Ya Gotta Believe — Something (Part 2)

The most familiar statement of Jewish belief is the section of prayer we call the Sh’ma and its Blessings. The Sh’ma affirms the absolute oneness of God. But most major religions affirm monotheism, so accompanying the Sh’ma are three surrounding blessings that delineate the nature of this one God whom Jews affirm. We believe in a God who a) creates all things, b) reveals Torah to Israel, and c) promises redemption.

So far so good. But here’s the problem. The minute we make those statements, we are in danger of evoking an image of some old man who creates the universe the way Geppetto created Pinocchio; who dictated Torah to Moses the way Donald Trump instructs his executive assistant to “take a letter”; and a military genius who foiled the Egyptians at the Red Sea the way the Duke of Wellington beat Napoleon at Waterloo.

These are exactly the “humanized” versions of God that most moderns reject as childish. Is God some super combination of Geppetto, Trump and Wellington? Is creation like Pinocchio? The Torah like an executive memo? And the Red Sea like Waterloo?

Of course not. What we have is a liturgical set of metaphors for God, the rabbinic attempt to envision God in a way that would stretch people’s imagination. Ever since then, Jews have struggled with these metaphors, making them over into new ones of their own, if need be, so as to express the inexpressible essence of the Divine.

The best-known modern effort to do so avoids saying anything about God at all. Instead it names the processes in which God seems here to be engaged. God, we have been taught to say, is a God of creation, revelation, and redemption.

Again, so far so good. But literalists then try to translate process back into person. God, they conclude, is a creator, revealer and redeemer — which puts us back at square one, likening God to Geppetto, Trump and Wellington again. Besides, creation, revelation and redemption do not resonate for us the way they did for the nineteenth-century philosophers who came up with them. No one these days is likely to encounter a discussion on any one of them.

If we are to believe in anything sustainable, we require more up-to-date metaphors that capture best this three-fold insistence on creation, revelation and redemption; which are, therefore, equally true to the original intent of the prayers; but which speak to our time. I suggest a metaphor that combines time, space and history.

What astounds about the universe is the aesthetic and scientific miracle by which the finely-tuned network of natural law accords so beautifully with mathematics. For modern Jews, therefore, the doctrine of creation is best translated as the affirmation that the universe has pattern. It runs by an amazingly small set of universal laws that never ever fail.

Revelation describes our faith that this cosmic order is not without human purpose. We humans can matter in a grand scheme of which we know almost nothing but into which we have been thrust.

Redemption is the realization that over the long run, purpose within pattern gives us the right to hope.

Pattern, purpose and hope are the contemporary equivalents of creation, revelation and redemption. They sustain us on the tiny bridge of time called history.

If the age of the universe were a line in space equal to the distance from New York to Los Angeles, Jewish history since Abraham and Sarah would cover only ten feet, and human existence, prehistory and all, would encompass only part of a single span of the Golden Gate or George Washington Bridge. The Holocaust, therefore, in all its unspeakable horror, is insufficient to shatter optimism. The State of Israel is a similar, albeit positive, tiny step in time, an outpost of hope we must defend, but hardly a sign of imminent messianic victory, as some extremists imagine. Life is lived in the narrowness of bridge spans. Faith is the insistence that the bridge goes somewhere, connecting past and future in a present that has meaning.

For the bridge is not without direction. Creation pulses forward toward ever-increasing freedom. If God is the power behind universal pattern, the guarantor of purpose and the ground for hope, we can say, in short, that God (as it were) wants human freedom; has designed a universe that invites it; and summons Jews to champion it. The Jewish People’s moral purpose is to tell our story of servitude and freedom; to act it out in ritual that revives our vision and steels our nerve; and then, in all we do, to demonstrate our faith in freedom as the redemptive end of history.

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5 responses to “Ya Gotta Believe — Something (Part 2)

  1. Rabbi,

    I think something is lost in the transit from Redemption to Hope. Redemption implies helplessness, and being aware of it. It implies someone freeing us from bondage, someone paying off a debt we could never hope to pay.
    Redemption seems to imply the concept of the Fall.
    And I don’t think modern man can picture himself as someone in need of Redemption.

    Javier

  2. Either something is lost or something is gained. It depends on one’s perspective.

    For people who find the notion of a fall and helplessness unappealing, “hope” is a gain not a loss. But even for those who find those ideas appealing, “hope” may not be a loss. It can simply be a reference to how we feel when we realize we will be saved even from hopelessness born of helplessness.

    Redemption, in any case, need not imply a fall. That is what classic Christian theology assumes, but not Jewish, and the Hebrew whence “redemption” (as a concept) derives precedes Christian theology. Jews believed in redemption long before anyone had thought of a fall.

  3. Larry, I like this a great deal but want to propose two points:

    (1) I think that redemption is not simply about hope per se. Redemption must have an end. I would offer the suggestion that it is the fulfillment of human dignity. Following Michael Walzer & Jonathan Sacks, I think we can articulate a modern vision of redemption that starts with the promise of human freedom but goes beyond it (because we must) to affirm the purpose of that freedom, which is life in dignity. If revelation is, as you say, the awareness of human purpose, then redemption ought to be the promise that such purpose is achievable. That, of course, is hope (pace Havel’s beautiful distinction between optimism and hope), but it is a particular kind of hope. Perhaps “promise” is a better word (and it starts with p)?

    (2) Again and again I come back to your profound and powerful idea that prayer is in many respects about memorialization: reminding God of God’s action and promises. We can extend this to your argument here by pointing out that the liturgy of memorialization works for the pray-er as well. In this case, the point of prayer is for us periodically and regularly to remind ourselves of how pattern, purpose, and promise underpin our lives.

    Best,

    /Shawn

    • Very nice. Very thoughtful. I like both ideas.

      On memorialization, I once studied memory in Judaism and Christianity. Jesus’s last words are “Remember me,” and I wondered what he meant in a Jewish context. Turns out memory (Hebrew is zecher or zikaron) means “pointing.” That makes memorialization in liturgy a case of pointing — across time or space or even logic, connecting us (and God) beyond immediacies. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Hazikaron is “Day of pointing” — apt for the new year that points backward and forward, and draws attention to who we humans are in the infinity of time.

  4. Rabbi Hoffman,
    I very much enjoyed your post and especially its intent, in part at least, to counter the anthropomorphic representation of God. At the same time, your post raises a question that I have been puzzling over for some time now, vis, the relationship between hope and faith. Perhaps you’d like to comment?
    You wrote:

    Redemption is the realization that over the long run, purpose within pattern gives us the right to hope.

    But, isn’t the presence of hope an indicator of a lack of faith? Surely hoping to be redeemed isn’t the same as having faith that one will be redeemed — Is it? Here’s an analogy that I offer to provide some context:
    The odds of winning the Powerball lottery is hundreds of millions to one — Impossibly high. Now, my faith in the mathematics of probability tells me not to waste my money on a ticket. Still, my hope for a winning ticket overrides my faith (and good sense).
    The presence of hope is inversely proportional to the strength of one’s faith. Please don’t misunderstand me. Hope is surely necessary for a well-ordered and joyful life, but I question its use as a synonym for faith (which is how I understood your statement I quoted above). To this end, I would probably have expressed your sentence this way:

    Redemption is the realization that over the long run, purpose within pattern gives us faith.

    I am truly struck by the eloquence of your phrase purpose within pattern — But I see that as a reason for faith, not hope.
    Blessings,

    Michael
    FYI: I am defining faith, here, in the Hebraic sense — of conviction, firmness, certainty (Heb emuna)

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