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“I’ve Been Asked To Speak About God”

09/24/2023 07:15:50 PM


Peter H. Grumbacher, Interim Rabbi

“I’ve Been Asked To Speak About God” Kol Nidrei 5784 – September 24, 2023 Peter H. Grumbacher, Interim Rabbi Temple Beth El – Newark, Delaware ___________________ Many years ago, a mother dropped off her son for religious school. Mrs. Schleplowitz came bounding into my office, and said, “Why don’t you ever speak about God?” I looked at her and replied, “Well, good morning to you, too. And what are you talking about? She said, “Every Sunday morning I listen to all the religious programs on WDEL. I listen to the Presbyterians; I listen to the Catholics; I listen to the guy from the Sunday Breakfast Mission; and I listen to ‘The Rabbi Speaks.’ All of those clergymen speak about God ….that is, every one except you and the other rabbis!” Despite my protestations that I and my colleagues do in fact speak about God, she insisted we do not. I’ll get back to that in a while. We Jews have always had a problem with God, not God, per se, rather speaking about God. Of course, our prayerbooks are filled with God-this and God-that; the Bar’chu, Sh’ma, Kedusha; Adon Olam, Ein Keloheinu, etc., etc., etc.; and what would the Torah be without Adonai, Elohim, and Eyl? There’s no question about that. But the Godtalk that my congregant was referring to, at least from my rabbinic experience, is limited to interfaith discussions and the like. We don’t speak about God; we experience God. And if we talk about God, it’s through our experiences or through various metaphors. When I thought about what this congregant asked of me, what came to mind was an image of God brought to life in a theological masterpiece by the great sage of this and the last century, Allan Stewart Konigsberg, better known as…Woody Allen. He writes about the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac. In this essay, Abraham is confronted by Sarah. She is distraught as a mother would be, something I alluded to in my sermon last Sunday. She wanted to know of her husband how he knew it was God speaking to him. Abraham replies, “Because I know it was the Lord. It was a deep-resonant voice, wellmodulated, and nobody in the desert can get a rumble in it like that.” And later, when God tells Abraham it was all a joke, the Eternal adds, “It proves that some people will follow any order, no matter how asinine as long as it comes from a resonant, well-modulated voice.” (Found in The Big Book of Jewish Humor, p. 220) I am sure that was the image of God this woman had in her mind, and that it was the image she believed was in the minds of the Sunday morning clergymen: a God who sits on high; a God whose resonant voice spits out fire and brimstone; a vengeful God; a God of infinite impatience; a God who demands and overabundance of sacrifices in a glorious Temple; a God with a well-modulated voice whose words lack compassion and love. Those were just a combination of possibilities, some of which I’ve heard from non-Jewish colleagues, some of which there are hints of in Hebrew Scripture; but not one of which I believe in, nor do most, if not all of you. As a matter of fact, when I was a rabbinical student the Reconstructionist movement was far less influential on the Jewish scene than it is now. Having said that, there was a joke that went around Jewish circles… When referring to God, the Orthodox say, Avinu, sheh-bah-shamayim, “Our Father in Heaven,” (We had that expression way before Christianity). The Conservative Jews say, Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu, “Our God and the God of our fathers,” (there was no gender-sensitive God-language back then). Reform Jews would say, “O God,” and those of the Reconstructionist persuasion would say, “To Whom it May Concern.” It was a joke back then, but in a real sense, that’s what ALL Jews are really saying when they speak about God, for the simple reason that our views of God are dependent on so many factors, that which appears in our prayerbooks, the least of them. When we find in the prayerbook, “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob” with the same tri-partite expressions for the matriarchs, the question is asked, if we believe in One God, why not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? It’s a great question with a better answer. Our sages came up with it without being accused of heresy. What did they say? We put “the God of” before each of our patriarchs and matriarchs because not one of them experienced God the same way. The One God is manifest through experience. If we talk about God, as my congregant would want, we must talk about the God in our lives, not the God on high, nor the God with the “resonant, wellmodulated voice.” And as a fruitful