A professor of psychiatry and religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, horrific as they were, really challenged
people spiritually. ... The shock comes at the conscious and the unconscious
level. At the conscious level is, "What kind of God is this? Is this the God I
believe in? Can I still believe in this God?" We all know we have pictures of
God, different pictures, and that those pictures aren't God -- that there's a
difference between our pictures of God and whoever God is. ...
Since Sept. 11, the images that are most vulnerable to being smashed, suddenly,
shockingly, are "God is in his heaven and all is right with the world." The
test of any religion is, what do you do with the bad, and how much "otherness"
can you tolerate? Sept. 11 is so horrible -- and horrible for years and years
to come -- that it can just smash any image of God who has a providential plan
for me, those I love, my group, my nation, this world.
The all-good God can be smashed, and yet even the non-God image can be smashed,
because the outpouring of kindness, simple acts of kindness, challenged a lot
of people who thought you can't really believe in anything. They felt caught up
in something that was bigger than just their neighbor or themselves doing an
act of kindness. They really glimpsed something different. So you could have
your image of all-good God smashed or you could have your image of there being
no God smashed. The door is flung open. Then the question is, can one go
through the door?
Anybody who tried to go on with a religious life will sooner or later come to a
point where all their pictures of God are smashed, because they're too tiny.
... This has been written about by St. John of the Cross as "the dark night of
the soul." It's been written about by Terese of Avila as "the period of
aridity." ... It's typical for the religious life, to be plunged into not
One of the hardest things about the Sept. 11 attacks is that people were just
shoved into a place of spiritual crisis. They're suddenly at the head of the
line: Do you believe in anything? Do you care about anything? Where does
meaning come from? Is the abyss of love stronger than the abyss of death? Is
there any resurrection? How can I bear to even imagine being trapped in that
building? I cannot go down. Will I be burned up? Will I be hurled out the
window? Will I jump out the window? How can the person I love -- who was
incinerated, jumped out a window, thrown out a window, crashed in a plane --
how can their last minutes be redeemed? How can I bear what they've suffered?
Was God with them? Was God not with them?
. . . .
An Orthodox rabbi, he is the vice president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York City.
I guess I constantly struggle with [the image of God], because oftentimes the
God that I want is not the God I want to believe in. There's a piece of me that
wants a very personal, very nurturing, very caring, very "make-it-all-OK" God
-- the God to whom I can wake up in the morning when one of my kids is sick,
maybe really sick, and say, "Please, please, make this better."
I know I need that God. I also know it's ridiculous at another level to believe
in that God, because if that God exists, that God was dethroned a long time
ago. Whether that God was dethroned at Ground Zero or in Rwanda or in
Auschwitz, I don't know. But that God was dethroned a long time ago. ...
Since Sept. 11, people keep asking me, "Where was God?" And they think because
I'm a rabbi, I have answers. ... There is a part of me that wants to yell back
at them, "What? You're asking now? Why now? Why didn't you ask about Bosnia or
Rwanda or Hiroshima or gas chambers and concentration camps, or go back through
all of human history? I don't understand. Now you're asking 'Where was God?'
How many people go to bed hungry every night in the richest country in the
world? And now you're asking about 'Where is the God of justice?'"
I don't mean to demean their question, so I always have to kind of check
myself, go back and try and understand. What they are looking for is what all
of us are looking for: some way to let real life, with the pain, not blow us
apart. ... We're all looking for that. I guess the most important part of that
conversation is to begin to identify how all of us are looking for that, rather
than use some notion of God or some doctrine or some religion to provide easy
answers, when we know deep down they don't really exist. So I can make someone
feel good for 10 minutes doing the stuff I don't believe. But I know, and they
know, that 10 minutes later, the same questions come flooding back. ... I actually think that my job as a rabbi is to help them live with those questions. ...
If God's ways are mysterious, then don't tell me about the plan. Live with the
mystery. It's upsetting, it's scary, it's painful, it's deep, it's rich, and
it's interesting; but no plan. That's what mystery is. It's all of those
You want plan? Then tell me about plan. But if you're going to tell me about
how the plan saved you, you'd better also be able to explain how the plan
killed them. And the test of that has nothing to do with saying it in your
synagogue or your church. The test of that has to do with going and saying it
to the person who just buried someone and look in their eyes and tell them,
"God's plan was to blow your loved one apart." Look at them and tell them that
God's plan was that their children should go to bed every night for the rest of
their lives without a parent. If you can say that, well, at least you're
honest. I don't worship the same God. But that at least has integrity. ...
It's just that it's too easy. That's my problem with the answer. Not that I think
they're being inauthentic when people say it, or being dishonest; it's just too
damn easy. It's easy because it gets God off the hook, and it's easy because it
gets their religious beliefs off the hook. And right now everything is on the
It seems to me what we really need is to figure out how these different faiths
we have can help us be on the hook and actually ask better questions about that
God that we want to believe in, or understand how it would be OK to disbelieve
in that God.
. . . .
An Episcopal priest in Manhattan, he volunteered at Ground Zero in the days after Sept. 11.
