Holiness of Agnosticism

“For me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, – Listen and do not hear – the tongue moves but does not speak. — Such deep longing for God – and…repulsed-empty –no faith- no love- no zeal.”

These words were quoted by Christopher Hitchens. Mr. Hitchens expected his reader to be shocked by the person who spoke the words. He wanted us to feel betrayed, outraged. But I wasn’t. In fact, to me, they made perfect sense.

Mr. Hitchens continued with another quotation from the same person, “What do I labor for? If there be no God – there can be no soul.”

So, who was it that made such great statements of doubt? Who was it who confirmed with such clarity her own agnosticism?

These words were reportedly said by Mother Teresa.

Whether or not she said them, whether or not she was really an agnostic as Christopher Hitchens continues to claims; is irrelevant to me. In fact, it’s none of my business.

But for me, as someone who has been incredibly fortunate to have believed more often than I have doubted, these words still resonate with a depth and an echo as powerful as if they had been spoken by one of our Biblical prophets.

And this, this is what is what is so important about the controversy which sometimes surrounds Mother Teresa. It reminds me how fortunate I am to belong to a tradition that does not care about the strength of my faith.

When my son was little, he grilled me about God…throwing questions at me faster than I could think of answers. One year in the car, he went on one of his interrogations. “So God is in my heart?” he asked for the hundredth time. “Yes, God is in your heart,” I answered automatically. “But I can’t feel her,” he stated simply. “You know that feeling when you do something really good and you’re proud of yourself? That’s God,” I said hurriedly as I threw the car into park. “Oh Mom,” he said this so longingly and sadly that I looked back to make sure he was physically okay, “but Mom, I really wish God would come out so I could see her.” He was almost in tears. I was left a bit dumbfounded and only muttered, “Welcome to angst of being human.”

“For me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, – Listen and do not hear – the tongue moves but does not speak.”

Mother Teresa is a catholic icon, but in her moments of greatest doubt, she sounds like a Jew. HaRav Aharon Bina, the head of Yeshivat HaKotel, the Orthodox school at the Western Wall stated recently in an interview, “the minute you prove God exists, there is no more Judaism.” We are a people who has built our entire theology around the struggle to feel and understand God.

And I want you to hear me say it from the bimah on this, one of our most sacred days – it does not matter.

Mother Teresa was a woman who inspired faith in countless others. She brought holiness, divinity, and belief to people who never met her. Does it matter if she felt it herself?

I would venture even the most consistently faithful among us, even the one who cannot remember questioning God’s existence, even this one, knows these words, feels these words, identifies with these words. For whatever reason, our tradition teaches God has chosen to hide from us. Moses, the prophet described as speaking to God face to face was actually forbidden to see God’s face. Moses, the closest any human has ever gotten to God, Moses searched for God’s face and could not find it. All he got was God’s back, passing before him as he hid in a rock cleft.

We know not God’s face, we know not God’s name. I cannot fathom why a kind and generous God would chose to be so remote at times. But even when we cannot feel God, even for those who never believed in God, Judaism is very clear: our responsibility is not one of faith, BUT ONE OF ACTION. We are permitted to question, rally against, even to give up on God. We are not permitted to question, rally against, or give up on our work toward repairing this world.

This is the point of who we are as Jews. Angst, emptiness, sadness, loneliness, silence…it is only natural these words relate to our search for the divine. But for us, angst, emptiness, sadness, loneliness, and silence….these words should shock us, drive us into action when they relate to the feelings of human beings.

My father was raised by Morris Bagno, or Uncle Morris as we all called him. He was one of the leaders of the international ladies garment workers’ union. His entire life was dedicated to bringing dignity and justice to the laborer. He was also a man who refused to go inside shul/a synagogue unless for a family simcha, refused to send my father to cheder/day school because felt religion drove a wedge between class unities, he refused to even mention God. But this man’s influence on my father, on my family, is one of the reasons I became a rabbi. It is the reason we named my daughter after him. His sense of social justice was the true realization of “tzedeck, tzedeck, terdof – justice, justice, shall you pursue.” He lived Torah so absolutely that he was, in most aspects of his life, the walking personification of Torat Chayim, of the living, breathing Torah.

