Opening Conversations about God

January 1, 2009
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By Jo Hirschmann

When I was in my early twenties, I stumbled upon God by accident. In search of a connection to other Jews, I had started going to synagogue. Once there, I found God’s presence in the songs that filled the sanctuary, in the bonds of friendship and mutuality that held the synagogue together, in a joke shared over a brownie in the oneg room.

Much of my participation in shul life has taken place at lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) synagogues – at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco and Congregation Beth Simchat Torah in New York City. These synagogues are crucibles of creativity that welcome, nurture, and honor diverse expressions of Jewish and LGBT life. They are big tents that have become home to traditionally observant Jews, secular Jews, and everyone in between.

Under the flaps of these tents, I have learned that we are the inheritors of vast and complex traditions with multiple points of connection and entry. These, then, are the pressing questions: Do we feel connected to something larger than ourselves – whether that is community, tradition, history, God, or something we call by an entirely different name? And, if not, how can Jewish communal life open doors to help us find these connections?

For the record, I do not believe in a supernatural God that works miracles or intervenes in our lives. I experience God as that which is infinitely larger than each of us and also as that which dwells inside each of us. I am alarmed by the rise in religious fundamentalism but I hold human fundamentalists — Jewish, Muslim, and Christian — responsible for this, not God. I wrestle with the Bible’s stories about a violent, punitive God that burns with anger, but I believe that God’s presence in our lives is loving and compassionate. And I believe that, when properly harnessed, this love can be a force that guides us as we repair the world’s broken places.

As a rabbinical student, I have worked in congregational, hospital, and community settings where I have had conversations with Jews and non-Jews from across the spectrum of American life. One woman, who is homebound and severely debilitated, talked about the abundance of blessings in her life and her awareness of God’s constancy and loyalty. Another woman described how she feels utterly abandoned by God, even though she felt strongly connected to God as a child. She told me she does not believe God will ever return to her but she goes to synagogue each week without fail. One man talked to me about his strongly secular and cultural Jewish identity and then wanted me to pray the Mi Sheberach with him. And another man, certain he was receiving pastoral support from me, told me long stories about the joys and sorrows of his life without ever mentioning God.

In none of these conversations, did a referendum on God’s existence seem helpful or desirable. Rather, my role was to open up a space in which people could talk, find support, and seek out new sources of connection – whether human or Divine or both. The story at the beginning of Genesis 18 seems like an instructive guide in making sense of this.

While Abraham is recovering from his circumcision, three guests approach his tent.  Abraham and Sarah bring water for washing and hurry to prepare food. From here, Jewish tradition derives teachings about the importance of visiting the sick and welcoming strangers. Both of these teachings underscore our commitment to fostering connection and support. Throughout the exchanges of Genesis 18, it is unclear if the guests are human or divine. This ambiguity perfectly captures the spectrum of ways in which we find and create connection. Perhaps that which sustains us is purely the product of human hands. Or perhaps God’s messengers fill our lives, bringing support as we need it.

When I first turned up at synagogue one erev Shabbat, the tent flaps hung wide open for me. I took my seat under the tent’s protective roof and found a hundred new sources of connection. And, while I sat there, I learned my sustaining piece of Torah. What matters most is whether the tent is open on all four sides and, once there, whether there is food for our hungry bellies, water for our road-weary feet.

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Jo Hirschmann is a 5th year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in New York.

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