The Binding of Isaac

The Binding of Isaac (Akedah Genesis 22:1-24)

by

Howard Adelman

It is not enough that the parsha of the past week (Vayera Genesis 18-22) is an amalgam of so many short stories – the strangers who visit Abraham and ask after his wife; the story of Sodom and Gomorrah; the miraculous birth of Isaac and the expulsion of Sarah and Ishmael as well as the concluding binding of Isaac – but the key and final one has so many different inconsistent interpretations at the same time as it is generally regarded as the central and most important narrative of Judaism. Let me begin with a simplistic classification of various interpretations, simplistic because it emphasizes differences more than overlaps, and simplistic because it ignores the many variations within each type. Keep in mind that hermeneutics cannot be separated from the interpretations and lessons for life implied in the different interpretations.

I Ethical Superiority

One of the strongest traditions of interpretation is to regard the story as a tale of the superiority of Israelites compared to the surrounding tribes and the superiority of the Jewish God to competitors such as Baal. Non-Israelites sacrificed children to their god; the Hebrews did not. This story is the instantiation of that ethic. Abraham’s action is one of obedience, but not of blind obedience. The tension exists between two imperatives at work in Abraham – the imperative of faith and the imperative of love for his son. Man’s inner conscience is reconciled with God’s will where a balance is struck between the divine and the human.

However, the emphasis is on God’s original intention rather than on an evolving ethos in which humans play a major role. Obedience is favoured because ritual observance is at risk if the priority is not given to obedience. themselves embody the tension rather than overcoming them. Though that law is fallible, it is still rooted in divine authority that demands respect even as one debates the meaning and implications.

II Evolutionary Ethics

The above position is criticized for stressing the binding of Isaac as akin to the binding of all Jews to follow traditional Halakhah. This evolutionary ethical school tends to emphasize reason over obedience and takes ritualist observance off its lofty pedestal for a number of reasons. In the contemporary world, for most Jews observance and adherence to Jewish values are weakened rather than strengthened by emphasizing strict obedience. Further, norms have different roles and interpretations in different historical and cultural contexts. They are justified by a multiplicity of values and adherence requires an act of balancing rather than repression. Further, as historical relics, they do not in the end represent original law but an accumulation of which much may be detritus.

The ancient Israelites engaged in child sacrifice. Many of the biblically mandated laws reflect the social values of the time. The issue is not Israelite superiority at the time, but the revelation of a divine direction over time as we morally intuit or use reason in interpreting Torah to discover our moral compass and comprehend the divine will. In that context, the story reflects an internal tension among the Hebrews between values that condoned child sacrifice and values that viewed child sacrifice as immoral. The lesson is not one of obedience through which one can discover God’s will, but the question and inquiry about that will as discovered through the interpretation of the narrative. In asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, what does God want of Abraham?

Thus, the tension in the story is between the antiquarian notion of absolute obedience, even in following an authoritative command that is clearly intuited as wrong, and the emerging ethos of mercy, charity and justice. The Akedah does not endorse blind obedience but insisted that obedience had to be balanced with mercy and a sense of justice. In the first version above of the tension, that of ethical superiority, obedience emerges on top. In the second version, the vote is cast in favour of human choice and sense of ethical responsibility. Thus, in both I and II, there is a partnership of man and God. In the second, the Torah is dynamic and allows for understanding and comprehending how rationality and faith can be reconciled, but in favour of reason. In the first, there is also not an either/or but a both/and wherein obedience has the upper hand.

III Evolutionary Mysticism

Evolutionary mysticism offers a radical contrast of the above two positions which view Abraham as an agent who can run on two tracks – express absolute service to God’s commands and act to balance a call for absolute obedience with an ethic of mercy and justice. Evolutionary mystical interpretations of the story offer a totally contrasting cosmology rooted in Neoplatonism and the fundamental structure of most eastern religions. A mainstream of this Jewish mysticism can be found in Hasidism and those followers of Kaballah who see the Hebrew alphabet as the key to unlocking the mysteries of Torah.

An enlightenment modern orthodox interpretation, as in the example of I above, holds that God, and the norms God bequeaths to the Israelites through the law, through Halakha, are expressions of God’s power. God demands absolute obedience even at the risk of violence and bloodshed. God is all powerful and wholly other. In that view, Abraham, in complying with God’s commands, gave testimony to such a faith even in the most excruciating case possible, a willingness to kill his one son delivered to him by a miracle in Sarah’s old age. Normal human sympathies stand at odds to obedience. Abraham demonstrates his faith through obedience and the divine reveals Himself to be a God of mercy and justice, staying Abraham’s hand.

In contrast, version II suggests that Halakha (and Torah) is sometimes immoral and that it is the responsibility of humans through their actions and interpretations of God’s will to put in place a higher morality that is part of God’s intention, if not of his apparent convictions at one point in history. The emphasis is on God’s self-revelation over time. Halakha can be immoral when it complies with a predominant morality and ethos of the time. It is the duty of humans to look into the pattern of revelation and intuit or discern God’s intention. The position, in lacking a transcendent moral compass, risks interpreting what ought to be by what is.

