Leaving room for silence

Of all the apparent opposites which Judaism wrestles to reconcile — free will v. predestination, universalism v. particularism, applesauce v. sour cream — one of the most paradoxically fertile is words v. the Wordless.

Maimonides, the great 12th century rabbi and commentator, wisely stayed out of this fray — he was more comfortable describing God in terms of what God wasn’t than in telling people what God was. Maimonides wasn’t the only one who felt this way; in fact, much of our liturgy describes the indescribability of God at great and poetic length.

Take, for example, the following words of the Chatzi Kaddish, which our ancestors loved so much they used it to mark the transition between different parts of every prayer service (translation from the new Reform siddur, Mishkan T’filah): “Blessed, praised, honored, exalted, extolled, glorified, adored, and lauded be the name of the Holy Blessed One, beyond all earthly words and songs of blessing, praise and comfort.”

Even more to the point is Nishmat: “Even if our mouths were full of song as the sea, and our tongues full of joy in countless waves, and our lips full of praise as wide as the sky’s expanse, and were our eyes to shine like sun and moon; if our hands were spread out like heaven’s eagles and our feet swift like young deer, we could never thank You adequately, Adonai, our God and God of our ancestors, to bless Your name for a ten-thousandth of the many myriads of times You granted favors to our ancestors and to us.”

If that’s the case, then why bother? If God can’t be talked about, why do we keep talking?

One answer, from Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, is, “A little is also good.” Since nobody can really appreciate God on a Godly scale, that means a level praying field for everybody. But just as each thing helps us understand its apparent opposite, perhaps our seemingly ceaseless God-talk is also one half of a whole picture: and why our most central prayer, repeated twice daily, begins: “Shema … Listen.”

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