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A Legacy of Wonder

02/06/2015 08:41:00 AM


A Legacy of Wonder
Yom Kippur 2002 by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

The gentleman died and his family asked me to officiate at his funeral. So we agreed to meet, the children and I, to prepare. We sat around the spacious dining room table, and I asked them, tell me about your father. There was a long silence, and at last, one of the sons contributed, he loved golf. 
-- OK, I responded, golf is good, what else did he love? What were his passions? 
-- Golf, they all agreed, just golf. 
-- Just golf? What did he dream of? To what did he devote himself?
-- Well, he always wanted to live on a golf course...
So I prepared a eulogy all about golf. It's not so hard to do: Eighteen is chai, so we can say he's played his eighteen and finally made the great hole-in-one....But all the while, I felt the tragic weight of this moment, how a life can be made small, reduced to this, to golf. 

That was a long time ago. I have since learned that many people live lives, not as Thoreau imagined -- lives of quiet desperation -- but lives of complacent distraction. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard proposed that one could not live the aesthetic, pleasure-seeking life, forever, because it must eventually grow dull. The pleasure-seeker falls into a cycle of addiction. In order to hold one's interest, each pleasure, each distraction, each entertainment, needs a bigger one to follow. This is the lament of Kohelet in the Biblical book, Ecclesiastes, "I said to myself, Come I will treat you to merriment. Taste mirth! That too, I found was futile. Of revelry I said, It's mad. Of merriment, What good is that?"

But American society has done what neither Kierkegaard nor Kohelet could conceive. We have cultivated such a powerful culture of distraction, entertainments, diversions, that today one actually can fill a lifetime with amusement, with golf.

When I was a kid, there were seven channels on the TV. Once you surveyed those seven and found nothing interesting, you either settled in to watch what was on, or turned the set off. Today, there are how many channels? Enough that you can spend the entire evening not actually watching something, but flipping through the channels looking for something. Surfing the dial. And if not TV, there's the internet, Blockbuster and Pay-per-View. And that's all in the home. Outside, it's a whole universe of possibilities. In 1955, Disney invented the theme park. It was a revolutionary idea. Now there are, how many within a hour or two of here? Today, Disney invites you to visit a place called "California Adventure" which they promise will amuse you even if you actually live in the real California. 

A thousand years ago, western culture knew an age of faith. The church was the central architectural feature of the town. Five hundred years ago, we began an age of industry and technology. The factory, the office building was the town's notable structure. Today, it seems, we enjoy an age of amusement. The mall and its cineplex is the town's most important place. 

Maybe it's me. Maybe it's because I spend so much time with families in hospitals at moments of crisis or in cemeteries listening to their life stories, I worry about lives shaped by this age of amusement. I worry about lives shaped by a culture whose highest value is the pursuit of fun. 
I worry that people might die at 30 but aren't buried until they're 80. People who give up their dreams, their ideals, their values, and settle into the pursuit of ever-more fascinating forms of diversion. Paul Tillich, the great Protestant theologian argued that every person has a god -- for god is what he called, each person's "object of ultimate concern." But what if the object of ultimate concern is not to have an object of ultimate concern. What if the object of life is precisely to become distracted, diverted, entertained? What happens when vacation becomes vocation? What kind of human being does that leave? 

The 19th Century preacher, Philips Brooks, wrote: "The great danger facing all of us is not that we shall make an absolute failure of our life. Nor that we shall fall into outright viciousness. Nor that we shall be terribly unhappy. Nor that we shall feel that life has no meaning. Not any of these things is what we have to fear. The danger is that we shall fail to perceive life's greatest meaning, fall short of its highest good, miss its deepest and most abiding happiness, be unable to tender the most needed service, be unconscious of life ablaze with the light of the Presence of God...and be content to have it so."

Content with a life of pleasant amusement. Content with a life empty of ultimate significance. 

In the age of amusement, religion is dangerous. Religion asks annoying questions about life's shallowness, its weightlessness. Religion promises to attach eternal significance to life. This obsession with eternal meaning undermines amusement -- it embarrasses us -- it gets in the way of golf. 

But the culture's will to amusement is so much stronger than its will to believe, and in the end, religion is co-opted. Once, religion was accused of being so much empty ritual -- form without content, rite without passion, authority without love. Now, we've a different problem: Religion is becoming another form of amusement. Let there be lite. L-I-T-E.

