Embraceable World

Intro to Embraceable World

October 25, 2010
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Earth Day FlagEmbraceable World

Judith Ovadia


Most of my life I enjoyed a comfortable, if cordial, relationship with God.  I visited God at synagogue on Shabbat and holidays, I gleaned lessons about God’s essence from my Jewish studies, and eventually grew up to preach, teach, and worship the Almighty as my main pursuit in life.  Still, it wasn’t until a crisis – my husband’s cancer diagnosis on the eve of the birth of my second child – that I came to know God intimately.

My first and persistent reaction to the horrible news was disbelief, not only in the diagnosis and its bitter irony (here I was bursting with life while my husband Roni appeared weeks from death), but also in the words of comfort and faith I was hearing from those around me.  These were the very words I used with professional confidence and pious assurance when ministering to others in the hour of their troubles.  Suddenly they seemed hollow and absurd.  As the evening crept by, I spoke to my family, my friends, my midwife, and my rabbi.  Nothing anyone said penetrated past the screaming fear and sickening emptiness I felt inside knowing that tomorrow I would give birth to my son, condemning him to life without a father.

As I lay in bed, I felt every cell in my body vibrating in terror.  Yet I knew I needed to rest for the labor that would face me the next morning.  I felt condemned.  How could I sleep when my life had been destroyed so suddenly and violently?  I had lived a charmed life until then.   My husband had suffered enough for the two of us, having endured epileptic seizures since he was sixteen years old.  This was a heavy burden to bear, and somehow I believed it was just tragic enough to confer protection from greater evils.   Now I felt exposed, alone in the universe.  I wanted badly to believe in God at that moment; I needed God.  Not an abstract concept of the origin of the universe but a viable, loving, powerful God who would protect and preserve me from all evil.  My rational senses blocked me from accepting this folly.

The first week at my new congregation, a year earlier, a woman named Gail called and asked me if I would please say a prayer for her co-worker who had just given birth prematurely.  The baby had been born weighing less than two pounds and it sounded like he wasn’t going to make it.  I told her I’d be glad to.

“His name is Ross Kershaw.  K-E-R-S-H-A-W.” she spelled it out for me.

“Will do.”  Did she think it mattered if I knew how to spell the baby’s name?  I was just going to say a Hebrew prayer under my breath and think “Gail’s friend’s baby,” to myself, wasn’t that enough?  Philosophically, I thought it was odd to ask someone else to pray for someone else’s baby.  I understood that I was doing a service for Gail by telling her I would say a prayer, and because I’m a sincere person, I really did say a prayer, but did I think that it would make a difference?  Not to anyone but Gail.

A few days later, a woman came up to me after services and introduced herself as Gail.  I asked her how the baby was doing.  She smiled and said he was improving.

“We’re holding a prayer circle for him at work,” she informed me.

“What’s that?”  It sounded sort of odd to me.  I never heard of Jews holding a prayer circle.

“You don’t know what a prayer circle is?” She was incredulous.  “It’s where people stand holding hands in a circle and ask God to heal someone.”

I took a sip of my orange-sherbet punch.  “I see.  And, just out of curiosity, do you believe that really works?”

She looked shocked.  “Oh, of course!  I know it works!  What, you don’t believe in prayer?”

“Of course I believe in prayer!  My whole life is prayer.  But I don’t think it works, you know, like Santa Claus, where you ask for something, you get it.”  I explained.

“Well, of course not, but if people come together and pray for someone’s healing, I definitely have seen results.”  Gail looked very resolute.

I cocked my head to one side.  “Look, whenever someone is sick there are three possible outcomes:  either they get better, get worse, or stay the same.  The odds are some of them will get better, right?”  I smiled, hoping I wasn’t offending her.

“I’m surprised you don’t believe that God answers prayers, you being a cantor and all,” she mused.  “I really believe that if you pray hard enough, God will answer.”

“So if someone doesn’t get better, does that mean they didn’t pray hard enough?”  Now I was getting mad.  “Does that mean that the Jews at Auschwitz didn’t pray hard enough?”

“Cantor, God always answers prayers.  But sometimes the answer is ‘no.’”

I couldn’t believe this lady.  “Why do some people get the thumbs up and others get the thumbs down?  Can you tell me that?”

“I don’t have all the answers.  I just know what I know, what I believe.”  She was nonplussed by my response.  I thought she was a little wacky.

