In My Own Write: Imperfect faith

If every bit of the puzzle fitted to our satisfaction, we would have no need for faith, nor for God. We would be God.

Harold Kushner (photo credit: Ariel Kushner Haber)
Harold Kushner
(photo credit: Ariel Kushner Haber)
Homer Simpson, whose house catches fire while he is at home skipping Sunday church service: “The Lord is vengeful. [He falls to his knees] O Spiteful One, show me who to smite and he shall be smoten!”

Bart Simpson in Sunday School, where the day's topic is Hell: “All right! I've sat through Mercy and I’ve sat through Forgiveness; finally we get to the good stuff!” When Bart plagues his Sunday School teacher with a string of questions about Heaven and Hell (“Wouldn’t you get used to Hell, like in a hot-tub? Will an amputated leg be reattached in Heaven?”), the teacher pleads: "I don’t know! All these questions! Is a little blind faith too much to ask?!"

– The Simpsons Archive by Gerry Bowler,
Canadian Nazarene College
Contrary to the implication that blind faith is the most perfect sort, it strikes me during this High Holiday period that a religious faith which allows room for nagging questions and contradictions is a far more authentic faith for thinking beings struggling to make sense of a messy world.
Whatever posture we may adopt, unless we close ourselves off from the world entirely, we see gaps between divine declaration, as expressed in Jewish liturgy, and reality. Questions arise in our minds, so we might as well face them, along the lines of “What doesn’t break you, will strengthen you.”
WE stood aghast at the November 2008 deaths of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg, murdered along with others in Mumbai during one of the worst terrorist attacks to strike India in recent memory. We were plunged into grief by the slaughter of five members of the Fogel family, including a baby, in Itamar in March this year. We continue to hear about young children sexually abused, their innocence destroyed; about babies forgotten in parked vehicles, left to suffocate in the summer heat.
I pick these examples from the endless list of tragedies we cannot avoid knowing about because there are those (I once called them “God’s policemen”) who loudly proclaim their certainty that untimely death and disaster come as divine retribution for the victims’ perceived sinful lifestyle.
But the Holtzbergs were pious Chabad Jews beloved by everyone for their kindness and hospitality; their mission in India was to spread love of God and of yiddishkeit; and they had surely observed the preceding High Holidays with all the reverence and soul-searching due. Similarly the Fogels, whose murdered son Yoav, 11, was already showing signs of being an outstanding Torah scholar.
As for the babies who died in those car-ovens, and the children whose innocence was forever destroyed, surely they were too young to have committed any sins at all?
It is thus hard – in terms of reward and punishment in this world, the only one we really know; of which it is said (in Mishna Avot) that one moment in it is worth the whole of the world to come – to explain why they had to die.
My only answer is that faith in God must coexist with these wrenching questions. Faith has little to do with explanation or proof. It’s the paradoxical and ennobling attempt to reach out and up to the ultimately unreachable.
OUR liturgy declares that “Repentance, prayer and charity” exercised during the 10 Days of Repentance will “avert the stern decree” inscribed on Rosh Hashana and sealed on Yom Kippur. God is the Heavenly Judge weighing our actions over the past year, and however much we may have fallen short, our sincere repentance and moral behavior henceforth will be rewarded.
For some, that has seemed to be the case. For others, it hasn’t.
An Orthodox friend of mine in his 60s who lives in Tel Aviv was diagnosed with a virulent form of cancer and is currently undergoing treatment. His doctors feel the disease was discovered early and that my friend has a good chance of living many more years.
But these High Holidays, he feels angry and betrayed.
“God let me down,” he says. “He has allowed me to get cancer, which I didn’t feel was my due. I feel I’ve lived a good life as far as my relationship with God and religion is concerned. We had a bargain: I would do my part, and He would do His.
“The balance of the relationship has been upset.”
Therefore – my friend is quite candid about this – these High Holidays, he is doing the judging, and he is punishing God.
“I decided I would not lay tefillin [phylacteries] any more, or say [the morning] Shacharit [prayers],” he told me.
How do you think God is reacting? I asked him.
“I would hope he is cognizant of what I’m doing, and that He appreciates why I’m doing it and will find a way to mend the relationship.”
IN one way, my friend’s anger is almost shocking in its intimacy: treating God as an equal, a partner from whom he rightfully has expectations and is penalizing for not living up to those expectations.
But in another way, I see my friend’s response as a marvelous testament to his religious faith, to his conviction that there is someone “out there” with whom he can conduct an honest and painful dialogue. Someone who listens, and is affected by what He hears.
HAROLD Kushner, Conservative rabbi and author of the 1981 bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People, has an answer of sorts to why my friend became ill. In his view, it had little to do with what God wanted.
Interviewed in October 2006 by Time magazine about a subsequent book, Overcoming Life’s Disappointments, he said:
“Given the unfairness that strikes so many people in life, I would rather believe in a God of limited power and unlimited love… I believe that God is totally moral, but nature, one of God’s creatures, is not moral. Nature is blind. Floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, disease, speeding bullets, they are all equal opportunity offenders. They have no way of knowing whether it’s a good person or a bad person in their path.
“In fact, there’s a passage in the Talmud that says God’s justice would demand that certain things not happen, but nature is not just, and those things happen.”
If one’s world view can accommodate a God who is not omnipotent – or the Kabbalistic deity who purposely “limited” or “contracted” (tzimtzem) Himself to give the world room to function -- Kushner’s explanation of my friend’s illness, despite the upright life he has lived, is not an unsatisfactory one.
ELSEWHERE in the interview, Kushner addresses God’s role vis-à-vis man’s prayer: “God’s job is not to make sick people healthy. That’s the doctors’ job.
God’s job is to make sick people brave… We [Americans] believe that prayer means making a list of everything you don’t have but want and trying to persuade God you deserve it…
“Prayer is not bargaining with God,” Kushner says. “Prayer is simply coming into the presence of God. Because when you come into the presence of God, even the things you don’t have matter a lot less.”
Now one can empathize a lot more with anger toward God because you have lost your health than with disappointment over God not having bought you, like in the song, a Mercedes-Benz.
But Kushner’s point that prayer isn’t bargaining with God rings true. At its deepest, it is affirming our connection with an entity that is incomprehensibly greater than ourselves, in whose extraordinary image we have, nevertheless, been created.
And in this attempt, why shouldn’t we also allow ourselves the hope that our prayers will be answered?
IN any case, faith in our time feels no less real when it is accompanied by questions and contradictions and moments of doubt. On the contrary: Those questions and contradictions and doubts are part of the deal. If every bit of the puzzle fitted to our satisfaction, we would have no need for faith, nor for God. We would be God.
As things are, we might mention the Jewish sage who compared Creation to a magnificent symphony and said that man’s place in it was “the silence between two notes.” It’s something to recall when our questions go unanswered.
WHEN I first heard American author Shalom Auslander’s take on God and the Jewish people, now and in history (watch Foreskin’s Lament Part 1 on YouTube), I was stunned by his view of a murderous, angry and violent deity who smites and floods, demands total submission, submits outrageous demands and exacts bloody retribution when His will is flouted.
Auslander grew up in an ultra-Orthodox environment that he experienced as uncompromisingly repressive. This, added to a harsh and unhappy childhood, explains why today he stays far from observance.
But the real shocker is Auslander’s final admission that despite everything, he is a man of faith.
“I believe in God,” he concludes. “It’s been a real problem for me.”
To me, this is a kind of proof. Of what? I’m still thinking about it.