In fact Uncle Morris was such an atheist, that he wouldn’t have understood what Mother Teresa was so worked up about. If Uncle Morris heard this statement:

“For me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, – Listen and do not hear – the tongue moves but does not speak.” What would he have heard? He would have heard the cry of human suffering. This, not divine longing, but a human being hearing silence…this would have moved him.

Throughout our Torah, God does not ask for our belief. God asks for our action. Does God ask Noah about his faith? No, God simply says, “Build an ark.” God tells Abraham, “Go forth to the place I will show you.” Tomorrow we will hear God tell Jonah to “go to Nineveh in order that they may repent.” Judaism does not anguish over a lack of faith. But a lack of action? This is something we cannot tolerate.

“For me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, – Listen and do not hear – the tongue moves but does not speak.”

For us, silence is terrifying when it is caused by a lack of human voices. Emptiness devastates us when it is the void of human response, human caring, human kindness. When our tongues move and do not speak against injustice, war, violence, hurt…then we have a problem.

On Yom Kippur, we will hear Joy Freidman speak about immigration reform. Your synagogue hears the emptiness and loneliness and fear. Immigration reform is just one example of moving our tongues and speaking out loudly against injustice, one example of trying to elevate the suffering of children and adults.

I now share a story I hesitated to even tell my husband…my guilt had been too overwhelming:

When I was young student, in my first religious school teaching job, I had a marvelous 4th grade class. I truly loved those students. One young boy would occasionally miss class. Sometimes, his mother would drop-off the younger brother, and then come to me to tell me the boy was in the car, but couldn’t come to class because he wasn’t feeling well. I found this odd, but didn’t think much more of it. When he did come to class, he often seemed upset and jumpy. One day he seemed particularly upset. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but as I pushed him, he shared something had happened at home that put him in a bad mood. I tried to push, but he was adamant he couldn’t tell me. Thinking I was respecting his privacy, I let it drop. Years later, when I was already a rabbi in Oakland, CA, and taking a class on domestic violence. In the middle of the class, I was thunderstruck by the memory of this boy. I realized what I could have been stumbling upon and how tremendous I could have been for him had it only occurred to me at the time what might have been happening. I have since tried to find him to no avail. I will never know if he was expressing the hurt of normal growing pains or if there was something more dangerous at play, but when I think about this young child, and how silent his world and his hurt could possibly have been, Mother Teresa’s words take on a new meaning,

“For me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, – Listen and do not hear – the tongue moves but does not speak.”

I let this child down because I allowed doubt; I allowed my wanting not to believe halt what I probably knew to be the right course of action. I was more in touch with the reasons why I wanted to leave it be than I was with the reasons why I should have pushed him. My tongue moved, but did not speak. I was silent, I didn’t respond.

You do, though. You respond. You respond to the emptiness with feeding the hungry, you respond to the loneliness with wrapping those without shelter in warmth. And you respond to the repulsion, to the fear, when you stand up against gun violence and the pain it causes. And even closer to home? Silence, emptiness, loneliness? Members of Fairmont Temple and the Chevrei Tikva Chavurah cook and deliver and sew…you hold hands and console, open arms and ensure others can access this wonderful community.

Does God need our faith? I don’t know. I do know God’s creatures need our action. When faith drives us to respond to pain, it is a glorious thing. And feeling faith, feeling the warmth of God’s presence, is wonderful and lucky for those who have it. But, this alone does not in any way meet our obligation in this world. Our sense of the divine can inspire us to try to repair this world. Our sense of each other, however, is what tells us directly how to do it.

According to Martin Buber, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov, an 18th century Chasidic leader, is famous for saying, “Atheism can be uplifted through charity. If someone seeks your aid, act as if there were no God, as if you alone can help.”

Act as if YOU alone can help.

I recently heard for the first time about a particular psychological phenomenon. It is called “authentic kindness”. This is something I heard your community already does. When one of you is in need, you care for each other like family. A lost parent, a long-term illness, an injury…you are there for each other. Your history is a shining example of authentic kindness.