Evolutionary mystical interpretations of the Akeda story takes no such risk, not by expressing the absolute transcendence of God to the natural world, as in modern orthodoxy, or interpreting history as the dialectical realization of the tension between the two in favour of the emergence of a higher morality, but through a religion that unites the natural and the transcendent by making the latter fully immanent in this world in a religion of interiority as Peter Singer characterizes all mystical religious expressions. Religion is not about confrontation. Religion is not about reconciliation. Religion is about the process of harmonizing the human and the divine which are never really at odds, for the goal is facilitating the dissolution of the self in the oneness of God.

Thus, Judaism is not a story of the war between God and Baal, nor the story of how a tribe which, on the popular level, shared in the practices of Baal overcame those practices to achieve a higher ethical order, but a tale of the unity of the natural and the divine, a unity in difference, a world which in all its expressions are projections of one divine being that allows the isolated self to be absorbed in a greater unity.

In the writings of Milt Markewitz or Ken Hoffman (http://natureslanguage.com/stories/7-the-binding-of-isaac), Abraham travelled from Kadish to Shir as primarily a time of interior reflection and transformation more that a physical movement towards the mountain on which he would bind Isaac and offer his son as a sacrifice to God. The Hebrew language, and Hebrew letters more particularly, express the revelation of the one divine cosmic force that allows for rebirth in a transformed self that now enjoys a oneness with God. In the story of the binding of Isaac, the confrontational character of Abraham’s relationship with God is finally overcome. “abc

Without getting into the details and the structure of the mode of Kabbalistic interpretation, and without tasking the reader with any effort to make the interpretation clear, but to get the flavour of the interpretation, a few quotes convey the cosmological order and this hermeneutical method shown by “the Dallet in the word Kadish, and …the Vav in the word Shir,” the latter an expression of the cosmic force that facilitates a new birth, the coming into being of a new person. Instead of the divine and the human existing in tension, the story is a tale of their combination, of their merger. “This famous Biblical story is generally understood to be about G*d asking Abraham, Isaac’s father, to sacrifice Isaac. The name of this Torah portion is Aiqidat and when we look at the Hebrew spelling, there is both the recurring pattern and insight into the essence of the story…The two Cosmological forces Tav—birth, and Qof–the lifedeath-life cycle, combine to create Archetypal birth–Dallet, from which Existential possibility–Ayn, and life-death-life—Yod, emerge. Clearly, we have a story about birth, driven by cosmological forces, and full of life and possibilities.” In this interpretation, Abraham is in constant communion with God through nature.

“Revelation was facilitated by our Hebrew language, in which each character is a sacred geometry of sound and shape—a symbiotic energy with every other character. The language kept us deeply connected to place both locally and globally, as well as to time—past, present and future—from which emerged the ethics of how we must live each day. It was this language that informed us of our cosmology, and our responsibility to maintain the balance and harmony with which we are blessed.” “Hebrew is no longer a shamanic language–the characters exist as letters but their energy and meaning has been lost. Also, our oral tradition has been largely replaced with the written word. Without the language and the conversations, we’ve lost the capacity for deep understanding. You read the Torah as if you know it is Truth, but the Truth has been obscured by written words that lack energy, and, paradoxically, an ambiguity that is necessary if our stories are to retain their essence.”

A story which appears to be about a father commanded by God to kill his son is really a story about revelation, a successful test of adversity overcome to ensure perpetuation.

IV Pietism: The Story as a Conundrum of Faith

In this version, God is inscrutable. Why would He order his singular acolyte to sacrifice his beloved son who is born only through the grace of God rather than any natural pattern? Abraham obeys without challenge or question. The narrative is the ultimate expression of piety. As in the mystical version, a personal transformation takes place. There is a spiritual rebirth and renewal. But it rests not in the mystical meaning of the language of the story, but in solid everyday practices of piety and devotion, an emphasis which emerges from the tradition of the Lutheran pietism of Sören Kierkegaard who was brought up in a Moravian household that resisted the imposition of “new” catechisms and hymns that were more in tune with the times and spoke to how people behaved in ordinary life. For Kierkegaard, religion was not a mechanism for being uplifted, but a means to challenge one’s complacency and become aware of the extraordinary demands God presents to humans.

First, there is a revolt against any of the various forms of intellectual understanding of the story, whether via a mystic understanding of the secrets of the Hebrew language and its letters, an ethical comprehension of an unveiling of higher norms in history or traditional rabbinic commentaries on text that reconcile the ethical and the divine which openly stand in tension. In the existential pietism of Kierkegaard, the emphasis is on faith versus reason. What God has asked Abraham to do is absolutely unreasonable. So why in Abraham’s evident willingness to kill his own son is Abraham treated as a great prophet and closer to God than anyone except Jesus?