I'm not talking about Jackie Mason who started out as a rabbi and changed careers when his sermons got so funny that the shul charged a cover and a two-drink minimum. 

And I'm not talking about the desire for a more emotionally engaging religion service. The music of the service and its style of expression has always reflected contemporary tastes. Every generation has a need to recast the liturgy into its own idiom.

I'm talking about religion that becomes a grown up expression of the infantile narcissist fantasy. Tell me, rabbi, that I am the center of the universe. Tie a red string around my wrist and tells me that everything is OK. Tell me that God loves me, that God is with me, in me, in everything I do, that God approves of me unconditionally. Give me revelation that confirms what I already believe. But whatever you do, don't disturb me or judge me or try and change me.

Religion becomes a form of amusement when its only goal is to pass a little time and make us feel good inside. When it ceases to challenge, when it ceases to expect more of us. When it ceases to point to the evil that resides among us. When it ceases to deal with the jagged edges and sharp corners of broken lives and a broken world, with the struggle to be human. When it ceases to wrestle with God and with life. 

The prophets of the Bible were not soothing. They offered no validation, no peace of mind. They spoke words that grated on the soul. "Hear this, you cows of Bashaw on the hill of Samaria," thundered the prophet Amos to the Womens Club in ancient Israel, "Who defraud the poor, who rob the needy, who say to your husbands -- Bring wine and let's carouse! -- My Lord God swears by His holiness, days are coming upon you when you will be carried off in baskets..." 

But this is altogether too harsh for an age of amusement.
The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai imagined the Bible he'd rather read. He wrote:

From the scroll of Esther, I filtered out the sediment
Of coarse joy, and from the book of Jeremiah
The wailing of pain in your guts. And from
The Song of Songs, the endless search
Of love, and from Genesis
The dreams and Cain, and from Ecclesiastes
The despair, and from the Book of Job, Job.
And from the leftovers, I pasted together a new Bible for myself.
I live censored, pasted, limited, in peace.

There are now, not one but two shows on network TV featuring a psychic channeler who can help you contact your loved ones in the next world. You've seen these programs: "Someone here has a loved one, starts with a P." A woman in the audience stands up, breaks into tears. "Yes, that's my beloved grandmama!" "Yes," the psychic continues, "it is Penelope, your beloved grandmother. And she wants you to know that you're ok, and she's ok and that your life and your kids will turn out just fine. And....of course, she loves you." I understand that people derive great comfort from this. Especially people who have known tragedy and are seeking closure. It helps them. But I would respect it all the more if just once, he'd say: "Yes, it's Bubby Fruma in the next world and she thinks your life is empty and shallow and selfish. She wants you to get away from the television, build a long-term relationship with that girl you're dating, stop buying toys for yourself and start making a difference in the world, develop the talents you've been given....And of course, she loves you." Just once. 

There comes a moment in life, when this diet of lite amusement ceases to satisfy and to nourish.
I worry about those who sincerely search for something deeper, but all they find is entertainment. They recognize that life is difficult, that the inner life is a place of struggle. They seek courage. They seek insight. They seek vision. But all they find in contemporary religion is weightless amusement, spirituality lite. 

There will be no sermon tonight. Instead, I want to share a gift with you. A gift of wisdom from a thinker whose thirtieth yahrtzeit will be marked this year, but whose importance is only now being realized. 

His name was Abraham Joshua Heschel. And he had a uniquely beautiful way of understanding the spiritual life. His lectures, at universities and seminaries, in churches and synagogues, would begin the same way. He would lean over the lectern and announce:
"Ladies and gentlemen, a great miracle has just occurred!"
Members of the startled audience would immediately cease talking, lean forward wondering, what miracle could have happened? What miracle did they miss? He would then continue,
"Ladies and gentlemen, a great miracle has just take place...the sun has gone down."
Now they would look at him strangely, some taken aback, incredulous, other might snicker at the strange man with the long beard and prophetic manner. Then he began to speak, and as he spoke, you began to feel deeply embarrassed that the sun had gone down, and you didn't stop to notice. What part of us has been surrendered when the sunset no longer inspires?

