Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Thou Shalt Argue With G-d

This week I've been reading a recent collection of Jewish fiction called Lost Tribe: Jewish Fiction From the Edge. I've read most of the authors in the book, but some were new to me. Aimee Bender, Ellen Umansky, and Rachel Kadish are three writers who I'll likely return to--good stuff.

In Kadish's "The Argument,"a man named Kreutzer is sent to a nursing home to see if he can get the old dementia-stricken rabbi to reveal the whereabouts of the deed to the synagogue. Kreutzer, who had previously made it a weekly ritual of his to compose notes to the rabbi expressing his dissatisfaction with the sermons, finds the encounters to be awkward. Kreutzer can't get the rabbi to recall ever being in a synagogue, let alone the words of the sh'ma or any other prayers.

In one instance, Kreutzer recalls his own younger days, when he attended a cheder:

"Paired with another boy--for a Jew must study with a partner, a co-counsel in the court of the One True Judge--[he] was instructed in the skills of debate. When God's people debate His tradition, He knows they love Him. True faith, the rabbis taught, was an unresolved argument. Jews argued; in His heavens God laughed and was satisfied."

As someone who loves to argue with religion and tradition (and G-d), this resonates with me because I know that I do it out of love. And when I feel that I hate it, it is only because it feels, for a moment at least, that the argument that surrounds it--the dialogue--has come to a close. And there is nothing in that space. Nothing for me.

I'm also reminded of something that E. L. Doctorow has said
in a couple of different places: "True faith cannot answer the intellect with a patronizing smile." The unresolved questions and arguments that surround faith, religion, sacred texts, and G-d are the necessary realization of "true" faith.

I've decided that, yes, G-d is pleased when we argue His traditions. But somehow we are always left wanting more, never satisfied in the way that He must be. But perhaps that is as close to happiness or satisfaction that we can come in this world.


Casey said...

Hmmmmmmm.... this post sends me into deep meditation.

[9 minute pause]

[Deleted paragraph deemed too scandalous]

Hmmm. What about Walt Whitman, who says yes to everything, who accepts all?

Monica said...

I arguing, perhaps I too am saying yes to all.

Kevin said...

Monica—many thanks!—very much worth reading.

“G-d is pleased when we argue His traditions.”

But I wonder: are there limits to this sort of debate/questioning?

For while I may ask questions within a tradition, there must be something which ensures that my questions remain questions WITHIN it, rather than being a questioning OF it. That is, if everything in/about my tradition is question-able, what makes my questions traditional—i.e. count as ‘within’ my tradition?

There is, of course, the option of saying ‘Yes’ to any challenge or question—this is the Rationalist tradition, wherein the only thing sacrosanct is an incessant and utterly unlimited questioning. However, not only does even this tradition seem to put some questions beyond the pale (“There is” says Chesterton, “a thought which stops all thought. That is the only thought which ought to be stopped.”); but there lurks a more general problem: if your traditions’ questioning is unbounded—if you do say ‘yes’ to everything, you seem left with only one (honorable!) tradition left standing— an ethic of unlimited questioning—and this seems to leaves you outside, or at best a tentative participant in, any particular tradition—since a tradition would seem to be individuated by the questions it does and does not ask. To say ‘this tradition is mine’ or ‘I honor, love, and defend this tradition’ must (right?) be guarded by “I will debate within it—but I will not debate in such a way that the tradition itself is dismantled by my questioning. I will question within it without calling it into question’. Does this seem right? Or is such a defensiveness against ‘the dangerous perhaps’ a de facto failure of faith?

Perhaps that came out egg-headed. But I am not trying to make a logical point. My interest is not rhetorical, but personal. I genuinely don’t know at what point, say, a challenge WITHIN a tradition becomes a challenge TO that tradition, and whether such challenges are the sort at which G-d might indeed laugh and be satisfied.

Not to advertise, but: if my question here has been at all unclear and/or interesting, I put up an Easter post which I take to be an example of a question of this awkward sort: where a love-driven investigation within a tradition also appears to threaten it foundationally—i.e. in aspects thought by most to be essential to it. My case: can one ask a certain question of/in/about Christianity and remain a Christian (as I want to say)? Or is one’s exile from that tradition ensured/entailed by asking it? Is love of the tradition (or Someone central to it) enough to prevent one from inadvertently betraying it with a question/kiss? Or does this personal love somehow serve to salvage/subsume, and put to some positive use the often wild and tradition-wounding questions we may feel ourselves driven to ask?

Monica said...

Thanks, Kevin. Okay, so if, as you suggest, everything within a tradition is questionable (to a particular person), then why is anything worth questioning? What I mean is that people who honestly seek answers to their questions regarding their religion/faith/tradition typically do not feel that EVERYTHING is subject to questioning. I think people tend to have a grip on certain aspects of it, which makes them desire the answers to others all the more. I think that someone who wants to question everything about a tradition is usually acting in a more antagonistic role, rather than truly seeking answers.

I like your question about whether love for a tradition is enough to prevent one from betraying it. I think, perhaps, that it's not--that questioning must be accompanied by a certain level of self-awareness and caution. has a way of always becoming narcissistic, right--of returning to itself? So I think it probably is possible that love for a religion/tradition/faith could degenerate into something less attractive if we become egocentric about wanting to claim and interpret a tradition entirely as our own without any awareness of the other (here comes Levinas). Good questions, Kevin.