Contending with the Mystery of God

There are many parts of the Rabbinate that I love:  the teaching, the counseling, the interacting with wonderful people for a noble cause… and I get paid for this!  But one of the most challenging parts of my job is the frustration I feel when I struggle to impart a sense of emunah, a sense of faith, to some of my congregants.  I have sat down with congregants who have confided in me that they just don’t believe in God. Or they have asked me to explain why something difficult has happened to them.  Why do they deserve this, whether the “this” refers to shalom bayit issues, job issues, shidduch issues or health issues.  In those moments I have difficulty responding, because ultimately it is a matter of faith. People are searching for answers and sometimes we are just left with questions. I can achieve success on some level at trying to impart what the Torah has to say on a whole wide variety of topics, but I find it hard to use medieval Jewish philosophical proofs to convince non-believers why they should believe.

In some sense, it seems to me that this conundrum is built into our Torah tradition. Within our halachic system is a whole set of laws that seem to defy comprehension, chief among them being the law of the Parah Adumah, the red heifer, that we read in this week’s Parsha.  Rashi explains that when the nations of the world taunt Israel, saying, “What is this command and what reason is there for it,” the Torah responds by using the word “chukah.” This term implies that this law, and all of the “chukim,” are enactments before God which we have no standing to criticize.

It seems to me that the Torah forces us to confront that fact that indeed, there is a part of God’s laws that is mysterious, namely the chukim, laws like the Parah Adumah, whose rationale is not apparent to us. Rather than engage in apologetics or empty rationalizations, the Torah pushes us to find ways to deal with our own uncertainly and accept gaps in our rational understanding.

The question, of course, is how?  How do we live meaningfully as we confront this mystery?

How do we relate to a God who Himself is naturally mysterious, as He is beyond time and beyond space?  And how do we accept our inability to understand God’s “behavior” when it is mysterious, i.e., theodicy, or why bad things happen in the world?

Rav Soloveitchik has famously written that instead of trying to answer these questions, we should attempt to understand how the chukim can be meaningful to us.  He writes that “it may even be meritorious to inquire, “How can I integrate and assimilate this mitzvah into my religious consciousness and outlook?”  “What thoughts and emotions should I feel when the Parah Adumah chapter is read in the synagogue?”  “How can it help me achieve devekut, a greater closeness to God?””  According to Rav Soloveitchik, the human struggle to find meaning is valuable in and of itself, and is what life is all about.

Jordan B. Peterson is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, a clinical psychologist and a noted public speaker who has a particular interest in the psychology of religious and ideological belief.  In a recent podcast, he claimed that God is the “voice of conscience.”  He cited the Torah’s explanation for our ancestor’s name, “Yisrael,” as being an individual who wrestles with God. Even though the classical commentaries explain the term “Elo-him” here as referring to celestial beings like angels, there is something to be said for his argument that to be a member of Bnei Yisrael, to be a Jew, is to contend with a Higher Authority.  We are not here on this earth merely to be happy or to be complacent or to be materially satisfied.  We are here to contend with God, and to struggle with the fact that our lives as they are do not reflect how they should be. We are not weak, and we do not need easy answers.  We live our lives contending with God, contending with truth, and challenging ourselves to be better with the Torah as our guidebook.

I consider myself fortunate that I believe.  I feel frustrated when I cannot convey the sense of belief to those who do not.  I feel frustrated that I often cannot find satisfactory answers as to why God does certain things.  I am frustrated by my own inability to put the questioner’s mind at ease, and I feel fortunate that I either don’t have those questions or that those questions do not affect my faith.

Regarding the source of his own faith, Rav Lichtenstein famously said that it “was not so much a cluster of abstract factors or arguments but key persons… my parents, ob”m,… and my Rabbis, of whom three – Rabbi Hutner ob”m, the Rav (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik), and Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, stand out far above the rest.”  Growing up in a home and a culture of passionate commitment and connection to God may often have a greater impact in strengthening our faith than a philosophical argument.  Of course, it doesn’t always work and some people aren’t fortunate to grow up in such an environment.

But maybe the solution is simply to struggle, to contend, and to live our lives in an endless pursuit to find meaning. By studying our sacred texts and living according to their dictates, we live our lives as our namesake, Yisrael.  Maybe the more that we do that, and the more that we connect ourselves to those individuals who spend their lives doing that, then the more “Aha” faith moments we will experience in our lives.  It is my hope that as we struggle with these challenges, God will meet us in our trials.  May we feel the connection with Him that Yisrael did and may we be similarly wrapped in faith.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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