Wednesday, October 1, 2014
I’m an Atheist in Assiyah, and you should be too
I’d like to start by extending my thanks to Rabbi Hammerman and this congregation for once again giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts at the start of the New Year. Unlike many community clergy who need to offer a sermon or a d’var every week, I rarely give sermons except at erev Rosh Hashanah. So this really becomes a reflection and distillation of my spiritual development since the year before. I start thinking about what I might want to say in the spring, noodle with it during the summer, and start to write it down at the end of the summer.
This year I have more and more felt inarticulate in discussing G-d or spiritual matters. I am becoming convinced that the only way to talk about G-d is by being in a different domain of thought and speech than our usual domain. In order to elaborate on this, I want to explain the concept of the Four Worlds that exists in Jewish mysticism. The first world, assiyah, refers to the physical universe. If someone throws a ball at me, I would duck out of the way. This is a reaction in assiyah.
The next world is the world of emotion, yetzira. We are all familiar with feelings. In the case of someone throwing something at me, I might get upset, and turn to the person and say in an angry voice, “What did you do that for?”
The next world is the world of the intellect, b’riyah. This is where we spend most of our time. It is the domain of value judgments and duality: good and bad, right and wrong, better or worse, etc. Sometimes the intellect is able to override the physicality and emotional stages. Supposing the person said that he was trying to throw the ball to my son who wanted to play catch. All of a sudden I’m no longer angry because I have evaluated the person’s behavior and decided it was good because the person was looking to do something positive for my son.
Finally, there is the world of atzilut, which is the mystical level. This is the level of peak experiences. If you’ve had a moment in which you have felt one with the world, where everything seemed to fit together – where you felt Connected with a Capital ‘C’ – this is the sense of atzilut.
Don’t worry about remembering these stages of consciousness; there will not be a snap quiz administered to test your recollection of them. I told them to you because I wanted to create a context for something one of my colleagues said to me a few years ago. All of a sudden, she turned to me and said, “You know, the world of assiyah makes no sense!”
I have remembered that remark ever since. I’m not exactly sure what she was referring to. Around that time a plane had crashed going to Buffalo, NY and one of our colleagues had been on that plane and perished and she might have been referring to that. Or it could have been some other seemingly random event that occurs often in life and takes us by surprise: someone unexpectedly receiving a serious diagnosis, an automobile accident that kills the friend that you just visited the week before who was full of life, or even the acquaintance at work who promptly quits working to live near her grandchildren.
The passage of Deuteronomy we read after the V’a’haftah in the service presents a view of the universe that is in conflict with my friend’s comment. G-d says that if you do good, you will be rewarded and if you don’t, you will be punished. Clearly, in the domain of assiyah, this is not true. Good people get sick, they are victims of warfare, they have their innocent children die of lymphoma, etc. Sometimes it goes the other way, and a person who seems to be a bad person prospers. We may not think about this that often, but we all have known and seen it.
I can’t tell you the number of times patients in the hospital have told me that they couldn’t understand why G-d was punishing them with their disease after they had lived such good lives. I defy anyone to come up with an explanation of this that would actually make them feel better.
In addition, most of us in this sanctuary, and I certainly include myself, have lives that are significantly more comfortable and better than most human beings on our planet. We have access to quality food, to healthcare, to clean and potable water, to an environment without active war or hostilities taking place and where there are many opportunities to both educate and entertain ourselves. Some of this is due to our own efforts, but much of it is due to the accident of birth. Had we been born in the mountains of Afghanistan, or rural China, or sub-Saharan Africa, the odds are good that our lives would not have turned out this well. We all know this too.
So how do we make sense of a G-d that either produces or allows what we see in the world of assiyah, the world of physicality? To me, the answer is simple: we don’t. And we don’t because we can’t.
So where does this leave us? Someone once told Reb Zalman, zichrono levracha, may his memory be a blessing, that she didn’t believe in G-d. Reb Zalman asked her to describe the G-d that she didn’t believe in. She said that she didn’t believe in G-d because G-d was punishing and cruel and allowed all kinds of tragedy to happen in the world. Reb Zalman then told her that he didn’t believe in that G-d either. Neither do I. And I guess that means that I am an atheist in assiyah, and not only that, but I think you should be one too.
[At this point Rabbi Hammerman is hoping that I’m not yet finished. I daresay this was not what he expected when he invited me to offer this sermon.]
And he can relax, because I’m not planning to stop here. But I’ve asked myself, and I’m asking you as well, a troubling question – if G-d doesn’t exist in assiyah, then where does G-d exist? And what is G-d, anyway?
I believe there are answers to these questions, but they are not answerable in our day-to-day words. The last time I had one of these peak spiritual experiences, it was at the Renewal Rabbis convention that I attended two years ago, and throughout the experience I couldn’t stop sobbing. I tried to capture the experience in a poem, because a poem, like music, can move us to a different level of understanding. I know many people do not like poetry, but I hope you will find it palatable if you are able to listen with your heart rather than your head.
