The mother died four days after her daughter became Bat Mitzvah. And then I had it out with God.
Lessons learned while taking their last breaths. Reflections on bikkur cholim (visiting the sick) with David and Jerry. A Yom Kippur sermon.
Ever have one of those moments when your child reaches out to you and all you really want to do is collapse from exhaustion? It happens at home and it happens at camp. So what do you do?
I am up here at URJ Camp Newman, the Reform movement camp in Santa Rosa, CA, leading our delegation of 42 people from Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) for Jewish summer fun. After a full fantastic day of spiritual hikes, meditation teaching, service planning and camper counseling, I was hot, tired and worn out.
Rabbi, Want to Talk about God?
Yet, no sooner did I sit down for a little quiet time when I heard someone call out, “We’re having a conversation here about God. Rabbi, do you want to join us?”
Looking up, I saw three of our young people from Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA) sitting at a picnic table smiling at me.
I had just finished an intense conversation with a staff member about the slow death of her grandmother as she described being there as the last breath left her body, followed by a phone call with a dear friend who is now facing a similar situation with her mother. I was looking forward to putting my feet up. But I responded from my heart and not from my weary bones, saying “How can I turn down such a wonderful invitation like that!?”
So three of us – my wife Michelle, a faculty artist and I – joined Lisa, Matthew and Ethan for the best experience of my day.
Pelting Us with Questions
They asked so many questions, which I answered initially with “Well, what do you all think?” Only after they answered would I share my thoughts.
How many of the teens at temple do you think are really atheists? (Most, I suggested were agnostics, unsure about God, but you can be a great Jew even if you don’t believe in God.)
How do we pray if all the prayers seem to offer only one view of what God is? (Read the prayers as poetry and then mine them as metaphors. Or supplement the traditional prayers with kavannot (spiritual interpretations) of your own. Or let’s write some prayers which speak to a spectrum of beliefs. The rabbis of old did it; you can too!)
Do you believe in God with the white beard and the throne on high? (Once I imagined God that way, until I learned that there are so many different Jewish God ideas – I blogged about 18 Jewish God concepts – which are more in keeping with what I feel is closer to my truth. Let’s find some time later and I’ll teach you about them.)
What’s your favorite God concept? (The internet as a metaphor for God. Not a being, but an existence, a presence. The One without end is here, there and everywhere, accessible if only you open a browser – your heart or soul – and allow yourself to connect in.).
Time Flies When You’re Talking God
We lost track of time as the campers asked questions, offered answers to each other, and thought deeply about the reality of The Holy One. When their counselors came around to collect these campers, we all expressed sadness that this moment had to end. And yet, we smiled at each other, knowing that we had taken our relationships and our spiritual journeying to the next level.
“Let’s do this again!” suggested one of the campers. “Wouldn’t miss it for anything,” I responded.
Why do I Come to Camp Newman each Summer?
Because in the midst of the long days, chance encounters quickly become deep conversations, allowing this rabbi the opportunity to elevate and nurture meaningful Jewish spirituality. I cannot wait for the next conversation.
I am getting tired of this conversation:
Jewish Person: But rabbi, I don’t believe in God.
Rabbi: That’s okay, but what kind of God don’t you believe in?
So many God conversations seem to include this refrain.
It’s time to change the conversation. I yearn to hear this conversation:
Rabbi: So what do you believe about God?
Jew: While I don’t believe in the God of “reward and punishment,” I am drawn to the God-concepts of Martin Buber’s I-Thou and Milton Steinberg’s Limited Theism.
Setting aside the Pew Research study’s conclusions about the religiosity and spirituality of American Jews (my take here), there is no doubt that we Jewish leaders can and should spend more time talking about God. Only when our congregants hear about the wide variety of perspectives, theologies and experiences of God will they open themselves up to more Jewish conversations about God. At Congregation Or Ami (Calabasas, CA), we are facing the challenge head on. This year, God-talk purposely permeates all aspects of congregational life. We hope to change the conversation by reframing the issue.
Talking Frankly about God, our Beliefs and Our Doubts at the High Holy Days
During the High Holy Days, our clergy spoke personally and passionately about their beliefs and struggles regarding God. On Rosh Hashana, I preached on 18 Different Ways to Believe in God (a.k.a. 18 Different Jewish God-Concepts). On Kol Nidre all three clergy shared their understanding of B’tzelem Elohim: Cantor Doug Colter preached a home-made multimedia sermon, new mother Rabbi Julia Weisz spoke about how while everyone talks about which parent her newborn son resembles while no one talks about how he is in God’s image, and I addressed the very essence of tzelem – that God is unseen yet ever present within us.
God-Talk Theme Permeates Our Learning Programs
Our Educational team selected B’tzelem Elohim (Creation in God’s Image) as the thread that binds together our tapestry of learning programs. In Kesher, our camp-like drop-off learning program, our teachers regularly lead students to explore how they are created in God’s image. Rap with the Rabbis time allows open discussions about different ways to think about and believe in the Holy One. In Mishpacha, our family alternative learning program, we focus this year on God, Belief and Disbelief, which has been so successful that we have adults without children in the program who are studying with us. Finally, our Adult Learning programs include multiple options for engaging God-talk.
Board Meetings Transformed into Spiritual Journeys
Our president Hedi Gross identified a return to the Jewish spiritual search as the central focus of the first term of her presidency. During her Rosh Hashana presidential message, she shared her own Jewish spiritual path and her belief in God. She then transformed our Board meetings so that almost half of our meeting time is now God-focused. The meeting opens as one board member shares and explains a short quote that inspires her, after which another recounts his Jewish spiritual journey in a 5-10 minutes prepared talk. Next, one of our rabbis leads the board in analyzing then praying a prayer, and following a discussion of congregants and family members who are in need of healing, the cantor leads a spiritual singing of the Mi Shebeirach healing prayer.
|Board Member Gary Kaplan
Shares his Jewish Journey
We balance the time devoted to Jewish spirituality and God-talk with fiscal responsibility by instituting new procedures for the board meetings: all presentations must be written out beforehand and must be limited in time and scope. Those items that can instead be shared by email are shared that way. Board members no longer leave the temple frustrated by arguments and divisiveness. They leave inspired, and often tears now flow as heartache and hope are shared in equal measures. They then can guide their families and other congregants toward these same central values of God-talk and spirituality.
