Still Small Voice is a collection of 18 interviews with rabbis tackling 18 questions about God, published during the month of Elul, a time of Jewish reflection and accountability. Click here to read the introduction to the series.
Rabbi Rachel Timoner, a leader known especially for her outspokenness on persistent inequalities, tells me that in these times especially, the more pressing question — rather than our take on God — is God’s take on us.
It had not really occurred to me before to think about how God views humanity. In a nutshell, Timoner laid out an approach to the divine in which God is a mirror-check on our behavior — individually and collectively.
I’ve known Timoner since 2015, when she became Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn — I was included in a small welcome-to-New-York-City dinner for her — and our Reform synagogues have collaborated on some social justice initiatives together. (I’m a member of Central Synagogue.) I approached her to be part of my months-long project interviewing rabbis and scholars about God, which I began at the start of the pandemic — a time when many are questioning everything afresh. I asked each thinker to tackle an individual question many Jews have about God, and to bring to the conversation a single text to help ground the discussion.
Timoner sent me these lines from Genesis with her translation (2:7): “Then Adonai formed the human of the dust of the earth. God blew into its nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being.”
Her question, which as she puts it, is maybe “the most interesting question that we never ask” — is “What does God believe about us?”
Timoner’s verdict is pretty reassuring: God thinks we’re always capable of doing better. No sin or misstep disqualifies us from grace or blessing.
That surprised me slightly, because I’d pegged her as someone who is often disappointed by people who could act to right wrongs and don’t. Not that she’s judgmental; more impatient. As if to say: you have a chance to save someone; why are you still standing there?
“I was a radical lesbian in my 20s living in San Francisco trying to bring about out some kind of revolution,” Timoner said to describe her younger self before she turned to explore her religion deeply. She graduated Hebrew Union College rabbinical school in 2009 where she earned multiple honors — for Scholarly Writing, Excellence in Bible, Outstanding Service to a Small Congregation — and has maintained a fearless focus on criminal justice reform and dismantling racism in America. But as we talked about God, I heard a different kind of radicalism: one that is sure God never gives up on us or our ability to be good and do good.
_Our conversation is below, edited for clarity and length. To read other interviews in this series, click here. Send (gentle) feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘There is endless opportunity for us to turn’
Abigail Pogrebin: You said you chose that verse from Exodus because of the Talmudic discussion of its first word, vayyitzer, which means “he formed.”
Rabbi Rachel Timoner: Yes. Look closely at vayyitzer. The word really should have one yud [the letter that looks like an apostrophe in the Hebrew]. But here it has two yuds. The Rabbis say that the two yuds are because we have two inclinations — to good and to evil: yetzer hara and yetzer hatov. On the one hand, we have impulses to help, care, love, give, support, engender peace. But we also have impulses to take, harm, lust, dominate, kill. And in that same verse there’s that idea that we’re made of the dust of the earth, and also made of the breath of life — which comes directly from God. This dualism — we are creatures of the earth, animals like other animals, and we also stand upright, between heaven and earth, made of the divine image, possessing a soul. We have both things happening: good and evil, earth and heaven.
AP: So God believes we have both a selfless and a selfish inclination, an earthly and divine aspect. Which does God believe wins out?
RT: The main thing that Judaism tells us God believes about us is that no matter what we do and what we’ve done, no matter how we’ve fallen short of that ideal of justice, peace, love and compassion, no matter in what ways we’ve closed our hearts and failed to see how we’re harming others, how we’ve erred, there is endless opportunity for us to turn. God absolutely believes that human beings can endlessly improve ourselves, that there is no end to the learning curve, no limits on our capacity to become righteous.
AP: That’s a very moving summation of God’s opinion of us: that we have a bottomless capacity to right the ship.
‘I believe in the divine quality within humans’
RT: If we turn our hearts — even just a half-turn, if we open ourselves even slightly, then God is always ready to receive us. No matter how much intentional wrong we’ve done, if we feel remorse and want to be better, God is endlessly ready to receive us, without limitation, believing in our capacity for good. That is fundamentally what God believes about us. We’re not perfect; we’re deeply flawed…and we’re endlessly capable of transformation, healing. I believe in that more than I believe in anything else.
AP: What do you mean “more than anything else”?
RT: More than I believe in any particular idea about God, I believe in humans. I believe in the divine quality within humans, and the faith that God has in us and our capacity to continually better ourselves. To reach for and achieve good.
AP: So when we look at the number of times God gave up on us in our Torah, how do we square that with this potential God believes we have?