Thinking back on that conversation, I wished I could entertain for a moment the possibility that Gail could be right, that God might hear and answer my prayers.  Hopefully the answer would be “yes.”  Wouldn’t that be the ultimate dis?  It turns out God does answer prayers, but your answer is “negative.”

From downstairs, I heard my husband moan as he sat propped up with pillows on the floor, unable to lie down to sleep because of the weight of the tumors pressing on his organs.  39 weeks pregnant, I too was propped up with pillows as the weight of our baby compressed my vena cava and made breathing difficult.

When counseling others during crises, I offered passages from scripture, usually psalms.  “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”  No good.  I kept remembering the Woody Allen line about how it’s better to run through the valley of the shadow of death because that way one gets out of it much quicker.

My mother’s favorite biblical passage is often recited at funerals:  “teach us, therefore, to number our days, that we may get us a heart of wisdom.”  Excuse my vulgarity, but I was thinking, “fuck that!”  I didn’t want a heart of wisdom, I wanted a healthy husband.  As I went through the inventory of quotations I would have offered myself in this situation, I felt more and more horrified by the realization that, what I had thought was comforting was actually inane and insensitive to the person on the other side of the desk.  This isn’t to say that these religious expressions aren’t useful or meaningful at other times.  Certainly they had been powerful and inspirational in my life up to that point.  But a major shift had occurred that day and I needed to respond with new material.

I feverishly scanned my brain’s hard drive for some message of direction or help.  Because my mother had been a professor of English literature, I found myself regurgitating fragments of poetry.  T.S. Elliot:  “Were we led all that way for birth or death?”  Good question.  “My mother groaned, my father wept; into the dangerous world I leapt.”   William Blake’s poem seemed particularly apt, but not comforting.   Somehow the words from the book of Job popped into my mind:  “Curse God and die.”  This wasn’t what I was looking for either – I didn’t want to die, death was what I was afraid of!

As this endless night continued, I frantically sought some mantra, some talisman that would grant me strength and firm up my shaken faith.  Being a rationalist, I had disavowed a personal God, denying the existence of a capricious deity who cared about the suffering of a single human being.  Instead, I acknowledged that beyond the big bang, beyond the limits of science and observation, was the source of the mystery of the universe.  That was my “God-concept,” to use the phrase of early American Reform Judaism.

This night, what I sought was a Daddy-God.  Preposterous and juvenile to my evolved spirituality, but so desperately craved!  I wanted Daddy-God to enfold me in His arms and tell me everything would be all right, and then make everything all right, just for me.   But could I, the intellectual, the lover of reason, find comfort in such an anthropomorphic deity?  I had spurned this portrayal of God most of my life, could I return to such an image now?  And if I did, would I be welcome in Daddy-God’s embrace?

A voice inside me piped up, “Bless God, and live!”  Out of options, I made a conscious choice to suspend disbelief and to make believe in such a God.  I imagined the weight of Daddy-God’s arms around me, His hand patting the back of my head.  I heard His quiet voice whisper words of comfort as I pulled the blankets up to my chin, closed my eyes tight, and mercifully fell into a deep sleep.

This act of divine creation I pulled off, this event of what I thought of at the moment as self-delusion bordering on lunacy, did not result in any medical miracle.  My new connection to my Creator did not reverse Roni’s diagnosis nor did it bring supernatural healing to his besieged body.  I do not credit my religious imagination with such power.  Instead, it allowed me to submit to the realization that I was not in control and that this was not necessarily a bad thing.  Just as I had been instructed in childbirth classes about how to let go and allow nature to take its course, I now needed to learn to submit to larger forces than I in order to pass through these uncertain hours, days, and weeks that lay ahead.  The power I needed, and found, was the power to push through the darkest hour of anxiety and fear when all my preparation and planning crumbled like a wet sandcastle.   Just a few weeks before, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, I had chanted, “Hear our voice!  Cause us to return to You and then we shall return.”  By embracing the personal God of my childhood faith, I had at last accomplished this act of repentance that had eluded me:  I had returned.

The ability of my small mind to invent a solution through which I could have God, I could embrace God as a warm, powerful human body enfolding me in his embrace and bestowing upon me the amniotic comfort and protection that my body was providing to my son at that very moment, is part of the genius of what HaRav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the state of Israel, called the “Divine creativity.”  All that I am — cell, organism, gray matter, spirit, and consciousness — is an emanation of God.  My physical substance is acquired from the matter of the universe, and my spiritual essence is derived from the substance of the Source.  Therefore, it is not incongruous to my rational theology to conjure an anthropomorphic, capricious, God to meet me where and when I need Him.  In fact, I later concluded, it had been a failure of my spiritual imagination to restrict my conceptualization of God to something formless and without definition.

