Sunday, January 01, 2006

Circles in the Sand

Judaism, in contradistinction to mystical quietism, which recommended toleration of pain, wants man to cry out aloud against any kind of pain, to react indignantly to all kinds of injustice or unfairness. For Judaism held that the individual who displays indifference to pain and suffering, who meekly reconciles himself to the ugly, disproportionate and unjust in life, is not capable of appreciating beauty and goodness. Whoever permits his legitimate needs to go unsatisfied will never be sympathetic to the crying needs of others. A human morality based on love and friendship, on sharing in the travail of others, cannot be practiced if the person's own need-awareness is dull and he does not know what suffering is. Hence Judaism rejected models of existence which deny human need, such as the angelic or the monastic. For Judaism, need-awareness constitutes part of the definition of human existence. Need-awareness turns into a passional experience, into a suffering awareness. Dolorem ferre ergo sum- I suffer, therefore I am.- to paraphrase Descartes' cogito ergo sum. While the Cartesian cogito would also apply to an angel or even to the devil, our inference is limited to man: neither angel nor devil know suffering.

'Redemption, Prayer, Talmud Torah' by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik

So I read Circles in the Sand.

First, credit where credit is due. I give the author of the article full credit for her desire to permit questions, to allow questions, to bring up the “question of questioning.” In some ways, I applaud what she writes.

Also, credit to Jewish Action for publishing such an article.

But the article does not convince me. There are certain aspects of it that bother me, that turn me off, so to speak, that make me unhappy. Because what she spends seven pages doing is simply creating a masterpiece of phraseology that ends with the same idea it begins with- namely, that if someone asks questions buttressed by emunah, then these questions should be permitted.

This sounds reasonable, at first glance. But then you actually look at her definition of emunah.

    “Everything that happens here, it’s all a miracle,” said 8-year-old Haya Schijveschuurder from her hospital bed, during an interview on Israel Radio’s morning news. “Nothing happens for no reason.” She paused occasionally between words, a listener could tell she was articulating her thoughts carefully and hesitantly as she went along, the mix in her voice of shyness and self-confidence revealing a child unaccustomed to expressing herself to strangers, but accustomed to getting attention at home. It sounded somehow as if she were being prompted gently by some smiling, nodding parent, though neither parent was present; I felt as if I could hear the internalized parental voice telling her that in this new situation it would be a mitzvah to speak openly to the interviewer. A few days earlier she had lost her mother, father, and three siblings in the August 2001 suicide bombing at Sbarro’s restaurant in Jerusalem. “Hashem knows what He’s doing,” she declared with total certainty in her soft little voice. “He wants to tell us that we need to behave a little bit better and that soon Moshiach will come and that then all the dead will rise again.”

The writer of this article was impressed by this little girl’s emunah, or belief. She felt the child had been set on “firm ground” in her early years, and though she might undergo “a lifelong quest” due to what happened to her parents, there’s “reason to hope that eventually all life’s joys will be within her reach.”

I, on the other hand, was extremely disturbed when I read the little girl’s response.

She had just lost her father, her mother, and three siblings but her response was that Hashem is trying to teach us that we need to behave a little bit better? There was no grief, no mourning, no questioning, no wondering why, nothing but a calm sense of surety in the fact that her family was robbed of her because God wishes to teach the entire Jewish people to “behave a little bit better.”

This bothers me. More than that, it confounds me. The fact that a little girl has been taught that everything happens for a reason, that, as it were, her parents were taken from her for a reason, and more than that, she felt she understood the reason- that’s disturbing.

Because that is not a child’s natural response.

This may sound awful, judgemental, but I can assure you that if my entire family vanished in one horrific night, my response would be just that- horror. Horror and fear, anger at God, a desire to understand. This all the more so when I was a little girl, because I would have been abandoned, alone and adrift in the world. I think this response is more natural, because it reveals emotions, complexities, depths of feeling that this little girl does not seem to relay.

The fact that she can neutrally accept the loss of her parents is so disturbing as to be almost terrible.

That is not emunah, or at least, it is not the kind of emunah that I know. That is what I would consider to be indoctrination, where a child has been taught God is good, and cannot argue with that notion. Hence must accept that everything He does is good, and in effect, can never truly question. She lives within a mental barrier, a kind of world where she can question- but never too far. She can’t question the really important things, issues of God and his goodness and his righteousness.

She cannot ask why.

No, instead she must come up with reasons that the “why” does not exist. Everything happens for a reason. God wants us to behave better. God will revive everybody later on. I believe.

I ask why.

I may not get an answer, I may not be satisfied by anything I am told, I may never hear something that strikes me as truth and truthful. But at least I can ask why, am not restrained by what I was taught, by the supposed “emunah” this child possesses.

The writer moves on to another “why” question. The ultimate one. The Holocaust.

