Yom Kippur 5771: "Not Up in the Air"


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Yom Kippur 5771: "Not Up in the Air"
Rabbi Menachem Creditor  
dedicated in love to the Netivot Shalom Community

Olam Chesed Yibaneh / We will build this world from love. (Ps. 89:3)
 
Ten days ago we recited "HaYom Harat Olam - Today the World is Born,"  and now ten days have passed.  The world has been born again.  Is it better than it was before?  A  harder question:  What did you do during these past 10 days to make it better?  Our obligation might not be to complete the task, but we are certainly not free from it.    
 
It matters very little what you believe.  No one is a "bad Jew" or a "bad person" for believing one way or another.  But there remains such a thing as "sin."  Sin is when we fail to act when it is necessary.  And we have all sinned this year.  Me, you, civil and religious leaders - we have not done enough when oil pipes burst and floods raged and fires burned, when earthquakes and unemployment have struck, when hatred has been spoken against another group, be the target Muslim or Israeli.
 
On a day like today, an evening like this, surrounded by our community, new- old- and potential friends of every generation, in a world pervaded by so much uncertainty, choosing one topic to share is near impossible.  How can I only focus on one thing when so much calls from every direction?  While sharing with a friend my difficulty in choosing a theme for my remarks tonight, he reminded me that on Yom Kippur many of us are searching for how we fit into the whole, what it all means, why we are necessary as a community and as individuals.   That friend, Dan Schifrin, suggested, perhaps unknowingly, that I talk tonight about what I think about God.
 
Not a light topic, but it'll do. 
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You and I likely agree about the needs of the world.  You and I agree that we are only equipped to respond to bits and pieces of the incompleteness of the universe.  We likely even agree that one of the primary purposes we serve as an organized Jewish community is to be more helpful than we can be as individuals.  But when I confess to you that everything I do in our community and beyond, I do because of God, I imagine some of you might pause for a moment.  Perhaps we'd then have a complicated conversation.  My goal is to begin my part of our conversation tonight.   
 
As has been shared a few times by my dear friend Josh Kornbluth, what I mean by God can be surprising for some.  Most of the time, when I speak with someone who says they don't believe in God, I have more in common with them than someone who unflinchingly declares their faith.   
 
And so I should say a bit, in the Maimonidean style of negative assertion, what my God isn't. 
 
My God is not a Being, is not a Thing, and is not discernable.  My God is not literally the Judge or Womblike King of the Machzor, is not vengeful or punishing.  My God doesn't send cancer or hurricanes.  My God does not send - and never has sent - people to kill or hurt others.  These are some of the things my God is not. 
 
Another important starting point:  "God" is just a word.  Elohim, Eternal One, Adonai, Source of Life, Oseh Shalom, Avinu Malkeinu, Dayan Ha'Emet, Blessed One, Shechina, these faces, these "Masks (Campbell)" are only pointers to the holy.  We do not believe that these Sacred Names are capable of containing the Infinite.   And this is the problem, as Arthur Green puts it so exquisitely in his new book Radical Judaism: " [Spiritual people describe all of Being using words like 'God'] because we see ourselves as living in relationship to the underlying One. (p.19)"  When overwhelmed by almost any association in almost any moment, a soulful person struggles for any word to express what is happening deep inside, to communicate what it is to be right now.  But no word works - it is like trying to translate crying or attempting to explain pain.  Or like trying to speak of God. 

If the choice is silence or the limits of language, we should remember that "Shtika keHoda'a Damei / Silence indicates acquiescence", and that Dr. King taught us all that silence can actually serve as betrayal when the need to speak is felt and ignored.  There are, however, also times that speaking means nothing, as John Cage famously said "I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it  (Lecture on Nothing, 1949)."

 
And so we have no choice but to plunge into words.  We must pledge to do our best to remember that they're only words.  We must also remember that we might not know for certain what they mean, but they should aim (Dewey) to mean something.
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Solomon Schechter, the founder of American Conservative/Masorti Judaism, hinted at the importance of not confusing belief with surety: "[Judaism] refused a hearing to no theory for fear that it should contain some germ of truth, but on the same ground, it accepted none to the exclusion of the others. (Parzen, 41)"   When I can define God in clear terms, it is not God.  I worship an idol when I claim my sense of God is THE definition.  Worse than that, idolatry and terrorism are related fundamentalisms, where being sure I'm right is the surest indication that I'm wrong and the best way of predicting that someone is going to get hurt.  As Rabbi Irwin Kula has taught, "When I believe I have more God than you, I get a gun."   
 
