Talking About God Off The Bimah

thTalking about God is not easy.  The subject is difficult to grasp. Some of us are afraid that our own personal conception of God – often developed in our youth – will be rejected or viewed as inappropriate by others.  From coffee shops and breweries to classrooms and hospitals, I know that Jews want to talk about God – but they cannot find the right time or place.  Too often, they decide to give up.

Ironically, for many Jews, talking candidly about God in the ‘obvious’ places – like a synagogue – is difficult.  Some find the formal architecture and formality of a synagogue stilts the conversation.  In shul, it feels like we are supposed to connect with God through the set rituals – Hebrew prayers, stylized choreography of sitting and standing, and reading ancient texts from the Torah and haftarah.  Performing these detailed rituals is supposed to inspire a connection with the Divine, but it does not always inspire plain conversations about the Divine.

It is not that Jews find it difficult to discuss controversial issues in the community – the rise or decline of the Jewish population, synagogue affiliation, the meaning of b’nai mitzvah, the minutia of halachic rulings, and the openness of the community to non-Jews, LGBT, single parents, adults without kids, and people with developmental differences.

Sharing personal feelings about God seems harder.  This multi-faceted discussion is full of possible contradictions.  Ultimately, our questions about God cannot be reduced to simple or logical equations.  Critical thinking alone cannot resolve our ‘God’ questions.  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “God is not a scientific problem, and scientific methods are not capable of solving it….  The moment we utter the name of God we leave the level of scientific thinking and enter the realm of the ineffable.” (God in Search of Man, p102)

Intuiting this dilemma, modern Jews have developed an identity independent of the complexities of God.  Today it is possible to live a full and satisfying Jewish life without examining our relationship with God.  Over time, we have become detached from a sense of God and more energized by the general goal of forming community.  Building a sense of community has been the goal of innovative Jewish organizations and programs over many decades.  Our programmatic successes have nurtured a feeling of belonging.  In fact, to help foster a sense of inclusion in the community, we have set aside the nuances of talking about God and the potential disagreements that might cause.  There is a concern that too much ‘God Talk’ will turn people off from engaging in the community.

On this, I disagree.  Our inability to find a comfort zone in talking about God has moved us away from an important aspect of our Judaism – in fact Judaism’s greatest contribution to world thought – a monotheistic concept of God.

Community is necessary, but community alone is not sufficient for everyone, especially when we reach a lifecycle crisis.  Fortunately (thank God some might say), these crises occur infrequently.  People can see Jewish themed movies, travel to Israel and even celebrate Jewish holidays without being pushed to formulate or even think about their own belief in God.   Despite how easy it is not to think about God, people often tell me that they feel a sense of connection with God or spirituality is missing from their lives. The time to begin the journey toward a relationship with God is during our calm times when we can reflect, not at the moment of crisis.

In committee meetings, counseling sessions, playground chats and coffee shop conversations, I hear over and over that people want to talk about God but they do not know how.  We look at the world and wonder:  If God is all powerful, why does God let terrible things happen?  If God is everywhere, where is God’s compassion for those in need?  If God is not a ‘man on a cloud’, what is God?  But how and where do we find answers to these immutable questions?  Where do we even begin?

Now is a good time to expand on our exploration of these questions.

For the past two years, I have hosted informal gatherings for a rotating group of college students, retirees, and professionals at La Madeleine in Bethesda.  We gathered around the finished wood farm table, drank our morning coffee, and talked openly about God.  Like the biblical story of Jacob struggling with the angel, we struggled with God in many ways.  It has been an enriching experience for everyone.  I invite you to join me in this conversation – the first of many topics we will explore together in this blog – so pour a cup of coffee and let’s start some ‘God talk.’

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14 comments

  1. Thanks, Greg, for opening up this conversation, once again, in such an articulate and inviting manner. The conventional wisdom, both within and outside of Beth El, is that it is not “polite” to discuss religion and that it is downright “offensive” to ask someone if he or she believes in God. To overcome this longstanding tradition on a scale larger than a handful of congregants in a coffee shop, you might need some highly-structured and visible programming that endorses and facilitates the sharing and exploring of these difficult issues.

    1. Hi Maggie,

      Can’t say I had anything in particular in mind, but it might be some sort of workshop in which particpants felt safe to express their doubts about God and/or how God operates in our lives. On the other hand, part of me wonders if one’s belief in a supernatural God is too private a matter for a group process. Organized religion, to me, is a “tragedy of the commons” phenomenon — it’s good for individuals, but not so good for society as a whole. Which leaves me scratching my head as to whether we should foster it or condemn it.

      Dennis Askwith

      1. Thank you for replying; I appreciate your candor. I was a member of the coffee shop discussions, where everyone expressed their doubts about God. It seems that doubts are a common issue for many jews. I felt at home with the doubters/seekers.

        You mention a “supernatural God” in your comment. But I think that terming God as “supernatural” is one of many assumptions we make about God. “All-knowing;” “vengeful;” “loving;” “strong” and, “forgiving” are some other assumptions used to describe (or ascribe to) God that come to mind.

        I hope your conclusion about discussing these issues is that “we should foster it” and that you continue contributing to this blog. Your comments are honest, helpful and can lead other people (me, for one) to deepen their thinking.

