These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

The G word. Defining God and other existential questions in a Parshanut class

Posted on January 4, 2017 by Mira Niculescu

So a few weeks ago, in my parshanut class, we had the God discussion.

Anyone familiar with the Jewish world, and with the yeshiva world in particular, will know that while we spend our days reading and discussing what He does, how we relate to Him, what it means to be in His image, how we’re commanded by Him, how He reveals himself without showing himself, etc…, we carefully avoid discussing “who” it is that we are talking about.

How we define God- let alone, chas ve shalom, how we “picture” Him, is the pink elephant in the Jewish room that everyone carefully avoids to address.  And I think we are right to be that prudent: how could we grasp the ungraspable? How can life turn towards its source and pretend to describe it?

This is why Jewish theology can most fittingly be called, after Maimonides, a “negative theology”: a “knowledge of god” that defines itself through the acknowledgment that precisely, it can’t know God.

Welcome to the world of Jewish thinking.

Yet my wonderful teacher Neima Novetsky, who we were just honoring this Thursday for many, many years of reading “His” words with Pardes students with the same passion, the same smile, and the same generous sagacity, cornered us and said: “we’re gonna talk about God today.”

I have to tell you, I wasn’t so happy at first.

Only while doing the exercise, I understood the point of it.

I think what she wanted us to do was, even if it was going to be the only ten minutes in our lives, to think about what “God” means to us.

Because, we, Jews, whether we like it or not, are connect to Him. We have a covenant. Sometimes we take pride in it, sometimes we resent it, sometimes we overlook it. But we can’t deny the fact that we are being called on by this Story. That there is a relation. And because of that, maybe it is worth, even just once in our lives, wondering who is on the other end of it.

So the exercise was, we were to write something for ourselves, about how we see “God”, and then we were invited to share with the class- just to see, if anything else, how diverse our idea of the divine was.

So I played the game.

“God” to me, is a concept that points, simply, to “truth”. In other words:  it is what “is”.

And now that I am rereading what I just wrote, I realize how close it is to the way God defines himself in the Chumash. Because actually, God directly tells us who He is. It is right there in plain sight, when Moshe, during their first encounter at the burning Bush that doesn’t burn- (Shemot, 3), asks for his name. To what god responds – according to Rashi’s translation: I will be that I will be.

And because we seemed to not have understood God’s message in God’s answer: that he is beyond names, beyond labels, the first thing we’ve done is to turn it into a name: Yud Ke Vav Ke, the acronym of God’s reply. Other traditions have literally made it a name: Yahvé.

In the Jewish world, we did even better: in order to go around the prohibition of calling God by name, we simply call Him “hashem”: literally “the name”.

Yet, the answer was pretty clear:  god didn’t even address the question of a name. Not even to say “I have no name”; This question was simply beside the point. What god did was just reply: “I am”, conjugated in the future tense: “I will be”; and an “I am what I am” in the future, as a declaration of freedom. As if to say: “do try to define me”. “I will be that, or what I will be.”

So the divine in Judaism defines itself as pure presence, and presence projected beyond time: eternal presence, as opposed to our passing lives- which we are not so present to, more often than not.

God is the breath of eternity that passes through our lives- that makes our lives, since, the torah tells us, man was brought to life by the breath of God, the breath of life – nishmat Chaiym, that God-life breathed into his nostrils.

So we live with this presence, we are surrounded by this presence, this breath, that preceded and will survive us.

And what is the quality of this presence? “It is what it is”. Meaning: it is truth: things as they truly are. Maybe this is why the Talmud (Yoma 69) puts in the mouth of rabbi Hanina these words that I love so much: the seal of God is “emet”, truth.

And the thing is with truth, you can’t negotiate with it.

And sometimes, this is not so comfortable.

Of course, you can make yourself think that you can. You can negotiate with yourself, with people. And it can work to a certain extent. But if you negotiate with your own truth, with Truth, it’s going to backlash at some point. With health issues, with failures, with, I can’t lose this extra weight, with, I can’t stop eating my nails, with, I-don’t-understand-this-angst-that-is-keeping-me-at-night, or keeping me from fully enjoying my life… You name it.

This is the beautiful, and difficult thing about it: truth is a command.

It suffers no negotiation, no manipulation, no half-presence.

It takes it all. It demands full presence, full surrender.

It gives fully, if we are aligned, and it shows, sometimes harshly, when we are not.

This is why I have this saying: if you try to force life’s hand, it’s gonna twist your wrist.

Replace “life”, by “God”.

This is what some call the “fierce grace of life”. Life’s most beautiful lessons are more often than not learned through hardship. Look around; look at your own trajectory. When we’re trying to run away from our own truth, it is likely to stay in the way. Until we find the courage to face it.

But even though, things are not so simple. Difficult things don’t happen always just because of the result of our own actions. Sometimes, things happen that break us, and we have done nothing to deserve it. Sometimes we just don’t understand.  Sometimes truth is harsh. Sometimes it just hits us. Out of the blue.

Last week, just around me, in a little peaceful neighborhood of a city full of westerners in the Middle East: someone dear broke up with someone they thought they were gonna marry; Someone’s bike was stolen; Someone lost a grand-daughter, still a baby; someone’s father went to the hospital; Someone got rejected at a professional project that really mattered to them. Someone hanged herself and set her house to fire, killing her four children; someone got really sick; someone told us how years ago, they lost a child, a teenager. These are just a few examples of life around me. Life as it is.

So life doesn’t just respond to our actions. That would be just too easy, if we were controlling the world and our lives within it. Bad things happen to good people, this is a fact, and one of the most difficult questions for Jewish theology- the question of theodicy. The question of suffering.

So Truth is not only, not always “right”. Truth is also sometimes so hurtful, that it makes us call it “unfair”. Truth is truly, as Nietzsche put it so aptly, “beyond good and evil”.

This is why, in the Jewish tradition, when someone dies, we simply say “Baruch Dayan Ha Emet”. “Blessed is the Judge of truth.”

“Truth”, again. Here we are.

What do we know? How could be possibly explain, justify, make sense of some of the things that happen around us, and sometimes, chas ve shalom, to us?

We don’t know anything.

We, can’t judge.

God, Truth, life as it is, is beyond our understanding, our own categories of good and evil, fair and unfair, deserved and undeserved, reward and punishment. These categories, these dualities, belong to the world of man. We think we can organize the world in this way. We can even give ourselves the illusion, as long as the unspeakable doesn’t happen to us, that we are in control of our lives.

But there is only one thing we can do with truth.

We can just say yes.

And when it hurts, only surrender redeems us. Only when we stop resisting truth as it is, no matter how painful it can sometimes feel, we can be aligned again with the force of life.

And in it lies so much energy, so much beauty, so much resilience. In it, Life- truth, God, shows its infinite compassion, its infinite grace, its infinite love.

This may be why Rabbi Nachman said that only a “lev shavur can be a lev shalem”, a broken heart can be a full heart.

And what can we do, with this heart, when it’s broken open in pain?

We can bless. We can surrender. And cry. And surround people. And let ourselves be surrounded. And say thank you. And give.  And support. And love.

And what can we do, with this heart, when it’s broken open in happiness?

We can bless. We can surrender. And cry. And surround people. And let ourselves be surrounded. And say thank you. And give.  And support. And love.

In the face of truth, we can only love.