By Reb David
Dedicated to the memory of former President of Temple Beth-El of City Island, Steve Slotnick, שמואל אליעזר בן חייה וצבי (Shmu’el Eliezer ben Chayah v’Tzvi), who died on October 27, 2013, after a long illness. May his memory be for a blessing.
When I learned of Steve’s death, I was finishing an intensive course with Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan on foundations of Jewish philosophy from Biblical times through the Enlightenment. Like many philosophical realms growing out of faith communities, Jewish philosophy reflects on whether and how we know God, and whether and how God knows us. Better to say Jewish philosophies (in the plural) rather Jewish philosophy (in the singular), because Jewish philosophy offers not one approach but many. There are Jews — and giants of Jewish philosophy — who claim a proximate God who answers prayer, a distant God who maybe doesn’t, a loving God, a retributive God, a God inhering in nature without independent consciousness, or even no God at all. This diversity instructs that these many authentically Jewish approaches are just that — approaches, not arrivals. Together they depict not coherence but a collection of on-ramps to dialogues and encounters, befitting the diversity of Jewish seekers past and present.
The day before Steve’s funeral, I was in class claiming the aspirational theology of trying to “know God in all [one’s] ways” / בְּכָל דְּרָכֶיךָ דָעֵהוּ (Prov. 3:6). Such is the Hasidic way — to invite God into everything and experience everything as a potential pathway to holiness and higher consciousness. By evening, I happened onto reciprocal lessons that God can “show [us] ways of [divinity]” / דְּרָכֶיךָ ה׳ הוֹדִיעֵנִי (Ps. 25:4) and that God, in turn, knows all our ways (Ps. 139:2-3):
You know my sitting and rising; You discern my thoughts from afar.
You mete my going about and lying down; You are acquainted with all my ways.
.אַתָּה יָדַעְתָּ שִׁבְתִּי וְקוּמִי בַּנְתָּה לְרֵעִי מֵרָחוֹק
.אָרְחִי וְרִבְעִי זֵרִיתָ וְכָל-דְּרָכַי הִסְכַּנְתָּה
What about Steve? Steve lost his beloved wife two years ago amidst a diagnosis of a debilitating and fatal disease of his own. Brave and loving to the end, Steve slowly became a prisoner of his body and died close to his beloved children, grandchildren and nephews. Did God “know” Steve’s “going about and lying down,” in the words of Psalm 139? Was Steve to “know God” even in decline and paralysis, in the words of Proverbs? Big questions.
With news of Steve’s death, I turned from the philosophy of knowing and not knowing to the funeral liturgy, which also evokes these themes. The liturgy assures that God knows us so well as to promise us eternal redemption (Ps. 139:23-24). But the liturgy also includes the Psalmist’s marvel, near mockery, that God should regard us puny humans at all (Ps. 8:5):
What is humanity that You are mindful of us?
The son of man that You should think of us?
.מָה אֱנוֹשׁ כִּי תִזְכְּרֶנּוּ וּבֶן אָדָם כִּי תִפְקְדֶנּוּ
So does God know us, or not? Can we know God, or not? If we can know God, how do we know that we know? And what good does this knowledge do us?
Mingling with Steve’s family and friends, I heard these questions implied in how mourners expressed memories, gratitude and grief; and in each snippet I heard an echo of an ancient Jewish philosopher who might mirror their theology. Some expressed relief that Steve’s body had fallen away, leaving his soul pure. (Philo, a Greek Jewish philosopher of the 1st century, wrote extensively on mind-body dualism.) Other mourners remarked that Steve finally would get the well-deserved rest that the Bible promises. (Saadia, a Babylonian Jewish sage of the 10th century, wrote about faith in the Prophetic promise of redemption, backed by reason to confirm that scriptural promises are “true.”) Some mourners saw proof of holiness in Steve’s bravery. (Judah Halevi, a Spanish Jewish philosopher and poet of the 12th century, wrote about experiencing God rather than reasoning about God, discerning divinity from our emotional response to the world.) Still others seemed to wrestle with God: to some of them, God had to be uninvolved with Steve’s illness (echoing Spinoza, a 17th century Dutch Jewish philosopher for whom God inhered in nature and has no independent identity, will or consciousness to hear prayer). Others doubted God at all, for what loving God could “do this to Steve”?
Maybe God isn’t in illness but in our efforts to heal and comfort: so says Harold Kushner in his famous book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Maybe God is in our community uniting to make meaning from Steve’s suffering, and thereby nudge us all toward holiness: so might say Mordechai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionism. Maybe we should understand illness and death as exile and redemption, key themes of 20th century Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig. Or maybe we just can’t know.
I imagine that Steve knows now. His life was a ceaseless investment in community and family. It was fitting that to Steve’s funeral came so many friends and relatives whose lives he touched, along with their sentiments echoing two millennia of Jewish philosophy across the spectrum of knowledge and belief.
Heading back from Steve’s funeral, I felt as if Philo, Saadia, Halevi, Spinoza, Kaplan, Rosenzweig and Kushner were with me, refracted in the words and hearts of Steve’s mourners. I sensed that it didn’t matter who among these giants might have been “right” about how we and God know each other. By the standards of logic and philosophy, I can’t know who’s right — and it probably doesn’t matter. What does matter and what I can know is that philosophers’ words and our hearts can journey with the faithful, the skeptic, the searcher, the mourner, the wrestler, the sick, the healer, the blissed out, the pissed off, and others between and beyond — on their terms and in their lives. Maybe that’s what matters most: I suspect Steve would agree.