The trouble with God

By Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah, April 4, 2008
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When Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah set out to define the key principles of Liberal Judaism, one proved a greater challenge than the rest — belief in God

Why do people choose to belong to a synagogue? No doubt, for different reasons. In my experience as a rabbi for the past almost 19 years, belief in God does not tend to feature very high on the list.

From the point of view of many congregants, their synagogue is primarily a beit k’nesset — a house of meeting; a place for connecting with other Jews, and for celebrating and commemorating major life moments. It is also a beit midrash, a house of study; a place for accessing Jewish education — especially for any children they may have. Meanwhile, even though the synagogue diary tends to revolve around the schedule of religious services, its role as a beit t’fillah, a house of prayer, is less relevant.

Another question: why don’t people choose to belong to a synagogue? Again, for many reasons; but one of the things that non-affiliated Jews say to me when I ask is that they do not want to join a synagogue because they do not believe in God. From their external perspective, the synagogue appears to be a God-centred place that excludes the preoccupations of secular and cultural Jews by definition.

So, in Britain at least, many affiliated and unaffiliated Jews alike do not define their identity in religious terms. Is this surprising? For more than 200 years, the Western world has become increasingly secularised; the French Revolution not only challenged the Divine Right of Kings; it dethroned God. Most Jews do not believe in an all-powerful Deity that rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked. When I ask people why they do not believe in God, they often cite the failure of the powerful liberator God of the Exodus to save His people from the Shoah. After the Shoah, some theologians proclaimed the “Death of God”. More to the point, for the majority of both affiliated and unaffiliated Jews, the belief in that kind of “Superman” God died.

Six years ago, I set about devising three “compelling commitments” that I see at the heart of active Jewish engagement — each embracing both the particular preoccupations of Jewish life and our universal responsibilities.

Interestingly, the commitment about “God” has proved to be the most challenging to those with whom I have shared my ideas — including my rabbinic colleagues. Since I gave my first session on “compelling commitments” at Limmud in 2002, in response to people’s issues and questions I have modified the text of the “God” commitment, and also moved it from number one to number three.

But this is not the end of the story. Following Liberal Judaism’s recent publication of “Compelling Commitments” in the form of a booklet, once again the “God” commitment has provoked the most controversy. For some it should be number one again; for others, it should not be there at all.

In my view, it is impossible to delete God from the picture of Jewish life. But that does not mean that one is forced to subscribe to traditional conceptions of the Divine. So, what difference might it make if, instead of focusing on belief — and non-belief — in God, we spoke of a commitment to Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad, “The Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One” (Deuteronomy 6: 4), in these terms:

-The commitment to explore the meaning of existence, to journey, to search and to listen out for the voice of the Eternal, who calls each Jew to become part of Am Yisrael, the people who “struggle with God”, and to strive to sanctify Life each day through our actions and our relationships.

-The commitment to acknowledge that the Eternal is One, and to work together with all the peoples of the world, to recognise the essential unity of existence in all its diversity.

This formulation, which also emerges out of the Torah, expresses an alternative discourse about God. This alternative discourse has somehow lost out to the dominant motif of the interventionist, Divine Warrior of the Exodus narrative that was later compounded by the sages of the Mishnah and Gemara, and transmuted into normative Jewish belief as expressed in the second-century Aleynu prayer about “the King above the King of Kings”.

The God we glimpse in Moses’s encounter at the burning bush, for example, is essentially intangible: Eh’yeh asher Eh’yeh. Moses wants to know the name of the unfathomable presence that has stopped him in his tracks, and he receives a lesson in theology: “I am that I am/I will be what I will be” (Exodus 3:14).

But more than that, as Gabriel Josipovici observes (The Book of God), Eh’yeh, sounding barely consonantal, is little more than pure breath — try saying it! Moses cannot capture God; neither can we. Even more telling, this mysterious meeting takes place, literally, “in the back of beyond”: not even in the wilderness, but achar hamidbar, “behind the wilderness” (3:1). Can the Torah do more to let us know that God is ineffable?

It is not only that the Divine is a mystery; like Moses shepherding his father-in-law’s flock behind the wilderness, whoever we are, wherever we are, whatever we are doing, each one of us is called to apprehend that mystery. Another Torah tale conveys a similar message. When Jacob flees from his brother Esau after stealing Esau’s birthright, he alights on an unnamed place as the sun is setting, and beds down for the night, using a stone as a pillow.

It is a familiar story. In the morning after his dream of Divine messengers ascending and descending a ladder between heaven and earth, Jacob sets up the stone as a pillar, exclaiming, “God was in this place and I did not know it,” and names the place Beit-El, “House of God” (Genesis 28:12-19). Did Jacob just happen to stumble upon the “House of God”? Perhaps, alternatively, the narrative is teaching us that God is in every place, wherever we find ourselves; we just have to notice.

We can debate endlessly about whether God exists or not; we can be believers, atheists or agnostics. But the apprehension of the ineffable is not an intellectual exercise; it is an endless challenge — a challenge encapsulated in the simple imperatives, Sh’ma, “Listen”, Re’eh, “See!”, and dramatised most poignantly in Jacob’s night-time struggle with an unknown “man” on the eve of his reunion with Esau (Genesis 32:25-32). In the midst of that enigmatic encounter, Jacob is renamed Yisra’el, “One who struggles with God”. It is because the generations of the people Yisra’el have continued to engage in such struggles that we are here today.

Compelling Commitments — A New Approach to Living as a Liberal Jew is published by Liberal Judaism at £3

    Last updated: 2:58pm, June 8 2008