Ever Wonder What Your Mom and Dad Believe about God?
During their B’nai Mitzvah speeches, our students discuss what they believe and do not believe about God. After capturing those ideas, often with the rabbi’s help, the students return home to record three statements from each parents (or one or three or four parents, as the case may be) about what the parent(s) believe about God. A most amazing thing happens: mom, dad and B’nai Mitzvah student (or mom and mom, or just dad or…) share a discussion about who and what God is. Some students incorporate the statements with which they agree into their own D’var Torah God statement, writing “Like my mother, I believe…”. This process allows the rabbi with a chance to share his or her own thoughts about and relationship with God, thus providing additional in depth adult modeling of God talk.
God Shopping: Choosing from 18 Jewish God Ideas Dramatically Changes the Conversation
Most exciting are the sessions of the Mishpacha Family Alternative learning program. Revising a curriculum written originally by then HUC-JIR interns, now Rabbis Sara Mason-Barkin and Dan Medwin, current Mishpacha Coordinator rabbinic/education student Dusty Klass leads the families to pray, play, engage in age specific learning, and spend time doing family-focused God-talk.
Recently, we used Rabbis Medwin and Mason-Barkin’s God Shopping lesson plan, an adaption of a NFTY program, which in our version introduces participants to the plethora of Jewish God-concepts and modern Jewish theologies. Each participant – young and not so young – received a blank “God Shopping Grid.” As families, they traveled through the “God Shopping Mall,” visiting six different “God Stores.” Each God Store presented one category for understanding God: What is God like?; God and the world; What does God want?; How do I get to “know” God?; God and me; and Big questions I have about God. Each God Store offered up to 18 different responses, based on the ideas of twelve different Jewish theologians.
Participants read the responses, chose as many responses as they agreed with or connected to, and pasted the chosen responses into the corresponding square in their God Shopping Grid. Those who could not find a response that reflected their ideas could write in their own statements.
Reassembling in the sanctuary, family members compared their God Shopping Grids. Since same color responses represented the thinking of one specific Jewish theologian, a quick look at the colors of the God Shopping Grids showed how parents and children shared similar or different God-concepts.
|Faculty Hikers Prepare to Ascend
their own Paths to Finding God
During same age-learning, small groups of students continued to explore the God-concepts, utilizing the metaphor of different paths up the mountain to God. Older students met the theologians themselves through their writings and biographies. In each group, participants created/decorated/illustrated their own individual “path” up the mountain to God. Adults, meeting with a rabbi, discussed a color-coded “God Concept Grid” which delineated the thinking of each theologian across the six categories for understanding God. Adults were encouraged to identify intriguing God-concepts and to continue learning about them at home by first googling the theologian, and then exploring other secondary and primary sources.
Wow, I Might Actually Believe In God…
Toward the end of the God Shopping session, we asked the adults to raise their hands if they arrived thinking that they did not, or were not sure whether they, believed in God. The same group was asked if this activity enticed them with new God-concepts so that they might actually be able to believe in God. Almost half of the people kept their hands raised. Over the next weeks, adult participants, and their children, remarked at how they found the session to be both eye-opening and belief altering.
|Danielle, her husband David
and one son Aidan
As participant-parent Danielle Waldsmith reported:
A few weeks ago when we began our Mishpacha study of “God: Belief and Disbelief,” I was definitely one of the participants who was unsure that I believed in God. But while shopping for God last Sunday, it became very clear to me that I do in fact believe in God – it’s just that I haven’t been sure what that means to me. As we visited the stores around the God Shopping Mall, a picture of MY God – my own belief in God – began to emerge.
I am inspired that I now know that I am on my path to realizing what God means to me. And it is a wonderful experience for our family to be able to find our paths together. Certainly God means something different to each of us, but exploring it together is strengthening our ties to each other. We are looking forward to learning more about the ideas of Isaac Luria and Martin Buber, and to discovering more about God through nature, our connections and Tikkun Olam (social justice).
6 Lessons Learned about God-Talk
We have so much more to accomplish if we want to fully alter the God-conversations. Yet through these immediate steps we learned a number of lessons:
- Adults, teens and children do want to talk about God, especially when a variety of Jewish options are presented.
- Vast numbers of Jews do not believe in the “God rewards the good and punishes the bad” Torah-literal theology.
- So many Jews, even those very involved in synagogues and Jewish life, do not realize that there are a plethora of alternative modern Jewish theologies.
- When introduced creatively to multiple God-concepts, Jews of all ages are intrigued by the possibilities for belief.
- More work needs to be done to publicize newer God theologies, including those of female Jewish thinkers.
- Jews of every age can and should engage in God talk, especially in the synagogue.
Have you ever been to the Grand Tetons, our National Park in Wyoming? I did a few years back on a family road trip. It was magnificent. The jagged peaks of the Grand Tetons mountain range, rise up more than 7,000 feet above the valley floor, in a way that is just stunning. The lush green fields are beautiful, as are the rainbows of wildflowers that paint the meadows in vivid colors. Noisy streams cascade down the rocky canyons to fill larger lakes at the foot of the range. After driving around in the Park for a few days, I became so overwhelmed by the beauty that I had to pull off the road.
Overwhelmed by the Beauty of Nature
Grabbing my camera, I jumped out of the van and ran down to the winding Snake River. I was overcome with emotion. My heart beat rapidly, my breathing quickened, and, standing there, I began to shed tears of joy. The words of the Biblical Psalmist rang out in my head – (I’m a rabbi, what did you expect) – M’lo chol ha’aretz k’vodo – the whole earth is filled with God’s majestic grandeur. I was in awe. To paraphrase the 20th century Jewish thinker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, I was in awe of creation; I was filled with radical wonder at its magnificence. At that moment, I had no doubt that this world had a Creator, for I saw the Creator’s illustrious splendor before my very eyes. Mah nora hamaqom hazeh – how awesome was this place!
Have you ever been moved by the radiance of nature, a mountain, an ocean, or a beautiful sunset with a loved one by your side? Did you feel a sense of radical wonder? Did you feel “spiritual”?
