Expansive Pluralism and the Knowledge of God - April 2009


Psalms: 118:5
So reads one of the Psalms from the Hallel which we recite during Pesach, the festival celebrating our redemption from slavery in Egypt. Every year during the Passover seder I ask myself: “If there were a modern day Egyptian sitting at my table tonight, how would we both feel?” My guess is that we would both be embarrassed by the liturgical text. I would take steps to explain that just as “Israel” can mean “One who struggles with God” so “Mitzrayim” (the scriptural name for Egypt) can be taken as referring to a “place of narrow constraint” (from metzar) and not be limited in meaning to a geographical location or to a nation in biblical history.

Mitzrayim, the metaphorical narrow place, is surrounded by defensive walls composed of oppressive dogmas and dictates. It is a condition of narrow-mindedness. There are, in most world religions, people who believe that their own Faith is the only “True” one, that everyone else is doomed unless they accept that “One True Faith”, and that anyone who says otherwise is bad and must be converted, destroyed or consigned to eternal punishment of one sort or another. We attempt to defend our position by hating those outside our man-made walls.

Mitzrayim, the metaphorical narrow place, is a place in which we hide. Once we have sealed and barred its entrance behind us, we think that we have shut out the rest of the world. There we are free to imagine that our own opinion is the only truth when “outsiders” and “strangers” would question it. It is not a hiding place. It is a snare.

Even though religious pluralism is an integral part of most Jewish systems of thought, we have sometimes thought that we are the only chosen nation. In Isaiah, we are reminded:

“Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork, and Israel my inheritance.” (Isaiah 19:24).

Israel has its own special tasks, but so do all other Peoples. If we close our ears to calls for peaceful co-existence between different nations and religions because we are daunted by the messy task of trying to produce workable solutions to hard problems, we are denying our role as Israel. Israel is “the one who wrestled with both God and man”. (Gen 32:29). Neither Jacob’s struggle nor ours is a fight to the death. It is the symbol of a dynamic process of dialogue which produces knowledge. To prevail in such a “fight” is not to destroy the “Other” but to have knowledge of him.

In this context, I have been considering Haftarah Vaera and in particular the following verse:

Haftarah Vaera
Ezekiel 28:26

For Jews, “Knowledge of God” is not a question of formulating and affirming detailed Theological dogmas. Nor is it a matter of “understanding” the “True Nature of God” to the exclusion of other opinions about it. It is a simultaneous process of both national and personal encounter.

For us, “Knowing God” means “Having a relationship” with God.

That relationship is expressed in covenant and mitzvot, and it becomes an “intimate” relationship during the act of prayer. It is the marital knowledge we speak of when we lay tefillin and state that we are “betrothed” to God and that by that betrothal we will have “knowledge”. (Hosea 2: 21-22) For Jewish Contemplatives that intimate nuance is underscored.

In the notes to Haftarah Vaera in the Hertz Chumash I read:

“In Ezekiel the phrase “They shall know I am Adonay” occurs more than sixty times…Nowhere does it mean , They will know Him by the four letters of His Name. Every time it means they will know Him by his acts and the fulfilment of his promises.”

Many of Ezekiel’s repetitions of that phrase are made in reference to a point in the future. They are happening , as it were, in the World which is to come.

When we say:

“The Eternal shall rule forever and ever. So it is prophesied: “The Eternal shall be Sovereign over all the earth. On that day the Eternal shall be One and known as One.” *i
Which “day” are we talking about?

When we pray:

“May it be your will, our living God, that we witness in our day peace among all the descendants of Abraham, peace in Zion, and tranquillity in Jerusalem, a place of prayer for all peoples.” *ii

What do we hope for?

Well, for starters, I don’t think that it is likely or necessary that the entire world should become Roman Catholic, Muslim, or Jewish in the twinkling of an eye. It seems more likely to me that the promised “Era of religious understanding for all nations” might come through a certain consensus that: As none of us can have a monopoly on Truth, as none of us can trap and possess the Nature, the “Name” of God - then we accept that plurality and dialogue are not so much steps along the way to uniformity….but that they are part of The Goal itself. That’s how I read the statement that “The messiah will come today if only we would hear his voice”. The potential, the reality is right in front of our eyes. Today.

Such an attitude is not simply a religious philosophy, it is also a path in contemplative living.

“The m’arat ha-lev is not a metzar (a confined space) it is a merchavyah (a wide open expanse)”
(Cave of the Heart p 56)
Though I am a Jew, I was once a Christian. As a Catholic I believed in the “real presence” of God in the Eucharist and communicated deeply with “Him” daily. I lost the conviction that Jesus of Nazareth might be God very early on, but somehow the moment of communion in the Roman Catholic Mass remained a very special focus of communication between me and what I would then have called “The Father” for many years. Becoming a Jew, I left such “sacraments” (signs) behind me along with the notions of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Yet I know that the God I was speaking to then and the God who speaks to me now- is the very same God. All that has happened is that the “clothing” and the “veils” have changed.

Now as a Jew, I can still recognize a profound continuity between those earlier moments of Eucharistic communion and my current mental prayer sessions. I have not changed “gods” only my perceptions. The knowledge I have may have become more apophatic, but the God I know has not changed.

This process is not just the preserve of converts who have moved between religious traditions. It is part of the process of a developing “Knowledge of God” that can be experienced by all contemplatives. Paradoxically, it need not mean that we view ourselves as having moved from error to truth, but can mean that we take a respect for our past religious expressions with us as we move into our own futures.

