A few years ago I struck up a rather unusual friendship through eBay. I had made a purchase through that on-line auction site and, in my subsequent e-mail communications with the seller–a man I’ll call “Jerry”– it soon came out that we were both Jews and that we shared a number of common interests in popular art, ‘60s music and literature. We communicated with one another several times a week for just over a year. Our conversations were free-flowing but, more often than not, our dialogue circled round to theology.
My friend is a self-proclaimed agnostic, estranged from Jewish observance, and he was clearly intrigued to find himself in conversation with a rabbi. He pressed me, over time, to tell him precisely what I understand God to be. I’ll share with you my answer in a moment but let me first fast- forward a year or two.
Our e-mails tapered off but I would still hear from Jerry occasionally and when I would spot something I thought would pique his interest I’d send it his way. The last I knew, he had gravitated toward a Unitarian-Universalist church in the mid-Western city in which he lives. He is, decidedly, someone who needs a spiritual core in his life and I hope he’s finding it. So what brought Jerry to mind just this past week? A New Yorker profile of the actor Sean Penn included this passage: “[….] talking about his friendship with the magician David Blaine, Penn leaned across the table and said, ‘Why are we close friends? I don’t ask. I don’t want to know. Love the mystery. Don’t want to know why I’m here, per se, in life. Feel it, follow the feeling. But don’t want the answer. Don’t believe I’ll get it. Don’t want the safety net of ‘Am I gonna have an afterlife or not?’‘ He continued, ‘Somebody says there’s a God, I think it’s kind of a funny notion. Somebody says there’s not, I think it’s a funny notion. To know is a funny notion. And so, you know, if I’ve got a religion, it’s the mystery of the thing.’”
So….what did I tell Jerry back when the e-mails were flying fast and furious between the East Coast and the Heartland? How did I convey to him my own understanding of God? In a way that now makes me realize how much I have I common with Sean Penn and, for all I know, three-quarters of my congregation, I told Jerry that God, for me, is summed up in, and encompasses, the word “Mystery”…that God is the sum total of all I will never understand, the totality of all that amazes, inspires, terrifies, delights and overwhelms me.
You may well be thinking, “That’s a rather chutzpadik (presumptuous) assertion for a rabbi to be making! Aren’t rabbis supposed to affirm the absolute and unvarnished truth of Judaism?” My understanding of the thrust of Jewish theology over the millennia leads me to conclude that what is really and truly chutzpadik is to lock God into tidy definitions and safe conclusions. Judaism is quite content to allow me, and you, and everyone you know to conceive of God as raw, unbridled, head-spinning, jaw-dropping, heart-stopping “Mystery”-with-a-capital-“M”.
I’m hoping that one day Jerry and I will meet face to face and continue our conversation. He’ll surely chuckle when I share my Sean Penn quote and he’ll probably want to know how one prays to Mystery. I’ll tell him that’s a terrific question…and that the answer is just one more part of the Mystery.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.