Continuing Reflections of a Low-Church Jew

Dr. Gail Labovitz
February 14, 2013
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This month’s edition of Sh’ma poses, through the lens of David Moss’ artistic work “The Multi-Dimensional Jew: A Map of Judaism,” six questions:

What is behind me?

What surrounds me?

What is within me?

What is above me?

Whom do I face?

What is ahead of me?

As I consider Moss’ artwork, the essays in the journal, and these questions, I am sitting in a large room at the Stephen Breuer Conference Center in Malibu, California, where students from a variety of Jewish and Christian (both Catholic and Protestant) religious institutions around the greater Los Angeles area are gathered for twenty-four hours of inter-religious dialogue in the annual retreat known as InterSem.  It is one of the great privileges of my work at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies to serve as the faculty advisor for our school and our students’ participation in this program.  I find myself, then, putting together two thoughts.  First, as both Moss and Rabbi David Wolpe suggest in their writings in the print edition of this month’s Sh’ma, the question “What is above me?” seems the most obviously theological in Moss’ work, the one that most obviously points to the answer, “God” (whatever we may mean by that).  But as Wolpe starts to explore and as my experiences with InterSem suggest, the question of where God is to be “located” is a live and vital one in Judaism of the moment, and perhaps of every moment.

So the second thing on my mind is an experience at a previous InterSem retreat.  I’ve written about this experience before, so rather than recreate the wheel, allow me to cite my earlier writing on this topic (“Thoughts on Sacred Attunement,” Conservative Judaism 62:3-4):

Participating in this retreat has been an opportunity to learn much about other faith traditions – and my own religious identity.  One particularly memorable personal insight came several years ago, during a “debriefing” session after a Protestant prayer service.  Someone asked about the difference between “high church” and “low church” forms of worship in Protestant denominations.  The student who fielded the question answered roughly as follows: “Imagine walking into a church.  If there are high, soaring ceilings, fixed pews, stained-glass windows – the message is that God is transcendent and awesome, and that is high church.  On the other hand, if the ceiling is low, the chairs aren’t fixed in place, perhaps the space isn’t even regularly or exclusively used as a prayer space – God is immanent, and you’re in a low church environment.”  A little light-bulb went off in my head – bing! – I’m a “low church” Jew.

Now, I doubt this is actually such a hiddush, such news, to those who know me.  I was raised for a significant part of my childhood in the havurah movement, I’m a veteran of numerous summers at Ramah (Poconos), and have chosen most of my adult life to pray and affiliate with lay-lead minyanim (albeit most of them with large contingents of rabbis and/or rabbinical students as members).  The insight was not really about what resonates for me as a davenner and a Jew, but why.  Or better put, it was an opportunity to explore the underlying assumptions – particularly but not exclusively about God and Jewish community – that I don’t usually think about consciously, yet which nonetheless inform my preferences.  Just how is my experience of God a “low-church” experience (if in fact it is)?  Just how is the theology that speaks most directly to me a “low-church” theology (if in fact it is)?  What would the answers to those questions mean not only for where (and with whom) I pray, but how I live the rest of my life as a Jew?

The questions about God and God’s “location” that this experience lead me to grapple with further, and which I think (if I may presume to speak for his essay) my colleague Rabbi Wolpe is also grappling with in his essay, is often framed, as above, through the dichotomy of God as immanent vs. God as transcendent.  In recent Jewish thinking, the concept of an especially immanent God may be particularly associated with Mordechai Kaplan, who notably described God as the naturalistic, inherent “creative life of the universe.”  And yet elsewhere in his writings, Kaplan himself challenged the very basis of the dichotomy:

The so-called laws of nature represent the manner of God’s immanent functioning.  The element of creativity, which is not accounted for by the so-called laws of nature, and which points to the organic character of the universe or its life as a whole, gives us a clue to God’s transcendent functioning…God is the life of the universe, immanent insofar as each part acts upon every other, and transcendent insofar as the whole acts upon each part. (Judaism as a Civilization, 316; emphasis in the original.)

Which leads me to the thought that each of the six questions above could be understood – among the many (other) ways they can be understood – to point in their own way towards the Divine.   “Who do I face?”  As the tradition tells us, “Know before Whom you stand”: we stand before “the One who spoke and the world came into being” (Babylonian Talmud Eruvin 13b, Megillah 13b, and a number of additional examples), and “the One who purifies us” (Mishnah Yoma 8:9), and the one to Whom all wealth belongs (Tosefta Kiddushin 5:12).  And I think of how sometimes, just sometimes, when I close my eyes to say the Sh’ma, or to hear the shofar blown at the end of Ne’ilah at the conclusion of Yom Kippur, I try to envision the Divine presence as something that moves through me, infusing me but not of me – an answer to the question not only “What is above me?” or “What is within me?” but also “What surrounds me?”

And so on.  The challenge is to resist limiting God to being above us, or within us, or to being found in any single, fixed “location” at all.  The challenge is to resist being only “high church” or “low church” Jews.  The challenge is to seek the Holy Presence everywhere, and as an answer, one of the possible answers, to all questions.

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Dr. Gail Labovitz is Associate Professor of Rabbinic Literature at the American Jewish University, where she teaches primarily for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, and is also an ordained Conservative rabbi. She is the author of a number of scholarly articles, and the book Marriage and Metaphor: Constructions of Gender in Rabbinic Literature. She has also worked as a Senior Research Analyst for the Feminist Sexual Ethics Project at Brandeis University, and the coordinator of the Jewish Feminist Research Group for the Women's Studies Program at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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