The Breath of Life Will Free You

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 6/17/2005

I would like to pick up exactly where Larry left off. Indeed, the very last line of the story is even richer than most of us usually understand it to be. Elijah the Prophet reports, "God laughed and said 'My children have won.' " In Hebrew, the word 'winning' - netzach - also means "eternity." God is saying, "My children have won and have made Me eternal." "Because they have taken My Torah, My values, and they have made it their own. Only so do I become eternal." Only when human beings act in the Divine Image does God become God. And so I too didn't see the real barricades as being between the religious and the secular. Is there any issue that is still echoed by the words secular and religious?

One is that of "wholeness" versus "splitness." It's an issue that has profound implications not only for our spiritual life but for our politics, for the way we go about changing the world.

A sense of wholeness is what religious people search toward, for the world and for themselves. Four or five generations ago, in the Western world, some people began to reject religion in order to seek a different kind of knowledge: knowledge rooted in analysis, in the pursuit of "splitness." They thought that by separating the world into slices they could examine it more effectively, and thus gain more power to change it as they saw fit. In its time, this attitude, what has come to be known as the scientific attitude, was not only forward-moving, progressive, in the secular sense, as its adherents felt, but was also, I would say, one major sign or symptom that God-power was moving into the world, suffusing the world. The new scientists, physical and social, were doing in part, what the rabbis did who affirmed God's Torah against God's very Self.

But the religious people of that era were frightened of this approach. They so deeply feared the abandonment of that wholeness for which they yearned that first they fought against Galileo, Darwin, Marx, Freud, Mill; and then they simply ruled physical, psychological, and social science out of the religious enterprise. They said science wasn't part of what religion was talking about at all.

I believe there was a spark of truth in their fear, for they saw the danger of becoming only analytical, of abandoning that yearning for wholeness. But by turning away from the new modes of scientific thought, they split the world in their own way. They also chose reductionism, by reducing the domain of God into a tiny private zone. They gave up wholeness in their quest to preserve it.

At the same time, the new analytical modes of thinking looked with contempt at religion's quest for wholeness. The scientists rejected mystery, claiming that the only truth is what you can point to, what you can count. Thus, a barricade between the religious and secular world-views was constructed, a barricade to which we are "mis-heirs."

Today, narrow-minded religiousity must be rejected just as powerfully as the rigid scientific model that says quantifying is the only truth. The models of both sides are dangerous. In our generation, the world needs more than ever to be made whole. Scientific analysis is not a fully ,, effective way to sustain that kind of feeling. Everything Larry Bush affirms about the importance of mystery is connected to a yearning for wholeness - a yearning that tells us that you can't find out everything by chopping it up; that if you chop it up you have missed something crucial about it. What you have missed is a mystery. It is the little "what?" that wasn't there.

Science says that there is no such thing as mystery, only ignorance. Ignorance, it says, needs to be conquered, and we will conquer it with more knowledge. But the search for wholeness, both religious and secular, is rooted in the understanding that there is mystery which will never be solved, a yearning that will never be satisfied by increasing knowledge.

How can it be satisfied? By stopping our desperate attempt to know in order to conquer. By counting to seven and being silent. By not doing what we don't know how to do and not pretending to know what we don't know.

Judaism understands this; it's the concept behind Shabbat. Why do I observe Shabbat? Because I don't know for sure what to do next. If I know what to do, why not do it? Because I don't know, it's crucial for me to stop and say, "I don't know what to do next." Because I don't know, I won't do anything next. And I will celebrate not knowing what to do next, rather than greeting it with fear and terror. So I sing, I dance, I read stories of people who didn't know what to do next. I listen to new stories; I acknowledge the well of mystery, from which emerges how and what to do.

It was not always this way. The Babylonians evidently had a day they called Shappatu when they stayed home under the covers, when they lit no fires and huddled in the dark, hour of depression and fear and misery. Why? They didn't know what to do next that much they knew so they did nothing. But it scared them and depressed them, this sense of mystery.

The Jewish sense of spirituality has been to celebrate the limits on our knowledge. And then to go back newly, deeply taught to work again, to learn some more.

Just as the heart of a candle is dark, just as its light grows from darkness, our real light as human beings comes from that sense of mystery in the world and in ourselves. There are some people who label themselves secular who know this, and some people who label themselves religious who don't know it.

