My relationship to the idea of God is in constant flux. My one certainty is that literalist, fundamentalist views can’t possibly encompass whatever could be true. The irony is that literalists come from two camps, both of which were evidently established sometime before the invention of metaphor or symbolism. Some literalists are doctrinaire believers, certain that their holy books ought to be read like cookbooks or travelogues: if the book says God sits on a throne, that means a large, ornate chair; if the book says Jonah was swallowed by a great fish, that means he lived in the belly of a whale. Some literalists are doctrinaire atheists: the authors of the newly popular atheist screeds seem to believe that by debunking the parting of the Sea of Reeds, or by proving Jonah couldn’t have survived in the whale’s belly, they have dispatched any belief in a Transcendent Force. There’s a symmetry to this simplemindedness, but you can seldom get the simple minds to see it.
For the last year or so, I’ve been trapped in a spiritual cul-de-sac. I had long passed out of the consoling period in which I envisioned a sort of parental God, intervening providentially in individual lives. For an orphan such as myself, it was sweet for a time to believe that, but something broke the spell. Eventually, I also stopped believing in anything larger than ourselves. I couldn’t refute the notion of a larger force for good, but the universe seemed indifferent, if not hostile, and lonely.
During my sojourn in the wilderness, every time I’ve taken part in a holy day service or spiritual retreat, I’ve hoped my faith could be reinitialized, that my spiritual deck could once again be reshuffled to yield a hand that dealt me some comfort. I missed God, but I couldn’t pretend to feel a presence I could no longer sense.
On Yom Kippur, my hopes came true. Because it is a fast day, we spend long hours in the synagogue, freed from all requirements to care for the body and its needs. The changing light, the beautiful music of the liturgy, the altered consciousness of a brain without food—all these things create an experience very like a journey. On this winding path, the congregation returns many times to repetitions of the amidah, the standing prayer which many see as the centerpiece of Jewish liturgy, and which in the form of Jewish practice to which I subscribe incorporates a period of silent meditation.
In our Aquarian Minyan prayerbook, the language of the English translation is particularly beautiful. It was created by early Minyan members decades ago, and when I read it, I think of those who still stand to recite it, and those who have left this world. On Yom Kippur day, these passages struck me to the heart:
“…inspiring us through the kindness
of teachers and friends,
rousing us to awake the messiah within,
to realize on earth
the loving presence of the One.
Eternal One, Blessed are You,
alive within us,
and in all generations and peoples.
“We can see the Divine wherever we turn—
sustaining the living with kindness,
reviving the deadened,
stirring us to:
lift the fallen
heal the sick,
free the bound,
and carry on the dreams
of those who sleep in the dust.”
This is the source of my faith, I thought, the profusion of compassion, love and justice in the face of pain. The ever-present desire to proclaim healing intention is what I want to worship.
Just before the High Holy Days, Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi put out a message to Jewish communities, stressing the importance in this moment of our sincere alignment with the highest intentions. He began by summarizing the situation in which we find ourselves:
The condition of our lives at this time is the condition of someone who is severely ill. The world, our planet, from the perspective of air and water quality, is suffering both from emphysema and blood poisoning. A fever is rising in terms of Global Warming. The way that we are dealing with one another has become an irritating rash on the body of the planet.
Then Reb Zalman spoke to the urgent need for kindness:
The issue of kindness is paramount at this time. Back when we lived in friendly neighborhoods and in houses with front-porches that we sat upon, when neighbors and people in the street actually knew one another, if someone fell through the cracks in the social system, there was always somebody around to see it and who was willing to help them out. So, instead of demanding that people refrain from begging in the streets, we should see what we can do to help the homeless. Look at the disparity between what we are spending on the war and destruction and what we are spending on health, education, and welfare today; it is so fantastically great—isn’t this a lack of kindness?
So this is why we need to bring about some changes in our lives, and the most important of these is an increase of kindness—beginning with oneself, with the members of one’s family, and one’s immediate surroundings—unblocking the flow of energy and goods (without this being a profit making situation) to the places in our social body that really need it. If our neighbor needs something, we should be able to offer that to them naturally, and then receive back from them just as naturally. In this way, the social fibers will be strengthened and the body of the planet will be healed in the coming year.
In an extended message, he spoke of the need each year to reconstitute the “God field,” ” a space that aches and clamors for the sacred Presence to occupy it. This space is made of longing and involves the reduction of ego.” The language may seem strange to some of you (e.g., the Hebrew roots of the word Israel translate as “one who wrestles with God,” beginning with Jacob, who was given that name when he wrestled with an angel and survived), but it well worth considering:
All of Israel, all God wrestlers, all of us who will be spending that prayer time during the high holy days will be able to constitute the morphic God field for our entire people and for the whole world for which we will be praying. It is important that in this God field for the coming year we should be able to be harmonious and inclusive to all branches of Judaism and beyond. All the prayers are being said in the name of all humankind. We as a kingdom of priests, a holy nation, should pray for that integration that will make room for everyone and at the same time obligate them to be stewards of God’s kingdom on earth. (How strange it is to see how in every religion those notions of each beings particular task is to garden the world, to know it as rooted, not in our possession but in God’s possession.)
So far as I can see, this is deeply true and has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with literal readings or inconsistencies in sacred texts, with whether the world was created in six days, with some image of the divine as a white-bearded father, or with the literal question of whether Jonah survived in a whale’s belly.
The book of Jonah is the prescribed reading for Yom Kippur day, for good reason. Jonah and the whale is deep metaphor, friends, for an experience many of us have had, being called to take a stand, trying to evade the calling, suffering the consequences of our evasion, surrendering to the truth, and experiencing the freedom that ensues.