It is thus no accident that Rabbi Waxman is the first woman and the first out lesbian to head a rabbinical school and a Jewish denomination in Jewish history. While this leap forward is not surprising, it is significant nevertheless. We often try to imagine what the world would be like if it were run by women, and Waxman’s inaugural address yesterday provided a clear taste of how gender can make a difference.
I am, however, very interested in what happens after death to people whom I love. When my daughter Hana took her own life over three years ago, my agony was excruciating, and what would have been her 29th birthday tomorrow has already hit me hard. Part of my grief stems from imagining the pain she must have been experiencing that led her to suicide. But in 2011, part of my pain came from the abrupt end of our relationship. I would never see her again, never talk, never be able to watch her grow.
I would be happy if there remained many names of God, but I affirm the underlying hope for a world in which all peoples, however diverse, would feel sufficiently united to care about one another, to build peace and end war, to do the difficult work of cultivating empathy for the other, to do without some of their own discretionary pleasures to help others acquire some of their necessities.
The play raises profound questions about what it means to survive. If the cost of survival is abandoning one’s lover and denying one’s own identity, is that really survival? If being murdered is the price of affirming one’s identity, what is survival worth? There are no correct answers to these questions. When camp inmates were able to make choices (and they were rarely able to do so), it is not for us to judge choices made in unspeakable circumstances.
The God I believe in permeates the universe as the ground of all being. God is beyond human conception, so all our images and metaphors for God are a reflection of our human glimpses of that which is unfathomable. Unfathomable, but not undetectable, and definitely not irrelevant. How do I know that there is a God? I don’t. I can’t know what is beyond my ability to conceive. It’s a matter of faith. I have faith that there is more to reality than can be measured in a laboratory.
Most of all, in uttering the words, “I need help,” a veil was lifted from over my eyes, and I saw again that I am part of a larger story, that I am not the author of the narrative of my life.
I do believe, however, that not everything that is factually accurate ought to be spoken. It depends, I think, on my motivation, on my careful consideration of why I am saying what I am saying and of what the consequences will be. And in the end, the negative effects on my psyche of criticizing or disparaging another person also count in the calculation of what to do.
You don’t have to bring God in as an extra ingredient. Think of God as already here, as always present. The process of discerning God’s presence is about learning to see what is already there, already everywhere.
Often enough, people look for certainty in their religious beliefs. For some of us, however, faith is reliance on that which is beyond our ability to conceive or understand, on the sacred mystery that we glimpse or discern through practice. We do the best we can as we negotiate social convention, but we understand that the underlying ultimate reality is never as clear as our conceptions and convictions. We try to remain open and steady as the stability of our bedrock beliefs is shaken.
If you believe that God is aware of all the details of our lives and rewards or punishes us for our behavior, then you are forced to justify God for everything that happens. But if you believe that God is not the cause of everything but that God is present in everything—supporting, offering compassion and insight, empathizing with us, inspiring us—then you can try to discern the invitation, the opportunity to connect with the divine in every situation, even the saddest and most horrible.