Introduction to a Rabbi Who Believes in God
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.
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.