Home » Blog » Changing the Conversation about God: A How To

Changing the Conversation about God: A How To

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:

  1. Adults, teens and children do want to talk about God, especially when a variety of Jewish options are presented.
  2. Vast numbers of Jews do not believe in the “God rewards the good and punishes the bad” Torah-literal theology.
  3. 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.
  4. When introduced creatively to multiple God-concepts, Jews of all ages are intrigued by the possibilities for belief.
  5. More work needs to be done to publicize newer God theologies, including those of female Jewish thinkers.
  6. Jews of every age can and should engage in God talk, especially in the synagogue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *