Holy Anxiety

The following was inspired by a conversation I had with my spouse Ross in the car one evening as we were driving home from visiting the kids. Ross asked me what Jewish tradition has to say on the subject of anxiety, and when I thought about it I realized that this is an extremely difficult question to answer.

The word in Hebrew which most closely approximates “anxiety” is חֲרָדָה. Derived from a verbal root which means to be excited or to tremble, the word is old enough to occur in the Babylonian Talmud, as in a passage where, discussing the derivation of the obligation to approach prayer with great solemnity, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi says:

מהכא השתחוו לה׳ בהדרת קדש אל תקרי בהדרת אלא בחרדת

– bT Berachot 30b.

Translation: It is derived from here – “Bow down to the LORD in the beauty of holiness (b’hadrat kodesh).” Don’t read it as “in the beauty of holiness,” but rather “in holy anxiety” (b’cherdat kodesh).

The phrase “holy anxiety” may sound strange to our ears, since we are accustomed to think of anxiety as something bad to be avoided, while holiness is something good to embrace. Especially for those of us who have ever suffered from serious anxiety (and I include myself in this camp), the idea of holiness may seem totally irreconcilable with the overwhelming tension of a mind constantly turning over and over within itself a thousand preminitions of disaster. And yet Jewish tradition’s attitude on this matter is both complex and ambiguous – recognizing it as a great source of the pain and suffering to which we human beings are subject, but nevertheless embracing it as a source of connection with God.

If proof were needed of the Jewish people’s long collective relationship with anxiety, we need go no farther than the book of Psalms, throughout which anxiety appears frequently as an oppressive presence for which the psalmist calls out to God for relief – as for example in Psalm 6:

Have mercy on me, O LORD, for I languish
Heal me, O LORD, for my bones shake with terror
My whole being is stricken with terror
While you, LORD – O, how long!

– Psalms 6:3-4

At the same time, the Bible’s statements regarding our proper existential attitude toward God often make use of language evocative of fear. The most common such phrase, yirat Elohim is probably best translated “fear of God” (also yirat shamayim, “fear of Heaven”). If this phrase sounds somewhat old-fashioned to our ears, it is perhaps because, anxious ourselves at the idea of “fear” in connection with the divine, we tend to prefer somewhat milder words such as “awe.” To bowdlerize the traditional language in this way, however, may have the effect of masking something important – and paradoxically positive – about the relationship between traditional Judaism and anxiety.

Anxiety is perhaps an unavoidable byproduct of the development of spiritual consciousness. As Mordecai Kaplan put it:

The more eager we are to shape human life in accordance with some ideal pattern of justice and cooperation, the more reasons we discover for being dissatisfied with ourselves, with our limitations, and with our environment.

– Mordecai Kaplan, The Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion, p. 28

Where some traditions have attempted to deal with this issue by cultivating a sense of detachment from the world, Judaism has always tended to cultivate in its adherents an active engagement with the world and its problems. This activist orientation has necessitated a certain coming-to-terms with anxiety. The concern of religious Jews throughout the ages has generally not been with eliminating anxiety altogether, but rather with ensuring that anxiety is fixed on its proper objects, namely God and our fellow human beings.

To love God, the world, and each other, is to be concerned. To care is to recognize all the myriad varieties of harm that may befall that which is cared for – in other words to be anxious. In the face of personal anxiety – the overwhelming fear for the self which is the lot of most human beings since the dawn of time – the Torah encourages us to place our trust in God to ensure that everything will work out in the end. Not, as we might expect, to deliver us from anxiety altogether, but to elevate our anxiety from the profane to the spiritual.

This, then is the meaning of “holy anxiety”: That to each of us is issued the challenge to be more afraid of disappointing God than we are of being humiliated, harmed, or otherwise brought low by our fellow human beings. In the words of the psalmist:

In distress I called out to the LORD
The LORD answered me and brought me relief
The LORD is on my side,
I have no fear
What can man do to me?

– Psalms 118:5-6

 

Faith For Ferguson

As all around this country some of us are preparing to stuff ourselves silly in honor of Thanksgiving, while others are heading out into the snowy streets once again, putting themselves in harm’s way to protest in support of the fairly simple idea that a police officer should not be able to gun a person down in the street simply because he is black. Meanwhile, I feel the need to talk a little bit about faith.

People talk about faith as if it means the same thing as belief. When someone tells you something which you have no independent way of verifying, you either believe them or you don’t, or else you choose to suspend belief until such time as more evidence comes along. Who we choose to believe, and for what reasons, is a desperately important question in a time when it is becoming clear that the testimony of any number of eyewitnesses isn’t enough to get a single police officer indicted so long as the they are black. Nevertheless, this question has very little to do with faith, because faith (אמונה) isn’t about belief, it’s about commitment to the truth we’ve witnessed with our own eyes.

Faith isn’t what happens when someone tells you something and you accept it as true without checking first. It’s what happens when you have an experience – a big, important experience – and the value of that experience is so high that you can’t simply let it go, even when you’re told to do just that. Instead you take it and hold on to it, enshrine it in your heart so it will be there with you throughout your life, a little flame of truth to be cherished and nourished with all your being despite the best efforts of the world to blow it out.

To have faith is to remain true – to your convictions, but also, to the authenticity of your own experience. It is no coincidence that in Jewish tradition Satan (or more accurately, the satan) is represented as a prosecuting attourney. For the role of the satan is precisely to challenge that fundamental faith in the importance and validity of our most important experiences. In the bible, as well as numerous Jewish texts, the satan is depicted sometimes as challenging the faith of humans in the goodness and power of G-d, but more often as challenging the faith of G-d in the goodness and worth of humanity, asking both us and G-d the pointed questions that, in our most vulnerable moments, may tempt us to go back on our word and deny the evidence of our own senses. It’s not a term of moral censure, it’s a job description. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t our job to do our best not to listen to what he says.

This is why faith demands the deepest and fullest commitment to our own perceptions, feelings and intuition. The position of faith is to reject the overwhelming flow of received narratives broadcast by the powerful and repeated by the morally lazy, to stand firm in the midst of the flood and say – that’s not how I see it. And that’s why I’m praying on this Thanksgiving day for you who are going out into the streets to defend yourselves and your communities from the authorities who seem determined to dehumanize you, that you be blessed with the faith you need to continue speaking your truth louder than the voices of the people whose job it is to shut you up. And for the rest of us, citizens of a nation that has so often broken faith with its communities of color, may we be willing to listen, and listen hard, to what they are saying.