Questions about God

I have been blessed with a broad exposure of the typical yeshiva day school curriculum – having been a student, teacher, administrator, and board member. And it is from these vantage points that I ask why we don’t spend more time talking about God. This question applies equally to the home. We of course talk about God in relation to the biblical characters and their life events, but I am asking more broadly.

Take a look at the table of contents in Teaching Your Children About God and When Children Ask About God, and challenge yourself to answer the questions raised. Were these topics part of your yeshiva education? Would it have been helpful to your Jewish growth if they were taught? Do you feel comfortable raising these questions within yourself? Do you feel comfortable being challenged by these questions from your children?

The Rambam teaches us that the only things we can truly know about God are all the things that God isn’t. But I humbly believe that this approach does not hold muster with our generation of intellectually sophisticated, secular educated, and critically thinking individuals. We are a generation bombarded with questions and doubts both from within our Jewish walls as well as from the outside. It is incumbent upon us to be able to engage in conversations about God, even if the final response is “there is no way for any human being to fully know.”  

Both books are written by non-Orthodox Rabbis and therefore some of the content does not conform to Orthodox theology. Regardless, the questions and topics raised challenge us to write our own responses, ones that deepen our understanding and closeness to God.

Crisis, Covenant and Creativity

My high school years were fraught with various frustrations about Judaism. One such topic, which I somehow managed to articulate with content – in addition to the emotional discontent – was the seeming rigidity and impersonal nature of halakha. I remember the endless arguments I had with my high school teachers, and these objections and discomforts followed me to Israel – where I studied after high school. It was there that I was exposed to Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo – an insightful and articulate baal-teshuva/convert from Amsterdam (read his bio to understand his complex transformation). It was by chance that I heard him speak, as I was planning to skip the optional guest lecture that had been arranged at my school. But after running into Rabbi Cordozo and giving him directions to the lecture hall, I felt guilty about not showing up! And so began my enthusiasm for his thinking and writing.

I began to read Rabbi Cordozo’s weekly divrei torah, and I took advantage of hearing him speak in person whenever the opportunity presented itself. Rabbi Cordozo’s depiction of Halacha as a Symphony (one of the chapters in this book) resonated with so many of the objections that I carried with me over the years. He wrote from a perspective that was neither defensive nor apologetic, and his soft tone invited me to listen, reflect, and reframe much of my discomfort.  

Over the years, Rabbi Cordozo’s views on a number of topics has shifted, and some of his current thinking has fallen under scrutiny and controversy in the Orthodox world. (Perhaps at some point I will review his most recent book Jewish Law as Rebellion, which highlights this shift.) Regardless, Crisis, Covenant and Creativity is a classic which speaks to those who are committed as well as to those who are standing on the fence with skepticism. After reading this book I felt informed, enlightened, broadened, and proud to be a Jew.  

The Other Wes Moore

I can still hear my Oma’s European accent as she said to me at least once a week “you have to have mazal, you have to have mazal.” Sometimes she would say about someone’s success (as only a grandmother could) “he has more mazal than brains!!”. The occasions for these comments varied, but her point was always the same – there are circumstances beyond our control, so that no matter how hard we try, work, and prepare – we need mazal too.

There are fascinating articles by medieval Jewish thinkers trying to explain the concept and practical ramifications of mazal, as discussed in the gemara (yes, mazal is a real concept!) But for this book review I would like to stick with a straightforward understanding of mazal, as my Oma did. Take a moment to think about how much you believe the following areas impact your ultimate successes and failures: Community. Financial security. Family. Friends.

The Other Wes Moore addresses this question by inviting us into the lives of two men. Both were named Wes Moore, and they grew up blocks away from one another. One became a Rhode Scholar, White House Fellow, decorated Veteran, and business leader. The other ended up convicted of murder and lived most of his life serving a life sentence. What factors impacted their different life trajectories?

After the businessman Moore began a correspondence that turned into a friendship with the other Moore, he noted that both men were given several “second chances” in their early years. But, he emphasized, a second chance is only meaningful if it involves a change of circumstance.  

Whether you agree or disagree with Moore’s approach, this true-story-read will stimulate your thinking about your own circumstances and their impact on your life. It will likely, in addition, broaden your lens as you consider those less fortunate.

Short Cuts to Happiness

Tal Ben-Shahar is a bestselling author of multiple books on happiness and positive psychology – a few of which I will review here in the future. He also created a course at Harvard University in Positive Psychology, which became the most popular course in Harvard history, attracting close to 1400 students each semester. Recently, Tal Ben-Shahar moved back to Israel where he is a professor and noted lecturer around the globe.

What drew me to his writings originally, was a post I read where Tal described how anxious he feels before speaking publicly, regardless of how often he speaks or how popular his courses. I was instantly drawn to his authenticity coupled with the willingness to share his vulnerability with millions of people, and I have been reading his publications ever since. Those same characteristics permeate Tal’s latest book Short Cuts to Happiness.  