Why the Holocaust? Why did it happen? How? What kind of God could allow the Holocaust to happen?

She tries to give an answer, an answer that she herself seems to believe.

    “…it’s true an Omnipotent, kind Deity could certainly have prevented the Holocaust.
    But there’s another possibility. Given the abundant scientific evidence of an inexplicably orderly universe, perhaps our human capacity for doing evil is part of the design. Maybe human existence is meant to include suffering, calibrated perfectly to the unique developmental requirements of each soul that Hashem created. Perhaps there’s an underlying purpose to every individual’s suffering, whether or not we believe it, whether or not to us it will ever become apparent.
    My friends had heard this argument before. They were not impressed.

I am not impressed, either.

I do not believe in answers, in inept answers that the person cannot possibly know. I also do not think she has a right to speak, to (at least to my mind) demote the horrors of the Holocaust, the concentration camps, the crematoria, the medical experiments to the fact that life is “meant to include suffering, calibrated perfectly to the unique developmental requirements of each soul that Hashem created.”

I think that answer is presumptuous, and that it denies the suffering of man.

I would have respected the writer more if she had simply said- if she had the courage to say- I do not know.

Because people hate to admit a lack of knowledge, a lack of understanding, an inability to comprehend. They want to give answers, even answers that do not fit the questions, in some way to try to prove their point. The answers are not satisfactory, and what is more, they do not take into account the extent of a human being’s feelings, and his ability to feel pain.

If you do not know, admit your lack of knowledge.

I will respect you more if you do so. Because it means that you have grappled with the questions, with the obvious answers, and realize that they are not satisfactory. Instead of attempting to live with a shaky answer, you are living with the questions.

I think this is more difficult, and hence more courageous.

The writer of the article then brings forward her emotional proof that she is correct.

    When he finished telling the story, I asked “When you were in the camp, did you ever doubt God’s existence?”
    He regarded me with sharp surprise. “No,” he said, “I wouldn’t permit such a thought to enter my mind.”

This individual is blessed, righteous, and did not doubt the existence of God.

That does not negate the scores of others who were tortured by doubt, who hated God, who abandoned the religion, who cannot understand, even today. Everyone attempts to find an answer. Viktor Frankl, in ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’ describes the meaning of suffering/ pain. Elie Wiesel describes how his faith was torn away from him, brings home the horrors of the Holocaust. There are others, many others, who feel anger towards God, even today.

This cannot be outweighed by one man’s survival. The question remains. Why? Why does man suffer? Why was there a Holocaust?

We do not know. And we cannot answer. I don’t like the half-answers, the groping attempts the writer makes. They do not comfort me. They serve to distance me.

The author describes her righteous anger upon being told her daughter should not ask questions in class. But then- contradiction of contradictions- we read the paragraph:

    When my daughter got home from school, I told her what the secretary had said and suggested that maybe she shouldn’t ask questions in class anymore, for the sake of the other girls. My daughter, who knows me well, saw that I was upset. “Mommy, don’t worry. I understand why they don’t want me to ask questions in class. It’s really no problem.”

For the sake of the other girls, I can’t ask questions!? More importantly, the mother uses this- the other girls- as a justification. “Your questions are not wrong, dear, but you shouldn’t ask them because the other girls are bothered by them.” What kind of double message does this send? If the questions are right, then they should be heard! This author claims she is a firebrand, always questioning and pursuing the truth. If so, how dare she muffle her daughter for “the sake of the other girls”? Even if an opportunity is allowed (discussions with the principal) this is still wrong, wrong, wrong!

It’s hypocrisy.

If you believe the questions are correct, if you believe your daughter has a right to ask them, then you cannot tell her she must be silent for another person’s sake. If the other person is offended, the other person must simply take care of herself/ learn not to take offense. You cannot, cannot ask me to be silent simply because someone else is bothered by my desire to learn.

Either I am wrong or I am right.

And if I am right, then I don’t care what impact it has on the others; my questions are allowed and should be heard.

The fact that a mother would ask this of her child- even though the child does not view her silence in class as a problem- is damnable. The woman is sending her a silent message- “I think you’re right, but the powers-that-be don’t, so be quiet in class.”

I cannot conceive of that, am blessed that my parents don’t think that way, and hate it. Hate double messages, silent pleas, hypocrisy.

I also don’t agree with the writer’s take on teenagers and adolescents.

    ”I was 18. I was just asking whatever occurred to me. I don’t think people that age know necessarily what questions they have until they start talking about them. All they know is that they’re in a world that is confusing, coming at them from all directions. Especially in Israel. You go there for a year of seminary and there’s all this secular-religious conflict, and bombs start going off.

