Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Paying attention to dreams is an ancient Jewish spiritual practice. Our biblical ancestors Isaac and Jacob dreamed of God. Jacob’s son Joseph was a skilled interpreter. He would analyze dream symbols with reference to current events, and articulate truths the dreamer was afraid to face directly.
Last week, I had a dream, highlighting some questions about God that I’ve been afraid to ask directly:
I am helping a friend with a project. She is editing a biology textbook for her professor and mentor. But I am having a hard time reading, retaining, and processing information. I tell my friend and her professor, “I can’t keep all these functions straight. You have to provide more explanations of basic concepts in the text. Either this is an introductory text and you provide them, or it’s an advanced text and I can’t help with the editing.” The professor seems not to care. Yet my friend wants to be his lover and desperately desires his approval; she is disappointed and filled with longing. I am a participant-observer wondering at it all.
In this dream, an all-knowing teacher has created a text to explain how life works. However, I cannot understand it. And its creator does not care. Yet my friend wants the creator to care, to love her, and to approve of her. Both his apathy and her yearning amaze me.
Once upon a time, I was like my dream-friend. I believed in a personal God, a spiritual being with a giant mind and heart, who oversees the world. Recognizing my hard work on God’s behalf, God would look upon me favorably. But with anti-semitism on the rise in North America, this optimistic view no longer makes sense to me.
Sure, I still believe in a Higher Being. But this being has nothing like a human mind or heart, nothing like a human body or soul. It doesn’t plan or worry or love. We might say it does, but we are only describing our own experiences of reaching towards it. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what it is; I can only tell you what it is not.
My emerging theology is not new. A version of it was articulated by the great medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides. Maimonides presents it as a result of his careful, abstract philosophical reasoning. But given my dream and my social context, I see it differently. Behind this theology, I see Maimonides asking deep questions about God’s governance of the world — and despairing of any satisfactory answers.
Maimonides spent his youth fleeing religious persecution. Surely he wondered, “I was taught that God loves the Jews, holds them to a high standard, and has a blessed plan for them. All around me, people yearn for God to implement the loving plan. Why does God not do it?” And surely his wonderings helped point to his famous published conclusions: “Because some of what the Bible teaches about God are truths of the human mind, not truths about the Divine. It is possible God doesn’t do, think or feel anything that we attribute to God.” Philosophers call this a negative theology – coming to terms with what God is not.
For sure, negative theology points us to activism; if God seems not to direct human history, we must take matters into our own hands. Negative theology may yet have more to say, about humility, empathy for other faith traditions, or finding meaning in a void. But I’m not ready to draw final conclusions. From Jacob and Joseph I’ve learned: it takes time to fully understand the message of a dream.