Rabbi Shira Stutman is an alumna of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship Program. She is a Rabbi at Congregation Kesher Shalom in Abington, PA. Shira can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In the beginning of Parshat Toldot, God is busy. Within the course of two chapters, God answers Isaac’s prayer for a child; gives Rebekah an answer to her question about her uncomfortable pregnancy (“two nations are in your womb…”); and twice appears to bless Isaac, remind him of the covenant, and/or assuage fears. God is in close contact with Rebekah and Isaac. Unlike us, they do not turn to text, liturgy, halakha, or ritual to access God (at least in the pshat or literal Bible text). Instead, they turn directly to God.
Their approach to God stands in opposition to what I was taught as a child. I received the implicit and explicit message that speaking directly to or with God was not a very Jewish thing to do. Not only did we not speak to God outside the context of traditional t’fila, but we also refrained from speaking about the God to Whom we prayed. We were, perhaps, swayed by Maimonides’ negative theology. Since we only can know what God isn’t, and not what God is, we really shouldn’t expend too much energy thinking about it.
For better or for worse, things are changing, at least in the congregation that I serve. The last few years I have been the rabbi to a group of about a dozen families in suburban Philadelphia. For many of these families, affiliation with the organized Jewish community extends to this congregation and no further. Although very highly educated in the secular realm, congregants know very little about Judaism.
When we first began learning together, I concentrated on the information end of things: a little Tanakh; Hebrew reading and writing; the holiday cycle. What the families really wanted to talk about, though, was God. They wanted to have a debate: “Do you have to believe in God to be Jewish?” At first, I balked. To me, the answer was an obvious “no”. At almost no point in Jewish history was there ever a requirement that a Jew must believe in God. We don’t start with God. We start with what we should do. Belief in God is helpful, perhaps, but more for the believer than for the recipient. God doesn’t really care very much whether we believe in God, I quipped.
They disagreed, and I think I know why. My congregants were not approaching the topic of God from a Jewish framework. They were approaching it from an American (read: Protestant Christian) one. And if you’re approaching religion from a Christian framework, then it would make sense to begin with God. For these Jews, God—not ritual, which requires somewhat of a life-style change—was the access point.
So we talked about God. A lot. More than one of them spoke about how they had a “Quaker” understanding of God, believing that there is a spark of God in each of us. (We’re in Philadelphia, where many Jewish children attend Quaker schools.) When I mentioned that this understanding of God can also be found in Judaism, congregants were interested in learning more. While they were not at all conflicted about announcing that their theology was based on Quakerism, they also appreciated that this theology could be found in Judaism, as well.
That congregants were starting to be interested in Judaism and Jewish learning I found exciting, but also a little bit jarring. It was as if we were looking through a telescope the wrong way. Instead of the traditional method, using Jewish tradition and text to develop an understanding of all the different ways that God functions in the world and is understood in Judaism, we were beginning with God, using God as a hook into Jewish text and tradition. I had heard of so many genres being used as “doorways to Judaism”: the arts, culture, international travel. But I had never heard of God being used as a doorway in. It felt somewhat sacrilegious.
Over the years, though, the conversations have continued. We have just decided to dedicate the next two years of study to the question of how God is viewed in different eras of Jewish history. We will parlay the group’s interest in God into a study of the Bible, the Talmud, Maimonides, the Shulkhan Arukh. Our study of God will take us into more traditional Jewish learning, as we expose ourselves to what I still believe to be the core of Jewish tradition: learning, observing, “behaving.” I am still left, though, with questions: Is this syncretism? Is it good for the Jews? Is it okay to begin with generalized ideas of God, not really rooted in anything specifically Jewish (or, even more disconcertingly, rooted in Christian belief)? What happens when someone’s ideas of God aren’t to be found in Judaism? I look forward to continuing to explore these questions, both with my congregants and with my colleagues, as we all figure out how to be Jews living in (at least) two civilizations in 21st century America.