A Personal Theology
There was a child went forth every day
And the first object he looked upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
– Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
This summer I discovered, through a concentrated survey of ideas that tested both my conscious and unconscious understanding of things, the origin and context of my thought. I learned exactly where my apartment was in the building, and to continue the metaphor, I met my neighbors. At first I was reassured to find ideas that I had struggled to birth by myself were part of an existing philosophy, but after a while I felt diminished, somehow less original. Did I no longer needed to contemplate the meaning of things, because greater minds had done this to brilliant effect?
I considered spending the rest of my life no longer in active engagement with new concepts but in simply absorbing all that preceded me. But then I remembered my teacher, Harold Schulweis, saying, “It’s good to study Talmud, Rambam, Rashi. But in the end, what matters is who you have become from your lessons. What do you think?” While everything I know someone has taught me, each of us, through our specific experience, carries a unique vision, a sliver of the divine whole. Each of us is here to shine a new light.
My parents were my first teachers. From them I learned the holiness of inquiry and to ask the most important question, “Why am I here?”. Menschlikeit was taught through two key sources. The first was negative. Watching the McCarthy trials showed me evil in the form of a government bullying its citizens into conformity. The other lesson was more hopeful. I was born into Reform Judaism. In reaction to the meaningless and inconsistent traditional Judaism of her childhood, my mother embraced the rational, anti-ritualistic, ethical theology of Roland Gittelson, our local rabbi. To be a Jew to make the world more fair; to be kosher or keep Shabbat had nothing to do with my religion. Until I went to college, I thought these customs were only ancient memories.
Raised with Jewish pride but little content, I had few answers to my persistent wondering about how to live in the world. God had something to do with conscience, but that wasn’t enough. I wanted religious experience, a way to transcend my lonely self. In search of belonging and connection to something more than my existence, I turned to friendships and literature but they didn’t give a big enough picture. My peers were trying drugs and gurus, and had I been more adventurous, I might have gone that way, too.
One sleepless night, I found an anthology with Emerson’s essay, “Representative Man.” As I’ve said many times since, “It changed my life.” I had found a theology, transcendentalism, that spoke my inchoate truth. The mundane world is suffused with holiness and each of us must remember our royal descent. “Trust yourself. Every heart vibrates to that iron string.” “Imitation is suicide; envy is ignorance.” Those words chose me, anointed me to learn who I was and to obligate me to be authentic. By doing so I would come closer to knowing why I was here and it would draw me nearer to the Oversoul, Emerson’s idea of how we experience the divine.
At 25, I met Harold Schulweis and found synthesis of the rational, ethical, and transcendent. He taught Torah the way I had been trained as an English major, by close examination of the words themselves. More importantly, he possessed a mind that created religious experience. Every Shabbat morning I sat in his shul and wrestled with the questions Schulweis had posed from the text. While I was skittish about God language, the notion of a sovereign principle and what mine was became clear. Everyone has a number one priority, but most of us are unaware of it. The man who takes a third of his leisure to wax his Porsche, the woman who faints when her son doesn’t get into Harvard, and the country clubbers who invest their time, energy, and money into staying young, all have their organizing principles. No wonder the Torah and its prophets railed constantly against idolatry. If God isn’t your sovereign, look out! I wasn’t sure if I could say what God was, but I was learning what God was not.
Until Schulweis, I didn’t know what Torah was. His exploration of meaning with traditional exegesis along with the congregation’s participation taught me that we are not so much a people of the book but a people of the commentary. I came to understand that Torah was different from Shakespeare, because it was makor hayiim, source from which I continually found meaning for my life, the world, and the tradition. In my inclusion to the Jewish civilization, I found delight and pride. If the five books are kept in the holy ark, then the Oral Torah is kept within each of us; we are its holy ark.
Torah taught me that study was holy. Every new interpretation implies the dynamism of thought, and through study I understand that I am part of an evolving tradition with an evolving God. If I am in the Image, then I, too, can learn and change. In my evolution and in the evolution of my people, God is revealed. And, if we are in the divine image, it means that the world’s evolution is the movement towards completion, and my evolution in the process of mistakes, wrongdoings, and occasional insights is my evolution towards completion, too.
The unforgiving, quick-to-destroy God of Genesis is not the same God of Deuteronomy who has given the people a way to return to righteousness. The revelation of Sinai was not to be read as a real event as much as a paradigm for what takes place constantly in our individual and collective lives. Torah was not only history but present tense, relevant, and I found myself in it. With Schulweis, ideas flew like sparks to each other and set forth new ideas&emdash;it was a lovemaking that intoxicated me.
I didn’t know much about God at this point in my life nor did I ever use the word. I was in love with Torah and that was enough. Going to shul Shabbos morning was not like going to class. I shed a skin, felt free in my nakedness, sometimes wept during the music&emdash;I was beginning to belong to something so incommensurate, so ineffable, I was awe-filled. One Shabbos during the etz chaim I burst into tears with sadness, sorry that the visit was over. The experience of radical amazement was mine and I was in love. Soon after this I began to call myself by the Hebrew name chosen for me at birth, Malka.
