By Dr. Bill Robinson
In the 2nd article in this series, I began with the quote from Psalms (27:8): In Your behalf my heart says, “Seek My face!” Oh Lord, I seek your face.
As I wrote, we are commanded in our tradition to seek the face of the divine. Yet, in today’s world how many Jews believe in a God that one can personally encounter? Or, is it that God’s presence – once intensely and dangerously present in our midst – has become so diffuse that it has become almost impossible to hear the call of the divine? Either way, how do we educate our learners to seek the face of the divine today?
This week’s idea is: The God that you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.
This quote from my teacher Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (z”l) did not mean that he didn’t believe at all in the divine. Rather, the beliefs we are taught and hold about God often make no sense to us today, and may be getting in the way of us having a relationship with the divine. As Judith Plaskow illuminated for us, not only have the voices of women been left out of our sacred texts, but the metaphors we use to describe God and our relationship to the divine are ethically fraught and discordant with our contemporary sensibilities. We need knew ways of understanding the divine that comport with contemporary ways of relating to the sacred in our lives.
It may be that God could once be felt as an immediate and dangerous presence. It may be that God actually asked Abraham to sacrifice his only son. It may be that Aaron’s sons should have been more prudent in approaching the Ark that contained God’s presence as the Israelites traversed the wilderness. Yet, the concreteness and directness of this relationship does not comport with our current experience. In Highway 61, Bob Dylan concisely captures this dissonance:
God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe said, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God said, “No” Abe said “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want, Abe, but the next time you see me comin’, you better run”
Well, Abe said, “Where d’you want this killin’ done?”
Another teacher or mine, Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, offers a radical interpretation of our relationship with God over the millennia. He asserts that our ancestors in the wilderness and during the time of the Temples in Jerusalem did experience the divine as immediately present in the midst and, given how exceedingly condensed God’s presence was in the Ark and in the Temple, as extraordinarily potent. However, with the destruction of the Second Temple, and the beginning of Rabbinic Judaism, God’s presence became dispersed among the many synagogues, which became the new sites of worship. According to Greenberg, we have been entering a third epoch of Jewish history, marked by the Enlightenment, the Holocaust, and the State of Israel. In this period, the presence of the divine has become even more diffuse, less potent and yet found everywhere now. While once God was only to be found in the Temple, today God can be found throughout nature.
Greenberg’s theology is radical in suggesting that not only has our ideas of God changed, but the presence of God in the world has actually transformed. And, thus our relationship with God has adapted over the millennia. While God was the senior partner in the first, Biblical period and an equal partner in the Rabbinic period, today we are the senior partner. And, thus, the way our ancestors saw and talked about God are no longer useful or accurate today. We need knew metaphors that capture the way we can relate productively to God in contemporary times.
Thus, the contemporary philosopher Mara Benjamin suggests instead of seeing God as parent or even (equal) partner, we see God as our child toward which we are obligated and must care.
But since these are metaphors, one in which God is imagined as a baby invites us to name the condition of being obligated to God as being compelled and beguiled, shackled and infatuated, all at once. The care for an infant perfectly captures that pairing of command and love at the heart of rabbinic thought. If God is not only a loving parent, but demanding baby, we may find within ourselves the resolve to meet the demand.
In all of these re-imaginings of God, it is our relationship to the sacred presence that is of foremost importance. Learning about God should only serve to inspire and support being in relationship with the transcendent divine. The goal of Jewish education should not be gaining abstract and objective knowledge of some sacred entity. The goal is to be in relationship with the transcendent, to seek the divine face.
So, as Jewish educators, how do we teach a relation with God? (Not: How do we talk about God?) This transforms our understanding of the why, what, and how of Jewish education.
In teaching about God, we have traditionally focused on teaching our learners to believe, trust, and be dedicated to God. Yet, this is no longer the place to begin (and perhaps never was). Faith and devotion are not dispositions that we learn intellectually and then decide to live up to. Neither indoctrination nor reason drives the will to act. Our dispositions (the ways we choose to encounter the world) are cultivated through action and shared reflection on our actions. They are the virtues, which I wrote about in the first and third articles.
This could be a second meaning of Schachter-Shalomi’s quote “The God that you don’t believe in, I don’t believe in either.” Stop worrying about what you (or your learners) believe. It’s not where you begin the conversation.
