Friday, June 28, 2013

Living with Darkness

            I am fortunate, thank God, to have grown up with a supportive family; to have attended good schools, and enjoyed satisfying careers. As a Baby Boomer, I fell prey to the lie that we were not only to have jobs that made money, but were also life-fulfilling. I have been, and remain, a pulpit rabbi—fulltime for nearly thirty years; parttime now, along with teaching college English, which has been a godsend. 
            During my fulltime pulpit work, I had the incomparable pleasure and privilege of being with my congregational families during their happy times, and the challenge of being with them when they went through suffering. I had no answers for them: the questions are always better than the answers. But now, in a time of tranquility, I can search for answers.
            I have read Rabbi Harold Kushner’s books; in particular, his early magnum opus, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. On some level, I can accept the notion of a not-all-powerful God, despite its flying in the face of accepted Jewish tradition and liturgy. Who can pray to such a God? It is Reconstructionist to posit such a God, a God who encourages us to become more fully human by helping one another. When a friend or relative has suffered enormous loss, or been diagnosed with a tragic illness, what are we to do? We cannot make excuses for God; God’s wisdom—if we can call such a judgment “wisdom”—is beyond our ken, most utterly beyond our comprehension. Our friends or relatives sit before us, pleading with us—for we are clergy: rabbis, cantors, privy to the great works of Judaism, to the secrets of the Jewish understanding of the universe, do we not have the Answer? Surely, we must have the Answer!—and what can we say? “I am very sorry for you; I cannot answer your questions. Is there anything I can do for you?” And that must suffice.
            Only Gnosticism, or Zoroastrianism, or some extreme form of Dualism can posit the existence of Evil, an Evil which exists independent of God, and over which God either has no control, or chooses not to exercise such control. We are repelled by such evil—it is the evil which men choose to embrace (for it is mostly men who do it; men corrupted by power, who choose to cover, mutilate, and obliterate the Image of God within themselves) when creating holocausts, or the Holocaust—but, somehow, we are attracted to it; evil is fascinating. But when this evil touches our lives, we can no longer live them. We encounter this evil in art, in literature—Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus is a favorite of mine; there are other plays, other books in which the hero overreaches, trying to link up with evil, only to die in the process.
            Even Chasidic rebbes were aware of this evil, or, at least, of an aspect of existence which they could not comprehend, an aspect of God which was beyond human comprehension: they called it the Abyss. It was something to be feared and avoided, but there are legends about it.
            We Post-Moderns, living after Auschwitz, Rwanda, Darfur—the list is almost never-ending, and we do not know what massacre, what holocaust may come next—Aleppo? Damascus? Teheran?—are also aware that “the heart of man is exceeding deep, who can know it?”—and this is not a good thing; no, no, far from it. Does God inhabit all corners of the Post-Modern universe? I wonder; I wonder where God is, in the Abyss.
            Here is a favorite poem of mine, by Randall Jarrell (1914-1965), which illustrates what it is for human beings to live in a godless universe. I could not live in such a place—I do need God, and I hope that God needs my little efforts too, to do my bit of tikkun olam, fixing the world—but he teases my mind out of thought on the subject:

90 North
At home, in my flannel gown, like a bear to its floe,
I clambered to bed; up the globe's impossible sides
I sailed all night—till at last, with my black beard,
My furs and my dogs, I stood at the northern pole.

There in the childish night my companions lay frozen,
The stiff fur knocked at my starveling throat,
And I gave my great sigh: the flakes came huddling,
Were they really my end? In the darkness I turned to my rest.

—Here, the flag snaps in the glare and silence
Of the unbroken ice. I stand here,
The dogs bark, my beard is black, and I stare
At the North Pole . . .
And now what? Why, go back.

Turn as I please, my step is to the south.
The world—my world spins on this final point
Of cold and wretchedness: all lines, all winds
End in this whirlpool I at last discover.

And it is meaningless. In the child's bed
After the night's voyage, in that warm world
Where people work and suffer for the end
That crowns the pain—in that Cloud-Cuckoo-Land

I reached my North and it had meaning.
Here at the actual pole of my existence,
Where all that I have done is meaningless,
Where I die or live by accident alone—

Where, living or dying, I am still alone;
Here where North, the night, the berg of death
Crowd me out of the ignorant darkness,
I see at last that all the knowledge

I wrung from the darkness—that the darkness flung me—
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.