One additional and crucial caveat before sharing, in humble yet assertive terms, what I believe God is.  My goal tonight is not to provide a systemic theology.  God is not an object of cognition (Heschel in Petuchowsky), not an idea to prove.  I offer only what I believe to be a healthy reframing of real experience, a way of "seeing" the world and every inhabitant as full of latent potential.  I'm not interested in intellectual gymnastics; I'm aching to share an experience of the Divine with my sacred community. 
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A personal vignette: 
 
When I was applying to Rabbinical School at JTS, I remember a few things very vividly.  The table for the interview itself had a glass top, just to make my nervous fidgeting a bit more obvious.  The room was plush green velvet from floor to ceiling.  And the people at that table were the gatekeepers, guarding a doorway through which I really wanted to enter.  It began well.  But, about 20 minutes in, one rabbi on the committee looked at me and said:
 
"Mr. Creditor, I've been reading the statement of your theology.  You don't seem to have one.  Can I ask you to talk about that?" 
 
I responded by saying, "Actually, I'm currently taking a theology class with Rabbi Neil Gillman, and it's all a bit up in the air." 
 
It's not all up in the air for me anymore.  At least, not for now.  In fact, it's not up in the air at all.  My previous belief system in which my God in the Heavens watched me, commanded me, and intervened in the world has encountered a real world of universal vulnerability, where things are not black and white, where injustice happens, sometimes in the name of God.  My theology has been influenced by personal loss, by being with others as they die, with others as they lose a loved one.  My theology has been informed by the births of babies, three of whom have taught me more about God in a glance than every book I'll ever read.  My theology has been informed by painful headlines, some personally experienced.  My theology has been informed by communal work and activism.  For me, God is not "up there" more than God is "in here."  And I've learned over and over again that my approach to God is but one of many true paths to the Ultimate.
 
This is what I believe: God is the collective potential of the human imagination.  I believe that God is the collective potential of the human imagination. 
 
Here's some of what that means:
 
·         When the person davening Hineni concludes with "Baruch Atah Shomei'a Tefilah / Blessed Are You Who Hears Prayer" my soul stirs because it reminds me that something within me aches to be heard.
·         When a person dies, there is no defensible reason.  We all feel the pain of the loss, because a part of God has died.  A fragment of potential has been lost to us all.
·         When I ask God to accept my loved one into a sacred embrace, I am crying out to my community to remember and cherish that person, to demand eternally that every life matter.
·         When we encounter those willing to hurt others in pursuit of what they believe Justice to be, and we challenge their use of noble words like "justice" or "tradition" to describe their actions, that is God.
·         When I say I love you, I mean that I am not alone and that I am here so that you need not be either.  That, for me, is God. 
 
And if this is a possible definition of the Infinite One, who has just as infinite a number of names, and who is accessible through just as infinite a number of possible true paths, then God is in desperate need of you, of your unique contribution.  As Emmanuel Levinas taught, "the totality of the true is only possible through the contributions of many."  We cannot, as a world, achieve the Peace we seek if any gift is missing.  No one has no gift to give, and every person is precious. 
 
Sometimes life makes us forget how powerful we are, but we are powerful.  Some of us are suddenly thrust into the role of being the "rock" in our families, but we are that powerful.  Some of us become public leaders without intending, but we are that powerful.  We remember our power during the irrevocable moments in our lives.
 
What is it that happens when the words we hear tear us, break us open, and propel us deeper than we meant to go?  Why is it that a familiar scent can instantly send us back in time?  Why is it that, when we stand on a sunny, scary day with Muslims and Christians and believers and atheists, we sense urgency so much stronger?  To ignore our power, to allow ourselves to feel hopeless is a wrongness (Rav Nachman).  That is the sin of denying our capacity to act.
 
And the way back from sin is an open, willing heart, ready to do the necessary work to let the needs of the world mix with the particular ingredients of your soul.  The only failure is not naming this expectation, this sublime burden, and in communal leadership not challenging every person to see themselves as seekers of the sacred.  The Teshuva we are called to do includes the broken-ness we'd rather escape and avoid.  But the challenge, I believe, is clear.    
 
We seek the sacred, and that's why we have work to do.  God is not more, nor less, present in our shul than in a mosque, or a church, our homes or on the street.  But we are somehow different, somehow more intense here at shul.  We join here, as a Jewish community, to strengthen our resolve to stand in awe of all the world has to offer, to bow in awe of the Divine Potential we together are, to rise in purposeful response. We sing and cry from the blessed weight of it all.  And then we get back to work.  Six days a week won't do it - we need that Seventh Day to recharge, because the needs won't go anywhere without us.  
 
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a modern prophet who marched with Dr. King, taught, we are called to take a "Leap of Action," which demands of us that we see past our own needs and do more than we understand in order to understand more than we currently do.  Heschel wrote: "Through the ecstasy of deeds [we learn] to be certain of the presence of God. (Petuchowski, 392)"  So powerful to read this religious leader remind the world, time after time, that the uncertainty of faith is no excuse for inaction.    
 
