The Jewish Atheist is a part of the story


By Rabbi Aaron Gol...
December 2, 2012
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Vayishlach 5773

Unresolved endings have long been a feature of literature and film. When Charles Dickins first wrote Great Expectations, a friend complained that the ending was too sad, Pip resigning himself to a single life and Estella marrying someone else. So Dickens wrote another much happier and sentimental ending. Now the writer of the new screenplay, David Nicholls has written his own ending in which Pip and Estella end up together but not so clearly happy.

On radio 4’s Today programme yesterday morning, Sarah Montague introduced a discussion asking whether it is okay to “mess around with the ending of a book” in particular to tie up loose ends. The theatre director and journalist, Imogen Russell Williams argues that she likes such an ending so that her mind is not left like a ‘pin-ball machine, zinging away’ with all the potential endings. She admits that this is a rather ‘lazy’ path. Crime writer, Mark Billingham, suggests that the ending that the original writer commits to is precisely what they want, if so, to leave it unresolved and to leave us with a degree of discomfort.

Both contributors sympathised with the other’s thoughts and I have often felt satisfaction with a conclusive ending and dissatisfaction when that ending is not as I would have wished. The inclusive ending has left me with sleepless nights and for days mulling over the myriad permutations with which one could finalise the tale. Although the latter is a more difficult, brain energy-sapping approach, it generally has longevity over the closed canon.

The Torah is a bit of a mix of the two. It is literally a closed canon replete with conclusions one cannot deny. Yet we have been gifted an interpretative tradition that allows us into the story, in the midst of the characters, the lines of writing, breaking words up to form others, nudging letters aside to glean new meaning on each reading. We have Oral Torah that has been transmitted to us in written form, much of which I can view on a specially designed app for my Smartphone! Yet I, you, we are vital links in that transmission that occurs in our minds as we engage with a Torah text and occasionally express our opinion, orally, in a Dvar Torah or sermon, that might even go up on our website, our new archive of interpretative thought, part of Oral Torah.

I am drawn to this morning’s parasha particularly because of the need to provide interpretation to make sense of verse 8: “Deborah, Rebekkah’s nurse, died, and was buried under the oak...” The Torah rarely records the death of women, not even Rebekkah herself or Leah. So why does this rather minor character get mentioned?

“Jewish exegetes tried to solve this riddle by reference to Genesis 27:45, Rebekkah had promised to send for Jacob when Esau’s anger subsided, they surmise that she had recently sent Deborah to Jacob in fulfilment of this pledge. However, at age 130, Deborah would have been an unlikely candidate for such a mission (Sarna, 241).” A logical explanation is given by Sarna that the passage is not chronological but makes a popular contemporary connection between Deborah and this obviously prominent tree.

Yet, I am rather drawn to a symbolic interpretation. Deborah, represented the idolatry of Mesopotamia that Jacob has ordered his household to purge: “Rid yourselves of the alien gods in your midst, purify yourselves and change your cloths.”

For Jacob to stand with spiritual integrity and build this altar to worship God at Beth El (lit. the House of God), having harmonised his human relationship with his brother, he felt the need to purify his household and their ritual practices to focus solely on the One God.

Yet he and we are named Yisrael, literally, the one that struggles with God. Deborah’s death does not symbolise the end of one practice and a complete adherence to another. To me it represents a distinction between practices that focus solely on material, concrete things, a comforter or a substitute for deeper contemplation; and a perpetual state of engagement, of struggle, of being troubled by ones relationship with God, the Torah which is one of our sacred tools to communicate with God and all that is around us. It is the distinction between life and living life.

Over the past few weeks I have met with a good number of Bnei Mitzvah children and families. One can sense trepidation from those who one might describe as ‘Jewish non believers.’ What am I going to be forced into? What words of belief am I going to have to read as I did when I had to chant endless verses by rote for my Bar Mitzvah? Do I really need to come to Shul regularly to sit through a religious service? Is my child going to be brainwashed? Until slowly, as we talk about the three letter word, God, in many forms, perhaps, Source of all Blessing; and engage with a Torah text in an open, non-judgmental manner, some excitement builds, some tension dissipates.

I had a truly enlightened engagement with one of our members, a wonderfully engaged Jewish atheist of 70 years. We struggled with the three letter word, God, and he concluded in a subsequent communication with me that he realised that ‘my belief and his non-belief’ were actually not so far apart.

This statement does not demean either position: belief or non-belief. Rather it celebrates the potential for engaged people to struggle, to be troubled and to trouble others. If it is our mission to make Torah known, then the mission is to be constantly engaged with it, to expound on it and insure it is open to all those who seek it. In our day, that specifically means insuring our openness to the engaged atheist.

Our story has no ending and it is so much richer, more vibrant and vital for it. Each and every one of us can write and expand on it, delve ever deeper into its meaning and thus provide meaning. Its story is our story.

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