I think spirituality is the “sense that we are all part of something greater.” Many of us feel astounding spirituality within nature. Which leads to the question: Is that God?
Personal Spiritual Connections among a Bunch of Addicts
Another story. Years ago I led retreats for Jews recovering from alcoholism and addictions. Participants learned and prayed together, confessed weaknesses to one another, and cried the reaffirming tears of recovery. Strangers at the start of the weekend, they grew close as they shared stories of pain and failure, of shattered dreams and broken lives.
At the end of each retreat, we gathered for a friendship circle. Interspersed between songs of hope, participants reflected on their experience on the retreat. A few described their interactions with others as being “holy.” In fact, a 20th century German-Jewish philosopher named Martin Buber taught that when two people place themselves so completely into a relationship, to truly understand and “be there” with each other, without masks and without pretenses, then God is in the moment. That Jewish recovery retreat became one, united by concern for each other. For them, God wasn’t some guy with a white beard sitting on a throne in high. God was a nearby Presence, felt in each encounter.
Have you ever had a feeling of spirituality borne within the intimacy of an encounter with another person? It might have been an interaction over a cup of coffee, sharing life’s stories, or the connection that happened while taking a walk with an old friend. Or with someone you deeply care for, truly making love.
So many of us have felt spirituality in those kind of human encounters. But one might ask: is that God?
Time to Talk about God
It is time we be upfront with each other. And speak about the three-letter word, which keeps coming up but that we continuously stop short of discussing: G-O-D! It is time to talk about God.
Let’s start with short poll. I’ll give you three options; you each may vote once: I believe in God. I don’t believe in God. I’m not sure about God. Everyone please vote, but only once: Raise your hand if you believe in God. (Please lower your hand.) Now raise your hand if you don’t believe in God. And raise your hand now if you are not sure.
[At that service, 60% raised their hands professing a belief in God, 30% not believing in God, and 10% not sure. These results are an anomaly from my experiences with other groups. It has been suggested that few would want to declare a lack of belief in God before their Rabbi, with their neighbors surrounding them, at synagogue, on Rosh Hashana. Usually about 2/3 of the group are unsure or non-believers.]
That’s a pretty interesting response on a day ostensibly devoted to thanking God for our blessings, and for asking God to write us into the metaphoric Book of Life. You would think it would be a given that people who will spend so much time in worship services would be God-believers. Yet as our poll evidenced, so many of us are not, or at least we are not sure.
I spend so much of my time as a rabbi speaking with people about their relationships with God (or lack thereof). The topic arises in the planning of a wedding when a bride or groom will ask, “How many times during the ceremony do you mention God?” It arises in difficult times when people ask why God “took” the 19 year old boy, or what was God’s plan in “giving cancer” to a kind, loving 48 year old husband and father of two?
What God Don’t You Believe In?
I often ask people who don’t believe in God, which God don’t they believe in. One congregant recently responded, “You know, God in the Torah who rewards the good people and punishes the bad. All knowing. All powerful. All Good. I just can’t believe in God because too many bad things happen to good people and too many bad people get away with murder.”
I get it. In fact I too don’t believe in God as literally depicted in the Torah: A God who punishes people with illness, who always rewards the righteous in ways we can see. My observations do not support this idea. That God-concept is like a youngster’s understanding of his parent. Like back when my kids were young and thought that I, Daddy, was the smartest man in the world, that everything I did was planned and perfect. (Oh, how I sometimes miss those days.) As my kids have grown they have developed a more nuanced view of me, which I’m glad has allowed us to develop a richer, more realistic, closer relationship.
Similarly, our Jewish people has grown up from the early days of the Torah, and our relationship with God similarly has evolved to become more mature.
New Jewish understandings have emerged that are at once more sophisticated while still embedded in Jewish tradition. This host of Jewish God concepts just might entice you to rethink your beliefs or lack thereof.
18 Different Jewish Views of God
Why rethink your belief in God? Because a relationship with God can give us strength, courage, perspective, patience, and an appreciation for something beyond ourselves. Because the very act of wrestling again and again with our beliefs can empower us. And because over the last 50 years, Jewish thinkers have articulated more than 18 different Jewish views of God, which are radically dissimilar from each other, and from the “reward and punishment” view of God.
We have talked about Abraham Joshua Heschel’s radical sense of wonder as one way to realizing God’s presence, and we touched on Martin Buber’s “personal relationships” theology.
Now, have you ever considered the “God is an idea” theology, that God is a well-constructed ideal against which we can measure our actions? That’s from Jewish thinker Eric Fromm.
Have you heard about the feminist theology, challenging the notion that God was not present during the Holocaust? Scholar Melissa Raphael teaches that the attempts by women to take care of others and to cover the bodies of the suffering restored God’s presence to Auschwitz.
Often I connect with a concept of God as the totality of all the forces in life – gravity, centrifugal force, of the forces that keep us breathing and moving forward. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan’s God is not supernatural, yet is still very real.
Rabbi/author Marcia Prager and others have developed a God-concept from the name of God – Yud Hey Vav Hey. We usually pronounce this name “Adonai” but that is just a euphemism since we do not know how to actually say God’s four-letter name. God’s name – Yud Hey Vav Hey – is actually a collection of three verbs – haya – was, hoveh – is, and y’hiyeh – will be. So to those God-thinkers, God is that which was, is and will be forevermore. God is Existence. Which turns on its head the question of whether one has to believe. Existence just is and so are we.
Then there’s Limited God theology, which explains that while God created the universe, God limited Godself to make room for humanity, and thus cannot act in the world to change it. If you like that, check out Milton Steinberg.
And then there is Kipnes “Internet-analogy” theology, in which God is liken to the Internet, an endless source of wisdom, strength and connectivity. (That one hasn’t made it into the Top 10 theologies list… but it is still young.)
This smorgasbord of Jewish spiritual beliefs points us back to why we are here today. Is it tradition? Or because today is a holy day?, Are we here to count blessings or to ask forgiveness? Or for for introspection, for the kids, or because the music is inspiring and the rabbi’s sermons are thought-provoking… Or as just an excuse to buy a new outfit?
