Like brothers that have fallen out, or sides of a family that no longer speak, religion and everyday life are often seen to be at odds. It’s not hard to find the worldliest among us calling believers cranks, or the more pious seeing life in the secular world as the source of every evil and temptation.
I once spent four years working customer service in downtown Manhattan, and I can’t think of a worse outlook on life than the one where getting ahead is all there is. At the same time, though, if there is a God, the world and life in it cannot merely be some trick or test we are meant to resist and deny. And it’s just as destructive to allow a sense of otherworldliness to become world-hatred. Religion and the world are both destroyed when one is used as an escape from the other.
It’s also too easy to say that worldly life is so chaotic and meaningless that only religion can swoop in and give us certainty and safety. While this is true in a way—recall, how, in the opening chapter of Genesis, God literally creates the necessary boundaries between things—Donald Akenson suggests that the greatest strength of Judaism isn’t in the certainty or structure it offers, but in how it reveals that religion and God are actually a reflection of the world, rather than an excuse to condemn it:
“The reason the god of the ancient Israelites is so convincing is that, as he is limned in the covenant, he is the perfect embodiment of what is: reality. Whatever controls the lives of individual human beings (and there is an infinity of philosophical debate about such matters), it is not consistently nice, benevolent, predictable, or even understandable. Yahweh personifies that ultimate reality exactly. Life is bounteous, so too is Yahweh; life is unfair, so too is Yahweh (just ask Job). Yahweh is the name for reality invented by Hebrew religious geniuses who paid attention to the way the world works.”
“The world as it is,” then, is the best and most difficult definition we have of God. Religion in general, and Judaism especially, is not a collection of certainties that eradicate the difficulties of life; it’s a way of giving those difficulties meaning. Rather than a reason to deny that morality or meaning exist, the uncertain and sometimes incoherent experience of life is best expressed in the sometimes incomprehensible nature of religion. All the permutations and versions of itself that Judaism has been forced into finding thanks to its endless diaspora is an illustration of this. Perhaps Judaism only became itself in the making of these adaptations, whether during the Babylonian Exile or just in Brooklyn.
That beauty and meaning and decency should exist in a world upheld by an unswerving tradition that hovers above historical circumstance and change, isn’t much of a miracle; but that beauty and meaning and decency should exist in a world where even our hallowed traditions are upheld by uncertainty and conflict—that is a miracle, and every day we are called to contribute to it is equally miraculous. We are called to be good and to love—and to debate what that means—not because we can safely claim we know everything, but precisely because we don’t.
We are called to be good and to love—and to debate what that means—not because we can safely claim we know everything, but precisely because we don’t.
The mathematician and historian Jacob Bronowski put it this way: “There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy. All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility. That is the human condition.” The human condition, in other words—which is synonymous with the religious condition—is not one of power or dominance or certainty, but of humility; and if of humility, then of uncertainty; and if of uncertainty, then of empathy. Only in a condition of uncertainty, diaspora, and unsettledness can we recognize others in ourselves and ourselves in others—and this is only possible when the world itself is seen as the stage on which we work out what God means for us to do.
And don’t the narratives of the Tanakh bear this out? What simple takeaways and life lessons can we glean from the lives of the patriarchs, matriarchs and prophets, from David, from Nadab and Abihu or Phineas, and especially from the life of Moses? Are there any psalms that don’t assume that struggle and suffering must preclude peace and happiness? And where does the presence of God in these stories simplify anyone’s life? In fact, the presence of God always complicates life, always appears wrapped in and around the details of daily life. God’s presence always makes life more difficult—but also more meaningful.
In fact, the presence of God always complicates life, always appears wrapped in and around the details of daily life. God’s presence always makes life more difficult—but also more meaningful.
When Bronowski was making his documentary series “The Ascent of Man” in the early 1970s, one unforgettable scene was filmed at Auschwitz. There, standing up to his ankles in a pond, he said:
“This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods … I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.”
We lose the ability to “touch people” when we separate religion from everyday life, when we yearn for some illusory perfection we associate with God, and conclude that worldly life—and the people associated with it—are just scum on the bottom of somebody’s shoe.
While Judaism has had its share of ascetic movements, and continues to have its isolated enclaves, for me its greatest achievement is its refusal to deny the world. Even the laws of the Torah, and their excruciating explication in the Talmud, point to a sanctification of daily life, down to every gesture; and even the wildest mystical flights of the Kabbalah are made only for the purpose of tikkun olam, repairing the world, not for escaping it. Judaism shows how it is possible for religion not to raise us above the world but to settle us down in it.
After all, when my wife says the blessing over our daughter on Friday nights, asking that she be like “Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah,” what are we hoping for but that her life be filled with meaningful and difficult choices, that she be given the opportunity to walk with God by living in the world?
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).