Jewish, Christian, Chewish, or Eschewish:
Interfaith Marriage Pathways for the New Millennium
by Reeve Robert Brenner

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© 2007 Reeve Robert Brenner All rights reserved

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CHAPTER TEN: THINKING ABOUT THINKING ABOUT GOD

PART ONE: THINKING ABOUT THINKING ABOUT GOD

            I feel compelled to confide in the reader a sincere, forthright and unflinching confidence: I look upon the first four pages of this chapter as a kind of set-up to build on that - the reader’s - confidence – a confidence I feel is necessary to make headway toward the discussion to come about “God” (1).   Begging the reader’s indulgence, I must ask that you not judge the entire chapter by the introductory few paragraphs. And as you proceed further along into this chapter, please be sure to walk the walk slowly and thoughtfully reflecting all the while on your own reaction – why and where skeptical of, and whether and when agreeable to - the approach being taken on the ways we might think about thinking about deity – defined by my dictionary as “the state or attributes of being a god” and “the divine nature.”

My purpose is two-fold. One is to call attention to the existence of such diversity of god-understandings in the God-room that visitors realize that one who is committed to Jewish identity has little justification to seeing himself or herself as somehow less than another Jew or less authentically Jewish for not having a set and fully-worked out view of God’s nature and existence. The other purpose of this chapter is to try to pave the way for the reader to explore the God-room with considerable care, perhaps even to abide there for a brief investigative “virtual” stay. Because some perceive God as personal, others otherwise or as non-existent, the room may take on a rather surrealistic look for many visitors. Still, newcomers and re-visitors to the Mansion needn’t fear being unwillingly locked in – or out - of the God-room. It’s just that Judaism has always kept the door to that room ajar – more so at times, even more so at other times and at other times still, less ajar, less inviting too perhaps. Making the room rather more mysterious and forbidding too perhaps? But no one keeps you from moving about, or from entering or exiting, as you will.

A very interesting room in the Mansion of Jewish Identity! I believe that readers who have made their way this far into the start of this chapter will have various differing notions and thoughts about what they expect to find there in advance of this presentation – which I hope will turn out to be for them a first-class author-conducted tour-guided visit of that room in the edifice. Some readers may be  anticipating the likelihood that their visit will be to a room situated in a remote citadel of an impenetrable fortress deep in the forest; and for some the expectation will be of an enclosed compartment within the interior of a hidden chamber; for others a comfortable, luxurious pavilion with a garden view; for others still, a place they (can) feel most at home.

This having been said, please allow me to go on with this chapter by sounding stuffy and permit me as well, indulgent reader, to “go deep” for a while. With this observation:

 We live in a self-conscious age. No important new insight is being claimed. Acute inner awareness has been going on for some time. Surely at least since the Enlightenment when the autonomous self broke free and took center stage in philosophical theatres of secular as well as religious thought. Increasingly we have learned to see ourselves from a perspective outside ourselves as though we were flies on the wall, watching ourselves live, somehow apart from nature rather than part of nature.

Not merely for a glimpse of our surface likeness, we now hold a myriad of mirrors before our eyes to behold ourselves deeply, inwardly. We step outside ourselves – not with the intention of having transcendent, mystical, out-of-body experiences - but for the purpose of “impartial” self-examination and introspection. We pursue self-knowledge in imaginative and impressive ways, even acquiring creative new specialized skills, techniques, medicines and drugs, the better to do so.

 In this way we are “aware” of ourselves as never before. But we also know that there is a price to pay for this perceptive exercise of post-Freudian enlightenment. Stepping outside our selves to study ourselves risks bringing into being a kind of dual self, at times even a consciousness of multiple selves dwelling in relative contention or in relative harmony within. And a certain amount of brooding inner conflict may be unavoidable!

     Each of us is embedded in a social context and we have no choice about the times and circumstances into which we are born.  So, even as we seek shalom - inner harmony, a unified sense of self - we must make peace with the fact that, unlike other living creatures, we have become self-conscious self-observers who often seem to dwell outside our own skin. 

            Looking at and into ourselves from a perch above ourselves, we realize that we are confronted with more choices, that is, we find ourselves overloaded with more options and alternatives than we can sort out. I heard it said by a very wise rabbi that, “It’s not that there’s too little revelation in the world; there’s too much.  No one person can hope to apprehend or to comprehend it all.” The inspiration/wisdom/knowledge generated by the outpouring of human genius is experienced by many well-educated persons as informational overload. That is, they understand that there are more discoveries to assimilate, more facts and data, than any one person can grasp and appropriate in many lifetimes!

 The future may be even more bewildering as the number of new things, good ideas, dud ideas and innovative cultural artifacts and technologies, such as computer chips, lasers, cat scans, the PDA, cell-phones, lap-taps, surveillance by ubiquitous cameras, digital recorders, 24-hour cable, blogging, and increasingly sophisticated software systems, instant messages and the Internet multiply and the world wide web of cyberspace brings about an entirely new kind of global infrastructure. The teeming plenitude of the world around us can cause us, in the words of Roger Shattuck, “to feel overwhelmed, obliterated, not so much by nothingness and emptiness as by the superfluity of existing things and creatures and events. A flood of sensations and of material reality can destroy our hold on life and self. [Balzac’s famous proclamation] ‘All is true’ can be better interpreted as a cry of desperation than as a purr of serene contemplation. Can we hold our ground in the face of the world’s sheer profusion?”[1]

            We are advised by Shattuck to try self-consciously “not to assent to the undifferentiated existence of everything” but “to recognize the need to simplify, to reduce the world to livable dimensions, to choose out of the plenitude some terrain on which to build our settlement.” This is our “principal means of staying sane, of weathering the typhoon of consciousness.”

“Now,” as the therapist in Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint leans forward to declare at the book’s conclusion, “ve begin.”[2]

A DIFFERENT WAY OF THINKING ABOUT THINKING ABOUT GOD

            The way in which we think about god has also become rather self-conscious. We (can) now say to ourselves, “Very well, how can I think about god?” rather than, “I have faith in god, I believe in god, or I do not believe in god.” That is a totally different way of thinking, an entirely new manner of introspective reasoning. It sets aside certainty for clarity. As a consequence, we find ourselves constantly considering and reconsidering, stating and restating, defining and redefining the meaning of god – how we might conceive/connect to god - and accepting or rejecting each and every contemporary interpretation, every current understanding, every new revelation, as well as their various alternatives. The conclusions derived from the process may at times prove to be permanent and fixed; at other times provisional and fluid.

Following the wisdom of simplification, we may benefit from the teaching of Rabbi Arthur Green that the singular, if not the single, question to be asked now of Jews and others is, “In what sense do you use the word ‘God’?”

              If you think of god as a great human-like figure with stern or sparkling eyes, sitting on a throne sporting a long white beard, intensely alert to our actions that are registered on a mammoth scoreboard in the sky, you’re probably not reading this book.  If you are reading this book and you find there are vestiges of that image and attitude within you, you would be well advised to think again and to reexamine your thoughts especially if you plan to raise Jewish children. They are likely to be, and as members of a minority are encouraged to be, more critical and skeptical about commonly held prevailing ideas than most kids.

      It might be a good thing to replace this anthropomorphic idea of god with an image that will work better for this day and age.  You may consider many theologies from which to make your selection. You may be soothed, strengthened and untroubled intellectually affirming a Personal God of the kind that existentialists like Martin Buber espouse (a “Thou” who is ever awaiting your deepest self and most authentic “I” in relationship). Or perhaps you’d be more open to - that is, more persuaded by - an abstraction-like concept, a god best understood as a Process, Power or Force in the universe as Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan and other contra-traditional religious thinkers who have abandoned classically-rooted interpretations profess.  You might, over the course of time, find that you have been able, artfully and handily or cautiously and deliberately, to uphold several assorted, even contradictory, god ideas at once – and never feel the need to reach any final conclusions. Or you may determine that there are no final conclusions that you, or anyone, can reach in god thinking.

            What I have seen is that there are times in life when it seems best to think of god in a particular way.  For example, thinking of god as a Person – although totally Other, of course - is very helpful, especially when we need a personal Friend or Parent to turn to as when we are going through particularly difficult times.  That’s self-evident.  We can then conceive of the deity as hovering in some manner above us and attentive to us. Such a god hears and may choose to answer our prayers. Such an idea of god meets real human needs.

 There are other times when thinking of god as a Process rather than a Person is most useful.  After all, many readers of this book have had impressive academic schooling in the humanities, liberal arts, and sociology as well as professional training, requiring scientific and technical education. Our thinking has become sophisticated and modern (or post-modern) and many people you meet have been “turned off by organized religion.” They often mean by it that they prefer god ideas which are beyond or post “Big-Guy-in-the-Sky.” They would rather think of god in terms of the Mind or Process behind the organizing principles of the universe or of “reality.”

            You will see Process written here with a capital “P.” The capital “P” in Process represents a god-symbol or a god-code, something like a computer icon, evincing rather abstract layers of religious thought, philosophy and theology. Why with a capital “P”? The answer is so that in this context we know that Process references divinity. We will elaborate on the multiple layers, implications and applications of god as abstract Force, Power, Principle and Process further on in this chapter. In fact that is what, for the most part, this chapter is all about.

       Also, and perhaps more important for reasons of affirming identity, apart from the meanings we wish to impute to our god ideas, many of us feel it is important to take our stance within a particular tradition to which we are committed and wish to preserve - Jewish, Christian, Islamic or whatever. Clearly, certain religious traditions accommodate abstract god ideas better than others. But, the ever-evolving, regenerating and trans-shaping traditions conceiving of god in recognized, established perceptions, as well as in convincing, progressive, non-traditional conceptions have, in different ways, served to preserve continuity and connectedness to the past.  Arguably, it helps to use god language that is malleable and interpretable, just as some rabbis would suggest, contrary to important Jewish philosophers, including Maimonides, that it helps to think about god as advancing, enlarging, “growing.” My own teacher who powerfully influenced many Reform Rabbis as students in his Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion classes, Dean Professor Henry Slonimsky taught the god of the Midrash, a god who, perhaps by conscious divine intent, is limited in capacity, primarily and most conspicuously, in preventing evil - a god, based on rabbinic literature, who suffers anguish and sorrow from the wounds his creatures endure.

     Why, Jewish tradition asks, does the liturgy at the centerpiece of every Jewish prayer service, employing the image of The God of Our Ancestors, refer to “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob?” (And now, in the Reform prayer book, the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah).   Why is the prayer not expressed more simply as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; why the repetition of god three times, once for each of the Patriarchs?  The answer provided by tradition is: to indicate that the term god, or the reality of god, and the experience of god’s presence, as understood by one generation, will be perceived differently by the next. Abraham had his way of apprehending and relating to the divine, his son Isaac had his, Jacob his, subsequent generations theirs and we, ours. And our children, surely, will have new ways that are distinctly their own.