Having lived a life of comfort and security, my theology had served me fine.  I was comfortable speaking of God as a literary character or an ineffable concept.  Either way posed no challenge to me, personally.  When giving comfort or condolences, I brazenly offered platitudes and clichés.  Those whom I served never protested nor rebelled, at least not to me directly.

With the tables turned, I felt unarmed and unnerved.   My first impulse was to shut away from the world, to shut down my emotions, and to shut out those I loved.  My fear and insecurity was so great that I became intolerant of risk, averse to caring.  I’m ashamed to say I hardly remember my son’s first two years of life.  Astonishingly, it was the very people for whom I felt the burden of caring – my congregants, my students, my children and husband – who reached in to my bubble and inspired me to affirm a new faith.

What happened on October 29, 1999, and its aftermath, took me years to process and make sense of.  In retrospect, I understand what a cataclysm it was for me as a human being, certainly as a clergy person.  I wish my husband’s life were safer, healthier, and I wish he didn’t suffer as much as he has.  I wish there were some way to magically protect my family, and myself, from harm.  Since there is no such charm, I’m grateful for the insights I have acquired from having survived this ordeal, and I believe I’m now a better pastoral caregiver as a result of having confronted my total ineptitude at that time.

When I arrive at a bedside today, I come prepared, not with quotations and aphorisms, but with humility.  I remember how limited we human beings are in our ability to understand and control the events that take hold of our lives at critical times.  I come to listen and to bear witness.  Most important, I come to embrace and to be embraced.  As Martin Buber said, “The world is not comprehensible but it is embraceable; through the embracing of one of its beings.”

Rav Kook wrote of the “liberated light” of divinely inspired human kindness.  He said, “Again and again, we must descend to the depths of darkness in order to excavate — precisely from there — the most liberated light, the greatest and most elevated.”  If nothing more than this, I feel privileged to have discovered the existence of this liberated light in the depths of darkness.


Posted in Memoir

Concept of Divine Sovereignty No Obstacle to Worship

October 25, 2010
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It may surprise some to know that many rabbis and cantors feel uncomfortable with the language and imagery of Jewish worship.  Specifically, they are ill at ease worshipping a deity who is portrayed as majestic, enthroned, or sovereign in contrast to human beings depicted as helpless and inclined to base pursuits.  They speak apologetically of the deliberate metaphor of this language and reference the need to come up with more contemporary liturgies that address our partnership with the divine, the divine within humanity, and “balancing human adequacy and human frailty” (Yoel Kahn, CCAR Journal, Spring 2009.)

I am not bothered by these liturgies at all.  I know the feeling of utter frailty, and I know that I am not alone.   I worship in awe and humility before God’s majesty, not because I believe in a heavenly King, fashioned after the earthly model, but because I understand the limits of human divinity.  The limits themselves instruct me about the awesome power of God’s sovereignty.  I bow low to the ground in amazement, submission, and gratitude.

Before my awakening, I would have scarcely understood such a posture, much less subscribed to it.

I wonder if any of these conflicted colleagues have ever encountered the sort of free-fall crisis that makes one realize the incredible absurdity of directing worship toward the divine within humanity.  In my Leyl Shimurim, my Night of Vigil, as I clawed powerlessly at the smooth walls closing in on me, the evidence of the limits of human power were indisputable and it was entirely unnecessary to comment on them, much less to laud them in prayer.  The only conclusion I could deduce in this night was that God was sovereign, God was divine, and I was as unauthorized, unprivileged, and unequal to God’s majesty and omnipotence. My confidence in my own strength and permanence was slipping as rapidly as the quicksand beneath my feet.

Years later, I found myself marveling at my own capacity to revive, recover, and to participate in the restoration of other lives that had been damaged by trauma.  This, again, humbled me in my recognition of God’s limitless power.  Maybe it is semantics, however, I think that the pursuit of theological imagery that honors humanity in partnership with the divine is altogether extraneous.  By coming forward in worship, we humans are acting out that image of honor, that image of partnership between God and humanity.  Perhaps that is why our predecessors felt no need to acknowledge it in the prayers themselves.

