This past week has been filled with a number of Sinai-like experiences. Last Thursday I took a train up to Philadelphia to attend the dedication of the new Jewish Counter Culture Archive at the University of Pennsylvania. It was exciting to see a university and its Jewish Studies Program taking such a serious interest in the emergence of the Havurah movement and Jewish Renewal and its impact on American Judaism. Michael Strassfeld, one of the editors of the Jewish Catalogues, directed the project: Jewish Counterculture History Project at University of Pennsylvania.
Then, this past Sunday I went with Mike Tabor and Esther Siegel to the first Jewish Farmer Network Conference at the Pearlstone Retreat Center near Baltimore. About 150 mostly young Jewish millennials spent three days meeting other young Jews devoted to an earth-based Judaism, environmental activism and Tikkun Olam. I felt I was witnessing a new Sinai. The depth of commitment, awareness and hopefulness was wonderful. (Jewish Farmer Network)
This week was also Sinaitic in that several individuals approached me about their frustration with and confusion about God. They were openly wrestling with a God who allowed for suffering in the world. I guess, the growing crises around the world from war, the separation of children from parents, earthquakes and other natural disasters, and diseases, has cast a shadow on the concept of the goodness of God, the word God itself also, meaning the Ultimate Good. It’s also known as the issue of theodicy: how does a “good” God permit evil? Our people and sages have struggled with this question throughout the ages.
It’s important to note that there is no systematic theology in the Torah. Concepts of God are quite varied. We learn that each of our ancient ancestors and prophets all wrestled with Life and found their own concept. Baruch Spinoza, the Jewish philosopher in Amsterdam in the 1600’s, abandoned the idea of a supernatural deity. Mordecai Kaplan, the founder Reconstructionist Judaism in the early 1900’s also left behind many archaic concepts of God. Historic Hassidism emphasized the imminence of the divine in nature and in each of us.
Our Torah teaches us that we are created in the Divine Image, to affirm life, to “choose life.” The rabbis teach us the we are “shutaf l’maaseh Breshit” “partners with the Creator.” Suffering is part of life. How we respond to our own suffering and the suffering of others is what the Source of Being calls upon us to do. We are the instruments of the Force for Life (Elohim) for healing, change and reconciliation. Yes, much in life is not fair. How we respond, however, is what Judaism emphasizes. This concept of how we respond is at the heart of Martin Buber’s and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s understanding of how God works. Yes, the old language of some of our sacred texts and prayers is problematic. We need to recreate new texts and new liturgy. And we are!
Life can be terribly bitter. But, as the Parsha last week taught, we can sweeten the waters by placing a tree, the sweet Tree of Life and Wisdom, into those waters. And in this week’s Parsha, Mishpatim, we learn about dozens of mitzvot that we are called to perform that address suffering and injustice in the world. Come for Shabbes! B’Shalom, Reb David