This latest series of lectures on what it means to be 'human' began with a thought-provoking lecture by the American theologian Professor Alan Mittleman from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Mittleman began by explaining why believing in God is more compelling than believing in science and how Jewish thinking can engage with present non-theist philosophical thought.
He presented an excellent review of the history of the philosophical view of God from the ennobling of humanity in the Renaissance toward the scientific point of view that humanity is not special, that science has no room for the soul. So the question for the believer is how we can be part of and apart from nature. The challenge, he said, is to reclaim the idea that humans are made in the image of God.
Jewish texts understand that humans are special and problematic; that the nature of God is not random and accidental. We were given several texts for study that proved to be not only interesting but very instructive. Rabbinical scholars of the Talmud have a rich history of debate and argument. He gave us one wonderful text in which God and the angels argue about the wisdom of creating man. Somehow the texts became alive, often humorous and the debate and argument between scholars not one of enmity but of growth.
I particularly liked this example which began:
R. Simon said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties, some of them saying,
‘Let him be created,’
whilst others urged ‘Let him not be created.’
Thus it is written, Love and Truth fought together, Righteousness and Peace combated each other...
The passage ends
While the ministering angels were arguing with each other and disputing with each other, the Holy One, blessed be He, created him. Said He to them: ‘What can ye avail? Man has already been made!’
What appealed to me about the entire passage is the humanness of the heavenly debate. I could see ourselves reflected in the arguing and debating, as well as in the resolution of the Final Authority! For me it was a new perspective in the nature of who we are and how we are: just below the angels and at the same time in the image of God.
Judaism, Mittleman said, is a work in progress. There is no dogma in Judaism – you cannot command belief, so there is tremendous openness about what you think. It is a proliferation of arguments because it is never clear as to what is the right thing to do. Human beings are complex; Judaism is a ‘Community of Interpretation’ asking questions instead of making assertions.
It is also in keeping with what I learned about Jewish thought a few weeks ago when I attended a lecture about Martin Buber : God is the “Eternal Thou”. The ‘sacred’ is here and now, and can be listened to in the present. God is to be ‘heard’ or ‘listened to’. God as a person is indispensible. Event upon event calls upon the human person to endure and to be open to the demand of the Divine because “where there is a need there is an obligation.”
I came away with my Christian perspective but seeing Jesus very much as a rabbinical scholar. I remembered John’s Gospel, In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God. So it seems to me that our humanity is involved in an on-going conversation of revelation, forever and ever, Amen...