"INTELLIGENT DESIGN," NATURAL DESIGN, AND THE PROBLEM OF MEANING IN THE NATURAL WORLD
by Robert Pollack
Without free will we cannot repent. Yet repentance in one’s own mind— that is, the admission of a secret that one has kept from everyone else— is of course central to our actions. For Jews, it is the cornerstone of the observance of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.
This is a very clever and subtle obligation: on reflection, it is saying that concealed acts also require us to apply the provisions of “this Teaching/Torah,” but for concealed acts, the provision is precisely that we are to admit them before the Lord so that they are no longer concealed. Full repentance requires the full surrendering of secrets.
* * *
Now, in order to make this notion clear by example, I wish to share with you all a story of a decision to let go of a secret, and of its unexpected consequences. The story begins with an excerpt from a talk I gave on winning an award from a synagogue about six years ago:
All this was true, but it was not the whole truth. I had kept the missing part secret for half a century. I was able to state it in public only a few years ago, when I was asked to present a question to Rabbi Steinsaltz, before an audience of hundreds of observant Jews who had gathered together to honor him.
As part of such evenings’ festivities, the Rabbi intends to teach, and toward that end I was given the honor to sit on the stage with him and pose a question. I took it as the chance at last to repent from my secret, by telling this story, in the form of a question to the Rabbi:
The Rabbi’s answer was clear. He referred to the commandment which can be read as saying, “Honor your parents; I am your God.” He said that according to Jewish law and tradition, to honor one’s parents need not be to obey them; rather, one honors them by following the Laws given by God to Moses at Sinai, regardless of whether or not one’s parents approve.
His answer was of course not so schematic; rather, it was a set of stories in turn. In one I remember, from Talmud, he said that when a judge receives testimony concerning his father’s role in a criminal act, the son may pass any judgment on the father short of the death penalty, which he may not exact; in another, Talmud says that a father may not escape punishment from the court for abusing his child on grounds that a child is his property; he is to be punished as if he had abused a total stranger.
The rest of the evening went on as if I were in a dream. I had lived for four decades in silence, certain until then that the secret of my father’s requests could not be spoken without the direst consequences to me and everyone around me. But the Soviet Union had fallen, I was a Zakayn, an Elder myself, and people were crying with me, not yelling at me.
As the evening wound down an old—really old - man came up to me to tell me the following story in turn: almost sixty years earlier he and his father had been taken by the Gestapo to a death camp. His father had told him to stand by him on line; until then this man was, as a boy, absolutely enthralled by his father, and he had never disobeyed him. At that moment though, he did disobey, and went to another line, with younger men and boys. Of course his father was on the line that led directly to death by suffocation, and his corpse was burnt to ashes while the boy was left to live.
Only that night after I spoke, he told me, was he able at last to tell anyone this story; he too had kept it a secret for even longer, afraid that if he told it, he would be severely punished for having disobeyed, and thereby having lived while his father died. Like me, he said, he had kept alive a fear for decades past the time when anyone could, or would, punish him for any reason attached to his own behavior at an impossible moment. We embraced, he left, and I went to tell the Rabbi what had happened. The Rabbi’s response was immediate:
Copyright of CrossCurrents
is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and
its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express
written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the
retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for
the use of the individual user.