I search for You at dawn, my Rock and Refuge
Morning and evening will I unfold my thoughts before You
I stand overwhelmed by Your greatness
For Your eyes perceive my deepest thoughts
What can my heart and tongue do
And what strength does my spirit possess
Behold, You desire the song of man
Therefore I shall praise You as long as my divine soul is in me
[Shachar Avakeshcha, Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gabirol]
In memory of Eyal Yifrach, Gil-Ad Shaer, and Naftali Fraenkel
Lord of the Universe!
I ask for forgiveness, but I have no option but to speak to You with words of protest. I must tell You that it has again become very difficult to live in Your presence. In the last few weeks, we, the people of Israel, have all become one family whose sons were brutally murdered almost three weeks ago. They have become our own sons and grandchildren. We gathered together to pray for Your help as we have never done before. Millions of prayers went up to Your holy throne, pleading for their well being. There has never been unity among us as there was during these two and a half weeks. We prayed and prayed until we nearly collapsed. Religious, non-religious, and even anti-religious. It made no difference. And You failed us bitterly.
Last Tuesday morning I was of two minds about praying to You. There was too much pain. Then I wondered whether we should perhaps all go to synagogue and declare before the Aron Hakodesh (Holy Ark) that we refuse to speak to You any longer and will cease to sing Your praises.
You, God, and only you, were there when the terrorists kidnapped these boys. Why did You not slay those murderers, by heart attack or stroke? Did You lack options to prevent them from carrying out their evil scheme? Did You not owe the boys’ families, deeply religious people, Your absolute protection? On so many other occasions, in the past, You miraculously saved our children and grandchildren from similar incidents. Why did You not do the same for these families and bring the boys home safely?
I am astounded at how many people continue to utter words of praise to You. How can one still speak to You after all that happened? But then I thought, isn’t it wonderful that You have so many worshippers who are still prepared to come and speak to You, instead of throwing in the towel and deciding there is no longer any point in praising or serving You? Does that not show miraculous faith, in spite of itall?
Or, are we just hiding behind our prayers of praise, trying to escape the reality that You were there and could have prevented all this but didn’t?
What astonishes me even more is the fact that nearly no one in my immediate religious community seems to discuss the huge existential problem in what just happened. Seemingly, not one person who walked out of the synagogue was caught in a religious crisis. Or am I mistaken?
I watched the funeral and saw thatmore than 10,000 people attended. I heard the most unusual eulogies given by parents and grandparents, as well as brothers and sisters of the victims, who spoke about You with such love, with enormous strength of belief in You. I stood in awe…and thought: What do they know that I don’t?
But I also wonder how many heads of Jewish high schools and yeshivot will actually discuss with their students Your rather painful involvement in all this. I am afraid that most of them will tell their pupils to be silent and continue learning Talmud. But as a teacher, I know that this will only add to the problem and cause irreparable traumas and crises of faith. I know that these questions are on the minds of many of our best students. They are often ignored and simply suppressed. But if they are not taken seriously, all hell will break lose.
But I wonder. Do we really still believe in Your Oneness? Have we convinced ourselves that we believe in You while in fact we have adopted a type of atheism, or worse, a kind of idol worship, believing in two or even more gods without being aware of it? One God Whom we worship, and One Whose existence we deny because it creates too many traumas and religious crises.
I know that my questions concerning You are not new. We have been asking them since the dawn of history – from the killing of Hevel by Kayin until beyond the Holocaust. I could have written this letter to You almost every hour of my life, as could have all my ancestors. But since last Monday, these questions have once more become brutally pertinent.So why, indeed, did we not cease praising You long ago?
Surely I can ask why You need all this. If You want to teach us something, are there no other ways? After all, the only thing You accomplish is that fewer and fewer people will believe in You. You provide them with all the arguments that people like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens love so much. You know just as well as I do that all these tragedies work against You, causing much damage to Your name. And I am most concerned about Your name. So why aren’t You?
But when I think more about all this, I realize that these questions will remain unanswered because You are You, and I am I. In fact, there is nothing that I really understand about You. You are a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. You see everything sub specie aeternitatis (from the aspectof eternity). And that I could do only if I were You. But I am not. I know that I am not the measure of all things. I know that I am far removed from the reality of Your essential existence. Trying to understand You is like explaining a three-dimensional reality with the help of a flat surface. I realize that there is a huge expanse between You and the shore of my reason. I see your fingerprints everywhere and hear a constant metaphysical murmur from the “other side,” which I know little about. It attempts to penetrate my thinking but is unable to get through and stops half way, in order not to crush my skull. I am fully aware that I continue to convert Your realities into my opinions, thereby rendering myself guilty of transforming Your sublimity into silly clichés. Any effort on our part to justify You is an attempt to make You human. It says more about us than it does about You.
You are more than simply existing. Existence is Your minimum capacity. If You were to merely exist, I would probably not believe in You. But you are more than infinite, truer than real. I am aware that I borrow words, phrases and philosophical language from the general sphere of our limited human experience, and that will not do. Faith is mostly starved of language. When I confront You, all my words evaporate into near meaninglessness.
There is really nothing that we know. We don’t know who You are or why You created the world. We are completely ignorant about why You need us to exist. You are not a Who, What or even When. The world around us, including baby universes, black holes and millions of stars, just alludes to one great mysterium magnum (great mystery). How, then, do we dare challenge You regarding human tragedies, holocausts, earthquakes and so much else? Did You not say to Iyov, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell Me, if you have understanding!” (1)
I am jealous of the atheist, who doesn’t need to deal with the problem. Your total Otherness doesn’t bother him. He simply denies it. He doesn’t have to deal with the terrible tension that exists between what I want You to be and Who You really are. I don’t have that luxury. While he allows himself to escape the problem, I am forced to face it head on.
I realize that Your miracles by far exceed Your tragedies. I am aware that I continue to live by Your ever constant mercy; that it is more than surprising that we do not experience waves of terrorism and earthquakes as a daily occurrence. The grandeur of all creation is too powerful to allow us to deny You.
So I will continue to believe in You, but I cannot deny that, emotionally, it is a tour deforce. How, after all, can I live with Someone who sometimes violates all that my own limited thoughts and feelings can grasp and express? Oh, how wonderful it would be if I were an atheist! But how fortunate I am not to have been granted that possibility.
Perhaps my fellow worshippers are wiser than I am. Perhaps they have already worked through all these thoughts and have concluded that You are a necessary Being in and of Yourself and that all our questions are meaningless. Maybe. But then, God, do they not have emotions, as I have? Do you want us to have cold, philosophical, mathematical minds and state that You are the grundnorm of complete Otherness and therefore there is nothing to ask?
But maybe the story is different.Maybe we all have an ingrained, deep-seated but simple belief in You, which is indestructible. Perhaps our belief is much more real since it is a priori and independent of human knowledge and experience.
Whatever the answer may be, I still have to tell you that I am, first and foremost, a human being. So, I repeat the question asked by my forefather Avraham after You told him of Your intention to destroy the cities of Sedom and Amora. He asked, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” (2)This, God, is the great human question. True, man is only a reed – the weakest entity in nature – but he is a feeling reed.
Perhaps, God, You could have a little more pity on our finite minds. It would make it easier to live with You.
So, forgive me for asking these simplistic questions, but I must give voice to them.
After all, “men are but children of a larger growth.” (3)
In humility and awe,
Nathan ben Ya’acov Lopes Cardozo
——–(1) Iyov 38:4. (2) Bereishit 18:25. (3) John Dryden (1631-1700), English poet and playwright.
This letter originally appeared on cardozoacademy.org