Today I was invited to lead two reflections at Or Shalom, the East Vancouver shul I am a member of but attend somewhat irregularly. Rabbi Hannah Dresner, the congregation’s amazing leader, was very kind in honoring me so. I offered a reflection and exercise for the congregation which was based in the following thoughts, some of which I shared with the congregation, and which I’d like to share in full here:
Seeing God Face To Face
Emanuel Levinas, the great French-Jewish philosopher (1906-1995), once wrote that “the face of the other is the irruption of God into being.” What I understand him to have meant is that the call that emanates from the face of the other (which summons us to love them) is the presence of God in this world. In Levinas’ parlance, “being” refers to my own experience, my “being” which is closed in on itself as its own reality. The face of the other is thus the disruption of my own being by the appearance of God. The call which emanates from the face of the other is the commandment of God.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, a Ukrainian Hasidic master who lived almost two centuries previous (c. 1785-1807), once remarked that when we come to the other in love we reveal “the shining of the face of God in this world.” For Rebbe Nachman, then, the “irruption of God into being” is not the call from the face of the other, but the kindness of our gaze extended to the other when received by them. There may be important differences between these two perspectives. Yet what happens when we put them in dialogue?
Combining the insights of these two Jewish masters, we see that God both appears in the call of the face into our world, and in the appearance of our loving face in the world of the other. As opposed to Levinas’ view, which sees God’s appearance purely as demand, Rebbe Nachman’s view, which at least as represented in this particular metaphor sees God’s appearance in the gift, we can see God’s appearance in both demand and gift, in both the ethical call that disrupts a world of selfish pre-occupation and in the loving care that disrupts a world of grief and isolation.
Above the ark in the Temple sat two keruvim (“angels”). According to Jewish tradition, the two keruvim did not face outwards, or upwards, but rather towards each other, as though on the verge of uniting in a kiss.
What is the best thing that I love about my work? That no matter where i am in the world, language is a landscape to live in.
What is my idea of perfect happiness? On the page or on the stage when i am at one with the words
What is my greatest fear? Immobility
What is the trait that I most deplore in myself? Impulsivity. Hedony. Obsessiveness
Which living persons in my profession do i most admire? All my language-focused colleagues, mentors, teachers, heroes, friends, warriors, who are challenging borders, power structures in the face of enormous cultural political and aesthetic adversity, controversy, outrage; and with commitment to transgression and at times anarchic intervention, continue to fight through their language.
What is my greatest extravagance? Taking great risks with the work
On what occasion would I lie? When sitting is not an option
ISRAEL, AND YOU WHO call yourself Israel, the Church that calls itself Israel, and the revolt that calls itself Israel, and every nation chosen to be a nation –none of these lands is yours, all of you are thieves of holiness, all of you at war with Mercy. Who will say it? Will America say, We have stolen it, or France step down? Will Russia confess, or Poland say, We have sinned? All bloated on their scraps of destiny, all swaggering in the immunity of superstition. Ishmael, who was saved in the wilderness, and given shade in the desert, and a deadly treasure under you: has Mercy made you wise? Will Ishmael declare, We are in debt forever? Therefore the lands belong to none of you, the borders do not hold, the Law will never serve the lawless. To every people the land is given on condition. Perceived or not, there is a Covenant, beyond the constitution, beyond sovereign guarantee, beyond the nation’s sweetest dreams of itself. The Covenant is broken, the condition is dishonoured, have you not noticed that the world has been taken away? You have no place, you will wander through yourselves from generation to generation without a thread. Therefore you rule over chaos, you hoist your flags with no authority, and the heart that is still alive hates you, and the remnant of Mercy is ashamed to look at you. You decompose behind your flimsy armour, your stench alarms you, your panic strikes at love. The land is not yours, the land has been taken back, your shrines fall through empty air, your tablets are quickly revised, and you bow down in hell beside your hired torturers, and still you count your battalions and crank out your marching songs. Your righteous enemy is listening. He hears your anthems full of blood and vanity, and your children singing to themselves. He has overturned the vehicle of nationhood, he has spilled the precious cargo, and every nation he has taken back. Because you are swollen with your little time. Because you do not wrestle with your angel. Because you dare to live without God. Because your cowardice has led you to believe that the victor does not limp.