Lord of the Universe!
The past week has been an extremely trying time for Am Yisrael. A terrible tragedy struck all of us when so many lost their lives in the Meron Lag BaOmer celebrations, followed by a murderous drive-by shooting.
At the same time we have seen outbursts of anti-Israel acts expressed by Arab civilians attacking and in some cases attempting to lynch Jews. Nobody knows better than You that I could continue this list with more atrocities that have lately been committed in Your holy country.
You didn’t stop any of these things but allowed them to snuff out the lives of these people while You stood by without lifting a finger.
Don’t You think this is too much to bear?
I am sure You understand that I was undecided about going to synagogue during the last few days. There was too much pain. Then I wondered whether we should perhaps all go to this holy place and declare before the Aron Hakodesh (Holy Ark) that we refuse to speak to You any longer and will cease to sing Your praises.
When I nevertheless entered the synagogue, I found a community of worshippers who could not understand why I was hesitant to speak to You today. They probably thought I had taken leave of my senses. But I wondered whether it was they and not I who were behaving irrationally. After all, isn’t my reaction the only sound one? How can one continue to speak to You after all that has happened?
Although I could not look into the hearts of these worshippers, I was perplexed. No one said a word about what had transpired, and the prayers were, as usual, boring to the core. How, I wondered, is this possible? Did we not hear the wake-up call? Why did the prayers not reflect the deepest of emotions – shock and despair? I looked at myself only to find that I was no better. Once I was in the synagogue, I too said my prayers as usual, as if nothing happened. Only when I left this holy place did it hit me. Have we all become indifferent? What has happened to us?
But then I thought, isn’t it wonderful that the worshippers are still prepared to come and speak to You, instead of throwing in the towel and deciding there is no longer any point in praising You? Doesn’t it show tremendous faith, in spite of it all?
A moment later, however, another thought came to my mind: Do we worshippers realize that we are addressing and praising the very God Who just stood by while these tragedies took place, and remained passive, as if paralyzed? Is this the same God we praise every day? Or, do we actually believe in two gods? Are we guilty of believing that the God to whom we pray has nothing to do with the God Who looked the other way during these massacres?
Perhaps we are simply hiding behind our prayers of praise, trying to escape the reality that You are a God Who not only seems to ignore us when we need You the most, but also causes natural disasters, in which hundreds of thousands of people lose their lives, and brings upon us diseases through which people suffer and die.
What astonishes me is that few people in the religious community seem to discuss this immense religious and existential problem. Hardly anyone asks why You allow these things to happen. Not one person walked out of the synagogue grappling with a religious crisis. Or, were they hiding their true thoughts and feelings, not daring to express them?
As for me, I am not easily convinced by some of our great contemporary rabbis who claim that these atrocities are part of the chevlei hamashiach (the birth pangs preceding the messianic age). We’ve heard these claims all too often, for thousands of years, whenever Jews have been murdered. They have lost much of their power. After all, throughout the years, the Mashiach has regrettably not appeared. So I wonder whether this is wishful thinking to believe that this time he is really on his way. Oh, how I hope that I’m wrong! But why would these terrible events have to happen before we can enter the messianic age?
And then I heard the most unusual eulogies given by family members of the victims, who spoke with such love about You, with enormous strength of belief in You. I stood in awe. They were speaking a language of such religious devotion that I felt ashamed not to grasp the quality of their souls. What do they know that I don’t?
Still, there will be few heads of Jewish high schools and yeshivot who will discuss with their students Your rather painful involvement in all this. Most of them will tell their pupils to continue learning Talmud and be silent. But as a teacher, I know that these questions are on the minds of many of the best students. They are simply suppressed, having been ignored by their mentors. More disturbing is that many others don’t even contemplate the problem. On the face of it, their minds and hearts have been silenced by the continuous denial of what happens around them. Have they been indoctrinated not to think, to the extent that they are not even struck by this huge problem? It seems that You get away with a lot.
I know You may be wondering why I ask this question now. Haven’t we been asking it since the dawn of history – from the killing of Hevel by Kayin until and beyond the Holocaust? We have always had this problem.
Sure, on an academic level You are right. But academic issues are a poor representation of our lives. When man is in existential pain, an old problem comes alive in ways that are far more than just a question. It becomes insufferable because it completely overtakes the human being. At that moment, the world as we know it comes to an end, just for an infinite second. And that means another Auschwitz.
Surely I can ask why You need to do all this. If You want to teach us something, is there no other way? After all, the only thing You accomplish is that fewer and fewer people will believe in You. You provide them with all the arguments that atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens love so much. You know just as well as I do that all these tragedies work against You, causing much damage to Your name. And yes, I am most concerned about Your name. Why aren’t You?
It seems there is something about You I will never grasp. In fact, there is nothing that I really do understand about You. You are “a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.” You see everything sub specie aeternitatis (from the aspect of eternity). And that I could do only if I were You. But I am not. I know that I am not the measure of all things. I know that I am far removed from the reality of Your essential existence. Trying to comprehend You is like trying to understand a three-dimensional reality with the help of a flat surface. I realize that there is a huge expanse beyond the shore of my reason. I see your fingerprints everywhere and hear a constant metaphysical murmur from the “other side,” which I know nothing about. It attempts to penetrate my thinking but is unable to get through and stops halfway, in order not to crush my skull. I am fully aware that I continue to convert Your realities into my opinions, thereby rendering myself guilty of transforming Your sublimity into silly clichés.