Yet I still could not bring myself to speak of God. I moved closer to Torah, found its lessons every day in my life. With Schulweis as tour guide, I visited Kierkegaard, Rambam, Rashi, Soleveitchik, the Baal Shem Tov and his heirs. I examined my passion for the tradition. How did I know I was in love? If I look into your eyes and I “see” your love. But who or what did I love on Shabbat? If Torah was a book, did I love the author? Schulweis?
When I read I And Thou, I drew closer. God dwelled not in me nor in Torah, nor in my rabbi, but between us. God became the bridge, the connection that allowed me to transcend myself to “see” that, at a liminal moment, I am part of you and you are part of me. While I had certainly experienced moments of oneness with another person or in nature before, now I understood the source of the oneness. This was my revelation.
I began to understood God as a series of concentric circles, but it wasn’t a tidy progression. From sensing God in the I-thou form, i.e. understanding earthly love between me and my son, me and my lover, me and the tulip at dawn, I moved to I-Thou. I found myself praying in the morning and evening, and sometimes throughout the day, to Thou who knows me like no one else, including me. Sometimes I was self-conscious and felt silly, even neurotic to want this; sometimes it made me feel belonging. I wondered if my prayer was so different from my dialogues with my dear imaginary friend with whom I shared my early childhood.
When I prayed like Nachman crying out to God for all that I longed for, Buber was O.K. But when I read Wiesel’s Night I couldn’t imagine what God’s silence would have done to me. Maybe there was nothing beyond humanity which both created and destroyed. Eric Fromm became my teacher for a while, but I couldn’t live emptily in an empty universe. I began looking for God again, this time rejecting religion as a path. The Torah was no longer my lovesong. I found animal sacrifices inexplicable, God’s wrath excessive, and the frank misogyny offensive. How could I believe in the God of my ancestors when my own experience told me that parts of it were unjust and cruel?
Schulweis’ deepest teaching for me was to find my own thought, to have my own experience, to enter my truth. The individual revelation was part of a collective revelation that began with Abraham and Sarah and was waiting for me to add my own. It was not enough to study everyone, nod with each great mind, and say, yes, I agree. Revelation, like a snowflake or a human being, is unique, and I had been given a uniqueness. Each teacher that vibrated my heart was a mirror forcing me to “look” at my experience. My point in time and space, my DNA, and my goral, had decided who my teachers would be and what I would become from their lessons. I was to, as C.P. Snow described it, “take the trouble to know myself, be appalled by what I see, and then forgive myself.” Forgive myself for not knowing everything, for wishing I were someone else, for not being God.
Just as I discovered living without God wasn’t possible for me, I discovered that I couldn’t live without Judaism. It hurt me by excluding me as a woman and as a woman who loved a woman; its arcane customs left me ambivalent; and it defied all rational attempts to justify it. But it was my family, it was a primal part of my identity, and I didn’t want to be an orphan. So, with Heschel and Kaplan, I endeavored to find a way, and the latest concentric circle was born.
After living most of my life as an autodidact, mistrustful fundamentally of others as a group, I began to see that I could find the transcendent not only alone with my God, nor only with a community of great thinkers who do not know me, nor only with my lover, children, or friends. God was present in the classroom, in the dialogue between the teacher and the class that included me, in the service with the woman next to me chanting so ecstatically I toned down my own song, in the encounter with the man who viewed me as less than he by virtue of my sex, and in the politics of the synagogue. I cannot know who I am, I cannot be a Jew, without the community of the past and the present. The Torah is a story about a community, not about one person’s encounter, and God’s presence takes place in intimate conversation between God and Abraham, in the Israelite’s murmurings of doubt, and in the sheer survival of the people.
The above description of my heart and mind’s journey omits my body. How did I physically express my growing radical amazement as I found God in more places? Except for Hanukkah, my family observed little of the practice. When I married, I chose someone who knew how to behave like a Jew ritually. We kept a kosher home and followed the holiday cycle. At first all I found was rhythm and discipline in the practice. In time I felt connection to the seasons and to history beyond my personal experience. It was not only history, however, that made me a Jew. I was part of a people that had faith that one day the world will be perfect, and we must work for that day as we simultaneously understand that we will not finish the job. If we are chosen, it means that every person and every people is chosen, to do what we were sent here to do. We spend a good portion of our lives in self-examination to know what exactly our specific gift and task is.
I discovered a new reality through Shabbat. By having permission to let go of work one day a week and enter into the highest play of all, I translated Freud’s description of every being working toward equanimity or homeostasis. This was what the world was like before the vessel shattered, this was what it was like to be in the womb, and this was what the world of perfection will be. When I lit the two candles on the eve of Shabbat, they represented my dualism, my separateness. By the end of the Shabbat, I hoped to be like the havdalah candles, braided within and entwined to thou and Thou.
I began davening shaharit at home every morning. After a while, although it wasn’t penciled in my date book, I regarded that time as my first meeting of the day. As I came to embrace and allow my inclusion in the community, I found my prayer deeper when I prayed with a minyan. After a three day solitary retreat with only my journal and siddur for company, I began to pray before and after each meal.
