Commentary: Defining God Upward
At the elite Prozdor Hebrew High School in New York, I asked a class of 20 students—the cream of the Conservative movement’s crop—how many of them believe in God. Care to guess the answer? Zero. Or, more precisely, one-half—one student said she wasn’t sure. The rest, they said, were atheists.
Interestingly, when I asked them the same question after teaching a course entitled “How Not to Believe in God,” almost a dozen raised their hands. Why? Not so much because of what we had learned over the three months, but because of what we unlearned: specifically, the naive assumptions about God and religion that my students had acquired over the years.
When the Jewish “God” meant something more sophisticated than the old man in the sky, rewarding the good and punishing the bad like a cosmic Santa Claus; when the concept spoke to a 21st-century, scientifically informed worldview; when it didn’t seem like nonsense—then they not only agreed with the idea, but said they had felt this way all along.
It’s a bit of a cliché that Jews don’t talk about God like our Christian sisters and brothers do. And, for many of us, this is a good thing. We have heard all too much “testimony” from proselytizers, and we have had too much experience with fanatics who believe that God told them to bomb this building or invade that country. Surely, in our public lives, a little less certainty and theological effusiveness would be for the better.
But as Hanukka approaches, we should reconsider this notion, at least within our families and communities. Why? Because when we don’t talk about God—including our doubts, reservations and often secret inspirations and desires—we end up with an adolescent image of God that does not meet our real religious needs.
Hanukka, after all, was in large part an assertion of minority religious (and national) rights against not only a foreign oppressor, but also against a Jewish plurality that had grown ashamed of its religious roots. Jewish parents stopped circumcising their sons lest they be made fun of at the gymnasium. Jews who wanted to gain power in the dominant culture began fusing Greek and Jewish rituals, taking on Greek names and “closeting” their Jewish practices and beliefs. The Maccabean revolt, in response, was a great act of coming out. Of course, it was also radical and deeply problematic—but the Maccabees at least demanded an engagement with Jewish religion rather than a furtive closeting of it.
Today, we need to come out, theologically, for at least three reasons. First, adolescent theology is intellectually insulting. The Jewish tradition has spawned god concepts that are pantheist, Aristotelian, pagan, philosophical, mythic, erotic and, in the case of the Kabbala, all of the above and more. The Jewish theological bookshelf includes Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moses de Leon, Maimonides, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady, Emmanuel Levinas and, not least, the wave of feminist theologians who have only begun to interrogate the sexist assumptions of Jewish religion. To some, God does not exist—God is Existence itself. To others, God is known in the forces of eros, or justice, or both. As Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi has said, “I don’t believe in the same God you don’t believe in.”
Yet in most of our synagogues and public life, we hear a lowest-common-denominator Jewish theology. No wonder so many intelligent people leave religion to the pained and the pious. Imagine if we Jews demanded the same level of excellence in our public God-talk as we do in musical theater or opera, instead of the banality of pop radio. Spirituality and theology could be as intellectually and personally nourishing as the greatest of arts—but not if we refuse to engage with it on an adult level.
Second, abandoning theology to the credulous and zealous undercuts the very real benefits it can have for the rest of us. Belief was never the point: Religion is not about what happens after we die. It is about what happens when we live: how just we are, how kind and how we infuse our lives with a sense of gratitude and mystery.
Yes, religion offers theological doctrine, but what it really offers is solace, love, sanctity and value—all of them inchoate, all of them dear. To throw out such powerful spiritual technology because we do not like the language in which it is expressed approaches the level of tragedy.
Third, refusing to air our doubts and update our theologies to the realities of our lives is politically dangerous. Already, a third of our country believes itself to be at war externally (with Islam) and domestically (in what used to be called the Culture Wars). Do we really want the deep power of religion to be ceded to those who would use it as a billy club against anything they perceive as dangerous?
If we fail to engage with our religious tradition around the dinner table and in our Jewish communities; if we fail to bring our full selves to that conversation, not closeting our life experiences, our doubts or our private hopes and fears, then we indeed abandon a great and powerful spiritual technology to that small sliver of believers who cling to dogma precisely because of the insecurity of fanaticism. And this betrayal hurts our minds, our souls and our political lives.
Hanukka teaches that an alternative is possible. It is possible to “show up” as Jews, honestly and with integrity. Wherever we find ourselves along the spectrum of belief, all those who question, reflect and publicly engage in difficult theological conversations are our religion’s best challengers and guarantors.
Jay Michaelson’s latest book is Everything Is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism (Trumpeter).