RT: Here’s the thing: God also isn’t perfect. God created us because God is also needing to learn — from us. When God created humans, God created two humans — and the second human was there to help, to be a counterpoint, like a chevrutah [study partner], to challenge the first human to stretch and grow. Similarly, God created humans to be that for God. God is looking to also be better. And you’re going to see that in so many encounters — when God gets angry, impatient, is destructive, petulant; God relies on humanity to remind God of God’s best self. That’s what the 13 Attributes are.
AP: You mean the liturgy we sing on Yom Kippur — where we list God’s good traits. “God, God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness for a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin, And granting pardon.” Exodus (34:6):
‘It’s all a work in progress’
RT: Yes. God is asking of us: ‘Remind me— am I really good? Who am I again? Oh right. I am endlessly patient. I am loving, I am compassionate, I care about truth, but I also know to balance truth with compassion.’ We provide that for God. So while God is a model, God is also not a perfected model of these things. It’s all a work in progress. The whole thing. And we are, too. Our liturgy is built around that; everyday in the Amidah prayer we’re asked for forgiveness and we’re wanting to change ourselves. We name the way we’ve fallen short and strive to do better.
The tables were turned on Still Small Voice’s Abigail Pogrebin this past week. Listen to Yehuda Kurtzer interview her about the series, her beliefs and more on his podcast here.
AP: Since God ostensibly had the choice as to how to create the human, why intentionally give us a destructive impulse?
RT: I’m so glad you asked that, because I just left it as “bad” and “good,” and that’s way too simplistic. The “ra” in yetzer hara means chaos. This impulse will lead to chaos: wanting more for ourselves, wanting other people for ourselves, wanting certain people to have power over others, anger that can lead us to be violent.
But the Rabbis are very clear that it’s not “bad,” as in, you should want to eradicate it. It’s bad in that it can be harmful, but it’s also actually necessary and is part of the design.
Yes, it is intentional that we are created with both of those things because as the rabbis say, if we didn’t have a yetzer hara, then no one would build a house, no one would make a family — you need some lust to be able to have relationships with people that create offspring. You need to have some amount of greed to want things for yourself. And you should want things for yourself.
The issue is not that we have yetzer hara. The issue is when it’s out of balance. And the challenge is not to try to remove it; it’s a necessary part of us. We should even love it. We just have to recognize it and keep it in check.
All these qualities that I was holding out as good qualities — love, peace, justice. None of those in Judaism are considered to be absolute — like you want them 100%. All of them are understood to be in balance with something else. It’s all about balance and moderation.
‘The voice in me that’s harsh? That’s self-generated.’
AP: And so for you personally, when you consider what God thinks about humanity, do you view God as rendering a judgment about you — judging the imbalance of your impulses?
RT: I don’t feel judged as in, there’s an outside being looking at me, shaking its finger with its brow furrowed or a judge with a gavel. The voice in me that’s harsh? That’s self-generated. That’s not about God. And that’s actually the way I know it’s not about God. The voice in me that’s harsh is just from the wounds of my life.
As human beings, we have so many ways that we judge ourselves, and expect others to judge us. We project that onto religion and expect that God or religion is going to tell us that we’re wrong, and certainly there have been a lot of expressions of religion in God’s name that have told people that they’re wrong. But I do not hear God that way. Ever. Sometimes I hear the conscience within me telling me that something I’m doing is wrong. But it’s not that I’m wrong in my core.
AP: So finally: when you said that God is ready to accept us, no matter how we’ve transgressed, that made me feel oddly relieved, even hopeful. I do so much self-flagellating when I know that I’ve misstepped, it’s hard not to keep replaying it. But your phrasing didn’t feel Jewish somehow; when you said that “God is always ready to receive us,” my first thought was, “That sounds like a Christian frame.”
RT: I can’t believe how many things that are the most beautiful things we have we’ve decided are actually Christian things. They’re ours. They are also Christian, but they came from us. Isaiah 44:22: “I’ve erased your sins in the haze and your transgressions as a vanished cloud. Return to me, for I will rebuild you.” Midrash Tehillim 120:7: “My hands reach out to the one who does teshuvah [repentance.] I turn back no one who gives me their heart. If they come to me, I walk towards them to heal them.” That’s us. That’s us.
Abigail Pogrebin, a freelance journalist, author, and public speaker, is a Forward contributing writer. Follow her on Twitter, @apogrebin. Rabbi Rachel Timoner is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
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 next interview in the series, and here to browse the collection.
Abigail Pogrebin has become a rare voice among American Jews, as a journalist and an explorer who shares with refreshing wit and candor her path to finding a meaningful Jewish life.
What does God believe about us?