No matter how we interpret our time together we cannot escape the prevalent presence of God in our services. God’s name is written in our machzor (prayerbook). Does that mean God is among us?
God Lessons from a Funeral
Last week, sadly, I officiated at the funeral of a 19 year old. A wonderful, loving, caring boy, Josh Isaac’s recent heroin drug addiction sabotaged his blessed, beautiful life. His parents begged the assembled to remember his essential goodness, yet simultaneously to wipe out the scourge of addiction. Said his mom Joyce, “There is no such thing as recreational use of heroin.” One moment you are enjoying yourself. The next you are hooked.
At the funeral, I asked the 450+ mourners to hold hands. (Let’s do that now. Take the hands of those to your left and right.) Why? For the same reason I had them do it. Because Martin Buber said we could sense God’s presence through personal relationships. Because Mordecai Kaplan believed that we nurture a God-like compassion through our own hands. Our physical connection created a holy place for the community of mourners, just like now. At that moment, even those who were sure they did not believe in God, hoped and prayed nonetheless.
These many ways to think about and experience God are all Jewish, and are available for you to explore and incorporate into your spiritual life. In fact, Rabbi Julia Weisz and I are teaching a twice monthly, Sunday morning course called “God, Belief, and Disbelief.” Learn more about it in the Adult Learning postcards outside.
What’s the Difference Between Being Spiritual and Being Religious?
Let’s do another poll. This time may vote as many times as you want. Raise your hand if you consider yourself spiritual. Raise your hand if you consider yourself religious. Raise your hand if you think you can be spiritual and yet not believe in God.
Remember, I think spirituality is the sense that we are all part of something greater. Spirituality can lead to behaviors and thought-processes, which connect us with a larger reality. Spirituality can but does not necessarily include a connection to a higher power or divine.
Now religion is a collection of beliefs, rituals, and prayers intended to help people retain a feeling of connection to an intensive spiritual encounter. Religion aims to connect us with our spirituality. For Jews, our Torah teaches that generations ago, our people – the children of Israel, the Jewish people – had a spiritual encounter with the Holy One that embedded within us a clear sense of who we were and how we should live forevermore. Jewish rituals are intended to lead us back to the central experience of the Exodus from Egypt and our later spiritual encounter at Mt. Sinai. Jewish religious prayers return us to these spiritual events, as well as our arrival into the Promised Land, and our covenant with God.
How Religion Sometimes Ruins One’s Spirituality
So why do so many people say they are spiritual but not religious? Religion can be its own worst enemy. Sometimes religion just gets in the way of the spiritual quest. When the religious rituals become overly dry and ritualistic, they tend to suck life out of a potentially spiritual moment. When religious leaders become overly concerned about saying just the right prayer or about standing in exactly the right position when they pray, our traditions can strangle the spirituality right out of us.
I don’t believe that God cares how big our sukkah is or how long we sound the tekiah gedolah on the shofar. Nor does God does ask us – as some literalists believe God asked Abraham – to sacrifice our children, either on a mountaintop or by strapping a suit of dynamite around their waists.
I do believe that God cares that we use our minds and our hearts to nurture compassion, pursue justice and make peace. I am drawn toward those ritual actions and prayerful words that deepen our connection with Yud Hey Vav Hey, the totality of existence.
And I believe passionately in the ability of people to gain purpose, strength, and consolation from their relationship with God. Why?
When I Talked to God and God Answered
Because it has happened to me.
One final story. Many years ago something occurred in my family, which required prompt, critical decision-making, but the crucial response was beyond my capability. Anxious to guide and protect my family, I heeded the counsel of Nachman of Bratslav, a 18th century rebbe. Rebbe Nachman advocated for hitbodedut, for speaking to God – crying out to God if necessary – in a normal way “as you would with a best friend.” So I opened my heart and began talking to God in the same way that I am talking to you now. I discovered through my conversation with God a new voice and unparalleled strength, just what I needed to help my family. I felt as if God had heard my plea for guidance.
Have you ever called out in a time of need and felt like something, someone, was listening?
Was that really God? For me it was. And perhaps for many of you.
Yes, the idea and reality of God are complex but they are worth it. The investment of your time and attention might introduce or reintroduce you to another or even a more sophisticated God concept.
Perhaps like I did at the Grand Tetons and in my time of personal need, and like the recovering addicts did on the retreat, you too will break through to a new spirituality or religiosity. Of course, Cantor Doug, Rabbi Julia and I, and all our interns, are always here to listen to you, to help you with your God questions, issues, or disillusionment. Together, let’s explore the human desire for connection with God.
This New Year, let’s each get in touch with our spiritual side. Now that would truly make it a Shana Tova uMetuka – a sweet and good new year. The invitation is on the table. Let’s walk that road together. L’Shana Tova.
Words of Thanks
My Rosh Hashana Morning Sermon in 5774/2013.
Sermons are always result from the collaboration with a group of people. I thank my wife, Michelle November, for her brilliant editing skills and unfailingly on target suggestions. I thank my practice partner Rabbi Julia Weisz (also of Or Ami), whose insightful comments helped bring the written text to vocal expression. I am indebted to (and slightly irritated by) my friend Rabbi Ronald Stern (of Stephen S. Wise Temple) for honestly telling me that my intended sermon needed a lot of work; that constructive criticism led me to shelve that one in favor of this sermon, a message I really wanted to share. (I only wish I had sent it to him much earlier so that I would have had more time to write a new sermon.)
So many people introduced me to the thinking of the theologians reviewed here, including my teachers – Drs. Eugene Borowitz, David Ellenson, Larry Hoffman and Leonard Kravitz of HUC-JIR; author Rabbis Rifat Soncino and Daniel Syme; my Facebook friends – Rabbis Jordie Gerson, Heather Miller, and Kari Hofmaister Tuling who helped crowdsource this sermon; and my Institute for Jewish Spirituality teachers – Rachel Cowen, Nancy Flam, Myriam Klotz, Marc Margolius, Jonathan Slater, and Sheila Weinberg, who collectively led me into deeper connection with the Holy One and helped me understand how to live Reb Nachman’s hitbodedut.
