Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Time Has Come

 

It takes a certain kind of person – and a certain kind of temperament - to stand in front of a classroom full of students and lecture. A person with a certain sense of themselves – a certainty in their knowledge and a need to share that knowledge with the world. Professors are convinced our insights are necessary to the well-being of the world.  We gaze at our reflection in the faces of our students.  We are Narcissus, gazing into the pool.

Joseph Epstein, in a fine article entitled Narcissus Leaves the Pool, notes we are in the pool – the classroom, in my case - for a relatively short while and no one ever really wants to exit the pool when the whistle blows.  Nonetheless, the time has come for me to exit the pool. I have been teaching at Augustana University for forty-two years.  I will be on sabbatical this next year and will retire at the conclusion of that year.  I did what I could do, and it is time to let go.

During my years at Augustana I have been embraced and encouraged to teach the courses which gave me life. It has been my honor and privilege to be able, semester after semester, to stand in front of caring students willing to study difficult questions vital to any person of faith. 

Many of these questions had to do with the Holocaust. As some of you know, I am convinced the Holocaust presents us with a “novum,” a new revelation about the nature of Man and the nature of God.  I urged my students to grapple with this revelation and for the most part they were willing to walk with me.  It has been my highest honor and privilege, to teach a Capstone course (Light in the Darkness:  Courage and Evil in the 20th Century) for over twenty years with Professors Sandra Looney and Peter Schotten.  We taught some of the finest students ever to pass through Augustana’s hallways. 

Above all, in my classes, I yearned for my students to learn Jewish people are human and to understand the evils of antisemitism and indifference.

I will miss my students. So many have extended me the courtesy of listening and wrestling with difficult and aggravating theological questions – those questions vital to any person of faith. Thank you.

I will miss my colleagues, particularly in my department who listened to and respected the questions and views I expressed.   They are my friends.  Our hallway conversations were important and insightful. Thank you.

And now what?  I plan to continue writing my blog.  I hope to write a book dealing with Elie Wiesel and the problem of God.  I will keep on reading books and listening to music to nourish my soul.  I will keep on teaching where I can.

Finally, to all of you who took time to listen to me and honored me by taking seriously the questions that gnawed at and continue to gnaw at my soul, thank you.  I am a lucky man who, as a young boy, ran away from my family and tradition, returned to that tradition, and was lucky enough to land in a place of caring and grace called Augustana.  

I must go.  I can hear the whistle blowing. The office and classroom doors are shouting. “Out of the water, Narcissus.”

Friday, August 21, 2020

Remembering Mr. Zucker

 

In Jewish tradition we are wont to say, “The secret resides in the doing.”  As the Talmud teaches, “If you want to know the character of a person, do not listen to the mouth, but follow the feet.”  It means, if I want to know who you are and the character of your faith, I will ignore what you say, but watch what you do.

In that spirit, I want to tell you about Mr. Zucker.  When I was in my teens, living with my parents in the Bronx, I used to attend the local Conservative synagogue, Nathan Strauss Jewish Center.  Every Saturday morning, I would get dressed and walk the few short blocks down Gun Hill Road to this shul.  Week after week, I would sit in one of the back rows by myself.  The service began about 8:30 and concluded close to noon.  No one said anything to me.

But one Sabbath morning a man, who told me his name was Zucker, approached me as I sat in my back row.  He said, “I see you here week after week, all by yourself.  Where is your father?”  I said, my father is working.  I explained to Mr. Zucker, “Even though it was the Sabbath, my father told me he has to work because the family needs to eat.”  My Dad was a clothing operator.  He worked in a dreary sweat shop eight to ten hours a day.  My parents were quite poor. They lived paycheck to paycheck.  Mr. Zucker’s eyes looked pained, and he seemed near tears.

Mr. Zucker was an elderly man with kind eyes and a caring soul.  He was a Jew and a mensch.  And it seemed his soul ached that my father could not afford to go to shul and pray.  I tell you there were tears in his eyes. 

In those days, to attend synagogue during the High Holy Days, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, you had to have tickets.  That may sound strange to some of you.  But Jews do not collect a weekly offering, so one way to collect funds and maintain the synagogue is to sell tickets.  Since my father could not afford tickets, we did not attend shul during those days.

But, every year after that Sabbath morning, Mr. Zucker bought tickets for me and my father to attend High Holy Day services.  And by the way, the seats were not in the back.  They were in the front close to the altar and the Torah. 

I never knew Mr. Zucker’s first name, but I am remembering his face today.  He taught me what it was to be a mensch (a person of character) and that it is possible for a human being to be a mensch.  I suspect Mr. Zucker is long gone but I raise my voice and my studying to his honor.  May his memory be for a blessing.  May what he did instruct us all.

Friday, July 10, 2020

No Justice, No Peace???


Our scriptures command us:  Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof Deuteronomy 16:20: “Justice Justice, shall you pursue.”

One of the first things young children learn to say is, “That’s not fair.”  From a young age we learn to believe in the possibility of justice.  We yearn.  We thirst.  We demand justice.  But, as we have so often heard, “The world is not fair.”

