A few months ago, I suggested in a column that the split between Orthodox and more liberal denominations has widened to the point where we aren't even speaking the same language. There is no greater proof of this than the ways Jews of different stripes now speak of God.
I can recall a time not too long ago when God was God: almighty, transcendent, father and king. In the minds of most young American Jewish baby boomer, He probably had a beard, undoubtedly a deep, resonant voice and He was certainly a He; Zeus with a slight Yiddish -- no, British -- accent.
Now -- and before you excommunicate me, hear me out on this one -- just imagine a convention of current Jewish God concepts, as they converse around the bar somewhere in the Heavenly Hilton. Already we have a problem; some of these dieties can't attend because they exist primarily within the human soul, within nature or through the evolution of history. So let's leave some of the less transcendent God concepts out for now, and imagine this gathering: We find Hashem, just back from Kiryat Arba, where He has been scouting out recent American olim for potential moshiachs; He and G-D are mired in deep halachic discussion in one corner, while maternal Shechinah and New Ager Yah recite earthy love poetry in the other. The Lord demands that Shechinah serve Him some Leviathan leftovers. She refuses, commiserating with her feminist allies, Malkah (Queen) and M'kor Hayyim (Wellspring of Life). Then, L-RD calls Lord over and suggests that a little modesty might do Him some good. Adonai goes one step further, suggesting that S/he replace Lord altogether, since Adonai's the Hebrew word for Lord, but less masculine, less feudal, closer to the original. Just as Adonai is about to win the point, Adoshem sweeps down, whirlwind style, gyrating displeasure, shaking the heavens, nearly stirring even the outermost reaches of Ein Sof , causing an imbalance in the Sefirot and sending millions of shattered shards of divinity earthward. This shakes Hashem into action, calling for Moshiach, Now! At that moment a bespectacled Yahweh and El walk into the room asking if this is where the interfaith academic conference in being held.
How can we expect Jews to get along when our Gods are so different, or more to the point, when we see God so differently? I shuddered a bit when writing the previous paragraph; not that I considered it an exercise in blasphemy. All of our names for God are simply that: names, symbols, metaphors, far from encompassing the real One. What shook me was the possibility that this column might be seen by some as demeaning the search for God, for that search, I believe, is the key to Jewish regeneration, and one that I take very seriously.
If we are to know what lies at the basis for our attachment to Judaism, we've got to understand our personal theologies. Often that means picking and choosing from the available metaphors. Ideally, it means creating our own. Well, not creating, exactly, since creation ex nihilo is what God does. What we do is generate a world-view based on our own experiences, passions and visions, our interpretations of how text, tradition and life experiences commingle.
Two years ago, some congregants joined me in a faith-development seminar led by Professor Neil Gillman (one of the best faith developers around), and the metaphors that emerged from this primarily lay group were astounding. A fertility specialist spoke of encountering God when witnessing a new life she has created in a petrie dish. In one of my less techno-phobic moods, I described God as a large screen TV, with each person as a single, transient dot on that screen. We never get to see the big picture, but we know that somehow we are part of a greater order, that all of us are connected, and that the script calls for a divinely-ordained conclusion of some sort. God also operates the remote control and could change the channel at any moment, especially if our dots separate or weaken and the picture becomes snowy. In this scenario, maybe the Messiah is the Cable Guy.
I never fully played out my idea, but neither, I suppose, has God. The important thing is the search, and the need to liberate ourselves from the stale concepts of yesteryear. My God concepts are still evolving, but I'm beginning to get a handle on them.
Once I've begun to understand my own sense of Ultimate Reality, I then can see where mine intersects with others'. And I try to look at even the most divergent theologies as in some way complementary. For instance, I have a personal aversion to the modern usage of "Hashem," but although I would prefer that my children not bring Hashem home with them, I want them to know and feel the hunger for redemption that Hashem's followers have. And while I wouldn't want my kids to use G-D in their writings (I find that omnipresent dash to be an unnecessarily h-lier-than-th-u) I would want them to appreciate the absolute reverence underlying a desire to mask even an English translation of an already-masked version of God's Hebrew Name. They need to sense the mystery of Ein Sof, the harmony of the Sefirot, the love of Shechinah, the majesty of Adonai, the security of Tzur (Rock of)Yisrael and the life-giving waters of M'kor Hayyim. Given all that, at some point in their lives I hope they'll hear their own private calling from the burning bush. I want them to sense God's presence around them and within them.
It doesn't always come easily for me.
Every time God's name is used to promote a political cause, God is knocked down a notch. I don't blame God for the pieties professed by the pols, but having so much of that insincerity dumped on us in God's name can't help but make me more cynical. And how can I take God seriously when leading rabbinic figures in Israel claim that their incantations, candles and amulets caused God to bring down the Peres government?
Maybe what we need to do is exactly what Abraham did in his father Terach's idol shop: destroy the idols and build anew from the collective rubble. When we recognize that neither Adonai, Hashem nor M'kor Hayyim are really God, but that together they help us see different dimensions the Sacred, maybe we'll be more willing to reach out to our fellow Jew residing on the other side of the theological spectrum.
If all Jews would accept just that one point, we might begin to forge some unity. As Mordechai Kaplan wrote, "It is not the seeking after God that divides, but the claim to have found God." If my more traditional colleagues would consider seeing God as a Malkah for a single day, maybe I'll consider letting Hashem through the door -- but it would be helpful if He knew how to fix the cable.