Still, when people asked me if I had faith, if I believed in God, I hesitated. Schulweis spoke of behaving in God. That word works for me when I watch myself in my ritual and in my attempt to act with compassion and justice.
Radical amazement grows in me. The more I study, the more I practice, the more I contemplate, the more I feel attached and connected to the energy of creation. More specifically, I see my existence as a path to discover my essence, which is part of the One. I find this when I sit with someone whose political opinion is the opposite of mine, whose theology is filled with hate, and who does violence to others, and I don’t hate them. I make believe I’m God and try to imagine what God would feel. Usually I fail here but sometimes I get to a place where I realize that my reaction comes from some inchoate, unthinkable knowledge that I carry some part of who that person is within me, no matter how heinous. I carry all within me, the righteousness of Miriam, the slyness of Laban, the hubris and cruelty of Pharaoh, the piety of the Egyptian midwives, and the passion of David. Here is where I learn that I cannot judge, but perhaps I can help heal by not rejecting and despising.
If I were asked to describe my theology on one foot, I would say that each of us is in school, the world being the classroom. The text is Torah in the broadest sense and the lesson is how to love, how not to see ourselves in opposition but in relationship and connection. Evil is not necessarily power and domination over one another. That is only a manifestation of misplaced sovereignty. In fact, things are often misplaced in the world. Nachman of Bratslav said that we come into the world and see a storehouse of labeled bottles. In time we learn to read and discover that the bottles are mislabeled. Our work is to attach the right label to the right bottle. I’ve done some of the work, but the label, evil, gives me trouble, because it confronts my definition of God. I am not satisfied with a God who ends a child’s life, nor a God who allows the death and won’t do a damned thing about it, nor a God who weeps in compassion and cannot do anything about it.
The world contains darkness; it is part of the whole. While God created the world, God is also being surprised every day. All was not revealed at creation, nor Sinai. The revelation goes on every day, in darkness as well as light. While I do not understand why the world possesses suffering and evil, I accept it as the isness of things. Like Harold Kushner and Kaplan, I believe in the goodness of God. That impulse is what helps me to survive my holocausts and to learn from them. It gives me strength and it teaches. God does not cause every leaf to fall, but God helps me to pick them up.
I’ve met people in their prime dying of agonizing diseases. They know something I don’t know. Do I wish I could have their knowledge without their suffering? Absolutely. Do I wish I could learn with less pain? Of course. But things don’t work that way and I might as well rail against death itself. Schulweis taught me about the elohim God, the God of earthquakes, cancer, reality; and the adonai God, the imminent God of possibility and hope. Sometimes we live with one, other times with the other. The more I long to know God, the more faces I see. Just as I cannot describe myself immutably in a single image, neither can I do this with God.
If I imagine God as multi-faceted, so I imagine that I, when my body no longer contains life, will carry many faces. I do not “see” bodily resurrection, but I do think that everything I experience on earth, every lesson I learn, every bit of goodness and evil I incorporate, will become part of the evolution, or perfection of the world. My knowledge, my life’s experience, will appear as the color of a tulip, the leap in a heart when it finds the one it loves, or a glorious metaphor. Just as I am a bit of everything that has preceded me, so “Malka” will become part of the world’s knowledge. I don’t, however, believe that I, Malka, has ever been here before nor do I expect that “I” will be here again in my present form and consciousness.
I believe in Kaplan’s God who is the impulse to repair; I talk to Heschel’s and Nachman’s lover God; and I follow Rambam’s non-corporeal All who explains all. I am both mystic and mitnagid. While I can say that God is a principle who becomes a being when I contemplate God, I wonder if I can tell people who I imagine. Sometimes the being is my grandfather, other times a beautiful woman, sometimes a young David, other times a solemn child. I understand these images as my limitation to “seeing” God. My idea of communication requires physicality, be it a face, a voice, even a letter; I don’t take these images seriously as revealing the divine. They reveal only who I want God to be. I crave to know God, especially when I study the Holocaust or am in a hospital surrounded by suffering. In my longing for God’s response, I turn to my loved ones. “God is invisible–but my mother is God’s presence” (Heschel). If we have the courage to take the long journey to know ourselves, including the darkness, and hear the call to act with compassion with each other, we can do more than merely console ourselves in our inability to “see” God. With our presence, We make God present for each other. Through us God is not only “seen,” but acts.
When I give up my competition with God by trying to be right and to know everything, I express humility before God and with each other. In our authenticity, in our nakedness, we bring heaven to earth. What I will remember about this class is not only an impressive intellectual structure of understanding theology, but the professor describing his dilemma in thanking God in his acknowledgment page, the poignant image of his parents’ communication of tears, and his epiphany when he met Will Herberg. What each of us says and does in every moment makes an earthly and cosmic difference. Mies van de Rohe said, “God is in the details.” Indeed, in those intimate, described moments I identified my life, my truth, knew that everyone in the room did the same, and “saw” at once that such moments reveal our connection to each other.
God contains and enlivens all. Torah is everything that we learn in our lives. Israel, the community, is the place or the context where we share, through behavior, the revelation that our lives are for some purpose and that purpose is to repair and complete the world.