When I helped guide a young Christian business associate through a spiritual crisis, little did we know that it would result in a life-altering book. The Weight of Gold brings out the Torah’s universal messages for personal growth and social justice, showing that the Torah is indeed the User’s Guide to the human soul. Follow this blog each week for new insights into this ancient text. The book is now available through Amazon and in select bookstores. Please contact the author.
There are no proofs for the existence of the God of Abraham. There are only witnesses.
– Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets
This week’s Torah reading contains one of the Bible’s most cinematic scenes: the splitting of the sea and the escape of the Israelites, followed by the drowning of Pharaoh and his armies. Amidst the majestic imagery and the grandeur of the narrative lie two verses (14:30-31) which at first glance are a rousing affirmation of God’s love for Israel – yet, on closer examination, they are troubling: “On that day the Lord saved Israel from the hand of Egypt and Israel saw Egypt dead upon the shore; and Israel saw the great hand which the Lord used on Egypt, and the people feared the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in Moses, the Lord’s servant.”
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889-1943) was the Hassidic rebbe of the Polish town of Piaseczno (pronounced pia-SETZ-no) until he was deported to the Warsaw Ghetto and subsequently murdered by the Nazis. Rabbi Shapira was a brilliant educator. Like all the great Hassidic rebbes, he had a profound understanding of human psychology. Speaking of intellectual argument, he says people who trot out proofs for the existence of God are really desperately trying to overcome their own lack of faith.
In that context, we need to recognize that, by definition, seeing is not believing. Seeing is, in fact, the very opposite of believing. When we see something, we do not believe it. We experience it. And all our experience is subjective and transitory. We lose our way because we believe our own experience – our seeing – to be objectively true. Then we lose our footing, because what we experienced yesterday is not the same as what we experience today. We live in a world of constant flux – which we experience as being inherently self-contradictory.
And so we impose structures on it. Like little children stopping up their ears and sticking out their tongues, we shut out the chaotic real world and rebuke anyone who refuses to share our hermetically sealed environment.
Perhaps the most commonly raised form of this is the supposed conflict between science and religion. The falseness of this conflict becomes obvious when we acknowledge that they both arise in the human mind – indeed, both from the same point within the mind: the need for meaning. Our minds are structured to tell stories – evolutionary scientists say this is how we get better and better at surviving; religious teachers say this is how we discover the existence of God. Both agree that we have the capacity for understanding truths about the world which are not obvious, but which require deep contemplation to arrive at.
The simplest way to explain the apparent contradiction is to say that science teaches us what the elements of existence are, and how they interact; religion tells us what the elements and their interactions mean. Most powerfully, religion places a moral value on the objects of existence and their interactions, something science is incapable of doing. For all the advances in psychology, sociology and brain science, morality remains the domain of the spirit. The closest brain science comes to a moral conclusion is the determination that people are actually hard-wired to make certain choices, choices that we call moral decisions. These discoveries are critically important, but they do not change the reality that morality is the province of the spiritual side of the mind.
Science and religion belong together. They are closer than two sides of a coin. The Jewish mystics describe the mind grappling with the teachings of the Torah. The Torah, in the mystical realm, is seen as God’s mind. Thus when we engage in deep study (religion), we are enwrapping our mind within the mind of God. But because God gives us a mind capable of comprehending the world (science), our mind also wraps itself around God’s mind.
To those capable of entering into this relationship, for a moment, the physical world reveals itself as profoundly mystical; at the same time, the mysteries of the invisible cosmos become concrete, graspable.
This process is hard work. More, it encourages individual spiritual exploration, which inevitably leads people to question the canned statements emanating from religious authorities. No wonder the religious reject science! Much as this process of yielding the intellect to God is a powerful engine for personal growth, it undermines that lowest common denominator so critical for maintaining organized religion in place.
Thus the two aspects of our mind are held apart, rather than joining in partnership as they naturally should. To Karl Marx’s adage about religion being the opiate of the masses, Irish poet William Butler Yeats retorts that science is “the opiate of the suburbs,” and everyone flees to their own simplistic view of the world.
What the spiritual quest calls for is at once a mechanistic view of the invisible, coupled with the Divine aspect of the material. Abraham Joshua Heschel says the prophet is less concerned with facts than with what facts mean. Thus it may be that our spiritual side should dominate: our ability to interact scientifically with the world looks increasingly suspect as we learn more about how chimpanzees, birds, octopuses and smaller organisms make and use tools; meanwhile, if it is the rational understanding of the world that makes us Homo Sapiens, only the spiritual quest for moral perfection can make us fully human.
