In the aftermath of the American Civil War, the Confederate Grace Brown Elmore wrote, “I find no consolation in religion. I cannot be resigned. Hard thoughts against my God will arise, questions of His justice and mercy refuse to be silenced. … Sometimes I feel so wicked, so rebellious against God, so doubtful of His mercy.”
Elmore believed religion to be a source of consolation, mercy and justice, but seeing very little of this herself, she began to doubt God, and then felt guilty for doing so. Considering the side she was on it might be easy to judge her, but Elmore’s struggle is the struggle of anyone whose religious faith, when tested by the experience of actual life, begins to slip.
Yet I don’t think that Elmore was doubting God or rebelling against God, only her idea of God. And so it seems that when we struggle with God today it might be more fruitful not to question or argue with God, but rather to question and argue with our idea or version of God, and question and rebel against the certainties and conclusions we find within ourselves.
Another way to look at it: The religions of the world are sharing a leaky boat, and each one has a forefinger plugging up a hole. Each time any religion raises that finger to say they are the best or only one, the boat begins to sink. And it is the same with every other preference—cultural, political, and otherwise—that can only be clung to by pretending it is actually an unassailable truth. Despite what the loudest voices continue to say, the enemy of faith is certainty, and certainty can’t help but fail when faced with everyday life on the ground.
The religions of the world are sharing a leaky boat, and each one has a forefinger plugging up a hole.
It has become a cliché to quote Hillel the Elder’s most famous remark, but that’s only because it is as fertile a statement now as it was more than two thousand years ago. When asked by a pagan to sum up the Torah while his questioner stood on one foot, Hillel responded, “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow-man. That is the whole of the Torah, and the remainder is but commentary. Go, learn it.”
To reduce an entire ethical system—the Ten Commandments, the 613 laws of the Torah that expand on them, and the expansions of those that eventually filled the Talmud—to a statement of fewer than fifteen words is quite an achievement, and to call the vast religious literature of Judaism “commentary” is even better. But what can this mean to us today?
What Hillel seems to be saying is that the rules for a good life are fairly simple, and indeed his statement is Judaism’s formation of the Golden Rule: “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow-man.” But people don’t live simple lives, and the times are always changing: so what did it mean to not do to another what you yourself would hate, around the year 50 BCE? How about further back, in the Ice Age? How about in Medieval Europe, or modern America? What will it mean tomorrow?
To approach the semblance of understanding, we need the commentary, and in Judaism this means the talk and discussion of the prophets, priests, rabbis, intellectuals, poets, mothers, grandmothers, teachers and family members that fill our books and memories. Just as a decent meal depends upon who is cooking and who is eating, ethical and spiritual sanity cannot rest (despite the image adorning synagogues, churches and courthouses all over the world) simply on rules carved into stone.
As the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov said of each new generation of interpreters: “They make the Torah complete. Torah is interpreted in each generation according to what that generation needs. God enlightens the eyes of each generation’s sages [to interpret] His holy Torah in accord with the soul-root of that generation. One who denies this is like one who denies Torah, God forbid.”
While there is, in the end, no way to fully avoid either the slipperiness of relativism or the brutality of fundamentalism, looking at scripture and faith in this way can help find a middle road. Only by learning the flavor of each generation, and of each historical moment and place, can anything like eternal verity be approached. Understood in this way, all the details of daily life—all the things that fundamentalists would identify as temptations, and what all those with no need for religion see as all that life has to offer—are actually the things that lead to truth, and to God, but only if they are taken together.
If Torah is truly to be understood anew each generation, only those in touch with that generation—and in touch with the worldly life of that generation—can ever approach it.
If Torah is truly to be understood anew each generation, only those in touch with that generation—and in touch with the worldly life of that generation—can ever approach it. We need every argument surrounding religion just as we need every ephemeral allegiance—to Mac or Windows, “Star Trek” or “Star Wars,” the Yankees or (God forbid) the Phillies. Our preferences, our opinions, our traditions and rituals can all rise to the level of sacredness, and our adherence to them can literally support our lives, but there is nothing sacred about a hammer that pretends to clear every other option away.
By sanctifying study and interpretation as much as prayer, Judaism sanctifies the question over and above any possible answer. The perceived goal is not, as Grace Brown Elmore saw it, consolation and mercy, but the unending intensity of living, thinking, and praying. The questions that make Elmore so uncomfortable—“questions of His justice and mercy that refuse to be silenced”—are, for Jews, just what happens on a Tuesday. What to Elmore felt like a plummet towards some terrible end, is just the beginning for any thinking, wrestling Jew.
Tim Miller‘s poetry and essays have appeared in Parabola, The Wisdom Daily, Jewish Literary Journal, Crannog, Southword, Londongrip, Poethead, and others across the US and UK. Two recent books include Bone Antler Stone (poetry, The High Window Press) and the long narrative poem To the House of the Sun (S4N Books).