Talking about God is the last taboo

By Naftali Brawer, September 4, 2013
Follow The JC on Twitter

There is a telling scene in Joseph Heller’s classic Catch 22 where the idiosyncratic Colonel Cathcart asks his chaplain to come up with a prayer to recite before sending the men on bombing missions. The chaplain suggests a number of sombre psalms which the colonel angrily rejects. “Haven’t you got anything humorous that stays away from waters and valleys and God?” he says. “I’d like to keep away from the subject of religion altogether if we can.”

I confess that as a communal rabbi I often felt a little like that hapless chaplain. While I was certainly encouraged to discuss religion I was not expected to talk about God. And were someone to survey the content of rabbinical sermons over any period they would undoubtedly discover a dearth of theological reflection. Why is not entirely clear but these inhibitions are not restricted to the pulpit.

Traditional yeshivot do not devote any serious time to the study of theology and an Amazon search with that word will bring up fewer than 20 titles by Jewish thinkers, in contrast to the hundreds by Christian scholars. One of the effects of this lack of a developed theology is that many otherwise educated and knowledgeable Jews bear archaic and simplistic notions of God that do little to sustain serious religious commitment in an increasingly complex post modern world.

It wasn’t always this way. Judaism has a rich tradition of theological reflection.Rabbis from the Talmudic era to the 19th century Chasidic masters constructed the most compelling and bold theologies that helped to undergird Jewish life through some of the most trying periods.

And God laughed with joy, saying: ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me

The thing about theology is that perceptions of God are, by definition, intensely subjective. The Midrashic sources are particularly alive to this, as this passage about the revelation at Sinai from Pesikta Rabbati shows:“Rabbi Levi said that God appeared in many guises, to this one [He appeared] standing, to that one sitting, to this one as a youngster and to that one as an elder. How so? When God appeared at the Red Sea to wage war against the Egyptians He appeared as a young [warrior] because it is only proper that a battle be waged by a [strapping] youth, yet when He revealed Himself at Sinai to give the Torah to Israel he appeared as an elder for it is only proper that the Torah is taught by a [wise] elder.”

Rabbi Levi is not for a moment suggesting that God objectively changes but rather that our perceptions and experiences of him change depending on circumstance. The God our ancestors conjured in their minds as they watched Pharaoh’s mighty army cast into the sea was undoubtedly a young vigorous warrior, whereas the God they experienced at Sinai was a hoary headed law-giver imparting words of timeless wisdom.

On the surface this sounds strikingly similar to the pre-Socratic philosopher Xenophanes who argues that our anthropomorphic conceptions of God are culturally relativistic: “Mortals consider that the gods are born, and that they have clothes and speech and bodies like their own. The Ethiopians say their gods are snub-nosed and black… But if cattle and horses or lions had hands, or were able to draw with their hands and do the work that men do, horses would draw the forms of the gods like horses, and cattle like cattle.”

Rabbi Levi is not suggesting that God’s appearance was merely an illusion and that objectively speaking he was not apparent at the Exodus. What he appears to be saying is that God qua God is inscrutable and that the only way humans can perceive him, if at all, is through the experiences in which we feel his presence.

God’s presence was indeed felt at the Red Sea and at Sinai — but one’s experience of this is culturally relativistic. Since such encounters are essentially human experiences they are perceived in human context. But God transcends all definition and is not limited by finite perceptions.

Theology does not just impact liturgy, it also influences the development of Jewish law. The Talmud describes a heated debate between Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues over the status of a particular oven which he deemed kosher and they disagreed.

After failing to convince his colleagues through logical debate Rabbi Eliezer resorted to invoking the supernatural. Said he to them: ‘If the halachah (Jewish law) agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’ Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place [....]

“‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted. Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards — ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined.

Again he urged: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let the walls of the schoolhouse prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined to fall. But R. Joshua rebuked them, saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, what have ye to interfere?’ [....] Again he said to them: ‘If the halachah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!’

“But R. Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven.’ What did he mean by this? — Said R. Jeremiah: That the Torah had already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice, because Thou hast long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, After the majority must one incline. R. Nathan met Elijah the Prophet and asked him: What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour? — He laughed [with joy], he replied, saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’

The point of this tale is that God does not get a veto in the halachic process. He is, so to speak defeated in contest with his children. This is quite extraordinary given the fact that halachah purports to be God’s will. In this paradoxical story God’s will is actually to be overruled by his children so that what they end up deciding de facto becomes God’s will. This theology has had an enormous impact on the way Jewish law has developed.

Using this story as a backdrop successive generations of rabbis freely subjected Jewish law to rigorous intellectual analysis knowing full well that the outcome of their endeavours would be God’s will.
Theology therefore is central to Jewish religious life. Our concept of God has a direct impact on the way we practice Judaism and on how Judaism develops. Jewish law never develops in a vacuum. It always plays out against a theological backdrop.

A theology that conjures up a stern, demanding God will invariably give rise to a stringent interpretation of Jewish law. A theology that understands God as compassionate and tolerant will give rise to more flexible interpretations of Jewish law. Similarly in prayer, a particularistic God will invoke prayers exclusively for the Jewish people whereas a universalistic God will elicit prayers for humanity as well.

I was always amazed that in all the rabbinic interviews I have had in my career I was never once asked what God I worshipped. I was asked many questions about specific halachic positions I might take; on women’s issues, on Zionism, on inter-faith and on intra-faith matters and yet the simple question of ‘who is your God?’ would have obviated the need for most of these questions. That is provided those asking the questions had a developed sense of theology which sadly few have.

If we are to advance a Judaism that is compelling and relevant to the majority of thinking Jewish adults today we need to move beyond the simplistic and uni-dimensional concept of God that is taught to children and to develop a theology that captures our experience of God in an increasingly complex world.

We need a theology that takes account of such issues as evolution, biblical criticism, feminism, universalism and pluralism. We need a theology that reflects the reality of the State of Israel and Jewish power rather than one that echoes Jewish victimhood. The cost of not continuously renewing our theology is to allow a growing rift to develop between God and our lived experience, rendering God irrelevant.
Judaism gave the world the gift of monotheism. We owe it to ourselves and to the world to ensure that it remains more than a cultural artefact.

We need our rabbis, educators and thinkers to engage deeply in questions about God and His place in our world so as to shape a powerful, relevant and compelling God-Conscious Judaism for the 21st century.

Rabbi Naftali Brawer is chief executive of the Spiritual Capital Foundation

Last updated: 3:43pm, September 4 2013