Yom Kippur 5768: "Truth and Love"
Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Congregation Netivot Shalom

We begin with questions: What is faith? Can we have absolute faith in any source? Who has the right to judge the past? Given what we know about the transmission of the Torah and of tradition in general, and given the difficulty so many of us have with the question of absolute authority, how can we know what has truly happened and should our behaviors and decisions be based upon any tradition at all?? What is true?

All words are human. We recite every Pesach that God’s outstretched arm brought us out of Egypt. Since it is a core Jewish belief that God has neither hands nor arms, such a description is an expression of God's power – a metaphor – and not a conception of God in physical form. Metaphor is rampant in the Torah. God has a heart. God is pleased. God gets angry. The literal Hebrew idiom for God’s anger is that "God's nose flared." But these are metaphors, analogies to our human experience. God is always more than our language can contain, even biblical language. Words are human constructions, meant to convey meaning. But every word, and every human method of communication, is burdened by multiple meanings and by the limitations of the speaker. To say that God’s Will is contained in a text is to limit God’s Will. And to restrict God to words is to create an idol, perhaps no different than the Golden Calf.

Human beings gave God’s Self-revelation form. God’s Presence in revelation is not the question. The subjectivity of the words that result from this holy encounter is. What is the relationship between God’s Truth and the words of the Torah? And what command might be connected to this subjective human formula?

I took my first class in Theology during my first undergraduate year at the Jewish Theological Seminary. I entered with a faith in God’s Word as recorded in the Five Books of Moses. The new ideas and approaches to Torah I learned in with Rabbi Neil Gillman’s class shattered my faith, and left me deeply confused and doubtful.

This was my question: “If the Torah isn’t God’s Word, then what of the tradition I follow which is based upon the words of the Torah? “ The things that had made sense to me because they were based on God’s Will now had no foundation. If our entire tradition is human interpretation how is it Ultimately True?

It’s not.

And, for me, this is the beginning of faith.

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The world we live in is ambiguous.

One of my deepest inspirations, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky, posed this situation: “There is a large, strong person with a deadly instrument in their hand. Nearby is a small, weak person. Should the large person use the deadly instrument on the small person?”

And we answer with a thunderous “No! That’s immoral! Of course not!” - Except that the situation is a bris, the larger person is a mohel, and the small person is an eight-day-old boy.

That which might seem clear seldom is.

The founder of American Conservative Judaism, Rabbi Solomon Schechter, taught,

“[There is] only One who knows the exact truth about the great mystery. But we may indicate our doubt about one doctrine by putting by its side another, which we may affirm to be not more absolutely true, but more probable. This seems to have been the attitude, too, of the compilers of the ancient Rabbinic literature, the most conflicting views ... were embodied. Nor did the Synagogue, in general feel called upon to decide between these views… Thus Judaism has no fixed doctrines on the subject. It refused a hearing to no theory for fear that it should contain some germ of truth, but on the same ground, it accepted none to the exclusion of the others. (Studies in Judaism, pp.213-214)

Judaism, according to Schechter, made room for conflicting visions of Truth because it was understood that the best we can do is hit a probable “truth.” The religious system Schechter discusses, and the one we choose, is one path towards Truth. In a sense, “Truth” (capital ‘T’) is reached by many paths, each with its own “truth” (lower-case).

Our religious perspective recognizes shades of gray in the passageways to God.

There do exist people who see this world as black and white, where the definitions of “evil” and “good” are clear. Some strap bombs to their bodies and kill, only to be considered holy by their community and criminal by another. Some read their holy writings literally and cause pain to others “in the name of God.” In either case, those who believe that the world contains objective rules and boundaries are typically unaware of their own subjective starting points, and are clearly in violation of French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ paradigm of authentic interpretation, which includes the requirement of not living “in a vacuum, as if in a private universe, but [rather] engaged and open to “the life of the city,” to the present tense, to life shared with others (as quoted in Rabbi Steven Greenberg’s important book ‘Wrestling with God and Men,’ p. 21).”

And so, paradoxically, the only truth is subjectivity. Perhaps the only way to be on a true path to God is to acknowledge that it is not the only one.

But where does that leave the individual seeking God? How can I encounter God? And why, if my path is not the only legitimate path, should I remain on this one?