"Wonder, or radical amazement," he wrote, "is the chief characteristic of the religious man's attitude toward nature and history. One attitude is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as the natural course of things. To find an approximate cause of a phenomenon is no answer to his ultimate wonder. He knows that there are laws that regulate the course of natural processes; he is aware of the regularity and pattern of things. However such knowledge fails to mitigate his sense of perpetual surprise at the fact that there are facts at all. ... 

Religion, for Heschel, is not first and foremost a matter of accepting a set of beliefs. Religion is a way of knowing the world, a unique way of apprehending reality. And the opposite of religion is not doubt or disbelief or secularity. The opposite of religion is boredom -- to look at the world and find nothing engaging, nothing surprising. The opposite of religion is to miss an essential element of reality -- its mystery, its grandeur -- it is to witness the sunset an just push down the car's sunvisor without a moment of amazement and wonder.

"Awareness of the divine begins with wonder. It is the result of what man does with his higher incomprehension. As civilization advances," he continued, "the sense of wonder declines. Such a decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of happiness lies in understanding that life without wonder is not worth living." 

When we think of religion, we think of rituals and symbols, of holy books and their doctrines, of institutions. Remember Western Civ or Religious Studies One in college -- you read selections from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Korah, and the Upanishads. You visit a synagogue, a church, a mosque and an ashram. Take in a service, shake the hand of the imam, the rabbi and the priest. And then answer exam questions: What are the three central tenets of Christianity? What's Islam's idea of the afterlife? Do you know religion? 

The most vital part of religion, Heschel argues, precedes all of this. It is that which goes on within the person, the innerness of religion. What happens to a person to bring about faith? What are the questions that religious faith comes to answer? Here is the prayer book, here is the service, and here is the synagogue, but the most important question is, what is happening inside the praying person? What sort of human character wrote Genesis? What happened to the soul who wrote the 23rd Psalm? What moment inspired the first one who uttered the words she'hechianu, v'keemanu, v'higeeaynu lazman hazeh? This inner life of religion is Heschel's concern. He called it "depth theology" -- probing the antecedents, the presuppositions, the questions that religion comes to answer.

Heschel was a man practiced in the art of living between two worlds. Born in Poland in 1907, the heir to a great Hasidic dynasty, he was educated in the heart of scientific modernity, at the University of Berlin. Six weeks ahead of the invading Nazis, he escaped to America. Here was a soul, steeped in the world of Hasidic piety and mysticism, residing in skeptical, scientific post-war America. Here was a refugee from Jewish history, who carried within himself all the extraordinary moments of the Jewish people's encounter with God, living in an American culture without memory, with little use for the past. Here was an glowing ember plucked from the ashes of the Holocaust, a soul possessed with an extraordinary sensitivity for the enormity of evil deceit in the world. Here was a world-renown scholar who found that scholarship, the writing of books, wasn't enough. Word must give way to deeds. 

This man of two worlds discovered that the inner life is never monotone. It is always drawn between opposites, what he called polarities. To ignore the paradoxical is to miss the truth. 
Consider this image: A pendulum, swinging back and forth. The arc described by the pendulum is truth. If you stop the pendulum anywhere along the arc, and you say, this point here, at the zenith, say, right here, that's truth, or if you stop it down here at the midpoint and say, that's truth, you're wrong. You'll always be wrong. Because the truth of the inner life is a pendulum moving between polarities. Keva and Kavannah -- the fixed order of ritual and the spontaneous outpouring of soul. Halacha and Agada -- the structured law of tradition and the playful imaginative, creative grasping for God. Rabim and Yachid -- the life of the community and the experience of the individual. Joy and discipline. Love and fear. Avinu and Malchaynu. Understanding and obedience. Protest and surrender. Time and eternity. Justice and mercy. Now and forever. 

The inner life is always fraught with tension, paradox, contradiction, the struggle to maintain equilibrium among polarities. This is what Heschel finds throughout the history of Jewish spirituality. Heschel carries this history in his own memory. He lives with the prophets. Or they live in him. He walks around with the rabbis and the medieval philosophers as he walked with colleagues and students. And the Hasidic masters are his mishpocha. He writes of them, not as impersonal historical abstractions. He writes of them from a place of intimacy. He is interested not in cold objective scholarly investigation. He is drawn to the inner life of spiritual heroes and their struggles. 

