Cultivating a Spiritual Intensity

April 1, 2014
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hosea

And I will betroth you unto Me forever; I will betroth you unto Me in righteousness, and in justice, and in loving-kindness, and in compassion. And I will betroth you unto Me in faithfulness; and you will know God.

Hosea 2:21-22

Many observant Jews utter these lines each morning as they wrap the straps of tefillin around their hands and fingers. The lines serve as a commitment made anew each day to a life of righteousness, justice, loving-kindness, and compassion.

The latter verse is more difficult: Can I truly sign on for a day of acting in full faithfulness? Faith is a hard-won victory, which I find only in fleeting experiences, in the forest and in rabbinic commentaries, abundant during moments of ecstasy and scant during periods of glumness. Faith is not something in which I can wrap myself to wear throughout the day.

And what does “You shall know God” mean? Bracketing the theological questions — what or who is this God that I will (supposedly) come to know — how is this statement actionable? To what am I committing myself as I wrap tefillin and recite this line?

I have reconciled this troublesome pasuk by reframing it — at least for myself: Rather than understand it as a commitment, I approach it as a prayer. “I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness”: I hereby declare that I am still open to, and hopeful for, a continuing relationship with the divine. I may not have experienced that flash of insight and connection yesterday, or in this last week, but nevertheless I choose to re-enter into that relationship today. And this is precisely what constitutes my “knowing of God” — not an ontological awareness, not a spiritual awakening, but a commitment, day in and day out, that I will try to keep the faith. — Gabe Greenberg

As someone who does not wrap straps of tefillin every day when I pray, I am forced to consider: What rituals do I partake in that reaffirm my commitment to living a life of holiness? Moreover, if I do something hastily in the morning when I am groggy-eyed and focused on my day’s to-do list, is that the most opportune time to think about what “You shall know God” means?

I believe that we find the divine in daily acts, “bein adam l’havero,” that occur between us and those around us. Responding to Rabbi Gabe Greenberg’s question, “To what am I committing myself?” I reaffirm my relationship with God by giving tzedakah every day. After a long day of work, stopping to put some shekels in my tzedakah box provides a necessary pause from my day. This opportunity to reflect reminds me of those individuals who showed divine qualities of compassion, justice, and loving-kindness that oftentimes go unnoticed in the bustle of daily life. Those minutes at my tzedakah box are my commitment that I, too, will try to keep the faith that I see in others.

— Sara Miriam Liben

 

The prophet Hosea’s tragic life experiences add significant meaning to this text. Faithfulness is inextricably bound to action based on loyalty and trustworthiness. Words are cheap. A covenant is actualized only through concrete ethical actions within interpersonal relationships — not by professing any particular belief. Such a covenant entails, as Rabbi Gabe Greenberg writes, righteousness, justice, loving-kindness, and compassion — all in the experiential immediacy of social relationship and enacted through embodied intersubjectivity, in which the physical body serves as the ground of social experience. Through tefillin, we physically bond the rosh (head) and yad (hand), priming action that is mindful of covenantal guidance.

Motivated by the powerful confluence of erotic yearning and the drive to rise above the profane, we seek what philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas termed the insatiable metaphysical desire for the infinite Holy Other, the Ein-Sof, all reflected in the gloriously unassailable countenance of the one directly facing us. V’Ya-da-ta et Adonai: And you will come to know HaShem. Through covenantal action, banal existence is transcended, which unleashes the flow of love and justice into the world. This is what Lévinas meant in claiming that “ethics precedes ontology.” We are responsible, therefore we are. The “prime directive” is to be the other’s keeper.

— Gary Goldberg

 

It’s interesting that this is what Rabbi Gabe Greenberg wrote about faith. This is my challenge when it comes to “justice.” While it may not be something I experience in large or small doses, it is something I struggle with: When do I wear my commitment to justice, and when do I leave it behind? Can I ever really take it off?

As we explore our various commitments and relationships — with our families, our faith, and our surroundings — are there times when some of our attributes will be more important than others? And if that’s the case, if we privilege one commitment — such as justice — over another, are we betraying those things that fall away temporarily? When I “take off” my justice values, when we question our faith, does it mean we are leaving these parts of us behind?

—     Emilia Diamant

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Rabbi Gabe Greenberg will move with his family to New Orleans in June to become the religious leader of Congregation Beth Israel. In the meantime, the Greenbergs make their home in Berkeley, Calif., where the rabbi can often be found harvesting rainbow chard in the garden, learning Masechet Berachot with Hillel students at the University of California, or playing soccer in a beautiful Berkeley park.

Sara Miriam Liben holds bachelor’s degrees in sociology from Columbia University and in women’s and gender studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Currently working in Israel on issues at the intersection of religion and state, she is interested in nonprofit consulting and in creating a pluralistic Jewish future in Israel and the Diaspora. She can be reached at Sara.Liben@gmail.com.

Gary Goldberg, a physician specializing in brain-injury rehabilitation for veterans and active-duty service members, is the medical director of the Polytrauma Transitional Rehabilitation Program at the Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Administration Medical Center in Richmond, Va. He is also a professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the Medical College of Virginia. He maintains a lifelong interest in bringing science and faith into closer alignment.

Emilia Diamant is the director of programming and initiatives at the Prozdor of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Mass. She has a master’s degree in social work from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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