Seeing and Hearing God

One of the people with whom our ICE group met in Jerusalem was Michael Marmur, the Vice-President for Academic Affairs of all three campuses of the Hebrew Union College – Jerusalem, New York, and Cincinnati. As you might imagine it is a challenging job to coordinate between campuses that are eight hours apart. When he convenes a meeting in Jerusalem at 5 p.m. it is 9 a.m. in New York and Cincinnati. His job is further complicated because Hebrew Union College is part of the Reform Jewish tradition and the Israeli government only recognizes the Orthodox Rabbinate. Probably the reason Hebrew Union College was allowed to establish a Jerusalem campus is their first President in Jerusalem was Nelson Glueck the famous archaeologist, and for many Israelis archaeology is a form of religion. Also the land that Hebrew Union College was allowed to acquire in Jerusalem at the time was in no man’s land between West Jerusalem held by the Israelis and East Jerusalem held by the Jordanians. And in the early years, Jordanian soldiers would sometimes take pot shots at the campus from the walls of the Old City. So, Hebrew Union got a really good financial deal on the land for their campus – just a few dollars. Today, their campus is some of the most expensive real estate in the world.

Rabbi Jonathan Miller, who is a graduate of Hebrew Union College, had written to Michael Marmur about our study theme “connecting with the divine,” so he graciously prepared a text study for us on Numbers 12:1-8 about seeing and hearing God.

 

 

In this passage Miriam and Aaron were criticizing Moses, because he married a Cushite woman. Like most pastors Moses was the subject of continual criticism, and the Cushites were a very dark skinned people, so there may have been some latent racism in Miriam and Aaron’s criticism. As they were challenging Moses’ authority they pointed out that they too were prophets and they had also seen God. But then God rebuked Miriam and Aaron saying, “no one has seen the Holy One like Moses for with Moses I speak mouth to mouth and he beholds my divine presence.” Mouth to mouth suggests a divine kiss, intimate experience of God, echoing Genesis 2 where God breathed into Adam the breath of life.

Now the question is what does “seeing” mean? In everyday language we might say, “I am seeing a girl,” or “I am seeing a therapist.” And when we say those things, we mean more than the physical act of taking in light with our eyes. We are talking about perception and all of the internal emotional and attitudinal lenses and filters through which we perceive reality. And that is why no two of us ever quite “sees” the same thing, because we never directly experience reality. Everything we experience is mediated through our minds.

Dr. Marmur lifted up the text from I Corinthians 12:13 when Rabbi Paul talks about seeing as if in an imperfect reflecting surface dimly, but when the Messiah comes, we shall see face to face. The lenses and filters through which we see reality are like veils that make our vision of things and especially the divine imperfect, sometimes even opaque. Every once in a while some of the veils may part, and we behold a glimpse of divine truth. As seekers of divine truth we always have to ask the question, “am I striving to see God, or am I in love with my own reflection?” That was the issue Phillip Cary focused upon in his book the Monday Bible Study read and the Diaconate is reading: Good News for Anxious Christians. Although I think Cary ultimately got it wrong, because his philosophical orientation is so suspicious of psychology, he doesn’t adequately account for the emotional and attitudinal filters that affect our perception of reality. If we do not understand our psychological lenses and filters, we will end up claiming ultimate truth, when we are only “seeing” a vague version of reality from our own vantage point. My rule of thumb is that whenever we try to talk about God or truth, we end up saying far more about ourselves, than we ever say about God or the truth.

Most profoundly Dr. Marmur pointed to Maimonides, who said we need to understand that ethics is the foundation for clearing our spiritual insight. For when we practice ethics we begin to be able see the face of the other.

 

Think about it, how many times do we really see the homeless person, or our enemy? We usually just pass by on the other side and don’t really see the needs of others. It is the people we don’t see who are the measure of our success or failure in seeing God. And I believe this is most profoundly what Jesus intended when he answered the question, “who is my neighbor?” Until I can really see people who are in need, I cannot see God. “And then the righteous will ask, ‘when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

And then the Messiah will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers or sisters, you did it to me.'”

