September 22, 2018

Rescuing God

This is the first holiday in 45 years that Rabbi Harold Schulweis will not be on the bima. In his memory we offer this sermon.

Elie Wiesel offered a parable about our times:

Once upon a time, Man complained to God: “You have no idea how hard it is to be human — to live a life darkened by suffering and despair in a world filled with violence and destruction, to fear death and worry that nothing we do or create or dream matters.  You have no idea how hard it is to be human!”

God responded, “You think it’s easy being God? I have a whole universe to run, a whole universe demanding constant vigilance. You think you could do that?”

            “I’ll tell you what,” suggested the Man, “let’s switch places, for just a moment. For just a moment, You be Man, and I’ll be God, and that way we’ll see who has it harder.”

            “For just a moment?” God considered, “Agreed.”

So Man and God switched places. Man sat upon God’s throne. And God descended to the earth. After a moment passed, God looked up and said, “OK, time to switch back.” But Man refused. Man refused to give up the throne of God. This is our world — where Man plays God, and God is exiled.

Once upon a time, our ancestors attributed everything in their lives to the will of God. Health and sickness, war and peace, poverty and affluence, were rewards and punishments cast down from heaven.  No matter how random, arbitrary and cruel their fate, they had faith that this too is God’s will, inscrutable and mysterious as it may be. But there came a time when we lost that faith.  We coveted the power to control our destiny. So we turned our efforts from deciphering God’s will, to discovering the patterns in nature and society that might help us predict and control our world.

Sickness, we discovered, is not a divine punishment, but the result of infection, faulty genetics, the deterioration of organs and cells. Drought and deluge are the products of shifts in atmospheric pressure and moisture. The movement of tectonic plates brings earthquakes, and the movement of capital markets produces economic booms and busts. We don’t look to God’s will to explain our fate. We look out upon a reality shaped by politics and economics, by forces of nature, by our own choices. God has been dethroned, and for better or worse, we control things now. We sit upon God’s throne.

Even when we achieved that dominion, we weren’t finished. We set about liberating ourselves of all vestiges of the old faith. We demythologized, desacralized, secularized. We admit no authority beyond ourselves. We tore down heroes, debunked myths, discarded taboos.

Once upon a time, we had heroes: moral heroes, great leaders, sports stars. On our walls hung pictures of Eleanor Roosevelt, John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Sandy Koufax. Who do we revere today? Political leaders today are just politicians representing entrenched special interests. Sports heroes are free-agents, playing for the money, or cheaters, or felons. Instead of artists, we exalt celebrities, and we cheer on the circus antics of their narcissism.

We subjected our myths to rigorous revisionist historiography and relished the opportunity to point out all that is unheroic and flawed. When I was young, I was taught to revere the American Founding Fathers – that extraordinary gathering of wise men, who cherished liberty, fought the Revolution for American freedom, and framed our Constitution. Now, we open a textbook and discover that the Revolution wasn’t fought to establish freedom but to defend the interests of a colonial merchant class. Just steps from Independence Hall in Philadelphia where our Founders declared “all men are created equal,” you’ll find the newly-excavated quarters where George Washington’s slaves stay while the Constitution was being drafted. In Monticello, you learn about all the children Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave, Sally Hennings. Lincoln was a depressive. Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy were notorious for their White House peccadillos. It is as if, one by one, we’re tearing the images off Mt Rushmore.

Who is left to revere today?

I grew up with Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, who told me each night: And that’s the way it is. And we believed him. Is there anyone we believe today? According to a Readers Digest poll, the most trusted Americans are Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Denzel Washington, Merle Streep, Four actor. We don’t know them, their values or their character. We only know the parts they play on screen.

We have lost our heroes, we have lost our myths, and ultimately, – we are losing the sacred. What is the sacred? The sacred is that which we serve with love and loyalty; the core of value upon which we build a life; the ideals which inform life with purpose. The sacred lifts us above the ego, above the endless desires and drives of the narrower self, to reach a bigger, truer, more generous self. Modernity is committed to liberate us from repression, superstition and authority. But in the process modernity, has subverted all that is sacred.

What is sacred today? What is inviolable?  

Patriotism? Patriotism is sullied by the divisiveness of our politics – the radically different views we hold about what America is, who it belongs to, and what it ought to be. Patriotism has become just another advertising slogan. 

