Unfolding Our Theology in a Force Majeure World
Rabbi Jen Gubitz
Riverway Project Kol Nidre 5781
Between questions about matching bridesmaids dresses and the merits of buttercream frosting, around March the Bridechilla Facebook group took a sharp turn. Suddenly brides, grooms, and beloveds alike - previously focused on current wedding trends like food trucks and donut walls - were drawn to a much different kind of hol(e)y. Which was whether or not contracts from their hotel, caterer, DJ, or florist contained or lacked a clause called Force Majeure, often referred to as an “Act of God.” People suddenly got religious about scouring their contracts as if sacred texts praying to discover this clause which would release them from the purgatory of non-refundable deposits.
I’m conscious of the numerous lawyers among us whose knowledge of force majeure runs deeper than my text message research with a few lawyer friends, including our very own, Lauren Godles Milgroom. But for those of us who barely read contracts before we sign them, in our legal system, force majeure refers to disruptive and oft unforeseen events in our world and includes so-called “Acts of God,” such as earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, and pandemics that are outside of a party’s reasonable control. Thanks to frequent usage in innumerable judicial opinions, the phrase “Act of God” has become a catch-all term in contract law to broadly refer to these natural disasters, avoiding the need to specifically list each potential event. [Go to law school if you want to learn more because Rabbi Jen Gubitz is not a lawyer and nothing she says should be construed as legal advice.]
While it is now abundantly clear to us that the extent of the pandemic we find ourselves living in was not completely beyond the scope of unforeseen circumstance - I, rabbi not lawyer, was, of course, drawn to this catch-all phrase “Act of God.” Not only because this year we should and could list all of the destructive and tragic events in our world, but more so for the opportunity to wonder together: what does it mean that this theological idea about a Greater Force is so deeply embedded in my wedding caterer contract for gluten free Funfetti cake balls?
But exploring the evolution of religious influence on law (it's a dash Napoleanic and overly English, if you’re curious), exploring those details would be avoiding the real question, the hardest question of all: Which is how, how could this pandemic which has wrought insurmountable loss of life, more than 200,000 human souls in America alone, coupled with wildfires eclipsing the sun and suffocating the west, hurricanes destroying cities and towns, earthquakes shaking and shattering us to our core, how could these unforeseeable events actually be described as an “Act of God?” Our insurance policies and contracts want to indict God for all the things we cannot explain. And I am one for hyperbole, crying out “Oh My God” in exasperation when other words fail me, but indicting God for all the awful things we cannot explain? I don’t believe in a God like that. And I wonder: Do you?
This begs a broader question: What do you actually believe? And what don’t you believe? And why?
If I’m honest, I have avoided really talking about God at Riverway, infrequently moving beyond God as literary Torah character to sharing conviction or belief, because I have always sought to avoid alienating folks among us who may not believe, who are too hurt to believe, or who are more sure about the Holy One Above than I am. Underlying this is the fear that “What if they know that I actually don’t know!?” and “What if this topic somehow turns someone away?” So, I’m asking us these questions on the Eve of Yom Kippur because we enter into these High Holy Days accompanied by a liturgy embedded with theology of many choices to explore. And I sense this year, more than ever, there are among us, so many, myself included, seeking answers and clarity.
The truth is, after reading and reading and studying in school, even with Dr. Eugene Borowitz, one of the most famous theologians of our time, I still don’t have the answers. Not only because I spent some of my time in that class making Facebook profiles for philosophers. (*19th century German Philosopher Hermann Cohen, that’s me!) But because theology can unfold throughout our lives, often based on personal experience. I have known and witnessed grief and joy, but my beliefs continue to develop. So I have an unfolding theology to share with you in hopes of modeling for you the pathway to your own.
When I was working as a chaplain intern at Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital in New York City, I learned to sit alongside very, very sick patients. The greatest sense of agency a chaplain can give to someone who is sick is the power to kick YOU out of their room, because they can’t kick out nurses or doctors. But more often than not, someone would allow me to sit by their bedside.
