Ain’t No King: Reflections on Rosh Hashana

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A classic Jewish joke goes like this: In the middle of a service, the Rabbi suddenly becomes swept up in a moment of awe, and falls to the floor in a full prostration, crying out, “O God. Before You, I am nothing! Nothing”

The cantor is so moved by this demonstration of piety that she immediately follows suit, throwing herself to the floor beside the rabbi and crying out, “O God! Before you, I am nothing!”

In the ensuing silence, a shuffling is heard in the back row. Gil Feibleman jumps from his seat, prostrates himself in the aisle and cries, “O God! Before You, I am nothing!”

Seeing this, the cantor crawls over to the rabbi and nudges her, whispering, “Nu? Look who thinks he’s nothing?”

The truth is that this joke has roots in classical Jewish theology, in which each of us is truly nothing

There are certain concepts that are considered immaterial. Examples are spirit, soul and God. 

Moreover, per western science and philosophy, immaterial phenomena also include things like consciousness, mind, being, and … self. 

All of these immaterial phenomena are essential to our experience of being human. Really, where would each of us be without mind, consciousness, spirit, soul, God, or self? And, yet, western materialist science still lacks the philosophy, methodology, or technology to definitively study them. While each is an experience that can be studied in terms of the neurological effect, the parts of the brain that light up when experienced, or the physiological activity during the experience, we can not – as of yet scientifically measure these things and therefore each remains somewhat meta-physical – they are experienced in the physical world, in our bodies, and yet they defy the physical sciences and philosophical inquiry. For example, even with our knowledge of the brain, neuroscience – to this day – cannot explain consciousness, mind or subjective experience – i.e. our experience of self. Iain McGilchrist, a prominent neuroscientist, shows that in all of the research into the brain, we are still at a loss as to whether or not mind is contained within our skulls or whether the brain as evolved in relationship to something outside the skull that might be called mind. David Chalmers calls the question of consciousness the hard problem; we still do not know how to study consciousness. Chalmers suggests that it will take a scientific revolution to develop a science of the mind

Isn’t it remarkable that something so basic to our experience of being human, our sense of self, is considered immaterial and even metaphysical?!

Each of these immaterial concepts has been described throughout human history as eternal and universal. Each names an ultimate cosmology into which all existence is completely unified. All is one and One is All. In Buddhism we speak of the Buddha Mind; in Hinduism the universal self of Brahma, In Taoism we speak of the Tao, and so on. 

In our tradition, Y-H-V-H is the ultimate reality in which all things that exist are unified. When we say the Shema, we assert that all is One and that One is Havayah, there is only Havayah. On the cosmological scale, there is no duality whatsoever. There is no you, no me, no Jew, no Christian. There is only Havayah. Moreover, the famous name, YHVH, means being, both in nounal and verbal senses; all being – lower case b – is nullified, subsumed and unified in Being – capital B. Judaism asserts that Havayah is this AND that. Havayah is all.

We have many, many ways of reiterating this idea. For example, אין עוד מלבדו  – there is nothing other than G-d. Or ממלא כל עלמין וסובב כל עלמין, ומבלעדיך אין שום מציאות כלל – filling and surrounding all space/time, other than you, God, there is no existence whatsoever. Or כי יי הוא האלהים בשמים ממעל ועל הארץ מתחת אין עוד (ki adonai hu ha’elohim bashamayim mima’al v’al ha’aretz mitahat ein od, from the aleynu prayer), meaning: Being subsumes all seemingly autonomous powers in existence; from the most distant expanses of the skies to all those on earth, there is nothing else

Our people’s contemplative and meditative spiritual practices aim at a consciousness of this unity. The state of being achieved through these practices is sometimes called bitul l’gamrei – complete self-dissolution. Sometimes we call this consciousness ein – which literally means nothing or without because in this state, we perceive nothing, i.e. no-thing, only the complete unity of Being.

Though this may sound somewhat foreign, the truth is most of us grew up with this theology. It is expressed in the kids’ song, “God is here, God is there, God is truly everywhere.” 

Shema Yisrael, Havayah, the Divine Being that unites all, Havayah is One. אפס זולתו – there is nothing else.