Some protesters marching for justice in the streets shout, “No Justice, No Peace.”  I am sympathetic to their impatience for fundamental change and as much as I can understand their insistence and persistence, it will help us to know why justice is so elusive.

Why has it been so difficult to achieve justice?  The problem, as our scriptures know, is people.  The nature of human nature is ambiguous, contradictory, and inconsistent.  We know what is right, but we do not do it.  For all our songs about love and peace we are too easily seduced by fear.  Everyone says they want peace but there seems to be little peace.  We like to sing about love, but sometimes we are not very loving.  People claim they want justice, but justice remains elusive. It sounds nice but . . .

While justice is elusive, we are commanded to go after it as best we can.  We must do what we can to effect change in an imperfect world amidst imperfect human beings.

We are not permitted to be indifferent. Indifference is decadence. An indifferent person is already dead but he or she does not know it. 

Elie Wiesel has written, “The one who thinks about God, forgetting Man, runs the risk of mistaking his goal: God may be your next-door neighbor.”  Chaos and injustice will always be with us.  But we must do all we can do to hold back its craziness. 

The Hebrew word “tirdof” means to run.  Run as fast as you can.  Run after justice.  Run, run, and do not stop running.  Justice, Justice shall you pursue says the scripture.  We can almost touch it and 
yet . . . Run, run and in that way, you will be running with God.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Racism and Religion


At the heart of most religions is faith, a trust that what you believe is true.  Racism, the belief that one race is inherently inferior to another, is a faith which stems from fear.  People who are racist are viscerally convinced that another group or race is out to hurt them.  They are afraid and that fear is palpable.  They feel it and they trust that fear.  You will not be able to convince them they are wrong because, that is their faith.  They trust what they have heard, and their trust affirms their fear, and this fear is so clear to them, it cannot be wrong, all facts to the side.

What exactly is it that is feared?  The key word is infection.  When you were a child your parents were always concerned about your friends.  Their fear centered around being friends with the wrong crowd which could infect you causing you harm.  The person who is different, black, Jewish, Gay is not only a threat but is repulsive, disgusting and highly infectious.  This person looks human but is not really like you and me. 

The fear having been inculcated and established is not easily removed.  Once you are afraid these people are going to hurt you, you are no longer able to listen to reason or facts.  This faith and fear trumps love and truth. When enough people have or support this fear in one place it can become part of a system to which most people know the rules.

The only way to change this faith is through experience.  During World War II, there was a Lutheran pastor who was part of the Confessing Church, a group of Christians, mostly Pastors, opposed to the Nazis.  I met one of these Pastors and listened to his remarkable story.  When he was done, I asked him why the Confessing Church did not speak out about the persecution of the Jews.  He became quiet and the after a long pause said, “We did not know they were human.”  He went on to say he had never met or spoken to a Jew.  I was shocked!  Then I asked him, “When did you find out that Jews were human?”  He said when the Nazis threw him into a concentration camp, he met a Jew who gave him a piece of bread.  He said, “That’s when I realized Jews were people, they were human.”

Every semester at Augustana, I have encountered students who have told me I was the first Jew they had ever met.  Experience changes who we are and what we believe.

You can pass all kinds of laws requiring people to act decent toward each other.  And that is fine.

But, until you change people’s hearts, until they see and experience for themselves:  Black people are human, Jews are human, Native Americans are human, Gays are human; until that happens racism and hatred and fear will not be abolished.


Thursday, April 30, 2020

Theodicy is Important


The word theodicy means the justice of God.  Theodicy questions God’s ways of working with the world.  Some people think theodicy is a waste of time either because they don’t believe there is a God, or they think God is so problematic and mysterious that asking questions about the justice of God is absurd or some think theodicy is a sign of a lack of faith and an arrogant pride trying to investigate the glory of God.


While there may be some legitimacy to the above reservations concerning theodicy, I disagree with all of them.  Theodicy is a human attempt to understand and question the ways of God in a world of so much underserved suffering.  Theodicy is a faithful human attempt to trust God and stay sane at the same time.  Theodicy wonders about the methodology and fairness of God in our world.  And it does so as an outgrowth of faith and not against faith. 


Asking questions about the moral character and intent of God is also Biblical.  Abraham argues with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Moses confronts God regarding God’s attitude toward the Israelites and their long suffering under slavery in Egypt. Hagar laments to God as she lingers in the wilderness. Job challenges the morality of God and is vindicated by God.  In the book of Ezekiel, God laments that there is so little faith among the Hebrews that no one is willing to challenge God to keep God’s promises. And of course, in the New Testament, Jesus ends his life by crying out a question about God’s abandonment.


Theodicy is an inherent part of a faith that refuses to let God off the hook by making excuses about what God is not doing to defeat suffering and evil. We are presently living through the Coronavirus which has already killed almost 60,000 people in the USA. What is God doing amidst all these deaths?


