As long as I can remember, Judaism has been a large part of my life. It was not until I was in the car with my mom several years ago, however, that I truly thought about my perception of God. I distinctly remember this conversation with my mother; I was probably around eight years old and we were talking about 9/11. We had just pulled up into our driveway and she parked the car but we continued to sit in it and talk. As we were talking about the tragedy and the evil that exists in the world, a question popped into my mind- where was God in all of this? I asked my mom, and she told me something along the lines of, “It all depends about the way you view God, but to me, God was in the firefighters and the people doing mitzvot to help after the attack. God did not cause the planes to hit the towers.” I interpreted this as meaning that Judaism and God guide people to better society, but that God is not responsible for preventing evil. This is the basis for my belief.
I do not perceive God as physical being; rather, I view God as a spirit that guides the Jewish people through life. This perception most strongly correlates with Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan’s idea that, quote, “God is the Process by which the universe produces persons, and persons are the process by which God is manifest in the individual,” end quote. In other words, God is the process that allows us to become self-fulfilled. By following rules and morals taught in the Torah and during holidays, we continue the Godly process that brings happiness into our lives and the lives of those around us. The Torah teaches us to be kind and loyal, among other things; Jewish holidays and praying teach us the importance of coming together as a kehilah- a community- and being there to commemorate hardships, celebrate simchas, and be grateful for the beauty in the world around us. From fasting and singing in the white tent on Yom Kippur to doing the hora together on Simhat Torah, supporting those who mourn for loved ones at shiva calls to witnessing glass being broken at a wedding, the Jewish community is always there to support each other as well as to remember past hardships and accomplishments. The godly process brings goodness into others lives, which, in turn, betters our lives. God also aids individuals in bringing happiness and peace into their own lives. We lead such busy lives and sometimes, praying is a godly process that allows us to meditate and become at peace with ourselves so that we can pour out our fears, hopes, and sadness and better understand ourselves.
So far, I have focused on the goodness of God as I view it. However, evil exists in society. While I agree with a large portion of Kaplan’s ideology, his ideas do not parallel with mine when it comes to his notion of evil. Kaplan states that people and God must work together to annihilate evil. However, I feel that this idea is too utopian and unrealistic, since evil will always exist and cannot be entirely eradicated. I believe that society can work together in a godly manner to create good in the world. Lawrence Kushner, an American rabbi, believes that, quote, “in order to confront evil, we need to acknowledge it and then redeem it,” end quote. Furthermore, Maimonides stated that evil is the denial of good. When combined, these two beliefs constitute my perception of evil; Evil is the denial of the godly process that leads people to benefit themselves and the world. By acknowledging the absence of good, we can become self-fulfilled and change our lives and the lives of others for the better. To me, God is the process that guides people to conquer evil, help one another, and benefit society. Thank you.
Before I came to this class, I had only thought of God as a supernatural force with humanistic qualities. Consequently, I thought of myself as an atheist with Jewish values. Now, thanks to this class, specifically, the Rabbi’s talks, class discussions, and the lively debates in Jack’s class, I have a much broader view of the meaning of God and the role God can play in Jewish life. While I’m sure my personal beliefs will continue to evolve, the theories of Baruch Spinoza, Martin Buber, and Erich Fromm are most consistent with what I feel at this point in my life and will surely influence me in the future.
Spinoza’s main belief that God and the universe are synonymous resonates with me. Spinoza’s beliefs allow people to accept science, and not see God as a supernatural force. In the book Finding God, the authors explain Spinoza’s position, “God is not the Creator of the universe; God and the universe are synonymous. The laws of nature were not established by God as an outside agent.” This appeals to me because, for me, no setting is as spiritual as the outdoors. When I am in nature I am more observant of the air and my surroundings and consequently feel more connected to the universe. This also makes me feel more relaxed and I am able to put other aspects of my life in perspective. Additionally, when I am hiking outdoors with others, I feel that we able to make deeper connections. When I am in nature I can focus on what Buber calls the I-thou relationship, an intimate relationship between the subject “I” and any other being or thing, including God, as opposed to Buber’s I-it relationship, which refers to a relationship in which one person is “using” another person.
I also have a great appreciation for part of Spinoza’s explanation regarding the relationship between God and people. God does not act one way toward some people and differently toward others. I believe that despite differences in culture, we all share the same planet. This fact alone links us all together.
