Still Small Voice is a collection of 18 interviews with clergy 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.
I remember when my parents told me that their dear friends, Blu Greenberg, founder of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, and Rabbi Irving Greenberg, famed author, teacher, and pioneer of a more open kind of Orthodoxy, lost their beloved son, J.J.
A model of health, and a bright light in the world of Jewish communal service, J.J. was 36 in 2002, when he was riding his bike in Israel, hit by a vehicle, and later declared brain dead. It’s difficult to fathom how parents of deep faith and Jewish practice found a path through such an upending tragedy, but I didn’t ask during my recent interview with Rabbi Greenberg — who is known as Yitz — about God. He broached it unprompted.
“Blu and I were in the States when we got this call at 6 o’clock in the morning, saying that J.J. was seriously injured, there was bleeding on the brain, it looks bad but we don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I jumped up out of bed and I wasn’t planning to go to shul that morning, but I ran to shul to beg for a miracle. I not only davened, I changed his name by adding the name Chaim to his name Natan.” Chaim is the Hebrew word for life. In this symbolic ritual, Greenberg was following a Talmudic teaching that one may be able to change one’s fate by changing one’s name. He called it “a classic Jewish ritual or folk belief.”
I had reached out to Greenberg as part of a series of interviews I conducted with clergy and scholars over the past few months about the divine. In this surreal year of pandemic, protests and politics, many of us are revisiting our questions about how God works in the world. The series, Still Small Voice, explores 18 questions with 18 voices, each using one Jewish text.
Rabbi Greenberg, 87, chose to focus our discussion on God’s visibility: has it changed since biblical times? He has written seven books and co-founded in 1974 — with Elie Wiesel — the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
My conversation with Rabbi Greenberg is below, edited for clarity and length. Click here to read the introduction to Still Small Voices and here to browse the collection of interviews. Send (gentle) feedback to email@example.com.
‘We are now in an age where God is totally hidden’
Abigail Pogrebin: You actually changed J.J.’s name?
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg: I did. I confess that. Of course it didn’t help, but that’s not the point. Emotionally, when else is lost, what else can you do?
The doctors were very honest and I realized at this point, the chances were not very good. But there is something profoundly attractive and fulfilling in grasping at the straw — to get a magical miracle that’s going to save your son because you prayed, or because you kept Shabbat. Even though I knew myself that I didn’t believe that anymore; I had come to understand that God established a natural order — and that is the miracle. The miracle that might change the outcome — if it happens — is through human medical action and natural processes. I felt my religious understanding by that time was more evolved, but at that moment I needed a supernatural miracle and I allowed myself to go for it.
AP: What do you mean your religious understanding was “more evolved”?
YG: This is something I worked at for many years— that we have to give up this idea of God on a white horse — “Daddy, save me and take care of me.” Magical thinking still has a residual power — “I promise I’ll say psalms and God will save me from the coronavirus” or whatever; it has tremendous emotional pull, emotional satisfaction. But religion today is much more mature.
AP: What makes it more mature?
YG: God relates to us as adults; instead of dazzling us as children with pyrotechnics and goodies. Henceforth you’re not going to see a literal picture of God, you’re not going to see a visible presence anymore — thunderbolts coming from heaven.
AP: And we used to see miracles?
YG: In the biblical period, God was experienced as so powerful that it reversed nature — changed water into blood, split the Red sea, spoke directly from heaven and things of that sort. That doesn’t happen anymore. We are now in an age where God is totally hidden. In the second stage, or Rabbinic period, the Rabbis say the visible miracles of God are gone; the Red Sea is not going to split anymore and God has changed procedures. This is out of respect for humans. God wants you— humans — to take more responsibility. It’s a new kind of relationship and it’s not that God is distant or further away; it’s the opposite. God is actually closer.
AP: That paradigm feels counterintuitive: that God is less visible now, but actually closer.
YG: It means worshiping God not out of weakness, sickness and helplessness, but working with God — a loving partnership with God —out of strength. And if we think about it for five minutes, it’s the same as your children or friends: you really want them to work with you, not to obey you because they’re helpless and they need you to save them, but out of sharing the great things that you’re each creating; it’s a very different relationship.
You’re much more responsible as a partner with God. That’s the claim of the Rabbis: God wants humans to do a bigger share of the world’s repair.
‘You’ve got to bring the Messiah’
AP: How do we know what that repair should look like?
YG: The vision that the Torah has given you. The Bible proclaims that this planet will be perfected. This means that by our choices and actions, we can defeat enemies of life: poverty, hunger, oppression, war and sickness. The mechanism to accomplish this is the covenant — the partnership between God and humanity. Jews are among the lead partners, but all humanity is involved. Working together, over the generations, one step at a time, the final goal will be achieved: Messianism.
