The following is an excerpt from a sermon that I delivered on March 22nd at the Pelham Jewish Center:
The experience that brought me back to Judaism was this: Freshman year of college, sitting with my friend Clint late at night in our quad as the yellow-orange lights glowed above our heads. He had just brought me to his Campus Crusade for Christ meeting, and I left in tears–embarrassed, alone, wondering why I had even agreed to come. It wasn’t as though I was looking to become Christian, or even learn more about Christianity. But there was something powerful about this religious community that came together to pray and do acts of service, and most of all, there was something powerful about how they talked about God. With such conviction, as if they were sure of how God acted in the world–and more importantly, how God was acting in their own individual lives. They talked about having a relationship with God.
In my memory, no rabbi–no Jewish person I had ever encountered–spoke about God, and certainly not about having a relationship with God. “Jews care about this world, the here and now,” my rabbis had told me. The notion that God could become human? Absurd. Any attempt to describe God acting in the world? Audacious, impossible. And the message about the God of the Hebrew Bible that I had always gotten from growing up in the Conservative Christian Bible belt was that this God was an angry, wrathful God. A consuming fire, ki hashem eloheicha eish ochla hu. Whereas the God of my Southern Baptist classmates was a God of love and forgiveness, my God, the only God that I had, was a God that was impossible to approach. Because if so, you’d be eaten alive. There’s no relationship, no love here.
And I learned that this image of an all-consuming God that you had to keep your distance from wasn’t just a conservative Christian reading of the Hebrew Bible. It’s here within our texts too:
Rabbi Chama said in the name of Rabbi Chanina: “Why is it written: ‘You shall walk behind the Lord your God’? Is it even possible for a human being to walk behind the Divine Presence? Is it not said, ‘For the Lord your God is a consuming fire’?! Rather, [this means] one should walk according to God’s values: just as the Holy One clothes the naked… so too you clothe the naked; God visited the sick…so too you visit the sick; God comforted mourners…so too you comfort mourners; God buried the dead… so too you bury the dead.” (Talmud Bavli, Sotah 14a)
You can’t get close to God. It’s impossible, it seems, according to the Torah and the rabbis. So instead, we do mitzvot. Bein adam l’chavero, between human beings and each other, and bein adam l’makom, between human beings and the Divine. Acts which are suppose to connect us to the people around us and to the unseen God. But I think the reality for us is that those mitzvot become ends unto themselves. Demonstrable, tangible acts that could serve as pathways to building connections and coming close–but so often, they just create even more distance.
The consequence of all of this was that I learned that Jews didn’t talk about God at all. So sitting there in the lamplight with Clint, I told him my deep fear: what if there is no Jewish way to talk about God? What if, for us, God is completely irrelevant to studying Torah and practicing mitzvot, and therefore, might as well not exist? Something in my 18-year-old soul found this so incredibly painful. I refused to believe that Jews didn’t have faith or language to express deeper spiritual experience. And so I went out in search of it.email print