I had an amazing conversation yesterday. I was explaining that I just wanted someone else to “understand” what I saw as “right”– not an uncommon situation, I think. We talk to a friend who can’t see that she’s ruining her life with alcohol, we argue with a relative whose political views run absolutely contrary to our own, we advocate for the merits of a film or album all the critics hate…and we fail. “No,” said my companion, “You don’t want him to understand that you’re right. You want him to feel it. And he should, actually. But as little as we can control how other people think, we have almost zero power to decide how they feel their truths.”
“Zero power.” Powerlessness may be the worst feeling in the world. We spend so much of our lives seeking to control our own destinies: we walk, then run away from our parents; we acquire skills and credentials to be able to build our careers; we choose our friends, our partners, our coworkers; we insist on the personal freedom to choose our styles of dress, our diets, our homes. And then…we connect with other people.
Relationships mean the surrender of choice, and not (just) in the “but I want to sleep with anyone I want!” kind of way. In every relationship, whether academic, romantic, familial, or friendly, letting another person into your life means granting him power. You are saying, “I value your presence in my life, so you can have some power over it.” He can choose to act selflessly or be an egoist, he can elect to make your life easier or endlessly more difficult, and, most significantly, he can allow you to depend on him and then decide to be gone from your life. A friend moves away, a teacher leaves her job, a romantic partnership ends, or (God forbid) a death leaves you bereft, and what you are feeling, in addition to the loss and the hurt and the betrayal, is powerlessness. You cannot change this thing.
In moments of powerlessness or helplessness, some people turn to God. “Give it over to God” is something you hear often in a certain kind of evangelical church (and I heard it quite recently in a San Francisco synagogue, but that’s beside the point). Say, “It’s in God’s [metaphorical] hands and I just have to have faith,” and suddenly, your powerlessness isn’t unique. We are all powerless, and the common experience of this is somehow less painful.
Jews, though, don’t usually do that. A woman living with mental health issues came and spoke to a class of mine about how the “voice of God” comforts her, and most of my classmates asked if that “voice” was a symptom rather than a savior. Jews pray, at least in our words, for God to intercede in our lives, but do we really want that kind of power play? Do we want God to take our agency from us? Do we want to say that whatever our designs on earth, God will subvert them?
There’s certainly room for the belief that this is the case, even if it is not our desire. Plenty of philosophers will tell you that God laughs when (wo)men make plans. But “giving it over to God,” or even knowing that “God helps those who help themselves” makes us feel even less in control. Jewish ritual, in some ways, is a way of reclaiming that power. Yes, we are saying, God does have power over our lives, but we determine the nature of our relationship with God. We decide to light Shabbat candles, to pray, to have a chuppah [wedding canopy], to keep kosher.
There are many times I wish to “feel,” rather than to “know” that what I’m doing is the right thing, religiously and otherwise. Nine times out of ten, I am reasoning myself into my belief. I should keep kosher because I see the kind of community it creates, and that’s the community I want. I should pray because I feel better afterward. And sometimes I adopt observances to attain goals: I want to seem “rabbinical,” I want to qualify for this fellowship, I want to fit into this community.
But the ancient Israelites were, perhaps, the same way. In their desire for their relationship with God, they said, “We will do and we will hear.” There are times when only after doing can we hear that this is the right path for us. We don’t need to “know” anymore, because it’s so deeply ingrained that it’s unknowable. Is that power? The power to decide to do in order to understand? Or is it powerlessness to know that you cannot understand without doing what is asked of you?