God of Surprises

In his 1970 play Steambath, Bruce Jay Friedman portrays Purgatory as a steambath where God is a diminutive Puerto Rican attendant mopping floors and supplying clean towels. One patron, named Tandy, won’t accept that he’s dead and argues with the attendant. Tandy claims to have studied enough philosophy to know that there’s no God.

 

God takes this personally. He replies sharply with a quotation from 17th-century philosopher Francis Bacon about how a little philosophy makes people atheists, but philosophy in depth brings them to God. Impressed by the quotation, Tandy exclaims, “Oooo, that’s a good one! Who wrote that?”

God replies, “I did.”

Friedman’s joke suggests the premise underlying Reform Judaism, as I understand it: the idea that revelation continues apace, that divine truth continues to reveal itself in history. As Civil Rights activist Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath wrote in 1964: “God is a living God, not a God who appeared once and for all time … and is heard no more.” The practical impact of this premise shifts the religious emphasis from ritual obeisance to an ethical commitment to change.

I started reading about Reform Judaism after one Friday evening last year when my wife Michelle and I attended Shabbat service at Congregation Sukkat Shalom. Neither of us is Jewish, but we are horrified by the rise of anti-Semitism around the country and felt like we had to do something to stand with our Jewish friends and neighbors.

It was a small gesture, but the service had an unexpected impact on me. A renegade Catholic, lately I’ve been thinking of myself as lost to religion. Not lost to faith, necessarily, but without having a church to attend, I feel like my faith has nowhere to go.

Faith seems to need a church, a liturgy, a host of rituals that lift us out of our ordinary passions — not quite Friedman’s steambath, but a quick hosing off once a week to clean up our better selves.

In his 4th-century Confessions, Saint Augustine tells of a Christian philosopher, Victorinus, who when upbraided for never attending church asks facetiously if the church walls make one a Christian. He discovers that in fact they do, that those walls are the physical embodiment of the religious community. When Victorinus finally appears at church, Augustine describes his welcome in memorable lines that mimic the poetics of the Psalms: “And the congregation embraced him in their love and joy; love and joy were the hands with which they embraced him.”

But church walls can also be a troubling bulwark against ambivalence and confusion, against history and change, against the real world. And they can shut out those whose lifestyles don’t fit the religion’s definition of what’s holy.

So, there I was at the synagogue, listening as the rabbi led us through the prayers, happy to be supporting our Jewish friends, but having my doubts about all religious institutions, when suddenly — well, as Pope Francis says, God is a God of surprises. The rabbi led us in a prayer that asks God to shock us awake:

Disturb Us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency

Make us dissatisfied…

The prayer continues in its penultimate stanza:

Make us know that the border of the sanctuary

is not the border of the living

and the walls of Your temples are not shelters

from the winds of truth, justice and reality.

Imagine that — a religion that has a prayer that says that truth, justice and reality are found not inside the church walls but outside, a prayer that warns against using the church to protect us from the real. Instead of the kind of thing we hear more typically in churches, prayers that claim that “here, and here alone, will you find truth and reality,” this prayer stands truly humble before God and before the world, and asks only that we wake up and get busy.

When the service was over, I asked the rabbi to show me where to find the prayer in the Mishkan T’filah, the Reform Jewish prayer book. I read it again. It moved me that Friday evening when I first encountered it, and not many days go by without it coming to mind.


• Jim Hale considers himself a religious man, albeit currently without a religion. “Living & Growing” is a weekly column written by different authors and submitted by local clergy and spiritual leaders.


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