In the past months I was confronted with the same question in two different, interesting conversations. One was with someone my age who – having grown up in an agnostic Jewish family – had a desire to explore his spirituality in adulthood and visited a synagogue in Budapest. He took part in a service but, in his words, failed to find God. His disappointment led him to another religion.
The other instance was a young man in search of his Jewish roots, who after reading a book called ‘The Foundations of Judaism’ asked me the following: If Judaism were to be stripped of the laws of kashrut, wearing a kippa, using a mezuzah and the other halachic rules, what would we be left with as the religion’s essence?
My reply to them both was to quote Martin Buber’s provocative, albeit deeply Jewish statement, “God does not want to be believed in, nor to be debated and defended by us, but simply to be realized through us.”
(From Jewish Religiosity by Martin Buber)
What are the possible areas for God’s “self-realization”? The first is our personal relationship with Him, and the other is our existence as a community.
Judaism is generally defined as a communal religion. God’s holiness (kadosh) is reflected in the ancient term still used today for Jewish religious communities: kehila k’dosha means holy congregation.
1800 years ago the Mishna spoke of the strength and essential nature of community life in a paradoxical statement: “He who thinks he can live without others is mistaken. He who thinks others cannot live without him is even more mistaken.” For this reason today I will focus on God’s self-realization through the religious community rather than our personal relationships with Him.
Were we to translate Buber’s abstract theological statement about God’s realization through us into everyday terms, we could say that Godly characteristics and values can be expressed by our existence. The common factor connecting these Godly values is that they are not merely a means to an end; when experiencing them, we become more than ourselves, and we feel we are part of a bigger picture.
Searching in my heart and also in conversation with others, several important values I found to fit this description were the following: generosity, patience, diversity and the acceptance of others. This is because God’s wholeness also reflects the infinite colours and variety of his creation, our world.
Another important attribute is that of being just, from the term “El tzedek” meaning the just God; in Judaism one of the basic organising principles of the world is that everything should be in its rightful place. To reach this goal we must become the partners of God. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof…” It is our constant duty to search for justice, we are told by the Bible. This, however, is not an easy task; the quest for justice is not always “convenient”. We need to be brave, use all the resources we have got, and sometimes take risks, too. The board and the entire congregation of Sim Shalom are currently having to face such a task in our battle against the new Hungarian “church” laws which discriminate against Progressive Judaism as well as against many other religious communities. In the hard work many of us have put into the lobbying activities and strategic decisions of the past weeks and months we are learning to put “God’s self-realization” into practice. Our biggest dilemmas have been “Who is going to help us?” and “Are we only fighting for ourselves or for all the other religious congregations, too?” The answer we have found to these questions is a teaching of ancient rabbinical Judaism which is as valid as ever in our time. “Im eyn ani li mi li? V’chisheani l’atzmi, ma ani?”. If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?
Thus the first level is to fight together for ourselves and for others. The second level is working together for others – tzedaka. Last autumn Sim Shalom organised a cake sale to raise money for the local hospice’s new windows, thus ensuring a better standard of living for many elderly people coming to the end of their lives. All of us who took part in this event, whether by baking cakes, buying them, or being organisers, felt “shechina”, the heartwarming Godly presence in our midst during the project.
We will soon have a chance to experience this uplifting feeling once more. During the festival of Sukkot we are planning to give out food parcels to families in need, in partnership with the Krishna believers community who are experts in this type of charity. The project is a part of interreligious cooperation which has started with our participation in the Forum of World Religions.
And finally one of our most essential Godly attributes is the ability to find a balance. The two basic territories of Judaism are on the one hand halachah, the rabbinic laws and rules, and on the other hand aggadah, narratives and storytelling. Balancing these two opposing principles has become a very lively debate topic recently in Sim Shalom.
Quoting from Heschel, “Halachah represents the strength to shape one’s life according to a fixed pattern; is is a form-giving force. Aggadah is the expression of man’s ceaseless striving, which often defies all limitations. Halachah is the rationalisation and schematizations of living; it defines, specifies, sets measure and limit, placing life into an exact system. Aggadah deals with man’s ineffable relations to God, to other men, and to the world. Halachah deals with details, with each commandment separately, aggadah with the whole of life, with the totality of religious life. Halachah deals with the law, aggadah with the meaning of the law. Halachah deals with subjects that can be expressed literally; aggadah introduces us to a realm which lies beyond the range of expression. Halachah teaches us how to perform common acts; aggadah tells us how to participate in the eternal drama. Halachah gives us knowledge; aggadah exaltation. Halachah prescribes, aggadah suggests; halachah decrees, aggadah inspires; halachah is definite, aggadah is allusive.
To maintain that the essence of Judaism consists exclusively of halachah is as erroneous as to maintain that the essence of Judaism consists exclusively of aggadah.
The interrelationship of halachah and aggadah is the very heart of Judaism. Halachah without aggadah is dead, aggadah without halachah is wild.”
(From A. J. Heschel: Halachah and Aggadah)
Generosity, patience, acceptance of diversity, fighting for justice, helping those in need and balancing law with emotion. If all these values are present in a congregation, then God’s wishes come true and he is “realized through us”.