Originally posted at Real Live Preacher on September 4th, 2003. Requested by Paige Baker.
I recently watched “The Believer,” a movie based on the true story of Daniel Burros, a Jewish man who was a member of the American Nazi party in the 1960s. I had such mixed emotions while watching it. I was horrified by such an intimate glimpse into the mind of an anti-Semite, but I was also deeply moved, even to tears.
“The Believer” gave voice to my own conflicted and troubled feelings about religion and the practice of faith in God.
Danny desecrates a synagogue with his Neo-Nazi friends. He seems to be enjoying himself until one of the thugs cracks open the sacred Ark of the Law and casts the Torah scroll down onto the floor. It unrolls obscenely, its rich, white paper revealing the precious hand-lettering inside.
This scene is so much like a rape that I sat forward in my chair and whispered, “No!”
When one of them tramples on the Torah with his dirty shoe, tearing the paper, Danny can no longer hide his grief. He rushes over and rescues the scroll, to the great confusion of his Nazi friends. He takes the Torah home, repairs it, and hides it in his closet. This is the point in the movie when my feelings turned from horror to understanding. I am conflicted and ashamed, much like Danny. I understand his deep-seated conflict. I understand what it means to be stretched by forces pulling from opposite directions.
A woman in the movie told a classic Jewish joke. It seems a Jewish man was stranded on an island for many years. His rescuers found that he had built two synagogues on the island. They asked him why he had two, and he said, “One to pray in and the other not to step foot in for the rest of my life, so help me GOD.”
I absolutely understand that joke.
I am an unbeliever at heart, you see. I can’t help myself. Perhaps I’m not wired for belief, or maybe my wires are crossed. I just cannot bring myself to believe what I cannot see. This is who I am. There is something wonderfully attractive about empiricism, something clean and crisp. God, to have such a clear boundary. Lord, to have an epistemology I could write on my thumbnail.
The universe seems wondrous to me, with our without God. It has powerful lines and uncompromising ways. Patience and time sit like sages on the planets, strong and impersonal. There is a stark beauty to all of this. The coldness of empty space and the finality of death do not frighten me. Truth is the siren song that tugs at my weak heart. I bind myself to the mast with a phylactery.
I am so close to unbelief. So close that my faith has always been raw, like a wound that never heals. This flesh is ever red and tender, and I am drawn to lick it with my sandpaper cat tongue.
Just a duck and a sidestep, and I would be lost in the crowd, moving in a different lane and away to a new destination.
Just a duck and a sidestep.
And yet my hands long to run themselves over that very Torah. I want to touch the paper and see if I can feel the energy of the calligrapher. Behold, the Tetragrammaton, the four letters, the name of God. How my heart beats faster at the very thought of THEE.
My mind works from left to right, but the name of God fights against the flow of my thought, pushing rudely from right to left, elbowing its way into my heart.
There are no vowels in this word because this word IS vowel and needs no pointing. It is four hard consonant sounds, each followed by a burst of spirit wind, whatever you can summon. No living human knows for sure how this word was pronounced because the Jewish people stopped saying it, out of reverence, roughly 1700 years ago.
Hard sounds and the rush of your spirit. That’s all we know.
I wonder. If I managed to speak this name properly, would there be anything left in me?
When I see the name of God, my eyes close and I groan in protest. It’s like being seduced. My head says no, but my heart says, “Oh God, yes.” My hands must touch the letters. I must smell the rich paper of the scroll. I must breathe and I must pray.
I give in. Again.
And so faith is closing your eyes and following the breath of your soul down to the bottom of life, where existence and nonexistence have merged into irrelevance. All that matters is the little part you play in the vast drama. All that counts is the obedience that marks the life you have been given.