many other great minds have moved the world for­ward; and while sev­eral may have missed the boat, a large num­ber of them in­tro­duced rad­i­cal new per­spec­tives of the great­est im­por­tance. Yet the Church’s only re­sponse was to fight them tooth and nail un­til, out of ut­ter ne­ces­sity, when all its ar­gu­ments had run out, it had to suc­cumb and apol­o­gize once again for its mis­takes. Time and again, re­li­gion lagged be­hind in shar­ing the vic­tory of new sci­en­tific and philo­soph­i­cal in­sights. Iron­i­cally, long be­fore the Church of­fi­cially sanc­tioned these new dis­cov­er­ies, they were al­ready part and par­cel of the new world. As al­ways, the im­pri­matur came too late.

And so re­li­gion paid a heavy price. Its ter­ri­tory be­came smaller and smaller. The con­stant need for ca­pit­u­la­tion made many peo­ple leave the world of re­li­gion and opt for the sec­u­lar ap­proach.

But what was hap­pen­ing in the Jewish re­li­gious world? While it can­not be de­nied that Ju­daism, too, got caught up in all these de­bates, and quite a few staunch tra­di­tion­al­ists were not much bet­ter than some of the Church fa­thers, the over­all sit­u­a­tion within Ju­daism was much more re­cep­tive to sci­en­tific de­vel­op­ments. While the Church de­clared in one au­thor­i­ta­tive voice – of­ten the synod – that these new sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies were out­right heresy, such pro­nounce­ments never took place in the syn­a­gogue. This is be­cause Ju­daism is so dif­fer­ent from other re­li­gions. Po­si­tions of un­con­di­tional be­lief were never its main con­cern. They were al­ways de­bated, but never fi­nal­ized as was the case with the Church. Even Mai­monides’s 13 fa­mous prin­ci­ples of faith were never ac­cepted as con­clu­sive and of­ten at­tacked and re­jected.

What kept Ju­daism busy was the ques­tion of how to live one’s life while liv­ing in the pres­ence of God and one’s fel­low man, as ex­pressed in the all-en­com­pass­ing ha­lachic lit­er­a­ture. Be­cause of that, it did not see sci­en­tific dis­cov­er­ies as much of a chal­lenge. There was also a strong feel­ing that sci­en­tific progress was a God-given bless­ing. The great­est Jewish re­li­gious thinker of the Mid­dle Ages, Mai­monides, was even pre­pared to give up on the con­cept of cre­ation ex ni­hilo if it would be proven un­true (Guide for the Per­plexed 2:25).

Although he was at­tacked for some of these rad­i­cal and en­light­ened ideas, the gen­eral at­ti­tude was: let sci­ence do its thing, and if we were wrong in the past be­cause we re­lied on the sci­ence of those days, we will now rec­tify our po­si­tion. Even when the Tal­mud made sci­en­tific state­ments, many – although cer­tainly not all – un­der­stood them to be the re­sult of sci­en­tific knowl­edge of the day, and not sacro­sanct. And even when these de­bates be­came more in­ten­sive, it was never ar­gued that op­pos­ing views should be ab­so­lutely si­lenced. There was no fi­nal au­thor­ity in mat­ters of be­lief, no Jewish synod. At the same time, many sages warned against mak­ing sci­ence into an idol that is all-know­ing and can solve life’s rid­dles.

“Nom­i­nally a great age of sci­en­tific in­quiry, ours has ac­tu­ally be­come an age of su­per­sti­tion about the in­fal­li­bil­ity of sci­ence; of al­most mys­ti­cal faith in its non­mys­ti­cal meth­ods; above all, of ex­ter­nal ver­i­ties; of traf­fic-cop moral­ity and rab­bit-test truth” (Louis Kroneberger, Com­pany Manners, p.94).