How do we talk about God when so many of us have such conflicted, confused and challenging concepts or relationships of/with God?
As a community about to jump into major community-wide conversations about God, Congregation Or Ami necessarily will face this conundrum.
When at Yom Kippur Kol Nidre services Rabbi Julia Weisz, Cantor Doug Cotler and I deliver a collaborative, multimedia sermon about God, we will strive to speak openly about what we know and what we do not know, what we believe and what we do not believe.
Similarly, every parent, teacher, adult, child, Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, believer and non-believer will be invited to struggle with their beliefs about God. Openly. Honestly. Aloud.
In Dr. Sherry Blumberg’s Teaching about God and Spirituality, we face the challenge head on. As you read on, try to read yourself into the role of the “teacher.” How does this text speak to you?
What if the teacher is unsure of his or her own conception or feelings about God? Can an atheist or agnostic Jew teach about God? A person who is going to teach about God needs to have examined his or her own belief, and tested it in the light of Jewish criteria, namely, metaphors, concepts, and views of God found in texts or expressed by Jews throughout the ages. For example, a person questioning why bad things happen to good people could examine, among other things, views on the concept of free will, the Book of Job (the biblical classic text on theodicy), or the responses of Holocaust survivors to that horrifying experience.
Perhaps thinking about the agnostic or the atheist teacher raises the deeper question of whether or not a doubter or a non-believer can or should teach about God. The best teacher to teach about God is one who has a deep religious faith, and yet doubts, questions, and struggles with his/her understanding of God. This person exemplifies the Jewish seeker, one who is actively engaged in a relationship with God. Therefore, I would rather choose the agnostic teacher who can honestly search with the students, than the confirmed atheist, or even a person with a conception of God that doesn’t allow for any disagreement or flexibility.
Jewish seekers seek understanding, meaning and connection. Jewish belief may be religious, spiritual or even intellectual. The best part is the conversation.
An Invitation to Talk God
Are you intrigued by discussions about God? Are you interesting in exploring different Jewish concepts of God and of Jewish spirituality?
- Join our Jewish Spiritual Seeker Facebook group to participate in our discussions about God, Spirituality and Holiness.
- Learn with Rabbis Paul Kipnes and Julia Weisz in an adult study on “God, Belief and Disbelief” which will explore up to 18 different Jewish conceptions of God. This adult portion of our Mishpacha Family Learning program welcomes all adult (families with children can enroll in the full program, instead of our Kesher Learning program). Sundays, twice monthly, beginning at 9:00 am. For more information, contact Nancy Acord at Congregation Or Ami (firstname.lastname@example.org or 818-880-4880).
- Read my musings about God.
|Bryce Canyon National Park|
One summer, we drove over 6,000 miles, visiting 20 States in 31 days in our own Odyssey minivan.
Most memorable of all were the 14 amazing National Parks. There, we were overwhelmed by America’s natural beauty. Its spacious skies and amber waves of grain. Its purple mountains, majestic; those low-lying, fruited plains. Wherever we drove, from the mountains (in Colorado) to the prairies (in South Dakota) to Oregon’s oceans white with foam, I kept encountering… HaMakom.
Of the 70 names for God referred to in Torah, HaMakom, meaning “The Place”, stayed with me during the sabbatical. Why do we call God THE Place, HaMakom? It’s a metaphor. As physical beings, we sometimes best understand difficult concepts from a physical frame of reference. If you think about the meaning of a “place”, you may agree that it is more than just a geographical location. A place is a space which is capable of containing something else. When we call God HaMakom, we mean that everything is contained within God, while God is not contained in anything. As our Sages say: “God does not have a place, rather God is The Place … of the Universe” (Genesis Rabba 68:9).
My heart first opened to HaMakom, “God as Everywhere”, as Michelle and I meandered for two days up the gorgeous Oregon Coast. Each scenic overlook brought us to a view more breath-taking than the last. Have you ever been so overwhelmed by the beauty of nature surrounding you that you lost track of time, of priorities, of yourself? Every inch of the Oregon coast was so darned beautiful. It was God’s country. It is God. HaMakom.
I felt a little like Adam in that first week following his creation. After the work of naming the animals, and the fun of dallying with Eve, what did Adam do? Midrash Tanhuma, a fifth century collection of rabbinic stories, tells us that Adam spent his free time admiring the glory of creation. Overwhelmed to his very core, Adam stood silent on the shores of the sea, contemplating the majesty around him. Then he lifted up his voice to extol God, saying: “Mah rabu ma’asecha Adonai – How great are your works, O Eternal Creator!” (Midrash Tanhuma Pekudei 3, end, on Ps. 104:24).
Imagine that! The first human being, Adam, the first to behold God’s creation, was so inspired that he became Creation’s first poet. Adam responded with astonishment, and with deep appreciation. Then he became philosophical. In both the simple beauty of the ocean and in the world’s complexity, Adam saw evidence of the Holy One.
Philosophers call this panentheism, with the world being in God and God being in the world.
The kabbalists, Jewish mystics, call this Ein Sof, that there is no end to the Holy One. God is everywhere. I just call it HaMakom.
Like Adam did, so often this summer I perceived signs of HaMakom, God’s Presence: in the ocean, in the mountains and the sky. My ears began to hear the praise-songs of nature. My heart, inspired beyond its usual capacity, began to burst.
Often we, who live closed off in cities, drive around in climate-controlled cars, work in climate-controlled offices, forget to take notice of the glorious splendor which surrounds us: California mountains and Pacific seashores, desert palm trees and picturesque sunsets. We make ourselves too busy, too stressed, too worried about money, or time, or our jobs, to see the wonder. We use every excuse to remain in our homes, walled off in our cars.
So this Shabbat – and tomorrow, and next week – EVERY DAY… be like Adam, the first human being, and open your eyes to the wonder around us.
Are you intrigued by this conception of God? Is it different from the vision of God that you no longer believe in? This year, Rabbis Paul Kipnes and Julia Weisz will be co-teaching an adult study on “God, Belief and Disbelief” which will explore up to 18 different JEWISH conceptions of God.