As in the mystical interpretation of the tale, in Kierkegaard there is an emphasis on inwardness, but not an inwardness that leads to a reunion with an all-encompassing divine cosmic force, but an inwardness expressed in decisions and actions. Abraham is not engaged in a mystical exercise. He decides to do what God tells him to do. He collects the wood. He musters his servants. He travels for three days. But in the process, he experiences not a lifting of the self into a transcendent sphere, but an immersion into the angst of the human-all-too-human. Kierkegaard in his midrash reimagines the utter despair of Abraham caught between his absolute faith in God and his total devotion of and love for his son.

True and deep religion is not reconcilable with reason but rather challenges reason’s claim on absolute authority. God is not a god of reason but a god that demands a commitment of faith by those who worship at God’s feet. The issue was not adapting the church to conform to the conventional, but challenging believers to understand the profundity and the terror of what was being asked of them.

In that sense, the Abraham of Fear and Trembling is the archetypal religious figure. Abraham is a “knight of faith,” not because he challenges the predominant ethos of Baal at the time, not because he serves as a step in the emergence of a higher ethos, not because his trip is a mystical much more than a physical one in which he is transformed and allowed to become one with the divine, but one who recognizes that what God has asked him to do is totally unethical. The test of faith is whether one is willing to obey God even when one knows that the commandment goes against all common sense, all decency and is even a betrayal of the covenant God once made with Abraham. The story is one of a teleological suspension of the ethical as Abraham absolutely submits to God’s will which is not only unreasonable but insists that reason itself must be set aside if one’s faith is being tested.

What is a contemporary Jew to make of such a schism between the realm of faith and the realm of reason and ethics? More specifically, what is a Jew to do with Kierkegaard’s portrayal of Isaac as one who does not accept his father’s behaviour but is more than bewildered? Isaac cringes. Isaac begs for his life to be spared. Isaac appeals to the memories of the joys they had together. Abraham both consoled his son and admonished him. And Isaac could not understand his father’s decisions and actions.

Isaac is portrayed as the snivelling, cowardly and conniving Jew who will use anything to save his own life and can never understand his father. And Abraham acts (it is a performance) like a wild rogue and sacrifices his son’s belief in him so that Isaac can retain his faith in God. Jews are descended of this failure to take the leap of faith by Isaac that Abraham took.

Yeshayahu Leibowitz ignored this pietist depiction of Jewish failure to accept a God who would sacrifice his only son so that humans can be saved. Leibowitz ignored the barely latent antisemitism of the interpretation. In Leibowitz’s existentialist re-interpretation of Kierkegaard’s version, unlike previously, Abraham was silenced when ordered to sacrifice his own son. Abraham does not confront God for His contradictory behaviour and the apparent emptiness of his promises. Leibowitz offers a Jewish version of unconditional faith not bound by accepted moral norms.

In contrast, and in the name of one version of evolutionary ethics, David Hartman accepted this existentialist interpretation of the tale, but challenged the binding of Isaac as the archetypal core of religious life in which Jewish survival depended upon surrender and total obedience to God’s will requiring the suspension of one’s reason and one’s ethical convictions. Instead, the archetypal story is that of Sodom and Gomorrah where Abraham challenges God with a call of the ethical. Abraham in obeying God’s crazy command is a madman who is unable to question or challenge God; he is not an exemplar of faith and courage.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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The Underpinnings of Canada’s Civic Religion

The Underpinnings of Canada’s Civic Religion

by

Howard Adelman

Last week in Ottawa, I attended an interfaith conference called, “Our Whole Society: Religion and Citizenship at Canada’s 150th.” My talk, indeed the panel I was on, addressed the issue of immigration and refugees. A short report on my talk can be found in Peter Stockland’s article, “How Faith Fosters Civility,” in the magazine, Convivium, 19 May 2017:  https://www.convivium.ca/articles/how-faith-fosters-civility. I will elaborate on the talk I gave in a subsequent blog.

There are five in this series:

  1. Underpinnings
  2. Undercutting and Reinforcing
  3. Democratic Deficit
  4. Political Communication
  5. Canada’s Civic Religion

In this blog, I want to deal with the presumptions underpinning my observations of Canada’s civic religion. If you are disinterested in philosophical grounding, skip this blog. In subsequent blogs in the series, I will point to the conclusions of various communication sciences to indicate why the values of Canada’s civic religion, as best articulated in interfaith dialogue, will not save Canada from the disaster afflicting America. Only then will I provide a more comprehensive articulation of the norms of that civic religion and offer a critique.

The term “civic religion” may seem inherently contradictory. After all, we live in the Western world where there is a strict separation of religion and the state. Civic, in the sense used here, refers to civic duties of citizens of a state. Thus, we have a moral duty to vote, not as an inherent belief of one’s religion, but as a member of a democratic polity. Civic duties are about this world. Religious duties are often conceived to be about the world to come or about the transcendental power of a divine being that manifests itself in different beliefs and practices and, indeed, worship. Reason is purportedly the language of politics; faith is the language of religion. That religion has values which are used to inform conduct in this world. However, it is precisely this separation of the religious and secular worlds that is in play.

