Open Letter To My Students 22: “Imagine That”

Jack London’s famous short story (“To Build a Fire”) tells the chilling tale of a solitary hiker traversing the Yukon at fifty degrees below zero. He is an experienced guide, knows all the tricks of survival, has trekked the freezing wilderness again and again; but this time, he miscalculates, runs out of matches, cannot light a fire, and dies. “He was,” says London, “quick and alert in the things of life but only in the things, and not in the significances…. He had no imagination.” He knew how cold it was. But he did not then “meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon human frailty in general… and from there, to the conjectural field of immortality and the human place in the universe.”

Here are two levels of imagination. Elemental self-preservation requires the first: to meditate on our “frailty as a creature of temperature.” Religion raises the second: “human frailty in general… and the conjectural field of immortality and the human place in the universe.”

Religion is a sort of imagination. It is the study of significances. It is a flight of fancy, but not fantasy. It is the positing of a connective tissue behind and beyond phenomena, what used to be called metaphysics – which is why religion fell out of favor altogether, when science came into being. In London’s story, human “frailty as creatures of temperature” is physics; “the conjectural field of immortality and the human place in the universe” is metaphysics. It is precisely metaphysical significance that religion stops to ponder. 

Take the quintessentially Jewish field of Halakhah for example. On the surface, it is just a set of rules for life.  But it is much more. When a halakhic mind encounters a mountain, says the Rav [Joseph B. Soloveitchik], it calculates “the measurements which determine a private domain: a sloping mound that retains a height of 10 handbreadths within a distance of 4 cubits.” At stake is the Shabbat regulation against carrying things — a form of “work.” We may carry within a private domain, our home. But we may also (for example) link together lampposts with a wire, as an imaginary artificial wall surrounding a larger space that contains our home, and in theory extends it. A mountain cliff as part of that surrounding wall will do as well, but when does a hill with a slope become a mountain with a cliff? 

The athletic imagination sees the slope as a potential ski run: that’s physics. But carrying from private to public domains as forbidden Shabbat work? A mountainside but not a hilly slope as a valid boundary to the private? Pure metaphysics. 

Once you get the idea, examples proliferate. Food is not just healthy or unhealthy, but also permitted or forbidden. And time is not empty. It comes loaded with responsibilities: when to pray or light candles; when funerals can be held but not with eulogies; when marriages are permitted or forbidden.

I have always had a high regard for this. I have loved the idea of a world filled with divine secrets, both the scientific kind, and the parallel track, if you like, for Jews to calculate. But I could not convince myself of the metaphysical truth behind the halakhic system and I was unwilling to live by it just because it is “tradition.” 

That is precisely how Reform started some 200 years ago. Science and reason had stripped away the believability of the halakhic metaphysic. In sociologist Max Weber’s famous terms, the world became “disenchanted.”

But those very same founders retained – indeed , they insisted on — another kind of metaphysics, the matters of ultimate meaning: Why are we born? What is the point of life? How do we confront tragedy? What can we say about God? Do we have a soul? Without the Halakhic metaphysic, they doubled down on the Theological one — whereas our generation has thrown out metaphysics altogether. Our congregants are becoming like London’s hiker: out loud, at least, and in public, they fail to meditate on “human frailty in general… and from there … to the conjectural field of immortality and the human place in the universe” – but only because their synagogues are places where such questions are rarely entertained. 

Yes, a handful of people take a course in God or ethics. But you can attend services a very long time, without ever encountering the Jewish metaphysical substratum upon which Reform Judaism is built; and without it, being Reform is just a matter of taste: you like the music; the people are nice; you have fun Friday night. I worry that we have domesticated Reform Judaism; it’s a nice pet to have around. 

It should be clear by now that the metaphysic I am talking about *is Theology (with a capital T), by which I mean three things. 

1. theology (with a small t):  what we think about God — what Protestant theologian Paul Tillich nicely labelled, our “ultimate concern” 

2. religious anthropology: human nature. 

3. religious cosmology: the kind of world in which we find ourselves and in which we must make our way. 

Are there moments in life when we have experienced something we might call the presence of God (theology)? Are people good or bad? Does life have a purpose, or are we just accidents of nature (anthropology)? Is the world friendly to our aspirations? Are the laws of ethics absolute like the laws of nature? Do the Jewish People have a role in human history? Does history even matter? Is there such a thing as progress (cosmology)?

I do not delude myself into thinking that everyone we meet walks around with heavy Theological questions driving their day. They want a Judaism that is joyous and synagogues that embrace them. And to our credit, we have spent almost forty years developing both: joyous services where greeters welcome newcomers; the clergy smile; the band plays klezmer; people yell out mazal tov moments. We are a healing community too; we pray for the sick and suffering. This is all to the good. People want and deserve all this: at a minimum. 

But the synagogue must be more than minimum: more than a good time on select Friday nights, more even than classes for which few people have the time or patience. It must reflect religion’s promise of “moreness”: the reality of transcendence, the centrality of history, a purpose behind Jewish Peoplehood; an ethic to guide and sustain us; the imperative of hope (even, and especially, when reasons are scarce); and a way to meet death when it comes (as it most assuredly will), with tranquility of mind. 

Our synagogues must engender, and our clergy must personify, the Jewish Theological imagination — not as dogma, but as depth. We do need a caring community; but a caring community that cares enough to invite and to embody questions of ultimacy. 

2 responses to “Open Letter To My Students 22: “Imagine That”

  1. Arlene Michalovitz

    Thank you Rabbi I crave deeper meaning from Judaism too
    A happy, healthy New year to you!

  2. Arlene Michalovitz

    Thank you Rabbi great article I crave deeper meaning from Judaism too
    A happy, healthy New year to you!

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