Short Cuts to Happiness: Life-Changing Lessons from My Barber

When I first read the book, I was surprised at how “light” it was compared to his other books. The critical voice in my head was expecting a breakthrough of new ideas and profound insights. And then I read the book again and realized what I had missed the first time. This book is a collection of lessons that Tal Ben-Shahar, best selling author and lecturer, learned from his barber. The book models through Tal’s personal experience, that the most profound ideas and values can be learned from our daily, mundane, ordinary routines. Some of the topics covered include: vacation, generosity, silence, being whole, praising effort, gardening, slowing down, authenticity, and dreaming. 41 short vignettes in all, each with a profoundly important value, all learned while sitting in the barber’s chair. I remarked to someone the other day that if Tal Ben-Shahar can write a book about what he learned from his barber, then we all have what to learn from everyone we encounter in our daily lives. For that lesson alone this book is deeply valuable.

Does the World Need the Jews?

Ever since my earliest grade school lessons, I wondered why Adam and Chava weren’t Jewish. I wondered why God appointed one nation to bear the responsibility of being a light onto the nations. I wondered why Judaism was even necessary, and why the whole world isn’t expected to live by Jewish values and ideals. I learned many different perspectives over the years, and along the journey I read a number of books that contributed to my appreciation for Judaism. The books that spoke to me most were those that didn’t prop up Judaism by putting other religions down, nor did they encourage Jewish pride simply as a response to persecution. They didn’t offer quick-fix answers to complex issues, and they didn’t try to explain away areas that gave me pause and created discomfort. One of those books is: Does the World Need the Jews, by Daniel Gordis. Gordis talks about the identity crisis facing American Jewry; our having lost our Jewish voice because we have no idea what to say.

In one paragraph he writes: “Those who downplay this identity crisis among American Jews are quick to point out that ours is not the first generation of Jews who could leave their community. They note that Jews have always had that option, and they are right. But they are wrong to suggest that nothing is new. They are wrong because of the sheer numbers of people making this choice. But more importantly, they are wrong because our is a generation in which people leave Judaism not by making a conscious decision to leave, but just by drifting away. Ours is the first generation in which huge numbers of Jews left the world of Jewish life without even giving it much thought, lured away by the currents of culture that makes Judaism seem of little consequence…We have no clear conception of what might be special or important about our culture, our religion, or our way of life. We have no clue as to why we matter.”

This is an important read for everyone, and in particular if you are finding the phenomena described above facing your adolescent children. Last week we celebrated the re-dedication of the Temple. Let’s continue by re-dedicating ourselves to a better understanding of our Jewish mission.

Hope Will Find You… Chanukah Sameach

Every Chanukah I am drawn back to the well-known debate between Hillel and Shamai about lighting the candles from 1 to 8 or 8 to 1. We follow the opinion of Hillel who (according to one opinion) believed that adding a candle each night symbolizes how, over time, we should increase and deepen our sense of excitement and appreciation for the gifts in our lives. But it is Shamai who balances the picture by reminding us that the more common human default is to watch our excitement and gratitude wane over time. It is this reality that Chanukah asks us to confront, grapple with, and take one realistic step forward.

This same theme is captured in a passage in Hope Will Find You by Naomi Levy. She writes: Moses tells the people, ‘God sent you manna in order to test you’. I’d never thought about manna as a test. I’d always thought about it as a Divine gift. Immediately I understood what the test was. On Day 1 manna looks like a real miracle. On Day 2 manna still seems quite miraculous. On Day 30 manna is getting seriously boring. By Day 60 manna seems like some sort of punishment. The manna test was the test of normal. Every miracle, if you’re blessed and lucky enough so that it lasts in your life and you get to keep it, becomes normal. And then it doesn’t seem like such a miracle.

Hope Will Find You: My Search for the Wisdom to Stop Waiting and Start Living

In Hope Will Find You, Naomi Levy shares her journey through her daughter’s illness and various diagnoses. She shares her very human struggle of trying to live life fully, while simultaneously feeling as though much of life no longer has meaning considering her daughter’s condition. Here is one quote that captures this beautifully: Life is exhilarating, breathtaking, and beautiful. And life is unfair and cruel. I’d officiated over enough funerals to understand that the most important question we must ask is not what a person did for a living but what he or she did for a life.

The wisdom, realness, and humility with which Naomi Levy tells her story invites the reader to lean into this book with his or her own life.

Not Me

Not Me is a novel that brings new meaning to teshuva or self-transformation, both conceptually and in reality. Not Me describes the life of Heschel Rosenheim, a Jew who survived the Holocaust and dedicated his life to rebuilding Judaism and the State of Israel. In the last few months of his life as he suffers from dementia, Heschel’s son discovers his father’s journals. These journals reveal that Heschel was perhaps not really a Jew, but a Nazi who pretended to be a Jew after the war, to save his own life. As Heschel’s son grapples with whether the stories he reads in the journals are fact or fiction, he also grapples with who his father truly is, as the father he has known his whole life is a truly devout Jew. Can a person become someone new, even opposite of what they were?  