Immanuel Kant wrote that his efforts were undertaken to define the boundaries of reason and of knowledge to make room for faith. But his perspective shifted over his period of intellectual development. After the peak of his intellectual output for which he is best known, his voluminous three Critiques, published between 1787 and 1790, propounded the view in the preface to the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason that, “I have therefore found it necessary to deny knowledge, in order to make room for faith.” Subsequently, his definition of limits to reason and knowledge to make room for faith began to make room for a more subversive position. He asserted that religion was and had to be rational and had to provide the foundations of our values. Religion permeated civil and political society to constitute the core values of a society. God emerged from this intellectual journey as immanent rather than transcendent. This series of blogs is an exploration of how this took place in Canada.

There are many reasons offered for this shift, including non-rational ones, such as his resentment against the Prussian Junkers under Frederick William II for attempting to censor his writings on religion – Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. There were also cultural influences – his initial pietism stressing biblical study and moral behaviour, but later rejection of the side of pietism that celebrated external religious displays. His inherited Enlightenment convictions concerning the rule of reason led first to his rejection of creationism, and later his rejection of the belief that religion, and even science as a pursuit rather than a method, could be founded on reason alone. He became convinced that a rationally-based religion was not possible; religion was a matter of non-rational faith and had to retreat to make room for the universal truths of Newtonian science as he pursued the goal of rooting science in reason alone independent of an omniscient and perfect divine being. Finally, there was also the influence of Hume’s scepticism that rooted both religious faith and even scientific pursuits on habits forged by history and culture.

How are the dimensions of reason and empiricism, as well as reason and faith, reconciled? As he articulated his doctrine in his triad of great books, the Critiques, the reconciliation lay in the necessary preconditions for both faith and reason, of both empirical (the premise of causation) and deductive methods. For all were rooted in the necessary conditions for any thinking as revealed in his unique transcendental method that allowed for faith outside but ethical behaviour within the bounds of reason. Scientific reason, moral behaviour and practical judgement, even as they relied on experiential input, were all based fundamentally on a priori premises that were universally valid and a precondition of any thought whatsoever.

What emerged was the development of an ethical religion. For an adherent, it did not matter whether one was a Jew or a Lutheran. Both could worship the same God in defence of the same set of values that were themselves as universal as any religious creed. Establishment Jews in large numbers in Germany – the Polanyi, the Stern, the Baum families, abut whom I have been writing – converted to Lutheranism to practice the common ethical moralism of German society, ignoring entirely the deep roots of antisemitism in the writings of Martin Luther, the founder of that church. Of course, conversion also was opportunistic since the formal rules often banned Jews from taking up professorships in universities at one time. Karl Polanyi would develop an ethical economics, Fritz Stern an ethical history of Germany, Gregory Baum an ethical sociology and theology. Kant had introduced a seismic revolution for both Christianity and Judaism to allow both to live on the surface in imperfect harmony.

The superficiality of that harmony was revealed by Hegel and was ripped asunder by Friedrich Nietzsche. Emil Fackenheim, in The Religious Dimensions of Hegel’s Thought, pointed out that Hegel’s central critique of Kant was that the latter had failed, and failed absolutely, to reconcile faith and reason. And not just in thought, but in political and religious institutions. Kant facilitated mindblindness. Revolutionary forces were underway and Kant provided a rationale that allowed a positive ethical external religion to provide a cover that left the dynamics of ecstasy and action as well as the enthusiastic creative energy of spirit behind. Life throbbed. Kant only offered lifeless thought.

Hegel showed that philosophy, rather than being divorced from history in abstract thought, was, and had to be, understood as thoroughly rooted in context. Time and space were not abstract dimensions of sensibility and thought, but the experiential realities from which even barren thought arose. History was about resolving incongruences, not just the abstract ones at the core of Kantianism. History was about desire and passion, about power and economic needs, and, in the end, about conflict between old, outmoded institutions and the demands (and shortcomings) of the new. Philosophy was historical, not ahistorical. Further, life and philosophy were inherently religious as will become clear by the end of this series of blogs. And the comprehending activity of religion had itself to be critiqued and comprehended. The absolute was with us in every age and time and we comprehend the divine and the shortcomings of our comprehension through the examination of the absolutes of our time.

All our gods, all our absolutes, have failed and must be resurrected anew for each period. Judaism, unlike the Christianity of Kant’s Prussia or the Weimar Republic over a century later, understood that all these gods were different aspects of the one God that revealed himself in history while Christianity was a repeated effort to flee that insight, to flee its basic foundation, in favour of Greek abstract and ahistorical thought and theology. In reality, God descends, becomes immanent and sacrifices Himself in different modes in different times. Those who dub this as a progressive transformation are blind to the destructive forces let loose by the process of transformation as we experience at each stage the death of god and are required to go through a period of suffering and sacrifice.