Here, in Heschel's masterpiece, The Prophets, is Jeremiah torn between God's rage over the corruption of Jerusalem and God's loving tenderness for His city and His people. Here in Heschel's monumental study of the Talmudic rabbis, the two competing principles of interpretation -- Rabbi Akiba's flights of mysticism, Rabbi Ishmael's solid rationalism. Here, in Heschel's biography of Maimonides is the master's titanic struggle to hold together the truth of science and philosophy with the truth of Torah and tradition. Here, in Heschel's loving tribute to the Hasidic tradition, is the essential conflict between the Baal Shem Tov's miraculous flights of imagination and exhilaration, and the relentless search of the Kotzker Rebbe for truth. He describes these two spiritual types: 

"I was taught about inexhaustible mines of meaning by the Baal Shem; from the Kotzker I learned to detect immense mountain of absurdity standing in the way. The one taught me song, the other -- silence. The one reminded me that there could be Heaven on earth, the other shocked me into discovering Hell in the allegedly Heavenly places in our world. ... The Baal Shem dwelled in my life like a lamp, while the Kotzker struck like lightening...The Baal Shem gave me wings; the Kotzker encircled me with chains."

For Heschel, spiritual life is not calm, serene, tranquil. The inner life is fraught with struggle, tension, conflict. "Baruch Ata Hashem, Alokaynu Melech Hayolum, Yotzer or u-vorey choshech, oseh shalom u-voray et hakol", Blessed is God who creates the opposites: light and darkness, life and death, time and eternity, peace and conflict. 

Ours is not a monism, reducing all experience to one, to one principle, to one idea, to one path, denying the contrast, denying the differences and the existence of the tension. But nor are we dualists who break everything into two with disjunction between good and evil, light and darkness, religious and secular, and us and them. We are monotheists which means that we acknowledge the polarities in experience because we can affirm that beneath them there is a basic unity of experience. In God there is unity and wholeness. 

Alongside this deep spiritual seriousness, the images of inner struggle, there is a playful element in Heschel. He revels in upturning our expectations of religious life. Philosophers spend lifetimes searching for the answers, Heschel declares that the real task is to discover the questions that religion comes to address. Jewish tradition is an ocean of words, texts, literature. Heschel declares that at its heart, religion is built upon our sense of the ineffable -- the place where words end, the moments which cannot describe in language. Genuine religious education is not a matter of teaching proper words for rites and ceremonies but learning to be sensitive to the daily possibility of wordless moments of wonder and awe. We achieve wisdom, not in knowing, but in realizing that at the heart of all being is mystery. We achieve dignity, not in independent self-sufficiency, but in recognizing that we are indebted. 

Heschel will not offer proofs for the existence of God or the truth of religion. For the believer, proofs are irrelevant; for the nonbeliever, proofs are unconvincing. Instead, he will reveal to us how a religious person knows the world -- the context of perception in which faith grows, the questions religion comes to answer. Spiritual life is not the esoteric possession of geniuses and virtuosi. Spirituality is an essential part of being human, it belongs to us all. It comes from the sense that there is more to reality than my words and concepts can contain. Watch the fascination of a three-year old discovering a bug, or eating a Oreo with a glass of milk. A new father and mother contemplating their newborn child. Or the grandparent witnessing the Bar Mitzvah of a grandson. 

Heschel writes: "The heart of being confronts me as enigmatic, incompatible with my categories, sheer mystery. My power of probing is easily exhausted, my words fade, but what I sense is not emptiness but abundance, ineffable abundance. What I face I cannot utter or phrase in language. But the richness of my facing the abundance of being endows me with marvelous reward: a sense of the ineffable." 

Heschel builds us a step-ladder of words leading to this moment of discovery: wonder, mystery, awe, insight. And at the end, not a placid, passive faith -- the mystical ecstasy of knowing God -- but an active sense of indebtedness: The deepest truth of religion is that something is asked of us. 