I don’t like this tone, the condescension it implies. I do not think the writer means to be deliberately condescending. I think she is actually and truly defending a teenager’s right to think. But all we teenagers know is that we’re in “a world that is confusing, coming at them [us] from all directions?” I think not. I think most of us, the great majority of us, know more than that. We’re not simply confused, hapless beings, needing a leader, some symbol of guidance and mercy, an angel from heaven. Many of us know precisely what questions we have, but we aren’t allowed- we are forbidden- to ask them.

I do like- I very much approve- of her last paragraph, however. I agree with it wholeheartedly.

    “To be a child is to wonder. Even in the absence of external conflict, the mind of a child is a growing, changing organism- more so than the physical body. We needn’t be afraid of a child’s questions, even if we ourselves don’t know how to reply. For every question, if truly pursued, leads to truth.

And let me extend that. Just as we need not be afraid of a child’s questions, there is no need to fear a teenager’s questions, an adult’s questions. When I attended Templars, one of the things that kept me sane was the works of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. He’s brilliant, his works are brilliant; he sees the world through the eyes of a human being, not someone beyond or above, an angel or a robot. He understand pain and suffering. He understands questions. He understands man in his weakest moments and in his highest, the lofty and the mundane.

He writes, in his work ‘Sacred and Profane:’

    "When a minister, rabbi, or priest attempts to solve the ancient question of Job's suffering through a sermon or lecture, he does not promote religious ends but, on the contrary, does them a disservice. The beauty of religion, with its grandiose vistas, reveals itself to man not in solutions but in problems, not in harmony but in the constant conflict of diversified forces and trends....The Jewish ideal of the religious personality is not the harmonious individual determined by the principal of equilibrium, but the torn soul and the shattered spirit that oscillate between God and the world."

This makes far more sense to me than an 8-year-old girl’s belief that God wants us to behave better, or a particular individual’s understanding of suffering. Religion “reveals itself to man not in solutions but in problems, not in harmony but in the constant conflict of diversified forces and trends…” Religion is questions and questioning; it is made up of conflicts. Religion does not make us whole, it is not a warm and comforting salve for our wounds. The religious personality is the “torn soul and the shattered spirit that oscillate between God and the world.”

And what does Judaism require of us? Not tolerance, not acceptance, no! Judaism requires “man to cry out aloud against any kind of pain, to react indignantly to all kinds of injustice or unfairness. For Judaism held that the individual who displays indifference to pain and suffering, who meekly reconciles himself to the ugly, disproportionate and unjust in life, is not capable of appreciating beauty and goodness.”

We are not supposed to simply accept pain, suffering, to try to find reasons for the Holocaust, for terrorist attacks, for the hurt that life brings.

We are supposed to “cry out aloud against any kind of pain, to react indignantly to all kinds of injustice or unfairness…” and why? Because one who does not do this, who is indifferent or tolerant, who meekly reconciles himself to the ugly, disproportionate and unjust in life is- and this is astounding- not capable of appreciating beauty and goodness.

God desires our questions, wants our thoughts, desires us to be self-aware. Not to block out pain, hatred, anger, but to accept it and allow it, to cry “Why?” until we are exhausted, to demand the answers. It is not the tame attempt to answer children that this writer describes. It is a way of life, a kind of living, something that is difficult and draining and almost terrible, but something so beautiful, invigorating and shattering as to lift us from the depths and allow us to cry out.

When I ask questions, I do not want attempts or half-answers. I want the truth.

Even an ugly truth, an unhappy truth, something that will make me shudder, a truth that I do not understand, even something that is not an answer but mere questions- this is what I want, what I desire, something far more than the writer of ‘Circles in the Sand’ could understand!

It takes courage to live this way. It’s difficult, it’s hard, it is not easy; there are no easy answers and sometimes torturous questions.

But it’s the way I choose to live.

Or perhaps, the way I must live. Once you dare to speak, even when forcibly silenced, you do not stop thinking. Questions haunt you, live inside you, crawl beneath your skin. Everything provokes another question, another contradiction.

That is my religion. That is Judaism.


Ezzie said...

You're both right and wrong.

Let's use the example of the child: The child professes that the deaths of her family must have happened for a reason; they were orchestrated by God.

You argued that this is not a natural response - but in fact, this is not the case.

All truly large questions in life are extremely difficult - whether about God, death, Judaism, etc. Let's use the girl: If she went through life questioning her parents' purposeless death, what conclusion would she come to? She would likely go crazy - there is no way for her to answer that question in her lifetime.

We are all searching for answers; but agonizing over the questions we are not capable of understanding, or not yet capable of understanding, is both pointless and foolish. The child's answer is wise beyond its years: Nothing happens for no reason. However, that does not mean we know the reasons. God knows what He's doing - we don't. Agonizing will solve little. Sure, there's usually grieving - and most children, and probably this girl, cry plenty over the lost of a loved one. I was at a funeral 6 months ago for my friend's mother, killed suddenly in a car crash (talked about today on my blog, actually). She had 10 children. One of the daughters, about 10 years old, was sobbing hysterically for days - but through it all, felt that there was good to be found in what had happened. It is a purely natural desire for those who are suffering to stretch out for the positives so their grief does not completely overcome them.

