Is God in the unknowable?
Still Small Voice is a collection of 18 interviews with clergy tackling 18 questions about God, published during the month of Elul, a time of Jewish reflection and accountability. Click here to read the introduction to the series.
We are about to recite the High Holiday Unetanetokef liturgy — what many people think of as the “who-will-live-and-who-will-die” prayer. It suggests that God is judging our behavior and that we can alter the “divine decree” with repentance, prayer and charity.
But Rabbi Karyn Kedar said that is not how things work. Reading the Unetanetokef that way creates a “delusion of control,” a false sense “that we are the masters of our own fate — we just need to be good enough and smart enough.”
That is wrongly putting “ourselves in the center of the universe,” Kedar continued, making everything “because of me, about me, controlled by me, set into motion by me, fixed, healed, enabled by me.”
Kedar, 63, senior rabbi of B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, Ill., is known for reimagining ritual and prayer. Her liturgical compositions appear in the 2007 prayer book for the Reform Movement, “Mishkan T’filah,” and she’s the author of the 2019 collection “Amen: Seeking Presence with Prayer, Poetry, and Mindfulness Practice.”
I approached her during my months-long expedition talking to Jewish thinkers about God in Judaism, Still Small Voice because I wanted to interview a rabbi who not only studies and interprets our text, but is involved in actually writing it.
What she said about the Unetanetokef was challenging. It suggested that religion should move us away from ourselves, away from the mistaken belief that we’re the alpha-skippers of our own ships. Instead, Kedar suggests, we should accept what we cannot understand and find the beauty in that.
“When we are in the center of our universe, we find ourselves asking, ‘Why am I not good enough? Why can’t I figure this out? Why is this happening to me?’” Kedar cautioned. “When we’re in the center of our universe, we’re in a very, very lonely place.”
Our conversation is below, edited for clarity and length. To read other interviews with other rabbis in our series, Still Small Voice: 18 questions about God, click here.
‘Seamstress I am not’
Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar: Years ago, I had a dream that was more like a vision. It was very simple. The thought was, “If only I could learn to sew, I could heal my life.” And every time I tried to wake up, it came back to me again: “If only I could learn to sew, I could heal my life.”
This made no sense to me because typically, when I lose a button on a coat, it’s a shopping opportunity; seamstress I am not.
So I brought this dream to the class that I was teaching every Shabbat, and I said, “I can’t make sense out of this. What do you think this means?”
We had a long conversation and all of a sudden, I had the most compelling image come to my mind: a tapestry or a needlepoint. You take the materials out of the box and our job as the seamstress or the tapestry-maker is to take one thread at a time and fill in the picture.
There’s gold thread, blue, ruby, and silver; that’s our life. We’re given a vague picture of what our life is going to be, and one thread at a time, one stitch at a time, we fill in the colors and the story of our lives; the picture of our lives becomes clear to us.
But any of us who have lived any amount of time know that it’s only on the best of days that the picture of our lives is clear to us. There are long periods in which we’re not living on the front part of the tapestry, but the back part of the tapestry.
Abigail Pogrebin: You mean the side with all the knots, tangles, zigzags, and chaos?
‘Anything I really want to know is unknowable’
KK: Yes. You don’t see the perfect picture on that back side. But it reminds us we’re working at it. That’s our spiritual life.
Then there’s one last piece of material. And that is an exquisite, black velvet, completely opaque — shimmering in its beauty, with zero pattern or picture. That’s God. That’s the mystery. Because the truth is that anything I really want to know is unknowable.
AP: So you’re saying that tapestry metaphor touches every aspect of us: the picture we sew is the life we make, the disorderly underside is our haywire spiritual life, and the black velvet overlay is the divine.
KK: Correct. And the black velvet is key. On a day to day basis, we live with the ambiguity and the mystery. The only difference between now and moments like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, or moments of tragedy, is that we typically ignore its mystery.
We pretend that if we’re smart enough, go to the right school, get the right job, marry the right person, discipline our children enough, it’s all going to go well. We live under the delusion that we’re really in control. But in truth the only part we’re in control of is that tapestry. The mystery remains oblique and opaque.
The tables were turned on Still Small Voice’s Abigail Pogrebin this past week. Listen to Yehuda Kurtzer interview her about the series, her beliefs and more on his podcast here.
AP: So what is the path of a person of faith when it comes to the part we sew?
KK: It’s to take what we can know, what we can control and put it up next to what we will never know and is beyond our control and live on the seam; sew it together. Because if I could only learn to live on the seam, I could heal my life — take control of what is mine and release the rest.
AP: Why would that be healing — to live on the seam?
KK: When we put the mystery in the center, and I’m purposely not using the word God, because God is such a packed word for so many people; when we put the mystery in the center and say, “At the core of my human experience is a transcendent power — whose name is love, whose essence is goodness, whose reality is beauty, which demands of me hope rather than cynicism,” when we put that at the center of our universe, then we take care of what we can take care of.
We feed the hungry, we clothe the naked, we protest against racism. But why the 45-year-old mother of three kids died of COVID alone in her bed while the 101-year-old woman survived it? We can’t know or control that; we aren’t that powerful. We release the rest and don’t torture ourselves with the questions that are essentially unanswerable.
Why do some people never find love? Why do the evil prosper? Why did this pandemic happen now? I don’t know. Adults don’t like to live in the “I don’t know” because we were taught to live in our rational brains; we feel stupid. But I prefer to live in “I don’t know.” I like the fuzzy edges of reality. I think it’s beautiful.
AP: Living in the “can’t know” — and maybe even finding spirituality there — echoes the text you sent me, which is actually one of your liturgical poems.
