In the Days of Awe

It’s quite a busy season of writing and prayer and reflection!

In lieu of a typical post during the Ten Days of Awe, I’d like to share the sermons I am offering at The Community Synagogue during our Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur services. Regularly scheduled programming will resume soon!

May we all be written and sealed for a good year ahead.

Seeing and Being Seen – RH Evening 5779 – Rabbi Sam Pollak

Olam Hesed Yibaneh – RH Day 2 5779 – Rabbi Sam Pollak

For All the Wrong Reasons – Kol Nidrei 5779 – Rabbi Sam Pollak

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What is God? What is Love?

The other day, Ari turned to me and said, “Do you ever think we should just retire the word God and substitute something else, something a little less tired? Let’s all pray to Thaff instead!”

It’s not a bad suggestion. Most of us carry a lot of baggage around the word God, particularly as we live in a Christian context. I know that as soon as I start to contemplate God, for instance, I first have to do some mental gymnastics to push aside the old man with a white beard. Only then can I engage in any sort of more sophisticated theological discussion; as Heschel taught, conventional notions and mental clichés hinder our experience of the divine (God in Search of Man, p. 46). Swapping in the unconventional word Thaff as the primary label would at least bypass my automatic association between that particular word and image.

But it wouldn’t solve the fundamental problem of talking about God: language only gets us so far.

Cat’s Cradle, the Kurt Vonnegut novel I recently read at Ari’s recommendation, hits on the same problem. In it, the narrator, John, seeks out the history of the late Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the “fathers” of the atomic bomb. When he ventures into the lab where Dr. Hoenikker once conducted his research, he hears from the director’s assistant, Miss Naomi Faust, that one of the main things of interest to Dr. Hoenikker was truth. But Miss Faust is not convinced that could be enough. Chapter 26 (pp. 54-55) of the book tells the conversation that ensues between John and Miss Faust:

26. What God Is

“Did you ever talk to Dr. Hoenikker?” I asked Miss Faust.
“Oh, certainly. I talked to him a lot.”
“Do any conversations stick in your mind?”
“There was one where he bet I couldn’t tell him anything that was absolutely true. So I said to him, ‘God is love.’ ”
“And what did he say?”
“He said, ‘What is God? What is love?’ ”
“Um.”
“But God really is love, you know,” said Miss Faust, “no matter what Dr. Hoenikker said.”

This short, brilliant chapter illustrates the problem with insisting on definitions for God––or Thaff or any other word used to denote the divine (including divine itself). We then have to define those words, too, and we end up with an infinite regress. That’s because words have meaning in relation to one another, not because of some correspondence with the way the world “really” is (thank you, Richard Rorty). To say God is love is to beg the question: what, then, is love?

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My passable attempt at Cat’s Cradle. As Dr. Hoenikker’s son Newt Hoenikker says, “See the cat? See the cradle?”

But that doesn’t mean Miss Faust is foolish. I think what people mean when they insist that God is love is that they have a strong desire to live in a world that is fundamentally good. That’s not an unreasonable wish.

Still, it has its limits. There are times when the “usual” descriptions of God fail, and we need new ones. That’s the lesson Ari and my friend Eliana Light teaches in her ELI talk. When Eliana’s father died when she was 18, she could no longer abide the theology many of us are taught at some point in our lives: that God is a force of goodness who knows all and whose hand guides things in the world toward the good. She realized there was a gulf between the God she had learned about and the God she was experiencing. Recognizing that it’s a gulf many of us face, she coined the idea of the God Gap. Naming it allows us to address it.

To bridge the God Gap, Eliana suggests we turn to the plethora of names Jewish tradition offers for God. Shekhinah, the Most High (Elyon), the Omnipresent (Hamakom), Healer of shattered hearts, the patient One, the Maker of peace, the One whose face is hidden…to name a few. It’s not to say that any of these “is” God, certainly not to the exclusion of any other––mistaking one aspect of divinity for the whole is the kind of idolatry Kabbalists call kitzutz ba-neti’ot (cutting the shoots). Rather, it’s to say that we experience or seek to experience different aspects of God in different situations.

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“God was in this place and I did not know” (or) Jacob’s Ladder. Ari is much better at this than me.

I like Eliana’s teaching. The problem with the word God is not merely that it is tired; it’s that it’s also vague. I’m in favor of retiring it, but not of replacing it with another catch-all label––even one as novel as Thaff. I’d rather be more precise, finding the name that fits the moment while remembering that name’s contextuality. It’s a little more effort, but it also frees us of the burden of shoving the bearded old guy out of the way before we really get down to work.

Listening to Inanimate Objects

I am an avid podcast listener, and I am enraptured by a new production: Everything is Alive. In each episode, host Ian Chillag interviews an inanimate object about its hopes and experiences, and in the process he reveals its personhood.

