The following was submitted as a Devar Torah to Beit Hillel‘s email list.
I first delivered the exegetical component to Washington Heights Congregation
(The Bridge Shul) in 2001. The message has been updated.
In his “Varieties of Religious Experience,” William James identifies the “sad discordancy” of religious experiences in the secular world. “But they come seldom, and they do not come to everyone; and the rest of life makes no connection with them, or tends to contradict them than it confirms them.” This sentiment is succinctly captured by the quote, “If you speak to God, you’re religious; if he answers, you’re psychotic.”
We are no doubt familiar with the spiritual spectacle of Sinai, where the Jewish people were gathered to experience mass revelation. But for all its glory and significance, the Sinaitic revelation was essentially passive. The Jewish people might have accepted with “na’aseh venishma,” but the revelation itself was dependent entirely on God. Witnessing such an experience, especially en masse, leaves little room for spiritual skepticism. But since the revelation at Sinai was a one-time event, we would need some guidance of encountering God when God’s presence is less explicit, or perhaps even distant.
While Va’etchanan recounts the revelation at Sinai, it also provides a such a scenario and it solution. In the (inevitable) event the Jewish people will eventually sin by worshipping other Gods, they will be exiled and scattered among the nations of the world where we will continue in our idolatrous ways. And yet despite being immersed in this physical and spiritual exile, there is hope for reconciliation. We are told, וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם מִשָּׁם אֶת־יְקֹוָק אֱלֹהֶיךָ וּמָצָאתָ כִּי תִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶׁךָ – And from there you will seek out God and you will find him; Because/If you will seek with him with all of your heart and all of your soul (Devarim 4:29).
If we pay attention to the grammar of this verse, we notice a change in number in both halves. First we are told we will seek God in the plural (וּבִקַּשְׁתֶּם) but we will find God in the singular (וּמָצָאתָ) The reason being that our seeking in the plural, תִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ, would have been done with all of our hearts and souls as individuals בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשֶׁךָ. I believe the message is that while we may search for God as a community we can “find” God only as individuals.
As individuals, we all have our own various skills and life experiences which will ultimately determine how we relate to God, and these skills and experiences will hopefully mature during the course of our lives. Assuming the Maimonidean premise that God is essentially unknowable, the most anyone can hope for is an incomplete understanding. If no one can achieve complete understanding, then we are all essentially grasping at fragments, none of which can be considered “better” than the other. All that is required is a complete devotion to the exploration.
This approach is not without its challenges, the most obvious being religious relativism. However, here too we are given some direction in that we are commanded to remember that in the Sinaitic revelation we saw no image (Devarim 4:15). Setting aside theological arguments as to the corporeality of God, it is apparent that God does not wish to be worshipped as a corporeal entity. It is, essentially, an “incorrect” belief. Following this precedent I would suggest that regardless of our personal conceptions of God or God’s role in the world, our primary responsibility is obedience to God’s commandments.
But perhaps the greater challenge we face is not rampant relativism but the assuredness certitude that our conception of God is correct and complete such that we may judge others’ to be incorrect, not because of explicit verses to the contrary, but on the sole basis that it contradicts our own comprehension. Just as we are charged with seeking God for ourselves, we cannot deny that very same directive of others, even as they reach a different understanding based on their own hearts and souls.
If complete knowledge of God is unknowable, we must appreciate that even our best understanding is only fragmentary, and that it is possible others may contribute other fragments of which we may be unaware. To seek God as a collective means accepting one’s own limitations as well as the varieties of religious experiences of others, to be open to different ideas without imposing our own incomplete knowledge as the absolute truth. Perhaps by incorporating all the fragments, even the conflicting ones, will we merit to find God, both as individuals and as spiritual community.