Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The wounds of our Sages -- the truths that bind us across faiths

One of the most striking texts I know in rabbinic literature is one where the Rabbis of some two thousand years ago ask an audacious question -- perhaps it would have been better for humans never to have been created in the first place?

When I first read it, this text really disturbed me. How could people of faith -- especially in a faith tradition that reveres life so much -- possibly even ask such a question? Hadn't God declared the life God created to be "good" at the beginning of the book of Genesis? Would it not be blasphemy to reject God's good creation?

In the years since, I have come to see this text differently, and, in fact, it has come to have deep personal and spiritual meaning for me.

Nonetheless, it was with much trepidation that I brought this text on Monday before a group of Christian and Jewish clergy who had come together for an interfaith dialog in New York. The topic of the moment was "Problem Texts", texts from our Holy literatures -- and there are many -- that can seem troublesome because they might appear to advocate hate or intolerance or have other problems. I was anxious about bringing it because, in it, the Rabbis do not just ask the question. They answer it. They say it would have been best for humankind not to have been created.

And so it was with much joy that I heard my colleagues responding with reactions similar to mine when I presented this text at the "Colleagues in Dialogue" meeting of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding. One woman -- a cantor who is the spiritual leader of a Reform congregation in New Jersey -- said this text made the ancient Rabbis seem more human and more accessible to her. Another person saw in it a troubling existential question that bothers many -- why did God not create me perfect?

There are so many deep meanings for me in this text. I don't think the Rabbis were literally saying it would be better if God had never created us. Rather, I think they're acknowledging a painful and universal truth -- life, as beautiful and wondrous as it is, is full of suffering. You can see it in almost every room of the hospital. And so much of it is inexplicable. It's a mystery. Why would God create a world where a 40-year old woman gets cancer and leaves her children without a mother? Why would God create a world where even children can get cancer and suffer unspeakable pain and even die? What sort of loving God would do that?

And, in the face of so much inexplicable suffering -- whether it be our own, or that of others -- sometimes the person who has any kind of compassion or empathy in his or her heart is just going to want to give up. Just throw in the towel. Even -- if just for a fleeting moment -- wish one had never been born.

It's a comfort to me to know that I am not alone in having these kinds of thoughts and feelings -- that even the wisest ones of my Sages experienced them as well. It makes me feel less alone in my darker moments, moments that are unavoidable if I am to open my heart up to others who are in pain and be a chaplain and spiritual caregiver to them.

But the real comfort in this text comes at its end -- for the Rabbis do not just conclude with their decision that it would have been better for humankind never to have been created. Instead, they go one step further -- they say, well, now that we have been created, the thing to do is for us to focus on our deeds, to focus on doing the right thing before God.

This is the great message of Judaism for me -- do not give up, even in the face of the greatest challenges and the greatest wounds and brokenness you can imagine. Hang on to life with every fiber of your soul and try and make it a good life. A good life -- the kind of life that God would find good. The kind of life that follows God's way. The kind of life that is as full of acts of loving kindness as you can make it. There lies the "redemptive turn" for me.

Here is the full text of the source as I presented (and translated) it (I also gave it the provocative title "The Suicide of the Rabbis?"):

The suicide of the Rabbis?

Talmud Bavli, Eiruvin 13b

Our Rabbis taught: For two and a half years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel debated. ת"ר שתי שנים ומחצה נחלקו ב"ש וב"ה
One of them said it would be better for humankind to never have been created. הללו אומרים נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא
And the other said it was better for humankind to have been created. והללו אומרים נוח לו לאדם שנברא יותר משלא נברא
At the end, they voted and decided that it would have been better for humankind to never have been created. נמנו וגמרו נוח לו לאדם שלא נברא יותר משנברא
But now that humankind has been created, a person should examine his deeds עכשיו שנברא יפשפש במעשיו
And others say a person should examine his future deeds. ואמרי לה ימשמש במעשיו

After reading the text to the group, I asked them to ponder a couple of questions with a partner for five minutes before we discussed it as a group:
  • What is your initial reaction to this text? Does it bring any image to mind?
  • What does the story mean? What are the rabbis in truth trying to say here?

Redemption comes in many forms. Above, I said that, for me, this text inspires me to make the redemptive move from despair at suffering to focusing on my deeds that have the potential to do something about that suffering and bring healing to others.

The search for some kind of redemption through deeds is very much the stuff of what much of the interfaith conference was about. Some of my Christian colleagues made some striking Problem Texts presentations where they strove to courageously face up to how some of the texts of their traditions have been used in the name of violence and intolerance, and to seek solutions that involve anything but throwing those texts out. Two Catholic priests wrestled with a passage from Mathew (26:14-27:66) that has been used to blame the Jews collectively for the death of Jesus Christ, while a protestant pastor took on a passage from John (14:1-14) that some Christians use as proof that Christianity is the only path to truth.

I was inspired by their efforts, especially because both of their efforts very much involved preserving the sacredness and meaning of these texts to them. This is what I also seek to do with the troubling texts of my own tradition -- search for honest ways of understanding them that allow me to keep them close to my heart and my soul.

May it be the will of the Holy Blessed One that all your troubles and sorrows be transformed into sources of meaning and joy.

No comments: