I went to shul (synagogue) last Friday as usual. Because it’s near the solstice, Shabbat (the Sabbath) starts really early in London, about 3.35pm. I got home from shul about 4.45pm, which is too early for dinner. Normally I would do some Torah study in the intervening time, but I just wanted to crash, so I read more of Gaudy Night and planned to do Torah study after dinner. Unfortunately, after dinner my bedroom was very cold. I crawled under the covers for what I intended would be a few minutes to warm up, but I fell asleep and woke up around 10pm with a headache. Fortunately, it was amenable to medication and I did get some time for Torah study and hitbodedut (meditation/spontaneous prayer).
I dreamt about Rabbi Lord Sacks again last night. I think I was working for him. I don’t really remember much about the dream. It’s strange that I keep dreaming about him, but I guess he is still a part of my life as I have been reading about him and re-reading some of his essays. It just seems strange as my Dad dreams about family a lot, living and especially dead (his parents, aunts and uncles) and is always excited to share these dreams with us because he sees it as a way of connecting with people he loves who are gone. I’m not sure if he believes he is, in some way, in contact with their souls, or if he just likes thinking about them. I think he would find it strange for me to react in a similar way to someone I never really met, but a Torah teacher can be a very important person in a religious Jew’s life, someone who really shapes their worldview.
Today I surprised myself by getting to shul for Minchah (Afternoon Prayers) and Talmud shiur (religious class). I did struggle to follow the class though. I think I go as much to join in with the community as too study, as I understand the Talmud text better when I prepare before class or revise afterwards (when I can take things at my own pace) than when I’m actually in the class (when I have to keep up and am also ‘peopling’ with people I don’t always feel comfortable with).
I tried to eat less junk over Shabbat. I cut down during the week too, but I don’t eat a lot of junk during the week. I want to lose some weight before I get married, although as my weight-gain was mainly medication-induced, and I’m definitely not coming off my meds, I’m not sure if this is a vain hope.
After Shabbat I caught up on some chores that I feel have been hanging over me for a while. I feel a bit less overwhelmed. Marriage and house-hunting still feel like big things, but hopefully we can break them down into manageable chunks once we get started on them. As for writing, I hope to get into a pattern of submitting my manuscript to a couple of agents each week. Although I’m about to get very busy, I’d like to start work on my new novel, as I feel not writing is doing bad things to me, emotionally as well as to my writing skills. I’m wary of starting writing without having done enough research, but I feel that, with a bit more research, I’ll feel able to at least start a first draft, while doing more research alongside it. At any rate, it’s a start.
I was thinking about my residual beliefs in a punitive God over Shabbat. I’ve always known that ‘officially’ I’m ‘supposed’ to see God as merciful, but I’ve always struggled to do so.
In one of the Jewish newspapers there was an article by a Reform rabbi who, as a hospital chaplain, had a conversation with a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) patient who asked what he had done for God to punish Him. The rabbi could not believe in a punishing God, while the patient could not believe in an understanding of suffering that wasn’t rooted in punishment.
I felt that both perspectives were flawed. I find it hard to believe in a religiously-grounded moral order without some kind of punishment. I don’t think Hitler and Stalin got off scot-free. However, I don’t think that all or even most suffering is punishment.
To some extent the problem is semantic. As something of a Maimonidean religious rationalist, I feel that God has made a world of consequences and then told us how to avoid (some of) the bad consequences. People who smoke tend to develop cancer. God doesn’t “punish” smokers with cancer, but he created a world of cause and effect and if you ingest carcinogens on a regular basis, you have an increased chance of getting cancer.
Similarly, the moral world has its consequences. If you are persistently unkind, unsympathetic, stingy, critical, unhelpful (etc.) you are likely to find yourself without friends. God is not “punishing” you for not performing acts of chessed (kindness), but He has set up a world where being kind and community-minded creates bonds of friendship while being misanthropic does not.
I feel there are several reasons why God might cause or allow suffering (probably not an exhaustive list, and I’m not going into the free will/predestination conflict if Person A inflicts harm on Person B and God does not intervene — the Medieval Jewish philosophers really went to town on that one):
- Suffering is the consequence of unhealthy actions (physical or moral) by an individual ;
- Suffering is a reminder of mortality and human finitude intended to prompt introspection and growth;
- Related to this, suffering is an external cause of growth (whereas 2 is an internal process of introspection and repentance, 3 is about practical growth to overcome an external obstacle);
- The suffering is an inherent part of fulfilling an individual’s or collective’s mission in life.
To be honest, 2 and 3 shade into each other to a significant extent and could probably be reduced to a single point if I tried hard enough and even 1 is not that far off.
When I was very depressed, I wondered if God wanted me to be miserable forever as part of my mission on Earth (4). This has turned out not to be the case, but I do still worry about being faced with an external challenge that I fail (3). My mind tends to anxiously posit scenarios where I am forced to choose between two unappealing outcomes, one religiously forbidden and one merely awful, but religiously permitted. I struggle to imagine myself having the strength of will to choose the awful, but permitted over the forbidden. I suppose it’s another way of saying that I’m afraid that God will take away the good things in my life, but rather than Him doing that suddenly, by an Act of God (so to speak), He puts me in a position where I have to choose to forgo them, which somehow seems worse, not least because I fear I will choose short-term pleasure instead.
At root of this is a lack of trust in God, a feeling that anything good I have might be taken away from me, and that my destiny is to spend my life in loneliness and misery. The events of the last year or so have challenged this outlook: I’ve been in regular (if part-time) work, I finally got my autism diagnosis (which hasn’t led to many practical benefits yet, but has been a game-changer in terms of self-esteem), I got back together with E, and got engaged, but there is still the fear that everything could be taken away from me, suddenly and without warning, like Iyov (Job).
It is hard to know what to do with this thought. It is not how a religious Jew is supposed to think about God — we are supposed to trust Him — but one good year struggles to be heard over nearly twenty fairly miserable and lonely years beforehand. In many ways, the hardest part is that I can see how adversity helped me grow as a person, so I can’t deny that future adversity might help me grow more, I just hope there’s a way I can grow without it, or at least without the challenge of losing the things I hold most dear.