I am reading a Chaim Potok novel I only recently found out about. I thought I had read them all, including Wanderings. Then a young lady in my synagogue told me about The Book of Lights.
Kabbalah is a strong element in this novel as it follows the life of a young rabbi who begins reading kabbalistic texts for academic study.
In scene I just read this morning, the young rabbi is now a chaplain in the far north of Korea just after the Korean War. He has come to a place so dreadfully cold the fuel lines freeze at night and the soldiers wake in freezing quarters. The cold literally drives men insane.
Having just arrived to this posting, the young chaplain is approached by a spokesman for the six Jews attached to this company. The Jews are thrilled that their new chaplain is a Jew as well.
This spokesman begins plying the new chaplain with two requests and the young rabbi finds his ire rising. The chaplain’s assistant is a Mormon man who already in the few days the rabbi has been on post has proven himself loyal and hardworking. But the Jews, all six of them, in this company are now zealous to have it all their way.
Can’t we get rid of the Mormon assistant? Can’t we remove the crosses that are on top of he chapel? Do we want a Jewish chaplaincy with a Mormon assistant, a synagogue which also has crosses on it?
The rabbi tries to control his anger as thoughts build up in his mind. He has encountered this narrow religious outlook many times in his own Orthodox community. Now is his first experience as a leader with the power to do something about it. Potok writes eloquently of the issue playing in Gershon’s young rabbinical mind:
Street words lurched through his head, the language of rage. The smug superiority of those certain of salvation. Long-dimmed visions of teachers in dingy classrooms teaching the roadmap to relationships with the Higher Power, the carefully delineated turns and bends, highways, byways, bridges, the surfeit of text and commentary, the richness to the point of glutinous choking, no new lights, no unexpected visions that chilled the spine, and a sharp voice if you turned to stare out the window at the way the pigeons strutted along the sidewalk in the sunlight. How could a lone soldier in this distant outpost of American power have awakened those dormant memories?
What is our object of faith? Is it a secure roadmap with the proper bridges drawn out and assurances that all in unquestionable? I have lived in that religious community on the Christian side. There can be a kind of peace in it, as theoretically nothing that happens on earth can disturb it. I asked Jesus to be my savior and heaven is my home, so I will not be thwarted by cancer or losing a child or any pain life can afford. Everything is for the life to come and nothing can shake me from my plan of salvation in which I trust.
Part of me wants not to be too harsh about this sort of faith. I think a lot of good happens in these communities and many can’t help but see beyond the simple roadmaps, even though their religious community pushes them. People are remarkably adaptable, even in an atmosphere that sucks the mystery out of life.
Or is our faith in the Most High who can at any moment send a chill up our spine and make his sharp voice known in the ordinary?
For some, faith is about a plan of salvation. For others, faith is about an Almighty too beautiful to behold.
I don’t think I am exaggerating to say that the difference between these two basic objects of faith is a key to greater heights of knowledge and faith. I know my words can be interpreted many ways. Are you saying God has not revealed anything about how to relate to him? No, I am not saying that. The “plan of salvation” kind of religion would not be persuasive if there wasn’t some truth to it.
But consider Yeshua, remember him? Did he offer assurances to the smug, the superior, the Pharisee who looked on the sinner and said, “Thank you I am not like him”?
Last week a Christian pulled me into a conversation about a news story he had seen on Shabbat elevators. He thought Shabbat elevators were a ridiculous example of legalism gone awry. I don’t use Shabbat elevators, but I understood that an attack on Judaism was coming. Sure enough, the man looked at me and said, “It kind of makes me thankful, you know, that I am under grace and not law.”
A rage welled up in me. I failed to act like Yeshua. I failed to put him in his place. I failed to tell him, “You are like the Pharisee in Yeshua’s story (Luke 18). Your sins are not forgiven.” I did a sort of half-way job of correcting him gently and I hope it was better than nothing. But I wish I had reacted with the confidence Yeshua had to combat smugness and awaken mystery.
God is not a formula. God is not as easy to figure out as a diagram on a religious tract. Life is not as simple as a four-step plan.
We should put our faith in the largely unknown God who has let us in on a small fraction of his being and his ways. We should desire more the chill in our spine at a vision of another level of his glory, visions which are all too rare anyway, and not desire to somehow encompass him with our roadmaps and diagrams.
And every time we are ready to judge that person we think far from God, we should remember to say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”