Authentic kindness is predicated on the assumption we are driven toward kindness. We crave it. However, various other human conditions inhibit this desire for kindness; since the results of our kindness can be so unpredictable. Shyness, self-preservation, fear, distraction all unite to dampen this instinct.

For many, it is easier to practice social action when it is organized by others. There is a clear and obvious path for how to engage with the world It is easier to practice kindness when we are part of the same community. Our anxiety of Other not pushing away our instinct for caring. What a wonderful way to begin to heal the world.

I’d like to push us a bit further. As with the boy in my class, there are ways in which many of us, I would assume, most of us pass up opportunities to relieve the pain of others.

Perhaps rushing from one meeting to the next, we buzz by a co-worker obviously rattled by something in his or her day. Perhaps we are so focused on our purchases, we forget to engage those serving us as fellow and equal human beings. Perhaps fear of getting “too involved” prevents us from reaching out to a neighbor as we would a friend.

One of my favorite examples of authentic kindness appeared all over social media about a year ago. Isaac Theil, on his way home from work, let a complete stranger sleep on his shoulder for over half an hour while trying to remain as still as possible so that the stranger wouldn’t awake. When asked by another passenger if he wanted the stranger woken up, Mr. Theil simply said, “he must have a long day. Let him sleep.” When I read this story, I wondered about Mr. Theil’s neck. Wasn’t it sore? Mr. Theil was so in touch with himself, with his desire to be kind, he didn’t allow self-interest or fear cloud his human instinct. He looked and saw.

According to an article in Psychology Today, one must be emotionally developed in order to practice authentic kindness. For us to be able to easily act on the impulse to heal, we need to be in touch with it and aware of the voices acting against it. Essentially, simply by being our authentic selves, we can begin to relieve the silence and the emptiness right next to us.

My closeness to God is one of the ways I try to find authentic kindness. Compassion for another, no matter how different from me, is born from my belief that God exists within all of us. But, it need not be this belief which drives us.

Sigmund Freud, famous for explaining that belief in God is actually a form of neurosis chastised a colleague who was not raising his son as a Jew. Freud said to this colleague, “If you do not let your son grow up as a Jew, you will deprive him of those sources of energy which cannot be replaced by anything else.” What is this energy which cannot be replaced? Our commitment to ACTION. Our core belief Tikun Olam is incumbent upon us, it is our obligation to work toward healing of this shattered world.

“What do I labor for? If there be no God – there can be no soul,” cried Mother Teresa. And yet, souls see each other. With or without a belief in the Divine, our souls sense each other, in joy, in sorrow, in need and in strength. We connect directly to the other.

As a congregational rabbi, one of the most valuable lessons I learned was that I could never, ever judge someone else’s happiness by what I saw on their outside. There are those who I thought had everything, not a care in the world, happy as could be, only to learn in confidential visits how much struggle existed within. Look around you. We may not see it obviously, but so many, so many sitting here today feel these words of Mother Teresa. A shocking number among us know viscerally “such deep longing, such silence and emptiness.”

We cannot eradicate their suffering. And yet, our authentic kindness can shine a light into its darkness. The most simple of human gestures; a kind word, an offer of friendship, the relinquishing of a coveted parking space can give someone joy and humor and appreciation.

Close your eyes. Feel your breath, your heart beating. Feel the power that is within you. This is what the world needs. It needs US. Our strength, our hands. Now with your eyes close – LISTEN. Where is your authentic kindness? What might stop you from responding to those around you? With your eyes close, feel those around you. Feel the souls in this chapel. Feel what you have already created, sense the amazing connections among you. You did this. You created an entity stronger than any individual part. Can we take this sense elsewhere in our world? The more in touch we are with this sense, the more authentic we can be in our kindness. You can open your eyes.

This is Rosh Hashanah. It is the day we remember how our world was created. It is the day we remember the brokenness around us. Can we lift the emptiness and silence? Listen anew to Mother Teresa. Hear her words as an echo of the suffering in this world…

“For me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, – Listen and do not hear – the tongue moves but does not speak.”

Let us continue to fill the voids we can, let us continue to listen and hear, let us continue to move our tongues and speak.

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