As a sort of personal living midrash, this idea sometimes passes through my mind when I pray the first paragraph (Avot) of the Amidah- as though the “ancestors whose deeds are remembered” might also represent the previous stages of my religious journey. The apparently developing “Name” in Parshah Vaera (Genesis 6:2-3) might also be viewed in a similar way.
As it happens, I believe that I am seeing “things” more clearly than I did as a Christian. The way I am meant to see them personally. But I also believe that what I see now is not the “only and ultimate truth” of God. I expect that I will never “see” God face to face without some form of “clothing” and “veils”, and for that reason it is not so hard for me to accept other people’s visions of Him. I would go so far as to say that, for me, this is the Merchavyah. The wide open space which is God. The kind of “knowledge of God” which those of all Faiths could share. Now.

In our prayer lives we often crave certainties. As our ancestors discovered: once they were in the desert, the regular meals and security of routines which they had known in Egypt became beguilingly attractive. If we are listening to the one whose Name is “I AM”, all our certainties are merely approximations next to His Reality. If we are engaged in a contemplative life -and not just experiencing contemplative practices as some sort of therapy, recreational drug, or passing fancy - we will find ourselves, our perseverance, and our faith challenged. Frequently and with force.

To cope with this we may choose to be like Stone or like Flesh.

If we choose to have a “heart of stone” then we will cling to the notion that our God, our Way, our Clan, is the only true one. We will freeze our faith and arm our perseverance in iron till it forms an unflinching idol. In trying to fortify our position by becoming rigid we become brittle and will easily snap under pressure. And eventually, if we are simultaneously really trying to find God….He will snap us. The more we try to hide behind our prejudices and certainties the more rapidly they tie us in knots. If we try to be contemplatives who think we can pin God down or get God to join our little club, then He runs away fast. That is Egypt. That is the narrow place. Our place, not God’s place.

If we choose to have a “heart of flesh”. We will, as it were, cling to God as someone we are in a relationship with. It will hurt because he will appear to be playing hide and seek with us. Sometimes God will be like a Mother, sometimes a Lover. God will sometimes seem to be a Hard Master, but He never fails to be the Best Teacher. What we believe and what we want others to believe doesn’t really come into such an open relationship: For it means that, eventually, we will stop seeing the various religions as a populous lumps milling around Him, or in front of Him waving flags, and see them instead as part of God Himself. This is the Merchavyah. The wide open expanse of God. HaMakom.

The trouble with “wide open spaces” is that they can either be extremely dull (in which case we fill them with things to distract us and prevent boredom) or they can seem so bleak that they are frightening (so we fill them with familiar or comforting objects which ultimately just clutter up the space or prevent us from moving on.) Perhaps most religious “business” is really only a substitute for getting on with the daunting real task of simply “engaging with the God of Sinai Himself”. Contemplatives, in all religions, assure us that the boredom conceals something akin to a refinement process and that the fear is only there to toughen us up for the march into the desert. And it is in the desert that Israel - the entire Knesset Yisrael - met/meets its God.

By surrendering our religious (or contemplative) preconceptions and personal expectations into God’s hands, our perspectives will change over time. Sometimes the transitions are smooth. Sometimes they are painful. In moving from “stone” to “flesh” we allow God Himself to become the process of our development. It is through His own words and deeds in our own souls that we may come to “know who He is”. The alternative is to be trapped into thinking that we ourselves or our religious community are the reason for any progress we might have made.

If we want to “know” God as He is and not as we would have Him be, all we have to do is accept that Today is always “the day” and try our best to listen to His Voice. There are many ways we can do this.

At the beginning and the end of the Sh’ma, the text rings out with the Voice of God telling us who He is. At the beginning we hear it as though speaking in our own voice:

“Listen Israel, I AM is our God, I AM is One” *iii

but at the end of the Sh’ma, the experience is much more “other”. In the closing sentence, we can hear God whisper in our heart with almost unbearable intimacy. When we say or chant these words in prayer, we make God really present and Sinai enters our world as He says:

“I am The One Who Is: Your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God. I am The One Who Is. Your God.” *iv

Emet. This is Truth.

Jan 21 2009


“Adonai Yimloch l’olam va’ed. V’ne’emar: v’hayah Adonai l’melech al kol ha-arets,bayom ha-hu yihyeh Adonai echad ush’mo echad.”
(From Aleinu: Seder HaT’fillot-the new siddur of the UK Reform Movement- p 311- quoting Zechariah 14:9)

“Y’hi ratson l’fanecha Adonai Eloheinu shennir’eh b’yameinu shalom bein kol b’nei Avraham, v’shalom b’tsion v’shalvah birushalayim, v’tachin b’tochah m’kom t’fillah l’chol ha-ammim.”
(From Shabbat Musaf: Seder HaT’fillot p 283)

“Sh’ma Yisrael ADONAI eloheinu, ADONAI echad.”
(First line of the Sh’ma quoting Deuteronomy 6:4)

“Ani ADONAI Eloheichem asher hotseiti etchem mei’eretz Mitzrayim, lihyot lachem leilohim. Ani ADONAI Eloheichem.”
(The last line of the Sh’ma which quotes the text of Numbers 15:41)

This article is an edited version of a Haftarah commentary published in January 2009 on the sister website: Community of Jewish Contemplatives.