Religion? The most popular Broadway show of the last decade is “Book of Mormon.” I’ll confess, it’s hysterical. But halfway through the show, you realize what it’s about. It’s a complete denigration of a community’s faith. What if they’d written “Book of Moses” instead? Would we be laughing? 

Family?

Once upon a time, we saw family as sacred. But research at the University of Michigan found that American children today spend about 20 hours a week interacting with their parents, but more than 30 hours a week, outside of school, in front of a TV screen or a computer monitor. Think of what those kids are seeing on TV. Is family really sacred?

The images of ISIS destroying ancient artifacts and places of worship shock us. But the truth is that we’ve been destroying the sacred for a long time now.

The problem is that human beings can’t live without a sense of the sacred. We need a core of value to motivate and inspire and provide purpose for life. We need myth – we need organizing narratives that answers our deepest questions – Who am I? What am I living for? What matters? Where do I belong? What’s my purpose?

People are so hungry today for myth and meaning, for the sacred, they run to embrace all sorts of belief systems. It was once imagined that as science progressed, all closed systems of belief would disappear in the face of scientific skepticism. The opposite has occurred. As modernity has progressed, fundamentalism has thrived.  No matter how irrational, intolerant, authoritarian, people run to embrace fundamentalism because it fills the deep hunger for the sacred. In fact, it seems the more authoritarian, the more attractive it is.

Of the five armed forces in the US – Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard – which one do you think has the most success recruiting young people? The Marine Corp. By far. In fact, there is a wait list to get in. Why the Marine Corp? Why would the most demanding and authoritarian, of the armed service be so popular? Listen to their slogans — The Army promises that you can “be all you can be.” The Navy offers you the chance to see the world. The Marines offer myth. In the Marines, it’s not about you. It’s Semper Fi. It’s about belonging, serving, sacrifice. In the Marines you give up the self to become one of the few, the chosen.

Modernity asks questions, modernity casts doubt. The fundamentalist has no doubts. He has certainty, and there is a charisma that comes with that kind of certainty. He has absolute truth. That’s compelling.  Standing in the presence of absolute conviction, we can imagine that the sacred is at least possible. Even if the God he worships is sexist, chauvinistic, domineering, abusive, even if his ideology is primitive and prejudiced — at least he believes with all his heart, soul and might, without qualification or condition. That provides a kind of security. Even if it means relinquishing our critical sensibility, and democratic values, standing in the presence unqualified faith, we are granted a momentary reprieve from the spiritual emptiness of modern life.

Fundamentalism today is growing. So is addiction.

The human soul craves the sacred. And if we can find nothing sacred, nothing to serve, we live with a hole in the soul. And that hurts. So we run to fill that hole with something to numb the pain. Drink and drugs, shopping and acquisition, sex, pornography, exercise, fantasy, obsessive work, and the relentless pursuit of entertainment. Karl Marx once condemned religion as the opiate of the people. Rabbi Schulweis pointed out that today, it’s the other way around. Today, opiates are the religion of the people. Addiction fills in the hole where the sacred once lived.

In another gripping tale, Elie Wiesel tells of the day his boyhood synagogue was filled with worshippers, when the crazed shamas ran it, and screamed, “Sha. Quiet Jews. Don’t you know that God is hunting the Jews of Europe?  Sha. Don’t let Him know where we are!”

The Holocaust was the capstone of the project of Modernity. As Dostoevsky predicted, when anything goes, everything goes. Absent a sense of the sacred, the unthinkable is suddenly possible. It is as if Western Civilization brought absolute evil into the world just to prove once and for all there is no Father in Heaven who will save us. 

In the chilling words of Wiesel’s memoir, Night:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget the smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

In a moment of painful candor, my teacher, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, once asked, how is it that we say the same prayers, pray to the same God, observe the same holidays after the Shoah, as before? How has this cataclysm not changed us indelibly? The question raised by Job in the Bible and revisited throughout the generations of Jewish existence – How can a just and loving God tolerate a world of such suffering? That question comes to a climax in the Holocaust. In the presence of a million and half murdered Jewish children, Greenberg argued, we simply can’t talk about God in the same way anymore.  An April, 1966, cover of Time Magazine asked, in huge bold letters, Is God Dead? After all we’ve witnessed, is there any way today to speak about God, about faith, about God’s role in the world?

