Talking About God Off the Bimah

Talking about God off the bimahTalking 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.’