     The words “father” and “king” are also quite different in meaning than the usage of the words in the past when both kings and parents possessed absolute authority and could decree death to children and subjects. Fathers and kings no longer possess the right of required obedience to their command that they held in previous centuries.  And yet we have retained the terms even as their definitions have changed radically. The meaning of the term god, how we perceive god and how we define deity, similarly evolve and develop through time.

POLYDOX AND HUMANISTIC JUDAISM

  In these chapters we have gathered all the non-orthodox variations of contemporary Jewry under the rubric of Polydox Judaism. Orthodoxy means “the correct doctrine,” “Polydoxy” suggests that many doctrines held by Jews are authentic and valid. Polydox Judaism therefore is a term capitalized to signify an alternative to Orthodox Judaism. Polydox Judaism is not itself a movement opposed to Orthodoxy so much as an aggregate of mainstream Jewish denominations and established heterodox Judaisms – Conservative, Reconstruction, Reform and secularists (some of whom self-identify as Secular Humanists or as cultural “Jewmanists”), primarily. By definition, the term Polydox – a whole composed, for the most part, of clearly distinguishable constituent divisions - does not include Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox, Hasidic and Neo-Orthodox Judaism.

     A related but somewhat different application for the term Polydoxy has been advocated by Rabbi Alvin Reines, a Professor of Religious Thought at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, one that is to be theologically rather than institutionally understood. For Reines, polydox (without capitalization) refers not to institutional (and philosophical) alternatives to Orthodox Judaism, but to the right that every Jew has to define the god word. As a statement of theology, polydox – lower case - suggests that the term god stands fixed at the religious epicenter of Judaism.  And since Jews may accept any of the many god formulations, Jewish unity within the pluralistic people will be preserved by the term regardless of the many definitional propositions and theories of the divine. And the people will be better served.

            We began this chapter with the stated purpose of having it understood that a fully worked out concept of god is not a requirement without which one cannot be proud and fulfilled as a Jew.

However understood, polydox, with or without capitalization, refers to the fact that there has never been nor need there be a universally shared unvaried theology among Jews, only an ageless, unfathomable and indeterminate (and unpronounceable) word – YHVH, rendered Adonai -- in the epicenter of the Judaism they share. Of necessity, polydox, in the Reines meaning of the idea, would exclude Humanistic Judaism and any other Jewish movement rejecting use of the god-word altogether.

     In the application of the concept “Polydox” Judaism as developed in these chapters to refer to any non-orthodox synagogue or movement of Jews, Humanistic Judaism would be included but Muslim-former-Jews and Christian-former-Jews (“Jews for Mohammed” and “Jews for Jesus”) would not - regardless of the elasticity of polydox ideas of god. Polydox, in our usage, refers to Jewish institutions and Jewish religious  movements. It may be noted here that this understanding is in keeping with the criteria for Jewish identity of the 2002 Jewish Population Survey discussed below in the concluding chapter. In an effort to resist the tendency of contemporary times to blur beyond distinction the line between two angles of vision, Polydox in our usage refers to belonging more than believing, to institutional more than theological distinctions. Both meanings, seemingly cross-hatched like sets of intersecting adjacent lines, are pluralistic in intent and, for the most part, quite congruous and compatible - and mutually supportive.

Orthodox Judaism is a contemporary Jewish denomination which sees itself         as representing the “correct,” “fixed,” “unchanging,” Jewish way of life. But the term, orthodox – lower case – is to be understood as an attitude, a fixed frame of mind. All orthodoxies claim to “know it all right now.” There is no openness to argument, persuasion, reconsideration. There are orthodox individuals on the political left as on the political right, among radicals as among reactionaries.  By defining god not as Power but exclusively and restrictively as a Person or a Being and then rejecting that notion, Humanistic Judaism can be seen as a form of orthodox Judaism – on the opposing end of the theological spectrum from Orthodox Judaism, to be sure. This discussion will be taken up again in the section on ignosticism further along in this chapter. Contrarily, Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine writes, from a perspective which may be characterized as an exercise in radical orthodoxy that,

                           “Humanistic Judaism is non-theistic and does not use theistic vocabulary. It does not regard the use of the word God as essential to Jewish identity. Nor does it believe that the word is legitimately equivocal, open to any interpretation. The word God is an ordinary word in the English language, a person word with a fairly clear ordinary meaning. For most English speakers it refers to a conscious being of enormous power who manages the world.”[3]

           It can be seen that the word god - and how elastic and protean it is or is not thought to be in various quarters of the Jewish world – is of pivotal importance in religious discussions.  A similar case may be made for other weighty words in the vocabulary of 21st century Jews.  Among them are centuries-old prototypical terminologies: Torah, Israel, Mitzvah, as well as more recent contemporary philosophical designations such as Essentialism, Existentialism, Rationalism. What matters for Jews - for whom identity precedes ideology - is not so much deciding on any one meaning, as reasoning about them and considering the merits of all sides of mostly insoluble spiritual questions and dilemmas - such as what is meant by god. Or how to think about thinking about god!

       In nowise do we advocate the abandonment of logic but rather prefer to promote open-mindedness. In jest it has been said, although no truly convinced believer can accept it, that one sure sign of civilization is the ability, referred to more than once in this chapter, of holding, considering or entertaining two contradictory ideas in one’s head at the same time. Moreover, for the believer there is no contradiction since there is no felt summons to define the Holy One; only to relate to the Holy One. Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen taught, “For the believer there are no questions, for the unbeliever there are no answers.” Rather the believing Jew’s responsibility is to explore the rich variety of active encounters with god in the performance of god’s required norms of behavior. The yoke of the commandments is taken on eagerly. The faithful Jew is also in duty bound to aspire to an ever increasing sense of kedushah – holiness/spirituality – and to try to transmit that sense of kedushah to the lives of loved ones who have also chosen to follow Her ways. Contrarily, for non-believing Jews and many quizzically unconvinced others, “in the end,” according to Michael Dirda, “what we all may aspire to is not passionate intensity of any sort, but passionate skepticism.” In other words, we all can admire faith but skepticism gets you educated![4]

THE GOD ROOM IN THE JEWISH MANSION

         In previous chapters, we have surveyed, imagined perhaps as from the perspective of an oculus-like opening at the top of its dome, several distinctive, distinguished and esteemed parlors, pavilions, alcoves and areaways of the Mansion of Jewish Identity: a metaphor for the Jewish way of life.    In this chapter we take note of the well-established fact that Jews have paid many visits to the God-room in the mansion: for many, a wholly holy wing of that abode. And they have invariably come away employing, applying and speaking god-language of nearly every contrasting stripe over the centuries. Whether they married Jews or brought others who were not Jews into the ongoingness of the Jewish people’s present and future, they saw themselves in either case as invoking god’s presence/compassion/will, and fulfilling His commandments, by participating in the linking of the generations.  Both the idea of god and working out a relationship with god have become fastened to the core of the Jewish soul, even as the divine was conceived in many contrastingly diverse ways.  We, too, do not wish to abandon god-language: its history and poetry penetrate so deeply and resonate so richly because our understanding of god and our connection (“relationship,” for some of us) with god - whatever that may mean for each of us – advance and evolve as we grow and mature.

            When we become annoyed by god-talk and god-language we have to ask ourselves, is the idea we hold of god orthodox, meaning correct, fixed and unchanging?  Although we ourselves have been developing and progressing as individuals in so many ways, we nevertheless often conceive of god in childish terms, often like a Santa in the sky.  And because over time no other ideas that are more mature and sophisticated have dislodged that god notion from our minds, we are inclined to reject all god conceptions without a further thought.  Readers of this chapter might ask themselves when if ever have they been encouraged or challenged by a friend, teacher, parent (or book?) to reevaluate, rethink or reconsider the idea(s) of god they hold. And when was the last time fresh, novel, or original, god- ideas were suggested to them for their thoughtful reflection and judgment.

            A National Institutes of Health research physician said, “You don’t wish to abandon god-talk.  What do you get in its place?  And so much thinking is lost: your own thinking about god; others thinking about god; tentative and uncertain conclusions about what god is and is not; what god can be and cannot be - surely not a Person and yet...sometimes I think of god as a Being, a Person, or to put it differently, that god also signifies Personhood to me in that you can relate to god.  You might sometimes think god is a delusion, illusion or allusion, but bear in mind, good people draw much comfort and strength from god - by reaching for the Eternal.  And that alone makes the search and the quest worthy of time and reflection, devotion and study.  At certain key times in my life, and at certain key holy days in the calendar, that’s when I think about god the most.”

            Religious thinkers of all persuasions agree that god is greater than any and all definitions we employ to grasp The Essence.  By definition!   Because that is what we mean by god - greater than that which we can conceive, greater than what we can identify as god.

SEVERAL ROOMS ONE FLIGHT UP

For Jews, god - however one conceives of the deity - is always “Ultimacy,” “Transcendent,” “The Originating Source,” “OverMind,” “Cosmic Presence,” and yet only one accessible flight up to the mezzanine of the Jewish Mansion. On that story – which I like to think as laid out to resemble the six-pointed Star of David (in Hebrew, a Magen David) - there is a set of rooms of various descriptions and dimensions.  One room is designated The Jewish People, also called Israel - from the Hebrew meaning “wrestling with god” or “taking on ultimates.”

 The second room is designated “Israel, the Land” - where so much of Jewish history came to pass, centuries ago and today. On the same floor next door is an unequally divided room, bringing to our attention two thousand years of landless dispersion. One part, agreeably and even cheerfully furnished, reflective of Jewish experiences in times of tolerance and of relatively benevolent governments (unquestionably America, the land of freedom, most prominent among them), designated “the Diaspora,” a neutral and non-judgmental term. And the other portion, substantially more extensive in reach and dimension, “Exile.” This section, decorated in melancholy moods and drearily somber tones, refers to places of tyranny and terror and to fiendish periods when things were going very badly for the Jewish community.

One of the cherished chambers of the mansion, perhaps serving as a reception room as in a palace, may be identified as Judaism or Torah, the room Jews revisit again and again for the heritage: the values and ideals informing our conduct and framing the decisions we make. Torah also refers to a library of texts and discussions of legal processes and provisions, a body and system of jurisprudence known as the Oral Law, the Talmud, that may lead to experiencing God’s presence as well as to keeping the commandments. Alongside the Torah chamber is the room furnished by the Mitzvah system where you find the things Jews do and their norms of behavior. And in the next room is god.  God is not in this room, of course, except in the service of this metaphor.

 What we experience and “know” or understand about god may be thought of, in the interest of the metaphor, as acquired, realized or substantiated there, in that room, the God-room. A reader contemplating the notion of such a room might have the synagogue come to mind. It is surely not inappropriate to think that way. The God-room may indeed be searched out for important insights brought to light there. After all, the synagogue functions in the community as a House of Assembly (bet knesset), as a House of Prayer (bet tefillah*) and also as a bet midrash, a House of Study – of god and the covenant. A God-room! For at least two millennia, the House-of-Study-God-Room has been the foremost place to seek out the spiritual dimensions of life - the place where Jews convene to contemplate the divine, whether conceived as Person, as Process, or Other/wise.

