Viewing the World with Clear-sighted Uncertainty

May 1, 2013
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People often end up being in relation to their relationships with their partners more than they’re actually in relation to the partners themselves,” my girlfriend observed recently. This perspective on romance struck me as sad, maybe even a bit tragic — and yet I could not completely deny its truth. At any given moment, the dynamics of a relationship can certainly overshadow the palpable presence of the “other” (as he or she is, here and now). In my mind, this is one of the greatest challenges of commitment: to continually engage in the “practices” of a relationship, while nonetheless remaining attentive to the actual, ever-changing partner who transcends the relationship.

This challenge of interpersonal commitments also applies to theological commitments — or, in the language of Judaism, to “covenant.” Like others, I wrestle with ways in which the minutiae of halakhic practice threaten to saturate my spiritual consciousness to the point of obfuscating the divine, the covenantal partner who transcends religion. To put it another way, adhering to strict halakhic observance could decrease attentional observance (i.e., general mindfulness in the world) so that one no longer notices the contours of creation, the revelatory “still small voice”1 at the heart of each moment, or the marginalized person in the street who may bring redemption “today, if you hear his voice.”2 Is there any way to pursue a relationship with God without eclipsing God? But then again, is there any “God” at all without that relationship? (“If you are My witnesses, I am God; but if you are not My witnesses, then I am, as it were, not God.”3) Is the whole theological project just a mirage?

The contemporary scholar and theologian Michael Fishbane is sensitive to these concerns. He suggests that the primary task of theology should be to cultivate an alert mindfulness, or “attunement,” in relation to everything/everyone that one encounters in life. According to his spiritual sensibilities, this attunement is no more and no less than “God-mindedness,” and such heightened awareness is more fundamental than any particular structure of religion. If theology fails to cultivate such attunement in the fabric of everyday life, then it is “a mere cluster of speculative abstractions and traditional assertions — of cognitive or conceptual value at best.”4

This movement toward attunement awakens the possibility for me of theological truth — precisely because that truth would be wholly life-size, irreducible to any static image or concept. The question, “Do you believe in God?” always sounds childish to me. Are we really going to reduce the human-divine relation to a yes-or-no question, to a matter of proofs and opinions? I’m pretty sure that I am not an atheist, but I also cannot make an objective statement about God without blushing. I yearn for God; I pray to God — but do I believe in God?

This is what I believe: There is far more to reality than we can possibly fathom, and such awareness is not only illuminating but also important. I believe that the most essential
expressions of spirituality and soulfulness are embodied in my relations with others in the world. That said, I believe that one needs to cultivate the qualities of awareness and openheartedness necessary for such relations. Therefore, the central theological question for me is: How does one cultivate the necessary attunement? Here, one needs some form of practice, and the concept of covenant begins to acquire new layers of meaning.

Again, I am drawn to Fishbane’s work. The catchphrase of his so-called “covenant theology” is the Israelite declaration at Sinai: “Na’aseh v’nish’ma,” “We shall do and we shall hear.”5 He interprets this as a cry for down-to-earth attunement. When we devote undivided attention to our immediate surroundings, we open ourselves to the divine: “Every moment is, in its way, a kind of Sinaitic giving and receiving.”6 The sense of obligation or commandedness, hiyyuv, embedded in the covenantal response, “We shall do and we shall hear,” is not merely a submission to some anthropomorphic deity who legislates from heaven. Rather, the sense of commandedness is an ongoing consequence of and longing for attunement.

But what, exactly, should we do and hear? Fishbane chooses Judaism. He articulates how halakhah, Torah study, and prayer meaningfully cultivate the sacred attunement that he seeks. He emphasizes ways in which Jewish practices and hermeneutics can train us to approach the “texts” of life from multiple perspectives at once. This helps us to shatter the dogmatic fixities that shield our eyes, and to repeatedly look upon the world anew with clear-sighted uncertainty. “It is the task of covenant theology to prepare a person to live with such unknowing.”7 For him, a commitment to Jewish practice continually nurtures new possibilities for intimacy with the infinite unknowable that transcends Judaism. At this moment in my life, I am perhaps less confident than Fishbane is about the efficacy of Jewish practice, but I am nonetheless moved by his characterization of the tradition. His theological reflections help me to understand interpersonal commitments — how certain “practices” in relationships may rupture routines and disrupt assumptions, so that even in the midst of steadfast commitments, we may do and hear with elements of unknowing, and consistently re-behold our dynamic loved ones, who always transcend our relationships to them.

1 1 Kings 19:12

2 Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b

3 Pesikta d’Rav Kahana, 12:6

4 Michael Fishbane, Sacred Attunement: A Jewish Theology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2008), 108

5 Exodus 24:7

6 Fishbane, 113-114

7 Fishbane, 170

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Sam Berrin Shonkoff is a doctoral student in history of Judaism at the University of Chicago Divinity School, working primarily with Paul Mendes-Flohr and Michael Fishbane. His current research focuses on Martin Buber’s notion of the “unmediated.”

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