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.
Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.
That’s the first thing Rabbi Amy Schwartzman says she asks congregants who tell her they struggle with the idea of God. Their answers usually involve an old man with a white beard in the clouds controlling everything. And then Schwartzman, senior rabbi at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va., assures them: “Guess what? I don’t believe in that God, either.”
For Schwartzman, a pulpit rabbi for 30 years, the divine is found not just in every place you look, but in every place you make.
She detailed this view of God in an expansive conversation as part of my project, Still Small Voice: 18 Questions about God. I asked Schwartzman and the other 17 scholars I interviewed to pick one particular prism through which to address what or where God is, and she chose,“Is God everywhere?”
Do those of us who feel some kind of faith — shaky or steady — believe that God appears in every home, on every street, in every relationship and experience? Schwartzman argues that it’s not that God’s presence just magically arrives, but that we invite that presence in.
Our conversation is below, edited for clarity and length. To read other interviews in this series, click here.
‘We can galvanize the divinity’
Amy Schwartzman: I think our job is to locate God in any and every circumstance, to open the possibility or pathway for divinity to be actualized in that moment.
Abigail Pogrebin: What does that mean — for divinity to be actualized?
AS: I hesitate to use the analogy of the sun, because it can sound oddly idolatrous—
AP: I don’t think anyone can ever accuse you of pagan theology, Rabbi.
AS: Well then I’ll be a little less hesitant, but my personal belief is that God is like the sun — in the sense that even when we cannot see it, it exists and is available to everyone. That’s not just about me, a Jewish person; it’s available to all. You need the sun for your existence, for a healthy life; people can live in the dark, but they get sick. The sun can exist passively, or you can galvanize its energy to do good things in the world. For example, you can put a solar panel on your house and bring in that energy or power.
Similarly, I believe God exists and is a source of divinity, but it’s only the source. We can open doorways, to make a mikdash — a sacred place — that allows God to be brought into the world.
AP: That word, mikdash, is at the center of the text you sent me in advance of this conversation.
AS:Yes. “Make for me a mikdash, a sacred place, and I will dwell among you.” (Exodus 25:8.) I think that’s our task: to create that sacred opportunity for God to be in our midst and for us to experience divinity.
AP: You’re suggesting that to experience divinity — especially everywhere — we have to invite it or build it ourselves. The words, “Make for me” suggest it’s on us — to create sacred places for God to enter or be felt.
AS: Yes. We can experience God in a passive sort of way, or we can galvanize the divinity.
AP: And what are we galvanizing?
AS: Righteousness, justice, kindness.
AP: That’s what God is?
AS: I like this term for God: HaMakom.
AP: “The place.”
‘Our job is to locate God’
AS: Yes, “the one who is present.” HaMakom — God who is present everywhere. Our job is to locate God even in a bad or tragic moment.
AP: Even in the pandemic.
AS: Oh, for sure. I personally don’t see God as bringing this virus on, or having even the ability to miraculously obliterate COVID-19, but what we do is to open portals for moments of divinity during this time.
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: For example, the health-care workers, scientists, congregants helping other congregants…
AS: Yes. And of course, when we look at the other crisis or virus of our world today — racism — how do we step in, to broaden the opportunity for justice to come into our world, whether it’s in a small moment in our own community or changing policy.
‘Let’s talk about what Judaism does’
AP: Can our prayers bring about divinity?
AS: Prayer, for me, is about connecting to divine concepts and qualities so that I can better open that portal of divinity. I say “Shalom Rav,” (abundant peace) not because I want God to bring peace, but because I’m being reminded that it is my job to bring peace. Because peace is a divine quality.
AP: If the qualities of divinity are, as you have described, peace, compassion, healing, justice, what makes that definition particularly Jewish?
AS: Let’s talk about what Judaism does: it creates a scaffolding, a system, not only to enable you to create divine moments, but expecting you to do that. Other religions do the same, but the religion I know is mine: Judaism. The system of mitzvot [commandments] is this framework that creates the opportunities for these divine moments.
You can’t wait for me to feel like I should get out there and do something. I need something to remind me, even when I don’t feel like bringing divinity into the world. Judaism does that.
AP: In what way?