In Hegel’s time, and in our own almost universally, man has once again repeated the ultimate sin, the sin of idolatry, the sin of narcissism, the sin of regarding and worshipping himself as divine. The alternative to the vision of an omniscient and omnipotent god need not be worship of the self and the ability of the individual to engage in self-realization and self-transformation. The latter sin and that idolatry, as well as the cover up for it, must be observed in the particulars of our time and the thought in which and through which history is understood and reflected. What we must search for and uncover is the partiality of all thought. Every attempt to comprehend it all will be doomed to be shattered as much as we may have faith in its overarching vision. Spirit itself as revealed in time is always partial and explains why we can never see and confront the face of God head on.

At the very beginning of the nineteenth century, Hegel defended twelve theses at a formal Disputation to earn his right to offer university lectures. The problem of philosophy was not the search for eternal and infinite wisdom, but the effort to reconcile the vision of the perfect with the reality of the imperfect, insisting that Kant had become frozen in carrying through the radicalism of Hume’s scepticism and had carried rational philosophy to a dead end by finding an absolute in itself, and becoming uncritical of itself.

In Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the last section follows the section on Spirit with a portion on Religion, that discusses how we manifest our abstract religious beliefs and values in everyday life. Consciousness is institutionalized. And consciousness is merely the reflection of and reflection into human experience. Morality that is certain of itself becomes the distillation of that religious consciousness.

If Marx became the anti-Hegel by sacrificing religion in worship of the material realm, Nietzsche became the anti-Hegel by sacrificing religion to save spirit. Nietzsche’s enemy was Christianity, that element of and phase of Judaism that failed to recover from its exile in Babylon and return. Instead, Judaism turned inwards and became frightened. Nietzsche challenged the retreat into oneself in favour of the transvaluation of values, in favour of radical inversion of morality managed solely by the heroic individual. Instead, he opted to return to a form of paganism as he expressed in Ecce Homo, the need to develop a new breed of men, an elite, not one that led the workers of the world in revolt, but ones dedicated to taking humanity to a higher level. The premise, which challenged both the Judeo-Christian precepts and Kantian morality, was a denial, not simply as Hegel contended that humans were unequal in different ways at different times in their spiritual epic journey, but that salvation, as Marx insisted, depended on an avant-garde, an elite that led humanity into transforming itself fundamentally.

In Nietzsche’s view, Judaism once embraced this spirit of conquest, this consciousness of the necessity of power, both over others and to transform oneself, and the joy and hope to be found therein. But that spirit of self-transformation had been lost with rabbinic Judaism and its turn inward to legalism and with Christianity in the absolute submission of man in service of a divine Other. It was then that Jews sold themselves short and sold out to legalism and were sold out in turn and subsequently became the victims of persecution of those who rejected the rule of law in favour of suffering and sacrifice and the need of a scapegoat to escape that outcome for themselves. Diaspora Jews, who could and were in a position to save humanity and resurrect the life spirit according to Friedrich Nietzsche, largely cowered in fear and accommodated themselves to the dominating force of authority instead of expressing their historical dynamism by returning to nature, by returning to their roots in the land to once again become the strongest and toughest people on earth. Nietzsche did not live to see the rise of Zionism.

How were humans to accomplish this? Not by receding from history in service to the eternal and not by accommodating the dominant ethos of the status quo. Nor by expressing resentment concerning a disillusioned secular world, a world that had lost its sense of enchantment and awe to find deliverance either in the ecstatic escape of unreason or an escape into reason, individualism, self-making and self-overcoming.

Hitler declared, and Donald Trump now concurs, that, “The national government will preserve and defend those basic principles on which our nation has been built up. Christianity is the foundation of our national morality and the family the basis of national life.” Hitler and Trump offered a mystical brew of pseudo-religion and purported self-interest that would soon reveal itself as the interest of the few and the deception and seduction of the many. What we need to examine is how, following Hegel, the dialectic of history has come to be interpreted pragmatically in the form of a set of overriding Kantian values for our time, and how that set of values, while inspiring high moral accomplishments, also blinds us the weaknesses of our own position as we are appalled at the values that we see articulated by Hitler copycats.

In Hegel’s time, it meant that Protestant clergy remained hostile to the truly liberal state as well as to Jews who refused to convert. Today, it means that this clergy embraces the values of the liberal state as well as their Jewish brethren. They have thrown overboard the doctrine of supersession in favour of shared beliefs, not only with Judaism, but with all other faiths. Some commentators believe that Democrats believe that all American Democrats need to do is copy Canadians and articulate the core values of the American civic religion in terms of historical connections and metaphors that touch their constituents.