This adult portion of our Mishpacha Family Learning program welcomes all adult (families with children can enroll in the full program, instead of our Kesher Learning program). Sundays, twice monthly, beginning at 9:00 am. For more information, contact Susie Stark at Congregation Or Ami (email@example.com or 818-880-4880).
My teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Slater of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality illuminates this week’s parasha by comparing Loving God to Loving a Dog. His first sentence grabbed me so (I’m not a pet person either), and it just got better and better.
I reprint Rabbi Slater’s wisdom here for pet lovers who might find meaningful this metaphor of God’s love. [Reprinted from Selections from Birkat Avraham: Ongoing Text Study Program, The Institute for Jewish Spirituality, on Parashat Bo (15)]
Rabbi Slater Writes:
I am not a dog person, but I’m watching family and friends who are and trying to understand the phenomenon. I’ve come to feel that part of it is that dogs allow us to express love and attention and never be rejected (and forgive me my mistakes – but the argument is for the sake of our lesson). As opposed to cats, dogs do not turn away impassively, ignoring offers of attention, blasé to expressions of care and concern. They pant, roll over, fall into paroxysms of ecstasy when rubbed just right. Dogs rarely reject the invitation to play, to go for a walk, or be hugged. They are always there for us, and receive our notice with joy.
Loving Like a Dog
From what I’ve observed, dogs don’t make us feel guilty. Sure, they may whine when we leave them. But, they don’t sulk (for long) when we come home – they lavish attention on us, welcoming us back. There is never a “what have you done for me lately”; whatever we are doing for or with them now is received with immense gratitude. And, while dogs do seem to have their own personalities, they mold themselves to their families with great sensitivity and insight. They know what we want from them, and they figure out how to give it unconditionally.
That is hardly the case with our human family and friends. There are always conditions, and the love we may wish to offer is not always accepted. We have decided that it is important to tell others how our needs should be met, and that they are not doing so. We are the ones who fall into and out of love. We are the ones who figure we can fix up our partners, while resenting every suggestion they might make for us to shape up. We allow our egos to get in the way, making our needs and desires, our fears and grudges, more important than the people who love us, more important than loving the people around us.
So, people turn to their dogs for solace, and for affirmation. In offering love to their dogs, and receiving love in return, their hearts find ease. Resentment thins, anger abates, confusion settles down. Dogs, responding with love, meet our love, inviting its growth. Received without judgment or challenge, we can once again allow our love to flow. Their unconditional love allows us to practice unconditional love.
God Loves Like a Dog
God, too, wants to be able to express unconditional love. But, God does not have a dog, only we humans. And we’re just not as good as dogs in receiving God’s freely given love. We think that if God loves us it must be like the human love we know: and so we feel we can tell God how we want to be loved, how our needs should be met, how God is not doing it right.
And we imagine that God, like we, will turn away from us to take care of other business, to watch TV, or play with the family. So, we are resentful, thinking that God wants us just to wait around until God gets back to us. R. Avraham is always inviting us to turn to that unconditional love without conditions, and to trust that it is always there. But, it is hard. We cannot be dogs. We are not programmed like them. We have to choose to give up our agendas, and actually learn to notice what is there. We have to turn to that love and receive it however it comes, whenever it comes.
Waking Up in the Moment to What is True Right Now
We have to let go of what we learned before, what we thought yesterday or last year; we have to recognize what is happening now, the conditions of this moment. Over and over we have to choose to let go of habits of mind and heart and be present to what is happening now, without prejudice or preference. This is what it takes to live our lives fully. That is, this is what it takes to be able to welcome whatever comes, knowing that this is the only life we have, and this is the only moment we have to live it.
We have a Choice: We can be a Cat or a Dog
We can turn away from our lives, looking only for the sunny patches in which to snooze and offer gratitude only when our bellies are full. Or we can be present to each instant, grateful for this moment of attention, delighted in receiving love.
We humans are imprisoned by our confusion, our fear, our pain, our needs; God … cannot force us to receive love. We can be liberated when we learn to connect to each moment, to receive the love offered in this breath, this instant of aliveness. And God will be redeemed when God’s love is accepted by our open, willing hearts.
What is God’s Name?
According to Torah, God is a four-letter word. These four Hebrew letters – Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey – represent, according to Jewish tradition, the proper name of God. Just as my father is an accountant whose name is Ken, so too God is a God, whose name is … Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey or in Hebrew, יהוה .
We have lost the correction pronunciation of this name. Originally, because our ancestors worried about taking God’s name in vain, they decreed that this name would be recited only on Yom Kippur, when the Kohen Gadol, or High Priest, entered the inner sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem. Passed down from Kohen Gadol to Kohen Gadol, generation after generation, the correct pronunciation was lost when the priesthood collapsed with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.
Adonai is a Euphemism
Today we pronounce Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey – יהוה – as “Adonai,” but this is a euphemism. “Adonai” means “Lord,” and to the ancient Israelites, God was the regal being who benevolently lorded over us, as the landed Lords of the British Empire lorded over their subjects. One religious group combined the vowels of Adonai with the letters YHVH to invent Yehovah or Jehovah; while scholars and other groups merely sounded out the letters, creating Yahweh. Each of these miss the essence.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, the Reform movement’s scholar-mystic, writes, “…in truth [these four letters] are unutterable. Not because of the holiness they evoke, but because they are all vowels and you cannot pronounce all the vowels at once without risking respiratory injury. The word is the sound of breathing. The holiness name in the world, the Name of the Creator, is the sound of your own breathing.”
Rabbi Kushner continues, “that these letters are unpronounceable is no accident.”
Is – Was – Will Be
Think about the letters. The last three – Hey-Vav-Hey – הוה – combine to form the word “hoveh,” which means present tense. Hebrew as a language lacks the word “is.” Whereas in English we say “He is wise,” in Hebrew, we say “Hu chacham,” two words without a third, because Hebrew as a language lacks the word “is.” So part of these four letters refers to “is” or the present.
Now in Hebrew the vowel “Vav” can be interchangeable with the vowel “yud.” Thus Hey-Vav-Hey may be read Hey-Yud-Hey – היה – to form the word “haya.” “Haya” is the past tense, meaning “was.”
You know where this is going. In Hebrew, when you place the letter “yud” before a verb, the tense changes from past to future. “Haya” becomes “yihiye” – יהיה, “was” becomes “will be.”