Consider the following statements: “I believe my parents love me. I trust my friend to be there for me. I am devoted to my children.” These statements of faith and dedication are integral to the relationship one has with one’s parents, friends, and children. They do not precede the relationship; for most of us, we didn’t decide to believe, to trust, or to devote and then enter into those relationships. They arose hand-in-hand with our relationships, and only in reflection upon those relationships could we utter truthfully these statements. Each is an essential attribute of the relationship; for example, one could not be truly friends with someone one did not trust. So, with our relationship to the sacred presence. We learn to believe, to trust, and to devote ourselves through being in relation to God.
Our tradition does offer us guidance for this relationship, notably in the concept of k’dusha (sacredness). For example, after Moses smashed the first set of tablets at the foot of Mount Sinai, God has what appears to be an unusual request: “Be ready at the morning, go up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and be there for me on top of the mountain.” (Sh’mot 34:2) Why would God insist that Moses prepare himself, go up, and then be there? Once he went, isn’t that where he would be?
“Be ready” instructs us to be intentional, and “be there” asks us to be present. Whether we experience an external command or an internal desire, to engage in k’dusha is to be both intentional and present. Think about this; it’s not so simple. Imagine going in to an interview, facilitating a meeting, or teaching a class. It is important that you enter into these events intentionally with an outcome in mind, a pre-understanding of the other participants, and at least an inkling of how you may get from here to there. Yet, we know to be successful, you also need to not have these intentions drive your actions during the interview, meeting, or class. Instead of obsessively thinking (while the other is talking) what’s the best answer, the most constructive question, or generative provocation I can offer, we need to listen deeply to the other and allow ourselves to respond naturally to what is being asked of us in the moment. We need to get out of our heads and be present. We need to be capable of uttering “hineini” (here I am) in these situations and when we seek to encounter the sacred presence of God in our lives.
The contemporary philosopher Michael Fishbane refers to this as “attunement.” In the same way jazz musicians attune to one another and the same way we become attuned to our partner, we can learn to attune to the world around us and the sacred presence of God. He suggests that the Jewish practice of havruta text study (as described in my fourth article) offers a way of cultivating the dispositions needed for being attuned.
Judaism offers other practices through which we can attune ourselves. An obvious resource is our tefillah, in which we are guided to be present amidst a set of carefully curated intentions (such as gratitude to our ancestors in the Avot and acceptance of grace in the Gevurot).
The saying of daily blessings (brachot) is another practice that cultivates the dispositions for being in relationship with the divine. Marcia Prager, in The Path of Blessing, offers creative and constructive guidance for this practice. For her, each word in the basic formula of saying brachot offers a particular intention found in the “meaning” of each letter of that word. For example, the first word, Barukh, is made up of three letters that each reference another word that in different ways is a vessel – beit (house), resh (head) and kaf (cupped hands). In approaching the saying of a blessing, our first intention should be to become a vessel for bringing blessings into the world. (To note: The practical wisdom that Prager offers deepens with the “meaning” of each word she illuminates.)
As Jewish educators, our goal (the why) is for Jews to be inspired and enabled to encounter and respond – to be in relationship with – the sacred presence in their lives. Our teaching (the what) is focused on cultivating those dispositions (virtues) that are needed for our learners to achieve this goal, such as deep listening and patience. We do this (how) by having our learners engage in and reflect upon Jewish practices that cultivate these virtues, such as havruta text study, tefillah and blessings.
In this article, I have endeavored to connect the principle of Presencing the Sacred with the other principles in this newly emerging paradigm for Jewish education, such a Cultivating Dispositions and Being in Relationship. It also connects with Co–Creating the World, which I wrote about in the just prior 5th article in the series. For when we become attuned to the divine presence in our lives, we can then begin to pre-sense the intention of that holy presence. While much of Judaism, God, and our world may have changed across the millennia, the core intention has remained steadfast. We are to be a conduit for channeling the energy of the divine into reality in order to bring forth a more just and caring world. As God promised to Abraham, not only will I bless you but “you shall be a blessing … and all the families of the earth shall be blessed by you.”
Dr. Bill Robinson is the dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS.