Never Knowing

Rabbi Ben Goldstein
February 9, 2014
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When people find out I’m a rabbi, they often respond with something to the effect of, “Oh, wow, that’s so cool,” or, “Really? You’re a rabbi? You don’t look like a rabbi; you don’t have the grey beard or anything!”[1]

I’d like to take this opportunity to clear a few things up about what it means to be a rabbi. Yes, I have spent an extensive amount of time studying about Judaism, about the religion, philosophy, theology, law, and history of the Jewish people. No, I do not eat bacon, or ham, or pork chops[2], yes, I do go to services more often than most people, and no, hearing curse words does not shock or offend me.

As a rabbi, I represent a long line of Jewish tradition, and when people interact with me, often they see themselves as interacting with the rich philosophical, ideological and historical tradition that Judaism represents.[4] I understand that for many people, a rabbi is a symbol of all that they were taught in religious school or yeshiva, that we have the potential to represent every authority figure that wagged their finger at you.

Let me tell you what being a rabbi does not entail. I am not here as a sounding board for all of your problems with organized religion. You do not have to tell me how you guilty you feel that you don’t come to services: I am not in the business of confessions, that’s another guy. I’m thrilled that you too took philosophy 101 in college and can tell me that religion is an opiate of the masses, that’s swell. No, I do not care that you are spiritual but not religious,[3] and yes, I have problems with the Old Testament too. I do not have some direct line to God, in fact, while I do believe that there is a God, my thoughts on the matter might surprise you. So let’s start there.

I have been struggling with God for my entire time on this planet. At first I was taught, and believed that God was some gigantic bearded man in the sky who was watching every step I took.[5] God was some kind of accountant king who sat in the sky double-checking to see that our good deeds outweighed our sins. For me, it was this dominating figure that gave us the commandments and ordered us to praise Him[6], and do His bidding.

Once that bit of fantasy wore off for me, I spent a decade not thinking of God at all. Instead, studying all the great philosophers and psychologists, and realizing the wealth of wisdom outside of the religious tradition. I basically threw off the yoke of religion, and did whatever I wanted. The only problem with that was when I came to realize that the life I was living was a pretty empty one.

When I finally decided to go to rabbinical school, I came at it from the orthodoxy of my youth. I found it challenging to read biblical criticism, and I questioned the faith and faculty of anyone who doubted the divinity of the Torah, and the uniqueness of the wisdom of Judaism. I was back to thinking of an omniscient, omnipotent God who cared for every one of God’s subjects[7] and who ruled with a “strong hand and an outstretched arm.”[8]

I’d like to say that now that I’m a rabbi, I have a better idea of just what exactly God is, but unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. After all this time, and all of the studying, I am no closer to knowing what God is, than I was when I was a child sitting in my “chumash” class, listening to Uncle Moishy while doing my worksheets.  I don’t know who wrote the Torah any more than I know who wrote the book of love. Yes, I am a rabbi, but that does not mean that I have unlocked the mysteries of the universe and can give answers. It only means that I have spent years searching.

One thing I do know is that, to me it doesn’t matter who wrote the Torah. To me, it’s not important if there was a historical figure named Moshe (or Moses if you prefer), who led a nation of slaves out of Egypt. What are important to me are the lessons that I learn from that story, to know the truth of our human struggle for freedom. What I learn from the Torah is that human beings are frail and flawed; I learn that people, even ones who have witnessed acts of God, continue to question.

Being a rabbi does not make anyone immune from doubting or struggling with God, but it does mean that unlike other people, we cannot ignore those doubts or struggles. To be a Jew means to wrestle with the discomfort of not knowing, to recognize that we are unsure, and to continue to probe. It’s partly because of my uncertainty that I am constantly looking, constantly trying to figure things out, to reevaluate and to understand God and the universe just a little bit better. I don’t have a perfect understanding of what I believe God to be, and I hope that I never do.


[1] That is when they’re not telling me that I look like Ari from Entourage.

[2] Yes Lisa Simpson, I do know that they are all from the same animal,

[3] What does that even mean!?

[4] Again, when they’re not thinking that I’m Ari from “Entourage”

[5] Why he looked a lot like Santa Claus, I couldn’t tell you

[6] Yes, at the I could only think of God as a man

[7] By this point I was able to allow myself to question God’s gender

[8] Deuteronomy 26:8

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Rabbi Ben Goldstein was ordained from the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in May of 2010. Since that time he has been working as the rabbi for a congregation in suburban New Jersey (yes, that’s right, I said New Jersey). He has been watching television and movies ever since he was old enough to have the core strength to sit up without falling over. Goldstein's love for the performing arts led him to pursue it as a career and he even managed to star in such cinematic triumphs as Jewz N The Hood. After a number of Signs from our Creator (and more than a few casting directors) he realized that actors don’t take themselves nearly serious enough so he needed to find something else to do. Taking a look at the job description of a rabbi (writer, counselor, teacher, performer, student) he thought it sounded like a really great way to spend his life. In addition to being trained as a rabbi, Goldstein has an encyclopedic knowledge of television and movies from the mid-80s to today. That makes him either a fantastic Jeopardy contestant or the world’s most boring cocktail party guest. You can reach Rabbi Goldstein at rabbi@tbemc.org.

1 Comment

  1. “What are important to me are the lessons that I learn from that story, to know the truth of our human struggle for freedom. What I learn from the Torah is that human beings are frail and flawed; I learn that people, even ones who have witnessed acts of God, continue to question.”

    Rabbi Goldstein . . . Thank you for this informative piece. The portion I quoted above really struck a chord with me. I have no answers . . . Only more questions. And more lessons to learn.

    Thank you again and thank you to Rabbi Lizz Goldstein for sharing this piece so I could find it.

    Posted by
    M. Jonas
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