CHOOSING LIFE AFTER TRAGEDY AND HELPING TO HEAL THE WORLD
By Rabbi Anson Laytner
The Montréal Review, October 2023
Job by Marc Chagall, 1975 oil on canvas
Perhaps it’s human nature to expect only good things in life however, as the Buddha taught, because of our attachments to people and things, life involves suffering and, sooner or later, one way or another, everyone experiences some degree of suffering. And when suffering hits, we usually feel it isn’t fair or right or justified.
But bad things often happen to basically good people. Good things also happen, but it’s the bad things—illness, disease, deaths, natural disasters, human violence—that trouble us and lead us to ask, “Why me?” or “Why us?”
For those of us raised in the so-called Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, Islam and their offshoots—asking this sort of question inevitably leads to questions about God’s presence in suffering. The task of answering these questions and reconciling the concept of a benevolent, omnipotent God with the injustice of perceived, unwarranted suffering generally is the domain of theologians and is called theodicy.
Taking their cue from traditional theodicies, some people offer prayers of penitence, blaming themselves for their misfortune; some offer prayers of praise, thanking God for “choosing” them for this “awesome (or is that awful?) test of faith”; others accept God’s apparent will with passive submission while still other may offer prayers of protest, affirming their expectations of God through angry questions and forceful demands.
For me, trained as a liberal rabbi but schooled by experience in suffering, it wasn’t until I realized that all these traditional responses are based on a faulty premise, that I achieved a level of inner peace and equanimity about the plague of cancers and deaths my family had endured and the persecution Jews have endured down through the ages culminating in the Holocaust.
Here’s the faulty premise: Because we believe that the Bible is somehow divinely revealed, and since the Bible tells stories of how God acted directly in history and in individual human lives, therefore those stories must be true, i.e., that God does act in this way—even if our experience and our judgement might tell us otherwise.
But what if the Bible is the word of man? What if its stories and laws are merely one nation’s ancient perceptions, born of a particular time and place, of their world, their place in it, and their relationship with God?
Why can’t we say of the Bible, as we do of the Iliad or the Odyssey, or the Bhagavad Gita, “How quaint!” Why can’t we simply appreciate the volumes of the Bible for their ancient wisdom and raw power, even as we dismiss their misconceptions about the world and God as out-of-step with our perceptions? Why don’t we treat our hoary religious texts as we do those of other faiths—respectfully and reverentially because they contain wisdom, but not believing them to be “true”?
It wouldn’t mean that those teachings were not valid or precious or filled with wisdom and insight. It wouldn’t mean that some of the best minds of many centuries haven’t added their own wisdom and insights to those of the original. They would still be a treasure, just not God’s Truth.
We also need to accept that our religious ideas and institutions, like our holy books, are human constructs. They are our efforts, as limited transient creatures, to make sense of our existence; that, taken collectively, they tell us much about humankind’s yearnings and perceptions and imaginings. If we could accept this fact, it would mean that we could free ourselves, once and for all, from thinking that our faith, whichever it may be, is the best or the only path to God, and free, once and for all, from believing that we need to impose our religious views on other people.
That said, because of several spiritual experiences I have had during my life, I am convinced that there is a mystic wholeness to which one can connect. I choose to call this connection “a relationship” and that wholeness “God.” So, as long as one qualifies the terms “believe” and “God” in a way that is acceptable to me, I would say that I do.
Two traditions inform my belief in God. First, because I have been raised and educated in the Jewish tradition, the God with which I connect is called YHVH, English letters standing in for their Hebrew equivalents. In the Bible, YHVH is God’s preferred personal name and is usually piously replaced with “Adonai” or “Lord”. But the letters Y-H-V-H represent a combination of the present and future tenses of the verb “to be.” So, God’s name is literally (and grammatically) pure potential: Is-ness; Be-ing; Shall Be.
Secondarily, because of my studies in Daoism, Chan/Zen Buddhism and the Kaifeng Jews, I connect my Jewish understanding of YHVH with the Dao, the all-encompassing wholeness of life. The Dao, like YHVH, is ultimately an unknowable mystery but, nonetheless, we are capable of perceiving and connecting with it, of living within it. And, for me, YHVH, like the Dao, has no supernatural abilities. God just is. That’s all.
Because of my experiences, I believe that, like the Dao, YHVH is non-personal, but I also recognize that many people, myself included at times, choose to attribute personality to it, the better to connect with it. But “God” was originally a job description not a personal name because, back when polytheism reigned, any one of a number of gods could compete to be one’s personal god, and each god has a personal name. When I want to get personal, I call on “Yah”—as in “hallelu-yah”, which means “praise Yah.” Yah is like a nickname for YHVH and so, when I say in Hebrew “Yahoo Elohim”, I’m not cheering God on, I’m declaring “Yah is god.”
Although I believe there is a birther and sustainer of all life, I cannot embrace many of the other qualities our traditions have imposed on God and upon us such as divine omnipotence or omniscience, or roles like father and king. Experience contradicts the Biblical premise of a God active in human life and I accept that what happens in life is simply random chance. God cannot be in control or else God would have to be considered, at least by us on the receiving end, as being abusive of humanity.