So Who or What is God?
From an unutterable four-letter word – יהוה – comes a multilayered understanding of God. God is that which simultaneously IS, WAS and WILL BE.
“God’s Name,” to quote Kushner, “is the Name of Existence itself.” Or more clearly, God is Existence.
Do you believe in God? Does it matter? We are all part of the river of life that was, is, and will be forever more.
Perhaps the more appropriate question is:
Are you living life consciously, mindfully and in connection with everyone and everything else in existence?
Did you know that when you breathe you are connecting to God? Or you could be if you were aware of what you were doing. Really.
As part of our experimental Jewish Spiritual Journey Facebook Group, one participant asked me, “Does the word SHEMA have something to do with our breath?” I love the question. Here’s how I answered him:
Shema absolutely has to do with the breathe because it twice invokes the name we call God, the four letter name Yud Hey Vav Hey which we often pronounce as Adonai. Adonai is just a euphemism for Yud Hey Vav Hey, meaning “my Lord”. My Lord was once considered a very high honorific in human society, thus that’s what we used to call God (today we would choose something like “Celestial CEO”).
But this four letter name of God Yud Hey Vav Hey is really unpronounceable, as it consists of four expulsions of breath from the mouth or throat. Yud occurs back where the hanging thing in the back of your throat is. There is no sound unless combined with a vowel. Try making a “y” sound without a vowel attached. Hey, twice appearing is just the expulsion of breath through the open throat. Unless accompanied by a vowel, it just is the unsounding sound of breath release. Finally, Vav stands for the “O” or “OO”, neither of which really make a sound beyond the stop and start of the breath in the mouth.
So when we twice say Yud Hey Vav Hey during the Shema, we are saying that the Breathe that makes no sound IS God, or at least where God resides. God resides in the breathe. God is the breath.
That breath is echad, one, the oneness or unity that unites all life and all creation.
So I ask all of you: Do you connect spirituality and/or breathing with Shema? Do you find yourself more spiritual when you are connected to your breath or breathing?
BTW: Our Jewish Spirituality Journey Facebook group is a closed group (meaning the answers do not appear in the Facebook pages of non-participants). Anyone can join the discussion. Just email Rabbi Paul Kipnes and ask for me to add you to the group. Of course, you have to Facebook Friend me first. Join in. We have already had some great discussions.
A few years back, we started a Jewish Spiritual Seeker website. About a dozen of us participated regularly, posting and commenting on each other’s posts. Once a month I would post a question about spirituality and invite congregant-volunteer-bloggers to respond. Each blogger was also asked to comment on 2-3 posts by others. We had a great conversation about spirituality. The blog won an inaugural North American Union for Reform Judaism Techie award since it engaged congregation members in Jewish conversation using a blog as the medium. (I would share the URL but the site has recently been hacked and until we figure out the fix, I don’t want to give the “medical pills” website any more business.)
Since Facebook is the medium of preference for so many, we thought, why not experiment to see if people would participate in serious spiritual conversations in this online community. Thus the Jewish Spiritual Seeker Facebook community was born.
An Idea: What kind of conversation could we create if we brought together a dozen adults to explore, over the course of a year, their thoughts and experiences on the Jewish spiritual journey?
The Technology: What if we could harness technology – a Facebook Community – to provide the opportunity for these adults to reflect upon their Jewish spiritual journey? (Meaning: no meetings, just think your thoughts and go online.)
Monthly Questions: What if every month a question was posed – about spirituality or holiness, about how you pray, about questions you have about God, about when you feel most spiritual – which you could consider and then reflect upon by writing on the Facebook community page?
We are preparing to kick off the discussion within two weeks. We have already a dozen who are interested.
Do you think of yourself as a spiritual person? Are you willing to engage others in conversation about what that means to you and them? Then check out the Jewish Spiritual Seeker Facebook community page, and if you are willing to take a chance, LIKE the page.
Questions? Contact me through the Jewish Spiritual Seeker Facebook page.
And may the conversations to come be inspiring and uplifting.
Sometimes wisdom is right before us. Sometimes God’s presence is nearby, if only we open our eyes to it.
On a plane ride back from installing our former intern, now rabbi, Brett Krichiver as Senior Rabbi of Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, I was thinking about an issue that was troubling me. Instead of wasting the time playing games on my iPhone, I took out my iPad to read. Instead of reading the delicious novel, I picked up the book our other Rabbi Julia Weisz and I assigned to ourselves. Next thing I knew, there before my eyes was a response to the troubling issue.
God’s presence, nearby, directed me to find my own answer. At least that’s how I see it.
Similarly, the Velveteen Rabbi (a poet, a fellow blogger) explores the desire to find God – and find wisdom – in the most painful of places. I thank her again for her piercing wisdom.
SHVITI – a poem about finding God, even when it hurts
by the Velveteen Rabbi
I keep God before me always. — Psalm 16:8
Always before me:
in the checkout line
at the pharmacy
where I’m reading mail
on my phone, in the pixels
of my computer screen
in the locked ward
where I never know
who will want
to talk about God
and who will shuffle past
without meeting my eyes
in the stranger
whose barbed words
leave me sick and sad
and in the tallit
I wrap around my shoulders
to hold me together
in my toddler’s cries
at four in the morning
in the painful conversation
I don’t want to begin
in every ache
help me to find You
The Velveteen Rabbi continues:
The title of this poem is the Hebrew word “Shviti,” which means “I have set” (or, more colloquially, “I keep.”) It is the first word of the line from psalms which serves as this poem’s epigraph. Artistically, a shviti is an image (usually of God’s name) designed as a focus for meditation on the presence of the divine. (Here are images of a whole bunch of them.)
The Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, teaches that this word is related to the Hebrew word hishtavut, which means “equanimity.” When I keep God always before me, then I have equanimity; nothing can shake me. (I posted about this teaching back in 2007.) This is not an easy teaching to embody.
It’s easy (for me) to find holiness, and to find God’s presence, in the world’s beauty: the pink smear of sunrise across the horizon, a child’s laughter, the embrace of a friend. It’s a lot harder (for me) to recognize the presence of God in suffering and in discord. But even in what hurts, there is opportunity to open the heart to God.