You are more than existing. Existence is Your minimum capacity. If You were merely to exist, I would probably not believe in You. But you are more than infinite; truer than real. I am aware that I borrow words, phrases and philosophical language from the general sphere of our limited human experience, and that will not do. Faith is mostly starved of language. When I confront You, all my words evaporate into near meaninglessness.
There is really nothing that we know. We don’t know who You are and why You created the world. We are completely ignorant about why You need us to exist. You are not a Who, What or even When. The world around us, including baby universes, black holes, and galaxies, just alludes to one mysterium tremendum (great mystery). How, then, do we dare challenge You regarding, murders, earthquakes, tsunamis and human tragedies? “I know nothing,” said Socrates, “except the fact of my ignorance.”
I am jealous of the atheist who needs not deal with the problem. Your total Otherness doesn’t bother him. He simply denies it. He doesn’t have to deal with the terrible tension that exists between what I want You to be and Who You really are. I don’t have that luxury. While he allows himself a childlike escapism, I am forced to face the problem head on. After all, I am not as much a believer as he is. He believes that the universe and our existence are just an accident. But I cannot access this kind of belief. It is beyond my capacity. I am too much of a skeptic.
I realize that Your miracles far outdo Your tragedies and that I continue to live by Your ever-constant mercy. I am aware that I live in two realms simultaneously: one that overwhelms me with the ineffable feeling that there is majestic spiritual scenery, which makes it clear that You are there; the other where I see chaos, nothing makes any sense, and all is random. We are all suspended between these two realms and find ourselves in utter confusion and solemn terror, realizing that our wisdom is inferior. And then, as often happens, comes the thunderbolt in which a flash of the unknown hits us, and Your being is revealed.
I still realize that we Jews are the greatest miracle of all. We have outlived all those who tried to do away with us – the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans and many others. After exhausting themselves trying to destroy us, they all vanished in a puff of smoke, and we are still here against all odds. Not even the Holocaust succeeded in wiping us out. The State of Israel is an ongoing miracle in a region that has gone completely mad. How, then, can I deny Your existence?
I know that it is more than surprising that we don’t experience waves of terrorism on a daily basis. Many of them are prevented by our soldiers. But I also know that very often it is mazal (good fortune) and has nothing to do with our military intelligence. And I suspect that You are behind this. I shall never forget that one of my own children and her family were miraculously saved from a terrorist attack in the Old City several years ago.
The grandeur of all creation is too powerful to allow us to deny You, though Your constant hiddenness is very disturbing. Yes, You are everywhere, but You show it in a rather strange manner.
I will continue to believe in You, but I cannot deny that, emotionally, it is a tour de force. How, after all, can I live with Someone Who sometimes violates all that my own limited thoughts and feelings can grasp and express? Oh, how wonderful it would be if I were an atheist! But how fortunate I am that I was not granted that option of naiveté.
Perhaps my fellow worshippers are wiser than I am, and I should judge them more favorably. Maybe they have already worked through all these thoughts and have concluded that You are a necessary Being within Yourself, and all our questions are meaningless. Perhaps they have read Spinoza, who put an end to the possibility of knowing anything about You. Probably based on Jewish ideas, he concluded that not only can we know nothing about Your plan for this world, but the very idea of a plan – which means a notion within time and space – is completely inapplicable to You.
But then, God, do my fellow worshippers not have emotions as I have? Are they simply cold, philosophical, mathematical minds that have really thought this through and are thus able to pray to You? I have a hard time believing that. Nearly never have I heard them utter a word about You in relation to earthquakes, tsunamis, or other tragedies. Never have they said to me that You are the foundation of complete Otherness and therefore there is nothing to ask. In fact, they hardly ever speak about You. They only speak about Your Halacha. Are we all guilty of having made You into a deus absconditus, (an absent god)?
On the other hand, perhaps I am mistaken. Maybe they live by emunah peshuta, an ingrained, deep-seated but simple belief in You, which is indestructible. Perhaps their belief is much more real, since it is prior and independent of human knowledge and experience. But why can I not reach this? Should I perhaps not pray in their minyan since it is my thoughts that are misguided and therefore undermine their prayers?
Some of my readers will accuse me of heresy: How does one dare to ask these questions about God? But You and I know that this accusation is as un-Jewish as it can be. While I am surely not a prophet, I know that I walk in the footsteps of those much greater than I. Chavakuk, Iyov, and King David are my examples. And was it not Yirmiyahu, the great prophet, who declared:
You will win, O, Lord, if I make a claim against You. Yet, I shall present charges against You. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are the workers of treachery at ease? You have planted them, and they have taken root. They spread, they even bear fruit. You are ever-present in their mouth… (12:1-2)
How privileged I feel to be a Jew and encouraged to ask such questions!
So I repeat the question asked by my forefather Avraham, the first Jew, after You told him of Your intention to destroy the cities of Sedom and Amora. He asked, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” (Bereishit 18:25) This, God, is the great human question. True, man is only a reed – the weakest entity in nature – but he is a feeling reed.
So, forgive me for having asked these questions, but I had to give voice to them. After all, “men are but children of a larger growth.” And You owe us a human answer.
In humility and awe,
Nathan ben Ya’acov Lopes Cardozo