Dropping the God Standard: Another 800 Pound Gorilla in the discourse about Judaism and Jewish Education

By David J. Steiner

The Judaism that we inherited started in a coffin. Had Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai not been smuggled out of Jerusalem pretending to be dead, to sue for peace and ask for Yavne to create a new academy for our scholars, we would most likely not have the religion we have today. However, were Yochanan to visit a synagogue of any of our modern denominations, the great likelihood is that he would not recognize our practices as the fruit of his efforts. Yochanan and his generation saw that in the absence of geographically based rituals at the Temple in Jerusalem, the Jewish people would need a portable, unifying force to maintain the value system that would accompany them into the diaspora. The values our ancestors held dearly didn’t change, but the means of their adoption and praxis did. Ritual sacrifice was replaced by worship. Loving-kindness became a central pillar of Jewish practice, and Torah maintained its status as the foundational text of the people. Throughout the generations, often homeless and wandering, Jews pursued their charge within the new framework of “Rabbinic Judaism.”

One of the tools that facilitated this transformation was the continued belief in a national relationship with a higher power that commanded the people and the individual. Understanding this God, in the absence of prophets and the rejection of divine voices, led to a tradition of exegesis that is both critically literate and empowering. As a people with an oral tradition, one that is free and not carved in stone, we became highly creative and adaptive. Exiled from our homeland and dispersed among the nations, we also developed unique cultures. The collective Jewish kitchen became an international smorgasbord. Jewish arts, letters and thought began to resemble that of our host countries. As disempowered outsiders, Jewish compassion and the pursuit of justice grew, as did our resilience and sense of humor, which served as a defense mechanism in trying times. In the diaspora, Jewish civilization became diverse, decentralized and pluralistic.

Today, with a free and democratic Jewish state and relative security for world Jewry, assumptions have changed. A large percentage of Jews have abandoned belief in a commanding God, and many have abandoned the god-idea altogether. This is evidenced by the 2013 Pew Study, A Portait of Jewish Americans, which found that over 60% of respondents described being Jewish as “mainly a matter of ancestry or culture” rather than “religion” or both religion and ancestry/culture; and 68% agreed that someone could be Jewish if s/he doesn’t believe in God. What remains Jewish is the rich tapestry of our diverse cultures and beliefs. The people weave this tapestry, through pluralism and tolerance, as means of maintaining our unity. We are still a compassionate nation that pursues peace and justice. We continue to retain our resilience and wit. We never stopped creating music, dance, literature, fine art, and epicurean delights, but now we have added contributions to science and technology, and half of the entirety of our people does this under the banner of Israeli citizenship.

So why does Jewish education lag behind by making God the focus of our peoplehood? Why do we make bar mitzvah, learning to read prayers and chant Torah, the central Jewish moment in our children’s lives? What do we gain by teaching the archaic tropes of liturgy when half of the world’s Jews speak Modern Hebrew? Which conversation is more important?

When a belief doesn’t serve the people, when it flies in the face of their perceived rationality, the common response is leave and find or create a new tradition. Human beings cannot live with cognitive dissonance. They need their truths to stand up to the crashes that challenge them. Nobody can honestly practice something that they do not believe, but we continue to condemn our progeny to this fate?

Most Jews in the modern world want their children to learn that they are sovereign in their actions and not dependent on divine providence? They want them to feel responsible for their life choices and to believe in their ability to change and repair the world. Waiting for the messiah gave us two thousand years of exile and dependence on others. Building our own country and becoming a people among the comity of nations gave us our freedom and dignity.

I do not propose that Jewish educators and rabbis drop God altogether. The God-idea plays a significant role in the development of Jewish thought. The god before Abraham was an angry god who was willing to wipe out the entire world. The god who destroyed Sodom was willing to listen to and negotiate with Abraham and his moral compass, and the evolved god of Yonah was so kind that he sent a messenger to prevent the imminent demise of the people of Nineveh. The fact that the God character has changed throughout Jewish history teaches us to accept our own complexity and evolution. Discussions about creation lead to awe and appreciation of our natural world. They teach us about the basic dignity of humanity and make us consider the role of gender in the structure of society. They ground us with perspective about our stewardship of the planet. Exodus teaches us the value and responsibility of freedom. Moses demonstrates how the will of the people, under the right leadership, can topple tyranny in pursuit of a better life. The stories of our time in the wilderness teach us to avoid the idolatry of false gods and their accompanying decadence.

