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.
In my decades of synagogue-sitting and lecture-listening, I’ve heard many rabbis say that we humans are supposed to be God’s partners.
I translate that as a charge: Something is required of you. We should count God’s blessings, but pay them forward. To believe in God is to believe we have a role to play.
But it’s hard to grasp what being God’s partner means; where, for starters, do we receive direction, if any? And who are we to be God’s helpers anyway? That feels a little chutzpadik.
When I have watched Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld over the years, she always strikes me as someone who intuitively, quietly understands what it means to, as the prophet Micah says, “walk humbly with your God.” I’ve seen Anisfeld teach Torah at several conferences, and she’s unpretentious, calm, and calming. She dissects the Bible in a way that makes you pay close attention.
She has focused her career engaging young Jews: as a Hillel rabbi at Tufts, Yale and Harvard universities; as a faculty member for the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel since 1993; and now as president of Hebrew College in Boston, where she previously served 11 years as dean of the rabbinical school.
When I asked Anisfeld, 59, to choose a text that might help elucidate the idea of partnership with God, I was, at first, a bit flummoxed by the verse she sent. It highlights exactly the wrong kind of God-human partnership — where someone takes God’s place instead of collaborating, inflating his or her power or importance.
“My Nile is my own; I made it for myself.” (Ezekiel 29:3)
According to the prophet Ezekiel, God likens cruel Pharaoh to a “great dragon,” and says the Egyptian despot had the audacity to assert that he made the Nile River.
“This particular verse has just been haunting me since Trump was elected,” Anisfeld told me in our interview. “I think he is reflecting something troubling back to us about the culture in which we’re swimming right now.”
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.
‘It’s really a deep form of idolatry’
Abigail Pogrebin: The text you sent, from Ezekiel, actually seems like a useful warning: he reminds us of how distorted our self-image can become. That a leader can not only exaggerate his personal achievements, but ignore everyone else’s.
Sharon Cohen Anisfeld: Yes. This text feels to me like the ultimate articulation of a kind of narcissism and radical sense of self-sufficiency.
In my understanding of what it means to live in relationship with God, that assertion of total self-sufficiency is really a deep form of idolatry — to see oneself as having no need beyond oneself — for other people or for God.
AP: Why did you want to talk about a text that embodies a distortion of what it means to share God’s work?
SCA: Because it feels like an articulation of the opposite sensibility of what it means to live in relationship with the divine and with other creatures who are created in the image of the divine.
AP: How do you define a “relationship with the divine”?
SCA: I tend to think and talk much more about the relationship with God rather than belief in God.
My earliest memory of thinking explicitly about God must have been in first grade in Hebrew school. I was scandalized because this kid in my class, Danny, said he didn’t believe in God. I was just horrified. Because I already felt such a deep sense of God as a presence in the world, rather than absence or emptiness at the heart of life.
AP: What happens today when one of your rabbinical students expresses Danny’s doubts? Would you say that you start with an assumption that all your students have faith?
SCA: In every admissions interview, we ask people about their relationship with God, however they understand God. If someone says, “I don’t have a relationship with God and I’m not interested in working on that,” we will say, “This probably isn’t the right place for you.” We’re not going to be asking a student to believe in anything in particular, but we are going to be asking, throughout, to be trying to cultivate a relationship with the divine.
AP: And for you personally: do you feel like it’s incompatible to be a rabbi without faith?
SCA: I think being a rabbi requires having a very deep well of compassion and courage upon which to draw. And to the extent that I see and understand God and my relationship with God as that well, I can’t imagine really doing the work in a deep way without it.
‘I was theologically scandalized’
AP: I know it’s too facile to apply theology to a given news cycle, but many of us lay folk are looking for how God works— or doesn’t — in the midst of the pandemic or protests.
SCA: Can I tell two quick stories side by side as a way of responding to that?
In my 20s, I was living in Israel during my fourth year of rabbinical school and in a very serious relationship with a Moroccan-Israeli guy who was going through the process of becoming Baal Teshuvah (when a secular Jew becomes strictly observant).
One day, we got on a bus to go on a trip up north and were pulling out of the Jerusalem bus station when he started to say, Tefilat HaDerech— the prayer for the journey. And I said, “Wait a minute, do you actually think that if you say the prayer for the journey, you will be protected, and that others who don’t say the prayer will not be protected?”
And he said, “Yes, of course.” And I asked the bus driver to let me off. I was theologically scandalized. Anything that crosses that line and contends that God is involved in this direct way in human events — making this happen to this person and this not happen to that person— just makes my skin crawl. I really can’t bear that.