“Do you want to say a prayer?” I was trained to ask. If they said ‘yes,’ sometimes I’d ask if I could sing one to them, for them. And so first, I would sing the words of Esah Einai:
Esah Einai El HeHarim, I lift up my eyes unto the hills.
Me’ayin yavo ezri? Where does my help come from?
The Psalmist asks this question and then responds: my help comes from God, Maker of Heaven and Earth. I would pray for them, about them, in front of them about this “Act of God” - Oseh Shamayim U’Varetz, the God of Creation, voicing the language of the Psalms to describe the fullness of both the yearning and the beauty of our world, each of us knowing full well, they might soon leave it.
“Is there more,” some of them would ask?
“Of course, of course,” I would agree. And I would turn to the words of Mi Shebeirach, our prayer for healing, drawn most especially to the lyrics by Debbie Friedman.
May the Source of Strength who blessed the ones before us help us find the courage…
This prayer for healing, although with different words, originates in Torah when Moses cries out to God to bless Miriam with healing when she has fallen ill. These words, in some form or another, have been prayed for generations. And even though I don’t know those generations, somehow I find we are connected, not only by the words of the prayer itself. But by the sense, and dare I say belief, that such a prayer, while it may not make cancer or Covid disappear, such a prayer can, I think, bring a measure of tikkun,of repair, and courage, and strength to our lives. Because it offers us a connectedness with the ancients, and connects us with those among us in the present who express these very words by our sides, and connects us to those in need of healing, and connects us to the humans around us who hear our prayers, AND connects us to Mi SheBeirach - which means the one Who Blesses Us. That’s God. That connection I experience yields, not an indictment of God as the punishing cause-er of the pain and grief we will all endure, but as the inspir-er of the empathy we offer one another as we collectively face the unforeseen circumstances of being human. A God who draws us together to accompany one another while we express our deepest hopes? I believe in that God.
As it turns out so did a couple of theologians across the centuries, who after devoting their lives to this work deserve much more than a footnote on Kol Nidre. But to name a few: I found bits and pieces of what I believe in the works of modernists like 20th Century Martin Buber whose “I-Thou” concept evinced that God exists in relationships among people; and Mordechai Kaplan, founder of the Reconstructionist Movement, who believed that God dwells in the social solidarity of civilization; within Emanuel Levinas’s work of relationship obligation; or Viktor Frankel, a Holocaust survivor who focused on finding meaning in our suffering; or Melissa Raphael’s “The Female Face of God” that offers an ethic of care one human to another; and Rabbi Harold Kushner, a Boston local who is alive and well, who encouraged us to turn away from the statement that “Everything Happens for a Reason” and turn towards the idea that “When Bad Things Happen to Good People” (the famous title of his book) it is in these profound moments of loss and grief that one either quits religion all together or in time, open their eyes wider to bravely face and find meaning among the unforeseeable events of being human.
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, professor of liturgy and my teacher, often says that if you want to know what a people believe, look inside their prayer book. On this night our Machzor prayer book would have us say of and about God:
Shechiyanu, You Give us Life
HaMaariv Aravim, You Create Twilight & Dusk,
Ga’al Yisrael, You Redeemed us From Egypt
Sukkat Shalom, You Shelter us in Peace
Magein Avraham v’Ezrat Sarah, You Shield Abraham & Sustain Sarah
M’Chayei Hakol, You give life to all.
You are judge and plaintiff,
counselor and witness.
You inscribe and seal.
You record and recount.
You remember all that we have forgotten.
Oseh HaShalom, You are the Source of Peace
You are the God of the Generations,
And Adonai, Adonai - El Rachum, v’Chanun - God you are compassionate, gracious, endlessly patient, loving, and true; showing mercy to the thousandth generation; forgiving evil, defiance, and wrongdoing; granting pardon.
Avinu Maleinu, You are Our Sovereign Parent,
Shomeah Tefillah, You hear our prayers.
