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Clergy Column by Rabbi Janet Marder


Reason to Believe

I love Edward Hirsch’s poem, called Earthly Light, about the experience of looking at paintings by the Dutch masters.


I remember the warm day in winter
when I stood on a hotel balcony listening
to bells ringing in the distance.

I had just seen all those galleries
of seventeenth-century light slipping
through interior courtyards and alleys,

branding doors and ceilings, pressing down
lightly on skulls of buildings.
I had just seen rhetorics of light flashing

on curtains and tablecloths, mirrors
and windows, old maps and well-preserved
canvases varnished and framed.

I was alone, and for a while I stared
into a sky washed clean by rain,
an atmosphere luminous and polished,

ready to ascend, transparent as wings.
I saw tugboats pulling heavy barges
up and down the ice-filled river

while a white disc flamed overhead
and hands of purple light that resembled
bruises drifted and gradually dispersed.

I thought of northern skies flooded
with blue and gray, of monochromatic clouds
and rain-soaked wind blowing across the plains.

I thought of a landscape flattened
like unbleached canvas and steeped
in vertiginous greens, of the artists

who could liquefy thickest sunlight,
and the tangible, earth-colored country
that was all there would be to paint.

That February day I looked directly
into a wintry, invisible world
and that was when I turned away

from the God or gods I had wanted
so long and so much to believe in.
That was when I hurried down the stairs

into a street already crowded with people.
Because this world, too, needs our unmixed
attention, because it is not heaven

but earth that needs us, because
it is only earth – limited, sensuous
earth that is so fleeting, so real.            

— Edward Hirsch, from Earthly Measures (1996)

In an interview, Hirsch commented: “It’s funny how I came to write that poem. I’ve always loved the seventeenth-century Dutch painters. I’m moved by the way they dignify the ordinary, or, perhaps more accurately, recognize the dignity in the ordinary. The light in those paintings just goes through me. I like all those scenes of daily life, all those mirrors and windows, drawers and curtains, cobblestone passages. I like to breathe that watery blue air.”

I began my time at Beth Am with a discussion about God. Soon after I arrived, in July 1999, I met with a large group of members at our Asilomar adult learning retreat. When I asked what was on their minds, and what they’d be interested in learning and discussing, I was struck by a recurring theme: our members wanted to talk about God. Some were deeply troubled by the idea that God could exist; it seemed incongruent with everything they believed and experienced in the “real world” outside the synagogue.

Yet somehow they could not let go of the idea. Stubbornly — sometimes with sadness, sometimes with anger — they grappled with their sense that Jewish theology is incompatible with science; that the rituals are irrational and the prayers irrelevant, expressing nothing but wishful thinking. Yet here they were, at a synagogue retreat focused on Jewish learning and Jewish worship. I often got the sense that they were hoping, despite their professed skepticism, that I could give them a reason to believe; offer them a theology that was not patently ridiculous; convince them that their Jewish commitments made sense.

That was my introduction to the Beth Am community – smart, sophisticated, principled and caring, but, in many cases, ambivalent about matters that were and are precious to me. I learned, over time, that for many of our members, belonging matters more than believing. I’ve tried, in these intervening years, to express my own convictions: that believing in God is not the easy way out but a courageous act of affirmation in a world that can be dark and disheartening; that believing in God does not absolve us of responsibility but summons us, again and again, to align ourselves with the good and enlist in the work of goodness; that we are the “delivery system” for divine justice, compassion, love and peace.

Above all, I’ve sought to express my belief that Jewish ritual and prayer educate the mind and spirit; steer us away from cynicism towards gratitude and hope; focus us on what we can do here and now: the patient, persistent labor of self-improvement and healing the world.

I cherish Judaism because it offers me an earthly spirituality — closely attentive to the fragile beauty of this world, its very imperfection challenging us to respond. Like the 17th century Dutch paintings I love, Judaism reminds us to look closely at what is before our eyes, and to love it as best we can, while we can. So let us pay attention to one another, cherishing the uniqueness of each soul we encounter; and let us be astonished at the gift of this life we share; and let us spend our lives in service to God, bringing goodness and beauty wherever we can. For, as Richard Wilbur wrote, “Love calls us to the things of this world.”

This is my last clergy column for the Beth Am Builder. I am grateful for the privilege of living with and learning from this community for 21 years, and I thank all of you who have been my teachers.

Wed, July 15 2020 23 Tammuz 5780