Losing God and Finding Him is Part of What it Means to be a Jew
GOOD NEWS: WE ARE NOT THE FIRST generation to be fraught with alarm over Jewish continuity. In fact, if we ever stop worrying about whether our children will be Jews, it will mean that the messiah has come — or that Judaism is finished. Transmission anxiety lies close to the essence of what it is to be a Jew. From the very beginning, the Jewish story is clouded by fear of generative interruption: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca are sterile until God intervenes. And Moses, on the day of his death, is informed by God (Deuteronomy 31:16) that the Jewish people will, after arriving in the promised land, abandon the Jewish God for strange divinities and alternate identities.
Of course, as William Burroughs once said, "Paranoia is just knowing all the facts." Our long-standing fear that we'll fail to re-produce a new generation of Jews is no guarantee that we will succeed in doing so — especially today, when a world culture seems poised to engulf all others. So let's insist on asking: What is it that keeps us Jews? Not sociologically or ethnically, but from the inner point from which everything else flows? First of all, the question may be wrong. In the 1970s, born-again Christians printed a bumper sticker advertising their recent, sudden experience of salvation. The sticker, festooned with a cross, proclaimed, "I Found It." Several months later came the Jewish response: a bumper sticker, Magen David in the right-hand corner, that declared, "We Never Lost It." Thus the millennial Jewish-Christian debate, vehicular version. But was the Jewish sticker accurate? Did we really never lose it?
According to both God and Moses, speaking in the weekly portions Nitzavim (Deut. 29:9-30:20) and Vayelekh (Deut. 31:1-30), losing God and finding Him again is part of what it means to be a Jew. Over and over, the Torah predicts that the people of Israel will lose it, will abandon God, will forget who they are. Our inner conviction that we know what it is to be a Jew — it's merely our children we're worried about — is symptomatic of our loss. If we think we have it, we probably don't. And so we arrive at a different and perhaps more fruitful question, the Torah's question, which is not how to continue in the next generation but how to return in this one.
The Torah tells Moses that what will bring the Jewish people back to God is a song — the song of the Torah: "Therefore, write down this song and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths [the Talmud interprets this as "Make them memorize it"] in order that this song will be My witness ... [When] the many evils and troubles befall them then this song shall confront them as a witness, since it will never be lost from the mouth of their off-spring" (31:19-21). Jewish memory means knowing the Torah as one knows a song that keeps popping into your consciousness — suddenly you realize you're humming it. This kind of knowing is what creates the spiritual intimacy that's at the center of what it means to be a Jew: "For the commandment that I enjoin upon you this day," says Moses, "is not beyond reach ... [It] is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart ..." (30:11-14).
This kind of intimate knowledge of the song of the Torah is what "returns" us to ourselves, to God. The Zohar (Mishpatim) compares the Torah to a beautiful maiden hidden in a palace: She reveals herself only to her lover, who pass-es by the palace gates, constantly searching for her with his eyes. The words of the Torah as they appear at first are like the palace, with its formidable stone gates and turrets. The song of the Torah, the sudden, momentary revelations that lead us back to God, are disclosed only to those who keep searching. What they find is "very close" to them, in their mouths and in their hearts. It is the maiden peeking from the palace window; it is love with the full strength of eros.
What then, does it mean "to worship strange gods," which is the Torah's description of Israel's falling away, falling apart, the nightmare flip-side of continuity? The late great hasidic teacher and songwriter, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, explained it as follows: "The closer you are to a person, the more you believe he cares about everything you do. If you bump into someone whom you are not close to, whom you haven't seen for six months, and he asks you 'What's new?,' you might not have anything to tell him. The closer you are, the more there is to tell. A really close friend even wants to hear what you ate for breakfast. A strange god is one who you don't believe cares about who you are and what you do — he's a stranger to you. The more you believe God cares about your every movement, the less you are worshiping a strange god."
This kind of intimacy with God involves a constant feeling of falling away and being re-embraced. The spiral of return demands an intensity that we can't always maintain. Jewish continuity means never boasting "We Never Lost It" because Jewish intimacy — the only thing we must really pass on to our children — means being ready to lose God only to find Him again. • Rabbi Micha Odenheimer, a contributing editor of The Jerusalem Report, is a writer and teacher living in Jerusalem.
First published in the Jerusalem Report September 13, 1995