The question is how to respond to this sense of indebtedness. How to respond to God's persistent question, Where are you? History is not the story of the human quest for God, but rather, as he titled his philosophical masterpiece, it is God in Search of Man. God is looking for us, waiting for us. God needs us. The God that Heschel discovers is not Aristotle's unmoved mover, or Acquinas's Ground of Being, but the God of the Prophets, a God of pathos, a God who feels and knows the pain of human suffering. The God of the universe who is tormented by the suffering of the poor, the hungry, the helpless and the hopeless. 

Why did the Torah prohibit the making of images of God? Because there is only one medium in the world in which God can adequately be represented, that is the entirety of a human life. 

Words must gave way to deeds. Only in deeds can we worship a God whose name cannot be pronounced. Only in deeds can we unite the polarities that divide the inner life. Only in deeds can be one as God is one. 

Here is Heschel turning to a life of political activism in pursuit of social justice: Open the famous photo of Martin Luther King's march on Selma, Alabama, and you'll see that between King and Rev Ralph Abernathy there's a small man with a flowing white beard and garland of flower about his neck -- that's Heschel. When asked by his colleagues in the Seminary: Why are you, a professor of theology, a scholar of spirituality, marching for civil rights? He replied: With every step, I felt my feet praying. 

Here's Heschel leading protest against the Vietnam War, going to Danbury Prison in December, 1972, just days before his death, to greet the release of the anti-war activist Father Daniel Berrigan. Asked why he'd risk his already shaky health in the cold of a Connecticut winter, Heschel responded that he went so that Berrigan's first vision of the outside would be a face lit by the Biblical prophets and not the angry hate of Nixon's FBI. Here's Heschel traveling to Rome at the invitation of Pope Pious VI, to represent the Jewish people in negotiating for a change in centuries-old doctrines of Catholic hatred toward Jews and Judaism. 

Here is Heschel's telegram to President John F. Kennedy in June, 1963 on the eve of the White House Conference on Race: " Race relations are like the weather, everyone talks about it, no one does anything...Churches and synagogues have failed. They must repent. Let religious leaders donate one month's salary toward a fund for negro housing and education. Declare a State of Emergency -- a Marshall Plan for aid for negroes. The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity." High moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.

Every Jewish family needs to own a library of books. Books of insight when we search for wisdom. Books to comfort us when we are in pain. Books to inspire us to celebrate life and all its blessings. Heschel's books need to be in your library. And Heschel's words need to be heard in your home. For here is a spiritual hero worthy for your children to cherish, an example of a life lived fully in the presence of God.

Heschel died, quite suddenly, in December, 1972. Among his very last writings was this remarkable reflection:

If life is a pilgrimage, death is an arrival, a celebration. The last word should be neither craving nor bitterness, but peace, gratitude.

We have been given so much. Why is the outcome of our lives, the sum of our achievements so little? Our embarrassment is like an abyss. Whatever we give away is so much less than what we receive. Perhaps this is the meaning of dying: to give one's whole self away. 

Afterlife must be earned while we are here. It does not come out of nothing: it is an ingathering, the harvest of eternal moments achieved while on earth. 

Unless we cultivate sensitivity to the glory while here, unless we learn how to experience a foretaste of heaven while on earth, what can there be in store for us in the life to come? The seed of life eternal is planted within us here and now. But a seed is wasted when placed on stone, into souls that die while the body is still alive. 

The greatest problem is not how to continue to live forever but how to exalt existence. The cry for a life beyond the grave is presumptuous, if there is no cry for eternal life prior to our descending to the grave. 

Our greatest problem is not how to continue but how to return. Ma aseev l'Adonai kol tag-mulohee alay. How can I repay unto the Lord all His bountiful dealings with me? asks the Psalmist When life is an answer, death is a homecoming. 

This is the meaning of existence: to reconcile liberty with service, the passing with the lasting, to weave the threads of temporality into the fabric of eternity. The deepest wisdom man can attain is to know that his destiny is to aid, to serve. We have to conquer in order to succumb; we have to acquire in order to give away; we have to triumph in order to be overwhelmed. The aspiration is to obtain; the perfection is to dispense. This is the meaning of death: the ultimate self-dedication to the divine. Death so understood will not be distorted by the craving for immortality, for the act of giving away is reciprocity on man's part for God's gift of life. For the pious man, it is a privilege to die.

Zecher tzadik leevracha. May his memory be our blessing. May his memory lift us from lives of lite amusement to high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.

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Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780