{*Tefillah is often translated inadequately as a House of Prayer. Prayer derives from procus, Latin for to beg or implore; tefillah derives from palal, Hebrew meaning introspection, judgement, and decision-making.}

We are suggesting here that you visit the God-room regardless of the notions or conclusions you have drawn thus far in life about the divine or the ideas and values upon which you base the conduct of your life.  If you are not yet a god seeker, if you don’t try to “know” god in some way, as supernatural Being, Spirit, Person or abstraction, you miss a lot in life.  You miss, as well, exploring a well-appointed room in the mansion of Jewish identity, sacred space, reverently and devoutly decorated with strikingly interesting and impressively extensive, often stirring, period pieces from various epochs of Jewish history as well as recently detailed contemporary and original constructions obviously designed for the new century.

IGNOSTIC GOD-SEEKERS

 My advice is, taking your position at square one, first declare yourself to be an “Ignostic god-seeker” a term “built upon ignorance” – an erudite, educated ignorance unscrambled and unpacked more fully further along in this chapter.  An ignostic is here defined as one who not so much admits as avows and professes up front to being ignorant or uninformed and unknowledgeable of what is meant by god and what is being referred to in god talk. Ignosticism, a solid if provisional conviction entails an active pursuit of understanding – like venturing to read this chapter thus far in the first place. Ignosticism also serves as a philosophical way-station meant to provide a stepping-stone on the route to growth whether leading to convictions or toward denials. An ignostic requires clarification of how the term “god” is to be defined. An ignostic is not an “agnostic” who takes a leap of faith, rather than a leap of uncertainty (that’s the leap taken by the ignostic!), and asserts that god (however defined) can never be known.

As an ignostic it is therefore also necessary, even required, to go shopping, do the research. Visit the room.  There are schools of philosophy and history, metaphysical speculations and great theories of knowledge arranged among the furniture.  For a Jew, seeking out the right synagogue and a compatible rabbi may be the best way to begin to become familiar with the contents of all the rooms including the God-room of the Jewish Mansion.

 There is in Judaism spirituality, but there is more to Judaism than spirituality.  Remember always, the question “Does god exist?” is not as significant as questions such as “How shall I think about god?”  “How shall I prepare myself for a visit to the God-room?”  “How long the visit?”  “What baggage do I carry in and out?”  “What intellectual preconceptions do I leave behind?”  “How do I carry what I acquire there elsewhere?”  “How can the room and its content enhance my life?”  These are the kinds of questions an ignostic god-seeker asks. Further along we will attempt to identify the most critically relevant distinctions among the ignostic, the agnostic, the theist and the atheist. But first:

ON THE ORIGINS OF BELIEF IN GOD

            Some students of religion suppose that the origin of the idea of god as the “eye in the sky” may have come about to help resolve disputes and conflicts between people.  If there is an objective eye in the sky, a god, that is, if you can imagine a just supernatural Being observing all your actions and transactions, that Being would know who’s truthful and who is not.  Therefore you would be well advised to act and testify honestly because god is watching.  The objective eye in the sky is god’s. God, therefore, represented a judicial Force to whom you could appeal your case, who could right wrongs, apply appropriate sanctions fairly and impartially, and punish evil doers.  

         Accordingly, god is Judge, Arbiter (see especially the Jewish High Holy Day prayer book) and the guarantor of moral truth.  More than this, many traditions the world over teach that god is the “Eternal Evolver of Actuality,” that is, the ever present omnipotent creator and prime mover of the universe and of all existence, the Source of its order, harmony and meaning. Most religious traditions teach that god is also the protector and savior of humanity and possesses admirable attributes and qualities that humanity would be wise to emulate, regardless of which religion one follows.

             It is a commonplace notion that, in truth, we have “created” god in our own image or conceived of god in human likeness.  That surely is so.  But there is no greater teaching, because of its implications, than the parallel notion – the flip-side of the same theological coin - that humans are created in god’s image. That concept has been taken to mean that we can and must aspire to be god-like, to live as god would wish us to.  We are therefore obligated to treat one another with reverence and respect, however we conceive of the divine.

       As with all other concepts and institutions of society, from political governments to the family unit, the god concept and the houses of worship have too often been grossly misused and employed for malevolent ends.  Nevertheless, as history reports, there is profound good to be derived from, and by, the espousal of the existence of a god who commands us to deal righteously with one another.

GOD AND GENDER

            Since ancient times, god has been described in anthropomorphic, human, terms. Rabbi Donna Berman writes, “We all know that God is neither male nor female, King or Queen.  God is defined as beyond human conception and understanding, and all words used to praise this Divine Mystery or to address It are merely a ‘pointing toward’ that which cannot be comprehended or named.

            “The feminine aspect of the Oneness of God, according to tradition, is known as the Schechinah or the Divine Presence.  This is one of the ten phrases for god used in both traditional and contemporary prayerbooks.  Many of these designations like Hashem (the Divine Name) and Mekor Chayenu (the Source of our life) are understood to incorporate masculine as well as feminine dimensions of the divine, who is not less than both god and goddess. Any words and images we use, therefore, are limited as well as limiting.  Utilizing only masculine pronouns and images in the English translations of our liturgy is especially limiting since it excludes and marginalizes women."

         Drawing on Karl Barth’s analogy that doing theology is like trying to paint a bird in flight, Rabbi Berman maintains that "confining ourselves to the limited use of the metaphors and language with which we’ve named and described God is like painting with a limited palette of colors.  God deserves nothing less than a full palette. To resist broadening the images we use to describe God is to...proclaim, ‘I’d rather continue painting with three shades of green than introduce blues and grays and azure and purple and gold’.”[5] Judith Plaskow wrote, “...the God who supposedly transcends sexuality, who is presumably one and whole, is known to us through language that is highly selective and partial.  The images we use to describe God, the qualities we attribute to God, draw on male pronouns and male experience and convey a sense of power and authority that is clearly male in character” [6]

         Female rabbis have helped us come to realize that the female dimension of god, along with the male, must be present for providing and offering Her power and goodness to us all. Not for the sake of balancing, equalizing, or setting aside matters of gender. But, to state the obvious, the masculine and the feminine dimension of god combined, more fully discloses our own best – most comprehensive and most complete - potential for mending the world. 

       Many women have echoed the Jewish feminist sentiment. Some have feminized the name of the Almighty by calling upon Elah instead of El while others lift their voices to the “Goddess.” Contemporary liturgist Marcia Falk wrote, “If God is not really male, why should it matter if we call God ‘she’? If we are all created in the image of Divinity, the images with which we point toward Divinity must reflect us all.”[7] God–language should therefore be gender neutral, expansive, all-embracing, all-inclusive: Parent, Sovereign, Eternal, Friend, the masculine He as well as the feminine She/Shechina (Presence).

           Jewish feminists teach, in the words of Carol B. Balin,[8] that “authentic monotheism does not mean belief in a God who is ‘other than the world’ but rather One who, as the Source of the flow of all life, is partnered with that which was created.”

PERSON OR PROCESS

            Today many Jews who identify themselves as secularists, agnostics, and non-believers, live faithful, ardently devoted, Jewish lives. Jews without particular piety but with sincere commitment remain responsive to the spiritual and religious mandates of Judaism and quite self-consciously make the decision to be proud, practicing Jews. They earnestly long to be strong and unbreakable links in the chain of Jewish continuity. Not wishing to be “the end of the line,” they hear the call of history to be vitally part of the Jewish people carrying and conveying their identity forward into the future.

      They recognize how crucial the idea of god has been for Jews through the centuries. Many choose to affirm a god idea and declare that they believe in god, or see themselves as god-seekers, sometimes for that reason alone rather than necessarily because of an unwavering deep conviction positing the existence of a Supreme Personal Watchful Being.  They would be inclined to add that they intend to remain always “god seekers” for the sake of the community that relies on generational continuity for the preservation of its most vital life-patterns.

     Many Jews deeply involved in the synagogue and living committed Jewish lives take the position that god as Process or Power appeals to their religious and intellectual sensibilities- and keeps them Jews – to a greater extent than the idea of god as a Person. But, in truth, the distinctions between god as Person and god as Power are dependent upon theological nuances and niceties. However important, they are after all, interpretations (Midrash), non-binding matters of faith. They are therefore not nearly as crucial for the Jew as matters of behavior and the performance of good deeds (Mitzvot). 

         Furthermore, religious ideas change so often – and radically – over a lifetime.  We call such change “growth,” being reminded that there is no growth without change. Moreover, the distinction between affirming a god who is personal or one that is impersonal - theologies for all appearances at variance with one another - does not often split or divide a Jewish community.  Nor need it prompt any Jew to disconnect from other, more or less traditional, “believing” Jews or resign from a congregation for “god reasons” rather than “good reasons.” Theology does not work that way for Jews.

            When Jews say “we are in the presence of god,” that affirmation does not mean that the divine is to be thought of solely as a Person, a Being, an entity or an Otherliness possessing “will” or requiring “consciousness” as the indispensable aspect of god’s essence.  This is the traditional understanding of god to be sure, grounded in the biblical traditions.  But Jews should not overlook, as a starting position perhaps, other contemporary approaches that conceive of god as Process rather than as Person.

           Just as we recognize the sophistication and authenticity of god as Person to whom we refer as Thou, for some Jews god is best understood as Power, Force or Process. Either way, personal or impersonal, god is understood as being always pertinent, always present, always commanding, always worthy of “image imitation” and always oriented toward a future worthy to be called messianic times (which, by tradition, will always be up-ahead in the not too distant tomorrow).

            Not surprising for such a diverse people, many Jews believe deeply in a personal god.  It is often surprising to enlightened secularists - people who call themselves non-religious Jews - that the idea of a Personal Being can be as sophisticated and persuasive as existentialists Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig,   Emil Fackenheim, Eugene Borowitz, Abraham J. Heschel and other great Jewish thinkers have shown.  God for them is a “Thou” to whom we relate as “I” in dialogue, covenant, interaction.

GOD AS PROCESS

As has been noted, some Jews speak about god as Power or impersonal Force or Process in the universe. We should clarify the subtle but critical distinctions and dissimilarities between Process Theology and God as Process.  In both, god is growing and changing – for some an heretical if not absurd notion, if god is, by definition, perfect and immutable, that is, “not subject or susceptible to change.” (In biblical and post-biblical traditions god does change his mind). But in Process Theology, god’s changes come about “because of me, and all human action.”

 God as Process, is far more impersonal and abstract. There is little room provided in this formulation for input or feedback from humans, except perhaps in that our predilections for destroying each other in war and genocide, and devastating the ecology of planet earth, changes the Process, changes god.  If god, as Mordecai M. Kaplan taught, is the Power in the universe that makes for Salvation -  fulfillment and life’s enhancement - then, however modest our role, when we do destroy we do “affect” that power, god. 