An examination, first of our underlying nature and of various sciences, especially those involving communication, will try to show why that will not work (tomorrow), while, in the final blog in this series, a critique of Canadian interfaith values will try to delineate the shortcomings in terms of the population they do not reach and the declining power and efficaciousness of the civic religion of Canada.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

A Rabbi Who Believes in God

Introduction to a Rabbi Who Believes in God

by

Howard Adelman

Last week, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Yael Splansky spoke at Holy Blossom Temple. I was there. Because of the courtesy of the internet, you too can be partially there. You can hear her words, but you cannot and will not be able to experience the spirituality of the congregation as they rose to their feet at the end to applaud. I have never before heard applause during a religious service in a synagogue – or in any other sacred temple for that matter. But you can at least hear her.

http://www.holyblossom.org/2015/09/sermon-rabbi-yael-splansky-second-day-rosh-hashanah-5776/

Rabbis, like ministers and priests, like Imams and Sikh or Hindu clergy, offer sermons on the holy days of their faith. I have attended many, and from many religions. In my second year of university, every Sunday I went to a different church service of the many different branches and expressions of Christianity in order to try to understand various versions of that faith. In all my time in sacred services, I have never heard a sermon like the one I heard on the second day of Rosh Hashanah 5776 at Holy Blossom Temple as delivered by Rabbi Splansky.

I was going to write about it the next day. But I did not. Not because I did not have time. Not because I did not know what to say. I often start writing without being very clear what I would be writing about. I do not know why. It was not because what Yael said was so upsetting. Though emotional, her talk was not disturbing at all in the ordinary sense. She did not rattle the congregation like the stereotype of a Torah or Old Testament prophet. But the address was certainly moving.

Yael Splansky did not deliver a fiery or even a terribly memorable oration (terrible in both opposite meanings of the word), where you walked away with a sentence that you could not get out of your head. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” For her talk was not really an oration. It was not even a lesson. It was just a talk. And it was not a talk based on a passage from the Torah or one theme discussed in the Torah. She weaved together many themes, contrary to the advice Rabbi Gunther Plaut once gave me as a critique of my lectures; he said they were too crowded with ideas. Splansky’s talk was crowded with a myriad of experiences and responses. For she gave a talk based, not on a biblical text, but on the text of her own life, particularly over the last year as she went through treatment for her cancer.

One quip I heard about the overwhelming positive response to her talk was: “Isn’t it strange and unusual that the only time Jewish congregants love their rabbi is when they are sick.” But the solidarity of the congregation on that day, the applause at the end, was not for her courage and strength in facing cancer, not for her suffering and pain that she endured, but for the spiritual, for the religious message she offered. It was not a message about the interpretation of text or about the source and meaning of a Talmudic law. It was not even about being a moral person in a specific way. It certainly was not about theology. But it was about faith.

After the service, I offered my own quip as I struggled with the overwhelming effect of her talk. [My wife knew it was overwhelming because, in my own trivial bow to its power, and the specific message that we have a duty to care for our bodies so that we can serve others, I started on a strict diet right after I came home.] I told my wife that was the first time I had heard a talk by a religious leader, by a rabbi, where I was absolutely convinced that the individual on the bima believed in God.

I think I did not write about my reaction right away because I could not yet sort out my thoughts. Further, it could have been a One Trick Pony. So I waited. On erev Yom Kippur, Rabbi Splansky again delivered a talk. This time, her text was not on herself as Torah, nor on a specific passage of Torah – she cited many prayers based on various passages and many other thinkers. It was a talk on religion in general. No, not exactly. More on being religious in general. Once again it was a five star sermon, though not with the power to arouse a congregation to its feet and applaud. On Yom Kippur, that would have not just been surprising. It would have been shocking.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Splanky set aside the Yiddish proverb, “If God lived on this earth, we would shatter His windows,” and instead began with another:  “If things are not as you wish, wish them as they are.” Was she being a fatalist? Stoics were fatalists. Pythagoras had written: “Whatever sorrow the fate of the Gods may here send us, bear, whatever may strike you with patience unmurmuring. To relive it, so far as you can, is permitted, but reflect that not much misfortune has fate given to the good.”

This was not Splansky’s perspective. She is not a fatalist. For one, she did not depict her experience over the last year as simply accepting what happened with “patience unmurmuring.”  Instead, after she had experienced the exhilaration of carrying through the transition of the congregation to a new stage the previous year, an effort she had previously considered the hardest thing she had ever done, after she gave last year’s address in the afterglow of that experience, she learned she had cancer. Fighting that cancer became the hardest thing she had ever done. Instead of remaining unmurmuring about that experience, in spite of her being a very private person, she shared that experience with us.

It could have been a maudlin performance, full of sentiment, even if genuine. But it was not. Not at all! Further, she was not a fatalist because her message was not that we have to surrender quietly to the cards delivered to us. The issue was how you play with the cards God gives you. Not only was her talk not “unmurmuring,” but she never claimed that her condition even ranked high in the world of comparative suffering. She knew too many of her congregants whose life of hard knocks was far more arduous than her own. They had suffered much more and for a much longer time.

Nor had she suffered in patience. Shocked but not surprised at her diagnosis, she greeted the verdict, not as fated, but as both lucky for what she might and could learn from it, and unlucky for no one wants their body ravaged in that way. As a rabbi who had ministered to the unwell, she was prepared. But she was also unprepared for what she faced and had to go through. She felt both unlucky to have been stricken and lucky to have the prayers of her congregants to uplift her. She sustained her hope that all would go well, but felt extremely vulnerable. She hated the machines that examined her and the needles they stuck into her, but, in and through her hatred, she was totally grateful they were there. But most of all, she was not a patient stoic who greeted such a disaster with equanimity even if entirely alone. For though she ended each day fully aware that she alone inhabited her particular skin, nevertheless, she had a husband, her boys, and she was surrounded by her congregation. So when she felt crushed under the weight of her illness, she had a source of strength to reinforce her resolve to emerge triumphant.

Like a fatalist, she recognized that you do not get to choose what happens to you. But unlike a stoic, she could choose how to respond, whether with patience unmurmuring or with impatience that both shouted at the disease and heard the echo of her family and friends. Nor did she buy into the Stoic belief that, “not much misfortune has fate given to the good.” For misfortune struck both the good and the bad with NO sense of proportion to the behaviour. Instead, Rabbi Splansky focused on the importance of a sacred community, and this was the message she followed up with in her erev Yom Kippur talk about the nature and character of a sacred community. In its daily acts of goodness, that community becomes a holy order.

But most of all, the talk was about the power of prayer. In the end, she advised people that when they met someone who was suffering from an illness or a loss, do not ask how they are feeling let alone what they are thinking and experiencing. Simply say, “We are praying for you.” For Rabbi Splansky believes not only in prayers, but in the power of prayers. In my head, I responded: how could I ever say such a thing when I share no such conviction about the power of prayer?

Her message did not mean she is or ever was either a mystic or a Jewish version of a Holy Roller. Because faith for her was not about belief that was and is indubitable. Rather, faith occupies the no-man’s land between what is known and what is mysterious. For God is the knower of secrets. In this narrow piece of terra firma, Rabbi Splansky not only experienced God through her body, through its white cells and the tendrils of her nervous system. She not only experienced the wonder and mystery of God’s world. She conveyed that experience to us. She communicated that this had been an authentic and real experience. She – broken shard that she is, a piece of withering grass, a wilted flower – was attached at the hip nevertheless to God, determined to offer herself in a life of meaning and purpose.

As such, she was determined to do all she could to protect herself so she could continue to be of service to her family and community, determined to move on but also upward like a bird on a mission. For the first time, I had heard a rabbi who believed, and I believed that she believed, a rabbi full of trust in God’s spirit convinced that God’s love would never leave her, a God who gave strength to her body as well as her soul, but more than that, a rabbi who convinced me that she truly believed.

I write this, not because I share Yael’s experience or her conception of God. For I participate in worship full of criticism and scepticism. My God does not sustain me. I spend my time arguing with God. Not just arguing, but determined to set Him straight.  God follows us. God shadows us. Contrary to the very text I read in synagogue, I am convinced we do not live in God’s shadow.

This is not the time and place to write about the God of my experience, only to say that I was not convinced by Rabbi Splansky’s performance because she confirmed my experience of God. I sat in awe of Rabbi Splansky’s talk because it was nothing I had ever experienced in myself or in any other. I not only had never trusted a person of faith because they believed. I just never ceased to doubt whether they were really believers. This is not, of course, to say that they were not believers, men and women who expressed a life of faith. But I had never glimpsed that faith. In people like Sister Mary Jo Leddy, I was convinced that it was there. But I had never touched it, never really sensed that faith. It is probably my obtuseness, my stubborn conviction that God exists only to have a partner in one’s struggle and fight for meaning. But that meaning comes to me, not as a gift, but as a residue of the battle.

On Rosh Hashanah, I met a woman who not only had faith, but could communicate that faith to me even as I lacked it.

Tomorrow: Yom Kippur.

The Reasoning of the Heart.09.05.13

The Reasoning of the Heart                                                                09.05.13

by

Howard Adelman

“Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point,” Blaise Pascal Pensées

The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.

This is a widely quoted idiom and is usually understood to mean that there are limits to what reason can know. Immanuel Kant once wrote that reason was limited in order to make room for faith. Blaise Pascal’s earlier quote was written with this in mind as an apologetic for his Christian Jansenist beliefs to explicate their fight with the Jesuits and not, as it is often used, to mean that reason is limited and cannot understand passions or emotions. Sometimes the sentence is used to explain a mad passion that makes no sense otherwise – such as the Duke of Windsor’s love for the American divorcée and philanderer, Wallis Simpson.

Wallis Simpson used the phrase as the title for her own evidently atrocious autobiography, The Heart Has Its Reasons: The Memoirs of the Duchess of Windsor. Pascal would have been appalled at the appropriation by Wallis Simpson, the epitome of those who spend their lives as slaves to distractions and consumerism which he so despised as the escapism for the wretched who refuse to face their “nullity, loneliness, inadequacy, dependence, helplessness, emptiness” and the depths of a soul that tries to disguise its profound boredom. The proposition was created by the mathematician (inventor of probability theory), scientist and profligate inventor (the syringe, for example, and the calculator) to explain Christian faith to the sceptical and new-born secularists of the seventeenth century. However, the quote actually says that the heart has its own reasons. The heart is not irrational but somehow its particular rationality is not directly accessible to cognitive reasoning. However, I use the sentence in its literal rather than connotative sense.

