faith and doubt at ground zero

September 12, 2004

About an interfaith service in honor of Sept. 11 2001.


Congregation Beth Elohim. I’ve probably walked by this synagogue a zillion times, because I’ve lived near Park Slope in Brooklyn for so long, but this was the first time I’d ever been inside. There were 75 people there, most (I think) from the synagogue community.

Rev. Meeter opened with a litany. He would say something like, “When we remember the firefighters who rushed upstairs…” and we would say something like, “We remember selfless service.” When our voices spoke out in unison, it made a strong sound – I was surprised how strong. The acoustics in the hall weren’t very good for the TV, when we watched the documentary, but they were perfect for voices. There was an involuntary emotional reverberation that took place when I found myself saying the words of the litany in tandem with a room full of strangers. I had been disappointed that no one went with me, but realized once I was there that worship in the midst of strangers is strangely freeing.

The litany was followed by a Havdalah service. It began like this:

“In the Torah we read: The Eternal One spoke to Aaron: You shall distinguish between the sacred and the profane. Like Aaron, first of the priests, we who were called at Sinai to be a kingdom of priests are charged to make Havdalah.”

I’ve been reading this book, A Rabbi Talks with Jesus, by Jacob Neusner. In it, he talks a lot about this idea of the Jews having been called by God to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” [Ex 19:6] He goes on to ask: if the Jews are to be a kingdom of priests, how can we abandon the priestly code? And what are we to make of Jesus’ teachings to the effect that the priestly rules and regulations were of little importance? So it’s been on my mind, the concept of a “kingdom of priests,” and its crucial importance in Judaism.

So the point of the Havdalah service was to delineate between sacred time and profane time, to mark the point where we cross from one to the other, at the end of Shabbat. In the service, the Shabbat is called “a foretaste of heaven which [our mothers] called ‘Yom sheh-ku-lo Shabbat,’ a time that is all Shabbat.” Near the end of the service the rabbi invoked the coming kingdom even more powerfully:

The light will soon be gone, and Shabbat with it, yet hope illumines the night for us, who are prisoners of hope. Amid the reality of a world shrouded in deep darkness, our hope is steadfast and our faith sure. There will come a Shabbat without Havdalah, when the glory of Shabbat, its peace and its love, will endure for ever.

The Frontline documentary, Faith and Doubt at Ground Zero, was very good. The filmmakers selected speakers whose candor and thoughtfulness made their statements particularly provocative. There was an Irish firefighter whose son, also a firefighter, was killed when the towers fell. He talked about praying to God for his son’s life, trying to negotiate with him, and how he didn’t receive what he had asked for. On the other hand, his two other sons had survived – and when he went to church, he felt the presence of the son who had passed on somehow in the presence of God. There were other people, of course, who had lost loved ones and at the same time lost their sense of God’s presence altogether. They didn’t exactly deny his existence, but rather testified to an inability or unwillingness to come before him in the privacy of their souls. They had lost trust in him.

So Rev. Meeter and Rev Weider asked us, “Where was God on 9/11?”

I immediately thought of Elie Wiesel’s harrowing story from Night about the hanging of the young boy. The prisoners are forced to watch. They look up at his body, and someone says, “Where is God?” Wiesel thought to himself: he is up there, hanging from the gallows. I know what he meant: that surely this abomination meant that God was dead… but what flashed to my mind, reading that passage, was the image of the disciples at the foot of the cross, staring at their dead teacher and friend. Where is God now? they must have asked, without really knowing that God’s own corpse hung there before them. The idea of the crucifixion is that God was an innocent victim of evil – that God directly shared in the unimaginable suffering of the world.

The folks there tonight had a lot of interesting things to say. One man emphasized the idea of free will, to the point of claiming that God had nothing to do with those events – that all history and the entire world were turned over to us a long time ago. He doesn’t turn planes around for us – it’s out of his hands. I would have been right there with him a few years ago – but as I read the Bible, God is active in history. It’s become axiomatic to me that human freedom is not an absolute fact – it exists, but like most things, you have to look at it in its full context to understand it. And the context for our freedom is God’s freedom. Her freedom means she could no more “turn over” the world to us than she could lend us her power and wisdom.

Rev. Meeter made a cool connection: he reminded us of the wilderness temptation of Jesus, when Satan took him to the high place and bid him jump, because God would surely intervene and rescue him. Jesus didn’t say, “Listen, God doesn’t snatch people out of the sky.” God absolutely does intervene in history. Sometimes he effects a miraculous rescue. Sometimes he refrains from rescuing anyone. Sometimes his intervention is actually what people want to be rescued from. Jesus rebuked the devil, not for lying about God, but for proposing a deranged shortcut to faith. You can’t force the Almighty’s hand. God chooses when and how to intervene, and exercises her free choice not to intervene – most of the time. So to raise our voices in rage against him after something terrible happens is a form of worship. We are acknowledging that God does indeed have the power and the wisdom to steer the course of events according to his will. We are affirming that God loves justice and peace, and so the idea of anything unjust and grievous happening on his watch is an offense… but if we forget that God has shared with us some of his power and wisdom and love of justice, has given us the tools to intervene in our own world, and so forget our own responsibility, then we have a problem.