What implications does this approach have for our politics? It has a great deal to do with how we use our power. The joyful decision to live powerfully in one's self and thus to control one's outward use of power is deeply political. For example, why indeed should the Jewish people decide to share the land of Israel with the Palestinian people? Out of fear? This is a weak reason, a superficial reason. The deeper reason is to say - "We could rule over all the land and all of you. We have the guns. But to do that would mean abandoning ourselves, failing to explore . and unfold ourselves. So although we have the guns and power to rule all of Eretz Israel, in order for us to be deeply who we are, we aren't going to do that." We must know that it is crucial for us to share and limit our own power, even though we have the physical means to do otherwise.

Only by setting and adhering to such limits do we become ourselves. The way we carry into the "secular" world our deepest "religious" impulse is joyfully to limit our control over the earth, and over other human beings. A politics which is built on that impulse would be different from state socialist politics. It would be a politics that understood Shabbat in a broad historical sense. In our present crisis of modernity, Shabbat is precisely the cure for modernity turned cancerous. For modernity, like a cancer cell, doesn't know when to stop growing. Maybe every seven years, we should give one year off to all of the people who specialize in scientific research and development. For it is "R and D" that speeds up our speeding.

Suppose we said to those who make the race run yet faster not only the Bomb-builders, the Holocaust-makers, but even those who are speeding up our most benign technologies - "Take this year off to sing, dance, sit down and read Torah together, write poetry. Let's talk about what it's all for. Let's rest for a year together. Then you'll start your work again." But maybe then the work will be different, maybe it will take a new direction, be planned and organized differently after they've made Shabbat for a year in order to be at peace with themselves and the earth.

Such a politics would be a "new" Jewish agenda. To create a new Jewish agenda would be to bring together our ancient perception of Shabbat, of rest, of self-limitation, of mystery, and our ancient sense of the interconnection of economy and ecology, of history and the earth into a politics of wholeness that confronts and transforms modernity.

And notice that what I have said about the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians and what I have said about the future of technology are connected. They grow from the same root of joyful self-limitation, Shabbat, tzimtzum. Our politics should not be split into "the Middle East," and "the Bomb," and "gay rights." There is a single root to it, and there must be wholeness in expressing it.

One of the defects of Marxism as a modernist critique of modernity is that it has been inadequate in addressing the earth and the life-experience of women. (They may seem like two defects, but they may be deeply intertwined.) And so far, we have shared in this defect. Even our feminism which will transform not only secularism but also the old religiousity as women bring their own life-experience to light and sharing is still limited to the modernist mode.

And why has the new Jewish politics ignored issues of the earth and air and water? Even at the level of secular politics, American Jews are far more personally oppressed by carcinogens in the food and water than by having too little food to eat. And our tradition teaches us that freedom from slavery is intimately connected with birth, and spring, and love of the land. Our cycle of festivals intertwines the historical-political with the earthy-natural. Now, when the earth itself is endangered by Great-Power politics and economic, when better to reconnect the liberation of human kind with the resting-time of earth? Yet we still do not draw on the full power of our spiral of festivals by celebrating them in public space as moments to repair the world. We have not drawn enough on these lessons out of our experience, our history, our tradition as if we were still too secular, too modernist, in our critique and practice. Not Jewish enough.

Finally, I'd like to turn to the only thing that Larry says might still be for him a barricade between people who call themselves secular and people who call themselves religious. He says that in a multiple-choice exam, he might have to choose the answer that says, "No, 1 don't believe in God."

The story of Moses at the burning bush can help us understand what that belief really means. "You funny burning bush," says Moses. "You're telling me to go back to my people and say, 'You're free!' They're going to ask me, 'Who says we're free?'" God, speaking through the bush, answers back, "I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."

And here's what I hear Moses saying: "Come on, my people have been living in Egypt for four hundred years. They remember the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; nothing happened with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You'd better tell me Somebody Else."

So God says, "I'll be who I'll be. You need a name? Go tell them: I will be who l wiil be:

And if you want a nick-name, tell them it's YHWY, yyy-hhh-www-hhh" - just a sound like a deep breath. "That's my nickname. Yud Hay Vov Hay, no vowels. It ain't Yaweh, it ain't Jehovah, and it ain't Adonai. It's YHWH, yyy-hhh-www-hhh." (deep breath again.) "So go back and say to them, 'The breath of life is what will free you.'"

The breath of life. Maybe, Larry, if you and I both had that on the multiple choice cxam about whether or not we believe in God, you and I could give the same answer.

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