The quest for God isn’t supposed to cut us off from society. Maimonides cautions against extreme spiritual practices. When we see a truly pious person fasting, or living on a mountaintop, or wearing sackcloth, we are tempted to say, I will fast. I will withdraw from society. I will wear sackcloth. Says Maimonides, the real challenge – and the proper way to live – is to follow the way of nature, a balanced existence, specifically including a balanced intellectual and spiritual practice. More remarkable than the hermit – and far more difficult to sustain – is the spiritual seeker who goes through daily life in outwardly unremarkable fashion, yet whose inner focus is alive with an awareness of the presence of God. Just because someone fasts and sits on a mountaintop doesn’t mean they’re a saint. And just because someone goes to an office every day and does people’s tax returns, doesn’t mean they aren’t.
Let’s come back to the Torah’s problematic take on our sense of sight. In Hebrew there is a unique verb for “create” used in “God created the heavens and the earth…” This verb – bara – built on the root meaning “to see,” is used only for acts of creation performed by God. Then God “sees… that it is good.” Creation begins with sight: Genesis 1:4 is traditionally translated, “God saw the light, that it was good.” But it can also be translated “God saw the light, because it was good.” Does God only “see” things which are good? Could this be why God does not see Adam after the sin? God calls out to Adam, “Where are you?” God asks Cain, “Where is Abel, your brother?” Faced with evil, the text may be suggesting that God’s vision becomes clouded. What will it take, then, for God to see evil?
Eve appropriates seeing: “And the woman saw that it was good, the tree, for eating…” (Gen. 3:6), precisely God’s language of creation. This first use of seeing by humans completely upends God’s plan of Creation. Eve sees, she analyzes, and she takes. The first instance of Science without Religion – and the world is forever changed.
The ink is not dry on the Creation story when the very act of seeing becomes contaminated. (Gen 6:5) “And God saw that the wickedness of humans was great…” God sees “that it was” the opposite of good. The Creation formula is upended. “And God saw that it was… very bad!” How is seeing to be restored to “good”? How can we redeem the world?
Throughout the Exodus we see proof of God’s existence. The signs, the plagues, the miracles – and now the splitting of the sea. Yet it is problematic. Even Pharaoh – king of the country with the greatest base of scientific knowledge in its time – refuses the evidence of his own eyes, rejecting the first signs and plagues, even before God actively intervenes to harden his heart.
The Abraham narrative made use of the human ability – or inability – to see as a demonstration of people’s spiritual level. Cast out into the desert, Hagar is standing beside a well (Gen. 21:19), yet she tells the angel that her son will die of thirst. It requires divine intervention for her to see the water that was there all along. Abraham, on the other hand, is uniquely clear-sighted. When commanded to sacrifice his son, Abraham doesn’t need angelic guidance; he lifts up his eyes and sees. He sees the mountain, he sees the ram. Abraham sees clearly what God expects him to do.
“Seeing is believing”? If you need to see it, by definition you will never believe it. And as numerous psychology experiments demonstrate, if you don’t believe something, you will not see it! Like infants who have not developed object permanence, the Israelites must see constant manifestations of God, otherwise they believe God has abandoned them.
And after we have seen all the miracles, then what? Spiritual practice is not an end in itself. It purpose is to enable us to return to the world of nature with new tools, with a new awareness. To heighten our connection to God in the everyday, strengthening us to work to bring holiness and justice into the world. The downside of spiritual practice is that we cling to experiences. We wish desperately to repeat them. We withdraw from the natural world, trying to repeat the circumstances and actions that led to our moment of awakening. Instead of identifying places within ourselves that require fixing, we embrace practices in order to recapture a feeling. In this way our meditation, our chanting and prayer – indeed, our whole service of God risks becoming just another way of satisfying our appetites. Like Eve, our service of God is nothing more than a sweet piece of fruit for us to enjoy. Like Hagar at the well, we become so wrapped up in our own experience that we fail to see the world before our eyes. Whether it is family, or community, or nation – or especially our own self – we cannot engage with what we do not perceive. Our very quest for spirituality risks robbing us of our humanity.
You want to see God? If we need to see God, then even seeing God will not be sufficient. The craving for spiritual experience works like a drug. And we build up a tolerance. First, I want to recapture the feeling I had in prayer this morning. Then I want to meditate. Then I need to get away in order to meditate and “connect,” to abandon my job, my family, my culture… If God actually came to stand before us, fully visible, we would say, “OK. What else can you do to keep me interested?”
God took a great risk in creating us, putting us here with freedom of choice and an endless capacity to do both good and evil. What was God thinking? If God is willing to take such a great risk for the sake of this relationship, imagine how important each human being is. Not just ourselves, but each person made in God’s image. If we follow our own superficial tastes and appetites, we will be traveling not God’s path, but ours. Not learning to do God’s work, but abandoning God for our own enjoyment.
As much as we desire to connect with God, God wants to connect with us. Like any relationship, this only works when both parties come to it independently, wholeheartedly, fearlessly accepting the consequences. God has a unique task set aside for each of us. We can follow the path of our appetites, our urges and our passions. Or we can strive to know ourselves deeply, then harness our passions, urges and appetites to fulfill our mission on this earth. Not by looking upon us, but by our acts they shall know us.