Not Me: A Novel

This book invites us all to think about who we are at the core – by birth and by our own admission and reinforcement. It can be read simply as an engrossing novel or as a catalyst for true soul searching. As I read through the novel, I thought often about what it would take to open my heart to something or someone who I once despised. I also grappled with who I am at the core of my being vs. who I am by circumstance, and frankly, whether it makes a difference! For someone who doesn’t read a lot of fiction, I truly enjoyed this book.

Why Be Jewish

I grew up reading David Wolpe’s column in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. Something about it always resonated with me. I knew he was not Orthodox, and yet, reading his words always left me feeling more passionate, positive, and motivated to learn more about and deepen my Judaism. When I started teaching “Why should I stick with my Judaism” – (a high school elective course based on all the topics and questions I wished I had been taught as a high school student), I utilized so many different texts – from classic medieval philosophers to modern day Rabbis and writers. Often it was a line from the writings of David Wolpe that gave my students pause, as it did for me.  

Here are some of my favorite lines from Why Be Jewish:

Judaism’s most important single teaching is that each human being is created in the image of God…Human beings bear God’s image; we bow down in devotion, but we stand up in mission.

One of the lessons of spirituality that Judaism teaches is that spirituality is not a solitary affair. True spirituality means a relationship with other human beings and with God.

Spirituality means transforming oneself; a religious tradition is a system that teaches how and in what direction we should change.

Why Be Jewish is a small book packed with inspiring and thought-provoking ideas.

Reasonable Doubts

Reasonable Doubts is the story of one woman’s quest to rebuild her relationship with God, when her primarily intellectually based connection fails her. I read this book when I too was struggling with various aspects of my Judaism, about which I had more questions than answers. What resonated with me was Berman’s intellectual honesty about the limits of an intellectual connection with God, while still upholding its importance and value.

In healing her relationship with God, Berman grows to understand God through the lens of the non-rational – which is far different than the irrational. In one passage she writes “I still couldn’t prove the existence of God, but I could feel it. I felt it deep within my gut, where you feel the love for a child. What was that feeling? Where did it emerge from? It wasn’t an intellectual decision. It wasn’t based on rational arguments…Otto was right. Religion is best defined by an experience, not a philosophical proof. I know there is a God because I experience Him. And now I finally had my much sought-after definition of intuition: intuition is the first moment you smell jasmine, just before you try to describe it. Intuition is that breathless instant of love at first sight, the briefest seconds where you still don’t know what hit you. Intuition is what grasps our experiences before our intellect can sink its teeth into them. Intuition was my key to understand faith.”

This is a wonderful read for adults as well as for the maturely searching teen, and it offers much to discuss at the Shabbat table.

Holy Envy

Barbara Brown Taylor has supported me for the past 8 years, ever since I discovered Learning to Walk in the Dark and An Alter in the World. A rare mix of wisdom with humility, and realism with hope, permeate all of Taylor’s works. Holy Envy is a different kind of read. In it, Taylor describes her journey teaching many semesters of Religions of the World at Piedmont College. She describes experiencing “Holy Envy” for certain aspects of each religion she taught, “falling” for each one when learning about it in its perfect form. Taylor espouses the belief that“one of the best ways to learn more about your faith is to engage with people who do not share it”. Conveying this to her students, she noticed how much they needed to be reassured that studying other faiths would not make them lose their own.

While the book provides an interesting while cursory exposure to other Religions, what gave me pause was reading, “Our shadows are often behind us, where others can see them better than we can.” And, “…the bible is bigger than I am. It does not care what I like and do not like. It preceded me by millennia and will likely still be around when my civilization returns to dust…The problem with every sacred text is that it has human readers. Consciously or unconsciously, we interpret it to meet our own needs.

I read those few sentences numerous times reflecting on my Judaism. How many times do we approach our text with a set agenda hoping to find what we are looking for – shooting the arrow first and then drawing the bull’s eye around it. I know I’ve done it. Life is complex and I want my Judaism to support the “right” side of a struggle. I want my Judaism to accommodate each individual, as it simultaneously maintains itself as a religion fit for the multitude. I want my Judaism to be flexible enough to meet the needs of each generation, while firmly holding onto its essence and core tenets which are timeless. And then I reflect on Taylor’s words, “But the Bible is bigger than I am…and we interpret it to meet our own needs.”

I am deeply appreciative to Barbara Brown Taylor for shining a light on a shadow of mine as I engage my Judaism in a complex world. I may have to accept some things with which I disagree. But I would prefer to struggle honestly, then sit in comfort as a result of my having made up the rules.