And, yet, one of the many conflicting traditions we have inherited from our ancestors about Rosh Hashanah is that on this day we “re-coronate the King.” The ceremony we are performing here is a coronation ceremony. We are re-enthroning the “Lord of the Universe.” 

Contrary to what you might think, this whole metaphor has been problematic for over 1000 years, for both theological and political reasons. The problem may be as old as Judaism itself. 

Is G-d a King? Is there a crown? Is there a throne for His Lordship? The mahzor will state that G-d is the true judge and that on this day, He will judge the whole world based on individual and collective merits and decide which of us will live, which will die, which will become rich and which will become poor, and so on, in the coming year. 

Friends, if in the language of our tradition, ein shum metziut klal – there is nothing but God, there is only Havayah, only Being, is God then a King? If our faith actually rejects any anthropomorphism of G-d whatsoever, if all being is subsumed in the ultimate reality that we call Havayah, in which there are no binaries and no-thing, is God a King? 

No. Ain’t no King. Ain’t no King. 

If G-d is the totality of being, in which all is utterly unified, if G-d is Being, Is G-d then a judge? 

No. Ain’t no King. Ain’t no King. Ain’t no Judge. Ain’t no judge, and there ain’t no justice. 

On the other hand, this state of consciousness in which there is only Havayah, while revered and treasured as the most intimate knowledge of existence, is not where we live. In fact, we are repeatedly warned by our ancestors that it is irresponsible to seek to live in that state of consciousness at all times. Our obligation is to live here and now, with our families and communities. But we are never to get lost or stuck in the idolatry of thinking that this world is real in any inherent sense.

One of the masters of the Hasidic tradition, Simcha Bunem of Peshischa, used to carry two notes, one in each pocket. Depending on the need of the particular moment, he would pull one or the other out and meditate upon it. One said, “I am dust and ashes,” a phrase from the Torah which means, “I am nothing.” The other said, “The whole universe was created for me.” This custom speaks to different modalities of spiritual practice. 

None of the traditions that deny the inherent reality of the self go on to say that this means we do not feel love, joy, sadness, grief and so on.  To the contrary. These are not nihilistic traditions. Rather, they tell us, that we should not cling to the illusion of the self. This clinging causes all suffering and is the root of all injustice. Cling to Hashem. Don’t cling to anything else.

This is not such a strange thought. Today, many of us have told ourselves that our existence is only a microscopic blip on the cosmological scale; we appreciate cosmologies of deep interconnection and oneness. Our spiritual traditions are expanding this idea: yes, all of that is true. So do not become clingy. By understanding the self to be an insubstantial thing, they all agree, we open ourselves to freedom and compassion, to a more joyous experience of life. You will notice, for example, that Tibetan Buddhism is known for a 2500-year-long tradition that the self is a delusion and that all suffering is caused by clinging to the self. They are also known as some of the most joyful people on earth. Ever seen pictures of a laughing monk?

 From this perspective that there ain’t no King, ain’t no Judge and there ain’t no justice, we have to ask what we are doing with this liturgy on Rosh Hashanah, what to do with this liturgy that seems, ostensibly, to be all about G-d as King and Judge. 

So, here’s the thing: The liturgy will oscillate back and forth between different modalities. But much of it – perhaps all of it – is about our clinginess, our privileging of our self-interest. It is a fearful, awe-ful examination of the ways in which our self-interest has caused suffering.

Let us take unetanah tokef, for example. In this prayer, we recite:

“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time, and who by an untimely death, who by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast, who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague, who by execution, who shall have rest and who wander, who shall be at peace and who pursued, who shall be serene and who tormented, who shall become impoverished and who wealthy, who shall be debased, and who exalted.” This prayer reads as an unsettling reminder of our frailty, our vulnerability. But, from this perspective all is Havayah, it is not God who is judge. God here is more like karma; we are all born into a vast, interconnected web of cause and effect that moves through space and time. The word for this in our tradition is tiqla. Our ancestors say explicitly that there is not a discernable calculus to the tiqla but there is no escape from it either. 

