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Is the word ‘God’ the hurdle?

Still Small Voice is a collection of 18 interviews with clergy and scholars 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.

It feels like a radioactive proposition — that the word “God” might be the obstacle to connecting to God. The mere suggestion that more Jews might feel divinity if there was no label attached to it makes me quake slightly at the predictable outcry.

But then I pause and consider the argument. The word or idea of God as a being , decider, punisher or rewarder — does alienate many Jews who have decided the God of Torah feels antiquated, patriarchal, punitive, irrelevant to their lives. What some rabbis say is more relatable is defining God as divine presence — felt in our blessings and in a recognition that every person is created equally, connected to, and therefore responsible for, each other.

The question of what to call God, or how that vocabulary can be a stumbling block for many Jews, is one of 18 questions I put to 18 Jewish thinkers for this project, Still Small Voice. In a surreal year of pandemic, protests and politics, many of us are asking such questions anew.

Rabbi Laura Geller, 70, has always been direct, even as she is serene — a rare combination. She’s perhaps even more candid since she retired four years ago as senior rabbi of the large Reform congregation Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, which she led for 22 years. (She was only the third woman to be ordained in the Reform movement and one of the first women ever to head a major metropolitan synagogue when she was hired in 1994.)

There were several moments in our conversation when I felt it important to remind Geller that we were speaking for publication, and that Orthodox Jews may chafe at her assertions. But I was, refreshingly, dismissed; she assured me that these views are not as controversial as I fear.

Our conversation is below, edited for clarity and length. To read other interviews with other rabbis in our series, Still Small Voice: 18 questions about God, click here. Send (gentle) feedback to [email protected].

‘People have experiences that are not intellectual’
Rabbi Laura Geller

Rabbi Laura Geller Image by Angelie Zaslavsky

Rabbi Laura Geller: Why use the word “God” at all? If I could get rid of that word, I would.

Abigail Pogrebin: That’s a big thing for a rabbi to say.

LG: I think that when people say, ‘I don’t believe in God,’ what they mean is, ‘I don’t believe that there’s a man sitting in the sky with a beard who decides who is going to live and die.’ I don’t believe in that, either. I do believe that there is this divinity, this connectedness, this transcendence, this aliveness that animates me and the world. And if I pay attention to that aliveness and stay awake, I believe I will have a life that’s more rich and meaningful and will maybe be part of the world’s repair.

AP: So the better question is what divinity do we feel —and act upon, rather than what God do we believe in?

LG: The question is, ‘How do you experience God?’ not, ‘Do you believe in God?’

AP: What does it mean to ‘experience God’?

LG: If you ask people whether they believe in God, they often say, ‘No.’ But if you say, ‘Tell me a story of when you had an experience of something that transcends you, of oneness,’ then people will tell you what it’s like when they’re in nature, or gave birth, or first saw the tulips bloom in Amsterdam. People have experiences that are not intellectual. It’s different from belief.

AP: Can you explain oneness?

‘We’re all connected; to ignore that is like cutting off your own arm’

LG: It’s me realizing that I am connected to every other living being. The best metaphor is the one I learned from my meditation teacher, Sylvia Boorstein, at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. She suggested that we are all on an airplane going through turbulence, and at that moment, you’re connected to — and even love — everybody else on the plane, because we’re all experiencing the same turbulence.

And that is a heart-opening realization: I am not different from you. It isn’t about me and my story; it’s about the connectedness. I think that’s what the Shema prayer is about. “Shema -— Listen.” It starts with me: Listen, Israel! It’s not referring to the country, Israel, but the people Israel.

But really it’s addressed to each of us: Listen, Laura. Listen, Abby. It goes on: Adonai (this name we can’t even say) is our God, is only one. Not in the sense that there could be two or three gods, but that there is only oneness.

And look at the first of the Ten Commandments: I am the Lord, your God. God — or divinity— is saying: There is oneness. If you actually get that, then of course you’re not going to betray or murder somebody, you’re not going to ignore someone who is hurting. Because we’re all connected. To ignore that is like cutting off your own arm.

AP: So God is our connectedness or oneness, instead of God being some divine commander-in-chief.

LG: Yes. That place of interconnectedness is, for me, what it means to see God’s face in the face of other people. We’re all the same and we’re all connected. We have to be reminded of that.

AP: And when we’re reminded of our shared humanity, we’re reminded of our shared responsibility?

LG: Absolutely. Part of being alive right now is to tell the truth of all that is happening: the pandemic, the fear, the systemic racism — telling the truth about that is part of being awake.

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: You sent me a text that underscores the idea that the focus of spiritual practice is alertness.

