This week's portion: ear
What we know, what we don't know

The God we know (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006 at the now-defunct Radical Torah.

In this week's Torah portion, Re'eh, Moses warns the Israelites against giving in to the temptation to worship "other gods whom you have not experienced" (elohim acherim asher lo-y'datam.) Even if that urging comes from "your brother, your own mother's son, or your son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your closest friend" -- if any of these dear people entices you to worship another god "whom neither you nor your fathers have experienced," Just Say No.

Like most of Torah, this text presumes that other gods exist; they're just not appropriate loci for worship. (Ah, monolatry.) "Pray to the God you know," Moses seems to be saying. "Pray to the God Who brought you out of Egypt -- the one your ancestors knew, the one you know so intimately and so well."

But how many of us have really experienced God? How many of us have that kind of personal knowledge? And what can we do to make that knowledge a relevant part of our spiritual lives again?

It's arguable that within mainstream Judaism, direct experience of God isn't the point -- and it certainly isn't a prerequisite for Jewish practice. We do what we do because it is the Jewish path. Whether or not we feel confident that actual access to God is the endpoint, we follow the mitzvot anyway. Belief arises through action. If we waited until we felt called to act Jewishly, we might never get there -- but if we act Jewishly even absent that "call," we can bring the call into being for ourselves.

For many Jews today, though, that answer is dissatisfying -- and can serve as a distancing factor that keeps us from engagement with the tradition in the first place. Our culture privileges direct experience; it makes sense that in this area of our lives, we feel a particular longing for something we can access in our hearts. We want God to be at the center of our practice. We want our practice of mitzvot to follow from a preexisting closeness to God, not the other way around. We want, as this week's Torah portion suggests, to be in relationship with a God Who we already know.

Of course, relationship with God -- or knowledge of God, to use the terminology of this week's portion -- is a self-perpetuating phenomenon. If I understand myself to be in continual, evolving relationship with the Source of Being, everything I experience comes through that lens. But if I find God to be distant and unknowable, that's a self-perpetuating phenomenon, too.

That sense of distance may have something to do with expectations. We feel we "should" encounter God in our texts and our liturgy: a loaded notion, because if by chance we don't, it's easy to feel that we are somehow deficient or that God isn't available to us...which can be especially stressful, even painful, as we approach the Days of Awe, a season during which we expect (and intend) to be especially connected with our Source.

One solution is to let go of expectations, and connect with God in whatever way opens itself to us. Maybe that means prayer, offering the words of one's heart to whatever one understands God to mean. Maybe that means encountering the splendor of the natural world, waterfalls and mountains and rolling hills. Maybe that means finding holiness in relationship with a beloved friend, and extrapolating from that sanctified relationship a sense that all relationships can be sanctified.

And then we can live up to Moses' exhortation. Instead of harnessing ourselves to other people's priorities, other people's understandings of who and what is worthy of worship, we can live out our covenant with God from a place that's authentic, rooted, and unshakable. May it be so!