The purpose of religion is to identify the sacred, and cultivate and nurture our sensitivity and connection to the sacred. The sacred is rooted in our narratives, our myths. Sacred values grow out of the stories we tell. In Jewish tradition, our core values are rooted in the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation of God at Mt Sinai – the story of a God who hands down mitzvoth, commandments, to a covenanted people. The problem is, so many of us don’t believe those narratives any more. Science questions their facticity. Modernity makes it impossible to admit any transcendent source of values. But most of all, we find the tradition’s images of God, impossible to accept. What we’ve witnessed in the 20th century has changed us. We have known too much horror to embrace the old narratives of a God who interrupts history to save His people. We just can’t tell those stories any more. No amount of theological sophistry can bring us back the faith of our ancestors.

This is the task that Rabbi Harold Schulweis faced when he first stepped onto this pulpit, 45 years ago: Addressing a generation deeply yearning for the sacred, but a generation for whom the old narratives, the old beliefs, simply don’t work. That’s what every one of his books, his articles, his sermons are about.

Rabbi Schulweis did not deny or ignore or censure the disillusionment experienced by this generation. He didn’t blame us for doubting and question what our grandparents believed. On the contrary, he honored our doubt. He recognized that our questions of God didn’t grow from cynicism or indifference or despair. Our questions grew from love – love of the Jewish people, love of humanity, love of justice. He recognized in this generation’s doubt what the Talmud called “chutzpah klpei shamaya” – holy protest, sacred dissent. He perceived that our difficulties with the tradition’s image of God are rooted in a set of expectations that reflect traditional, Jewish sacred values. He heard in our questions the voice of Abraham: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do Justice? Ironically, it is our very fidelity to traditional Jewish sacred values that makes it impossible to believe in the traditional narratives about God.

This is precisely where Rabbi Schulweis begins to rebuild faith. If we can no longer find the tradition’s sacred values in a narrative about God, he taught, let’s turn the process around, and root a new narrative of God in our sacred values. The goal of Judaism, he argued, is not to make us believers in a God above. It never was. The goal of Judaism is to make us vessels of divine holiness here on earth. It’s not about God, but Godliness, about the sacred values we express in our conduct of life. God is a verb, he taught, not a noun. Not a Someone. But a way of encountering the world.

This sounds strange to many of us, but it wasn’t to him, and most importantly, it wasn’t to the Jewish tradition. This idea has been in our tradition from the beginning. Open Maimonides. The greatest book of Jewish philosophy ever written, the majestic Guide for the Perplexed begins with the same dilemma, the God we inherit from tradition, we can no longer believe in. In the 12th century, Maimonides set about developing a radically new idea of God and religion. The ultimate goal of human life, he taught, is to perfect oneself so that one can know God. Moses is the Maimonides’ model of the most realized human life, and Moses’ ascent up Mt Sinai, is his metaphor for the journey of human perfection. But one important fact of Moses’ story vexed Maimonides: Having achieved perfection, and standing face to face with God, Moses turns around and descends the mountain. He returns to his people, and all their trouble. Why Moses doesn’t stay on the mountaintop with God? Only on the very last page, the very last paragraph  of the Guide to the Perplexed does Maimonides gives the answer: the perfection in which man can truly glory is attained by him when he has acquired knowledge of God, and God’s Providence, … Having acquired this knowledge, one will then be determined always to seek kindness, justice, and righteousness, and to imitate the ways of God.  Do you hear that? Achieving intellectual perfection and knowing God is but a penultimate objective. The real goal of human life is to embody God’s justice and lovingkindness in the world – to live God, to do God. The last line of Maimonides is the first line of Schulweis. Godliness is the goal of human life.

You know this. You know that the fundamental building block of Jewish prayer is the brachaBaruch ata Adonai Eloheynu melech ha-olam. If the purpose of faith is to express belief in a God above, then the bracha should have stopped there. That says it all: Praised is God, Ruler of the Universe. Period. Why say anything else? But we continue — Ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz; borei pri ha-gafen, Shehechianu V’keemanu because the real purpose of the bracha is to build a vocabulary of sacred values, to identify what in life is sacred. Tradition commands that we recite a hundred brachot a day. This is our Jewish spiritual discipline. Its aim is to train our sensitivity for the sacred in life everyday.

Ralph Waldo Emmerson wrote that we become what we worship. The bracha invites us to move beyond the boundaries of the self, beyond our endless needs and desires and moods, to become Godly. To recite a bracha, is to recognize our capacity of self-transcendence, to care, to heal, to help, to give, to touch the lives of others. When we recite a bracha, we bind ourselves to a vision of what we can yet become – to the Godliness latent within.

