Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Conversations on Shemot: From God's Strength to God's Silence

As the Israelites cross the Red Sea and are saved from their enemies, they sing songs of praise to God, praising His might and strength. But what happens when one's subjective perspective of God isn’t that of strength but of silence? What should an individual do when the way in which our tradition describes God’s actions seemingly clashes with our own personal experience?

While many in today's Orthodox world would champion text and tradition over personal subjective feelings, a fascinating text from the Gemara in Yoma (69b) suggests two alternative models.

One approach, championed by the prophets, prioritises subjective feelings towards God over what the text / tradition says. For example, living as he did at the time the temple is destroyed, Jeremiah doesn't experience God's might, even though Moshe had previously described Him as mighty. He therefore refuses to lie to God and leaves out the word mighty when referring to Him. As Amos Oz writes, such a position of angrily engaging with God is an inherent part of the Jewish tradition, and is sometimes even more intimate than those who blindly accept tradition, those who Oz describes as like "museum curators who polish the glass of locked cases."

A second approach, championed by the Men of the Great Assembly (who merited returning from exile and re-establishing the temple), seeks to maintain traditional texts by reinterpreting them in a way that maintains their meaning in light of new circumstances. For example, they saw it as important to maintain those (traditional) words that Moshe used to describe God, such as 'mighty'. In order to maintain the word's relevance, they reinterpreted it from referring to God's strength to referring to His patient restraint.

Hopefully these models, as well as an additional one represented by Rabbi Yishmael, can provide ways for each of us to find our own authentic way to worship God.

Click here for the
source sheet and audio recording.

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