Okay, he doesn’t really talk to inanimate objects; his listeners must suspend some of their disbelief. In preparation for each episode, Chillag engages an actor whom he supplies with some background research on the subject. That actor then creates their particular object’s character, and the episode proceeds unscripted from there. The result is something that really does seem like a typical radio interview.

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Photo by Breakingpic on Pexels.com.

In the first episode, Chillag speaks with a can of store-brand cola named Louis, who, in the course of his shelf life, repeatedly came close to fulfilling his destiny: being enjoyed by a thirsty human. Now, Louis is reaching his printed expiration date, and while he wonders if he will ever get to experience what it’s like to be drunk, he also wonders if he will cease to exist, should the drinking occur. Is Louis merely a metal body that happens to contain soda, or is that which fills him with effervescence integral to his nature?

The second episode (the only other one at the time of this writing) is about a Brooklyn lamppost called Maeve. She spends her on-off cycles (i.e. days) observing the curious actions of the humans around her, and she yearns to be noticed and appreciated—as opposed to noticed and cursed when someone walks into her and knocks their head. Maeve wants to be the star of a movie, just like Gene Kelly’s lamppost in Singin’ in the Rain. She also wants to see the other side of Park Slope, because she is intrigued by what happens to the humans when they turn the corner and disappear from her sight.

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Left: Maeve’s idol. Right: some human.

I love so many things about Everything is Alive. The episodes are funny and heartfelt, and they tell stories in unique ways. They teach me about some strange historical trivia, like the radium-laced soda once marketed to American consumers and the mysterious disappearance of the original Singin’ in the Rain lamppost. What impresses me most, though, is how each interview invites me to relate to inanimate items not as objects, but as subjects.

This is the same invitation I find in the poetry of Mary Oliver. Consider the following poem, in which she imagines the subjects that make up the natural world:

Some Things, Say the Wise Ones (Why I Wake Early, p. 57)

Some things, say the wise ones who know everything,
are not living. I say,
you live your life your way and leave me alone.

I have talked with the faint clouds in the sky when they
are afraid of being left behind; I have said, Hurry, Hurry!
and they have said: Thank you, we are hurrying.

About cows, and starfish, and roses, there is no
argument. They die, after all.

But water is a question, so many living things in it,
but what is it, itself, living or not? Oh, gleaming

generosity, how can they write you out?

As I think this I am sitting on the sand beside
the harbor. I am holding in my hand
small pieces of granite, pyrite, schist.
Each one, just now, so thoroughly asleep.

The sand is the part of going to the beach I like the least, because of how it gets in my pockets and sticks to my wet feet. But my heart softens towards it when I think of its grains as being asleep. They are, of course, capable of so much; our built environment is quite literally made of those tiny rocks. When they sleep, do they dream of what they might become, perhaps fused into exquisite stained glass? Or are they content where they are, in the diverse community of minerals bordering the great living sea?

These are the questions that arise when we see the world as full of subjects.

As Martin Buber taught in I and Thou, we are accustomed to relating to other entities in what he calls “I-It” relationships. In an I-It relationship, I, the subject, either treat the other entity as an object usable for my own purposes or simply experience it, through my senses, as something distinct from myself. This holds for items as well as for other people. It’s not exactly a “bad” thing, but a natural way of relating to other entities. In fact, constructing I-It relationships with the world is how we differentiate a sense of self, Buber says. We know who we are in response to all the “not-us” things we experience.

But the higher connection is the “I-You” relationship, in which we relate to the other as an equal subject. The I-You relationship is not about considering ways to benefit from one other; rather, it is a contentless experience. One subject blurs into the other, boundaries disappear, and the other ceases to be “other.” It is a feeling, often momentary, of pure connection.

What is the famous example Martin Buber uses to illustrate the various kinds of I-It relations and the singular I-You connection? A tree. I think Mary Oliver would have been his friend.

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Connecting with the Grandfather Tree, a 250-year old live oak on Jekyll Island, Georgia.

Maybe Ian Chillag would have too. What he is now doing in Everything is Alive for inanimate, manufactured objects, Mary Oliver does in her poetry for the natural world: inviting us to see the world as full of subjects, to imagine all those inner lives. It’s good practice for imagining the inner lives of other sentient beings, too, which cultivates our capacity for treating all creatures with dignity.

And now there’s a new episode of Everything is Alive in my podcast feed. Time to hear the thoughts of a pillow named Dennis.