... And then another rescue worker said to me, "Father, we need you over here."
And the time was flying by. Hours seemed like minutes. And I went over to
where the rescue worker called me, and he said, "We need you to bless the
buckets." I didn't know what he was talking about until the first bucket was
put under my nose.
And as I looked into the bucket I saw the unspeakable. I saw a forearm. And it
was clear to me that the whole of humanity was represented in that one bucket,
because there were parts of various individuals together. And it was much like
a crude burial service. And the only thing I could do was add some semblance
of dignity to a rather undignified situation, so I made the sign of the cross
over the buckets as they came to me, holding my breath, numb, but all the same,
trying to add some sense of dignity to a horrible situation. I asked one
rescue worker, "That was a body part?" And he said, like a robot, "Yes,
Father," and on he went to the next bucket. And I realized then that I was in
the right place. ... I felt nauseated, sad, angry, confused, and completely
lost. And yet I knew I was supposed to be there. ...
As I looked deeper into the bucket I was convinced of a truth that I had always paid lip service to but now knew was undeniable and as real as it gets: that we are all one. It
doesn't matter what our race, creed, gender, or background happens to be, we're
all one. We live together, ultimately we all die together. ...
The struggle for me from Sept. 11, from the very beginning of that disaster,
was the sense of a disconnect between the sanitary and the triumphalistic
nature of worship, and the pristine building as beautiful as that is, and the
horror that was taking place blocks away. And after so many services,
sanitized services, I realized that I couldn't talk about what was going on
unless I was a part of it, unless I had the dirt on me. I believe that we have
to preach the gospel, and if necessary use words. And I didn't want to preach
about something I hadn't experienced firsthand, because I didn't believe I had
any credibility to truly discuss the depth of what had happened unless I
actually saw it. ...
Prior to Sept. 11, the face of God for me was one that was strong, secure,
consistent. A face that, while at times seemed distant, can more or less be
counted on to be there. Who kept things in order; the sun would come up, the
sun would go down. Who would provide, could be counted on. And after Sept.
11, the face of God was a blank slate for me. God couldn't be counted on in
the way that I thought God could be counted on. That's what I felt as I stood
on Ground Zero. God seemed absent. It was frightening, because the attributes
that I had depended upon in the past, when thinking about the face of God, had
all been stripped away, and I was left with nothing but that thing we call
faith. But faith in what? I wasn't so sure.
The face of God after Sept. 11 is much more of a mystery than it ever was, a
mystery that is still unfolding. ... And in some ways, I believe that on Ground
Zero I grew up, and part of that growing up is truly grasping that which can't
be grasped -- the mystery of God. A face that often eludes us, and frustrates
. . . .
A professor of Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis University, he is the author of Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq.
Sept. 11 was harder for an atheist like myself than for a believer because it
shook my belief in the one last remaining vestige of everything, the foundation
of everything -- in the human race, in the human species, and in everything
that I had been about, namely, trying to make some small contribution towards
improving its condition. ... That does leave you very, very isolated.
Not knowing where to turn enormously reduces the scale of expectations. ...
That's a spiritual crisis. But it's not one involving God. I don't begin to
doubt even my own lack of faith because of it. It's a sense of sinking into an
abyss in which you can't hold on to anything in the world. ...
When you see human behavior like this, for me, it just reconfirms my atheism.
It doesn't make me militant about it at all. I'm not proud of it. It's just a
view of the world. It's just the way I am. I can't make meaning of the world
otherwise. But I certainly couldn't make meaning of the world through some
notion of God after a horror like that. ... It just affirms that
. . . .
The author of several novels, most recently Atonement.
My atheism certainly was not easily won. I've dabbled around the edges of all
kinds of belief and wrote a novel called Black Dogs, in which the
narrator -- rather like myself, in a way -- sort of slithered along this axis
of belief and unbelief. But I think my cumulative experience of life suggests
to me that the distribution of misfortune is completely random. Children die of
cancer and bad people live a long time. Good people get crushed by a truck.
In other words, if there is a God, he's a very indifferent God. The idea of
prayer seems to me almost infantile, this appeal to an entity who could
intervene -- who clearly hasn't intervened. Or if he has intervened, he's done
so malignedly. It sort of makes me rather feel sad when I heard priests talking
about Sept. 11 and reminding us that God moves in mysterious ways. Well, spare
me this God, I say. I prefer to regard this in human terms.
When those planes hit those buildings and thousands of innocent
people died and tens, twenties, hundreds of thousands of people started to
grieve, I felt, more than ever, confirmed in my unbelief. What God, what loving
God, could possibly allow this to happen? I find no resource at all in the idea, and it saddened me to see, hear, listen to priests tell us that their "sky god" had some particular purpose in letting this happen, but it was not for us to know it. It just seemed to me sort of irrelevant, at least. And I could probably think of stronger words for it -- an offense to reason really. We have to understand the events of September the 11th in human terms. ... The healing process, too, is one that's in our hands. It's not in the hands of the "sky gods." It's only for us to try and work it out.
Would you read these two paragraphs from your article? ...
