Friday, April 1, 1994
Dear GUCI Staff:
When I was a kid I used to say, “Don’t bother me with questions about God. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m a Jew. I do Jewish things and have Jewish feelings, and that’s enough.” But as I’ve grown older it has become not enough. Let me phrase it differently. I have come to the realization that the first sentence of my above quote is unrealistic, immature, and not even very Jewish. It is unrealistic because as human beings with intellect, we naturally need to wonder about the forces in our lives, to question from where we have come, and to try to make sense of the meaning of life (more personally, the meaning of our own lives). It is immature because it eliminates the challenge of confronting the unknown. It stops short any search through unsettling, insecure, and even uncomfortable territory. And finally, as Jews we are commanded, in the first of the Big Ten (I’m sure even Bobby Knight would acknowledge that there is an even bigger ten than the one here in the Midwest) that Adonai is God, the one, and that there are no other gods but Adonai. That there is Adonai is clear in the Ten Commandments and all other Jewish writings. And so, Jews must confront the idea of Adonai. But the texts fail to make clear for us what exactly Adonai is.
I think that within the non-definition of Adonai lies both the beauty and the frustration of our Jewish heritage (read religion). Judaism’s wisdom understands that belief in God is a personal process. To define God for us waters down the quest and leaves each of us to either accept or deny someone else’s god concept. We Jews are compelled to wrestle, as did each of ancestors from Jacob to Spinoza, with our own personal definition of God when we read the sentence, “I am Adonai,” and our relationship to God as reflected in the ending of that sentence, “Your God.” But therein also lays the great frustration, not being told what God is. We all know how comforting it is for members of other religions who are taught from childhood what God is, and what happens in heaven etc. Comforting, IF YOU CAN BUY IT! I’m glad that Judaism understands human skepticism and encourages this personal quest for understanding and belief. But it does leave us without much comfort.
I have been accused several times of being a rabbi (I admit it) and therefore knowing the answers (I think not). Many people think that rabbis necessarily believe in God and have arrived at conclusions. I can attest to the fact that that is not always the case. Rabbis, sometimes more than other people, are simply travelers along the path of understanding and believing. The path is a bumpy one, and not all steps move us forward. But to consider, and ponder, and think about God, we must. The commandment is for all Jews, it even includes Rabbis.
With all the above said, I must tell you that I believe in God yet have no clear definition of the word. Rather than being able to define or describe my personal concept of God, I feel that life has brought me closer to an approach to God. What I mean is that I have had many, many experiences that leave no doubt in my mind and heart that there is God. But as the philosophers maintained, to define God is to limit God. Language itself is too narrow a tool. How can one describe a feeling, an inspiration, even a mood? But I do feel that I have encountered God and been touched by the divine presence. I distinctly remember at the time of the births of both my sons, soon after the death of my grandfather, feeling the divine order of things, wondering at the miracle of life, not just birth, but life itself. And I do recall the feeling of being blessed with the opportunity to witness and to hold and feel new life, while appreciating and loving the life that ended at that same time. Perhaps it was the order of it all that made me think of Adonai. Or, perhaps it was the potential of the new life, the good that just might emerge from those babies as they made their way in the world that touched me in a religious way.
There was power in those moments for me, as there have been at other times, in Israel, here at camp, at home. I think of God when I see a child smile, or am moved by a piece of music, or think of love, kindness, and goodness. I feel that when we do good things for each other, when we make each other’s lives richer or easier, when we exchange ideas and create, we are doing godlike things. I understand that humans have the absolute choice to be the opposite of godlike as well. But our heritage demands that we choose good over evil and therefore strive to be “Kadosh.” The things we teach here at camp, the lessons we learn from our parents and rabbis, they are not just words, but are words to live by. So perhaps God is that ideal for which we strive to uplift our lives. Remember the words of the song, “Like God we think, like God we feel, like God we love.”
What then, you might ask, is prayer all about? One cannot pray to an ideal, or a potential, or an uplifting sort of force, can one? For me (remember, these ideas are personal) prayer is time set aside. It is designated time to consider these lofty matters, to reflect, to appreciate, to connect. Judaism is a discipline that requires us to set time aside for these important activities. Prayer helps me connect with myself, my people, my world, and therefore, God. Sometimes I wish God were an old man on a throne so that I could argue with him, be angry with him, reject him. But that would be too easy. It would remove the responsibility of being godlike from us, and that cannot be. So, I will continue to wrestle with these ideas, and, in doing so, feel very Jewish.
I hope you disagree with many of the things I have written here. To do so is to engage the ideas, to confront what is in your own mind and heart, to join the search. I also hope that you will keep in mind that I am just like you, somewhere wandering along the path of life and understanding, trying to make heads or tails of it all (and of course, just in case there is someone listening, praying for the Bears to make the playoffs).