Friday, September 14, 2012

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Nitzavim 5772-Where or When

Where is G”d? As the Kotzker Rebbe (aka Menachem Mendel of Kotzk) answered: “Wherever we let G”d in.” (Well, that’s not exactly what he said, but more on that later.)

A few years back, Rabbi Neil Gillman put an even more interesting spin on the question and its answer by suggesting that G”d is “wherever we put G”d in.”  That’s a very different (and perhaps more modern) understanding than what we can glean from words in parashat Nitzavim.

וּמָ֨ל יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ אֶת־לְבָבְךָ֖ וְאֶת־לְבַ֣ב זַרְעֶ֑ךָ לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ לְמַ֥עַן חַיֶּֽיךָ׃

The JPS editorial committee offered this poetic translation:

"Then the Lord your G”d will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Lord your G”d with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live."

However, I offer this more direct translation:

Ad”nai your G”d will circumcise your heart and the heart of your seed, to love Ad”nai your G”d with all your heart and all your soul in order that you might live.”

In 1998, I wrote about these words:

To me, there is no clearer indication, anywhere in Torah, that G”d takes an active part in the relationship between humankind, and more specifically, G”d's covenanted people Israel, and G”d than in Deut 30:6.

The Torah is replete with stories of G”d entering the hearts and minds of people. G”d hardening Pharaoh's heart is one of the best known. So we know that our Torah is telling us that G”d takes an active role.

Nowadays, however, the idea of free will, personal choice, and personal autonomy is the norm. "I'll choose to love or not love Gd." Do we really have that choice? Who is really in control?

If G”d truly loves us, who are made in G”d's image, and who are directed to keep G”d's covenant, could G”d allow us to perish as a result of our own lack of faith, our own non-belief?

G”d’s statement in Deut 30:6 is G”d’s proof text that G”d exists and that G”d is the big cheese. We may question and doubt G”d's existence, but even in the midst of our doubt, G”d can and will open our minds and hearts.

I had already chosen to focus again on Deut 30:6 this year, and at the very moment I happened to be reviewing those words from 1998, coincidentally in the background I was listening to Rabbi Joe Black’s “Let G”d In” which just happened to be included in Craig Taubman’s “Jewels of Elul VIII” which I had just downloaded (for free, to boot) from Amazon. That prompted how I began this musing. It was certainly a challenge to how I interpreted Deut 30:6 when I wrote about them in 1998.

Then, as I searched through notes, clippings, links, and other resources I had collected over the years (thank heavens so much of this is now in digital form, using Evernote and other apps,) searching for references to the Kotzker Rebbe’s famous answer, I came across Rabbi Gillman’s thoughts on them in an issue of Conservative Judaism Magazine from a few years back. (It should be noted that both Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk and Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav may have expounded on this basic question, both giving basically the same answer. Aryeh Kaplan quotes the Kotzker in his Innerspace : Introduction to Kabbalah, Meditation and Prophecy‎. I believe Kaplan quotes the Kotzker as saying only where we let G”d in, in response to his father’s assertion that G”d is everywhere. Rabbis an clergy everywhere seems to have taken some liberty with the Kotzker’s words as reported by Kaplan and omitted the “only” and replaced it with “wherever.” I’ve seen others attribute the quote to Nachman, but I’ve yet to come across a direct citation from one of Reb Nachman’s books. Perhaps one of you out there can help clarify? It wouldn’t at all surprise me that both great thinkers came up with similar ideas, but I am somewhat of a stickler for proper attribution.)

The words of the Kotzker Rebbe cause me to question my fervent hope, expressed back in 1998, that, even in the midst of doubt, G”d would open our hearts and souls to love G”d. Menachem Mendel of Kotzk suggests that we need to be, at least to some degree, a willing participant in the process – that we must allow G”d in. It needs to be a dialogue, or at the very least, a covenantal exchange. I’m not sure if this means that G”d would not or could not override our stubborn resistance and turn our hearts and souls to love G”d. It largely depends on how one understands G”d and G”d’s powers and abilities in the universe.  Can G”d override our free will? (If the Kotzker indeed said “only where we let G”d” in then perhaps we know his answer as to whether or not G”d can override free will.)