"A San Francisco husband slept through his wife's call from the World Trade
Center. The tower was burning around her, and she was speaking on her mobile
phone. She left her last message to him on the answering machine. A TV station
played it to us, while it showed the husband standing there listening. Somehow,
he was able to bear hearing it again. We heard her tell him through her sobbing
that there was no escape for her. The building was on fire and there was no way
down the stairs. She was calling to say goodbye. There was really only one
thing for her to say, those three words that all the terrible art, the worst
pop songs and movies, the most seductive lies, can somehow never cheapen. I
She said it over and again before the line went dead. And that is what they
were all saying down their phones, from the hijacked planes and the burning
towers. There is only love, and then oblivion. Love was all they had to set
against the hatred of their murderers."
. . . .
A Conservative Jewish rabbi, he is president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership in New York City.
Nothing really changed between 9/11 and post-9/11 regarding how I felt about
God. ... Before 9/11, already for many, many years, I did not believe in the
popular voyeuristic God who watches what we do from outside. That died. That
image died for me a long time ago.
What I believed in is the experiences that we name "God." Those experiences
were the experience of love and experience of connection and the experience of
caring and the experience of feeling both small and large. The experiences of
connection, fundamentally. Those experiences, I recognize, are what I call
I've been called an atheist quite a few times in the last 10 weeks. You have to
develop some pat responses to "atheist." What I say to people is, "I have an
atheism, but it beams with holiness."
But atheism is the greatest cleanser. Atheism may be the most religious posture
in a moment in which either most people think they have to believe in something
they don't believe in, or the people that actually believe in that God are
doing so much damage. So maybe atheism is the great corrective right now and
is actually the most religious response.
From my tradition's perspective, God was always invisible. God, you never used
words for. Whatever words you used for God never adequately described that God.
So for me, that's actually, I think, a return to the truest, most genuine
understanding of our tradition. We had a God you couldn't see. We had a God you
couldn't name. We had a God whose name was, "Yahweh," or "Jehovah." That's just "was," "is," "will be." "Was, Is, Will be" is
the name of our God. ...
For me, that there's something "out there," and that I'm here, no longer meant
anything, because every time I thought there was something "out there," it
turns into inevitably something opposed to me. Something I have to define
myself against, whether that's God, or whether that's a Christian, or whether
that's a Muslim, or whether that's a Buddhist. And that's not my experience. My
genuine experience of life is that there is nothing "out there." This is all
there is. And when you see the seamlessness of it all, that's what I mean by
Every tradition has that. Every morning, three times a day since I'm five or
six years old, I've been saying, "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord
is One." Right? It's one of our few creedal statements, the
Shema. Three times a day, since I'm six years old. If you ask
what 9/11 really did, it made me understand the truth of that. The truth of
that, "Everything is one." Not that there's some guy hanging out there who has
it all together, who we call "One," but that it is all one. We all know it deep
down. We've all had those experiences, whether it's looking at our child in a
crib or whether it's looking at our lover or looking at a mountaintop, or
looking at a sunset. Right? We've all had those experiences. And we recognize,
"Whoa. I'm much more connected here." That's what those firemen had. They
recognized -- they didn't have time to think about it, right? Because actually,
if you think about it, you begin to create separations. They didn't think about
it. All they knew is we're absolutely connected. We're absolutely connected to
the 86th floor. Well, that's where God is. That's not "where God is"; God isn't
anywhere. That's what we mean when we say "God." ...
Could you sing that particular Torah of the last words. ...
These are final conversations that were recorded on cell phones, recorded
on voice mail. They seem to me to be incredible texts, because they were at the
moment of confronting life or death. They're so pure about the expression of
love between husband and wife, between mother and child. ... When I read them,
I just felt they were texts as sacred as the text that we end up having
recorded, that we transmit from generation to generation.
I read these every single morning now, or most mornings, because they remind me
that whatever my tradition is about, it's about this. It's about being able to
express love. It's about being able to understand. Taking care of our children.
It's about being in real, genuine friendships.
They just seem so real to me. ... I know all these chants because my father is
a cantor. He transmitted all these ancient Jewish chants to me, so they almost
naturally came out in chant. I realized, "My God, the chant that we use to read
one of the Scriptures that tells the story of the destruction of the temple in
Jerusalem and the burning down of that temple, those chants fit this
perfectly," although that's not how I thought about it. The chant came and then
I said the chant worked, which, of course, is the way a good tradition works.
The chant has made them even more alive to me and then links these new texts to
my traditional text, even though I don't know these people. But the fact is, we
all knew these people in our own way. ...
"Honey. Something terrible is happening. I don't think I'm going to make it. I
love you. Take care of the children."
"Hey, Jules. It's Brian. I'm on the plane and it's hijacked and it doesn't look
good. I just wanted to let you know that I love you, and I hope to see you
again. If I don't, please have fun in life, and live life the best you can.
Know that I love you, and no matter what, I'll see you again."
"Mommy. The building is on fire. There's smoke coming through the walls. I
can't breathe. I love you, Mommy. Good-bye."
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