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Defying Despair: Why I Believe

Posted: 10/16/08 01:19 PM ET

Yom Kippur Sermon October 8, 2008

I recently heard Bill Maher speak about his new film, Religulous (a made up word that combines religion and ridiculous), which offers a blistering attack on religion and the religious life. He argues that faith necessarily means a lack of critical thinking, that "to be religious at all is to be an extremist, [because] it is to be extremely irrational."

I understand his critique of religion. I understand the problems inherent in the notion of an all-powerful God in a world of brokenness and pain, of poverty and disease. I understand the damage that religious faith has wrought, the bigotry, close-mindedness and narrowness that is so closely identified with religious communities and ideology. I understand why smart, discerning people might reject religion so fiercely.

At the recent ordination ceremony of a new crop of rabbis, I watched a class of talented young people commit to a life of religious practice and service to the American Jewish community, to sub-par salaries and total social isolation. And I thought: What's wrong with you people?! You'd have to be crazy to be religious today, when religion is so much more about hatred than love, more about dividing than healing.

And yet, there they were. Something drove them to choose this path in this moment. And I look at all of you. It's a Wednesday night, for God's sake. Do you have any idea how much good TV there is on Wednesday nights these days? Why are you sitting here? Why did I forgo a decent job in an office building with respectable bathrooms? I witness the same fanaticism as Bill Maher. Why am I willing to fight with all of my might to uncover a vision of religious meaning when it would be so easy, so sensible, to walk away?

Because I remember something very important that I learned in my Principles of Economics class in college. Our Professor was young and incredibly dynamic. He introduced every class by reading headlines from New York Times (sic) and offering an economist's perspective on what was happening -- everything from the fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the likelihood of the success of Oslo to the battle between Jay Leno and David Letterman to succeed Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. His perspective was riveting -- completely and refreshingly different from anything I'd ever heard before.

But on the last day of class, he stood before us and said: I have argued all semester long that everything about the world can be understood through an economic analysis. But that's not exactly true. There are two things in life that fundamentally challenge the economists' world view. First, bulimia. It makes absolutely no sense, from an economic perspective, why a person would spend money to buy food, eat it, and then deprive herself of the nutritional benefit of the food. That is thoroughly incomprehensible to an economist. Second, love. There is simply no way for an economist to understand why a person would drive for hours -- going to great expense and utter inconvenience -- just to see the person he loves for five minutes. These two examples, he admitted ruefully, ultimately point to the fundamental weakness of a strictly economic, or even strictly rational approach to life.

Of course he was right. Often the things that hurt us, and thrill us, the most, are beyond rational explanation. Anyone who has ever struggled, or had a close friend or family member who struggled with an eating disorder understands exactly what drives a person to deprive herself of what she needs to be healthy. And to anyone who has ever been in love, I mean really in love, it is the most obvious thing in the world that you would drive forever for even an instant with your beloved -- how you'd do anything in the world, give up anything, just to hear his voice or touch his skin.

Krista Tippett writes that "the spiritual energy of our time... is not a rejection of rational disciplines -- law, politics, economics, science. It is, rather, a realization that these disciplines have a limited scope. They can't ask ultimate questions of morality and meaning. We can construct factual accounts and systems from DNA, GNP, legal code, but they don't begin to tell us how to order our astonishments, what matters in a life, what matters in a death, how to love, how we can be of service to each other."

Even the great cynics would have to agree that there are some things in life that are simply beyond reasonable explanation. There are some things that are so incomprehensibly magnificent that they stir up a sense of wonder so profound that it takes your breath away.

But it's one thing to recognize the great beauty and mysteries of the world -- things far beyond human comprehension. It is quite another to cast your lot with a religious tradition, to connect yourself to a community, bind yourself to a set of ritual practices. Why would you ever do that? Because to be awake today is to recognize that our nation and our world are in the midst of a downward spiral, descending with no end in sight. Between the war and the economy alone, the reality of our nation is dramatically out of alignment with the core values many of us hold, as greed, corruption, hatred and divisiveness propel the national conversation.

The Torah begins in gan eden -- the Garden of Eden, a place of utter perfection, in which there is no suffering, no longing, no loss. But from the height of physical and spiritual fulfillment, the Book of Genesis goes on to narrate story after story of descent and exile. It is a book of expulsion, punishment, of global destruction, of conflict between nations and conflict within families. Genesis concludes with the Israelite people's descent into Egypt, which sets the stage for their slavery and suffering.

But our story as a people doesn't end with the Book of Genesis. We immediately turn to Exodus, the Book that begins with the Israelites in the darkness of slavery, degraded, humiliated, tortured. But it quickly turns to a story of miracles, of great and awesome plagues and wonders, of a fiery and promising partnership between God and humankind, of holiness in time (Shabbat) and in space (mishkan). In contrast to the Book of Genesis, the Book of Exodus tells a story of ascent, of redemption. It is a story in which -- from depths of darkness -- we affirm the possibility of light. A story in which the people who were forced to dwell in the narrowness of Mitzrayim, Egypt, come to embody the expansiveness of human potential. A light unto the nations -- a symbol for all time of what is possible.

