Religion

Where was God on Oct. 7?

(RNS) — He stopped me in the aisle at Whole Foods.

“Rabbi, it’s good to see you, and I hope that you have been enjoying your retirement. (Retirement? More like semi-semi-retirement.) But I hope that you are not so retired that you cannot answer a question for me.”

“Go for it,” I replied. (Because, if I have learned anything, it is that rabbis never retire from answering questions. Or shouldn’t.)

“How can I believe in God after what happened on Oct. 7?”

I sighed.

Because I knew that this would take some time — and people in the granola section were already trying to steer their shopping carts around us.

Because there is no steering any intellectual or theological shopping carts around this question.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. (Courtesy photo)

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. (Courtesy photo)

That is why we at Wisdom Without Walls: an online salon for Jewish ideas, proudly invited Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, arguably the most significant modern Orthodox thinker in the world today, to share a conversation with our people. More than 60 people showed up, virtually — on a Sunday afternoon.

Because, like my interlocutor in Whole Foods, they are struggling with this question as well.

It does not matter that it is an old question; for contemporary Jews, ever since the Holocaust.

It is an evergreen question, and human nature being what it is, it will never recede.

First, about Rabbi Yitz Greenberg.

For the past 50 years, Greenberg has been an essential part of my life, and one of the people who has shaped both my rabbinate and my Jewish worldview. He has been a maverick; an institution builder; someone who has pushed the boundaries of Orthodoxy in a way that was absolutely necessary; a spectacular husband to Blu Greenberg, who was the first to imagine what an Orthodox feminism could look like; a father, grandfather, great-grandfather, whose loved ones even now defend the state of Israel.

This past summer, he graciously invited me to his home in Jerusalem. We spent an afternoon together talking from our hearts, studying, struggling. When it was over, I was shaking and in tears.

His books have influenced me, and many others. His book on the Jewish holidays, “The Jewish Way: Living the Holidays,” is not only the single best one-volume introduction to the Jewish holiday cycle, it is also one of the best introductions to modern Judaism. It is my No. 1 most recommended book for people who want to learn more about Judaism.

This is what he taught us several Sundays ago.

Once upon a time, in biblical times, we expected that God would save us. That was the age of miracles, of the divine presence bringing the Israelites out of Egypt and parting the sea, and being invoked to battle against our enemies.

But that is not the way Jewish history, and human history, has unfolded. Over time, the active presence of God has receded. The age of miracles has ended.

God recedes, so to bring human beings into a higher sense of responsibility. Human beings are utterly free.

God is still present, in the form of Shechinah, the feminine presence of God who wanders with us, and suffers with us. Shechinah is the restrained mother, hidden but paradoxically closer. She is everywhere. For Jews, she is most present in our homes, and there, most present in our kitchens!

Rav Yitz taught: By saying blessings and preparing a kosher meal, it is as if you are bringing sacrifices to God — no longer in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, long since destroyed — but in your own home. Making love is a way of bringing the Shechinah into the bedroom (or, wherever … )

You think that God is going to replicate the “Ten Commandments” version of the scene on Mount Sinai? Not happening. Those days are over.

Instead: Bring Shechinah into presence by using your minds and studying the inherited traditions.

It is the human responsibility — in fact, the cardinal Jewish responsibility — to bring the world into a higher state of being.

That is what we mean when we speak of tikkun olam, repairing the world — making the world more hospitable to the divine presence, through the ongoing task of affirming, reaffirming and strengthening the divine call to hallow life in its every form.

After the Holocaust, Jews could have walked away from God. Many did. They could have simply affirmed secularism or embraced nihilism. Again, many did.

The Jews could have walked away from God, but we were so much in love with the idea of the redemption of the world that we refused to let God go.

So, where was God on Oct. 7?

God was with the Jews, as God is with all suffering peoples. God was also massacred, abused, burnt alive and tortured. God is with the vulnerable, which includes the vulnerable Palestinians. 

Getting back to my friend at Whole Foods: This is what I wanted to say to him.

It is not my faith in God that suffered on Oct. 7.

It is my faith in humanity, in nations, in leaders, in high culture, in the universities, in politics. Those minifaiths were shattered.

God, however, has emerged intact.

As Shechinah.

What does it mean to create a perfect world, to engage in tikkun olam?

It is not to start with the entire world. It means to start small — with tikkun atzmi, with repairing oneself; to expand into our families, our communities, our own people (tikkun ha’am) — and ultimately, then, to the entire world. That is why God chose Abraham — to create a mensch, and then a people, with a specific covenant tied to a specific land — all of which might become a blueprint for humanity.

One last thing.

Let me go back to that part where I told you the age of Rav Yitz.

He is 91 years old.

There has been so much in the press, and in our national political conversations, about the vagaries of advancing age.

Forget about it.

In the words of one of my other rabbis, Bob Dylan, intellectually and spiritually, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg is “forever young.”


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