Maybe some of those people who felt unable to trust God after 9/11 have since sought to be reconciled with her. If my wife had died that day, would I have sought that reconciliation? Or would I still be harboring bitterness and rage? What if something were to happen to Georgia tomorrow? In my grief, would I be able to turn to God in the same way I feel able to now? Or would I feel alienated from him? Suffering is a school, among other things – and you can’t stand outside and look through the window at the students hunched over their desks and have any chance of understanding what they are studying. As the sweat – or is it tears? – drips from their faces onto the surface of their notes, and makes the ink run.

I wanted to include some quotations from the people interviewed in the documentary – the section we watched after the ministers asked, “Where was God?”

Ann Ulanov, psychoanalyst and professor of theology: We all know we have pictures of God, different pictures, and that those pictures aren’t God – that there’s a difference between our pictures of God and whoever God is… Since Sept. 11, the images that are most vulnerable to being smashed, suddenly, shockingly, are “God is in his heaven and all is right with the world.”… The all-good God can be smashed, and yet even the non-God image can be smashed, because the outpouring of kindness, simple acts of kindness, challenged a lot of people who thought you can’t really believe in anything.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, Orthodox rabbi: [A]ll of us are looking for: some way to let real life, with the pain, not blow us apart… I guess the most important part of that conversation is to begin to identify how we’re all looking for that, rather than use some notion of God… to provide easy answers, when we know deep down they don’t really exist… If God’s ways are mysterious, don’t tell me about the plan. Live with the mystery… if you’re going to tell me about how the plan saved you, you’d better also be able to explain how the plan killed them. And the test of that has nothing to do with saying it in your synagogue or your church. The test of that [is] saying it to the person who has just buried someone and look in their eyes and tell them, “God’s plan was to blow your loved one apart.” Look at them and tell them that God’s plan was that their children should go to bed every night for the rest of their lives without a parent. If you can say that, well, at least you’re honest. I don’t worship the same God.

That last one really challenges me, because I agree that it is unspeakable to say that God’s plan could encompass violence and suffering, but to deny it is to implicitly claim that God is helpless in the face of evil. It is to ignore the fact that the king is on his throne, and nothing is beyond his power. I hate the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, for reasons like 9/11/01, but when pushed, I can’t imagine a God who was not King.

Ian McEwan, writer: The idea of prayer seems to me almost infantile, this appeal to an entity who could intervene – who clearly hasn’t intervened. Or if he has intervened, he’s done so malignedly. It sort of makes me rather feel sad when I heard priests talking about Sept. 11 and reminding us that God moves in mysterious ways. Well, spare me this God, I say. I prefer to regard this in human terms.

I sympathize greatly with McEwan’s perplexity and offense at the idea of prayer, at the idea of a sovereign God who intervenes in human affairs – except when he doesn’t. Two things come to mind, though: the ancient Hebrews knew that life as we witnessed it seemed very random and unfair. It’s written about over and over in the Bible. If they weren’t naive or ignorant, and they certainly weren’t, how did they persist in believing in God Almighty? The other thing is the fact that McEwan turns from religious terms to what he calls “human terms.” But I don’t believe that there is such a thing as “human terms,” cut off from God – it is from God that our language and thought and reason derive their legitimacy. Look for a terminology in which to frame the world from which any trace of the transcendent has been stripped, and you will find yourself with an impoverished vocabulary – one that leaves you less well-equipped to talk about life in all its complexity and ambiguity – not more.

After the film, and tea and cookies, I attended a Selichot service. It was late, and I was worried about Marlene and the baby, but it occurred to me that I didn’t often get a chance to worship God with Jews, and I knew that every other chance I’ve ever had, I treasured. So I went. Indeed, it was beautiful. The people around me were very nice about pointing to where we were in the printed liturgy. We sang the “Shema,” and it was a tune I knew. The service is leading up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and reflected a lot on our sins and our need for forgiveness – a need I was feeling very keenly that night, and indeed still am.

Finally, I was on my way home. Curiously, I ran into my old workmate, Case, and then, while we were standing there talking, my friend Matt walked up. So into my mixed-up stew of emotions, God dropped some simple joy at living in Brooklyn and running into friends at midnight, in the light of the memorial beams rising from Ground Zero.

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