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18 questions about God

Still Small Voice: 18 Questions About God is a special project published in the Jewish month of Elul, a traditional time of reflection and accountability. To read the first interview in the series, with Rabbi David Wolpe, click here.

The coronavirus has often been compared to a biblical plague. Which begs the question of whether God sent it.

I’ve also heard people wonder aloud whether George Floyd’s death was some kind of divine message, in that it helped wake the world to ingrained, crushing injustice.

Whether or not Jews have faith —and the reality is that many are on the fence — there’s no doubt that 2020 has prompted people to think anew about the powers beyond us, events that defy explanation, and whether we’re called in some way.

So it seemed like a good time to talk to rabbis about God. The result is this series: 18 teachers exploring 18 questions about the divine. We’ve named it Still Small Voice, from a passage in the Book of Kings (19:11-12).

Five years ago, I wrote a series of articles in the Forward, taking a deep dive into every Jewish holiday on the calendar. Those fasts and feasts became a book, “My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew,” and as I toured the country talking about it, I was often asked why God didn’t play a more prominent role in the stories.

The truth is, in all the years of writing frequently about Jewish identity and tradition, I have shied away from exploring the divine. It felt sacrilegious, or audacious; how can I walk into this arena when I’m no rabbi or scholar?

It was rabbis themselves who invited me to take the leap and trust that we’re each entitled to the search. I’ve long wondered how clergy and other scholars explain the unexplainable. What texts do they lean on to help clarify the divine or bring us closer to it, which images do they invoke, how do they talk to congregants or students about God, especially when someone is suffering or scared?

Journalism can be both an excuse and a pathway, so I donned my reporter’s hat to ask the questions I harbor myself. Is God everywhere? Does God hear us? Does God punish us? Is God good? What is God’s opinion of us?

There were too many wise teachers to consult; I aimed for a cross-section of perspectives: of denomination, background, career, geography, gender and race. Each chose one of my proposed inquiries or suggested a different lens. Before or during each conversation, they emailed me a Jewish text to elucidate their thinking.

It feels right to start this series during the Jewish month of Elul, traditionally a time of rigorous spiritual reflection, building towards the high holidays and Judgment Day.

It is a period when we are supposed to excavate our errors, vow to make changes, apologize to those we’ve hurt. Our tradition talks about this process as cheshbon hanefesh, an accounting of the soul. We must hold ourselves accountable, but God, too, is evaluating us at this time.

So many Jews I know, laypeople and rabbis alike, struggle with whether we have an unseen protector, navigator, instigator, parent, enforcer, role model, architect who is watching, steering or evaluating our lives. But we lack a regular forum in which to explore this muddy, moving terrain.

I hope you will join the conversation. The last time I took a public journey like this, I was uplifted (and, yes, educated) by so many Forward readers, who responded with comments, suggestions, loving and, of course, less-than-loving feedback. Please send yours (especially the kind kind) to [email protected]

In the months I have been working on this project, I kept returning to a poem about God by Yehuda Halevi, the Spanish physician who died in 1141. It’s called “Where Will I Find You?” and asks, “who could fail/to search for you?”

Maybe, I thought, when we fail to search, we fail. Here’s my favorite stanza:

I sought your nearness. With all my heart I called you. And in my going out to meet you, I found you coming toward me

Abigail Pogrebin, a freelance journalist, author, and public speaker, is a Forward contributing writer. Follow her on Twitter. @apogrebin

A mosaic of participating rabbis

Image by Angelie Zaslavsky

Still Small Voice: 18 Questions About God is a special project for the month of Elul, a traditional period of reflection and accountability. Click here to read the first interview in the series, and here to browse the collection.


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