LG: Yes, from Nishmat in the morning service: “YHVH [the unwriteable word for God] neither slumbers nor sleeps. God arouses those who sleep and awakens those who slumber.” God or Divinity is the power that helps me stay awake, to pay attention, to be grateful.

‘We have to do things in the world’

AP: It feels like a recurring Jewish idea that it’s not enough to sit back with our blessings and be thankful; we actually have to do something. Does that fit into your construction of divinity?

LG: Yes — it makes a claim on me to make the world better, to make all this real. This is why the second quote I sent you — by Heschel — was so important:

“Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.”

AP: How would you define the vision?

LG: We have to do things in the world — “Aleinu” — it is on us to repair the world. That’s what that prayer essentially is saying. There’s no question that that is essential to the Jewish story, what it means to be Jewish.

AP: So is there any kind of divine eye watching us to make sure we do our part? Is there some sense of being accountable to something, if not someone?

LG: There’s a sense of being accountable because you and I are the same. I am accountable to you because if you are suffering, so am I. It isn’t that some commander is making a claim.

For example, I’m a mother; I respond to my children not because somebody is saying I have to respond to them, but because they make a claim on me. I love them, and therefore I respond to them. I don’t respond to them because somebody is judging me. So is somebody watching me and making me accountable? No. Am I accountable? Yes.

AP: But if God is not judging or deciding, and if divinity is found not in God but in each other, then what or who are we praying to?

LG: We’re not praying to anything. I pray not to a God that answers me, but I pray as a spiritual practice. I have to ask myself how I treat other people, how do I deal with my children or mourn my husband? It’s not a God who answers my prayer.

AP: But that frame is all over our liturgy — that we petition God for things.

LG: Right. And that is the big problem.

AP: So how do we get past the liturgy?

LG: Good question: How do we get past the liturgy? The problem with Jewish prayer is the prayer book, the images of God that got put into the traditional prayer book where other images didn’t. They get in the way.

‘I do not take prayer literally; I take prayer seriously.’

AP: Can you give me an example of an included liturgy that is a hurdle for people?

LG: The most perfect example is the Unetanetokef liturgy —who will live and who will die. If I had one prayer that in some ways I wish I could take that out of the Yom Kippur liturgy, it would be that one. Because Yom Kippur is the day that most Jews in my community come to shul, and if that’s the only time they meet God — who shall live and who shall die — then no wonder people have a lot of trouble with God.

I have given many sermons about the Unetanetokef liturgy: It doesn’t mean that God is going to punish you. It does mean you’re going to die someday, and you need to think about the meaning of your life.

I think part of why meditation has become more important in Jewish tradition is because silence is probably a way better way to connect to divinity than through liturgical texts that are so problematic. But we’re stuck with them because of our historical tradition and there’s something powerful when I say prayers that my great grandparents said, or when I recite the same prayers in my synagogue that you’re reciting in yours.

AP: What about the Kol Nidre prayer — All our vows are cancelled?

LG: Kol Nidre has meaningless words— what is that about? It’s about this: the choices that you make matter. But you can’t take it literally, or you’ll end up being very angry…I do not take prayer literally; I take prayer seriously.

AP: You wrote a sermon in which you basically said that when you are no longer the senior rabbi, you’re going to go to the meditation service at Temple Emanuel as opposed to the main High Holy Day service.

LG: Yes, because silence does not get in my way, whereas sometimes the liturgical metaphors do.

AP: I imagine some of what you’re saying will get a lot of observant Jews riled up.

LG: Yeah. They will. But that’s okay. I don’t begrudge people having different views.

AP: I imagine some would ask, how can you be a rabbi? You’re not talking about the God of our books.

LG: I would say, ‘Well, let’s talk about the God of our books. Which book?’ The God of the Hebrew Bible is very different from the God of the Rabbinic tradition, which is very different from the Kabbalistic tradition, which is very different from the Neo-Hasidic tradition. I honestly can’t believe that other folks that you’re interviewing, aren’t actually saying some of these things.

AP: Yes, they’re agreeing that God is not a being, but they seem more inclined to justify what’s actually on the prayer page.

LG: Well, I’m not. But I don’t want to get rid of what’s on the page completely because one of the ways I stay awake is through Torah study. So it’s in reckoning with all of this, even in this conversation with you, that I’m staying awake.

Abigail Pogrebin, author of _My Jewish Year; 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew,is a Forward contributing writer. Follow her on Twitter. @apogrebin. Rabbi Laura Geller is Rabbi Emerita of Temple Emanuel of Beverly HIlls and co-author with Richard Siegel (z’l) of Getting Good at Getting Older.

Mosaic of 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 next interview in the series, and here to browse the collection.

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