written by Rabbi Michael Friedland
For the last year and especially the last 3 months, the issue that has divided much of the country but more alarmingly the American Jewish community has been the Iran Nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. We very much appreciate Dr. Alan Dowty for taking the time to speak to us about the details of the deal last week.
What has been so disconcerting about this issue is not just what is at stake, but how our American Jewish community has fought amongst itself, spending tens of millions of dollars on a Presidential foreign policy initiative that we should have known was going to be put in place even with a minority of Congressional support. Millions of dollars wasted on a policy fight that could have gone to educate and instill within American Jews a deeper understanding of and greater respect for Israel, especially in young adults, a demographic which is far less enamored of the Jewish state than their parents or grandparents.
Instead each side of the debate insisted that the other side was determined to bring destruction to Israel and America. Those who supported the Iran deal were certain that those who were opposed were simply apologists for the Iraq war and were sure that this agreement will successfully hinder Iran’s attempts to create a nuclear bomb and stop another war. They are certain that this agreement will derail the disaster that would occur if the deal was destroyed. Even though we are talking about a deal with Iran, a nation who has repeatedly lied about its nuclear intentions and has been forthright in their desire to commit genocide against Israel and the Jewish community there. Those who fought against the Iran deal accused those who were supporting it of being contemporary Neville Chamberlains, unwilling to stop Iran in its pursuit of to destroy Israel and its support for international terrorism. They were certain that a better deal could have been reached had not Barak ‘Quisling’ Obama been our President, despite the fact that all of the US’s partners made it clear that they were content with the deal and were not going to renegotiate. In fact two of the US’s partners are as much adversaries to US interests in the Middle East as Iran. Others opposed to the deal were certain that no deal was better than a bad deal, even though no deal meant that Iran would not have to subject itself to the scrutiny it agreed to under international inspections and could secretly breach the threshold to build a bomb whenever it wanted.
However there was one thing that both sides did agree on – and it was that their argument was absolutely correct and the other side was certain to bring war and tragedy.
Uriel Heilman in an article for the JTA responded to the hubris of both sides: “Admit it: You might be wrong…we can’t predict the future, so we can’t know for sure whether this deal will be more or less effective at slowing Iran’s path to a bomb than other options…(and) We can’t say with certainty which scenario endangers more Israeli lives: approval of the deal (which would bolster Israel’s enemies like Hezbollah), or rejecting the deal and taking the risk that Iran acquires a bomb without global sanctions.”
Today is Rosh HaShanah. We pray for Israel and the well-being of our fellow Jews and we pray for our nation’s security and safety. And due to the volume of the debate, perhaps this forces the US and others to scrutinize Iran’s concessions more carefully.
But as this period of time is also one of introspection what can we learn from the furious exchange of vituperation on this issue? For me it is that on Rosh HaShanah we too must confront the hubris of certainty.
In Jewish intellectual history, Saadia Gaon of Babylonia, in one of the first books of Jewish philosophy, is notable for attempting to use reason as a way to prove the certainty of God’s existence and the truth of Judaism. He was followed by numerous attempts over the centuries to marry reason and faith. But Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out in his monograph, “The Quest for Certainty In Saadia’s Philosophy” that “Not all that is evident is capable of being demonstrated”. Proofs for religious certainty are evanescent and unenlightened. Arguments for faith are too personal and subjective. Debates in the Middle Ages about which religion was the truest by way of reason were specious and often ended badly for the minority engaged in such a debate: Read the Jews.
Certainty of the truth of one’s faith is clearly subjective. But lest one feel that doubt and agnosticism is incompatible with religious faith, simply look at some of our liturgical selections for today.
In Psalm 27 the special psalm that we recite from the month before Rosh HaShanah all the way until the end of Sukkot we see even in the thoughts of the most devout, the intrusion of religious doubt.
The psalmist begins confidently “The Lord is my light and my help; whom should I fear?” The psalmist is certain, “He will shelter me in His pavilion on an evil day, grant me the protection of His tent,” But than a strange anxiety enters the poem, “O Lord, I seek Your face. Do not hide Your face from me”. A second ago the psalmist was certain God was protecting him, now he is imploring God, don’t leave me. And then the psalm ends with an ellipsis – “Had I not the assurance that I would enjoy the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living...” and it hangs there unfinished. Than what?, you want to demand of the psalmist. If you did not have that assurance, than what? Would you have lived in terror? Not gotten out of bed? Lived a life of eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die? We don’t know. And the psalmist concludes, comforting his conscience and ours, “(Have) hope in the Lord”, have faith.