However, these legends also gave birth to many apostates and doubters. Shimon ben Zoma left paradise “damaged,” while Elisha ben Abuyah departed with the goal of looking for truth elsewhere. In the 9th century, Hiwi al-Balki, launched important criticisms of the supernatural in the Bible, and a millennia later Wissenschaft des Judentums paved the way to source theory.

There have also been abuses of the god-idea. Shabtai Zvi and Nathan of Gaza’s messianism misled half of the world’s Jewish population, and today many within Chabad believe that their departed Rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is the mashiach.

Just like the joke about Maimonides, “You have your Monides. I have my Monides.” we must learn to live with a plurality of coexisting varied beliefs, including those who favor the power and responsibility of humanity over the supernatural. This is foundation of Secular Humanist Judaism. It has seeds in Berdichevsky, Bialik and the founders of the kibbutz movement. It is, by default, the choice of a majority of Jews.

We can no longer insist that the name Israel, struggler with God, is proof that there is a deity. We struggle with the concept of God because it gives us a structure to reflect on our values. Some of us may want to insist that the god they perceive is more than a metaphor, while others may understand our ancestor’s deity as a literary creation.

The problem arises when defining God and reifying him creates a barrier to Jewish inclusion and participation in our culture. Questioning the god idea is not new to Judaism. Moses Maimonides started to understand this when he introduced his negative theology. In The Guide for the Perplexed, he writes,

“All we understand is the fact that [God] exists, that [God] is a being to whom none of Adonai’s creatures is similar, who has nothing in common with them, who does not include plurality, who is never too feeble to produce other beings and whose relation to the universe is that of a steersman to a boat; and even this is not a real relation, a real simile, but serves only to convey to us the idea that God rules the universe, that it is [God] that gives it duration and preserves its necessary arrangement.”

Rambam didn’t make faith a benchmark of Judaism. Instead, he simply lays out 13 principles of faith in his commentary on the Talmud (Sanhedrin, chapter 10), insisting that, “Those who believe that God is One and that He has many attributes declare the Unity with their lips and assume the plurality in their thoughts.” Though he insisted, with full faith, in the coming of the Messiah, he was most angered by Karaites and those who chose to reject Rabbinic Judaism, not by those who couldn’t believe.

Rabbis and educators like to explain that prayer gives us a means of expressing awe, gratitude and petition, which are all wonderful when neutral, but when they are shrouded by praise, gratitude and reverence for a deity who is omniscient, loving, merciful, judgmental, a warrior, often angry and sometimes punishing, our children are forced to decide if ours is a group they want to belong to or not. By forcing binaries, we make Jewish belonging a yes/no question. By making synagogues into houses of worship and not houses of study, we force our children to decide about their Jewishness at the entranceway.

In the 1950’s, Gordon Allport, in his seminal book, The Nature of Prejudice, wrote,

“It is difficult to define an in-group precisely. Perhaps the best that can be done is to say that members of an in-group all use the term we with the same essential significance. Members of a family do so, likewise schoolmates, members of a lodge, labor union, city, state, nation.” (p.32)

As Jewish leaders and educators, how expansive do we want our tribesmen to understand the collective “we,” and how many are we willing to exclude in order to dominate the discourse. We have a lot to learn from the title of Raymond Carver’s 1981 collection of short stories, What we talk about when we talk about love. What are we talking about when we talk about Judaism?

The main constant in Judaism is not a reified god. It is change. The starting point of the trajectory is Torah, but the freedom to change is fundamental, as it says in Pirkei Avot (6:2) “Read not ‘incised (Harut)’ but, rather as though it says ‘freedom (Herut).’” This is the inheritance of Rabban Yochanan, our teacher who instructed us, “If you have a sapling in your hand and someone tells you the Messiah has arrived, first plant the sapling and then go out to welcome the Messiah” (Avot d’ Rabbi Natan B31). First attend to this world, plant trees, help humanity, and if there is a God, she can wait.

In today’s world, the goal remains the same. We continue to be a people that struggles with our perceptions of good and right, but we cannot let metaphors stand in the way of our goals and destroy our collective strength by holding fast to a standard that is alienating so many. If we don’t adapt, evolve and change, our forebears’ god will become our Achilles heel, and our noble aspirations for ourselves and the world we live in will not be achieved nor passed to the heirs of our tradition. For the sake of Judaism, we need to leave the God-bar behind.

David J. Steiner, Ed.D. is a mediator and educator in Chicago.