Learning Faith’s Languages

January 1, 2009
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By Jarah Greenfield

Like many other Jews who grew up secular, I initially approached the idea of God with skepticism and even disdain.  For most of my life, whenever I heard the word “God” I cringed and immediately activated my selective listening skills to tune out the irritating static of exclusionary religious fervor, or chosen naiveté, as I understood religion to be.  But this is not a story about changing sides through discovering a great and enduring faith.  There isn’t a pat lesson in my journey to the rabbinate about how I finally understood an eternal truth in God and learned to speak and to hear the word “God” with renewed wonder and awe.  The truth is that every time I am about to utter the word “God” from the bimah, I seize up in a tiny way and a swarm of thoughts rushes through me.  I imagine someone in the fourth row getting irritated.  I ask myself if I’m up for the challenge of improvising a few descriptive substitutes for the word itself.  I wonder who is not hearing what I mean to say and who is sitting back and taking comfort in her faith or feeling validated in his spiritual journey. 

Over the past few months, I have had countless conversations about God.  In my neighborhood in Mt. Airy, I’ve sat together with Atheists, Secular Humanists, Reconstructionists, and students of Jewish Renewal to talk about God: to try to push through the barriers of language, to talk about what we really believe and mean to say.  We examine certainty and uncertainty, doctrine and dogma, Jewish peoplehood and forces greater than peoplehood alone.

In my student pulpit, my b’nai mitzvah students are openly struggling with the idea of God in the prayers they are learning.  We spend most of our class time examining the problem of God from different angles.  What does it mean to say, “Baruch she’amar v’hayah ha’olam” (Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came into being) if you don’t believe there is a Great Speaker.  What does it mean to be a chosen people if there is no Chooser?  When we recite the blessing over the Torah that says, “asher natan lanu Torat emet” (who gave us Torah of truth), what are we affirming to be true?  (One student posited that perhaps the Torah holds only a fraction of the truth in the universe and that a huge percentage of truth may be distributed among all the other scientific and religious traditions of the world.)

No matter where they locate their opposition to God, what I tell my students is that although they may reject a theology, that decision isn’t enough; then, they would be building their Jewish identities upon what they are not, or what they do not believe, instead of who the are. In thinking about God, they have to take an additional step. They need to be able to affirm something about themselves or their tradition or the world that reflects what they experience as true during this time in their lives. And that’s how we go about studying Torah.

In a Mussar class I am taking at RRC with Rabbi Ira Stone, my habitual efforts to stave off God through fancy substitutions and twists of logic do, in fact, get challenged in a fundamental way.  In practicing Mussar, I find myself challenged to always remember my obligation to others, whether these others are an excessively slow driver ahead of me, a classmate, or a nefarious political leader.  By extension, as Rabbi Stone teaches, my state of obligation to the human other extends infinitely toward the Divine Other.  Although the theology deserves a treatise of its own, the parts of the teaching that rise to the surface through the language of Mussar are that God is the source of the human ethical impulse, and, perhaps more pragmatically, my own personal choices about how I behave toward others in the world necessarily flows from of my ethical consciousness.

For me, the value of all this discussion about God or no-God among the Jewish people must be measured by how well it enables us to live ethically, to affirm our identities in relationship to our tradition, and to reach greater understanding of those who do not share our beliefs or our faith traditions.  Just as surely as all members of the human family inhabit the same planet, we all have the capacity to use our intellects, our bodies and our spirits for forces of destruction or for forces of good.  Whichever of the mythical 70 languages of Torah best teaches us to become better, healthier people, it is a language worth learning to speak.

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Jarah Greenfield is a 5th year rabbinical student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and a board member of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America.

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