It is the God of Exodus who teaches humankind to respond to darkness with a fierce determination to carve out a path toward light. It is the story of Exodus that serves as the most potent and undeniable counter-testimony to the reality of our world. Just when it seems that the darkness of the world will eclipse any light, just when we believe we are spent, just when we are ready to succomb to the triumph of evil, we are called upon to remember the great dream that was born with the writing of this epic story.

Because the Jewish people ultimately is not a Genesis people. We are an Exodus people.

And this dream -- the dream of the Exodus, the dream of world of freedom, of hope and possibility -- has kept the Jewish people alive and given us the strength to survive years of deprivation and suffering. Rav Kook taught that the whole world stands on our ability to dream great dreams. The whole religious life is designed to remind us to dream, precisely when life threatens to mire us in reality that doesn't match deepest aspirations of our people.

Where do I see faith, when I look at the world? I see faith not in the agents of bigotry and hatred, who commit acts of terror in God's name. Nor do I see faith in the politicians who claim to serve God's will by restricting loving partners from marrying one another, or challenging the teaching of evolution in the classroom. I see faith in Rabbi David Weiss Halivni -- one of my teachers -- the great Talmud scholar and Holocaust survivor. One evening, returning exhausted and hungry from a grueling ten hour work shift in a concentration camp, a young Halivni noticed one of the Nazi soldiers standing guard, eating a sandwich so greasy that it stained the wrapping paper, leaving it transparent. Halivni became mesmerized when he saw that there were Hebrew letters written on the wrapper, realizing that the wrapper was actually a page torn from a Jewish holy text. (One must suspect that the Nazis used pages from Jewish sacred texts to catch the fatty drip from sandwiches not because there was a paper shortage, but because it would be a particular kind of torture to the Jewish prisoners to see their holy texts desecrated.)

"Upon seeing this wrapper," Halivni recalls, "I instinctively fell at the feet of the guard, without even realizing why; the mere letters propelled me. With tears in my eyes, I implored him to give me this page... He thought I was suffering from epilepsy. He immediately put his hand to his revolver -- the usual reaction to an unknown situation. This was, I explained to him, a page from a book I [used to] study at home. Please, I sobbed, give it to me."

The guard finished the rest of his sandwich, but then, perhaps in some sympathetic gesture to the humanity that predated the utter inhumanity of their current circumstances, he handed the greasy paper to Halivni. While the fatty spots had made much of the page illegible, to Halivni and his fellow prisoners it was a sacred treasure. They ran back to the barracks each night to gather around this piece of paper and study intensely. What was on the page? Some laws of selling hametz on Passover -- clearly not practically relevant to prisoners on the verge of death in a work camp. But as Halivni remembers, "that was irrelevant. They all perceived the symbolic significance of the [page]..." One piece of paper was enough to rekindle hope -- to remind Halivni and the other prisoners that they were human beings, part of a great Jewish story, one that starts in slavery but ends in freedom. While they didn't know it at the time, this greasy sheet, which gave the prisoners a will survive, was recovered only weeks before the liberation of the camps and the war's end.

I see faith in the family of our dear friend in New York who was 23 weeks pregnant when her water broke and she delivered her baby -- weighing less than one pound, without fully a developed brain or lungs. The doctors couldn't explain why she had delivered so early -- she was in perfect health and the pregnancy had been without complications up to that point. In shock, she and her husband sat every day at the side of the tiny soul in the NICU, wondering if the baby could possibly live, knowing how unlikely were his prospects for survival. About a week after his premature birth, my friend's mother -- the baby's grandmother -- was diagnosed with advanced stage breast cancer. The prognosis was not good -- the cancer had already spread throughout her body. She chose the most aggressive treatment plan, and was scheduled to undergo surgery and chemotherapy treatment at the very same hospital where her grandchild was being kept alive. Nine months later, I was among a few hundred people who gathered to celebrate the miraculous survival of this baby, who was home from the hospital, and finally able to have a brit milah. His grandmother, now a breast cancer survivor, stood up and said: "Every morning before my treatment, I would go up to the 8th floor, the NICU. I would look into that little glass case and see a baby at first so underdeveloped he barely resembled a human being. And I would say to God and to myself: If this little person has the courage to fight for life despite all the odds, so must I. It is because of him that I am alive today. " The moment she finished speaking, the tables and chairs were spontaneously pushed to the side and the guests danced and danced -- a dance of life, an affirmation of the power of love, a confirmation of the deepest religious suspicions of the Jewish people: that we need not accept that our journey will end in darkness and suffering; we can and must walk toward light.

So here's what I -- a person of faith, an Exodus Jew -- say to Bill Maher: Guess what? The God you mock is not my God. My God does not tell people to blow up buildings, oppress women, or even build gas pipelines. My God tells us to treat all people with dignity and love. My God does not advocate for the war in Iraq, or any other brutal conflict that separates people from their loved ones and treats human beings like "collateral damage." No, the God I love demands that we pursue every possible path toward peace. My God does not make children sick, but gives them and their parents comfort and strength as they struggle with illness. Belief in my God does not free human beings to defer responsibility, it demands of us that we take responsibility. As the great Rev. William Sloane Coffin:

"It's clear to me... that almost every square inch of the Earth's surface is soaked with the tears and blood of the innocent, [but] it is not God's doing. It's our doing. That's human malpractice. Don't chalk it up to God. Every time people... lift their eyes to heaven and say, 'God, how could you let this happen?' it's well to remember that exactly at that moment God is asking exactly the same question of us: 'How could you let this happen?' So [we] have to take responsibility."

