People who know me well and even many who don’t, know at least one thing about me: my favorite book, the book that has had more of an influence on me than any other, is The Thirteen Petalled Rose by Rabbi Steinsaltz. Since its publication in 1980 I have read it—literally—hundreds of times.
If I were living in the world created by Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451, where books are banned and where those who want to save books memorize them and in a sense “become” them, The Thirteen Petalled Rose would be the book I would select. (A soft-cover edition, with two new chapters and a new introduction was recently published.)
One of the most challenging statements in the book, for me, appears in Chapter 2, “Divine Manifestation.” Rabbi Steinsaltz writes:
“Precisely because the Divine is apprehended as an infinite, not a finite force, everything in the cosmos, whether small or large, is only a small part of the pattern, so that there is no difference in weight or gravity between any one part or another. The movement of a man’s finger is as important or unimportant as the most terrible catastrophe, for as against the Infinite both are of the same dimension.”
I thought of this passage when I read the answer to a question Rabbi Steinsaltz was asked at Florida International University after he was given an honorary doctorate in divinity in 2005. After receiving the degree and offering a lecture titled “The Life of the Mind,” there was a question and answer session during which Rabbi Steinsaltz was asked if God cared about the 150,000 lives lost in the recent tsunami. James D. Davis, Religion Editor for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported on the event and described Rabbi Steinsaltz’s response by saying, “His reply was unexpectedly bleak, suggesting that there were no easy answers.” What Rabbi Steinsaltz said was this:
“To God, there is no difference between one or 150,000 persons. A staphylococcus is equal to an elephant or a wave or Jupiter. When I ask God questions, I can only hope for limited answers. I have a right to ask. Every child has a right to cry. But not every cry has a right to be answered with a kiss. And not every question has a right to be answered quickly or soothingly.”
Prior to his visit to the university, one of its publications, FIU Magazine, held a telephone interview with Rabbi Steinsaltz. Here is a transcript of that conversation:
A conversation with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz:
“What happens if you destroy one lie after another? What remains?”
By Deborah O’Neil, in FIU Magazine, Winter 2005, Volume 12
Rabbi Steinsaltz, I hope we can have a dialogue that is meaningful for all of our readers, regardless of their faith, and even those without faith.
AS: Well, let me begin by stating that there are very, very few people who have no faith at all. Every place, people have faith. It’s very rare to find a person without it. I have a friend who published a book called “Memoirs of a Believing Atheist.”
A believing atheist?
AS: A believing atheist, I suppose, believes in atheism. You have all kinds of sets of beliefs. They don’t have to be equally right, but at least people do believe.
You have said that you were surprised to find yourself a religious person. Tell me about your conversion, if that is the correct word for it.
AS: The word is appropriate but the description is not. I know lots of people who became religious in many ways, but very rarely is it a sudden conversion. Getting into religion for me was somewhat of a continuation of an expression of my state of mind, which is basically very skeptical. It sounds like a paradox but it really is not. Religion can exist in a very different realm. Communism was a religion. Even what I call American civil religion — the New York intellectuals. If you look at these people whose whole is escape is The New York Times and parts of The New Yorker, these people are also, in a certain way, religious. I grew up within all this. Being a skeptic, I began destroying them. In a way it was a process of elimination. What happens if you destroy one lie after another? What remains?
What prayer is for you?
AS: Basically, prayer is a contact, a conversation, a way of trying to speak to God. I’ll tell you a story. I have a daughter who was then 3 years old and she asked me a terrible question. I was, at the time, praying. She wanted something but because I was occupied I did not attend to her. Later on she asked me why. I told her, “I was speaking with God.” Then she asked me a question that still bothers me. The question was, “And what did He say to you?” I’m still grappling with this. If I would put prayer in the most essential meaning, it would be not just talking. It would be rather, the attendance, my movement towards. Even more basic than any words is the knowledge of He and me. That is the very essence of prayer.
