God and Suffering – On Being an Agnostic Mystic

If I had to define my current relationship with God, I would label it “agnostic mysticism.” In Jewish terms, the agnostic mystic is one who still covers his eyes with his hand while reciting the Sh’ma, but who keeps his eyes open nonetheless and peers between the cracks of his fingers hoping to sneak a peek at the Divine Presence.

The agnostic mystic yearns to “taste and see” God’s presence but will not be placated by an I-Thou experience or assuaged by a still small voice. The agnostic mystic has too much skepticism to be swayed from his mystic quest by anything other than an event on the order of a second Sinai. The agnostic mystic’s quest is thoroughly empirical. It can end only with a public face-to-face encounter with God-with the Redemption. And in the meantime, the agnostic mystic lives with the pain of the knowledge of his separation from the Divine Presence and of the hiatus between the accounts of a miraculous past and the miracle-less present.

For me, the concept of Galut – ­ Exile – speaks most powerfully and meaningfully. Galut is more than the exile of the people Israel from its land; it also more significantly represents the separation of Israel from the God or, perhaps better stated, the withdrawal of God’s presence from the midst of His world and His people. This sense of Galut has nothing to do with the return of the Jewish people to the land and the rebirth of the Jewish state. Even with the existence of the State of Israel, the Jewish people remains in a state of spiritual Galut, as does the whole world.

According to Jewish tradition, as long as the Temple stood and Israel dwelt in her Land, a unique physical and spiritual bond existed linking the world, through the Land of Israel, through Jerusalem, through the Temple, to God, and through the peoples of the world, through the people Israel, through its service, to God. The Temple represented the axis mundi, the connecting link between heaven and earth. Once that physical tie was shattered, the spiritual dimension perforce underwent a major transformation. To be sure, the people were still bound in love to God through the Covenant-and the Rabbis taught that prayer was now to be regarded as even more efficacious than sacrifices-but nonetheless the state of Galut meant the loss of the sense of intense physical intimacy with God. To pursue the love motif: Israel was still beloved of God, but God had withdrawn His presence, had gone away, for an unspecified time. Thus, to pray for a restoration of the Temple and its cult, as traditional Jews still do, was to pray for a restoration of a full, intimate, and immediate relationship with God; it was to pray for an end to physical and spiritual exile.

An agnostic mystic like myself deeply desires to feel wholehearted in prayer and through prayer to be united with God’s presence. But too many questions and doubts stand in my mind’s (or heart’s) way. That is why the tradition of arguing with God speaks to my deepest needs and concerns. This tradition asks the right questions of God; its prayers demand all the right things of God. Most of the time, for example, I cannot recite the prayer “Mi Khamokha” (“Who is Like You?”), which celebrates God’s redemptive act at the Sea of Reeds, without asking what God has been doing since that miraculous day. But, through study, I know that previous generations have asked the same questions. They ask it for me as well, and this comforts me. On most occasions, I cannot recite the petitionary prayers of the Amidah. (Perhaps it is first recited silently to allow for conscientious objectors?) How can I ask God for “small items” like under­ standing, sustenance, health, forgiveness, and peace when for centuries the petitions for the “big item,” for redemption, have gone unheeded? Although I often can still thank God for the gifts of Creation, the gifts of life, and the gift of the Covenant, most of the time I cannot think to ask anything of God other than to add my voice to the ages-old petition for justice.

The tradition of arguing with God focuses my intention (kavanah) on this fundamental issue. It is hoped that it focuses God’s attention on it as well. But regardless, it helps ease my spiritual pain. Knowing that previous generations have felt similarly both confirms the intensity of my yearnings for God’s appearance, which constitute my mystic aspect, and also soothes the uniqueness of my equally intense doubts, which constitute my agnostic side. It is good to know that I belong to a chain of tradition, that my feelings are not an aberration of the Jewish religious spirit.