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.