Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Where is God?

יום שלישי ד' בשבט תשס"ז

This question, of course, is a common anguished cry for a suffering person. But, it's not that question I'm referring to here. I'm thinking about how close we think God is to us, or how directly God can get involved in our lives. And, more specifically, I'm thinking about how the answers to these questions might be different for a Jewish or Christian chaplain.

A couple of things recently sparked my interest in this question. One was when I heard one of my Christian colleagues talking about how he understood how God relates to the pastoral care work he does and how he is endeavoring to improve in his work. He said he is trying to cleanse or purify himself so that he can be a more accurate and clear channel for God, and for God's love, mercy and message. This person left no role for his own participation, except for being a channel.

My immediate gut reaction was one of horror. I'm not sure exactly why I had such a visceral reaction, but I was nothing short of disgusted. This sense of just being a vessel for God's will is so very far from my theology. . . The image did not come to mind at the time, but now his statement makes me think of Star Trek's the Borg with their complete subservience to some central mind. It's a horrifyingly dehumanizing image. . . . And, I guess that ultimately, finding a holiness in humans -- especially in their individual uniqueness and in their interactions with one another -- is a core belief for me. And I think this means that I assign a certain kind of distance to God. Not that I don't think that God's presence can be immediate and close to us, but that much has been delegated to us. [This kind of distance conception may find expression in the Kabbalistic concept of Tzimtzum.]

I had some related thoughts this past Friday when I heard a presentation on "What do we mean by Spiritual Reflection?". It was given by a Rabbi to a group of mostly Christian chaplains. It's a good question because much of what has been written about spiritual reflection (usually called theological reflection) is written by Christians for Christians and it's not so clear what about it can be applied to other faith traditions.

She talked about an exercise she does where she asks her students to write a paper on where they see God -- or some other ultimate -- in the work they do in the hospital (or maybe she asked what _meaning_ God had in that context). . . . I reflected on this for a while and realize that when I had been a beginning chaplaincy student that I probably would have found such an assignment offensive (and maybe even fundamentally Christian).

I asked her how she would have reacted if a student had asked to answer the question in regards to "Torah" (as opposed to God or "The Ultimate") and she said she would probably not accept that because it was "a different assignment".

She then challenged me to talk about what about my background would have made me want to write about Torah. I thought back to my youth and realized that God had been so little talked about in my home and in our religious life. Torah, on the other hand, was a topic of great importance (and reverence).

Now we Jews have changed some in recent years (and are more likely to talk explicitly about God and our relationship with God). But there is still something basic about Judaism that I think is being expressed by all this -- for us, Torah itself is an ultimate value. Sure, we connect Torah with God -- and might even believe that the words of the Five Books of Moses were dictated by God to Moses -- but most of our discussion about how to follow God's will is at least one step removed from any kind of direct contact with the Deity. That intermediary -- if we can even call it that -- is not a person or a priest. It is Torah -- the collective wisdom of our faith and our tradition.

I remember the first course I took at the Jewish Theological Seminary. It was a summer course in modern Jewish philosophy taught by Neil Gillman. He called it God, Torah and Israel.

God and Torah may be ultimate values in Judaism, but so, very much, is Israel. I think the Judaism that I grew up with in the 1960s and 70s was very much a post-Holocaust Judaism where we focused very much on the last two of these three. Maybe by deemphasizing talk about God we were avoiding dealing with the unanswerable question of "where was God?" in the Holocaust.

But, we were also following in the long tradition of our faith, which has since the time of the ancient Rabbis at least emphasized study (of Torah) as a key -- if not the key -- way of worshipping God.

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