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Does God make sense?

A challenging new book wants a God that we can believe in. Who is the "we"?

Enter a time machine with me, and let us return to the early 1990s. Let us go to a major bookstore. Walk with me to the Judaica section.

We will see books with titles such as God Was In This Place & I, i did not know, by Lawrence Kushner; or Who Needs God, by Harold Kushner; and even some of my own books — Putting God On The Guest List and Being God’s Partner. All with “God” in the title.

From that era, feminist versions of the God search would include Standing Again at Sinai by Judith Plaskow. Rabbi Sandy Sasso did a wonderful job of translating sophisticated God-talk into children’s books; my favorite continues to be God’s Paintbrush.

What were many of those books saying? We wanted more than simply being Jewish by sociology. Jews were drowning in secularism and driving on the fumes of ethnic pride. If the late 1970s and 1980s were about creating community (the havurah movement), then the 1990s would be about finding the transcendent — what we came to call “spirituality.” It might well be that the most influential “theologian” of that era was the late singer-songwriter, Debbie Friedman, whose prayer for healing summed up our yearnings.

It is now thirty years later, and a new book seeks to re-visit that old territory, albeit with a new map (or should I say GPS?)

The book is A God We Can Believe In, edited by Richard Agler and Rifat Sonsino. Check out Richard Address’s Jewish Sacred Aging podcast with Rabbis Agler and Sonsino.

Full disclosure: both editors, and in particular, Rich Agler, are dear friends and colleagues. Check out Rabbi Sonsino’s excellent resource on God. I heartily recommend Rabbi Agler’s book The Tragedy Test, which he wrote in the wake of his young daughter’s death, and which has spawned so much of his theological struggle.

How does this book differ from its more “spiritual” predecessors?

The older God search appealed to the heart. This God search is about appealing to the head.

The authors of these essays are the theological children and grandchildren of such luminaries of a rational Judaism, a religious naturalism — thinkers like Mordecai Kaplan; his son-in-law, Ira Eisenstein (whom Dennis Sasso lovingly “resurrects”), Roland Gittelsohn, Milton Steinberg, Harold Schulweis, among others. (There must have been women who were doing Jewish theology in the 1940s through 1970s; a worthy project would be to find and reclaim their teachings).

To quote Rabbi Sonsino:

Modern religious naturalism is a philosophical perspective that in general rejects the reality of the supernatural realm and finds religious meaning in the natural world. For most religious naturalists, our physical world is the center of our most significant experiences and understanding as discovered through scientific research.

This is “a living non-mythical God” — who does not cause miracles; who does not answer prayer by granting our wishes; and who does not do other things that we traditionally listed on the divine resume.

What do I like best about this book? It dares to take on the most problematic aspect of Jewish life today — how we pray, and the words and ideas that we use when we pray.

Rabbi Anson Laytner believes that we need a new kind of worship that begins with the notion of trauma — not only post-Shoah PTSD, but post-everything (especially, now, COVID).

The phenomenon of trans-generational trauma as a secondary form of PTSD has been well-studied across various cultures…But I believe that the spiritual trauma of the Shoah has been left largely unaddressed by many congregational rabbis and Jewish theologians because the conflict between the interventionist God of Sinai and the inactive God of Auschwitz is too great to be easily resolved. Add to this individual encounters with tragedy, disease, and death….As physicians of the Jewish soul, the rabbi’s primary task is to unsettle Jewish minds and hearts. This is how spiritual scar tissue is removed and true healing begins. It will make some Jews angry and it will make other Jews uncomfortable but it will make many Jews breathe a sigh of relief.

Rabbi Laytner says that the task of unsettling Jewish minds and hearts “cannot take place during a worship service; it must take the place of the worship service.”  He would replace worship with group therapy. It is an ambitious project — one for which, as he would agree, we could not fulfill at this present time.

But, I would agree that we need to spend more time in worship itself unpacking the words that we pray — in a way that we freely do with Torah study, but have allowed the words of prayer to sit on the page, unbothered by our queries.

In a similar vein, Edmond Weiss goes at the funeral liturgy — in particular, that traditional phrase Baruch dayan ha-emet, “Blessed is the true Judge [or, the judge of truth — I have seen it translated both ways].

Built into this heavy little sentence is a compressed version of the entire supernatural Yom Kippur liturgy. The moment of our death is not merely the conclusion of a natural process or catastrophic event. It is, rather, a death sentence imposed by a brilliant jurist who knows all our deeds and has determined that our flaws and ethical shortcomings deserve this ultimate resolution. The moment and manner of the death, moreover, may have been adjudicated long ago.

Good for him.

But, my hesitation over “Blessed is the true Judge” is not that it is non-rational or supernatural.

It is not that it is theologically false. It is that it is pastorally flawed. I do not believe that it actually comforts the mourner, at least not in non-Orthodox circles.

Which brings me to the aspects of this volume that challenge me.

When some authors look at inherited God concepts. they use or quote words such as “childish,” “archaic,” “superstitious,” “irrational,” “fantasies,” and “delusions.”

Do we actually need to rationally believe everything that we say in synagogue? Can we not approach our liturgy as we would approach, say, great literature and art — as that which moves the soul?

It turns out that much of our liturgical world relies on fantasy and the imagination — what the late Jacob Neusner called “the enchantments of Judaism.” I welcome the Shabbat Bride/Queen on Shabbat evening, along with her colleagues, the Shabbat angels. So, too, with Elijah at the brit ceremony, the end of havdalah, and the Passover seder. “Prove” that they exist? I don’t think so. 

Rabbi Sonsino suggests that the archaisms of the liturgy keep younger people away from worship. I wonder. The old Reform liturgy, the blue Gates of Prayer, was so heavy because it contained services with no less than ten different theological options, including a naturalistic God.

Were the pews any fuller then?

In fact, the most crowded Jewish services are those in which the language is the most mythic and heaviest in metaphor, i.e., Orthodox services. Are they only there for the sense of community?

That being said, I have always believed that we need a theologically richer prayer experience — one that would include many more voices (the new Reform liturgy for the High Holy Days does a spectacular job of doing this); one that would include even the voices of heretics; one that would capture the sense of prayer as l’hitpalel, to judge and evaluate oneself.

To quote Rabbi Samuel Cohon:

Yet most contemporary Jews who believe in God conceive of God in a variety of ways that are barely articulated in the traditional Siddur, if they are present at all: the immanent God of Kabbalah, the existentialist God of twentieth-century Jewish theologians Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber, the immanent God of Abraham Joshua Heschel, the limited God of Harold Kushner. Where are the prayers that express these visions of the Divine?

Read this book. There is much to ponder, and much to cherish. Rabbi Andrea C’s essay on her time in AA is one of the most powerful rabbinical statements I have ever read; it, alone, might be worth the cost of the entire volume.

The question, however, remains: Would new, improved God-talk bring more Jews into the pews?

That would be a worthy project for a Jewish Phd candidate in sociology.

Until then, on this I remain — you should pardon the expression — agnostic.