On Divine Exile and the Sacred Act of Welcoming (Part I)

This is the first part of a two-part post.

In “Man’s Quest for God”, a series of essays on prayer, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “The Shechinah [Divine Presence] is in exile, the world is corrupt, and the universe itself is not at home. To pray, then, means to bring God back into the world, to establish His kingship, to let His glory prevail.” (p. 61). What are we to make of the notion that to pray is to bring God and Godliness back into the world? Isn’t it often said of Judaism that ours is a religion of deed, not creed, that how one acts is more important than how one thinks or what one believes? There is an oft-repeated assertion in much of Hassidic thought that our job is to make the physical world a dwelling place for the Shechinah. Rather than retreating to focus on our religious lives and our own spiritual maturation at the expense of the real-life concerns of the mundane world, we are to work tirelessly to create a world in which the Shechinah would wish to dwell amongst us. Indeed, this notion that the outgrowth of spiritual concerns ought to be the transformation of the physical world is something that I found and still find to be deeply attractive about Judaism. Tikkun Olam—repairing of the world— now a catchphrase which, I fear, has been devoid of much of its meaning and resonance, is a term that I find still hold great power, if we but take it, and Heschel’s assertion, seriously.

On its face, the notion that the Shechinah is in exile and that prayer will bring the Shechinah back into the world seems too far removed from lived experience. How does my praying daily succeed in bringing the Shechinah back into the world? Isn’t that incredibly self-centered? If I but work on my spiritual practice, study Torah and do deeds of loving-kindness, my observance of the mitzvot (commandments) will have a cosmic impact. Does this require more of me? Need I extricate myself from my comfort zone, or does my observance of mitzvot in a vacuum result in the societal and cosmic changes I dearly wish for? Without discounting the tremendous power and resonance that this notion holds for many of our coreligionists today, I believe that this notion can be approached much more broadly to encompass individual and collective action.

The Shechinah is in exile. We have done a fairly decent job of creating a world in which the Shechinah would not wish to dwell. But just as we have created such a world, so, too, can we tirelessly work towards the redemption and transformation of our world. By so doing, the Shechinah will be brought back from exile and will dwell among us again. When we tell a fellow human being on account of who they are, “you’re not welcome here,” the Shechinah goes into exile. When we create barriers to community and dignity for all, the Shechinah is exiled. When we prioritize the needs of the privileged and sit in our ivory towers, deconstructing oppression, privilege and marginalization, completely ignoring the inherent inaccessibility and the blatantly contradictory nature of our language, the Shechinah is in exile. When we employ religious language and rhetoric as a means of bolstering our personal prejudice or as a means of removing kavod habriot (human dignity) from our discourse, rather than working alongside our fellow human beings who yearn for a sense of the sacred in their lives, the Shechinah is in exile. When we place a premium on respectability and aesthetics at the expense of kavod habriot, the Shechinah is in exile. When we throw up our hands in defeat without trying to open our doors and expand our sacred tables so that all Torah can be heard and learned, the Shechinah is in exile. When we spend precious time squabbling over petty inter-communal politics while so many of our fellow Jews don’t have a foot in the door of our communities, the Shechinah is in exile. When we employ our sacred texts as weapons against the marginal amongst us, the Shechinah is in exile. When we ally ourselves with the marginal but then speak over them and don’t allow their voices to be centered, the Shechinah is in exile. When we perhaps instinctively dismiss the challenging reality that so many of our fellow Jews have experienced communal ostracization and insist that as a community and as a larger society, we would never do such a thing, thus making it even harder than it was before for someone to share their experiences of pain and alienation, the Shechinah is in exile. When we look to earn ‘mitzvah points’ by doing acts of loving-kindness, ignoring the feelings of the recipients, the Shechinah is in exile. When we determine that we know what is best for the marginal amongst us despite never having interacted with them, the Shechinah is in exile. When we sit down at our committee meetings and talk about how to make our sacred communities welcoming to the strangers amongst us, referring to fellow Jews who are marginal as strangers and not as fellow Jews, as hosts in our tradition who have every right to be amongst us, the Shechinah is in exile. When we look at human beings as commodities, the Shechinah remains exiled. When we wonder whether or not we should provide a needed resource to someone because “we just don’t have people like that here”, the Shechinah is in exile. When we champion the causes of the widows and orphans in our global village but fail to champion the needs of the widows and orphans amongst us, when we work tirelessly to serve those outside of our communities and ignore the suffering at home, the Shechinah is in exile.

Part II explores the many ways in which, as members of communities and as individuals concerned with the well-being of others and the world, we can transform the physical, mundane world into a sanctuary for the Divine Presence.

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