What is spirituality?
AS: When I came for the first time to America, I came as an adult. I came with a little bit of English and for me, the word “spirituality” was a nice word. After being in America, I became allergic to it. What spirituality has become is mushiness, a lack of coherence, a lack of any kind of devotion. I’m scared of the word. I try to delete it from every text.
Well, if you could redefine spirituality, what would it be?
AS: Because we are physical beings, we are so very tied to matter and material things. We presume somehow that these represent reality. The idea that reality contains other things than those that a simple monkey can feel — the ability to get beyond that is an opening. In itself, it doesn’t mean much but it means the ability to acknowledge the overwhelming value of those things that are not touchable, not seeable and so many times don’t even cost money. It’s a gateway. It is not, in itself, an answer.
Can one be spiritual and not religious?
AS: Every person is spiritual. Most of our inner feeling is not connected with the material world. Love is a spiritual manifestation. Hatred is also spiritual. Spirituality in and of itself is a different realm from the material world. It can be secular and it can be religious. It can also be evil. Spirituality is not, by definition, holy or glorious. In many places where you have a shallow notion of the world, you don’t have an understanding of the reality of evil, but evil exists. Evil has spiritual manifestations, lots of them. You can have a completely evil spirituality.
Spirituality, per se, is looking into a world which is, in our modern times, something we usually don’t have a clear notion about. We have all kinds of wrong definitions of what is real. Because of that, opening up to spirituality — understanding the reality of nonmaterial things — is important.
You say humanity needs to reconnect with the fundamentals of existence. What are those fundamentals?
AS: The fundamentals are things that have a meaning and the meaning should be understood. Being an intellectual in many ways is the ability perceive gray. The danger of it is that after some time you don’t even know there is white and black. That is the danger of any kind of sophistication. The other side of it is, What are fundamental notions? Good and evil. Truth and
lies. There’s love and hatred. Of course, there are lots of shades of meaning. Seeing them is intellectually stimulating. Not perceiving that there are differences is the blindness that comes from knowing too much and understanding too little.
I’ve had similar conversations with friends about absolute truths.
AS: Knowing about absolutes doesn’t mean you don’t know about other things. From time to time, either in my life or in my politics, I have to take sides. The inability to take sides has become a malady. There are certain things where people shouldn’t be neutral.
Is God one of the fundamentals that has been lost?
AS: As a religious person, God is the most fundamental thing…I don’t think He has been lost. He was discarded.
Discarded sounds more serious than lost; it seems more deliberate.
AS: It’s not deliberate, it is just inconvenient. It makes me stop at all kinds of stations. It makes me rethink what I have done. All of these things are unpleasant. So if you find you can live without it…Idol worship is one of the ways of getting from one big, great God to cutting him into small little gods that are more convenient. It’s going back to old gods, gods of power and money like Zeus. The god of fertility and sex, Aphrodite. They are returning, not under these names. You speak about power but you do not speak about the God of power.
You once said that if the world were just slightly worse, then its balance would be irreversible and evil would be irrevocable. Has mankind fallen?
AS: We are not fallen, but we are not that far away. One of the problems in the world is not only evil, but stability. Who gets punished first, the sinner or the stupid? In the meantime, a lot of damage is done.
Yet, in your writings you say there is still hope. What do you hope for?
AS: The return of sanity to the world. It is not in the biggest demand, but possibly it is the most urgently needed.
Can you describe your sane world?
AS: It is described graphically as a wave. A wave is made of two movements. One is up and down. One is forward. When you have a combination of these things, this is what I’m calling sanity. Real waves are like a human heart beat. There is a repetition. There is also a newness.
Where do you find hope?
AS: Hope is in God. There is also a certain amount of hope in what I find in people. I’ve met all kinds of people. I’ve hardly ever found a person who is completely evil. Hope is that which I call a little spark, a little grace. It is there. It also needs a tremendous amount of work.