AS: First of all, reminding me on a regular basis of what divinity is — through prayers that raise up peace, justice, kindness, tolerance, inclusion, love, or through things you can actually do that also compel you to step more into the world.
For instance, on Sukkot, you sleep in your sukkah and you’re reminded of what it’s like to not have a home. You’re hopefully given an experience that opens your heart and actions to those mitzvot that are specifically and clearly about taking care of those people who are on the fringes of society, who are suffering.
AP: And if someone isn’t living by the mitzvot, not keeping kosher or sleeping in a sukkah, not saying those prayers which underscore justice and kindness, can we still say this is a Jewish blueprint?
‘You have to locate God in the moment’
AS: I think you can, partially because we’re Jewish and actively or passively motivated by a tradition that we’ve absorbed. But the important thing about connecting it to Judaism for me is that when people identify an action — which could be seen as universal — as a Jewish action, it embeds those people more deeply into Jewish tradition. That creates the possibility of using tradition even more to act, to make choices. If you bring groceries to the person who is homebound, which fulfills a commandment, you can realize this is a God moment, a portal of divinity.
AP: You said earlier that it’s our job to locate God, and I want to make sure I understand that.
AS: Before you can act on the divinity, you have to locate God in the moment. Take Covid, for example; Where is God in my ability to sit with the dying on Zoom? Six months ago, I would have said that it’s very hard to be in relationship with people virtually. But I have learned that we can even locate God on that platform.
AP: How did you come to learn that?
AS: When leading a Zoom Shiva minyan or memorial, I have been stunned by the fact that we have been able to create a sense of divinity, holiness, comfort in those moments.
AP: Can you share whether you have eased someone out of life via Zoom? — someone in the hospital?
AS: Not on Zoom, but over the phone. I have had the chance to speak to people as they’re coming to the end, knowing that they couldn’t speak back to me. It’s an enormous responsibility, but for me, a great example of locating God within myself: How can I find that sense of something that is holy, sacred, beautiful, peaceful, and transfer it, communicate it with someone else? Even though I have no idea to what degree that person could receive it, because I couldn’t see them.
‘I personally think of mikdash in a very broad way’
AP: That echoes your teaching of HaMakom — God as a sacred place. It seems like you personally define it not just as sanctuary, in the sense of serenity or consolation, but as a charge or responsibility.
AS: I don’t think mikdash means “sanctuary” literally — as in my synagogue sanctuary, but rather, a place which is kadosh— holy. A holy place or moment doesn’t have to be peaceful.
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: A sacred place could be a political protest.
AS: Exactly — if that place has a goal of holiness. And if there’s a kid being bullied in the cafeteria and you’re an 11-year-old who invites him to your lunch table, that becomes a mikdash — a safe, welcome place. I personally think of mikdash in a very broad way.
AP: If you were going to share your wish for people who haven’t found the divine everywhere (or maybe anywhere), how would you explain why this is worth the effort — to open themselves?
AS: I think that every one of us is seeking to feel a greater purpose, tethered to something meaningful, to be instruments of change. And I believe that when we “locate God,” or connect to some concept of the divine, we maximize our potential for that.
AP: Finally, you said that we find divinity in even the toughest moments. Have you ever had your faith shaken by a painful event?
AS: I have suffered, sure, but it didn’t threaten this idea of looking for divinity in every moment.
My idea of God is not about God acting in the world independent of us; God is a presence, but didn’t cause the car crash or the Coronavirus. And so I think my whole lens has allowed me to stay tethered to belief or God in those moments, because I don’t have an expectation that God is going to cure the cancer. That’s not the way I see it.
AP: So how does God help with the hurdles?
AS: Even in those very difficult moments, I can still ask that question: Where is the mikdash here? How do I locate God in this moment? Sometimes it can only happen way past the experience: Where was God in that moment? Sometimes the hurt of loss, the suffering, makes it really difficult to find or even get to the question. It’s an acquired skill. You practice it, and you get better at reminding yourself: “Oh, that’s the question I’m supposed to ask now.”
Abigail Pogrebin, a freelance journalist, author, and public speaker, is a Forward contributing writer. Follow her on Twitter, @apogrebin. Rabbi Amy Schwartzman is Senior Rabbi of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, VA. Find her on Twitter @rodefshalom. .
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.
Is God everywhere?
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.