10 June 2009

What Can Be

The choice between truth and love.

So it goes in an early midrash about the creation story that I've been studying with bar and bat mitzvah students over the last couple weeks. It's text that evokes great discussion about the formation of one's moral universe, though I've yet to meet a seventh grader who proclaims that his or her moral universe is in formation.


Rabbi Simon said: 'When the Holy One was about to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and companies, some of them saying, "Let him be created!" while others urged, "Let him not be created!" Thus it is written in Psalms, "Love and truth fought together (met), righteousness and peace combated each other (kissed)." (Psalm 85.11) Love said, "Let him be created because he will create acts of love." Truth said, "Let him not be created, because all of him will be falsehood." Righteousness said, "Let him be created because he will do righteous deeds." Peace said, "Let him not be created, because he will be all strife."

What did the Holy One do? He took truth and cast it to the ground. The ministering angels said, "Master of the universe, why do you humiliate your own seal--since Truth is the Seal of God? Let truth rise up from the earth! Hence it is written, "Let truth spring up from the earth." (Psalm 85.12)

The elder Rabbi Huna of Sepphoris said, "While the ministering angels were parleying with one another and disputing with one another, the Holy One created Adam and then said, "What are you talking about? Man is already made!"

I love this text for its theological realism. While on one hand it leans heavily on the idea that God seems to cast truth to the ground, relying ultimately on love and the measure of mercy (in Rabbi Simon's opinion), the elder Rabbi Huna seems to be arguing that the two qualities--truth and love--are and forever shall be in opposition or at least a dialectical tension with one another. (Again, it bears repeating, I've yet to meet a seventh grader who articulates a dialectical tension in his formative religious outlook but it's there! It's there!)

There are multiple ways in which this tension reveals itself in a religious community. There could be workplace issues; needs for therapeutic and pastoral intervention; unkind behavior or comments from one member to another--any number of scenarios in which the tension exists between truth and love as construction tools of building and forming community that require a precise hand in choosing which to use at the right time.

Interestingly--so go grab your Bibles, people--Psalm 85 is about the poet imagining God's critical decision to turn back His anger from the people and restore them to the land. What the rabbis do with it in the midrash above is take the words, to some degree, out of their context and use it to make a theological argument. The Psalmist, however, expresses gratitude that God didn't obliterate the people all-together for their generally abysmal behavior and instead, in restoring the people to the land of Israel, united love and truth, peace and justice. Rashi points out that this is an imagined vista in which an ideal society is made by the wedded views of peace and justice kissing one another! He references Isaiah 33, a prophecy all about reconciliation with God after sinful and abusive behavior.

Why do the rabbis in the midrash take "meet" and "kiss," the words clearly used in the Psalm, and choose to translate them as "fought together" and "combated each other?"

I think it has something to do with the overly familiar and often-times to intimate and even disdainful engagement that we Jews have with one another. Ordinary encounters, meant to be rooted in acts of lovingkindess, became settings for passive-aggressive behavior, outright anger, and sometimes even abuse. It's one of those dark corners of organized Jewish life that bears shedding light on because it can be restorative to admit what goes on in the hopes that the process of making a holy community can be restorative.

The rabbis, ever realist, know what IS. Isaiah and the Psalmist strive for what CAN BE.

The Psalmist: "Love and truth meet; justice and peace kiss. Truth springs from the earth; justice looks down from heaven. The Eternal bestows His bounty; our land yields its produce. Justice goes before Him as He sets out on His way."



David S said...

Precise observations.

And relevant.

David S said...

I think intra-Jewish relations are like one big group therapy experiment with more than one facilitator.

That's what makes them all the more invigorating and crazy.

IN some ways, Obama is taking on the roll of behavioural facilitator in "settlement relations". He's shaking things up to create motion. And it's not easy for some of us (including me)when an outsider does that.

He expects the backlash, I'm sure. But it's already having it's desired effect.

It's a lot to put on the group's plate at once, on top of the various other issues.

But we can handle it. We will do it.