But to­day all this has changed. In many Or­tho­dox cir­cles, Ju­daism’s be­liefs have be­come more holy than the pope. Sud­denly, there is an at­tempt to outdo old-fash­ioned Catholi­cism; to in­sist that the world is ac­tu­ally nearly 5,800 years old; that the Cre­ation chap­ter must be taken lit­er­ally; that seven days con­sist of 24 hours each and not one minute more; that there is no foun­da­tion to the the­ory of evo­lu­tion; and that the Tal­mud’s sci­en­tific ob­ser­va­tions came straight from Si­nai.

That this hap­pened in the past, is un­der­stand­able; but that such claims are still made to­day is down­right em­bar­rass­ing. We can laugh about it only be­cause the hope­less­ness of some of these ideas has al­ready passed the point of be­ing dis­putable. They have faded into flick­er­ing em­bers soon to be ex­tin­guished.

Surely it could be ar­gued that pos­si­bly sci­ence will change its mind. But if the core be­liefs of Ju­daism are not un­der­mined (and they are not!), and as long as there is no in­di­ca­tion that sci­ence will change its mind in the near fu­ture, there is no need to re­ject these sci­en­tific po­si­tions. So why fight mod­ern sci­ence?

The in­cred­i­ble dam­age done by do­ing so is be­yond de­scrip­tion. It makes Ju­daism laugh­able and, in the eyes of many in­tel­li­gent peo­ple, com­pletely out­moded. It makes it im­pos­si­ble to in­spire many search­ing souls who know what sci­ence teaches us. If not for this mis­taken un­der­stand­ing of Ju­daism, many peo­ple would not have left the fold and could ac­tu­ally have en­joyed Ju­daism as a ma­jor force in their lives.

We blame the syn­a­gogue for this fail­ure, as we blamed the Church hun­dreds of years ago. Many of us have said, “Ju­daism has failed”; “It is out­dated”; “I am get­ting out.” But such state­ments are as un­fair as they are il­log­i­cal. Ju­daism is not an in­sti­tu­tion ex­ter­nal to us, which one can aban­don as one quits a hockey club. We are the syn­a­gogue, and we are Ju­daism. When Galileo revo­lu­tion­ized our view con­cern­ing the so­lar sys­tem, it was not only the Church that failed; all of us failed.

We must re­al­ize that while Ju­daism con­sists of core be­liefs and val­ues that are eter­nal and di­vine, it is also the prod­uct of the cul­ture of the time dur­ing which it de­vel­oped. That, too, is part of God’s plan and has a higher pur­pose. And when his­tory moves on and God re­veals new knowl­edge, the pur­pose is to in­cor­po­rate that into our think­ing and re­li­gious ex­pe­ri­ence. Ig­nor­ing this is si­lenc­ing God’s voice.

Re­li­gion will not re­gain its old power un­til it can face change in the same spirit as does sci­ence. Its prin­ci­ples may be eter­nal, but the ex­pres­sion of those prin­ci­ples re­quires con­tin­ual de­vel­op­ment, said Al­fred North White­head (Sci­ence and the Mod­ern World, p. 234.)

That is why God is re­lo­cat­ing. He doesn’t want to live in a place where His on­go­ing cre­ation is un­ap­pre­ci­ated and even de­nied.

We have re­placed God with prayers, no longer re­al­iz­ing to Whom we are pray­ing. We even use Halacha as an es­cape from ex­pe­ri­enc­ing Him. We are so busy with cre­at­ing ha­lachic prob­lems, and so com­pletely ab­sorbed by try­ing to solve them, that we are un­aware of our hid­ing be­hind this prac­tice so as not to deal with His ex­is­tence.

In many ways this is un­der­stand­able. Since the days of the Holo­caust, we have re­fused to con­front the prob­lem of His ex­is­tence, due to the enor­mity of the evil, which He al­lowed to hap­pen. So we threw our­selves into Halacha to es­cape the ques­tion. But while the prob­lem of God’s in­volve­ment in the Holo­caust will prob­a­bly never be solved, we must re­al­ize that the pur­pose of Halacha is to have an en­counter with Him, not just with the Halacha. Halacha is the chan­nel through which we can reach Him, not just laws to live by.

