Getting Serious About the Mystery

At the Center of Our Tradition Is Its Most Profound Gift

The Circle: We dance around and around, but ignore the middle.
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The Circle: We dance around and around, but ignore the middle.

By Jay Michaelson

Published August 13, 2014, issue of August 15, 2014.

Robert Frost once wrote, “We dance round in a ring and suppose. But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.”

I’d like this to be a Jewish credo. We have the first part right anyway: Jews do a lot of dancing round in rings, on holidays, at weddings. We also do a lot of supposing: philosophical, scientific, political speculation.

I wonder, though, how often we are interested in acknowledging the Secret — the Mystery (or mystery, if you suppose) that sits, anthropomorphically or not, at the center of this circle of endless supposition.

Oddly, Jews in particular seem split into two camps, neither of which has much interest in Mystery. On the one side are the fervently religious, who acknowledge the ultimate mysteriousness of a Deity but devote far more mental energy to explication and elaboration of the known. These are the Talmudists, but also the traditionalists of any sort, those who know the answers to the questions of how to be.

On the other side, of course, are the secular. Atheist, agnostic, or apathetic, these are close to a majority of American Jews, if not an outright one already. To them, supposedly, “Mystery” is too mystical a term. Smoke and mirrors. They may speak Yiddish, or wave an Israeli flag, or give money to Jewish causes — but are not motivated by the numinous. Science has resolved the mystery — not completely, but that’s just a matter of time.

This dichotomy is more map than territory. In fact, many among the so-called secular are actually searchers in disguise. Some of them wander away from Judaism to find other answers. But many more, ironically, recognize the Mystery better than the religious do. They recognize that we have no idea what any of this is about.

What do I mean by the “Mystery”? The endless fathoms of space, dotted with stars, billions of years old. The ways in which the human heart can love, and the frailties of the mortal human body. The variegated postulations of meaning and value, no two alike.

It feels good to live in the penumbra of the Mystery. The closer I get to it, the warmer I feel, even though ultimately it is a question without a resolution — it is precisely the question without resolution in which I am interested. The farther I get — the more of my personal energy is spent on politics, money-making, errands, and unwinnable games of social status — the more alienated I become. Even when I win.

In our endlessly chattering affiliated-Jewish worlds, there’s little time to remember that to most Americans, Judaism is a religion, and religions are largely about how to live meaningfully in the shadow of the unknown. How can the non-sense of human existence coexist with the meaning-making obsession of human beings?

When religion addresses these questions, instead of the banalities of observance or lore, it is real.

Yet many of our community’s resources go towards endeavors that are the most antagonistic toward the “spiritual” in any of its forms. Our institutions are fat on tribalism, thin on spirit. Denuded of the wonder which Abraham Joshua Heschel called the source of religious sentiment, they substitute the thrill of the mob for the awe at the unknown.

And it works, for those who care first and foremost about the propagation of the tribe. Which is fewer and fewer of us. Almost perversely, we sit atop a trove of dreams, refusing to dream them.

Ours is a religion uniquely suited to an age devoid of God. Unlike those of the dominant religion, our deity has an unpronounceable name, our most sacred texts say nothing about the supernatural, and our circular dances do not depend on any articulation of the center.

Why allow this dance around the mystery to be relegated to those who profess belief? Can we get serious, please, about the Jewish gifts of unknowing, so that the religion of mystery can be the heritage of those who know they do not know?

Jay Michaelson is a contributing editor at the Forward.

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