12 August 2015

Skeptically Enwrapped

During the High Holy Days of 2013, I decided to share a personal sermon about the ways in which I struggled mightily with my faith during the year that my mother died after a seven year fight against cancer.  As an experience, it was easy to write and hard to deliver, so weighted with emotion and an inner terror that I was revealing too much to those in attendance who, on the holiest day of the year, look to their rabbis for stability, promise, and depth of faith.

But I knew I couldn't stand before them and "confess" as the tradition demands of us as the service leaders; I knew I couldn't represent the community with integrity, through the agency of liturgical drama, without total honesty.  After all, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem in ancient days, the High Priest would confess his own sins before God along with those of the community and so one of the sacrifices I needed to lay on the altar of our community's offering was my own doubt.  I knew, both intuitively and from numerous conversations with members over the years, that doubt plagues all of us.  Many look right past it and build structures of meaning in their lives beyond faith; others double-down on faith in order to crush or silence the doubt; and still more look into doubt's face, call God into question for the experience of His seeming absence and decide, as I had, to fight back.

One morning, unaware of the obvious tension and anger coursing through my hands and arms and head -- the wrapping hands, the leathered arm, the in-between eyes squinting into the glare of endless questions bound up in obligation to God -- but cognizant of my place at the frontline of this battle, the leather strap of the tefilin snapped in my hands.  I pulled so hard at that tenuous connection that it broke.

I rooted the rupture in an incident 18 months earlier.  My brother and I were bathing our mother from the devastation that the chemotherapy had wrought on her fragile body.  I felt radically loving toward her and furious with God.  The tear of the tefilin straps represented for me true doubt.  Here's what I wrote:

That’s when my Atheism crept in.  

I began to allow myself to rebel.  My brother was silent and devoted and I was furious at God for allowing such a kind and decent person to suffer.  Not just now at the end of her life but at the beginning.  And in the middle.  The famous Talmudic legend of the Messiah cleaning and bandaging the wounds of the sick at the gates of the city fell flat.  I took off my Tefilin.  I stopped praying.  I felt like a fraud and a fake leading services on Shabbat.  I wondered if families knew?  If there was a Golem like ALEF on my forehead, seen by all.  “Mi chamocha be’elim?”  Who is like you among the gods? sang Bnai Yisrael after their escape from Egypt.  But the Sages, having witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, said, “Mi chamocha be’ilmim?”  Who is like you among the deaf?  You, God, ignore suffering.  You’re powerless to stop it.  And I joined that accusation.
It was there I remained.  If not atheist, certainly agnostic.  Too wounded to speak to God.  The bindedness of obligation a shadow, at best.  The funeral I ran on fumes. The high of seeing family and old friends, of the absorption into sympathy.  I said Kaddish at my grandparents shul in Milwaukee and came back to Brooklyn to the embrace of this generous and remarkable community.  The outpouring of support was fundamentally beautiful and restorative.  But my faith was shattered.

The torn Tefilin strap from the arm; the ש for God's name on the head Tefilin transformed to the monstrously destructive א of the Golem.  I was in new, terrifying territory.


My friend Rabbi David Kedmi told me at Shiva that "when our parents die, we still have Moses our Teacher to talk to."  And that line sustained me.  Teaching and doing deeds of lovingkindness were the floor beneath my feet.  My friend Mishael Zion reminded me that sometimes our job is not to wait for God to seek us out but for us to demand for God's presence in His absence.

I weighed these two ideas in the balance for the better part of two years and then finally decided this summer in Jerusalem that it was time for a new set of Teflilin.  I met a wonderful Sofer named Steve Bar Yakov Gindi, a member of the Syrian Jewish community from Brooklyn who has been living in Israel for many years now.  We spent the better part of two hours together over three visits, talking, laughing, and, at his urging, creating the Tefilin together.

There was something so irreducibly reparative about fulfilling this mitzvah, of helping to write and sew together the material that would then, after a three year absence, bring me back in to conversation with God.

Here are couple of photographs from our sessions.

Adding crowns to the letters of the Shma

Securing one scroll with calve's hair

The finished product
On the day the Sofer delivered to me the Tefilin, an oppressively hot Jerusalem Tuesday, with our staff and Fellows still reeling from the horrific killings at the Gay Pride Parade and in the Palestinian village of Duma, each of us searching high and low for God in what seemed like an exceptionally cruel world, I began to share with the Bronfman Youth Fellows this story of the Tefilin.  And while sitting in front of these outstanding, searching, kind-hearted seventeen year olds, I remembered back to my own youth, to a story that Abraham Joshua Heschel tells in his book about the Hasidic masters Baal Shem Tov and Menachem Mendl of Kotzk and their divergent views about God's nearness to man.  The book is called A Passion for Truth.

Heschel tells the story of his friend "Mr. Sh. Z. Shragai," a Jewish Agency representative who traveled back to Poland and German after the Holocaust to facilitate the movement of Jews from Displaced Persons Camps to either Israel or other places willing to take these refugees from the horrors of the war.  Shragai described to Heschel that a poor Jew, with a small sack, joined him in his train car as they traveled from Warsaw to Paris.  Each evening and morning, Shragai would pray but the poor Jew refused.  When asked why he said, "I am never going to pray anymore because of what happened to us in Auschwitz...How could pray?  That is why I did not pray all day."

But when Shragai woke up the following morning, he noticed that the man had gotten up first and was wearing Tallis and Tefilin, saying his prayers.  When Shragai asked what happened, he replied, "It suddenly dawned on me to think how lonely God must be; look with whom he is left.  I felt sorry for Him."

How lonely God must be.  With our disdain for his absence and those among us whose disdain for others absence Him.

Part of faith, I have come to realize, is comprised of the component pieces of explaining things to ourselves and others, and building worlds upon those bricks, those truths.

If God was anywhere when my mother suffered, He was in the hands and hearts of her daughters and sons and family and caregivers who helped usher her, compassionately, to the door of death.  If God was anywhere when Shira Banki was stabbed and killed in the Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem, He was present in the moral outrage at the murder, at the civic failure in not tracking a dangerous, fanatical man; and in the fearless expressions of hope and love for all those who love, regardless of who they love.  And if God was anywhere when members of the Dawabshah family were killed by fire at the hands of evil youth deluded in their thinking that they were fulfilling God's will, God was in the still small voices of compassion and love and condolence as well as in the moral outrage that justice must be done.

To carry out such acts in the name of Torah is to erase God's name from our holiest of books.

Having come back in to conversation following a three year protest, my faithfully fragile certainties are bruised and battered.  But wrapped in words worn and spoken by those who generations came before me, provides a humbling comfort.

One of the verses from Torah in Tefilin speaks of placing the words of God's oneness "on" our hearts, not "in" our hearts.  The Kotzker Rabbi, writes Heschel, explained that it is absurd to think one can have Truth "in" one's heart--given that our hearts are often such compromised and troubled places. Rather, he said, Truth should be like a stone "on" our hearts because there were moments when the heart opened up and if the Stone of Truth was there, those words might seep in.  Heschel said, "One could become a different person, one realized what to do, what to correct...and the words were absorbed into one's very being."

The Stone of Truth on my heart demands an expression of gratitude for friends, family and teachers, who listened, as we all must, when one seeks repair.  The Stone of Truth demands as well, especially for those in our world whose hearts are hardened in hatred and who do acts of evil in the name of their god, that Truths are spoken neither thrown, whetted at the end of a knife, or set ablaze by delusion. I pray, skeptically enwrapped, with words again on my heart, that we may merit finding a path to peace.

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