What I believe bothers those who speak out on this topic is not the lack of the human adequacy theology portrayed in the liturgy, but the very prominence of the Divine Supremacy.

In American culture today, we are very concerned with what is fair. I remember being taught the trick, when my sons were young, that if there was one cookie left, one child would get to divide it in half, and the other child would get to pick which half he wanted. This was a brilliant solution. It ended the whining and crying that had plagued us prior to its discovery. As my older son moved through middle school and required an Individualized Education Plan, I was told repeatedly by teachers and guidance counselors that their intent was merely to “level the playing field” for him. When my younger son was on his first little league team, the rule was that every player got to stand in at the plate and swing until he or she hit the ball and ran to first base. These games went on forever, but everyone got the same turn – sort of.  Some hit the ball the first pitch. Some needed the coach to come around behind them and swing their little arms for them. Some needed the ball to be placed on a “T.” Was it fair?  I’m not sure. All I know is, my son lost interest in the sport after the third game.

The relationship between God and God’s creation is absolutely unequal.  To serve God in reverence is to acknowledge that inequality, inherently or directly.  I think that is what gives some pause.  The three steps one takes before the Amidah (the “Standing” prayers of petition) is supposed to represent coming before the royal throne. This image implies two things:  one, that the worshipper acknowledges God’s sovereignty; and two, that the worshipper is worthy of approaching. The worth of the worshipper is part of the practice, so it must be the imbalance of power that is off-putting. The jealousy, or unhappiness with the truth of the condition that humanity, in opposition to God, is of lowered status, of lesser privilege, and ultimately, of restricted access and power, is what discourages these plaintiffs.

William Blake's Engraver's Plate for the Book of JobI understand this frustration.  It is the same misery that Job felt, knowing that he was righteous and his suffering unfair.  God’s reproach to Job in chapter 40, verse 28, “Will he make a covenant with you, that you should take him for a servant forever?” penetrates the heart of the issue.  By providing a limited partnership to humankind, God opens the door for the littlebrains (thank you, Albert Brooks) to presume they have the capacity to apprehend the entirety of creation’s scheme.  Worse, they assume to have some exalted role to play in its unfolding.

The painful truth is that the unfolding of our lives leads to wisdom.  As Job laments (Chapter 28), it is more valuable than all the precious stones of the planet; the abyss says, it is not in me, and the sea says it is not with me.   Destruction and death say they have heard rumors, but only God reveals:  “Yirat Hashem– the Fear of God — is wisdom and the turning away from evil is understanding.”

Posted in Judaism

Stiffnecked and Arrogant

October 26, 2010
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The Mariner up on the mast in a storm. One of ...

The Mariner up on the mast in a storm. One of the wood-engraved illustrations by Gustave Doré. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my previous congregation, I fought an internal battle each Yom Tov, because there were two women who sat in the front section of the sanctuary who, consistently and infuriatingly, attempted to sing every note of every prayer along with me.  I’m not just talking about the Unetaneh Tokef or Avinu Malkeynu, which can be distracting enough.  I mean, even improvised moments of chazanut during the Amidah!  How could they chant along when I didn’t even know what I was going to sing next?

I tried everything I could to throw them off:  I sang slow, then suddenly sped up.  I sang forte, then subito piano.  They didn’t blanche or flinch.  I wrote bulletin articles about the time for singing and the time for listening, I requested that my Ritual Committee Chairperson speak directly to the women about this, and eventually, I asked the women to please refrain from singing along with the parts that were expressly meant for solo voice (I was specific).  This was difficult and they were not receptive.  In fact, they completely ignored me.  I found myself, year after year, resentful and focused on these two ladies instead of contrite and focused on my own conscience.  It was unsatisfying and unseemly for me to attempt to worship from such an impious posture.

Everything changed for me after one of the women underwent a serious health crisis.  She recovered, and no, she didn’t stop singing along inappropriately, but I stopped obsessing over her doing so.  I began to focus on what a gift it was that she had survived and made it to another Holy Day.  A spring of love gushed from my heart and I blessed her unaware.

The self-same moment I could pray;

And from my neck so free

The Albatross fell off, and sank

Like lead into the sea.

(Samuel Coleridge, “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner”)

Posted in Judaism, Music

Protected: Chapter Two/Origins of My Religion

October 26, 2010
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Protected: Couvade Syndrome/Chapter One

October 26, 2010
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Posted in Memoir