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Religious Imagination

05/18/2020 09:10:24 AM


Rabbi George Gittleman

Being hopeful is perhaps our greatest spiritual challenge. That is why I love Norman Fischer’s latest book, The World Could Be Otherwise.


“The imagination is powerful…(and) essential for our humanness.” He writes.  “The Bible and other religious texts, folktales, myths, … poems, plays, novels, …music, ritual, dreams – all imaginative productions rise up from the unconscious to expand the soul, to help us feel who we really are and what the world really is…Imagination is not an escape from reality. Imagination deepens and enriches reality…To go beyond the possible to the impossible, we need to imagine it.”


He argues that one of the main purposes of religion is to imagine a world that does not exist. Values, norms, ideals, actions that seem impossible, idealistic, out of reach. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. use to say, “find a way where there is no way.”


“What is imagination?” He asks. “How can human beings conceive of the impossible (absolute goodness, perfect beauty, truth) and yearn for it? How can we have passionate feelings about imaginary intangibles such as freedom and justice? … Imagination expands our hearts and minds. It brings forth all forms of innovation… All idealism and moral vision depends on imagination.” 


In short, he argues that in this time of environmental crisis, deep political polarization and upheaval, we need to resist the doomsday rabbit whole and imagine a world that could be otherwise. Almost everywhere you look in the history of the Jewish people one sees the crucial role imagination played in our survival and our ability to thrive and contribute at the highest level, where ever we lived.


Unable to own land, to settle in ways that other people could, we imagined a world where we were sovereign, built palaces in time, wrote a sea of literature, pioneered in almost every intellectual endeavor known to human kind. Persecuted and expelled from almost everywhere we lived, we imagined a new reality, new lives in new places, and recreated ourselves over and over again.


For almost 2,000 years we imagined we would somehow return to our ancestral land. Who would have thought it could happen? A language resurrected, a people reconstituted, a nation reborn. Flawed as it is, the modern state of Israel is an unprecedented feat of imagination; “finding a way where there was no way.” 


Hertzel was right when he said, im tirzu lo agadah: “If you imagine it, it is not a fairytale”. The grand sweep of Jewish history shows the power of religious imagination. The ability to imagine a reality that does not exist and seems out of reach is equally powerful on a smaller scale.

So often for example, our lack of imagination keeps us stuck in a narrow, constricted place with other people; we’re upset, hurt, angry and we simply can’t imagine another way out of the conflict we are in. We can’t imagine their position, feelings or perspective. We also can’t imagine shifting our own perspective. We are sure we are right and they are wrong. Our heart hardens, frozen in a conflict void of imagination.

Yet our tradition calls us to v’ahavta le’arekha kamokha: “to love our neighbor, the other, the stranger as ourselves”. That is a great feat of moral or religious imagination! It’s a lot to ask, but that is precisely the role of religion; to imagine a reality, a way of being; a world that, to date does not exist. Hope is imagination’s “kissing cousin”.  Together they shine a bright light on the road ahead… “Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope”— writes the poet, Victoria Safford –

  Not the prudent gates of Optimism,

Which are somewhat narrower.

Not the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense;

Nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness,

Which creak on shrill and angry hinges

(People cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through)

Nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of

“Everything is gonna’ be all right.”

But a different, sometimes lonely place,

The place of truth-telling,

About your own soul first of all and its condition.

The place of resistance and defiance,

The piece of ground from which you see the world

Both as it is and as it could be

As it will be;

The place from which you glimpse not only struggle,

But the joy of the struggle.

And we stand there, beckoning and calling,

Telling people what we are seeing

Asking people what they see.

- Victoria Safford

Wed, August 4 2021 26 Av 5781