Wishing all of y’all a Shabbat of wholeness and peace.
We gathered together, a dozen Jewish tenth graders and me, their camp rabbi, for discussions about God. I sat them down and, figuring we were about to share some deep thoughts, I invited them to introduce themselves by explaining why they chose this group. Some didn’t believe but wanted to find a way to believe. Others wanted to know why bad things happen. One teen was just looking for a place to talk about the really important issues of religion.
I looked around the circle, smiled at them, and said (in my best “Valley Grrl” impression), “OMG WTF!”
To those well versed in the shorthand of texting, OMG WTF usally means “Oh My God, What the &@#%!” Few expected such language from the mouth of their rabbi.
Of course, I explained that I meant, “Oh My God, Where’s The Faith?”
We all live in a gorgeous world of wonder and possibility, but so few of us talk about holiness, or spirituality or God. So I asked, “Where’s the Faith”?
It is right here at the URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, where a dozen teens are sitting together sharing their deeply held ideas and questions about faith, belief, disbelief and about God. Here at Camp Newman we take on the most challenging topics, which for teens seems to include intense questions about God’s existence.
So I invited them to pick one of four ideas, which most closely resembled their ideas:
- I believe in God OR I know God exists
- I’m not sure I believe in God but I lean toward probably.
- I’m not sure I believe in God and I lean toward not
- I don’t believe in God or I know God doesn’t exist.
Then we challenged each other to collectively determine the top three reasons they picked this idea.
Then we talked. Choosing among these four arbitrary choices forced participants to examine their beliefs and articulate to others their reasons why. With ground rules that honored the multitude of opinions about God, we engaged in an energetic exchange. My role was merely to ask questions, to help them clarify their ideas, and to identify where their opinions paralleled significant Jewish philosophers. Thus we found teens speaking the thoughts of Martin Buber, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Baal Shem Tov, Spinoza, and the theologies of monism, panentheism, and Kabbalah to name a few.
Informed by the faith development work of Professor James Fowler, I patiently allowed for the agnostic and sometimes atheistic thoughts of the campers. While hewing very closely to the Principles of Reform Judaism which presuppose One God yet allow for a multiplicity of ways of describing and connecting to that One God, we invited challenge and response.
I must say that these discussions are amongst the most enjoyable that I have had up here at camp this summer. Serious kids talking about serious topics. Deeply personal one minute; hysterically laughing at a joke the next. Although God is a topic like sex, drugs and death which make many parents feel squeamish, here at Camp Newman it is just one of the topics that permeate this sacred space we call Camp Newman.
In fact, one colleague reported that immediately after she finished plunging a toilet in one of the camper cabins, the staff members said “thank you” and then peppered her with questions about God.
OMG WTF. It seems like God is part of the conversation at so many different times: when things are good, when we are worried, and when the #$@& begins to flow.
The Zeroah or Shank Bone on the seder plate reminds us of the pascal sacrifice, the sacrifice of a lamb on the eve of the Exodus from Egypt. It served many purposes, including as a thanksgiving offering to God for (soon) bringing us out of Egypt. It also recalls the lamb’s blood that our Israelites ancestors put on their doorposts, just before the 10th plague, so that the Angel of Death would pass over their houses.
Think about the far-reaching power of that simple act. In Egypt, many things and many animals were considered to be gods. Pharaoh was a god; the sun and the Nile were gods. Lambs were also considered gods. So, as one of their final acts before they left Egypt, the Israelites were instructed to sacrifice a lamb and place its blood on their doorposts. In doing so, they passed an important test of faith. By sacrificing the lamb, they were admitting – as much to themselves as to others or to God – that the lamb was not a god, but merely an animal. With this simple, uncommon act, our ancestors evidenced their willingness to reject all the (false) gods of the Egyptians.
Tonight, as we raise this shankbone, let us follow the lead of our Israelite ancestors. We can declare our willingness to reject the false gods of our world: We can dismiss the gods we make of celebrity and sports figure, just because they were born with talent, yet irrespective of the morality of their actions. We can pledge to move beyond our worship of the false gods of money or power. What else – what other kinds of false gods – do we worship?
(Invite others to list those things that our world worships mistakenly…)
May we have the strength, as did our Israelites ancestors, to reject these false gods. May we worship only the One that leads us to justice and compassion, to truth and peace.
And then there are moments like this: when the heart opens to the Holy and fills with awe, wonder and love. Like now.
I sit here in the most mundane of places, at a table outside of the local sandwich shop Jersey Mike’s, having just consumed a Caesar Wrap (damn you, slightly rising cholesterol) and a caffeinated diet coke. Yet my heart has opened to the Holy One.
First came awe. I noticed that above the constant stream of highway traffic, there arose a range of hills, greened by the record-breaking rains that assaulted our environs. Patches of yellow wildflowers peaked out among the smattering of trees and outcroppings of rock. Where did this come from, this oasis of serenity amidst the cacophony of cars? A light blue sky rests overhead, enjoying the softest of cloud cover like confectionary sugar sprinkled on French Toast.
Is this a new sign from the One without End, saying that awe-inspiring creations surround us always? Or were the wonder-filled creations just hidden away until my heart opened up, ready to see that which was revealed?
It feels it is love. I text my wife, “Sitting at Jersey Mike’s, eating a wrap, reading and looking at the green hills. Was filled with awe of life and overflowing love for you. Thought I would tell you.” She texts back, “Wow. Thank u. Love u 2. Very much. Anything “new”? I do not respond because my love for her and my love for life so overwhelm that nothing can distract.
I notice the inspiring journal I was reading, a CCAR Journal symposium on finding our path after ordination. Had the words of Dr. Carol Ochs, on Fostering a Relationship between Rabbi and God, moved me so? Or was it just a key, turning the locket that had enclosed my heart? And does it really matter?
Time clicks away; cars rush by. But appointments beckon. I begin to rise.
Off in the distance those hills – so lush, colorful, peaceful – wink at me as if to say, “This is our place. An oasis of holiness. It’s always here. Just outside, beyond the freeway, as seen from a table, at Jersey Mike’s.”