But the psalmist has opened the door that all of us walk through at some point – Is God there? How do we know when God is there and when God is not there?
That dilemma is faced by Abraham in the powerful Torah reading we struggle with each time we read it – the Akedah. What kind of a God asks Abraham to sacrifice his child? And yet at the end of our narrative God denies that sacrifice. And it appears that all of Abraham’s trembling and apprehension of such an oblation is for nought.
Many are the interpretations of this passage. Did God really want such an offering? Did Abraham actually hear God correctly? Rashi comments that Abraham misunderstood God’s intention. When God said, Take your son Isaac and “v’ha’aleyhu sham l’olah,” he did not mean offer him as a sacrifice, which is how most translate those words, but literally “raise him up to a higher spiritual level”. In Ernst Wellisch’s psychological study, Isaac and Oedipus, he notes that in Abraham’s world, slaughtering a first born son, was not an uncommon act; either it was an ultimate gift to the gods or a preventive measure against patricide, think of the Oedipus story. Thus it might have been that when Abraham heard God say, “v’ha’aleyhu sham l’olah,” he made the normative assumption that people in his era and world would have made – this is what gods want. This is what social scientists call selective perception, we think what we are seeing or hearing is objectively true but in fact we subconsciously select the perception that best fits our cultural matrix. But Abraham was wrong. He did not yet grasp the utterly radical nature of this Divinity.
So we must be very very careful when we speak of religious certainty – many a crime today is perpetuated by those who ‘know’ what God wants. Better not to be so faithful. Not only can we get it wrong, but doubt is natural and comprehensible and despite Saadia’s attempts, pretty reasonable.
So if religious certitude is potentially perilous and unhealthy and if doubt is normal, what do we learn on this day on which we continuously avow and affirm that God exists and is our true Sovereign?
First and foremost we learn to develop our quality of humility. The book of Proverbs maintains : “The effect of humility is reverence for the Lord, wealth, honor, and life”. Humility leads to many achievements and good things we desire.
Maimonides in describing the value of the Golden Mean notes that for some characteristics the Golden Mean is not so golden and the extreme is better. In the case of humility, being modest is not enough, better to be exceedingly humble, for that is how Moses is described in the Torah. Rabbi Hayim Vital, in his work Sha’arei Kedushah, lists a series of bad character traits of which one should rid himself. Haughtiness or the assertion that one is always right leads to anger and contention. Such an individual cannot abide by others not accepting his will and demands. This quality leads to a desire for power and control over others and hatred directed at those who threaten him with their ability. One should therefore be humble and always be willing to acknowledge one’s deficiencies. In Pirke Avot the Sages taught whoever holds these three traits is a disciple of Abraham: a good eye, an unassuming spirit and an unpretentious soul. Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher in his encyclopedic work on Jewish ethics, Kad HaKemach, explains that “’a good eye’ means that one is not jealous of his fellow and is as considerate of his fellow’s honor as his own; ‘an unassuming spirit’ is one who lowers himself before all and who is sympathetic towards people; and ‘an unpretentious soul’ refers to the attribute of humility.”
Such a person no matter how deep his faith would not belittle another’s religious faith nor insist that one could not learn from all individuals, great or common.
And yet our morning worship begins –“HaMelekh! The King!” -- throughout this day our liturgy declares God is our sole ruler, omnipresent and omniscient. Is not the liturgy imposing on us the image of the all-knowing God for whom the slightest doubt would be an insult?
Perhaps it is a case of “The Lady doth protest too much”. We are constantly prompted to accept this image of God because it is so challenging to our experience. But to me we remind ourselves of this image because the God to whom we acknowledge as our Ruler is a very different kind of God than many others believe in. Our God’s greatness is Divine meekness. Rabbi Yohanan said, “Wherever you find a reference in the Bible to the might of the Holy One you will also find a reference to His humility. As it says in Deuteronomy, “For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords” (10:17) and immediately afterwards it is written, “He executes judgment for the orphan and the widow”. In Isaiah in the passage we will read on Yom Kippur, “For thus says the High and Lofty One that inhabits eternity, whose name is sacred” and immediately afterward it is written, “In the high and holy place I dwell with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit…”
On Yom Kippur we ask that God be merciful and extend grace to us because of God’s love for us. Thus by reminding ourselves that this is the quality of our Melekh it educates us to emulate that characteristic. Rabbi Moses Cordovero, the great 16th century mystic, in his work Tomer Devorah lists each of the 13 attributes of God as found in the Torah and determines how each merciful attribute should be a model for us to imitate.