Our emotional responses to this prayer vary – anxiety, resentment, disgust, terror, resignation, and grief. These emotional responses illuminate our clinginess. They reveal the ways we hold on dearly to our sense of self. This is not inherently bad. But it is this clinginess that causes suffering and all injustice. 

Let me give you a thought experiment to highlight this self-interest, one that was recently given to me. How would you feel about 150 tiny homes for houseless people in Salem being put next door to you? I realized that for me this is not desirable. We all want the homeless to be provided housing. But, everywhere we find the same response: yes! Of course, house them! but not in my neighborhood. It would affect my stress levels, it would affect the safety of my children, it would affect my well-being, it would affect my property value. This self-interest is entirely normal and all these issues are significant. 

I happen to know someone who lives next to a halfway house. Every day this person, who also suffers from severe PTSD and other medical issues aggravated by stress, experiences great fear of the people they live next to. So there are real issues here. And, at the same time, the not-in-my-back-yard attitude that exists within all of us means that, on some level, we are subscribing to social Darwinism. On some level we are saying – there are those who will make it and those who won’t but by God, me and mine will be among those who make it. 

Unetanah tokef is a similar thought experiment – faced with the reality of our frailty, and the fickle nature of suffering, we often get defensive or terrified. This is our self-interest at work. The prayer is designed to make us feel humility, fear and awe. It is not designed to tell us much of anything about God – except perhaps that God is that vast karmic web into which we were born.

On this deeper level in which Hashem is all, it is not God who we are enthroning today. It is the soul. It is that which knows that our self is insubstantial and immaterial, that already knows the expansive freedom and compassion that comes of releasing our grasp on our ephemeral person. 

Soul in our tradition is said to be eternal and pure. There is no way to make it impure. It is indistinguishable from the unity of Being. You might even say that there is no such thing as your soul. There is only Soul. There is nothing other than soul. 

Dzongsan Jamyan Khyentse Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist born in Bhutan, gives the analogy of a crystal wine glass. Like crystal, the soul is always clear and pure. It can be tainted with shmutz, with fingerprints, wine, etc. For that matter, you could bury it in a pile of shit so that the glass was entirely invisible. But you do not then refer to the crystal wine glass as shmutz. You say it has shmutz on it. You remove the shmutz by cleaning the crystal glass. Then it returns to its recognizable purity as a crystal wine glass. In exactly the same way, crystal can not become impure in Judaism. In the way of kashrut – keeping kosher – crystal can not become impure. So you could shove a big mac into a crystal glass and put it in the microwave and heat it up and the glass would not be made unkosher. You could eat bacon out of a crystal glass. Don’t. But you could, hypothetically, fill a glass to the rim with bacon and the crystal would not be made unkosher. You can get fats, butter, fingerprints – whatever – all over a crystal glass but the glass will always be pure.

The soul is always as expansive as the sky and as clear and pure as a mountain spring.

So, on this day, we put soul back on the throne. This is to say, we put soul back at the center of our lives. We remember that our soul is always pure and we try to reorient ourselves to having soul be the sovereign of our lives, meaning: we want soul to tell us what to do. 

The truth is that our soul never left Her throne, never lost Her crown. She knows the suffering that comes from clinging to the self. She knows the freedom and compassion that comes of the awareness of the unity of Havayah. It’s just that today, and in fact every day in our tradition, we wash the shmutz off our soul to reveal Her crystalline form. 

We are then invited to enter these days of teshuva from a very different perspective. In fact, you are already pure. You are already whole. You are not a sinner. You have sinned. You are coming here as a pure soul – with some shmutz on it. 

What is it that has left shmutz all over the soul? It is our delusion of self. It is our self-interest. Use the mahzor, then, to examine how your self-interest has driven your actions and reorient yourself to the true, crystalline, eternal being, to the soul, and to the unity which our tradition says is our most natural state of being. I invite you to do this with me: try to reread each line of the mahzor as speaking of soul and the ways our self-interest can tarnish Her but never make the soul anything other than pure. I’d love to hear your questions as you do this. I’d be so grateful to hear the obstacles you run up against when trying to reread the mahzor from this perspective.

About the Author
Rabbi Maggid Eli Herb is a congregational rabbi in Salem, Oregon. He lives with his wife and 11-year old son.
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