I do however embrace the concept of divine omnipresence because my experience of the divine made me momentarily aware of the totality of existence, of all that lives, and I perceived that totality as divine omnipresence. Because of my experiences, I developed a theological motto: I know there is a God; I just don’t know what s/he/it does.
When tragedy in the form of disease and death hit my family, I was more or less able to go with the roll of the dice, so to speak, and accept what was happening as being totally random bad luck. I didn’t blame ourselves as having warranted suffering, or praise God in His wisdom for afflicting us. I didn’t see God in any of it, for good or for bad. Nor did I turn to God for solace.
Our theologies and our rituals and our prayers mean nothing to God even though they may have great significance for us. When we pray to ask God to intervene in our lives, we are externalizing our wishes and projecting them onto a Great Parental Figure to whom we turn for help or comfort. Instead, I believe that the primary unarticulated purpose of our rituals and theologies is to bind us together as unique communities of faith. They are the distinct clothes we wear to cover our naked spirituality.
So, what is the role for traditional religions from my perspective? Religions can have both positive and negative impacts in human life. Often they bring out the worst in people—witness the many wars and persecutions waged down through the centuries the world over done in the name of God or religion. At the same time, these same religions can offer hope and comfort in times of distress; they teach values, many of them good ones; they encourage spiritual development and introspection; they build caring communities. It all depends on how people choose to utilize their faith traditions.
With my new, evolving ideas about god and religion, I have come to think that prayer and worship as we now know it will change radically. For example, after the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis were forced to recreate Jewish worship without the sacrificial cult. They turned to the proto-synagogue worship that co-existed with the Temple sacrifices and began to radically transform Jewish theology and prayer until we ended up with the prayerbook and worship that we currently have. Christianity kept the concept of the sacrificial cult but only as it applied to Jesus. Otherwise, Christians prayed like Jews did (and still do). I like to think our age is on a spiritual cusp not unlike that of the early centuries of the Common Era, when people slowly switched from sacrifices to prayers as the preferred mode of worshipping God. Today I believe we are gradually switching from prayers directed to an anthropomorphic and supernatural sovereign God, to a new synthesis, one that can resonate with our inherited traditions but also validates our experiences and the world in which we live. Someday, perhaps, people will look upon many of the prayers we currently utter with the same repugnance that we have when we look at animal sacrifices and wonder: “Why did they think that God wanted them to do that?”
Over the course of my decades of work in the field of interfaith relations and in bringing together people of diverse spiritual backgrounds to help care for people living with AIDS, I found that most every faith offers some version of the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule is perhaps the only universal commandment humanity has. It is not a difficult commandment to remember—“Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”; “What is hateful to you, do not do to another”—although apparently it is more difficult to practice than to preach. However one expresses it, the important thing is to live your version of the Golden Rule because, as Karen Armstrong has noted, the future of humanity depends on it.
All religions also have a teaching about lovingkindness. In Judaism, the Hebrew word for lovingkindness is hesed. Hesed has overtones of mercy, compassion, favor, faithfulness, goodness, piety, benevolence, righteousness, and graciousness in its meaning. Itis often translated as “steadfast love,” but I prefer to translate it as “lovingkindness.” From hesed come gemilut hasadim, acts of lovingkindness, which constitute demonstrable acts of Jewish piety and the desire to be godly or holy.
I believe that, like the Golden rule, the concept of lovingkindness is universal; it is only articulated differently. What in the Jewish tradition is called hesed is analogous to the concepts of agape and caritas in Christianity, to rakhma in Islam, to karuna in Buddhism, to ren and de in the Chinese Confucian and Daoist traditions, and to daya in Hinduism. This is the closest thing we have to a universal human religious value. It is religion at its best.
Whatever one calls it, practicing lovingkindness has a positive ripple effect. When we choose to take positive, constructive actions in our own lives and in the lives of others, we are focusing our energies on the life-affirming blessings that come from choosing to do good. In Jewish tradition, we have a saying: "One mitzvah (commandment or good deed) leads to another"—good deeds work like infinite ripples in a pond, spreading outwards, influencing others. (Bad deeds also work in the same way.) Every one of our actions ripples out with infinite and unforeseen consequences.
Practicing lovingkindness is the best we can offer our fellow creatures, both human and beast, and the rest of creation. It builds bonds of connection; of unity, love, and trust; it affirms life and enables us to repair our world. This same principle of noble cooperation can apply to almost every issue confronting humanity today from environmental degradation to alleviating poverty and disease to resolving conflicts. The work transcends every faith tradition and every culture; it belongs to all of us yet exclusively to none of us.
Practicing lovingkindness means having hope for the future despite experience and regardless of one's doubts about the goodness of either (or both) God and humankind. It means to have faith that, by doing acts of lovingkindness, others will be nurtured to do likewise so that, trusting one another, together we may help to heal our world.
I like to think, I hope, and almost believe, that we also are helping to build up YHVH’s presence in the world. Ripples of good extending ever-outwards beginning with one simple choice.