By Esther D. Kustanowitz
The High Holidays are over, and for many, so is our most immersive “God language” experience of the Jewish calendar year. Over the course of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we read of God’s many roles: God is the supreme sovereign. God commanded us to bring sacrifices. God commanded Abraham to bring his son as sacrifice and then issued a reprieve at the last minute. God granted Hannah a child. God is the shepherd who looks at us individually as we pass under God’s staff. God searches out our innermost kishkes and discerns our heart’s intentions. God has a “naughty-and-nice” list (in the High Holidays context, it’s called the Book of Life).
I’m a graduate of yeshiva day schools; I grew up with liturgy. I know that, according to Jewish texts, God has different names, going beyond a single proper noun and with each name embodying different divine qualities, ranging from mercy to judgment. But now, living in a time of unprecedented creativity when it comes to interpreting Jewish text and tradition, my convictions about God – if that’s ever really what they were – seem to be indistinct, weak, uncertain. When something happens, and it’s good, I don’t overthink it. I just say it: “Thank God.” But when people ask me what I believe about God, I get a little tongue-tied.
As it turns out, I’m not the only one. In a recent ELI on Air, Rabbi Dan Ain (Director of Tradition and Innovation at the 92Y) and Rabbi Shai Held (Co-Founder, Dean and Chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar and author of Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence) shared some thoughts about why modern Jews generally don’t talk about God. (As ELI talks Community Manager, I often either co-host or livetweet the ELI on Air talks.)
“Jews tend to be more reticent to talk God because we have always had investment in creating a ‘neutral society,’” said Rabbi Held. The reason so many of today’s Buddhist meditation teachers are Jews, he noted, is because “it provided a way to [be spiritually connected and] get around the God talk.”
In Rabbi Ain’s experience, “People have trigger words and contexts, powerful and unfortunate memories that move them away from God talk.” But, says Rabbi Ain, who became a rabbi after 9/11, there is a renewed interest in seeking out spiritual connections that are real: “People want to come to a service and understand God.” However, he noted, “It’s also hard for many to think about the concept of opening your heart and praying for yourself.”
After my mother died, I did a lot of praying. Some of it was in synagogues, liturgical passages between utterings of the Mourner’s Kaddish, proclaiming – as that prayer famously does – my belief in God (even if I couldn’t articulate the precise belief) and asserting my connection to community. And some of it was on the streets of Pico-Robertson, as I walked my way to minyan, to work, back to minyan and home that year. And as my feet hit pavement in a steady rhythm, I often addressed my mother’s memory or presence or spirit – somewhere in the ether – as my connection to those who had passed, as well as a conduit to the divine. I wasn’t alone in seeing the departed as our agents in the great beyond – when some religious friends learned of my mother’s passing, they responded with a wish that my mother would serve as a positive intermediary for me. This underscored my awareness that I had been asking my mother for things that traditionally, people had prayed to God about. Was I deifying my late mother, erasing God and establishing her as supreme sovereign in charge of receiving prayers? My mother was a woman of faith, albeit challenged by that faith as people with serious illnesses are wont to be. She would not have approved.
Driving back from a social media training in San Diego to Los Angeles before the High Holidays, I felt something move through me. I turned down the radio and began to speak words aloud. “I am grateful,” I began, adding simple phrases until they became sentences of gratitude. Spontaneous, uncomplicated gratitude, so large that I had to speak it aloud even with no audience to listen and applaud, hadn’t happened to me a lot in my life. It sounded like prayer, albeit (my inner writer scolded) a not-so liturgically or poetically-compelling one.
But who was I talking to? God? My ancestors? A muse? Or, as many say in California, “the energy of the universe”? It felt like I had written an important letter, but had failed to address the envelope, or was sending to an email address that had been discontinued. Who would even hear this expression of thanks, this gratitude for things ranging from family to the completely appreciated lightness of traffic, from the laughter I received during my presentation to feeling the sunshine on my arm as I drove? Where was God? And did it matter? Or was it important to express the gratitude regardless of whether or not it was directed at anyone (or Anyone)?
In recalling this journey of gratitude, I also think about something Rabbi Held said during the God conversation. “If we want to grow and understand, that takes time. Let’s take the shame out of being a beginner, adding the value that we should always be growing”; we should not be afraid to assume the posture of a beginner, he said, noting that “to be radically surprised can be powerful.”
That moment on the freeway was a moment of radical surprise, of returning to roots, to a beginner’s posture. While I’m far from believing in an Old White Man with a Beard Who Lives in the Sky, I take some comfort in reminding myself of God’s many faces and attributes. And when I engage in prayer – whether codified by rabbis, wailed through tears in moments of grief, or spoken aloud in moments of pure gratitude – having a “recipient” for that prayer in mind may not matter. It’s an expression of deference to other forces at work in the world beyond myself, and an admission that I can’t control everything, but that – through words written or uttered, in solitude and in community, I hope that I will find support and reconnect to meaning. Like a child’s pose, it might seem simple, but it’s a start.
Esther D. Kustanowitz serves as Community Manager for ELI talks. She is also a writer, editor and consultant based in Los Angeles. You can read more of Esther’s work at her blog, myurbankvetch.com, or at her website, EstherK.com.