Sorry I'm cutting it short: I'm tired, and this isn't as clear as I'd like it to be. Intriguing post, however - iyH I'll link to it in my next roundup.

One last, unsolicited piece of advice: Be VERY wary of what you read on blogs, particularly Godol Hador and his ilk. I love GH, and gain a lot in my own Judaism from it; however, I have people who are experts in much of what he refers to to check issues with. It is impossible to not be affected by what you read, no matter how independent one is and how much they know. The younger you are, the more this is true - especially at your age (and I'm no old fogey - I'm 22). Often, the smarter you are, the more trouble you will find yourself having - it's impossible to describe the vast amount of knowledge necessary just to [truly] follow all that is happening in the fields to which he refers; it's even harder for the more intelligent, who are used to understanding everything upon first reading, to adjust. You can understand something perfectly and still miss the point.

Read it if you wish - but be careful!!

Chana said...

Firstly, thanks for the very thoughtful response.

I should have made this clearer- my problem with the girl's response was not that she said the deaths happened for a "reason," but that she specifically knew the reason- that God wants us to behave a little bit better.

It bothered me that she felt her parents were taken from her because God is trying to teach the world to behave better.

That's what I found unnatural.

I don't think children ought to agonize and never find peace, but neither do I think it's good to believe your parents were taken from you to teach others a lesson.

FrumGirl said...

Oh, Chana... how I see myself in you - if only I was as sophisticated as you seem to be at your age. Yes, Of course I agree with you completely. Questions that question faith are forcibly silenced. I was raised by the Bais Yaakov education system. Questions were not allowed. I, however, without the strong parental backing, was unable to process what you have achieved now until I was a little bit older... in my early 20's. The thoughts were there... but concealed. I so admire your philosophical and talmudic mind. I admire your challenging nature. What a great blog.

About the child who lost her parents in the Sbarro bombing - it sounds to me like she was shell-shocked, the tragedy happening only too soon. I wonder if she isn't singing another tune now, years removed from what happened. I am sure her journey has led to many questions. A follow up essay should be in order with regards to her. It wont happen though because it may raise too many questions ;-)hence, defeating the purpose.

Back to your point: Don't you recognize that the way they teach us is directly due to fear? They know deep down that their sysem is flawed but in their minds (educational administrators) it is believed that if they can get us to blindly accept then most ffb orthodox children will continue to be orthodox. The few with enough mind to question dont matter in the grander scheme of things, they are allowed to fall to the wayside. They are afraid of losing their children to questioning. Unfortunately most follow blindly... sheep leading sheep. Yes, most teachers are not equipped to handle questions as they themselves dont question... when never going down that route how can they possibly handle even allowing questions? It would tear down their own fundamentals! Make them question themselves. Fear does not allow them to do that.

I loved your last line. That is Judaism to me too. That is what Torah Shbaal Peh is all about - the back and forth - the debate, the questions, etc etc. It is a shame that what the orthodox believe Judaism is today has become something it should have never become out of FEAR: A closed narrow minded way of thinking laced with intolerance and death = embarrassing those who ask.

I cannot wait to read more of what you have to say. You can also email me...

rabbi neil fleischmann said...

There's so much to say, but I need to process it all.

Masmida said...

In very breif:

A child in many ways has no idea what the rules are. They don't understand what is supposed to happen and what is not. Just like little babies spend monthes learning by trial and error the nature of this physical world.

Children don't know the moral rules of the world. They have to be taught them.

Children are very selfish will act in their own self interest without regard for others.

That replusion, that visceral hate of all that is evil and injust is a charecteristic of taught to us by the people around us.

So is acceptance of suffering and pain.

The quiet certainty in the little girl's voice is not some supressed emotion. It is the way she understands the world to work. It is the framework that the anger and grief will express themselves. The anger at G-d's will. The grief at the necessity. The pure rage at the incomprehensible purpose.

This girl's story is not over. There will be struggle and pain and uncertainty. But her answer will be that same deeply painful truth that every Jew has confronted, G-d is the Almighty, All-seeing and All-powerful who is Good and yet has chosen to allow this act in His world.

It is not a comfortable truth. A comforting truth. but if you understand what we can comprehend of G-d it is true.

But don't mistake the reaction afterward for the action beforehand.
No one can raise these girl's parents from the dead. There is nothing that remains to be done for them.

But, before, anything, everything that could have prevented the death of those human being, must and should be done.

If it happened it's G-d's will. But you're right. We can't accept it so easily.

Keep struggling, keep growing and tell me when you find some answers.