            God as Process, therefore, is not identical with process theology, a philosophy developed by disciples of Alfred North Whitehead.  Process theology teaches that god is to be conceived as a Supernatural Being who is both limited and limitless.  Whitehead’s God is not supernatural. God, for Whitehead is rather a metaphysical principle necessary for understanding the universe. God cannot see the future.  If god knows the future god would be “fated to do whatever brings about the foreseen.”  God would lack free choice.  A god, not bound by a foreseen future, can change in response to human actions.  Charles Hartshorne, Whitehead’s disciple, taught that god is the Maker and if the future cannot be foreseen, “it does not yet exist,” it is a non-thing, unknowable even to a deity.  He concludes that only a god capable of corrections, improvisations, revisions, reversals, may engage in an on-going “process” responding to humanity. 

                Alfred North Whitehead reflected on the “great cleavages of religious thought”:

         “The extremes are the doctrine of God as the impersonal order of the universe, and the doctrine of God as the one person creating the universe.” God is “the binding element in the world.”  “The power by which God sustains the world is the power of Himself as the ideal.  He adds Himself to the actual ground from which every creative act takes its rise. The world lives by its incarnation of God in itself.”[9]

                    Process theology represents god as growing, a god who is to be thought of as a Person.  But god as Process is quite different. As understood by most Reconstructionist rabbis and disciples of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, God as Process signifies power and abstraction, not a Person, not a Being who is supreme but an impersonal Force in the universe.  

 LEO BAECK’S PHILOSOPHICAL MAKEOVER

             Another particularly important resident of the God-room, Leo Baeck, whose philosophy over a life-time is a case in point for how even great thinkers who devote their lives to Jewish religious thought, advance, deepen and modify their thinking – sometimes by one hundred and eighty degrees - over the years. Therefore, so can we. Returning to our rather well-traveled image of theological pathways: Taking an unanticipated change of direction, even an about-face in relinquishing long-held religious attitudes and platitudes about god, need not be entirely left off the reader’s theological travel-plans. 

             In his earlier philosophical musings, Rabbi Leo Baeck (1873-1956) followed the teachings and thinking of Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) who was, in turn, informed by the legacy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Hermann Cohen advocated a kind of humanistic socialism, the methods of science, and a transcendent ideal of divinity conceived as a non-personal vision of god.  But he also rejected the prevalent atheistic trends of his time. He taught that humanity stands in a special “correlative relation with an ideal of god.” Similarly, for the early Baeck, the divine is not a Being but is more than the sum of all there is. And god cannot be collapsed into the mechanistic domain of nature.  Leo Baeck emerged after the death of Hermann Cohen as the embodiment as well as the crystallization of the Jewish character for his justly earned renown as the heroic figure of courage and spiritual resistance against Nazi brutalities and genocide.[10]  

In Judaism, according to Hermann Cohen, and afterwards to Leo Baeck, the unity of mankind - the very concept of humanity - emerges as a consequence of the idea of the oneness of god who created humankind in His/Her/Its image. Jews recite the Shma, characterized as the watchword of the people Israel’s faith, declaring the oneness of god, to signify the unity of humanity. To this day Judaism’s ethic postulates the kind of actions required in relationships with others, particularly with others who are strangers and aliens, that is, how you ought to treat those who are not part of your inner group or members of your people. Hermann Cohen taught that just as it is the function of god to preserve, guarantee, and assure the eternity of the universe, mankind’s responsibility is to bring about the fulfillment of the moral ideal. Leo Baeck taught that “the distinctiveness of Judaism, which it has passed on to the rest of mankind, is its ethical affirmation of the world:  Judaism is the religion of ethical optimism.” 

            God, for the early Leo Baeck, as it had been for Hermann Cohen, was a concept, an ideal, a mental image, and not an existent Being occupying a place in space. Leo Baeck, arguing that it is unreasonable for Reason to repudiate Passions and emotions, later discarded the notion that god is but a hypothesis, a logical postulate, and began to teach that reality is rooted in god and that human reason itself originated in god.  God, to Baeck, was no longer merely an idea. God was pure Being, an Eternal Being.  Apparently over time Baeck drew away from the notion of god as a philosophical concept.  God rather is a living and commanding god who could be experienced personally.  Our duty is to understand ourselves to be “commanded”; to establish a relationship with god; and to develop a “Consciousness of god as creator.”  

       In Baeck’s later understanding of Judaism, the correlation between man and god is seen and expressed in humanity’s attempt to imitate god, the model and source of holiness, and to become holy as well by the way we conduct our lives. This also explains Judaism’s view that mankind plays the role of “co-worker in the acts of creation.” For Leo Baeck, as for Cohen, the establishment of an undivided human community, and bringing about messianic times of peace and justice, are our ultimate responsibility and the singular objective before us.  Leo Baeck taught that the committed Jew is to develop intimate and deep relationships built upon one’s ultimate , real and most profound relationship with god. 

Many Jewish thinkers (and others for whom Jewish philosophy is not their daily fare) re-think and then turn aside from their early philosophical ideas over the course of a lifetime. Leo Baeck moved closer to Martin Buber’s viewpoint that god is a You or “Thou” with Whom one enters into an intimate personal relationship. Leo Baeck reconsidered Cohen’s Rationalist understanding of god as a supreme ideal and began to understand God Existentially as Person.  He spoke of “mystery,” by which he meant the non-rational, inspired, intuitive apprehensions of reality, also understood as an awareness of god, and “commandment”, the ethical obligations devolving upon us all. Mystery and Commandment, instinct and intellect – are both to be honored and cherished in the life of a committed Jew.  

Not infrequently, eminent, celebrated and esteemed Jewish thinkers in modern times have also gone through a long and sometimes difficult process of thinking through what they mean by god. Leo Baeck’s theological evolution represents a concrete example of the kind of openness to personal growth and profound religious change realizable in the course of a lifetime of god-thinking. And about thinking about thinking about god! Just as his thinking progressed from an impersonal god conception to a belief in god as Person, or Being, others may make their philosophical journey of religious change in an altogether different direction.  It is to be understood that the one direction may be as authentically Jewish as the other roads traversed by fellow travelers leading to the gateway of the Mansion of Jewish Identity.  In god-thinking, openness to spiritual growth is consciously acknowledged as an enduring passionate aspiration.

ON EVIL

In passing it may be relevant to point out that theodicy, the problem of the suffering of the innocent, often understood as the acknowledgement of the existence of evil, is simply never raised by the students of Judaism I teach or the couples I counsel. If the reality of inexplicable and undeserved misfortune is mentioned or discussed at all, I as the teacher must bring the subject up myself. Perhaps that can be explained by the fact that all creeds and religious systems fail to satisfactorily explain suffering.  They are all stand equal and alike in this regard.  Sophisticated post-Holocaust citizens of the western world undoubtedly understand this lamentable inability and have already discounted the matter in advance as irresolvable.

In the minds of most non-professional, non-academic, but thoughtful readers, all systems start out abreast of each other and at a standstill in accounting for the reality of evil.  Unlike the theologians and religious thinkers for whom no issue grips like the vise of undeserved suffering, contemporary couples do not feel it necessary to bring up the subject. Moreover, there is no evidence that the issues of evil and undeserved suffering ever factor in the decision making process determining children’s religious identity, which is what this book is about. But it can be noted that among the thousands of Jews I have known I never heard anyone express belief that god and satan test a person’s faith by bringing on evil and making sport of it with a wager or a contest as in the Book of Job, or by playing games of life and death with human beings – righteous or otherwise.

PART TWO: OTHER APPROACHES TO GOD THINKING

            There are few faiths conceiving of god as an abstraction or a Process, and many faiths conceiving of god as a Person.  For our purpose, the term “faith,” refers to opinions about god’s very existence.  “I have faith in god” means, “It is my view that god exists.”  “Belief” refers to god’s nature, whether god is thought of as a Person (as in Martin Buber’s Eternal Thou) or as an impersonal Force in the universe.

 Among the better-known contemporary belief conceptions are Paul Tillich’s Ground of All Being and Mordecai M. Kaplan’s Power which makes for Salvation.  The Principle of Concretion, Emergent Energy, Eternal Existence (YHVH), Central Monad or Spirit, Substance, the Ideal Fulfillment of the Moral Enterprise, Cosmic Consciousness, Universal Unified Consciousness, Maimonides’ Unmoved Mover/Active Intellect are all definitions and formulations of a God who is an impersonal Force to whom human beings do not relate in the same way as to a Person.  These usages and definitions constitute beliefs in God’s nature and essence.  “Faith refers to existence; belief to essence.”[11]. In Hebrew there is no such distinction between faith, and belief.  Emuna, defined in the previous chapter as standing fast and firm, is the word for both.

            Rabbi David A. Teutsch of the Reconstructionist Movement, which is the foremost Jewish synagogue organization historically espousing the idea of an impersonal God, has written, “It is up to us to seek God...because God is not a divine person who intrudes in our life or makes individual decisions, but rather the unifying dimension of our reality that is the ground of meaning and morality.  If indeed we are seekers of the divine, then it is also up to us - and to other peoples as well - to choose God.” 

            Although the term “Person” for god is unknown in Jewish religious thought, god has been conceived as a supernatural Person possessing self-consciousness – god “knowing” that god is god - in nearly all the mainstream varieties of Jewish theism.  This thinking is often expressed as “god is not less than a Person.”  An Orthodox Jewish authority, Rabbi Louis Jacobs writes that,

            A personal God is understood to mean a real Being and not merely

           a name given to some aspect of the universe or to the universe as a

            whole.  Even when the kabbalists (mystics) speak of Ein Sof (the

            Without end) as ineffable and wholly other, they never suggest even

            remotely that ... the personal Ground of Being does not exist.  The

            reluctance to refer to God as “He” does not imply that the Ground

            of Being is an “It,” but rather that, in the words of William Temple,

            ‘God is more than “He.”’  An “It” is less than a “He.”  “It” is a mere

            thing, totally inferior to humans endowed with personality, whereas a

            More-than-He who has created intelligent people with a moral sense

            and a capacity to create and to reach out for beauty can be an object

            of worship infinitely higher than human beings.  To worship an “It” as

            God, is a form of idolatry.  Idolatry is not the worship of false gods (for

            such do not exist), but the worship of a figment of the human imagination.

            In the later passages of the Bible the gods are elilim, ‘nonentities.”’ [12]      

            The reader will take note that a “figment of the human imagination” – or, perhaps less pejoratively put - the “projection of our conceptualizations” - may be bordering on what others who also identify themselves as believers would say is precisely how we do “know” god.  They may often add that is the only way we can know god: through our imaginings and our emotions, expressed as images and metaphors, and not necessarily by a religious epiphanies, for so few of us can lay claim to transcendent experiences.  And that way of “knowing” god is hardly idolatry.

 Albert Einstein referred to god as der Alter, the Ancient One - the Eternal. “For Einstein, the existence of god was proven by the laws of nature; that is, the fact that there was order in the Universe and man could discover it.”[13]   In 1921, when Einstein came to New York, a rabbi sent him a telegram asking his fellow Jew, “Do you believe in God?” and he replied, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists.” In this connection, Professor Robert M. Selzer makes the observation that “the Jewishness of Spinoza’s god is problematic since god is identified fully with nature and there is no freedom.”