My experience as a chaplain gives texture to my unfolding theology that also includes a sense of tremendous awe for the peculiar trees in Joshua Tree National Park, for the breathtaking rock formations in Zion National Park, the sunset on Cadillac Mountain in Acadia, the vastness of the Negev Desert in Israel; as well as the giggles of my brother’s kids as they grow and learn, and the holy precociousness of our 15-lb dog who I swear has a little boy trapped inside. It includes the love I felt finally getting married, even in a pandemic, as well as the quiet that exists while laying earth on a grave for the many congregants, friends and family members I have buried. It includes the artful words of a poem, hearing harmony of voices singing together, the transcendent ceilings of cathedrals and mosques, the colors from a beautiful work of art. A personal theology can and should be expansive, creative, inspiring, giving voice to feelings, relationships, and experiences that we have not yet fully named.
So listen, you have agency here. You, too, can kick me out of the room or at least press mute (if you haven’t already). But I want to tell you it is okay if you don’t believe any of this because you’ve already read a lot about it and know for certain that there is No God. Guess what? There is room in Judaism for atheists. And it is okay if you don’t believe any of this because you are immersed in grief and pain from which no theological perspective can yet offer you comfort.
Guess what? There is room for your anger, your fear, and your grief in Judaism. It is okay if you don’t believe any of this because you’re agnostic and you just don’t know yet. Or because when you hear these anthropomorphic descriptions, all you can think of is the God from childhood who is somewhere up there sitting on a cloud with a very white beard who looks more like Santa Claus than you realized… It's okay because there is room for learning in Judaism. The graduate level calculus of Jewish philosophy and theology is hard stuff. Come on, I made philosopher Facebook profiles during rabbinical school to avoid it.
But what I really want you to hear is this: it's not enough to compose your personal beliefs and theology from the spectrum of either not trying at all or taking to heart all the phrases printed on TJ Maxx Pillows or gift shop coffee mugs. You know like: “God only gives us what we can handle'' or “when one door closes, a window opens.” I know they can bring a brief sense of comfort because I’ve purchased them, too. But it's not enough. Either path, coupled with dominant religious influences in our society will lead us, I fear, to believing that all these so-called “Acts of God'' showering our world with pain were caused by a punishing, vengeful God who wishes for us to suffer due to some smudge on our souls or mistake of our own wrongdoing. Yes, in our humanity we have made mistakes because we have agency. And that agency has impact in the ways we over-consume the precious gifts innate to our planet. We have agency in how we vote and when we demand honesty and integrity from our nation’s leadership. We have agency in how we have allowed our society to systematically oppress, incarcerate and kill black, indigenous, people of color. We have agency in how we use whatever privileges we may hold to fight against those very same injustices. But this is not the time of Noah and his Ark. This is not, I pray, the time of Sodom and Gomorrah either. We live in a world full of righteous people and Judaism does not believe that any of us inherently require punishment, were born sinful or need to be saved. Even though we may feel powerless these days, this pandemic is not an “Act of God.”
We have agency in our lives to craft a belief system rooted in wisdom and manifest in our life’s experience. We may not always know what, who or why is or isn’t God, but in the ancient contract that we re-sign from one Yom Kippur to the next exists, I pray, a covenant of compassion, of love, of justice, of equity, of care - divine and human alike. And if at the end of it all, all we have left is each other? Having read this contract thoroughly, I’ll gladly sign on the dotted line.
May we all be inscribed and sealed in the covenantal Book of Life. Shana Tovah.
Gratitude for birthing this sermon goes out to Rabbi Rachael Pass, Rabbi Daniel Bar Nahum, and Minister Leslie Small Stokes, my CPE supervisor; and my legal team of Lauren Godles Milgroom, Ian Cohen (by way of Rabbi Amy Cohen) and Josh Friedman (by way of Rabbi Hannah Goldstein.) You, too, can become friends with Hermann Cohen on Facebook.