Tuesday, October 17, 2017

On Being Godly- God's place in the life of an Orthodox Jew

It happened a number of times. I started to think about writing what I’m about to write, and then I decided not to. I wasn’t sure if this was a topic which I could address in a thoughtful, meaningful, and nuanced manner. Each time however, something occurred which convinced me that I had to write it. Yesterday, after this pattern was completed for a third time, I decided that I had no choice but to try. I am not sure if I will be fully successful in trying to express what I want to say. At the very least, I hope I will spur a larger discussion.

The Orthodox world has a God problem.

Well, not exactly a God problem, as much as a language of God problem, or maybe a comfort with discussing God problem. Many of us, including our rabbis and teachers can easily discuss halacha and mitzvos, but somehow few attempt to discuss the encounter with God, in general, and their personal encounter with God, in particular.

Recently, a virtual friend bemoaned the fact that he could not hear a certain theologian who defines himself as halachic egalitarian in my friend’s own Orthodox shul. In the subsequent discussion I wondered aloud (assuming one can do that in a comment on FB) whether the problem was larger than whether this theologian, who I admire greatly, could speak in an Orthodox shul. Perhaps, I suggested, a big part of the problem is that there is a dearth of Orthodox thinkers who are openly willing to explore their faith in an open manner, and the fact that we need to look outside of our community to find those who are willing.

I would never question the value of learning and observing halacha. I strongly believe that halacha helps us encounter God in an embodied manner in all areas of our life. Still, I do wonder whether the fact that halacha plays such a large role in our lives, leads to the possible outcome that we get stuck in the details of the act, and lose the ability to feel, think about, and discuss the encounter with God which lays behind and within halacha itself.

More recently, while driving, I listened to a podcast where my friend and colleague Rabbi Joshua Bolton, a Reconstructionist rabbi, who works with students at the University of Pennsylvania, described his religious experience, including his encounter with God. It was profound, holy, and powerful. It shook me to my core. Part of what bothered me was that I couldn’t think of the last time I heard an Orthodox rabbi talk so openly about what it means to believe. Somewhere in the back of my head I wondered how many rabbis could find the words to discuss it. At first I pushed off this thought by thinking that talking about God is not an Orthodox activity. Immediately, I thought about things I’ve read from Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, Rav Amital, the Piaseczna Rebbe, and Hillel Zeitlin where they discuss their encounter with God. My next question was, why is this not happening (more often?) in the Orthodox world?

I get it. Not everyone is going to encounter God in the same way. Heck, when I listen to Rav Herschel Schachter address an obscure halachic topic for an hour, it is a deeply religious experience, even as I can’t fully explain why. Still, when was the last time you heard a rosh yeshiva or shul rabbi explain what they experience when they learn a Ketzos or a Rav Chaim? I can’t help but wonder whether part of the discomfort that many Jews express about the lack of meaningfulness of tefillah (see this recent study for an example) comes from the fact that past a fairly young age, nobody talks about God anymore.

The final straw which convinced me to write this, came yesterday. This time, it was listening to Christian pastor Eugene Peterson address his religious experience on the NPR show On Being, a show which explores what it means to be human. I listened to him explain what he gets from reading the Book of Psalms. I heard him talk about how the experience of anger and frailty fits into his encounters with God. His experience was not my experience. In fact, his approach to religion, as well as his translation of the bible, do not fully resonate with me. Still, for 50 minutes I was enrapt. When the show was over I found myself wondering about which rabbis or teachers could so openly, comfortably, and compellingly discuss what they mean when they talk about God, and what they experience when they read Tehillim, forget something due to old age, or look in a baby’s eyes.

We are religious. We are observant. We learn Torah. We do mitzvos. Where in all of that, and in the world around us and inside of us do we find God?

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  1. The Torah says that Hashem created us in his image, and there's been a lot of philisophical musings about the various meanings of that. Ultimately, I think it's more accurate to say that we create God in our image. Not that God isn't real - I may doubt much of Jewish dogma, but I believe in Hashem. But part of what makes it difficult to speak about God communally in the Jewish community is that there are many Gods - or rather, many different perceptions of God. Hashem is an emotional concept. We each find our own path to him (or her) by perceiving God in a way that each of us can relate to - in our own image. For some that's a grand king, though that concept is more difficult to relate to in a democratic age where people have the right of self-determination. For others it's a parent, sometimes loving, sometimes stern. For others Hashem is a friend, a confidante. Hashem is whatever your relationship with Him is. For me, he's just an emotion, the connection I feel when I'm high on zmirot and spirituality - a partner in a feeling of something greater than just out humdrum lives. What Hashem really is, no one knows. So we are forced to relate in whatever way we can. But since there's less commonality in the perception of Hashem than ever, it's difficult to have a communal conversation when a common frame of reference is difficult to pin down.

  2. This post brings me back to a story I have been sharing with people for weeks since before RH, because I think it encapsulates what you are writing about, Pesach. I have cut/pasted it from DixieYid.blogspot.com. It was transcribed by my real life friend Binyomin Wolf and said over by his Rebbe, Rav Moshe Weinberger (I also call him Rebbe). I actually asked Rav Weinberger about this story on Simchas Torah and he said it’s moretimely than ever:

    Rav Weinberger tells a story, in the name of Reb Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, called "The Missing Horse." The story is too long to post as a comment you, so you will have to read it here:

    1. I hear that, but there are likely some commonalities. Additionally, we don't have to agree to hear each other and to try and take in what we hear.