KK: Yes I wrote a poem based on Psalm 93: “To the Center of the Universe: A Yielding.”
Take from me this need to know;
I enter into Your mysteries a faithful servant.
Take from me this need to be right;
I enter into the ambiguities with a grateful heart.
Take from me this need for power;
I enter into the world, humble and stripped of illusion.
To the center of the universe,
Ruling Power of the universe,
‘Our lives evolve with 1,001 choices’
AP: Before we leave the tapestry symbolism, I want to understand what you mean when you say that all we can do essentially is “fill in the colors.” What are we, human beings, actually doing every day?
KK: Right; what are we doing? We are approaching life with an open heart, a curious mind and an agitated conscience.
So we take care of our emotional and spiritual life, our psychological life — whatever has given us the dents and dings in our spirit that makes us behave badly — we take care of that business. We plead the case of the orphan and the widow, we take to the streets, we study with great curiosity, work on our relationships, give away money, time and kindness — generously. And our lives start to evolve, with 1,001 small choices.
AP: The threads are our decisions.
KK: Our lives evolve with a 1,001 choices — to marry or not, have children or not, get divorced or not, get one kind of education or another, change careers, go to work or stay in bed, say “I’m sorry” when we blew it, evolve as a human being —1,001 choices are the threads that make the picture of our lives.
AP: And that opaque black velvet that is God — should we fear it at all, especially as we head into atonement and judgment?
KK: Am I supposed to be afraid of God? Well, I have the choice to be fear-based or to be love-based. And every single day, I choose not to be afraid. Sometimes minute by minute. I choose not to make decisions or choices based on fear. And to truly believe with all my heart that the black opaque velvet is not a scary thing.
In Jewish terminology: in the beginning, God created heaven and earth, darkness and water, the spirit of God. And that spirit of God said, “Let there be light.” And there was. And our Rabbis teach us — Rashi says, where, where is that light?
The answer is that light is the spirit, the righteous, that is inside each of us. In Judaism, the belief that we have is that the DNA of the invisible is essentially good. I’m not afraid of the invisible.
‘Not every question is a good question’
AP: So whatever the invisible, or the mystery, is — call it God or not — is that force watching us, maybe disappointed in us? God was disappointed when we built the Golden Calf or when we had the temerity to kvetch in the desert after being brought out of Egypt.
KK: I don’t believe in that kind of God. I think those stories are metaphors, which are big, beautiful, powerful teachings. But I think asking if God is disappointed or angry at us is the wrong question. And by the way, there are good questions and there are better questions. Not every question is a good question.
AP: Usually teachers say, “all questions are good questions.”
KK: That’s actually not true. In the spiritual or religious world, the quality of your questions will correlate to the quality of the answer. So if you ask, Why did that mother with Covid die alone? Why did you do this to her, God? That’s not a good question. Because the answer will not lead you to any moment of peace. That’s not living on the seam.
The High Holidays are upon us — and for many, that comes with meaty theological questions. Join us to talk to leading Jewish thinkers about their views on God as part of our Still Small Voice series. Register for the October 1 talk here.
AP: What’s the better question?
KK: Now that I have learned the power of suffering, how do I become more compassionate as a human being? That’s a better question. Or: What was that mother’s life? Even in her death, what was she teaching me? What’s the great lesson of her life?
There have been so many times when I bury a person and they continue to be a powerful teacher to the people they leave behind.
What am I supposed to learn from this tragedy? How do I walk through the world now? What do I do with my life now? How can I be of service? How do I gain my equilibrium? These are good questions. But: Why did God do this to me? Not such a good question.
I don’t know why God does. And if anyone says they know, walk the other way. Because remember it’s opaque velvet. They can’t know.
‘We’ve lost the vocabulary of faith’
AP: Why do you think so many people — I’ll include myself — keep asking those wrong questions?
KK: I think it’s because we’ve lost the vocabulary of faith. Since the 19th or 20th century, we were more interested in the rational mind than the spiritual heart. So we developed all kinds of vocabulary and tests for the rational mind: did she get an A, did she go to Harvard, or what do we glean from all the books on psychology — ego and guilt?
We’ve developed a specific vocabulary for the rational mind. But in the religious world, we kind of became arrested. We didn’t develop vocabulary. We don’t know how to say, “Dear Transcendent Power of the universe, cast goodness upon me.” We weren’t taught that language.
Instead we repeated the language of an older century: “God, hear my prayer.” It reinforced a certain image and metaphor of God that, as 21st century Jews, is a language that isn’t particularly helpful. That’s why I rarely use the word “God.” I say, “The Transcendent Good, the Power or Ruling Principle of the Universe.”
AP: So finally, when someone asks you, “I see where I am the picture of my 1,001 choices, but while I’m sewing my story, what does God do?” Or is that the wrong question, too?
KK: Well, is that question helpful to you? I mean, I don’t know what God is doing. But I do know, as a Jew and a person of faith, that I have a choice.
If you’re going to make up your reality, why don’t you make it up to your advantage rather than your disadvantage? I can make up a reality that says there’s an angry, vengeful God. I could make that up. What do I know? Or I could make up that there is a loving force that demands of me a kind, compassionate, moral life. I think I’ll make up that one.
Abigail Pogrebin, author of My Jewish Year; 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew, is a Forward contributing writer. Follow her on Twitter. @apogrebin. Rabbi Karyn D. Kedar is senior rabbi at B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in Deerfield, IL and on Twitter @kkedar.
Still Small Voice: 18 Questions About God is a special project for the month of Elul, a traditional period of reflection and accountability. Click here to read the next interview in the series, and here to browse the collection.