I attended a panel discussion yesterday here in our building at Hillel, sponsored by the Department of Religious Studies, on Religion and Psychology, in particular focusing on relationships: how relationships form and shape the ways we experience ourselves, in both psychological and religious terms. It was part of a larger conference the department is hosting. The panelists included both clinical psychologists and academics, and the audience was made up of faculty and graduate students in Religious Studies, and guests from other universities.

The theme of this panel was the relationships people have with objects: physical objects, imagined objects, people as objects. Physical things are essential elements in orienting our worlds, and the projections and ideas we have about them, the meanings they carry and convey for us, the relationships we have with them, are the stitching in the fabric of our lives. Mundane examples: a souvenir from a trip, a cherished photograph, a child’s art project. Holy examples: a synagogue, a Torah scroll, a rabbi (perhaps).

As the panelists were talking about Martin Buber and the difference between I-It and I-Thou relationships, and about the need for a way of understanding human experience and the very idea of a human self somewhere in between the objective (“All of this can be explained scientifically”) and the subjective (“None of this can be explained scientifically”), I found myself thinking of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s work The Sabbath, which I have been reading with a group of students this quarter on Monday afternoons. In one of many memorable lines, Heschel writes, “It is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is the moment that lends significance to things.” For example, you can give someone a gold ring as a gesture of friendship, but that is very different than giving someone the same gold ring under a huppah, which is a gesture of eternity. The significance of the object is derived from the moment, and from the accumulation of moments in which it has been used and acquired its meaning as a symbol.

And this, inevitably, led me to thinking of this week’s parasha, Ki Tissa, which presents the radical challenge to the anti-idolatry project of the Torah. Eleh elohecha Yisrael, “This is your God, O Israel,” Aaron introduces the Calf to the people. Whether the mishkan comes as a response to, or an anticipation of, the Calf, the Torah here wrestles with the fact that human beings live in bodies, and therefore need relationships with other things that have bodies. To relate to an unembodied God is a profoundly difficult thing. Quoting J.L. Marion, Marc-Alain Ouaknin writes:

What the idol tries to reduce is the gap and the withdrawal of the divine… Filling in for the absence of the divinity, the idol brings the divine within reach, ensures its presence, and, eventually, distorts it. Its completion finishes the divine off… The idol lacks the distance that identifies and authenticates the divine as such–as that which does not belong to us, but which happens to us. (Ouaknin, The Burnt Book, p. 65)
This is the temptation, the need, we have to objectify: to quantify, to hold onto, to stop time and process. We all have this need. And this, then, is what Judaism at its best responds to. “Six days shall you work, and on the seventh you shall rest” (Ex. 34:21). To close yet again with Heschel, “Creation is not an act that happened once upon a time, once and forever. The act of bringing the world into existence is a continuous process. God called the world into being, and that call goes on. There is this present moment because God is present. Every instant is an acct of creation. A moment is not a terminal but a flash, a signal of Beginning. Time is perpetual innovation, a synonym for continuous creation. Time is God’s gift to the world of space.” (The Sabbath, p. 100)

Shabbat shalom.

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