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: Do you not say this prayer before you go on a journey?
SCA: I actually do say it. But not because I believe that God favors the pious, rather as an expression of my own vulnerability and longing to be protected.
AP: What’s the second story?
SCA: Several years ago, I went with some of my students to a Shabbat service at a big Reform synagogue and right before the Mi Shebeirach , the cantor gave a sort of Kavana— intention, saying: “Now we’re about to recite a prayer for healing. And obviously we don’t believe that the prayer is efficacious —in the sense that it will actually bring healing, but we say it because we’re praying for the caregivers.”
I was just as upset as I was on the bus. How can you, in that moment, say to people, “Obviously we don’t mean what we’re about to say”? That cantor was kind of trampling upon human longing, the way prayer gives voice to our willingness to ask for help. It took all of the mystery out of it, and treated prayer basically as nonfiction rather than poetry.
‘I’m more interested in relationship rather than in ideology’
AP: Why do you think you gravitated towards the question “Are we God’s partners”?
SCA: I think the reason that question jumped out is because it’s so relational. I’m much more interested in relationship than in ideology.
AP: I understand how the Ezekiel line tells us about relationship: Pharaoh has no relationship with God except to imitate him — badly. What about your second text —from the Talmud?
SCA: It is about God’s call to Moses at the burning bush. He says Moses’ name twice, but the text includes no punctuation in between.
AP: And the Rabbis say that absence of punctuation tells us something?
SCA: Yes. Usually in the Torah there is a little vertical line called the pasek that appears in every other instance where God is calling out to someone and there is a doubling of a name, whether it’s “Avraham, Avraham,” or “Yaakov, Yaakov.”
But it doesn’t appear with this repetition of “Moshe Moshe.” And so this particular Midrash asks why not.
AP: So just to make the source clear: these lines are from rabbinic Sages discussing the punctuation in Exodus; not Exodus itself. Here’s the excerpt you chose:
Here the Hebrew text provides no stop equivalent to a comma between the two occurrences of the name Moses. Why not? This question may be answered by the parable of a man overloaded by an excessively heavy burden, who cries out all in one breath, “Somebody somebody come quickly and take this load off me!” (Exodus Rabbah 2:6)
SCA: The Rabbis are suggesting this is God calling out to Moses breathlessly, “Help, help — I can’t carry this load alone.”
The High Holidays are upon us — and for many, that comes with meaty theological questions. Join us to talk to leading Jewish thinkers about their views on God as part of our Still Small Voice series. Register for the October 1 talk here.
AP: So it’s reminding us that God needs humans because God needed Moses.
SCA: Yes. It’s the antithesis of Pharaoh in the first text, who didn’t need anybody. And it’s God modeling for Moshe a way of being in the world: we absolutely, utterly, urgently need each other.
AP: It’s a hard idea to get one’s head around: that God really needs us.
SCA: The rabbis are suggesting it’s not just that human beings need God, who is all-powerful and self-sufficient, but that God needs and wants to live in relationship with us, needs our help.
This “Moshe Moshe” text, on the one hand, is a remarkable assertion of human agency: God is calling out to you saying, ‘I need you — urgently, desperately.’ That’s incredibly empowering to us. And at the same time, in the same breath, it is saying, ‘If God is this vulnerable and needs us, how could we possibly think that we don’t need each other and don’t need God?’
‘I need God to be doing a little bit more’
AP: So if indeed we’re supposed to be working alongside God in partnership, what do we do when God seems lax or late — like when we watch George Floyd’s killing and its aftermath?
SCA: My son said to me the other day— when we were talking about all the protests and the drive for reforms: “I need God to be doing a little bit more. I’m willing to work hard, but I need to feel like there is a God that is going to step it up and meet me somewhere.” And that is speaking to another very human truth, which is at least wanting there to be a possibility that there is some help to draw upon that is beyond us.
AP: I think your son was speaking for many of us when he wants God to intervene. But it sounds to me as if your faith is not in the God we ask to do more, but in the God that reminds us we have to.
SCA: The Hebrew word od means more, and it shows up in Psalms and in the prayer book. There’s a way in which we can understand God as the od, the “more,” within us, that when we think we are running dry, when we think we are too afraid or having compassion fatigue, all those things that make us feel like we’re out of inner reserves, there is a truly miraculous welling up of…moreness within us that says, “Actually, you’ve got a little more in you.”
Abigail Pogrebin, a freelance journalist, author, and public speaker, is a Forward contributing writer. Follow her on Twitter. @apogrebin. Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld is president of Hebrew College in Boston @hebrewcollege.
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.
Are we God’s partners?
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.