aside, if we refer to the God of our Bible, our Torah – the God closest to what Woody Allen was writing about - there we find a God with certain characteristics as defined by the ancients, our biblical ancestors, but a God who then will evolve with other characteristics as our spiritual curiosity as well as our day-to-day experiences become more sophisticated. While I don’t agree with many of the ideas put forth by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the Patron Saint of Reconstructing Judaism, I do think he had the right idea when saying that the supernatural God so prevalent in our theology must give way to other God concepts. “To Whom it May Concern,” therefore, makes more sense than the other formulas I mentioned belonging to the other major branches of Judaism. One day you or I might need Shechinah, the feminine manifestation of God considered to be the closest God can come into our lives. At dinner after our tashlich service last Sunday, our guests were talking about a friend with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. A few years ago their only son, an eighteen year-old was pushed, hit his head on the ground and died. Soon thereafter her husband had a fatal heart attack, and their daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer. We’re told that God burdens us only what we can deal with. To me that’s hooey; but this woman, a good Catholic, relied on a Shechinah-like God to give her comfort. And when life hands our own People terrible ordeals, so many of us call on Shechinah for love and for strength. Other days you or I might just need the thought of God, even HaMakom, translated as the “Place,” usually the image of a mountain in the distance, the farthest God can be in our lives. Each is a metaphor, each is experiential; neither is a “one size fits all” God concept. Let’s get back to my friend of yore as I said I would. It’s true…we don’t speak about God like our colleagues from other faith communities do. But that doesn’t mean we don’t speak about God. “You shall be holy as I, the Eternal Your God, am Holy,” is the banner headline of the Holiness Code we read in the nineteenth chapter of the Book of Leviticus. Is holiness defined with the words I referred to earlier…fire and brimstone; vengefulness; impatience; a lack compassion and love. On the contrary! It says: respect your mother and father; do not reap the harvest to the very edges of the field or gather its gleanings. Leave them for the poor; do not steal; do not lie; do not defraud your neighbor; do not hold back the wages of your laborer overnight; do not curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind; do not pervert justice; judge your neighbor fairly; do not spread slander, etc. etc. Just think of that theologically brilliant, inspiring, awesome and practical sentence in the Holiness Code…Kedoshim t’hiyu, ki kadosh ani Adonai Eloheichem, “You shall be holy for I, the Eternal Your God, am holy.” It is what theologians call Imitatio Dei, “Immitation of God.” When I and my colleagues speak on “The Rabbi Speaks,” even if we ourselves are not Divine, yet our voices are resonant and well-modulated, we speak of God in terms of deed. God is holy and our behavior should imitate what God does…or at least what is Divinely expected of us. “Created in the Divine image” doesn’t mean our faces and our bodies are God-like (You can say that again, Rabbi). No, indeed, it’s the Divine image of what is right. We are a religion of deed, not creed. Who cares what you believe! I’ve told atheists, adults and kids alike, that if they are decent human beings, they might say they are atheists, but their behavior flies in the face of that. And I’d rather have a congregation of atheists than those who would celebrate twenty days of Yom Kippur yet are miserable to their families and neighbors, who could care what they do in business so long as they get the profit, who are absentee landlords in the slums of Wilmington (and we’ve had one or two of those in the Jewish community). Yes, the rabbis do speak about God, but it’s not the God of faith necessarily; it’s the God reflected in the Holiness Code. Yes, you and I speak about God through our life’s experiences of God. We speak about God while we imitate God. We speak about God without worrying about fire and brimstone, rather through our compassion for others, our passionate love of justice and righteousness, and our pursuit of peace. Listen to the words of the prophets of Israel whose voices are the voices of God. When they insist not to put ritual ahead of justice, dem’s God’s words, my friends. Oh, yes, Mrs. Schleplowitz, keep listening to the clergy on the radio – ministers, priests, imams and rabbis - and for sure, you will hear each of us speaking about God.

Fri, February 23 2024 14 Adar I 5784