Not­with­stand­ing the in­com­pre­hen­si­bil­ity of the Holo­caust, we must re­turn to God. It’s high time we re­al­ize that His be­ing is of a to­tally dif­fer­ent na­ture than we have ever imag­ined. God can be un­der­stood only in a way that is sim­i­lar to the re­la­tion­ship be­tween a com­puter hard disk and what you see on the screen. What you see on the screen is to­tally dif­fer­ent from what is in­scribed in the hard disk. You can ex­am­ine the in­side of the disk us­ing the most pow­er­ful mi­cro­scope, but you will see noth­ing even slightly re­sem­bling pic­tures, col­ors or words. We are mis­taken when we pic­ture God based on the world screen. In no way does it re­veal the ac­tual con­tents of the hard disk, God Him­self. All we know is that God’s ways – which we see only through the ex­ter­nal sense of sight – are some­how re­lated to the disk. The prob­lem is that we be­lieve we can have a good look at God by watch­ing the screen. But we haven’t the slight­est clue of what is ac­tu­ally go­ing on in the disk. The Holo­caust will al­most cer­tainly re­main an enigma, but it can never deny the Di­vine disk (Ye­hu­dah Gell­man, God’s Kind­ness Has Over­whelmed Us).

IT IS in those who are still un­com­fort­able with God that new in­sights about Him are formed. And it will be in those un­easy en­vi­ron­ments that Ju­daism will be re­dis­cov­ered and de­vel­oped. The need for re­li­gious tran­scen­dence, and for the spir­i­tual thread that keeps many young peo­ple on their toes, is enor­mous. Nu­mer­ous sec­u­lar peo­ple are join­ing a new cat­e­gory of spir­i­tual the­olo­gians. Mat­ters of weltan­schau­ung are piv­otal to many sec­u­lar Jews now. The prob­lem is that for them, and for the re­li­gious, the Torah is trans­mit­ted on a wave­length that is out of range of their spir­i­tual tran­sis­tors’ fre­quency. Yes, we turn on the ra­dio, but we hear strange noises and un­usual static. There is se­ri­ous trans­mis­sion fail­ure. We are no longer sure where the pipe­lines are.

In the world of physics, mat­ters are be­com­ing more and more hazy. Our brains are pen­e­trat­ing places where well-es­tab­lished no­tions, such as mat­ter and sub­stance, have evap­o­rated. They have been trans­formed to puz­zling phe­nom­ena. They have moved, and God has moved with them. Sci­ence is be­com­ing in­tan­gi­ble, and it’s hap­pen­ing at a speed that we can’t keep up with. It puts us in a dif­fi­cult po­si­tion and causes us anx­i­ety. We are all liv­ing in ex­ile, within a mys­ti­cal land­scape. Those who are aware of this are alive; those who are not have left this world un­wit­tingly.

The ques­tion is whether we move our syn­a­gogues to where God is now dwelling. Will we, the re­li­gious, live up to the ex­pec­ta­tions of the young peo­ple in cafés and dis­cus­sions groups who have pre­ceded us? Will we apol­o­gize to them and join in their dis­cus­sions, cre­at­ing a real re­li­gious ex­pe­ri­ence out of our syn­a­gogue ser­vice? Or will we, as usual, stay put, fight the truth, and then be put to shame?

When will we move Ju­daism to the front seat, so that it once again be­comes the leader in­stead of a fol­lower?

Will we move to God’s new habi­tat, or are we still drink­ing cof­fee in His old home, where the cur­tains have been re­moved and He is long gone.

God has re­lo­cated!

(CJ Sorg/Flickr)

‘[GOD] HAS been think­ing for a long time about mov­ing. but has not yet done so – be­cause we, in our ig­no­rance, are still busy vis­it­ing His old home.’

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