Joyce Carol Oates points out that the fact that “Einstein can be said to have believed in god – ‘the Old One’ – is not very meaningful when one understands that this metaphor is simply a way of speaking of the principle of physical laws of the universe, which Einstein believed was singular and immutable.” He felt strongly inclined against the big bang - so like the biblical - theory of the origin of it all. He only reluctantly accepted the evidence for the theory, preferring the eternity of the universe and not a point in time In the Beginning.

 Jastrow writes that, “…science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”[14]

            It is easy to forget, despite our self-conscious age, that our emotions are as important as our intellect in our effort to apprehend god’s existence or essence.  There are times when our feelings convince us that a Power exists which may or may not be conscious of us, nor even conscious of Itself as god. But that Power is god.  And sometimes we experience a profound sense of certainty that a personal god surely exists in some manner but assuredly not less than as a living person exists. And that god is self-conscious (all knowing including knowing Himself/Herself/Itself to be god). Many people report that they are persuaded that god is aware of us as individuals in a personal way. It is common to find that often we are alternating or vacillating between affirming belief in a personal god and affirming belief in a god as an Infinite Power or Process rather than a Person. 

           It would probably take a lifetime of religious, theological, study fully focused on this subject alone, to attempt to sort it out.  Spending your life preparing to become a theologian is usually not a preffered option. But you, the reader, are no less intelligent and as capable of exercising good judgment and know yourself better than any one else can know you. We have noted as much in the first few introductory paragraphs of this chapter.  Where then does one begin?

CHOOSING GOD – CHOOSING A GOD METAPHOR

            I would suggest that the reader-god-seeker might wish to read this chapter and others on the subject with the intention of forming a conception - tentative to be sure but readily available and unequivocal - of a suitable, agreeable and serviceable metaphor or image of god. Think of it, perhaps, as though you were with Moses on the mountain straining for a glimpse of god’s face. Moses is granted a kind of virtual visual, dimly seen, of god’s back, whatever that may mean. So it is with metaphors, murky approximations, by definition.

        The picture in some minds of a king on a throne, so prevailing in liturgies and in our most powerfully worshipful prayers, is surely not the only one available on call.  There are others more accessible and intellectually reachable. What works for some of us, fails abysmally for others. After all, images, the constituents of poetry, are intensely personal.

      I was brought up in a sports-oriented environment, as have many other Americans.  For an entry-level understanding of god, although many other characterizations work as well if not better and many surely are more dignified, more laudable and glorified, I recommend that you consider the metaphor of team sports. 

            Ultimately all metaphors break down and become absurd when too sharp a point is made of them. But it is nevertheless recommended for some of us to approach the God-room thinking of the divine as the Personification of the Spirit of a People, (“the Espirit of my People.”). The great French-Jewish sociologist, Emil Durkheim developed this approach in his landmark study, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. As a start-up proposition, the idea of god here suggested maybe characterized as resembling a kind of “team spirit.”  The “team” is an ongoing unity/whole! In this thinking, god is the Spirit that animates - “gives life,” that is, enlivens the whole – the team or community -  a whole greater than the sum of its parts

       Like a sports team - and here we stretch the metaphor to its maximum - the individual players come and go but the idea personified as the team or folk or people - the spirit within - goes on.  It is carried forward by the individual members of each generation.  For Jews, god is the Spirit forming and informing the people Israel.  And this sense of an eternal ongoing transcendent Reality beyond the “self,” elevates life’s purpose, and confers meaning to the time we pass through this world. 

            Andrew Grossberg of Rockville, Maryland writes, “I think of players like Joe DiMaggio taking over from Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, and Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris following these players and Paul O’Neal and Derek Jeter as representing and embodying the spirit of the Yankees. That gives you an idea of how I think of myself and of other Jews taken together and becoming more than all of us together. We are conscious of “us” and we connect to all the Jewish yesterdays and all  Jewish todays and tomorrows.” 

         Jews are not players on a baseball team of course.  But the metaphor suggests that taken together, Jews alive today are the components of Israel. They comprise and embody the essence and vitality or spirit of the people. The image of god as the Spirit of the people – despite its various and abundant philosophical snags - may nevertheless prove to be a trustworthy compass oriented to the threshold of the God-room in the Jewish Mansion. 

        By easy extension, the idea of “World Spirit,” the Whole greater than the sum of its parts, (not the totality of the things in it) may serve as the latchkey to the God- room. It may also serve as a starting point for an understanding of god, whether personally or impersonally conceived, and of “relating to god”.  For the Jew, this metaphor alluding to the divine formulated as “the Spirit-of-the-Collective-Will/Consciousness,” may perhaps be particularly well suited for certain readers resembling couples I counsel. The image may also serve as a link to the past and to the future of a living, breathing, on-going People.

          TEAM SPIRIT METAPHOR; ANOTHER VIEW

            Jim Korelitz, a Bethesda, Maryland resident, provided these reflections.

            The use of “team” in the portrayal of God is an interesting, important,

             and useful concept.  The idea of a “whole” being greater than the sum

            of its parts is appealing, as is the belief that an all encompassing, intangible

            essence can affect the function and performance of a person (or group of

            people).  However, to one aspect of the “God as team Spirit” metaphor

            that I believe is contrary to its intended purpose, one must be cautious. 

            While the word “team” first conjures up thoughts of a unified and

            uplifting spirit, it also implies a certain transience.  In today’s

            professional sports the longevity of a particular team or collection

            of players - likened - perhaps to a Jewish generation? - often lasts

            no more than a single season, for one thing.  Even if one becomes

            nostalgic for the “good old days” of the DiMaggio Yankees or the

            Lombardi Packers the same problem occurs.  Those teams and players

            have dissolved.  Their particular spirits no longer exists, except as a

            memory of the “way it used to be.”

                     The same is true for example of all collectives or groups with self

 consciousness outside of the world of sports. 

            It is useful however because people may and do come together as a

team to address a particular issue at work or in the community, and

            may indeed feel God’s presence working through them.  Working as

            a team can produce a sense of oneness and commitment and so

            experience God in that way. Taken together: the Mind of God –

            the ‘oneness’ of the Mind of God.   

                    The feeling is wonderful while you have it,

            but it does not last even if the team goes on.  The memory of the

            experience may be enduring, but that particular spirit itself is gone. 

            Teams are finite and temporary - not features we ordinarily associate

            with God.  Still, the “God as team spirit” metaphor can overcome this

            shortcoming if one believes that God transcends time.  After all, if God

            “was, is, and always will be,” then time is irrelevant, and words like

            “temporary” and “transient” would never arise in a discussion of God. 

            The “everlasting team,” an oxymoron in today’s sports world, may

nevertheless be particularly suitable as a theological or spiritual

metaphor useful for an understanding of the idea of god..

Noga Brenner Samia, the author’s youngest daughter and mother of three, who identifies herself as a committed Jewish feminist, points out that:

The sports image of team spirit and the quality that is ongoing and greater than the sum of its parts is useful for sports fans and I can understand that the idea is certainly a handy way to think of God.  But for a contemporary woman, sisterhood comes across even better - even if women are sports figures themselves increasingly and

members of professional teams. The experience of bonding among women has certain similarities to sports metaphors that convey the shared sense of connectedness.  A Force greater than ourselves, we feel it with each other and by extension with women of the past, oppressed women as well as the glorious lives of achievement of other women.  God is felt in that esprit which comes into being and which is invoked and apprehended in that context.  It is felt as God’s presence and the Shechina is the ever present goddess - the oneness of which we are all a part. The Shechinah dwells within us. Together and united we are the reflective embodiment of the Presence.

      Some readers, then, may choose to think of the God-room in this way: for Jews there may be a sense of the Spirit of the Folk-Israel that is analogous to a “team spirit” or a “sisterhood-bonding-presence” and the like, that connects the individual to a larger whole.  One belongs to and becomes part of that spirit, and one  may even devote one’s life to it, stepping forward to take one’s place as a proud, conscious link in the chain of continuity which carries the Spirit on.  Sports metaphors are useful, as are other images, to the extent that they make it easier to think about god and god’s existence and presence.

            The idea also has drawbacks, of course, as have all conceptions of a deity.  One could say sports images are polytheistic-like. After all, each team, folk, tribe, people, or nation could, as a consequence, be thought of as having its own god, which models a polytheistic universe and leads to rivalry and conflict as history has shown.  But it is hardly a stretch to profess that “they” are the same god, one god differently perceived.  “They” are not independent parts of one god.

            As a corollary idea it is also reasonable to hold that each folk or religious community identifies god proprietarily, projecting itself, its values and ideals upon the god-idea it has conceptualized which upholds further the idea that we create, and are created in, god’s image. 

            It is important to keep in mind that, because by definition god is incomprehensible, it follows that all god ideas will have difficulties about them - as every thoughtful and educated person knows.  What is being suggested here is: Open the door and explore the God-room with the intension of exiting the room closing in on a metaphor that works best for you and your loved ones.

FOLK SPIRIT AND MONOTHEISM

     The idea of god as Folk Spirit or Spirit of the People, therefore can serve as an entry-level God concept.  Thinking of god in sports terms as the whole greater than the sum of its parts which is eternal and which in some way hovers protectively over the people is a suggestion which, I know, will surely cause some people to wince.  But thinking this way makes for a living god (although not living as we experience living but as in “god lives in eternity”), a conception of a god greater than oneself and which unites the self with others. In this thinking, god is the transcendent Spirit of our folk, assemblage, or religious collective.

            As a person can be thought of as possessing an essence or an essential core we call a soul, so the corporate body we call Israel, possess an epicenter or soul we choose to call god.  It is self evident that god is more than that.  But conceiving of god as the soul of a people may provide a valuable and versatile formula to begin to think about the divine – perhaps even for some individuals preferring to explore the possibilities of affirming “secular Jewishness.”

          Furthermore, each People projects quintessential core values onto their god idea.  Jews understand the divinity as a god of justice, love, and physics, requiring - indeed demanding and commanding - moral behavior and fair play in the treatment of others (mitzvot). Moral behavior and fair play are to be held above beliefs or faith.  In one famous passage god is said to have proclaimed that it is preferable that men and women keep the commandments than keep the faith (…"rather than that they believe in me”). 

TRADITIONAL JEWISH GOD FORMULATIONS

            In the God-room one discovers that over the centuries, Jewish traditions and sacred texts have consistently and insistently affirmed a pure unmingled monotheistic god idea, one which rejects polytheism, Christian trinitarianism and the theology of incarnation, regardless of the various images of god conceived.  The Shma, often referred to as the “Watchword of the Faith and People,” affirms the oneness of god in no uncertain terms: god is one, singular, uncompounded, indivisible, unique, alone. 