I write this because I have no clue about what is going on in my heart. This morning I am going to the hospital to have a cardiac angiogram, an x-ray using a special dye and a fluoroscope to visualize the blood flow in my heart. Last month I had a less invasive procedure, a cardiac MRI. My whole body was inserted into a large stainless steel tube to take 3-D pictures, first without a dye and then with a dye.

In the second part, when they inserted the dye, I immediately reacted to the dye and had to push the emergency button to be pulled out so I could vomit – unfortunate for the technician who was splattered. Evidently, reacting to the dye is very rare. I tried — and succeeded — in not sitting up and moved very little when I brought up so that I would not have to come back again to repeat the whole procedure as, if you move, this becomes necessary. It is very hard to vomit while lying on your back. I was a success and they proceeded with the test.

As a result of the test I learned that I had once had a heart attack. I had no knowledge of having had a heart attack. As a result of that attack, part of the heart muscle had died. The intent of today’s procedure is to determine whether arteries to the healthy parts of the heart are partially blocked or even occluded. If they are, an angioplasty will be performed essentially using a tiny balloon to squeeze the plaque and compress it against the sides of the artery. The plaque is not actually flushed out so the analogy to the work of a plumber that my late brother Al claimed to be is a little far-fetched. Angioplasty is now a fast and relatively straightforward procedure, but in one-third of patients it is only of temporary help in easing the flow of blood.

I am familiar with this procedure because I watched my late brother perform two angioplasties. He was in and out of his patient’s coronary arteries in both cases in just fifteen minutes. It is scary to watch but he never had a problem in all his years of practice. He had gone to California to master this new procedure and introduced angioplasty to Canada years ago. He trained many of the current practitioners, including the doctor who will take the cardiac angiogram and possibly perform the angioplasty on myself.  I am also familiar because we once did a TV show on angioplasty in a Jerusalem hospital when we were producing the television show, Israel Today. We were allowed to videotape the whole procedure.

All of this is preparation for another procedure to be undertaken at the end of the month, a non-surgical ablation, using the same procedure as in an angiogram to send a catheter inserted in the groin area up the femoral artery to the heart. That procedure is not intended to clear coronary arteries but to treat my atrial fibrillation in which my heart seems to skip some beats every minute, a process that may or may not have caused the heart attack of which I had hitherto been totally unaware. In that procedure, the cardiologist becomes an electrician rather than a plumber “flushing” out drains. In an electrophysiology lab, the specialized cardiologist directs electrical energy through the catheter to “zap” small areas of the heart muscle where the abnormal rhythm is located to disconnect the source of the abnormal rhythm. Presumably, after that procedure, the arrhythmia will be overcome, the beat will resume its regularity and my heart will function better.

My only symptoms seem to be the shortness of breath that I recently developed. If I have pain, I seem to be oblivious to it. Since both procedures are now routine, I expect no problems at all. However, I do have fears about having the dye inserted and I feel embarrassed about the prospect of vomiting over another poor technician who has the bad chance to be on my case.

Why is regulation of the beat, regulation of the rhythm of the heart, so crucial to both life and music, so mathematical yet the heart is referred to as the key organ for understanding faith. What is the relation of precise numbers to faith? To return to Pascal’s quote, it is worth offering the full citation. ‘Le cœur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point. On le sent en mille choses. C’est le cœur qui sent Dieu, et non la raison. Voilà ce que c’est que la foi parfaite, Dieu sensible au cœur.” (Pensées 233)

“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know. We feel it in a thousand things. It is the heart which experiences God, and not the reason. This, then, is faith: God felt by the heart, not by the reason.”

Pascal argued there were two fundamental errors, the error of reason which takes everything literally and the error of the faith which takes everything spiritually. For Pascal, to accept the profound truths of faith does not negate the profound truths of empirical observation. In my discussion of the procedures in store for me today, I am not taking everything literally, just perversely playing with Pascal’s wordplay and bracketing the figurative meaning.

Tomorrow I will write on the parashat for the day rather than procedures, Parashat Bamidbar when we begin to read the book of Numbers (1:1 – 4:20). This is, appropriate to Pascal, the numbers man par excellence concerned with faith. The parsha is about the numbers of heads of households who could do battle, the over 600,000 that I wrote about last week. What do precise numbers, the product of what is most basic to reason, counting, have to do with faith, the reasons of the heart? Though the section also deals with the duties and responsibilities of each of the clans of the Levites with respect to the Tabernacle, I will not be discussing the division of responsibilities.

 

TOMORROW: Counting and Faith – Reasons of the Head and Reasons of the Heart

Parashat Bamidbar: Numbers (1:1 – 4:20)                                                      11.05.13

NEXT WEEK: Resumption of Discussion of the Economics of Israel