Rabbi Gillman’s interpretation requires more than a passive acquiescence to G”d, more than a willingness to “let G”d in.”  He writes the we have a history of “putting G”d in” in situations where G”d’s presence is not “objectively verifiable.” He cites the Hanukah narrative as one, and the version of the Al Hanissim (for the miracles) prayer that was created by the Conservative rabbinate for Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Israel Independence Day) as another. We placed G”d into our history, even though we had no clear empirical evidence that G”d was there.

It’s not just that we need to proactively put G”d into our lives. The miracles are already there, and by putting G”d into the story we come to recognize the sacredness of the moment.

I struggle with this daily. The simple faith that G”d is always there eludes me – my logical mind requires, if not evidence, at least an analysis that concludes there is more  mystery to be considered. Sadly, I too often sense G”d’s presence as the outcome of such an analysis, rather than through any gut feeling.  I yearn for a simpler, plainer faith. Yet I cannot be certain that my path to accepting G”d’s presence in the world is any less efficacious or meaningful. Why is it, then, that I so yearn for a faith that comes from feeling rather than analysis?

I rail annually against the continued trumpeting of the “miracle of the oil” as the centerpiece of Hanukah observance as pediatric Judaism. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that I now conclude that I must be like the people for whom the rabbis of old, with their analytical minds, decided that for Hanukah to be meaningful, G”d had to be put into the story. Also like the rabbis of today, at least those who created that Conservative Al Hanissim for Yom Ha’atzma’ut. (It is interesting to note that this is a peculiarity to the Conservative liturgy. The theological thinking that led the Conservative rabbis to create this liturgy did not lead the orthodox/traditional or Reform community to do the same.)

There was only enough oil for one day yet it lasted for eight. Surely G”d was present in this miracle. Israel again became a nation-state in 1948. Surely G”d was present in that miracle, too.

It is sad to think that I may be like a typical Biblical Israelite. The sea parts, and I am in awe and sense G”d’s presence. For a while. The mountain trembles and I sense G”ds presence. For a while. Water springs from a rock and I sense G”d’s presence. For a while. My faith is inconstant, seemingly fickle. Then again, it is nothing like that, I say to myself. For one thing, I do not automatically lose faith when things go wrong, when my throat is dry, or I have gotten too comfortable. I am not the type who needs the reminder to be thankful after the meal when I am sated. My faith is inconstant only in that it is in a process of constant analysis, and not always (and frequently not) in reaction to circumstances.

So I know that part of me “gets it.” I believe I have a reasonable understanding of what G”d requires of me. I am a person of faith. It doesn’t necessarily have to have a rational underpinning, however I still approach it analytically.

The belief is always there, I just need to “let it in.” No, that’s not enough, I need to “put it in.” Ruminating on Rabbi Gillman’s words has been of benefit to me. The concept of “putting G”d in” is easier for me to understand than “letting G”d in.”

Back to Duet. 6:30. This may be how G”d opens our hearts and minds to love G”d – by being always there in the moment, waiting for us to recognize G”d’s presence and put G”d into the moment.

For some of you, dear readers, “letting G”d in” may be the key. for some of you, like me, the key is “putting G”d in.” A third viewpoint, which Rabbi Gillman credited to JTS colleague Steven Brown, is changing the question to “When is G”d?” That’s a very Heschelian approach – seeking the sacred moments of time in our lives when we sense G”ds presence.

My theology may change. My analysis may change. My approach may change. My understanding of my faith may change. My faith itself may change. What matters is that G”d is there waiting to be let in, put in, found in a moment in time.

When is G”d?
Where is G”d? wherever we let G”d in.
Where is G”d? Only where we let G”d in.
Where is G”d? Wherever we…

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah U’metukah,

©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other musings on this parasha:

Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5770 - Flawed, Schmawed
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5769 - Disconencting the Reconnecting the Dots
Vayeilekh_Shabbat Shuvah 5769 - Cows and Roses
Nitzavim/Vayeilekh 5766 - Keep Looking
Vayelekh 5765-The Time Is Still Now
Nitzavim 5765-To Lo Or Not To Lo
Nitzavim/Vayelekh 5763-Connect the Dots
Nitzavim 5757/5759/5764-Lo Bashamayim Hi
Nitzavim 5758-Not By Ourselves
Nitzavim/Vayelekh 5760/67-L'eyd B'vnei Yisrael-The Real Denouement
Nitzavim 5761 was the week of Sept. 11, 2001. There was no Musing.

Rosh Hashanah 5770-The Dualities of Life II
Rosh Hashanah 5764-Inscriptions
Rosh Hashanah 5763-The Dualities of Life


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