However, I disagree with Spinoza’s belief that everything that happens in the world has been predetermined, and cannot be influenced by human action. On this matter, I prefer the teachings of Erich Fromm, a well respected humanist and social philosopher On the relationship between God and humans, Fromm states that God should motivate people to be a better. He believes that God represents the supreme goal for humanity, making us ask the question “How can the idea of God lead us to better ourselves?” I like this because it provides motivation for humans for self-improvement. Fromm also says that God has no special relationship to people, but the idea of God should inspire people. The idea of God should move us to self-betterment, greater justice, and love. We should strive to “imitate” god. This, I believe, can make for a better world. If every religious person believed in this form of God, they would constantly strive to be a better person, treat others better, and work harder. This leads me to believe that God can be a synonym for good, with one less “o.”
Over my years of attending Hebrew school as a young girl, and now through Dor Hahemshekh, I have had the opportunity and choice to explore and express how I feel about being Jewish and what I think about G-d. I’ve decided that I view G-d as a female figure rather than a male figure. When I hear the word G-d, I think of women for a number of reasons. Throughout history, women were viewed as the caretakers: They looked after the children, took care of their husbands, and created a safe and positive home for the family to thrive in. I think that the belief that G-d created the world is parallel to that of women having that power of creating a structured and nurturing environment. Women have the ability to make sure that their family is cared for – emotionally and physically – and it’s like G-d is the mother and role-model of the world.
This past year in Dor Hahemshech I have had the opportunity, along with my classmates, to examine the different points of view of various Rabbis and different theological “movements”. I have understood that G-d can be real or an idea – and of all the perspectives we discussed this year, I connected most to that of Martin Buber. He believed that G-d was in the relationship between people. In a way, being present was the ultimate mitzvah. As a result, Buber also believed that when people were too intensely focused on strictly adhering to performing mitzvot, that they lost the opportunity of being truly present with one another, and therefore lost the true essence of G-d. I believe that this idea is true in every-day examples: if you are so focused on trying to get something done, then you are not really enjoying or even appreciating the experience of doing it. It is important that you live in the moment and as the moment progresses, doing that deed will take on meaning – to you, to another person, to the community that you are a part of, and even to future generations. After all, G-d lives through human action.
The ideas that Buber put forth reminded me of my learning and preparation for my bat mitzvah. When you have a bar or bat mitzvah, you are connecting to the people around you and experiencing something that should be meaningful. If you rush through the task itself, only focused on getting it over with, then although you got through it, what did you accomplish? Nothing. The point was to discover new things about yourself and to connect to your community, and if you didn’t stay present, you lost that meaningful opportunity. The rushing interferes with the basic meaning of living – the opportunity to connect and be a part of something bigger than yourself.
Buber tells us that “G-d is real”. I interpret real to mean that G-d has both positive and negative qualities, just like humans. Since we were created in G-d’s image, and we sometimes act honorably and other times are capable of acting maliciously, this explains how G-d created the world and sometimes protected and cared for her people, but other times destroyed civilizations if she perceived humans no longer worthy of the world given to them.
Buber also tells us that “G-d appears to us in those rare moments of true relationship with someone else.” This is important because G-d is also an idea – one that sticks with us in our everyday life while interacting with others. Connecting again to what I studied for my bat mitzvah, G-d guides others as a parent or teacher would. Teachers helps their students become successful not by doing their work, but by supporting them in their accomplishments. In addition, parents would not do for their child what their child is meant to do, but encourage their child to put in their best effort and guide their child to be successful in life. In my bat mitzvah Torah portion, at first when Moses was told to lead the Children of Israel, he wasn’t so sure. He wanted G-d to guide him and be there every step of the way. However, G-d told Moses that she can help lead him, but at some point would need to let go and have Moses be successful on his own. Much like I believed then, I still believe now that G-d becomes an idea that you internalize, like the lessons you learn from your parents and teachers. Once you are on your own and can make important decisions, you become independent. Although you may need someone to lean on along the way, they are not beside you the whole time. Instead, you can trust that as you grow up and become successful, you know others helped you reach that point. That “other” can be parents and teachers, but it can also be G-d that assisted you.
Rabbi Bronstein challenged us with a puzzle from Hillel, who said “All is foreseen, yet free choice is given.” I think this means that although there is a potential expected future laid out for you, that it is still your choice how you want to live your life. As an example, I’d like to share with you an anecdote from my very first year of Hebrew School at Bet Am Shalom, when I was five. We were given an assignment to cut out, color, and glue in the correct sequence a series of pictures. I chose to color my Rosh Ha-Shana apple picture purple and to leave out the picture with the honey. When asked why, I said “because I like purple and I don’t like honey.” Although my teacher was flustered with my choices, since she had certain expectations for how I should complete the assignment, my mother beamed with pride – after all, she is the one who taught me even then, and also since, that I can make my own choices. And I do!
