Sunday, November 7, 2010

Judaism: Diversity and Suffering in History and Tradition (pt.3 of 3)

One area of common ground between the three major branches of Judaism already discussed is in their observance of certain sacred events and holidays. The weekly Shabbat service (or the Sabbath) is a time of rest that recalls both God’s resting on the seventh day of creation and Israel’s liberation from slavery. How each branch practices this event varies considerably, with the Orthodox observing the day of rest much more strictly than either Conservative or Reform Jews do. Beyond this weekly event, there are many holy days in Judaism, of which the most widely observed is Passover. This is a day for Jews to remember the Exodus from Egypt when the Israelites were freed from slavery. Passover is named after the story of when the Angel of Death “passed over” the houses of the Israelites before the Exodus. Jewish families share in a sacred meal called the Seder, where they talk, sing, rejoice in freedom, and remember their past. As Jacob Neusner points out, contemporary Jews also connect Passover to individual experience in the present, and more particularly, the modern experience of remembering the Holocaust: “Passover is popular now because it speaks to a generation that knows what the Gentiles can do…” Once again, this illustrates the way the Holocaust has brought diverse Jews together by remembering a shared history of suffering and a constant struggle for survival. The impact of the Holocaust on modern Judaism is so intense that some theologians have seen it as a distinct religious phenomenon, calling it “Holocaustology.”

Although Judaism has always emphasized the importance of questioning, arguing, and wrestling with God (the name “Israel” suggests the action of “struggling with God”), Jews have rarely engaged so deeply in this activity as much as they have since the Holocaust. As Catholic theologian Hans Kung writes, “[The Holocaust] remains an event far surpassing all previous history of suffering, an event of an unspeakable suffering of the people of the Jews which cannot be ‘understood’ theoretically.” As a young freshman in college, I encountered this Jewish struggle first-hand and it has had a lasting impact on my own Christian theology. I enrolled in a philosophy course that was taught by a Jewish Rabbi, who I discovered late in the semester was also an atheist. I remember the shock I felt when he explained how his reflection on the Holocaust caused him to lose his faith in God. Though he still valued the Jewish tradition, he could no longer believe in God because of the theological problem of suffering. “Where was the God of the Hebrew Bible, the active God of history, when a third of the world’s Jews were murdered? If God once chose Israel as his people, acting in history on their behalf, he has since lost interest in such matters – and I have lost interest in him,” my professor said to the class.

Moving ahead to my senior year in college, I enrolled in a class on the Jewish mystical tradition that was taught by another Jewish Rabbi. Though she was still a theist, she had embraced Isaac Luria’s mystical notion of zimzum and given up on divine omnipotence in her struggle earlier in life for an adequate theology after Auschwitz. The combined impact of these two Jewish Rabbis on my own faith has caused me to take the problem of suffering much more seriously than before. Despite the objections of Hans Kung, I have taken Protestant theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s idea of ‘the crucified God’ who suffers with the victims of oppression very seriously. Moltmann developed this theology from theological considerations after the Holocaust. Additionally, the way that John Cobb’s process theology discusses the problem of suffering has also been a fruitful tool in my theological reflections – though I by no means feel as though I have “resolved” the problem of suffering for myself.

Though my Christian faith is continually enriched by studying all the world’s religions, no tradition other than my own has influenced me as much as Judaism. In addition to hearing Jewish voices struggling with theodicy, other aspects of the tradition have also provoked my thinking. Some of these challenges have come about as I have gained a new awareness of the history of ancient Israel while trying to see the Hebrew Bible through a Jewish lens, not just a Christian one. In college, I found inspiration in Jewish mystics like Isaac Luria and the philosopher Moses Maimonides. I have also had opportunities to participate in Shabbat services at a Reform synagogue, where I admired their passionate, honest, and open-ended style of wrestling with the Torah, as well as their deep sense of community. Many Christians, such as myself, have recently gained an appreciation for the Jewish emphasis on practice over dogma, reflecting a deep concern for transforming life here-and-now. Judaism continues to fascinate me in so many ways, regularly challenging me from a different context to rethink my assumptions about theology, culture, and history.

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