Meeting with the Rabbi
I was given some pretty good advice yesterday. A friend of mine whose work and creative process I really respect told me “document, don’t create.” In absence of loads of fertile material to stimulate my writing in school, he advised me to document my learning rather than continue the kind of academic research writing I’ve done over the last four years. So, following my friend’s advice, I will take for material the issues and experiences that are directly relevant to my current situation. The thing that has been preoccupying me as of the last few days has been my recent meeting with the local orthodox Rabbi, head of the Chabad in my town.
As I’ve said before, I was raised as a Reform Jew in Los Angeles in an incredibly secular environment. I was passionate about science and reason (as I still am), and professed an ardent atheism. Through the study of religion and culture at a liberal arts university, I became convinced that God was something to be taken seriously as an object of intellectual consideration. Having reached this conclusion through not only the study of the social sciences, but of many different individual religious systems in which I found truths I could not disagree with, it seemed logical that I could express my newfound relationship with God through my Judaism. There was a consistency between what I knew about general philosophy and what I found when I began to look at the philosophy specific to Chabad hasidism.
I wanted to meet with the Rabbi to justify my notion that I can have an intellectual relationship with God, but also because I wanted his response to more basic criticisms of my religious outlook. The voices of my peers have always been influential for the development of my spirituality, as I consider them voices that keep me honest. One of these voices in particular comes from a friend of mine whose journey had a different starting point. He was raised as a Christian in a state-sponsored religious school in Greece, his family having emigrated from Iran and later to the United States. His relationship was with an institutionalized religion, one which was for him very much devoid of the positive subjective experiences that are invariably reported by religious believers. He is now as proud of an atheist as I used to be, and our passionate conversations often revolve around my argument that if one were to take a survey of our two worldviews one would find very little discrepancy despite my desire to use the language of Judaism and his desire to use the language of secularism. Nevertheless, he has an incredibly critical, albeit invaluable, perspective. He likes to remind us, “guys, I’ve seen f****** exorcisms.”
He understandably loathes the religious moderate, who for him is less deserving of respect than the fundamentalist. After all, if one goes around claiming to possess a book written by the Creator of the Universe, it would only make sense to follow the commandments in that book to the letter, and as close to the manner in which they were followed when the book was given. For this friend of mine, most if not all attempts to practice an Abrahamic religion in a way that sheds much of the content which is incompatible with modernity is an unnecessary cultural project; it is better to retire irrational systems of thought in favor of more updated ones. I can completely see the validity of his logic. However, it seems to me that within the more intellectual strains of certain religions, there are tenets or ideas which allow for an evolution of the understanding of God and how to respond to Him, which would not only validate a more progressive sort of religiosity, but would preclude fundamentalism altogether. For example, the Rabbi told me that in the Talmud — a text which was only written down for the first time in the second millennium B.C.E, yet the Rabbi maintains survived unchanged as an oral tradition back to the time of Moses — we are told that ultimately, given the nature of God, even the language of the Torah is inadequate to talk about Him. Now, I have not read the Talmud, regrettably, nor do I have the knowledge that the Rabbi does of philosophy. Still, it seems to me that if we admit that the language of the Torah ultimately falls short to speak about God, then our understanding of the Torah must evolve as we learn more about God. An answer to the question of whether or not Judaism, specifically hasidic philosophy, really does contain these kinds of philosophical seeds of an evolving understanding of God, was what I wanted to get out of the meeting with the Rabbi.
That’s a lot to expect out of one meeting. Despite the fact that for me the question goes unanswered, in our hour together, I do feel that I learned a lot. There were many things he said that I thoroughly enjoyed, and other things which began to lose me. Early on in the conversation, he asked me what my definition was of an observant Jew. I answered: “an observant Jew is a person who follows the commandments in the Torah to the letter as they were followed by the first generations of Jews to respond to the Torah.” Quickly after I answered, I realized how naive the answer was. The Rabbi replied, “you could probably find a total of five people alive who fit that description.” This was immediately something that I responded well to. He very simply outlined the philosophy of the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Shchneerson: the past doesn’t matter, the future doesn’t matter, if two Jews are performing a mitzvah together, they are equal in the eyes of God no matter how “observant” one or the other is or isn’t. This was very much in line with my own understanding of God, which we anthropomorphically ascribe a “point of view” to highlight that if one were able to perceive reality objectively, there is absolute unity — no one thing could be distinguished from the rest of Being. The Rabbi was keen to tie this back into the six most important words in all of Judaism, the Shema.
The beginning of the Shema describes the essence of Jewish monotheism: “Hear O Israel, Adonai our Lord, Adonai is One.” This is the core of my understanding of God. There is only one ultimate reality, of which we are all a part, which exists in a way that we do not. It seems to me completely honest to identify as a Jewish monotheist and interpret God this way. However — as anyone will know, Judaism is a religion about following the Law. I certainly, at least to the letter, do not follow the Law.
The simple example I brought up to the Rabbi was my love of pork. I remember the first time I had Christmas ham…it was at a charity event that the student government I was on in high school was in charge of. Once all had been served, we got to finish the leftovers. While the other students calmly ate a meal they had had many times over the years and were bound to have again a few days after the event at Christmas, I was for the first time discovering the sweet sin of glazed ham. Before this tangent on my love of things that chew not the cud devolves any further, suffice it to say that I am concerned how my negligence towards the traditional orthodox practices could be taken. When I presented this to the Rabbi, I must say I liked his answer very much. In the same vein as his earlier exposition on the philosophy of the Rebbe regarding the state of any Jew, no matter how observant, he told me, “don’t worry about eating pork. Keep learning about God.” This made me feel so comfortable with the process I am currently undergoing to understand my relationship with God, and if anything, that was the most valuable thing I have taken away so far, and am elated that the Rabbi wishes to meet again to discuss philosophy.
Despite this wonderful passion for learning which the Rabbi shares and which he argues is an integral part of Judaism, there were some things that seemed problematic for me. He argued that the Torah was a gift to the universe. It is incredibly difficult for me to argue that any one religion, much less any one religious text has any cosmic significance. In response to his further claim that events such as the episode on Mt. Sinai and the parting of the Red Sea are “absolute realities,” I told him that I don’t believe in any supernatural element to the universe or any supernatural event in history. His response was something I find typical of religious people. He told me that the relationship with God he saw in me was something supernatural, and I think that our disagreement here comes down to a difference in an understanding of the language. The reason I have a problem the idea of things that are natural vs. things that are supernatural is because it implies that there are things which God does and there are things which God doesn’t do. To be a bit more technical, there exist more than one agency in the universe. It seems to my potentially naive philosophical view that this threatens the unity of God professed in the Shema, as if there is an agency which ultimately cannot be traced back to God, then it must be traced back to some other being, implying that there is something coexistent with God.
What is so attractive to me about Judaism is that I believe it can very easily be practiced without, like so many other instances of religiosity, without an exclusive claim to truth. This is so because our philosophical conception of God by definition cannot be encapsulated as such. In other words, we as Jews do not have an exclusive claim to religious truth because no absolute truth exists for humans. No matter how any human or group of humans responds to Being, it will necessarily be an effort limited in time, space, and intellect and thus falls short of attaining status as absolute truth. Whether or not this is actually the case, Judaism is open enough, even in its orthodox instantiations, to sustain open discourse with someone even as secular as me. This, if nothing else, makes me excited to continue meeting with the Rabbi and fleshing out my spiritual identity.