Alexandra Coexisting Explanations
Mordechai Kaplan once said, “Science does not destroy the belief in miracle. It merely transfers that belief from the supernatural to the natural.” In today’s world, there is constant conflict between the religious and the scientific. But, are these two truly opposites? Is there a way that we can be both religious and scientific? This was a key question I ran into while attempting to solidify any of my ideas on religion—how can we merge scientific ideas and religious ideas to create one ultimate truth?
The ideas of Mordechai Kaplan seemed to have an explanation for how science and religion could coexist. Kaplan offers the idea that science can explain the world, and that God is a piece of this natural world. God is not ‘supernatural,’ and is limited by the natural world. He explains that miracles, therefore, are not possible in the way we once saw them, because they are a suspension of natural law. For Kaplan, God is a power or process, not a being. He states that belief in god is an affirmation that there are processes that will lead to self-improvement. By his belief, salvation is self-fulfillment. Prayer is a way to call our attention to this process. It is unimportant if or if not our prayers are heard, because their importance is that they act as the first step in self-realization.
Kaplan’s ideas of the universe proved that scientific knowledge could be incorporated into traditional religion. Many of Kaplan’s ideas coincide with my own. I too believe that there cannot be a ‘supernatural’ being within our ideas of the universe. Since God is not a supernatural being, it only made sense that God would be a process. The most intriguing part of Kaplan’s ideology, for me, was his idea on salvation.
Salvation seems to be the goal of religion. We do all these things to achieve salvation. But science does not allow for a real “underworld” and therefore salvation cannot be getting into “heaven.” Besides, if the purpose of life is to be happy when you die, is there any real reason to be alive? This idea of salvation is widely accepted by many western religions, but religions of the east such as Buddhism offer a very different idea of ‘salvation.’ In Buddhism, when you die, you are reincarnated, and the final goal is to achieve ‘Nirvana,’ which is an ultimate state of peace. Mordechai Kaplan’s idea of self-fulfillment as Salvation is similar to Buddhist ideology, and more easily fits into my personal beliefs. We work our entire lives to achieve peace with ourselves in our lifetime, rather than a nice spot in our afterlife.
Kaplan’s final idea is that Judaism is a civilization; he says that the social, cultural and political conditions differ from those of early Judaism and we must adjust accordingly, while still keeping aspects of biblical Judaism. For me, Judaism acts as a cultural identity. It is a society in which I belong. Each Jewish person has something in common—a common history, common every day struggles, common knowledge—and this acts as a force to bring us all together. But, different Jewish populations have adjusted in different ways to the new societal conditions, which has unfortunately caused our community to become more divided.
So as for me, what do I believe? To me, it is clear that God is not an all-powerful being; rather God is not a being at all, but just another natural power in this world. The Torah acts as a guidebook, each story simply a parable teaching how to care for our world, our community, and ourselves. Each Mitzvah is a step in caring for these essential parts of our lives. The Jewish people, and all other people, must simply do what is right in order to protect and aid the world, the people around them, and their selves. God cannot right the wrongs in the world because God does not have the supernatural power to do that, so we as humans must take responsibility for our actions and the actions of all other people. If we all treat all other people in a humane, respectful way and treat ourselves with care, the world can be an amazing, loving place.
So maybe what religion is trying to teach us is that we need to care for our fellow humans and attempt to achieve peace within ourselves, while science attempts to explain the details of the universe. They can coexist because they, in fact, are not two different stories, just two different parts of the same story.
I am uncertain about the legitimacy of God; however, Judaism is a major part of my identity and I am proud to call myself a Jew. To me, Judaism, especially at Bet Am Shalom, is more about the common values we all hold then whether or not we think that God is the puppet master pulling our predetermined strings or merely a creation by people. We all can perceive God in a different way, which has been emphasized in our class with Rabbi Bronstein; however, what unites us, as Jews are similar core values and practices. We form relationships with other Jews when we live by these values and practices. This results in meaningful connections between Jews that may not have otherwise been formed. In moments of true relationships with one another, that is where we find God, according to Martin Buber. I very much agree with this concept. Buber says that there are two types of relationships between people, I-It, and I-Thou relationships. However, these relationships are not permanent and can change between one moment and the next. For example, if I ask my mom to drive my friends and me around White Plains to various, annoyingly spread out locations, that is an I-It relationship. However, when she comes into my room at nine at night and we discuss various issues with the world and ourselves and suddenly its one am, that is an I-Thou relationship, but still between the same two people. Here, Buber and I agree.