          For thousands of years of Jewish history, the most characteristic and universal Jewish formulations have professed that god is one, is omnipresent (exists everywhere), is omniscient (knows everything), is omnipotent, is benevolent, merciful and compassionate, is immutable (cannot be moved). God’s existence is eternal (eternal existence is the most precisely literal translation and meaning of the name of God written in Hebrew as YHVH - “was, is, and will be” - pronounced in the synagogue as Adonai).  The All Mighty is also the creator and preserver of the universe, the Prime Mover and “inventor” or “author” of physics.  And god, in one of many important images, is also a just, righteous, accessible, and loving Parent.  Conceived – in non-traditional contemporary terminology - as the Soul of the world, infinite Spirit and universal life Force, the deity is also a morally perfect Being whom we should emulate by our own virtuous acts (mitzvot) of ethics and kindness.  And for the sake of furthering morality, we think of god as always conscious of what we are doing – the eye in the sky: So, better do good!

             For Jews, god, whether conceived as Power or Person, is not defined, only  named (however unutterable and unpronounceable that name). Except among certain mystics, God throughout Jewish history has been characterized in allegory, imagery and metaphor, as possessing negative rather than positive attributes - conveying what god is not - and by an aversion to definitions of the divine. Divinity, therefore, has always been an unyielding proposition, a challenging concept to convey. Better not go there. Christians tell you who god is, Jews do not.

             As has been pointed out, Jewish tradition teaches not who god is but that god is: the Eternal One (YHVH, “always is,” or Eternal Existence).  And if god is, was, and will always be, god can also be thought of as the ever-present living Spirit of the Jewish people, of all humanity, and of all creation.  God is the author of the whole of the universe, the Organizer of the organizing principle, who is not subject to finite conditions or physical things.  God is the Unmoved Mover as Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon (Maimonides) – following Aristotle - teaches. 

            There is no denying that many Jews (and many others in the world) believe that god is indeed the ever-present eye in the sky.  According to traditional Jewish theology, God is the ultimate, omnipotent and omniscient Actor in the drama of human history.  A parallel, but not necessarily contradictory, notion, also identified in these pages, is that god is an extension or projection of our selves, the Spirit of our collective existence, which can also be understood as the creative Power and the Force in the universe advancing human fulfillment. 

            These and various other conceptions of the deity may be considered Jewish options and alternatives. Readers should therefore realize a rather complex truth: It is quite a task to become a Genuine Jewish Atheist.  Upon the shoulders of a would-be Jewish atheist falls the intellectually honest responsibility of having to scrupulously elucidate, interpret and define the god denied, His/Her/Its existence and essence, and then refute every single proposition religious thinkers have advanced about god through the centuries.

     Genuine Jewish Atheists would, of necessity, have to spend a large segment of their waking hours in religious studies departments researching and analyzing all known spiritual schools of thought letting none escape. As though meeting the requirements of any academic discipline, they would be expected as well to investigate the entire corpus of theological essays, philosophical books and academic journals. And in systematic, scholarly and convincing, argumentation adhering to the strict symmetries of metaphysical speculations, they must successfully refute each and every one of them. The process would also require an ongoing study of contemporary religious thought – that is, of all the varieties of deity descriptions and depictions proffered by the religious thinkers of our own times - as of previous times, a vast intellectual empire to conquer. Theology is, after all, a very large, long-standing and impressive, branch of learning, a discipline dating from antiquity right on up to the 21st century.

DEFINING GOD AND THE BURDENS OF ATHEISM

It has been pointed out that Jews, in the past, have not defined god in specific terms the way Christians have.  To be a “Christian atheist” - meaning, one born and raised as a Christian but now lacks conviction in Christian doctrine - by contrast, is not as difficult. But a Christian atheist is a contradiction in terms.  Deny that Jesus was the Son of God, sent to die for our sins, made flesh incarnate and part god - one third of the Trinity, along with the Father and Holy Spirit - and you have denied the Christian god idea. Putting aside other important Christian doctrines - such as resurrection, virgin birth, original sin committed by Adam and Eve and transmitted from generation to generation (beliefs required for achieving salvation) – should anyone deny certain core Christian tenets concerning Jesus/God/Trinity, Christian "identity" is lost. That person, regardless of self-definition or self-identification, no longer professes Christianity, was but now is not Christian.

      In denying these core Christian tenets - the teachings about god and who god is - one may or may not - depending upon how that is to be understood- be an atheist, a secularist, a non-believer - but that person most certainly is not a Christian.  If a Christian atheist is a contradiction in terms, proclaiming oneself to be a Jewish atheist is not a contradiction at all. It is, however, quite a challenge to get to the clarification of terms leading to that conclusion. It is a gauntlet to take up and a gantlet to traverse. In short, since for Christianity god is well defined, it is easy to recognize those who do and those who do not believe in Him.  Recognizing a Jewish non-believer is far more difficult because god is not defined in Judaism.  Judaism does not affirm or require a particular god idea, as does Christianity.

JEWISH IGNOSTICS, ATHEISTS, THEISTS AND AGNOSTICS

            Non-believing, non-theistic Jews are likely to be “ignostics” rather than atheists or agnostics although they should not be expected to know or use that term, or to refer to themselves that way. Most, judging anecdotally and not by rigorous survey, would likely say that they are Jewish agnostics uncertain if god exists and perhaps convinced we can never know. Still, ignostic is a useful word even if the red wiggly line appears below the word on the computer monitor each and every time I use the term.  It makes an important distinction for our purposes, as will be shown, by further illuminating the theological roadmap and revealing several itinerant alternatives to the God-room in the mansion of Jewish identity.

 For Christians, Jesus/God is most certainly the singular key to the Christian Mansion. For Jews, there may be a multiplicity of latchkeys to the Jewish Mansion. And, without question, several doors of entre!

On the first floor there are several rooms. The God-room, however imposing and splendid, is not the totality of the mansion. The people Israel, the homeland Israel, Torah values, the Jewish contributions to the advancement of humanity, are other rooms also situated on the first level of the mansion. And, of course, all the rooms link, interlace and interconnect.

      An atheist, a theist and an agnostic must, as a threesome, be in agreement regarding their understanding of god. Otherwise the term and their respective discourses on the meaning of the term make little sense. They would be discussing different things. Whatever other atheists, theists and agnostics may mean by the divine, this particular threesome must assent as with one mind to a very specific, very particular shared vision, proposition or definition. They must together say: “We mean by god thus and so, for example, god is personal or impersonal, with this or that denotation, connotation, signification and the like, in whatever specific formulation with which we mutually agree.”

        The threesome must come together in their understanding of god’s Essence before they make determinations relative to god’s Existence. Inasmuch as they have concurred in defining the divine, they part from one another not regarding god’s meaning - what they have in mind when they refer to the deity - but on their affirmation of (that!) god’s reality. If the one accepts, the other denies and the third can’t decide, or claims we can never know, they must first be aligned in what they are considering, and “know” what they mutually mean by god. Otherwise there would be no context, or common ground, for discussion. One cannot claim to be an atheist, theist, or agnostic in the general, only in the specific. Identifying a specific god!

          Another threesome – agreeing on an altogether “Other” specific god idea - expressed as an alternative formulation of god - might charge the first threesome with exhibiting narrowness-of-mind for overlooking or failing to consider variant concepts of the divine. After all, they do not disagree with one another about their understanding of god. And precisely because there is correspondence among them concerning the meaning of the word, the previous threesome, theist-agnostic-atheist, is composed of likeminded, “orthodox” individuals– Jews, Christians, Muslims or whatever – regardless of whether affirming or denying the idea of god at issue. They hold the "correct doctrines" in their minds about god agreeing to what or who god is.  Atheists deny that god, theists affirm that god, and agnostics have not yet made up their mind about the same god or say we can never know whether that god exists for sure. But they all most certainly must agree about what they mean by god.

       Each of these terms, atheist, theist, agnostic, has evolved over time. The more recently coined term agnostic originated with Sir Thomas Huxley. It refers to one who denies that we can ever know absolutes, prove or disprove anything beyond the material phenomena of the universe. An agnostic says more than, “I have not experienced god, nor have I come to know god; god’s existence is not known to me; as far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out.” The agnostic claims god’s existence can never be known.

      An ignostic, by contrast, acknowledges the seemingly limitless multiplicity of definitions of the divine. Ignostics consider, What god was thought of once - as in biblical times - what god was thought of in previous centuries, what god is thought of now, and what can we think about god, tomorrow. What can we mean when we say god? How shall the word be understood?  Is god the Ground of all Being, the Active Intellect, the Eternal Thou, Everlasting Existence, The Power for Salvation, Transcendent Nothingness? The ignostic would rather first clarify than verify, affirm or deny.

       For the ignostic, there is no orthodoxy, no one correct doctrine. There are contending theologies to explore for the one best suited to the ignostic’s sensibilities, emotions, mentality and reason - and ever subject to further growth and development. The ignostic lives by an on-going divinity-seeking challenge, known also as god-wrestling.  In the Hebrew, Yisrael, Israel!

      An ignostic begins his inner dialogue by surveying the requirements for a definition of god. Pre-selected requirements – such as Eternal Existence, Omniscience, Love/Beneficence, Omnipresence, and Omnipotence – are, perhaps, then prioritized.  Applying these requirements to the many candidates, the ignostic evaluates each one of them for strengths and weaknesses, as one would expect of a genuine god-seeker considering alternatives: A Person, a Being, a Power, a Force, benevolent and all-powerful - and if so how explain evil? Whenever asked about beliefs held, including “do you believe in god?” the ignostic would first need to know what is being meant.                      

        An agnostic has all but given up the quest to know god because god cannot be known, defined or redefined- from the Greek agnostos, unknown, unknowable.  By contrast, an ignostic may be a god-seeker – meaning, in pursuit of knowledge about the many propositions, points at issue, dissertations and variations on the ways one may think about god and how to come to "know" god.  But the jury may be considered as still being out - until better definitions are in.

         One Rockville computer program consultant said, "It's important for me to work out some meaning about god even if not fully developed. I'd like to come to some tentative conclusions about god, so I can say thus far this is what I mean by the word. What it represents to me. This is where I’ve come to at the present.  And many non-Jews I have met in class who wish to become Jews are not necessarily god-seekers.  They may wish to join the community of Israel not for Judaism solely, or out of a certain belief in a Jewish god but for becoming part of the Jewish people.  They are not ‘for’ or 'against' Judaism, which they do not yet know well enough but they'll get with the program if, in their minds, the program is persuasively presented, comprehensible, and sufficiently malleable and adaptable for those not born into it. They'll profess convictions – especially about god - that are still rather inchoate and vague.  But they’re heading down the corridor and in time they may very well become god-seekers if the teachings and the conditions seem right to them."

      The ignostic, preferring to be positioned at the juncture of as yet unexplored boulevards and between cautiously navigable avenues of thought, poses a question to the agnostic in this way: “You undoubtedly know what you are referring to when you speak about god. What manner of god do you refer to when you assert that god is unknowable? Is that not merely a non-rational leap of doubt? Let’s get at once to definitions.” And similar questions are addressed to both the non-believer and the believer. The ignostic simply does not know what one means by god seeing that the term signifies and describes a multiplicity of conceptions.