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There will be no satisfying answer to this question. A significant part of my path is my childhood love-affair with Shabbat and Jewish music. Despite my passion for the river of Jewish Spirituality, I’ve found it hard to explain. Though it might sound exclusive, I believe it really comes down to “If you’ve tasted the joy of a soulful Friday Night, you understand. And if you haven’t, you don’t.” A truth is, perhaps my answers will only make sense to me.

Why be Jewish when there are other legitimate paths to God?

How could I be anything else?!

Why would I be anything else?!

Jewish tradition is rich, and it guides me on a path of goodness and justice. How could I step away from it? It’s such an integral part of my identity, that if I were to walk away from it, I’d be walking away from myself.

Perhaps that is the problem with a liberal ideology. My intensive Jewish childhood experience stabilized me during my first stages of doubt and questioning. But I am the exception to the rule in our current Jewish world. Very few adult Jews look back to an immersive Jewish experience that viscerally bonds them to Judaism.

I am a rabbi. It would seem to make sense, from a pragmatic standpoint, that I should want to reduce the ambiguity in people’s lives in order to perpetuate a connection to Jewish life without throwing them into confusion. The typical connection is tremulous enough that I don’t need to exacerbate it by challenging the very traditional assumptions that give tenuously connected Jews a sense of comfort and belonging.

But that’s not how I see it.

I’m interested in lighting fires in people souls so that they feel freer with every step towards God. The Indigo Girls said it right in their “Power of Two” when they say, “The closer I’m bound in love to you/ The closer I am to free.”

I’m in love with God.

That’s why I’m a Jew. I want to share what I see as the most real, the most intensely meaningful, experience in this world: God.

And if I don’t challenge the things I see as obstacles to seriously connecting with God, I’m keeping that love to myself.

Through my years of study with Rabbi Gillman, I learned that his loving embrace was as compelling as his classroom teaching. And through this combination of love and honesty, I’ve found comfort and conviction in my choice to lead a spiritual life.

I encountered a compelling call to question that faith and I choose to embrace that challenge as I live my life towards God.

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So who was Aaron?

Tradition suggests many answers. None of them are exclusively correct. Searching for the Truth about Aaron is like searching for the Truth about God: It’s unattainable.

But on the other hand, we learn that

“Rabbi Chanin taught, ‘You may not hold back your words because of anyone. Further, witnesses should know against whom they are giving evidence, before whom they are giving evidence and who will hold them accountable in the event of false evidence. ... Judges should also know whom it is they are judging, before whom they are judging, and who will call them to account if they pervert justice. ...The judge only has that which [she] sees with [her] own eyes. (Bavli, Sanhedrin 6b)

We can neither claim that we have the Truth nor may we forget the responsibility we have to use the holy subjectivity of our eyes.

Who was Aaron? We learn that Aaron “loved peace and pursued peace, loved his fellow creatures, and brought them close to Torah. (Mishnah Avot 1:12)”

That’s the truth about Aaron I choose to believe.

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Rabbi Gillman calls the subjective truths that form the underpinnings of our lives “myths.” Though that word might hurt the sensitive religious ear, the very term that makes acceptance difficult has a vital role in religious development.

Gillman writes in his ‘Problematics of Myth’:

“What makes a myth "true"? Clearly not because it corresponds to the facts, simply because we have no independent perception of those facts to compare it with. We cannot escape our humanness. But one myth may do a better job of integrating what we do perceive to be the data of experience; it accounts more adequately for more of what we perceive. For Jews, that myth is canonized in Torah. Myths are singularly tenacious. They also enjoy a certain "plasticity"; they can be reshaped to account for apparently discordant data. (Jews call that process midrash.) Finally, religious myths are existentially true; we make them true for us, they become true when we embrace them and live them.”

I believe that existence is ambiguous. Judaism is a deeply powerful way of making us aware of and fulfilled participants in this reality. God is waiting for us to create – and to journey on – the path.

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Professor Omid Safi, commenting on the sacred Sufi text “The Path of Love,” suggests that the Sufis saw ambiguity and paradox as tools for breaking through the human tendency to concretize religion and lose the power of seeking and encountering God. "Love," writes one of the Sufi masters quoted by Safi, "is a sweetness, but its inner reality is bewilderment."

Being in love is seldom about simplicity.

I find love compelling.

May this be a year of overwhelming love, a spiritual yearning that leads to comfort, holiness and health for us and our world.

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