Abraham Joshua Heschel asked, “Where is the Presence, where is the glory of God to be found? It is found, he answered, “in the world, in the Bible and in sacred deeds.” Despite this, he argued God is more immediately found in acts of kindness and worship than in mountains and forests. “Indeed , the concern of Judaism is primarily not how to find the presence of God in the world of things but how to let God enter the ways in which we deal with things…”
The significance of mitzvot is another response to the dangers of certitude and the occasion of doubt. How can that be? Doesn’t a commitment to a life of mitzvot suggest a sense of superiority to those who are not called to observe these acts? It is true - religious behaviorism can lead to religious supremacy. To think that if one refrains from pork or does not turn on a light switch on Shabbat that he or she is superior to the Gentile who is not commanded or the Jew who does not observe, is an easy trap to fall into. But the Prophet Isaiah makes it very clear that that is not the point of the mitzvot. The point is to lead us to acts of kindness and compassion.
Alright but if I am not sure of God, why worry about mitzvot at all? Abraham Joshua Heschel in response to this concern writes, “It is in deeds that man becomes aware of what his life really is, of his power to harm and to hurt, to wreck and to ruin; of his ability to derive joy and to bestow it upon others; to relieve and to increase his own and other people’s tension”. Deeds matter and by linking our deeds to our noble heritage allows us to partner with that which is transcendant and greater than ourselves in the grand aspiration of making the world a more sacred place.
A man was walking along a beach strewn with starfish drying out in the sun. A young boy was walking in the opposite direction picking up one starfish after another and flinging them back into the sea. The man reached the boy and asked, “Son, what are you doing?” “I am saving the starfish from dying on the beach”. “But there must be hundreds of starfish on the beach. Do you really think what you are doing is going to matter?” The boy picked up a starfish and flung it back into the water. “It mattered to that one”. He said and moved on.
We don’t know with any certainty what the ramifications of our actions will be. We don’t know if this deal on Iran’s nuclear facilities will bring about a change in their oppressive regime or whether it will allow them to extend their cruelty. We don’t know whether our deeds are reflected in heaven or whether as the psalmist fears, God will turn the Divine face from us and we shall be adrift.
What we do know is that our deeds matter in the moment that we do them and that we have been given good marching orders that transcend heavenly control:
With what shall I approach the LORD, Do homage to God on high? Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings, With calves a year old? Would the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, With myriads of streams of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, The fruit of my body for my sins?
No, explains Micah the Prophet, rather: “He has told you, O man, what is good, And what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice And to love goodness, And to walk modestly with your God.”
Doing justice, loving goodness and being humble, the acts that fall under these categories are both good in and of themselves AND they are requirements that God imposed upon us. When doubt and uncertainty about God’s presence in our lives bubbles up, then we should strive to fulfill these acts because they are good. When we sense the Divine Presence and see ourselves as partners with God then we fulfill these prescriptions because God requires them of us.
A certain rebbe had a close disciple who fell into a long period of staleness that troubled him deeply. The disciple felt as if all meaning had been drained from his life, and when he prayed, his prayers turn to chalk and died in his mouth before he could utter them. The rebbe, aware of his disciple's problem, took him out of the village to a deep, dark forest. Before they entered the forest, the rebbe said to the student, "As you are entering the forest, ask God to give you the answer to your dilemma, then forget about this prayer, because you must pay very close attention to the path through the forest. Otherwise you will get lost and never come out of the forest alive." So the student entered the forest asking God for the answer to his struggle, and then he lost himself in following the path. As his rebbe had instructed him, he devoted all his attention to the path itself. Soon he began to take great pleasure in this path. He took pleasure in the working of his body as it found its own pace on the path and in the fall of his foot on the cool forest floor. He was taken with the path itself – a verdant mossy path of deep, brilliant green. When he finally came out of the forest he was smiling broadly. The rebbe asked, "did God give you an answer?" The students started to weep. "I forgot all about the question," he said. "I put all my attention on the path, and after a while I took so much pleasure in what was in front of my face that I forgot about the question altogether." "In that case," the rabbi said, "I would say that God gave you your answer."
During these ten days, let us too focus on our path, the path prescribed by our tradition, the acts of goodness and kindness, the deeds of penitence and contrition, that lie before us. And if while we are on that path, enjoying the sun on our face, the feel of the wind on our limbs, the energy drawn from rhythmic breathing, we begin to wonder what certainty do I have that this matters? Let the path and its way forward be our answer.