That most of the terrible heartache in the world is perpetrated by people -- and often people who cloak themselves in religion -- is a great travesty and a bruise on our shared humanity. But that is no reason not to believe. It is, rather, a reason to challenge, to reinvent. To search deeply within our traditions for the ikar, the sacred essence that is truly at the heart of our faith that compels us to engage one another not with condescension and brutality, but with respect and compassion.

My God is an Exodus God, devastated by the prevalence of hopelessness and despair, because this God is responsible for planting the message of the possibility of redemption into the human psyche. My God calls upon human beings to witness the pain of the afflicted, to agonize over the plight of the poor, to fight for the dignity of all human beings. My God insists that we give a damn -- that we wake up to the suffering of the widow, the orphan and the stranger, that we recognize that the bond of human connectedness extends beyond our own dalet amot -- our own immediate family and circle of friends. My God demands that we recognize that the religious life is fundamentally incompatible with apathy and complacency, just as it is with cruelty and brutality.

But it is not only God who you reject, it is the religious life -- the life of narrowness, derision and exclusivity, of radicalism and debasement... which, guess what? I also reject. Who told you that's what religion is? Why have we allowed the most extreme, most narrow-minded interpreters, the most violent forces to define faith and religious life? Faith is not about hatred and exclusion -- those are perversions of the deepest religious truths. The religious life is not about pretending to know with certainty, it is about living with deep humility. It is not about harnessing forces to restrict other people's freedom, it is about showing up at someone's home with dinner when you know she is suffering. The religious life is about saying to every mother of a sick kid: don't give up. To every lonely person: I know your heart hurts, but love might still be possible. It is about praying, singing, crying, and working with all our hearts to bring holiness into our world. It is about seeing every person, in every generation, as a potential agent of transformation.

The Exodus story brings with it not a vague sense of possibility, but a definitive sense of responsibility. As people who carry story of Exodus emblazoned on our hearts, our work is to respond to a world saturated by grief and anguish with hope, with spiritual strength, with ethical passion.

We are a people who has seen the worst of humanity, who has been victimized, oppressed, and persecuted by the most horrific aggressors in history. We are a people who has had its children murdered and its synagogues burned, but has come out building hospitals and schools and civil rights organizations because we always believed that the world could be better than it was.

In 1963, a 34-year-old black preacher stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and shared his dreams for our nation. I imagine that Reverend King's dreams seemed like an absurd impossibility at the time -- the dream that "one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood," that one day "in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers." And yet it was precisely the willingness to dream impossible dreams that propelled our country "from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood... from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice." We're not there yet, but the very fact of an African-American Presidential nominee is evidence that King's unlikely dream has become manifest in our reality.

That same year, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel went to speak at the first National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago. "The dominant mood of the four-day meeting -- attended by 1,000 [Protestant, Roman Catholic and Jewish] delegates ... was [fatalistic]." Just before Heschel got up to speak, a white minister said flatly: "it is too late now for us to establish harmonious relationships between the races on a worldwide scale." One of his colleagues said, "the most practical thing to do now is weep."

As legend has it, Heschel took the microphone from his hands and said, "With all due respect, my friends, in my tradition there is no sin greater than the sin of despair."

My faith is rooted in the Torah of Exodus, the Torah of hope:

The belief that a single page of sacred text, dripping in sandwich grease, can inspire prisoners to keep living despite the hunger, abuse and indignities they suffer.

The notion that a pre-term baby and his grandmother can find strength in one another as they both fight for survival, because there is always the possibility of a miracle.

My faith is not only a response to the dark desolation of a world of complete disorder, a world in which love is fundamentally no better than hatred, peace no more desirable than unease.

My faith is an affirmation of the unspeakable beauty of the world, the power of love, the call to justice, and the indomitable strength of the human spirit.

Why are we here tonight, when we could be listening to the endless punditry about last night's debate or about the prospects of a solution to our economic woes? Maybe some of us are here because of guilt or habit, or family obligation, or maybe because a friend forced us to come check out IKAR. But maybe we are here because some part of us knows that what we need, in these trying times, is to put everything in perspective. Maybe we are here because we know, deep in our hearts, that life is terribly fragile -- and we need to honor the tiny, timid part of ourselves that is willing to ask: what are we doing to make a life, and a world of meaning today?

For whatever reason you are here, I ask you to join me for the 25 hours of Yom Kippur on a religious journey, a faith experience that is defined neither by the detractors nor the extremists. A religious quest that is rooted more in questions than answers, more in humility than assumptions, more in hope than fear. And I ask you to leave here tonight with hearts open to what it truly means to be Exodus Jews -- to know that no matter how deep the suffering or how dark the night, night is always followed by a new dawn.

Shana tova.