The Cabbages of Ambiguous Ownership

I am guilty of cucumber neglect. Ari and I recently stayed for Shabbat in a friend’s apartment while she was away, and we brought a few of the many cucumbers we’d received in that week’s CSA delivery. A couple became crudités with hummus for Shabbat, but one remained. Not wanting to increase our cucumber surplus, we “gifted” that last one to our friend and her roommates by leaving it in their refrigerator…but we forgot to tell anyone we’d done that. When the apartment’s occupants returned, they each assumed the cucumber belonged to someone else. It sat untouched and started to rot.

Not long after, another intriguing vegetable took root in my mind. I found it on page 144 of Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism, by Chris Jennings. I’ve been reading this history mostly before bed, so most details evaporated in that space between wakefulness and sleep. But this particular vegetable stayed with me: the cabbages of ambiguous ownership.

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Cabbages of the Stop and Shop variety.

What a musical and strange set of words! Who ever heard of ambiguous cabbages? (And don’t they remind you of The Princess Bride’s Rodents of Unusual Size?)

The cabbages appear toward the end of Jennings’ chapter on New Harmony, the 19th-century utopian community established by Robert Owen in Indiana (on the site of another bygone utopian effort called, aptly, Harmony). By now, Jennings has described how Owen, a secular Shabbatai Zvi of sorts, attempted to establish a model communitarian society, one which he hoped would inspire a radical reorganization of economic and social life around the world. In New Harmony, all property was held communally, intellectual growth was prized, and members engaged in all the manual labor necessary for a self-sufficient agrarian life.

New Harmony does not exist today; as has been a common pattern for utopian endeavors, enthusiasm waned and infighting splintered the group. Eventually, the community broke into factions, each in charge of different aspects of life, and a trading system developed amongst the groups. The very things New Harmony aimed at eliminating (individualism and competition), became the community’s undoing. Additionally, Owen, for all his vociferous advocacy of communal ownership, refused to surrender to the commune the personal fortune with which he bankrolled New Harmony’s founding. Radical communards objected on principle. I object to his apparent lack of irony.

Thus the village dissolved and people carted off the movable property, and as a result, “Cabbages of ambiguous ownership were left to rot in their furrows” (p. 144). How sad for the cabbages! Because the New Harmonites failed to navigate the interplay between individualism and communitarianism, the cabbages had to suffer.

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‘The time has come,’ the Walrus said, / ‘To talk of many things: / of shoes––and ships––and sealing wax–– / Of cabbages––and kings–– / And why the sea is boiling hot–– / And whether pigs have wings.’ (Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass, 1871)

As teshuvah for neglecting the aforementioned cucumber, I want to reclaim New Harmony’s forsaken cabbages—not as vegetable, but as symbol. Let them be more than collateral in the dissolution of one particular utopian community; let them stand in for anything harmed because no one accepts responsibility for its care or gathers it for enjoyment. What other perfectly good things miss their chance at life while the world crumbles around them? And how do we avoid creating such cabbages?

Next to the vending machines and above the microwaves in the Teller Lounge of HUC-JIR Cincinnati, there is a certain countertop where you can leave food you wanted someone else to eat. Have leftover cookies and a veggie tray from yesterday’s lunch and learn? Leave them on the counter. Made too many brownies for Shabbat dinner? Leave them on the counter. Want to clean your house of chametz-laden snacks before Passover? Leave them on the counter, and they’ll inevitably be gone by the end of the day. Graduate students are not ones to turn away from free food.

That system works because everyone knows that food left on that counter is free for the taking. By putting an item there, one renounces ownership of it. This is essentially a prearranged version of the process for declaring something to be hefker, ownerless property, as laid out in the Talmud: to renounce ownership of one’s possession, one must declare it ownerless in the presence of at least three other adults (Nedarim 45a).

From this particular discussion in the Talmud, however, it is not clear that hefker created by renunciation of ownership is meant to be a permanent status. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asks, “Why must the declaration be made before three people, when the Torah says just one will suffice?” Because one will take possession of the item and two will witness the exchange, answers the Talmud (ibid.). In other words, hefker is merely a momentary, liminal status occupied by an item as it passes between two legitimate owners. In order to renounce ownership of something, we must assemble the conditions for it to be reclaimed immediately. And should we be party to any apparently ownerless item, we have at least some responsibility for what happens to it. There are to be no cabbages of ambiguous ownership.

I don’t have any grand conclusions to draw from these musings, other than connecting a rotten cucumber, some 19th-century cabbages, and a piece of Jewish legal jargon with one another. Perhaps it’s an invitation to notice those things around us that are in need of being cared for; perhaps it’s an encouragement not to waste so much.

This week, I’m happy to share that we’ve successfully used all the cucumbers we received in the CSA delivery. Two went to friends, and the rest are now a lovely salad with feta and CSA parsley.

The picnic-friendly salad Ari made. It was delicious.