Rabbi Schulweis believed that this curriculum of self-transcendence had to be more than a solitary spiritual experience. So he introduced a program of initiatives, beginning here at VBS and spreading throughout the country, which re-made the American synagogue.  All of the initiatives he introduced to the synagogue share this quality of breaking boundaries. He perceived the loneliness of suburban life, and so he gathered us into havurot. He felt our need to care for one another, so he trained us to serve as para-rabbinics, and para-professional counselors. He decried the divisions within the Jewish community, and called for cross-denominational youth programs. He felt the narrowness of the Jewish community, and so he reached out to welcome Jews by choice through a program of Keruv, he built a relationship with the Armenian community to commemorate our shared experience of Holocaust together, and in his ninth decade, he demanded we respond to genocide in Darfur and the Congo, and established the Jewish World Watch. Every initiative, an exercise in self-transcendence – becoming more.  

But he still faced one problem. How do we believe in anything after the horrors of the Holocaust? In the face of that evil, that absolute evil, how can we maintain any sense of meaning? 

A few years before Rabbi Schulweis came to VBS, he was attending a Jewish community affair at a hotel in San Francisco, when the owner of the hotel, Ben Swig, introduced him to hotel’s maintenance supervision, a German immigrant named Fritz Graebe. Graebe shared his story with the Rabbi. During the war, Fritz Graebe ran a construction company under contract with the Nazi, on the German-Ukranian border. Graebe had once been a member of the Nazi party. But he grew to hate the Nazis. He witnessed the massacre of Jews in the Ukranian town of Dubno, and it sickened him. So he told the Nazis he needed large numbers of workers, and he took Jews off of trains, and out of concentration camps, and put them to work on his projects. He invented projects, and inflated projects, so the Nazis would give him more work permits. When the Gestapo announced new deportations, he put Jews on trains to nowhere, holding bogus work permits. He used all the privileges afforded him as a civilian contractor, and he used up all his wealth, to save Jews. The Nazis had suspicions, but when they came to arrest him, he escaped to the Allies’ lines. Eventually he would testify at the Nuremberg trials. And when he received death threats, he moved his family to San Francisco. How many Jewish lives did Fritz Graebe save? There were 5000 Jews on his payroll on the day the war ended. 5000 rescued Jewish lives.

Fritz Graebe was only the first of the rescuers that Rabbi Schulweis discovered. He soon found Jacob Gilat, a young mathematics instructor Berkley who, with his brothers, was hidden and rescued by a German Christian family. Sempo Sugihara, the Japanese diplomat who saved 3500 Jews in Kovno, Lithuania. The Bulgarian royal family who defied the Gestapo’s order and allowed them to take not one Jew from their country. And so many more.  Collectively, they testified that God did not die in the concentration camps. They rescued Jews. Through their testimony, Rabbi Schulweis rescued God. Even in the deepest darkness, there were sparks of Godliness. 

In our history, there is a rare and special tradition of Jewish spiritual revolutionaries who were called upon to rescue Judaism at moments of profound disruption: Yohanan ben Zakkai after the destruction of the Temple, Maimonides when philosophy shook the foundations of Jewish faith, the Baal Shem Tov addressing a generation deeply disillusioned and despairing of faith. At these extraordinary moments, Jewish existence reached a crisis – when the sacred narratives of the past expired, and new narratives were yet to be born. These were the singular personalities who perceived that the survival of the community depended on its ability to transcend, to transform, to reinvent its ideas and institutions. They provided resilience, the courage and the inspiration to let go of the old, and to imagine the new. Rabbi Schulweis stands within that extraordinary tradition. As we sing at Hannuka: Hen b’chal dor, yakum hagibor, goel ha-am. In every generation, a hero arose to save our people.

He didn’t grow up in synagogue. Far from it. His father rebelled against religion, and raised him in a rich tradition of secular Yiddish culture. He didn’t set foot in a synagogue until he was 12 years old. It was Rosh Hashanah, and school was out in his Bronx neighborhood, so he was wandering the boulevard, when he heard the most remarkable music coming from one of the storefronts. He entered, and because he was small, they assumed he was a kid looking for his mothers, so they sent him upstairs to the women’s section, where he sat transfixed by the majesty and melody of the service. And so for the past 45 years he has sat here, again, transfixed by the majesty and the melody, the prayers and yearnings of the Jewish people.

Yehi Zichro Baruch. May his memory be our blessing.