“We really have a remarkable group of 5th and 6th graders,” my cantor told me recently following one of her weekly classes with the group. The students meet with the cantor as part of learning the Hebrew prayers, and she always creates space to talk about the meanings of the prayers themselves. But this group, the cantor told me, was full of wonderful questions about God.
What’s so amazing about this?
In my experience most American Jews above the age of 6 or 7 aren’t comfortable talking about God. Unlike many other religious traditions, Judaism doesn’t generally emphasize belief in God, focusing instead on Jewish practice and observance, study, social action, and the many important cultural dimensions of Jewish identity. You can be an active and engaged member of a synagogue and the Jewish community, even regularly attend and participate in services without believing in God. It’s a noteworthy feature of contemporary Judaism that anyone can lead a rich and full Jewish life, whether they have a strong belief in God, are confirmed atheists, or fall somewhere in the broad middle.
This fact is particularly striking since the Ten Commandments, which are the centerpiece of this week’s Torah portion, begin with the words: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:2) For non-Jewish Bible readers, this statement functions as an introduction, a preamble to the commandments that are to follow. But strikingly, the rabbinic tradition accords this statement full pride of place as the First Commandment.
What does it mean for “I am the Lord your God” to be a commandment? The great medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides writes in his Sefer ha-Mitzvot: “By this injunction we are commanded to believe in God; that is, to believe that there is a Supreme Cause who is the Creator of everything in existence.” (Mitzvot Aseh 1)
So why is it that so many American Jews become uncomfortable when God is brought up in conversations, in newspaper columns, and even in synagogue?
One basic reason, I think, is that Jews often associate God with fundamentalism and fanaticism. It is a sad reality that many people in this world who seek to stoke division and emphasize the superiority of their own cultures, values, and traditions evoke God and religion in prominent ways that turn off those Americans — Jewish and otherwise — who don’t align with those values. This fact is especially sad since so many religious people who have a deep faith in God also may not support these extreme positions, but we’re all aware of how the loudest and most polarizing voices increasingly garner the most attention. And so for American Jews who may be more committed to pluralism and moderation than the population at large, God becomes a turn-off.
But beyond this unfortunate association, I think that it’s often hard for us to understand Who or What God is. We don’t often take the opportunity to think or talk about God beyond simply asserting belief or a lack thereof. God provokes a strong and complicated reaction in many of us that is difficult or uncomfortable to explore, and so just what we mean by ‘God’ too often goes unexamined.
It is worth noting, for example, that Maimonides, steeped as he was in Aristotelian philosophy, conceived of God very differently from, say, a Jew in Jerusalem in Temple times. That Jew in turn conceived of God very differently from a Jew in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, who in turn understood God very differently from the way many Jews do in America today.
It is vital that we recognize that all our conceptions of God are precisely that — conceptions and so are gravely limited. God is beyond understanding, comprehension, or even language and so any of the terms or images that we use to try to understand God are pale reflections of the larger reality — not unlike the proverbial blind men who feel around the elephant and believe they are coming to understand the nature of the beast. Each forms an image of the elephant that is true but none of them grasps Truth.
I used this example with our 5th and 6th grade class when I recently met with them to follow up on their discussion with the cantor. Our conversation was an important reminder of how sophisticated our young people are and how capable they are of grappling with complicated ideas if their questions and challenges are taken seriously.
We talked at length about how natural and inevitable it is that we create metaphors and mental images of God as we vainly try to grasp what lies beyond our ken. I emphasized for our students that it’s vital that we don’t become so fully attached to any particular conception of God that we forget it is precisely that — a conception. If we substitute our own limited human understanding of God for the larger reality of God’s being then we can find ourselves violating the second of the Ten Commandments: worshiping something created by humans rather than acknowledging God.
I think many Jews shy away from discourse about God because we instinctively recognize and thus reject the dangers and hubris that stem from absolute certainty. But affirming God exists, as the first commandment unequivocally does, is not the same as saying we are certain what God is or what God wants. We are told only that God redeemed us from Egypt — that God is compassionate and is a force for justice and freedom in the world. The first commandment tells us to ally ourselves with the forces of justice and freedom and not to think that we ourselves control the world, that we possess all the answers. By acknowledging Something larger than ourselves, we open ourselves up to wonder and possibility, and that’s a commandment we can all get behind.
Rabbi Joshua Waxman joined Temple Beth Rishon of Wyckoff this July after serving 15 years as the rabbi of a Reconstructionist congregation outside of Philadelphia. He is a member of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.