I sob –
Bathed in the dark radiance of the Immeasurable
I sob –
A fragment of a twig twirling in Love’s endless River
I sob –
Because my words have fled and
Because I am safe
I sob –
For my loneliness
And it’s ending
And the true prophecy of its inevitable return
I sob –
Because the River ignores me
I sob –
Because I have never felt so known
I sob –
And I know I am my prayer
And I know I am my prayer answered
Perhaps G-d is a possibility. Perhaps G-d is the possibility of joy that exists in every moment and every experience. Maybe G-d is a substrate of incredibly powerful energy that we sometimes experience as Love. And like love and joy, perhaps G-d is also invisible to science and can’t be measured with a ruler. Then the question is not so much where G-d is, but where we are. Do we have the courage to look past the contradictions of assiyah into the domain of atzilut and experience G-d there? This is not easy; this kind of Love can also be terrifying and can strip away my cherished ego and personality traits. I tried to capture this in another poem:
Blind in my eye, I lack depth perception.
Holiness stays hidden as I breeze by,
Missing the deep rhythms of bushes and birds
dancing with the drunken wind
while I worry about whether I packed the right clothes;
Unaware of the sweet blue syrup of summer
ladled across the thirsty sky
because I am afraid I won’t make a good impression.
Instead, I fret about failing,
my frail self wilting under the harsh sun of shame.
So much fear
So much pretension
So much need
So much love desperately seeking its outlet
And I can’t even reach upwards and remove the eye patch.
It can feel safer to stay blind in one eye, to only look at the assiyah, the surface of things, and not try to penetrate into the levels beyond logic, beyond rationality and beyond justification. I think that to believe in G-d is to believe in Love. Rabbi Rami Shapiro translates the Ahavah Raba prayer as, “You are loved by an unending love.”
I think this is true, but this kind of love is different from the love your parents showed when they gave you cookies to dunk in milk. It is different even from your spouse’s love that manifested in the joys and trials of making a family together. It is a Love that invites you to let go of everything you think you know or want and simply exist within it in the moments that endlessly change and endlessly repeat.
One spiritual teacher suggests that we experience joy not because we have gotten what we wanted, but because for at least a moment we are without wants – and the natural state of a human being without wants is joy. That is being loved by an unending love.
So yes, I am an atheist in assiyah, the level of physicality. And you should be to, because G-d is not the dependent variable of a cause and effect machine, in which if we are good then G-d is good to us and if we are not good we are punished. And I am only an agnostic at the level of the mind, b’riyah, because there is no way that any conception of G-d can be sustained without contradiction or seeming stupidity in a universe of logic and value judgments.
But in yetzira I am a passionate lover and seeker of G-d. In atzilut I am a mystic. To say I am a believer in these realms way understates the case. Believing would be easy. Believing is a state of mind and can be relatively passive.
More than a believer, I chase after that which can’t be believed, a G-d that doesn’t make sense to our minds, whose behavior in the physical universe would be called atrocious if measured against the standards of Deuteronomy, whose love may be ever present but is also as hidden as water is to a fish or air to you and me.
My wife and I were fortunate enough to be able to buy a condo in Cape Cod, where I’ve always wanted to live. It is beautiful, but one of the first things I did was to put up a sign over the door that says, “The best things in life aren’t things.” I didn’t do that for our guests; I did it for me. I find that the most enduring joys in life are those that come from sharing intimacy with another and being involved in some way in that person’s growth. To be able to add to the world’s compassion and happiness is the best thing in life for me. It lifts me beyond my feelings of inadequacy or my ancient wounds or my fear of not being enough. It is G-d in yetzira. It is why I do what I do, and when I dare greatly then I am also rewarded with more freedom and serenity than I have ever known, and that is G-d in atzilut.
This is from another poem. The reference to the burning coal is that of the prophet who is called before G-d and cannot speak because his words are impure. The angel touches his lips with a burning coal, and he is then purified and able to speak:
When the Holy One of Blessing
Touches my tears, holds my heart and stills my fears,
Although I know I am still wounded, often blind,
Scarred by shame of too many things,
Yet after the angel touches the burning coal to my lips,
I spread my wings, open my mouth, and sing.
As we stride into the year 5775, my blessing for each of us is that we find the courage to sing, to access our deepest feelings of love, and are given the ability to express them to the people we love and to all others who, like us, are b’tzelem Elohim, formed in the image of G-d. And even in the humility of knowing that the tides of time will surely wash us and those we love away, yet may we love with tenderness and passion, with intimacy and intimacy, and with compassion and gusto. As the great composer and singer Debbie Friedman sings, ‘may we be blessed with all we need, and let us say, Amen.’