I’ve been thinking about how we talk and teach about God for a long time. At one particular lesson with a bat mitzvah student of mine, the more we read of her Torah portion, Korah, the more upset she became. Finally she stopped me, exasperated, and said, “Wait a minute—you mean to tell me that God not only opened up the earth to swallow Korah and all those people who had a legitimate question about Moses, but then He brought a plague and killed thousands more people? Is this true? How could God do such a thing?”
I was stunned—not from her questions, but because I had had the same questions and had no idea how to answer them. Deflecting, I suggested we take a break from the Torah and open the siddur (prayerbook). “V’ahavta,” she started to chant. “Love the Lord your God.” The same God who brought you out of Egypt. The same God who opens the ground to swallow dissenters and brings plagues to the innocent. That God.
I left her questions—and mine—unresolved and unanswered, and I could never shake the thought that I missed a great opportunity. And then it happened again, this time in a religious school kindergarten classroom about a year later. The kids were learning stories from the book of Genesis, a popular subject in kindergarten, so I had prepared some fun songs about ParashatNoah. It was a blast until one kid asked the teacher, “What about all the animals and people that didn’t make it on the ark?” The teacher didn’t have an answer. I saw the same kids an hour later for tefillah (prayer). “V’ahavta,” we sang. Love that God.
God is the main character in the Torah and the subject of our prayers, so the word “God” is used over and over again in Jewish contexts. God is also part of our culture, found in TV programs, movies, art, and politics. Mixing these various cultural and liturgical messages together means that the default image of God for many is an all-powerful “Dude in the Sky.” There is nothing inherently wrong with imagining God this way; developmentally, it makes sense for a child to see God as a friend or parent. But what about if and when that idea of God doesn’t fit with what they see and experience in the world? What if they read about God’s actions in the Torah and sing the injunction to love God, and it fills them with confusion, or sadness, or anger?
This is what happened to me; my father passed away when I was 18. All I had was an all-powerful, sky-God who must have made this happen on purpose for a reason I’d never understand. I felt that confusion, sadness, and anger. This was not how the world was supposed to work. I tried to hold on to that idea of God, but I couldn’t. I tried to let go of God all together, but I kept being drawn back in. After a long and painful journey, I realized there was a third option—one that we are beginning to see as a different form of Jewish expression today. I had to evolve my theology and change how I understood God. I needed permission to do that. Mine came in the form of When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner. What can we do to give this permission? It starts with how we talk about God.
If we use the word “God” less, we can actually talk about God more. A few examples:
Communities like Romemu and Lab/Shul in New York both invoke God but hardly ever use the word “God.” By using other names such as “Holy One,” “Mother,” “Spirit,” “the Infinite”—words in both Hebrew and English—they remove the God-baggage from the Torah and from the prayers.
The Reconstructing Judaism prayerbook, Kol HaNeshama, does this in print, translating “Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey” as a different name of God in every instance. These translations give people permission to think of G!D however they choose, to pick an image that works for them—and it’s all images. The author of the prayer-poem Anim Z’mirot laments that he doesn’t know God. “I’ll tell of Your glory, though I have never seen You. I’ll give people images for You and names for You, but I do not even know You.” “Even Your prophets and pray-ers,” says the author, “only have visions of you,” But oh, what visions. We can understand this as a challenge or an opportunity.
If all we have is our human language to describe that which is greater than us in the universe, we can and must use all the language that we have.
If all we have is the word “God,” we’re setting people up for disappointment if they reach a time in their lives where “Dude in the Sky” stops making sense. When God seems like a made-up story, all of the prayers, Judaism, and Torah can seem childish, frivolous, and without value. I know many people, and maybe you do, too, who left Judaism because they stopped believing in “Dude in the Sky” God and were never shown a value beyond that.
Many educators and leaders think that not talking about God will solve the problem. This, however, makes it worse: we’re still hearing the word “God,” we’re just not talking about what that means, or could mean, to each of us. I understand the impulse not to talk about God because just like when I see those mountains, God is something that is felt. Once we name and try to describe the experience of God, we run into problems of language, and descriptions of God in our sacred text that may or may not fit with our own experience. For too many, “spirituality” and Judaism have little to do with each other. Talking about God in a more expansive way can bridge what we feel in our lives to our sacred heritage, making room in our synagogues for radical amazement, gratitude, and the deep connection that many people are searching for.
So how can we bridge that gap between experience and language? We can talk about God more by using the word “God” less. We can experiment with trying on different Jewish theologies, all legitimate and truthful. (I’ve been connecting with non-dualism and process theology.) We can be honest with our students and community about our own struggles, doubts, and questions, which gives them permission to do the same. We can make room for singing, dancing, and deep spiritual connection. We can transform “God” into “G!D,” exploding the center to make room for a thousand possibilities.
This is why I founded the G!D Project, and why I do this work with community members and educators around the country. Children and adults alike have a desire for that deep connection to all humans, nature, and something mysterious and holy. Talking about it isn’t easy, but the fact that there is something greater than us in the world is too important to give up on. We are B’nei Yisrael, after all: the children of G!D-wrestlers. It’s time to step into the ring.
This article was initially published by the Jewish Theological Seminary. Click here to view the original.
Eliana Light is the founder and director of the G!D Project, an initiative to expand our understanding of G!D and provide a space for spirit. She has released two albums of original Jewish music and travels around the country, providing artist-in-residence weekends, teaching at conferences, and consulting with synagogues to create intentional, meaningful prayer experiences for adults and children alike. Eliana received her MA in Experiential Jewish Education from The William Davidson School of JTS. Eliana is based in New York City and can be reached through www.elianalight.com.