Starting with Reality

Barry Goldman has a post called “God is a stupid place to start” — a collection of “totally unfinished thoughts,” in his words. When he told me about it, I went and read some of it, (beginning and end, skipped most of the middle) and wrote a reply, which could be called “Starting with Reality.” You can read my reply by clicking “More” below; or go read his blog and then read the comment (once he approves it, which I presume he will). He also commented on Milk and Honey here (comment #7).

The truth is that “Starting with Reality” should be its own post — its own Rosh HaShanah sermon — my own personal statement of … well, belief isn’t the right word. If it were political it would be my manifesto. I suppose “Credo” has a certain ring to it. But it’s not the right ring. It’s what I do, because of what makes sense to me.

Rabbi Larry Hoffman gave us a letter to read (in his Rite and Rituals class in rabbinical school) which was written by (or was it to?) Carl Jung. He wrote that he doesn’t “believe” in God any more than he “believes” that the sun will rise in the morning. It’s what he knows.

I don’t claim to have that much “knowing” about God — but what I do and what I talk about is based on what I know, not what I believe.

Anyway, starting with reality has everything to do with how I am a human being, a Jew, and a rabbi. But I haven’t written it yet, though I’ve said it to many people, quietly and earnestly, usually but not always sitting in my office.

Barry — I couldn’t read the whole thing at one go, so I started at the beginning and finished at the end and missed a lot of the middle. But there’s more than enough to think about just that way. Lots of wonderful things!

I’ll begin by quoting Rabbi Marcia Prager, who was at dinner one night with some other people, at least one of whom had been raised Jewish and was a practicing Buddhist:

“I looked around, absorbing the goodness of the people gathered at the table. With a deep breath I reached toward the basket of warm dinner rolls and lifted it up, closing my eyes to be alone with the sensations. Steamy-hot, just-baked bread. I inhaled its warm sweetness. For just a moment it seemed that I held the fertile earth sprouting ripening wheat and saw the dough rising in an extravagant explosion of yeast. My fingertips touched the hot loaves. I sang: <i>’Baruch Ata Adonay, Eloheynu Melekh Ha’Olam, ha’motzi lechem min ha’aretz.</i> A Fountain of Blessings are You, Source of Life of all the Worlds, Source of the nourishment that is this bread, which You bring forth from the earth.’ We shared the bread around the table…” (From <i>The Path of Blessing: Experiencing the Energy and Abundance of the Divine,</i> by Marcia Prager, pp. 2-3)

Miracles. Miracles — that amazing awareness of being in the NOW; sometimes, an awareness of powerful forces, from gravitational to sub-atomic, which coalesce to create both NOW and our perception of NOW; sometimes, as you point out, an amazing awareness of how unlikely this NOW really is/could be (were things just minutely different) … Miracles call forth awe, and often gratitude. Does it really matter if anybody is anywhere listening to my expression of gratitude? I need to express it! Not just because I want to: because it’s good for me, softens and opens me, makes me more human in the best senses.

You asked the relevant question: What do you mean by God? I ask it all the time, of myself and others, though often not in so many words; that’s exactly one of the reasons I ended up a rabbi.

But let me tell you, not everyone wants or needs or is suited to spend a lot of time with that question. Or with the awe. Or with investigating the forces that have created our universe. And from where I sit, <i>that’s ok.</i> It’s one of the reasons we have traditions, norms, culture (one aspect of which is religion). So that people can pay attention to what’s most important to them and rely on shared assumptions to keep the rest of it together — because what’s not important to them IS important to some other people, who are in turn relying on shared assumptions about, oh, say, the reliability of driving on the right side of the road. Or of parents taking care of children. (I’m not saying these are foolproof, only generally reliable.)

I happen to love the kind of thinking that you’re doing. But it’s not where everybody lives. And I guess I would add, not everybody uses language as precisely as you’re trying to do. You may quibble with all the words that you like, when others try to define/describe what they mean when they say “God” — but you’re quibbling with their vehicle of expression, not with their experience. A lot of people can’t put experience into precise language, so it’s very easy to pick apart the words that they do use as cliched or empty. But that’s just the words. Just like the word “God.” Both reality and experience are still present, even if they’re not getting expressed in language you understand or approve of.

Remember that any time anyone says “God,” it’s a metaphor. A pointer. Not everybody agrees with that, of course; many think that what they mean by God is an exact description of reality. Gotta watch out for those people, often; if they think they have the whole truth, there’s often no place for me in their world.

But anyone who’s got a bit of humility in them about what they mean by “God” is just that much closer to reality. Which is basically what you’re talking about: Start with REALITY and see what’s there.

And not everybody is going to do that. Which is generally OK with me — I’m old enough that I don’t want to spend my time being frustrated that other people aren’t all like me.

But there is a problem with this. The problem is, we’ve created a society in which being estranged from reality (whether it’s the source of our food, the reality of weather, the amount of energy we consume that’s not manufactured by our bodies, or the sound of another person’s voice emanating from a body that’s in the same room with you) is threatening to derail or destroy much and many of the beings of this reality — ourselves included. So I imagine that’s part of why you feel such urgency about interrupting the stories people tell ourselves: Because if there’s a crisis looming, then all our resources — including our stories — need to be devoted to dealing with it in a way that might yield a positive outcome (however that might be measured). And religion is for sure about storytelling. Plus it often claims infallibility or completeness. Which makes it an easy target. And perhaps an appropriate one.

But as I’ve said to you already, clearly you also get it that there’s something here (Judaism) worth arguing with. Loyal opposition is only worthwhile to something that’s worth being loyal to.

PS. Most Jews didn’t start with God, anyway. They started around the family dinner table, eating and talking. Or intrigued by an idea, from a book or another Jew. Or they joined together with others to do some tikkun olam. Most Jews started from their own experience.