          Returning to our mansion metaphor, we discover a room – stellar shaped never crescent-shaped, cross-shaped or crown-shaped - visited by great and diverse minds through the centuries. The furnishings are therefore well appointed and over-laid with centuries of usage and additions.  Furthermore, interesting residents and visitors keep showing up, coming, going and providing new images and understandings of god for our own time. The powerful and persuasive theological writings and teachings of Eugene Borowitz, for example, represent one such contemporary escort that an ignostic might call upon for guidance in interpreting and elucidating the room’s intricate appointments. Agnostics, theists and atheists would also do well to consider his far-reaching and widely influential spiritual insights as well as the ideas of a number of other well respected teachers, rabbis and philosophers of religious thought cited in this chapter and elsewhere.

            An ignostic says, “When you speak about god, I do not know whether you are talking about a personal god, an impersonal Force, or some other formulation, so I cannot say I agree or disagree with a particular theist, atheist or agnostic.  Your definition or understanding of god may not be mine.  I am not, therefore, an agnostic, atheist or theist, except perhaps in your mind, because while I may not believe or disbelieve in god as you have defined the deity, that does not mean I have kept out of the God-room.  I may have or may not yet have worked out a god-idea for myself which is in accord with what I can affirm.”  But what an ignostic “knows” is that words and meanings are unknown – until distinctions are carefully drawn and terms scrupulously and thoroughly defined.

            Many Jews, it may therefore be conjectured, are ignostic even though they will likely not refer to themselves that way. But they are saying that they cannot decide whether or not they believe in god until someone tells them what is meant by god and diligently - from the Latin diligens, to pick apart and esteem (di - separate, pull apart and legere, select) - sets forth the meaning of the term.

          Put in non-theological terms, in dialogue with atheists, agnostics and theists, the ignostic says, “As an ignostic, I am ignorant of your theology and do not know what you are referring to when you speak of the deity. Define your terms.” The ignostic insists, “I cannot tell you whether I do or do not believe in god until you tell me what you mean by ‘god’. Perhaps, therefore, choose from the list of formulations in paragraphs elucidated above, and to better serve our discussion, let us together dissect and examine scrupulously the term or phrase under question, as should any god-seeker.”

 With the exception of the Reconstructionist movement and its great founder Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, who did define god - not as a Person but as a Process or “the Power which makes for Fulfillment” (which he called Salvation), Jews by and large do not “pin god down with definitions.”  For Jews, there are too many god ideas around for that.  Jews are not united by a single understanding of god. They need not be – as has been pointed out repeatedly. Jews are united by a sense of history, belonging and connectedness to one another, and by shared values.  Not by beliefs.

             “Atheistic” Jews are likely to discover that they have merely denied one idea of a great many ideas about god. Martin Buber, Franz Rosenzweig, Hermann Cohen, Leo Baeck, Mordecai M. Kaplan, Abraham J. Heschel, Emil Fackenheim, Eugene Borowitz – philosophers, rabbis and theologians – must be turned to repeatedly and their thinking understood thoroughly before anyone can aspire to reach beyond the ignosticism of a god-seeker – certainly before a person can say, “I am a devout atheist”.     

It requires a serious, studious and humbling lifetime of education and hard work endlessly reexamining definitions of the divine to become a Jewish atheist. Any self-respecting atheist must be able to say more than I do not believe in a “big guy in the sky.”  Most Jewish students of religious thought would insist that it is just as hard to become a believer as to become an ignostic god seeker.  Intellectual responsibility falls on both sides of the theological coin.  And every roadway option presents imposing obstacles to be surmounted.

PART THREE: AT SYNAGOGUE SERVICES

            Throughout this chapter, my advice to the reader has been, first consider yourself an ignostic set upon a pilgrim’s journey to a sacred place where spirituality and shalom/inner coherence may be found. That should be your starting position. This means that when you begin to speak about god, think of yourself as having  first to clarify your terms before you can either agree or disagree about what is being said about god or what god is and is not. 

However, when attending a service at a synagogue, or any house of worship, things change.  Emotions of tenderness, sympathy and ardor, and not dispassionate, cool intellectuality are meant to be aroused there - and in that setting feelings can be trusted.  You are connecting with other things: an unflinching unwavering aesthetic sense of awe and wonder, a singular history, a rich heritage, shared empathy, inwardness, imaginative intuitions, sensibilities and spirituality.  To the extent that these are present, the right synagogue – church, mosque or whatever - can be coextensive and coordinate with the God-room.  

            You would be best served by leaving yourself open to many different ideas about god, god’s existence, nature and character, so that, as the various nuances are expressed at a Jewish service, they will become one, whole. And the delicate gradations of intonation and meaning, joyfully or somberly expressed there, may begin to speak to you.  In other words, at synagogue services don’t think of yourself as a theologian or as an academic in the classroom. Think instead or rather feel instead, as does a poet, contemplating ideas in metaphor, rhythm, tonality and imagery. Or like the artist positioning a fresh canvass for capturing new impressions, new inspirations. The Jew / in the pew / might do / it’s true / to view god as the holy spirit of the people, the “holy” whole, the collective conscience, and the collective consciousness - which is the personification of the people, the whole greater than the sum of its parts.  And accordingly, we can think of ourselves as reflections of god’s eternal image. In this view, the individual Jew instantiates the eternal people.

            As to god, and god’s wing of the Jewish Mansion, it is true that many of those seeking to be part of the fabric of the Jewish community may not necessarily be “god-seekers.” They may primarily be community seekers or meaning seekers in pursuit of a vital and far-reaching purpose of existence. Nevertheless, they too would all do well to visit, take in the dimensions and explore the God-room to get to feel comfortable with the furniture: the words, poetry and prayers, the iconography, ceremonies, symbols and rituals which facilitate our growing ever more “familiar” with Adonai. However the deity is understood, one of the core tenets of Judaism is that there is but one god. Affirmed by Jews in the shma prayers as the centerpiece of all Jewish worship services, it is above all a statement of morality summoning the Jew to ethical behavior. It teaches that the one-ness of god implies the one-ness of humanity.  And many pathways and byways can take us there – to the God-room.

CONCLUDING PERSPECTIVES ON GOD: A PRIMER ANTHOLOGY

            I have concluded this chapter with passages from various perspectives by rabbis, Jewish theologians, and perceptive, intelligent and representative layfolk on approaches to the divine that may be relevant to our discussion.  Wise and learned men and women who have visited and revisited the God-room have professed these ideas on god’s essence and existence. They have permitted a part of themselves to reside there and allowed what was there to reside with them.  Often that room remains their most esteemed and preferred span of space in the mansion because of what they have found there spiritually.

EXPLORING THE GOD ROOM

           We have pointed out that god as the Personification of the people may be thought of, among many options, either as a Personal god or Presence, to whom one relates as to a Person, or as an impersonal Force, or a Process, an abstraction - such as the Idealization of the core values, aspirations and moral character of a People.  Many religious thinkers profess that god can never be defined precisely, for to do so would diminish the divine by confining god to that definition alone - making god an It, as Martin Buber has taught.  Whether conceived as Person or Process, god cannot be contained in any definition.  Maimonides wished for us to understand this when he defined god as what the divine is not rather than what god is. He taught that we should speak about god using terminology ascribing to god negative rather than positive attributes: God does not lack absolute power; god is not without perfect knowledge, etc.  Because he understood how restricting and limiting definitions are, Maimonides tried to avoid defining, that is, describing the divine by its properties, since that kind of language might give the appearance of confining god to human-made words, categories and definitions.

          Raimon Panikkar writes in “How not to talk about God” that:

                  “God” is a word that pleases some people and displeases others...

            Many people do not succeed in resolving the following dilemma:

            whether to believe in a caricature of God that is nothing but a

            projection of our unsatisfied desires; or to believe in absolutely

            nothing at all, and, consequently, not even in oneself...

                   God cannot be made the object of any knowledge or any belief.

            God is a symbol that is both revealed and hidden in the very symbol

            of which we are speaking. There exist many concepts about God, but

            none “conceive of” God.  This means that to try to limit, define or

            conceive of God is a contradictory enterprise: what is produced by it

            would be only a creation of the mind, a creature.

                   God, if God “exists”, is neither at the left nor the right, neither above

            nor below, in every sense of these words.[15] 

                    For our purpose, and as a tentative first step forward in our god-seeking pathway, the best advice may be to strive to incorporate the various, often antithetical, god concepts into One.  A most worthy if challenging metaphysical and philosophical aspiration requiring reflection, reasoning and research! After all, the Shma recited at every Jewish prayer service, hails the One: God as Power, God as Person, God as Process, God as Personification, God as Perfection.  Or better yet, god is not less than all of the foregoing. 

            I often give this advice:

            In accordance with changing circumstances, sometimes you may find you are by turn interchanging and alternating ideas about god.  Rather than melding various concepts about god into One - monotheistically - you are harboring several contradictory notions about god’s nature and identity.  You should not take that intellectual struggle of reconciliation to mean that you have blended different religions into one or have been making god more than One.  Rather, such thinking may be an aspect or a necessary element of your search.  You are seeking universal consciousness.  You are not in pursuit of celestial intervention.  You are like a poet hidden in the light of thought (Shelly) pondering diverse understandings (meanings, significations, connotations, symbolizations, essences, convictions).  You are looking for an apprehension, that is, a perception through and beyond the senses, of god.

            As we develop and mature as thinking and feeling individuals, our growth is, in many ways, reflected in our ever-changing, ever-expanding understanding of god’s existence, nature, and character as well as god’s purpose for us.  As we walk along life’s unforeseen path, we all change.  And the ways in which we attempt to comprehend the divine also change with us.  The divine is perfect and absolute of course, by our own definition, but our imperfect human minds can never truly comprehend perfection.  To comprehend perfection, as philosophy has shown, one needs to be perfect.  Humanity can aspire to be god-like, but not God.  It is therefore advisable and even necessarily inevitable and justifiable, to think about god in different, often divergent ways and to have faith that we may one day bring these conceptions together into a ‘Oneness’

            A Bethesda, Maryland resident reflected in these words: “First, even before you think of God, you stand up proudly as a Jew, a member of an eternal people which has contributed so much to civilization, to society and to humankind.  If you chart which people did the most for the world by producing the greatest jurists, scientists, physicists, physicians, artists and writers, and Nobel Prize winners, the Jews are so up-chart, they’re off the charts.  And, judging by their impact, Western Civilization’s Jewish giants: Marx, Freud, Einstein, Jesus, Paul, Moses, and other Jews have been through history, also off the charts considering their impact on humankind.

            I heard a non-Jewish professor say in class: ‘When Jews, who wrote the Bible, including the Christian Bible for the most part, speak about God, you had better listen.  They produced a whole bunch of theories and ideas about God and messiahs, saints and geniuses. I read somewhere that, for example, there are some ten to twelve million Jews in the world and 1 billion, 300 million Catholics, and yet,, 22% of all Nobel Prize winners in Physics in the 20th century were Jews; half that - 11% - were Catholics.

