Monday, November 2, 2009

More on Gemara's First Lesson, G-d's Plane, and The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

More on Gemara’s First Lesson, G-d’s Plane, and The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

So, how do we speak about G-d’s plane/ realm and G-d’s reality and that of the humanity of which we are part? How do we step outside of chronology when we are trying ever so hard to discern what G-d is, how G-d decides, and the impact of G-d’s actions on us, as part of humanity? This is the impossible stuff of which my Tenth Grade Jewish Studies course at a local Jewish day school is composed. This entry is actually dedicated to all of my wonderful students from this course and others with whom I have journeyed and vexed regarding these issues through the years.

My latest venture into wonderful fictional releases from everyday life and reality has been the reading of The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I note this fascination with how we speak of reality and experience it if the chronology of time as we know it and depend upon as much as we do on gravity to keep us in this time and space is not a given. That is to say, it is the age old problem of “proving” that such and such happened at a given moment given the records of time we hold. In this book, one of the main characters, a man by the name of Henry DeTamble, is an involuntary time traveler, who pops into places and spaces both in his past and in his future, disappearing and reappearing in his present. Of course, everyone with whom he has contact and thinks of him in real time (that is the given date and numbers on a clock as we collectively experience them) do not understand this aberrant behavior in which he is here one moment, gone the next and then reappears. Further, he has the ability to be in separate places simultaneously as he lives both in real time and time travels.

As I read about his adventures, the frustration of his wife Clare and the few people that were “in the loop” regarding his time travel problems, I could not help traveling a bit myself back to the many classes I have shared with my wonderful tenth graders, trying to figure out the intersection and interfacing of G-d-Time and our Real Time. What if we were to think about our time as within the human plane and of G-d’s time as wholly different? This would definitely remove the need we seem to have to account for every second of G-d’s time, which seems rather presumptuous to me at any rate.

During much of the story, other characters try to reconceptualize their own role and define their part in relationships with Henry and to better understand his reality. In so doing, individuals are forced to reconsider their own understanding of time and choices that they make. That is to say, Henry as an adult pops back to his earlier years and then when he reaches certain stages in real time; he already knows what has happened. For example he appears as an adult to his future wife when she is just a child and then she grows up, has these memories of the man who will be her husband, but he has not experienced them yet. This does not make what has happened any less real to her. People who find themselves in his orbit are constantly wondering if they and their experiences are real and if they are making choices in their lives if Henry, who has popped back from their future, already knows what those choices are.

So, as I read this and better understand the rhythm of what is happening I return to my own musings about how we relate to G-d and how G-d is very real in our lives, even if not physically present. How can this be? Of course, this challenge is far more formidable when speaking about G-d and us, given that it is not the stuff of a fictional tale, but explanations and components of our thinking that we are dedicated to understanding and upon which so much depends. When Moshe Rabbeinu asks how he should explain G-d to others, G-d responds to him “Tell them I was, I am and I will be.” That is to say, G-d is not trapped in chronological time. We use the words omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent when we speak of G-d. What we need to remember is that these words as descriptors function outside of the chronology that speaks of such things as last year, tomorrow or yesterday. While we need these time frames as parameters in which we act, G-d ACTS AND FUNCTIONS outside of them, yet we have ongoing relationships with G-d.

In the beginning of Parshat Lech Lecha, G-d speaks to Avram and tells him to leave all that he knows and understands, in time and space. G-d speaks in the future, explaining to Avram that G-d will show him the land, will make of Avram a great and numerous nation, and so forth. G-d speaks of a future that G-d knows and Avram needs to accept all of this on faith – a much easier concept in a good book of fiction than in a reality that is so fundamental to our faith and belief in G-d and understanding of history. This future-speak is continued through this Parsha and those to come. G-d knows and sees the future and reports it; the person in question must base their faith on its happening upon their relationship to G-d. In Pirke Avot, we read as follows:

הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה
“All is revealed and known to G-d AND permission is given to man to choose”

We are being given the formula for how this works in this short text, and yes, the explanation includes components not in the actual text per se, but is intended to be contextually helpful. So, back to those planes…. G-d functions on a plane in which there is not human linked chronology and not limited by physicality. Humanity on the other hand cannot function without these elements. So, G-d knows within G-d’s context and we decide within ours. We are constantly taking huge leaps of faith as did Avram/Avraham in his life and it is the taking of these leaps that we show and live our faith in G-d. While it is so difficult to imagine a time traveling human being, we also have difficulty thinking of G-d outside of these constraints. Yet, this is exactly what we must do in better understanding our relationship to G-d and G-d’s relationship to us.

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