However, whereas Buber did not see a positive connection between regularly performing mitzvot and I-Thou relationships, I do. Jewish practice creates opportunity for these I-Thou relationships to occur. In my family, we celebrate Shabbat every Friday night and have meaningful discussions about the parashah and our lives. This is different from a normal dinner on any other day, where someone always has somewhere to be in twenty minutes or not in the mood to talk. Also, this past Shabbat, my family celebrated my sister Liora’s Bat Mitzvah, during which I fulfilled the mitzvah of reading Torah. I was able to stand in front of my community. I was reading Torah to the people whom I regularly see at Shabbat services. This experience would have been an I-It, and frankly, an uncomfortable, moment, had I not regularly attended services. The fact that I practice the mitzvah of Shabbat leads to a special moment, and an I-Thou relationship between me and my family and my community, that may not have otherwise been formed.
I find Buber’s idea of God a lot more relatable than the God who supposedly watches my every move from some ever-present location in the universe. I connect most with a God who is presented through your strongest and holiest moments with others. There is a sense of community with that God in that it only appears when you form deep and close relationships with another person. There is a beauty to Buber’s idea of God that I do not feel in the punishing and rewarding God seen in the literal meaning of the TaNaCH. Experiencing God is a rare occasion that requires participation not just from yourself, but also from your close family, friends, role models, or others. With this theory of God, you can lead someone else to feel God’s presence, even if they do not know the Ashrei or could not tell you the difference between an aleph and a shin.
This year, to me, the word God has become synonymous with connection. Introvert or extrovert, social butterfly or wallflower, everyone is searching for some kind of connection, some bigger purpose with which to fulfill themselves. Some may find it through the TaNaCH, and through the concept of a God who punishes and rewards, I do not. I find God and my connection to Judaism through exactly that, my connection to the Jewish people. And without a doubt, I have found that connection here at Bet Am Shalom. I would like to thank Rabbi Bronstein for teaching the 10th grade class and me for these past two years. I have learned and grown an unbelievable amount by studying with you. In your class, I feel appreciated and treated as an equal, which is not such a common feeling in most classrooms full of teenagers. Thank you.
I do not believe in an old, bearded man in the sky, smiling down on humanity. That is not what God is to me. I do not find God in the prayers on Saturday morning. To me, God is the secret smile your friend gives you across the classroom. God is the way sunlight can filter through the trees to land in little pools of gold on the ground. God is the spirit hidden within poetry. God is the way you can look around a circle of people and know that they have all shaped you, and you have shaped all of them, and you are the better for it. And that’s how I found God on Monday nights at Bet Am Shalom.
God was when I could look around the circle my friends and I sat in on Monday nights and listen to what every person said, and know that we were all listening and we were all learning and growing and discovering both ourselves and religion together. God was when someone said something that made me do a double take, and look back on my life in a whole new perspective. God was when, under the guidance of our teacher, we all realized a new thing about whatever we were talking about at the same time. God was how we could have heated debates about anything under the sun, and, no matter how intense the argument, we could walk out of the room smiling and laughing with each other.
God is anything beautiful in life. That is how I have come to think of God, and that is why, the night we finally started talking about Mordechai Kaplan, something clicked in my head. Kaplan defines God in a way which you may recognize from what I’ve already said: “The sum of everything in the world that renders life significant and worthwhile – or holy.” This quote shaped my views on God into a much more tangible idea.
Kaplan also refers to God as a power or a process, as opposed to a being or person. Furthermore, he describes prayer not as a message to God, but as a way for us to enhance our awareness of God. It does not matter whether or not our prayers are heard, as long as they are spoken.
For many, science and religion aren’t too compatible. A lot of people move one or the other aside, choosing to believe more in science or in religion. For Kaplan, this is not the case. His version of God is consistent of our knowledge of the universe, not contradictory with it.
As we talked more and more about Kaplan, everything seemed to make sense to me. Was it really possible that there was a Jewish philosopher whose beliefs lined up with my own so perfectly? As much as I love to be contrary, I’m pretty sure the answer is yes.
Kaplan doesn’t mention integrating feminism with Judaism. He doesn’t discuss how LGBTQ issues and rabbinic teaching can go hand in hand. However, he does tell us that God is dancing and singing at the top of your lungs in your friend’s basement, or immersing yourself in poetry and prose. Well, he doesn’t say that exactly. But it’s close enough.
The funny thing is, I didn’t know about Kaplan when my family joined a Reconstructionist synagogue. To be fair, I was barely talking, at that point, much less reading. But even as I began devouring books, and even as I went to a Jewish day school, I never crossed Kaplan’s teachings. And that may have been for the better. For a long time I was so surrounded by such a rigid idea of religion that I didn’t realize that religion can evolve and adapt, and, to be honest, if someone gave me a book about Kaplan, I would’ve probably realized it was another old white Jewish male and tossed it in a corner.
There is one aspect of Judaism that is very important to me that Kaplan doesn’t discuss, and that’s the role of mitzvot. Now, don’t get the wrong idea. I do not follow every single one of the 613 mitzvot. Shrimp is way too good for that. However, I think the mitzvot are very valuable in making us think about and appreciate what we do in an otherwise routine fashion. I could just sit down and eat anything on the table. But the rules of kashrut force me to stop for a second and think about what I’m eating; where it came from, and where it’s going. Prayers said before meals help me realize just how lucky I are to be able to have this food. For me, mezuzot remind me that any place can be a holy place. Not taking God’s name in vain makes me think about what I say and the affect it can have on both myself and others.
There’s one more important thing mitzvot do for me, and it’s what happened when I saw a mezuzah on a restaurant in the middle of Louisiana. They help me realize that by being Jewish, I have a community that stretches far and wide. And that, to me, is God.
First of all, I would like to thank our two wonderful teachers for getting us through this year.
Thanks Jack for taking us through many lessons throughout the year and taking into account what we like to do. Another big thank you to Rabbi Bronstein for teaching us about the differing theologies in the Jewish community, ultimately leading to this day right here.
Hillel once said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?” This quotation can be applied to countless aspects of life and to Judaism, so
today I am going to apply it to determining my personal theology.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” As Jews, we are told that God is looking over us and is responsible for the greatest moments in the human experience; the great joys and pleasures that we feel. To me, this does not make a whole lot of sense. The concept of a God that is purely good is difficult for me to grasp because when has there ever been a person with solely kind intentions? The ideas of Isaac Luria nicely sum up this idea, stating that God created this broken and flawed world and
that we as people are here to put it back together through acts generosity and kindness. Sounds like a good plan, right? In theory, this shows God instilling confidence in us that we have the capability to finish what he started. However, a person could look at this and think to themselves, “Huh, what if we can’t put it back together? Will God not intervene and fix the broken aspects of the world?” Now, I do realize that this is not giving the benefit of the doubt to humanity, but if God is this divine being, how do those without divinity continue the work?
“If I am not for others, what am I?” This preaches a selfless nature of Judaism, paralleling the ideas of tzedakah, forgiveness, and mitzvot. We are going to focus on the mitzvot. I have been taught from a young age that a mitzvah was a commandment from God, basically a contractual obligation that all Jews signed up for when they were born. At the time, I didn’t question this reasoning for doing good deeds because who was I to question authority without reasonable proof besides “I don’t want to.” However, today I am a Reconstructionist teenager, so it is essentially inherent for me to question and refute everything thrown my way, especially commands. If I am going to do a good thing to help another person, it is going to be because I feel it is right, not because I am fulfilling some order that was given to me. The idea of doing mitzvot because they are how people stay together rather than because God told us to stems from the teachings of Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism. Doing mitzvot to help a greater cause is one motivation, but there is also a personal gain someone feels when performing a mitzvah. Through Kaplan’s perspective, we continue to perform the mitzvot because it brings a sense of the sacredness into our lives, whether or not you believed in the physical presence of God.
“And if not now, when?” Good question! For most scenarios, the answer would be right now, but for this particular instance, maybe waiting isn’t the worst thing. The fact of the matter is, when deciding what you believe, the answer is not just going to come to you one day. These things take time to figure out, with lots of research and self-reflection along the way. Personally, I think that the teachings of Lawrence Kushner could be applied in this process. In a nutshell, Kushner says that everything is within God, meaning that we are all pieces of one bigger being. This is kind of like the saying “there are always more fish in the sea,” and this doesn’t only apply to relationships; it can also apply to knowledge. Before deciding upon a solid set of beliefs, I, and I’m assuming most people, need to explore what is out there and the different perspectives on prevalent topics in my life, even if that means taking more time.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” There is always someone, or something. “If I am not for others, what am I?” Generosity is an inherent trait, whether you realize it or not. “And if not now, when?” Sometimes, immediate results aren’t always the best ones.
Now that we have tackled all aspects of this question, I will let you in on what my personal belief system is as of now. I believe that God is something people, Jews and others alike, hold on to for comfort when they feel as if there is nothing else grounding them. For me, I don’t feel the need to hold on to this concept, but maybe I just haven’t come to a point in my life where I would have needed to. I don’t think there is anything wrong with believing there is a God, I just have a more empirical view of the world. Now, this by no means implies that I’m going to stop saying Adonai in the prayers or anything of that nature. I believe in God as a Jewish tradition and practice, just not as a physical or metaphysical presence in my life.