            But beside Jesus, Paul, Maimonides and others of the past, the most important thinkers and writers of our own day are also - Jews.  Just look at the Nobel Prizes for literature, medicine, science, peace, etc.  And, as always through history, in trusted political circles, in powerful corporate positions requiring great intelligence and integrity, in the academy, in the media and in the arts - Jews.  And great religious thinkers and rabbis!  Pay attention to what they say about important things - especially about God: How to seek God and how to find God. They go back a very long way relative to most other peoples we know about and they have collectively experienced much more than others who have written about their own encounters with the divine. Their very existence is nothing short of the miraculous.”

         Conservative Rabbi Richard Rubenstein, in the tradition or “contra-tradition” of Rabbi Mordechai M. Kaplan, teaches that we should think about god not as a Person but as an “It” of awesome power. God, in this conception, lacks self-consciousness or awareness of Itself as God and is not mindful of us as individuals or attentive to humankind. Rubinstein’s idea of god is “the Holy Nothingness, the Ground of all Existence, the Source out of which we come and to which we ultimately return.”  “God is beyond all limitations and finite ‘thinghood’.”  Echoing the brand of mysticism that dissolves the self into the infinitude, he believes that god is not a purposeless void but rather the Source of all Existence (and therefore the source of values, aspirations and growth).  For Rubinstein,

           “Perhaps the best available metaphor for this conception is to

             liken God to the ocean, and all discrete existing beings to the

             waves.  Each wave has its moment of partially identifiable

             existence, but there is ultimately no separation between the

             waves and their oceanic substratum.  Hence, each wave is

             destined to return to and be wholly absorbed by its oceanic

             ground.” [16]

        Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn, in a similar approach but employing a variation of the metaphor, offers this image with which to think about god:

            Yeast mixed with the dough itself, is an inner force, causing

            the loaf to rise.  I mean no irreverent heresy in suggesting

            that God is the yeast of the universe.”[17]

        Kaplan, the founding father of Reconstructionist Judaism, requires that we give serious thought to the god vocabulary, grammar and semantics we employ:

            “The term God has to be analyzed.  When we do this we

            discover that it is a special kind of noun, for which the

            grammar books have no special designation.  God is not

            what might be called ‘a representative noun’, like man,

            air, water, etc.  It does not refer to a specific substance

            as those nouns do.  It belongs to a class of nouns that

            designate a particular function.  That is, the class to

            which such nouns as king, law-giver, and teacher belong. 

            It is therefore a functional noun.”[18]

            By contrast, according to the meta-language of traditional Jewish theology, “god is the ultimate, omnipotent actor in the ongoing historical drama of the universe and humankind.”  Conservative Rabbi, H. J. Wechsler, speaks of the god of the Bible being a Personal god.  He refuses to reduce god to a universal verity indifferent to the here and now. But like the non-traditional M. M. Kaplan, he too understands the divine by way of god’s function or effective workings in the world:

            “I believe in the God of the Bible - Who is utterly other, one,

              indivisible, and incorporeal, unlike all things of this world. 

              Language cannot describe Him, but He is known through His

              actions in the world.  His wisdom is manifest in His sublime

              creation, His love in the giving of the Torah, His justice and

              power in the redemption of His people from slavery.  The God

              of widows and orphans, Who is gracious and compassionate,

              is neither an object to be examined nor a theorem to be proved.

              ...There is one God in the world, and therefore history has

              a Judge Who stands above the temporal realm.  The world has

              a King to Whom every ruler must answer, and to that King

              every dispossessed and downtrodden person may appeal....To

              know God is to trust in Him and thereby to be transformed by

              Him.  In places where human beings truly meet, God transforms

              that meeting.  When we are ill, He is there at the bedside and His

              mercy transforms our pain.  When death brings us close to the

              abyss, God transforms that place.  When despair threatens and

              the whirlwind blows, God’s presence makes suffering possible to

              bear.” [19]

             Reform Rabbi Jacob J. Weinstein, past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, takes note of “the subtle interplay of faith and folk …and the unyielding affirmation of the dignity and preciousness of man as creature and partner of god. God sacrifices a portion of His omnipotence to allow man free will. Man can most properly worship God in freedom: ‘I am the Lord thy God who brought thee out of the house of bondage…’ Judaism is earth-oriented. No gains can be made in heaven by detouring the world.” Concerning his understanding of the divine, He observes further that,

            In Judaism’s view of history, God is the magnetic power drawing

            nations to their highest and noblest deeds.  He is the Power that

            presides above the powers, the Power that remains when earthly

            powers have had their day and cease to be.  He is the banner of

            social advance, the sum of our collective ideals, the Absolute Ideal

            above the tug of war, and still the good and moving finger which

            lures and prods our collective will and intelligence to their utmost.[20]

            Rabbi Arthur Green, Professor of Jewish Thought at Brandeis University, thinks of god as the Universal Mind/Heart.  God is the collective Mind/Heart/Soul/Presence (chachma/lev/neshama/shechina).  We took note of his seminal question in the beginning of this chapter. He asks, “In what sense do you use the word ‘God’ or its Hebrew equivalent in your religious life?”  His answer is,

              “Essentially I am a Jewish monist.  I encounter life as a single

                reality.  When seen from the viewpoint of unity, that whole

                of being is called YHWH (or that old pagan-rooted and

                misleading word ‘God,’ if you must).  When seen from the

                standpoint of our fragmented daily existence it is called

                HaWaYaH, meaning ‘existence.’  I do not know a Fellow or

                a Force ‘out there,’ beyond the world in some quasi-spatial

                sense, Who creates, reveals, redeems.  But I do believe there

                is a deep consciousness that underlies existence, that each

                human mind is a part of the universal Mind, and that the

                Whole is sometimes accessible (‘revealed’) to its parts.  The

                One of which I speak is transcendent, in that it is infinitely

                elusive and mysterious, while yet being deeply immanent,

                present throughout the world to those whose eyes are open.”

                 [21]

 Jewish scholars have tirelessly challenged the vision of god expressed as an “impersonal pantheism” which suggests that god is everything (not to be confused with the idea that god can be thought of as the “totality of consciousness”). They insist that god, to be God, must be “You,” not “It.” “God can only be known in relationship and can never adequately be described outside of relationship.”

Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, professor of liturgy, Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman teaches that the images and metaphors of god we employ ought to “denote a being.” And that being “exists independently and enters into relationship with us.” And Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf contends that only a personal vision of godcan inspire or mandate religious commitment.”[22]

Finally, Judy Carr, columnist for The National Jewish Post and Opinion in “My Kind of God” writes,

            “I like synagogue.  I am not a great synagogue-goer, but when I am

            there I like being in a wholesome atmosphere, with happy people,

            acting well to each other for that day at least.  You put aside all your

            difficulties and differences and hear the message of a kindly God who

            does not get angry quickly and solves problems.  He does not require

            the impossible of his worshippers, just be decent, human and do right

            and let God take care of the worse things.”

                        “I have also been reading a book by an eminent Christian theologian.

            To me, it seems chock-full of horrors.  If you do not totally surrender

            yourself to God and His Son, you will suffer eternal hell.  Hell is for

            people who are not saved.”

                        “I once asked a Reform rabbi if Jews had to be saved.  “Judy, what

            do you think you are being saved from?’ he asked me.  A sane,

            rational answer from a sane, rational religion.”

       There is a popular story of a young teacher who trumpeted to his class of children that he is an atheist. He asked if they were atheists too and their hands exploded into the air like fleshy fireworks except for Sara who had not joined her classmates. “If you’re not an atheist what are you?” the teacher asked. “I’m Jewish.” The teacher is perturbed and asks why she is Jewish. Sara answers, “because my mom is Jewish, my dad is Jewish and my grandparents are Jewish, so I am Jewish.” “And if your mom is a moron and your dad an ignoramus, what would you then be?” the teacher asks. “Then,” says Sara, “I’d be an atheist.”

My concluding advice is this: When you find yourself standing at the threshold of the Jewish Mansion – or any of the world’s spiritual mansions, for that matter - and you are reaching out to take hold of the doorknob, extend your hand forward to rattle the knocker as an ignostic. Start there. Then, step lively right into the mansion. Explore the architecture, the interior decorations, the antechambers, the ground floor, the mezzanine, the story above and on up. Visit the God-room many times because it and we change. We grow. We perceive that our identity, the

“who we are,” remains firmly implanted for a lifetime. But beliefs move on. Whatever we call our core beliefs now, today, will not likely remain the same in five years time. They may not be quite as essential tomorrow; they will surely take on other forms over time. Without question, the God-room is a prominent and important room, to say the very least. In unanticipated ways, a stop over in that place even for a temporary stay, may inform the character of your life, may help determine the conduct of your life and perhaps even change your life.

Get to know the God-room. The defining word is, "know" - as in wisdom, gnosis, intuitive spiritual comprehension, discernment, cognition, Torah. Become familiar with the essential furniture, distinguished appointments and the extensive layout of the room: they accommodate ultimate matters.

 It is important to visit the room often over time especially in the company of loved ones, friends, and wise teachers who have been there before. Begin working out a god-idea, perhaps a god-relationship, for yourself even before you work out more fully your own uniquely idiosyncratic personal theology. Encourage others of your family to pay attention to the subject.

We have been suggesting that it may be best to begin by seeing yourself as a god-seeker or a god-seeking-ignostic. That status suggests you will ever remain sensitive to, and on the lookout for, insights about what the term “god” signifies for you – whether person or abstraction - and how to know or understand what god, whether personal or impersonal, could mean in your life. True ignosticism exists in an active mental state – a sort of eager unknowing. But do not allow theology to get in the way of mitzvot. As we have pointed out, for Jews “deed precedes creed” especially since a person’s thinking changes over time. Ideas are not as lasting or durable as the good we accomplish by our actions.

 In the synagogue, church or mosque, endeavor to apprehend the truths and verities of life by exploring and examining feelings, emotions, passions. Theology requires rationality; worship reaches for the rhapsodic. In a temple, chapel, or sanctuary consecrated to devotion and prayer, suspend being a theologian-in-the-making or a student registered for an academic course on the subject, “god: variations on a theme”, 0.1. Instead, open yourself to experience the spirituality, poetry, history, and the depths of sentiment and imagination that humankind has invested in relating to god, however understood and formulated. Relax, participate in community.  Whatever term for god is being recited, chanted or sung: Eternal, Yahweh, Adonai, Shechina (Presence), Makom (Place) and others, whether as divine Person or impersonal Process, get to “acknowledge” the realm of the ignostically ambiguous and live with it for a while. At least until one day you “know” better.

(1) God, god, “god” “God,” in the lexicon of this chapter are several alternative renderings or presentations designating the deity. From the context it may be seen that each is intended to be appropriate where necessary to convey the various meanings intended.

 

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