AP: So you’re saying the more mature religious person focuses less on magical thinking — “If I do the right ritual, God will protect me” — and more about collaborating with God to bring about a better world.
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.
YG: What I think the Rabbis are describing is in the very famous passage in Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers]: Don’t be like servants who serve the master to get a reward. You should be like servants who do it for its own sake.
AP: We should engage this religion for its own sake — because we believe in the project of perfecting the world. Not just for ourselves.
YG: Out of love of God and love of life. When you love the idea of a better world, you’re going to work at it — because you’re embracing fellow human beings much more unequivocally than you ever did before. The Jewish religion is about asking you to use your power and freedom — to build life instead of death; instead of hurting people, love your neighbor as yourself.
I think the mature religious way says you’re not to wait for the Messiah; you’ve got to bring the Messiah.
AP: So if we no longer see God in the old biblical model of rescue or miracles, where is God visible?
YG: The rabbis interpret this image of God as Shechina: hidden presence. God is closer, more loving, more feminine — if you’ll forgive the sexism. This is the God who is with you. Because God isn’t visible anymore. But if you pay attention and drill down, you realize God is much more present everywhere.
In the biblical period, you couldn’t get too close to God or you couldn’t touch the ark without getting electrocuted. But now God has turned down the voltage, and the Rabbis fill up this image of God as Shechina: hidden presence. Closer.
AP: How would you advise a neophyte to “get closer,” to feel God’s presence?
‘You just have to tune in’
YG: You can start with Torah or with stories of Talmud. But mostly you meet Shechina by human encounter. So rabbis, when they study Torah together, meet Shechina. When you visit the sick properly, when you help the poor, when you make love together properly, the Shechina is right there.
You just have to tune in. That’s why you make a bracha [blessing], to help you see the presence. You eat an apple; how do you know that God is there? You make a blessing. It’s a human experience of something amazing; think of what it took to create this — how the ground supported the tree. The flavor.
AP: And what about you, personally? Do you feel God’s presence?
YG: I’m not saying I have it often or frequently, but there are moments in life where I have really felt I’m not walking alone. Even when no one else agrees with me. I don’t want to make it sound exaggerated, but it’s a sense of presence: both the experience of the impersonal, objective, extraordinarily all-powerful universal force, but also — and this, for me, is one of the great gifts of religion — if you work at it, you’re not alone.
Even when you’re sick, when you’re cut off, when you’re struggling, or in a moment when you’re so terribly ashamed of yourself that you really wish you could disappear into the woodwork. You’re not alone. Somebody is not only with you but loves you and cares about you. I find that very helpful; let’s put it that way. And again, it doesn’t happen every day.
‘To be a believer today is to believe half the time’
AP: I know people will ask — and you can tell me you don’t want to answer this, but you’ve talked about God walking with you, feeling you have a relationship with God. What do you say when that friend lets you down? Your son J.J.’s death is one very stark example — how do you help us make sense of that? Is that part of religious maturity?
YG: “Let you down” is the wrong description. If I prayed and expected a miracle because I’ve been a good boy, paid my dues, and put on tefillin every day, saying to God, “So now it’s your turn; you have to save my child,” then I might think, “You let me down.” But that’s not how I understand it anymore.
So the answer is this: I was praying then, and I still pray. It’s not that I feel that prayers are a waste of time. I still pray for someone sick, but I do it through a totally different mechanism. We’re talking about solidarity, care and concern.
We’re not talking about pushing a button that will pull the miracle for you. It’s a different kind of a miracle. So to say “let down” — that’s not it. Having said that, am I shaken by the Holocaust? The answer is yes.
AP: I know you’ve written a great deal about the Shoah and the immense difficulty of understanding God there.
YG: In one of my earliest pieces about the Holocaust, I said that the truth is, to be a believer today is to believe half the time. Part of the time you really feel this connection, presence and all these wonderful things, but part of the time you look at what happened in Auschwitz and you say, there can’t be a God. There couldn’t be.
AP: But we had outgrown miracles by World War II?
YG: We were and are in this third stage of covenant where God does not do those outside miracles; God works through humans and the outcome depends on human behavior.
Do I believe that had the Allies done the right thing, had the Germans resisted Hitler, had the Jews gone to Israel a hundred years earlier, we wouldn’t have a Holocaust? Sure; that’s what I really believe. But do I also feel many days that I can’t accept that answer and I want the old understanding of God as a parent — I wanted God to have saved the Jews? The answer is yes. And in those days I do feel alienated or a lack of belief.
_Abigail Pogrebin, a freelance journalist, author, and public speaker, is a Forward contributing writer. Follow her on Twitter, @apogrebin. Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg is the President of the J.J. Greenberg Institute for the Advancement of Jewish Life and as Senior Scholar in Residence at Hadar.
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 previous interview in the series, and here to browse the collection.
Is God less visible today?
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.