There is a fine book called, Pathways in Theodicy by Mark S. M. Scott.  Scott reviews the different ways theodicy has been approached but does not favor one approach.  He argues we need to keep the theodicy question open and on the table. And I agree.


Why do I care so much about theodicy? Because faith is a risky business.We are proclaiming our faith in an invisible and highly problematic God.  Our faith should be honest and mature.  We ought to be intellectually and spiritually truthful about where our faith works and where it does not work.  In all my years of teaching I have tried to encourage and aggravate my students, particularly those who espouse faith, to tell the truth about the fragility and difficulty of faith.  Such thinking may cause some to doubt but doubt and faith are two parts of the same coin.  Theodicy is important!!!

Friday, April 17, 2020

Caught Between Faith and Facts


Whenever an event as evil as the Coronavirus rears its head and delivers its destruction upon us, we religious folk are caught between our deep desire to have faith and the facts our eyes are communicating to us. We are caught between faith and facts.


For Jews this happens because Jews trust the heart of God is revealed in the Torah.  God loves his people so much he gave them his only Torah to teach them what it meant to live a human life.  Whatever has happened to us across the centuries, we Jews trust against trust that God is for us and not against us.


Christians trust the heart of God has been revealed to all people in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.  God loved his people so much he sent his only son to die and be raised.  In Jesus, God shows how much God loves humanity and does not leave them alone.  And Christians trust “nothing shall separate them from the love of God.”


And Muslims trust God so loved the world that he sent his final revelation through Muhammad and had it written down in the Quran.  Muslims trust that everything that happens to human beings is in some mysterious way the will of God.  Five times a day Muslims proclaim their hope and trust that Allah is truly God, for us and not against us.


All this is well and good.  It is our faith. And we want our faith to be true.


But when the craziness and horror of evil lives among us, people of faith are compelled or forced to live in the tension between faith and facts.  And the fact is:  despite the Biblical assertions of God’s commitment to justice and love, hundred of thousands are being killed.  Despite prayers upon prayers upon prayers, the silence of God lives among us.  Of course, we can and will give the usual reasons or excuses to make God not look so bad.  After all, look at all those who survive the virus.  We can sing more hymns.  We can babble on about the mystery of God’s ways.  And let’s face it, theologians and religious leaders have honed their craft over the years to disqualify or eliminate any questioning of the deity.


But this is nothing new.  Faith and facts collide in the Biblical stories.  And those of us who have studied the Holocaust are aware of the silence or indifference of God.  Years ago, Elie Wiesel opined that Jesus was most Jewish and most honest when, on the cross, he implored the deity, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”


So, this is our predicament.  We have just come through two holidays, Passover and Easter, where God’s deliverance was rehearsed and celebrated.  Despite all that, if we religious believers are willing to be honest, we will admit we are aware of the tension in which we are compelled to live. 


After all, Jews and Christians and Muslims are communities who have always been waiting for God to act like God.  In the meantime, believers are caught in the tension between their faith in God and the facts screaming at them in the face.  So, I say again, Stay sane out there.


Sunday, March 15, 2020

A Few Words About God and the Coronavirus


When the entire planet is wrestling with the Coronavirus, what, pray tell, is God doing?


We are all in the middle of trying to avoid getting the Coronavirus.  We know such occasional viruses and pandemics are part of being human.  We humans are amazingly agile and fragile.  As to God’s part in all this, I am convinced that such a virus is not the will of God.  God does not send a virus to kill people as part of God’s mysterious plan.  So, no need to blame God for this outbreak.


But, let’s not be too easy on God.  Assuming there is a God, this God created a world where viruses are part of life.  They come and they go hurting and sometimes killing hundreds and thousands of people.  But they too are part of God’s “good” world.  And I say again, we ought not absolve God too easily of some responsibility for their existence.  From earthquakes to tornadoes to hurricanes, to monsoons, to Tsunamis, to volcanos, to cancers of all sorts, to diseases upon diseases, to viruses upon viruses.  So rumbles nature from day to day without a conscience, going on and on and on churning away in its wild unruly manner.


Perhaps as has been suggested, we need to forgive God for creating such a dangerous chaotic world.  That sounds right to me.  Much better than assuming everything that happens is the will of God.  How absurd!


What do I think God is doing in our present virus?  I certainly do not know.  But I presume, if our religious traditions are right, God is at work with us as a partner in the universe doing what can be done to minimize the effects of nature.  As in the Biblical texts God is wrestling with nature to create order.  Is it enough?  No.  It is insufficient.  God is not in control of nature.  And such is the precarious nature of life on our planet.


If we are going to trust in a benevolent deity, that’s fine but let’s be honest about our dilemma.  When the chaos of nature rears its head as it too often does, we are and will be forced time and again, to trust without knowing for sure.


Are any of these words helpful?  Probably not but we say what we can say and do what we can do.  Such is the nature of intelligent religious faith.  And the fact is nature can be startingly creative and monstrously destructive.


I wish us all well as we walk through this present calamity and trust against trust, we are not walking through it alone.