  2. Thanks, Greg. I am moved by your willingness to approach this topic so broadly – everyone can participate. I personally, have no trouble entertaining two conflicting ideas simultaneously! God is all powerful, all knowing, just, and merciful and yet many bad things do happen to good people (and not so good people!). Death is part of our life cycle yet we often feel the loved person has died ‘before his time’ or ‘unjustly.’ I don’t believe God has taken the person in death and yet when I die I hope to be a part of the wisdom and strength of the world to come! God’s world! As Forrest Gump said “That’s all I have to say about that!”.

  3. Thanks for sharing that you are conducting these important discussions. I know of at least two people who left Judaism because they were under the impression that there wasn’t space in the non-black hat or chasidish Jewish community to take God seriously. (These folks left Judaism years ago–before I met you.) My assertions to the contrary were simply not enough for them. Thus, I’m under the impression that what you are doing is so very important! I can’t wait to continue reading your posts!

  4. I enjoyed our coffee group discussions. There were too few participants to keep that format going. Some people do not struggle with this issue. They are Jewish but do not believe in God. Others do not struggle because they believe in God. Others like me who have been trained to be rational would like to believe in God but have difficulty figuring out how. Maybe we never will but talking about the quest or reading others’ struggles is helpful. I am not sure this quest can be done via blog but in groups of 10 to 15. Greg. Not sure if this comment is helpful

  5. To sum it up like Richard Dawkins, I’d say that it is nowhere close to ineffable, it’s rather simple. There is no Santa Claus, no Tooth Fairy, Jesus doesn’t save, there are no virgins waiting in heaven after you kill people, and there is no God. Some may choose to believe otherwise, but they are just as deluded as the Santa believers.

    Read Dawkin’s book, God is Not Great. It lays the delusion bare.

    1. Perhaps we need to start distinguishing between PRIVATE and PUBLIC delusions. If we privately believe in God, despite the overwhelming preponderance of evidence and logic that no such entity exists, we do the world no harm, and we gain one more mechansim for coping with a Hobbesian life that needs all the propping up we can muster. PRIVATE, however, implies that we ought not discuss such beliefs with any but our closest associates.

      Organized religion, however, is a shared PUBLIC delusion, and that’s where things seem to begin to go awry. Because we simultaneously want the myriad coping benefits of COMMUNITY, we conflate our agendas and go “public” with our God Delusion by establishing synagogues, churches, and mosques. Dawkins, et. al. are pointing out that this “tragedy of the commons” may be good for the individual, but it is detrimental to society as a whole (cf., religious wars).

      The challenge thus becomes how can we gain support for our private delusion that there may be an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent entity available to protect and comfort us in this brutal world if we simply follow a set of proscribed rules or commandments? One solution we find in some relgions is the establishment of “secret societies” to bolster their beliefs.

      Another is the implicit norm at a place like Beth El that it is not “polite” or “good form” to discuss one’s personal beliefs with others. Like we are starting to do through this blog. Avoiding the discussion, however, will do nothing to resolve the dilemma.

      1. I think that the crux of Dawkins’ view is that theology is not amenable to “evidence-based understanding of the natural world” (see quote from the mission statement of the Richard Dawkins Foundation below), where ‘evidence’ is considered to be that which science gathers to form it’s theories. And, science has traditionally used the ‘evidence’ provided by our senses: vision, hearing, smell, taste and touch. I think loving someone is a phenomenon of the natural world, but which cannot be described or explained by our 5 senses. Does this mean that being in love does not exist? Or, that loving is a delusion?

        I might also point out that science develops theories, not certainties. Through the time of scientific inquiry, many theories have been discarded based on “new” evidence, and our “understanding” of the natural world has changed.

        “The Richard Dawkins Foundation (US)
        Our Mission
        Our mission is to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and human suffering.”
        http://www.richarddawkins.net/home/about

        Do you think that the only valid knowledge we have comes through our 5 senses?

        For a critique of Dawkins’ book, “The God Delusion,” see the 2006 London Review of Books article by Terry Eagleton. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n20/terry-eagleton/lunging-flailing-mispunching

  6. I see “loving” as inextricably connected to the five senses. They are the only means we have to arrive at the feeling that we love someone or something. And they are also the only route out of love. If I say “I love opera” and then overdose on it by listening and seeing too much of it, I may no longer feel the love.

  7. Greg Its great you are doing this. My first thought is that if you don’t believe in a God you have to be intellectually honest. You have to admit there is no absolute basis for good and evil. That’s a huge thing. With no God, you have to accept that just because I little Howard think murder is wrong, its not wrong in any true or absolute sense. I don’t think this is true. I have faith most of the time there is a God because murder is flat out absolutely wrong no matter what I Howard think.

    I think youre also right. Our spiritual leaders should continue to get out into the community and meet congregants on their own turf. If 95% of the congregation wont come to you, than you go to them. Its a wonderful way to connect to religion, Rabbi/Congregant/Panera Coffee/or Vino Volo

    1. It’s not all that clear that the concept of a God solves all of the moral dilemmas faced by humankind, especially with humans interpreting “God’s will” vis-a-vis issues like abortion, self-defense, righteous wars, capital punishment, etc. It’s tempting to defer to the “holy men” in our communities to “work out” some of these conundrums for us, but is it what you call “intelectually honest?”

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