If we want to see God, we have to get out of ourselves, transcend our egos long enough to truly see other people and respond to their needs. Faith is not about us. Faith is learning to live in community with others, and to learn to become responsive to their needs.

 

Another profound issue we grappled with Dr. Marmur was the subject of interfaith dialogue, for we talked about the problem of trying to see one another and hear one another from different faith perspectives.

Unless we can accept a certain amount of pluralism, we cannot see and hear the other. If there is only one truth, and I have it, I cannot dialogue with other people, who may have a different experience of the truth. And at that point Dr. Marmur pointed out that one of the problems of trying to dialogue with the Jihadists is that by the time someone is strapping on a suicide belt, the time for theological reflection is over.

“But of necessity, Dr. Marmur insisted, “we must continue to work together in community theological discussion because, I must be interested in what you see, since I can only see with my own eyes. None of us get to see reality as it really is.” Of necessity we must be willing to accept a certain amount of relativism and pluralism. Jonathan Miller added an insight from Arthur Greene with whom we studied in Boston: “In post-modern times,” Greene says, “to be singular and non-pluralistic is to miss the vision.”

Arthur Greene’s comment inspired Dr. Marmur to point out, “even internally we see life from different perspectives. We have binocular vision. We see with two eyes. Seeing with two eyes two slightly different perspectives is what gives us depth perception. In the same way we have two brains a right brain and a left brain, and unless we are using both brain functions, our reality is shallow, and we have no depth of understanding. Sometimes we need more than one pair of eyes, more than one perception of the divine more than one religious tradition to begin to appreciate the richness of the experience of God.

I was reminded of our interview with Dr. Joseph Lumbard a professor a Brandeis University in Boston: “Religions are not the absolute but the particulars of the religions mediate the absolute. (In other words religions are not the divine, but religion can help us connect with the divine.)

Think of faith as a mountain. The rain comes down on the mountain and different streams are formed coming down the sides of the mountain. The streams form paths that can be followed up the mountain. Far too many people worship the path rather than the goal of the path.”

Therefore we cannot be Christians alone. We need to live in community with other people of faith and people of other faiths who will pray with us and for us, who will challenge us, who will share their unique perspectives of the truth with us, so we might grow into the full richness of the experience of God. And we need to be in mission together learning to see the face of the other, especially the needs of others, the poor, the elderly, the sick, the imprisoned, the mentally ill, learning through them how to touch God in our midst.

During our journey to Jerusalem and Rome, our group was like a walking joke – you known a minister, a priest and a rabbi walked into St. Peter’s in Rome, a minister, a priest and a rabbi walk up to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, a minister, a priest and a rabbi walk up to the Acropolis in Athens. Wherever we went we were unusual. And as I close I would like to share with you two stories about a minister, a priest and a rabbi.

A Minister a Priest and a Rabbi were having a friendly game of poker, when the police burst in to break up the game. The police officerasks: “Father Dunmyer, were you gambling?” Turning his eyes to heaven, Father Dunmyer whispers, “Lord, forgive me for what I am about to do.” To the police officer, he then says, “No, officer, I was not gambling.” The officer then asks the minister: “Pastor Hurst, were you gambling?” Again, after an appeal to heaven, Pastor Hurst replies, “No, officer, I was not gambling.” Turning to the rabbi, the officer again asks: “Rabbi Miller, were you gambling?” Shrugging his shoulders, Rabbi Miller replies: “With whom?”

A minister, a priest and a rabbi went for a hike one day. It was very hot. They were sweating and exhausted when they came upon a small lake. Since it was fairly secluded, they took off all their clothes and jumped in the water. Feeling refreshed, the trio decided to pick a few berries while enjoying their “freedom.” As they were crossing an open area, who should come along but a group of ladies from town. Unable to get to their clothes in time, the minister and the priest covered their private parts and the rabbi covered his face while they ran for cover. After the ladies left and the men got their clothes back on. The minister and the priest asked the rabbi why he covered his face rather than his private parts. The rabbi replied, “I don’t know about you, but in MY congregation, it’s my face they would recognize.”

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