There is much missing our world.  And so much of what is missing is present right here, right now, in this room, in our shul.  While I might fumble while trying to articulate what it is that inspires my life and moves me so much about our precious community, I know that it is the experience of caring and being cared for unconditionally that makes us who we are.  It is not an event that triggers our Chesed, our Overflowing Love; it is the ongoing and evolving reality we are and commit to being and becoming, here and everywhere.  That is precisely why we ache when we read headlines - because the world does not need to suffer in the many ways it does.   It is as Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote:  
 
"Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean.  
Tears from the depth of some divine despair  
Rise in the heart and gather in the eyes." 
 
When during the Amidah we recite "Meimit uMechayeh / God who takes and gives life" I find myself both emotionally tense and strangely committed to the traditional formula.  Why?  Because the words make me feel.  They make me angry.  They make me cry.  They hint at hope.  They remind me to look at others and feel with them.  I need not be alone when tradition calls me to connect to community.  And community creates and practices together. And because of this I am and we each are less alone.
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We are called to do something about the things that happen that make us cry.  It doesn't matter if you believe in a personal God who participates in the events of the world or an Unmoved Mover who doesn't get involved, or if you believe that the world birthed itself, or if you aren't sure - what matters is what you do.  For me, God is only real when we act to better the world. 
 
Other theologies believe God explicitly commanded us to better the world.  Atheists believe the world needs betterment.  We're all on the same page - and we are truly blessed to have a rich language, a holy community, a sacred tradition that guides our actions and does not mandate our thinking.   Our is a hopeful, non-fundamentalist, honest, engaged, traditional Jewish community, one which has so much to learn from and offer to our larger community and the world.
 
Hope is not impossible.  It is ever-present though sometimes hidden.  And Hope is urgently needed, which in my theology means that it is a Mitzvah, a command. 
 
So I ask you to decide tonight one thing you are going to do this year to build up hope in the world.  Support our community's commitment to our members in times of need, to the Jewish People, and to world.  Daven so that your soul can be nourished as you work in the world.  Celebrate Shabbat so that you can unplug, recharge, and reconnect one day a week.  Think deeply about the food you eat, the car you drive, the way you spend money, and the relationships you keep.  These are not isolated observances.  They are "the Jewish way of giving voice to our most treasured memories and our deepest aspirations (Held, Cosgrove, 20)," and through them we will be strong enough to change everything, piece by piece. 
 
I call this process God.
 
Roughly three hundred members of the Berkeley community sat together this past Shabbat, 9/11, and affirmed our entire community, the America we believe in - one that cherishes and protects every believer and non-believer.   During these past three weeks, thousands of Jewish women have embraced Torah and have had their photos taken to demonstrate solidarity with Women of the Wall and the Masorti Movement's efforts to achieve a more just and inclusive Judaism in Israel.  We serve monthly shifts at the shelters, we speak about Domestic Violence, we have generated shared conversations on human trafficking, hunger, education, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and interfaith dialogue, and more.  We are leaders in the Jewish campaign for full GLBT inclusion.  We are trying.  And it takes your gifts, financial and spiritual, to do what we do.  And we need to keep doing it.  The aches in the world are not going away on their own.  
 
Listen to these words from a gifted musical soul named Matthew Paul Miller, better known as Matisyahu.  It is an anthem worth singing, laced with words that hint at our deepest fears, prayers, and dreams. 
 
Sometimes I lay under the moon. I thank God I'm breathing.  
Then I pray don't take me soon 'cause I am here for a reason.  
Sometimes in my tears I drown, but I never let it get me down.  
So when negativity surrounds, I know someday it'll all turn around because...
All my life I been waiting for, I've been praying for, for the people to say  
that we don't want to fight no more, there'll be no more wars  
and our children will play... one day.
 
We are a shul that knows how to sing, sometimes silently, and we are here for a reason.  We will continue to speak, to act, to organize.  And as we do we'll remember what the modern prophetess Ruth Messinger has taught, that what makes activism and relief efforts truly heroic is that we know the whole time that we can never truly answer the need.  But we are not resigned.   We are not free from our obligation to get started.  Most importantly, we do not choose to be.
 
We have work to do, and that is all we need know. 
  • May we never hurt another in the name of the truths we cherish.
  • May we generate more hope than the world expects.
  • May we remember that every person around us carries a divine spark.
  • May our sacred community be a strong, legacy for later generations, thanks to the work we do today and tomorrow.
  • May this be a year of health, safety, and peace for us, and for the world around us.

Amen.


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