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Can we be pious and ambivalent?

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.

Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is a self-described, “kippah-wearing, Shabbat-keeping father of three who teaches Torah for a living.”

But he said in our conversation that his “own faith is on rickety foundations.’

‘I am not a God person,” he told me, acknowledging that this might be “very confusing to people” who know he is observant. “I guess this interview is my coming-out party.”

It may not be a revelation that there are observant Jews who carry doubt about God. What was new, at least to me, was the idea that even our ancient rabbis might have considered doubt to be a sign of authenticity.

That’s the teaching that I heard from Kurtzer, a longtime friend and the president of Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. When I asked if he’d be part of my exploration of the divine, Still Small Voice: 18 Questions about God, Kurtzer told me he wanted to talk about ambivalence.

Admitting — even valuing — ambivalence about God feels a lot less radioactive to me now, after spending the last six months discussing all aspects of the divine in Judaism with various religious thinkers. There has been a lot more candor than I thought from people of faith about the hurdles of faith.

But Kurtzer took it a step further, saying that maybe hurdles of a faith are not just a sign of realism, but true Judaism.

The Hartman Institute is a 50-year-old education hub founded in Jerusalem and now with a hub also in New York. It serves both clergy and laity, and is widely admired for the rigor and depth of its seminars and a pluralistic approach to theology. I’ve been a member of study groups in which Kurtzer taught, and I interviewed him for a public Zoom event in April about his new anthology, co-edited with Dr. Claire Sufrin, called “The New Jewish Canon” — a provocative collection of essays and speeches that roiled the Jewish conversation between 1980 and 2015.

I was struck then, as I was in this more recent interview, by his dependable mix of candor and adroitness when it comes to our texts and tradition.

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.

‘How do we build a community of people who struggle’
Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer

Abigail Pogrebin: For years I have watched you adhere to strictures around Jewish ritual and calendar. Where is God operating in that fidelity to tradition, if at all?

Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer: Abby, I don’t know. I think if somebody comes to a rabbi and says, “I accidentally used this meat fork with milk food,” they want an answer. They don’t want to be told, “Here are the books to look up and come back to me in two weeks.”

But I think that the work around faith is not the kashrut of a fork. The work around faith is, Why are you struggling? And what’s making this hard? And what are the sources or resources where you can feel not comforted by the answers, but comforted by fellow searchers and seekers? How do we build a community of people who struggle?

AP: Especially since the very religious seem to be very certain.

YK: I know. I envy the certainty of some people. But I also can’t relate to it.

AP: What’s one example of where you think the unambivalent perspective is problematic?

YK: One of the themes we hear all the time is that our moral obligations to human beings are because other human beings are created in the image of God, right? You could put it on a sign. But there is critique of this that I very much identify with, which is: why am I obligated to you because of a triangulated relationship to God? Isn’t it more powerful to say I’m obligated to you as a human being because you are a human being and not because you’re an image or a mirror of God?

I don’t know what it means to see the face of God. I don’t. I don’t want to claim that I do. I’m scared sometimes when people think that that’s what they’re doing.

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: Let’s start with the text you chose when I asked you to pick one that elucidates your thinking. Why did you go to Gemara — rabbinic commentary?

YK: Part of the reason I’ve always been drawn to the Talmudic texts more than biblical texts is because I think the classical Rabbis share more ambivalence about God’s presence in their lives than the bible does.

AP: And this particular excerpt we’re about to cover — why does it resonate for you?

YK: Because even the Sages of the Talmud are telling you that they’re searching, they’re lost, they don’t know where God is. And one of them is willing to lean into it and say, you know what? That’s what makes you a Jew. There are those in the world who talk about themselves as being in intimate connection to God; that’s not us. We are the people who don’t have a sense of intimacy right now with God. That’s what makes you a Jew.

Then My anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured.” (Deuteronomy 31:17).

Rav Bardela bar Tavyumei said that Rav said: Anyone who is not subject to His hiding of the face, i.e., whose prayers are invariably answered, is not from the Jewish people, as the verse states about the Jewish people that God will hide His face from them… (Chagigah 5a)

AP: Just to make the context clear: the Sages here are parsing verses in Deuteronomy in which God threatens to disappear.

YK: Yes, it’s the worst threat that God makes in the Bible: not that I’ll get mad at you, but that I’ll be hidden from you. It’s the same way with children, where the worst thing a parent can do, especially with little kids, is to ignore them. It creates deep anxiety and insecurity. And that’s the worst curse that God makes in the Bible: I’m going to ignore you, and you’re not going to know whether I’m there or not.

‘To be a Jew is not to be sure’

AP: Okay, then the Talmudic Rabbi, Bardela bar Tavyumei, quotes his teacher — “Rav,” the 3rd-century scholar Abba Arikha — who contends that anyone who says God is not hiding is not an authentic Jew?

YK: Yes. Rabbi Bardela says anyone who does not identify with God’s hiddenness is not a member of the Jewish people. In other words, to be a Jew, is to not be sure of God’s presence.

AP: And that was a radical read?

YK: In reading Jewish texts or hanging out with religious Jews, one absorbs that to be a Jew is to be a person who feels God’s presence, and any condition of God’s hiddenness is only temporary — either we haven’t reached presence yet, or we’re going to get past the hiddenness. I think what this rabbi is saying is, no, that’s what it means to be a Jew: to be a person from whom God hides.

AP: Or put differently, to be a Jew is to be unsure where — or if — God is.

YK: Yes, but later in the same text, different rabbis try to rehabilitate Bardela’s assertion by saying, “No, no. God’s not really hiding. God’s there — in the dream, in the shadow. You just might not be able to see God.” Here’s that excerpt:

Rava said that the Holy One, Blessed be He, said: Even though I hid my face from them and My Divine Presence is not revealed, nevertheless: “I speak with him in a dream” (Numbers 12:6). Rav Yosef said: His hand is outstretched, guarding over us, as it is stated: “And I have covered you in the shadow of my hand” (Isaiah 51:16) (Chagigah 5b)

But I want us to look really hard at the first idea in the first text — that part of what it means to be a Jew in relationship to God is to actually be really uncertain about a relationship with God. And then to ask, how are we then obligated?

AP: How are we obligated, absent God, to act in the world?

Genuinely religious people should not be certain people.

YK: If it’s because you’re terrified of God that you’re really observant and believing, fine. But show me what commitment looks like when it can’t be reduced to the logic of certainty, when it’s not because you’re so obviously being held accountable. That’s what my conviction and commitment comes from. Genuinely religious people should not be certain people. They should actually be ambivalent people. That’s what generates humility. If you’re a religious person with absolute confidence in the things you believe in, how could you possibly be humble? Let’s hold up the ambivalence, our struggle; let’s make that the posture of religion in the world.

AP: But we’ve seen what happens when people don’t believe that God exists or is watching; there are no reins on behavior.

YK: You think that’s true? I think the scorecard is pretty even between people who perpetrate violence and immorality in the name of God and people who perpetrate violence and morality precisely because they think there’s no God. You can be an immoral person who believes in God, and you can be a moral person who doesn’t believe in God. I don’t think God is the shortcut for us to be better human beings.

Jewish theology is a complicated animal — leading Jewish thinkers can have totally different takes. Listen to Forward contributor Abigail Pogrebin discuss the complexities of God with Yehuda Kurtzer on his podcast here.

AP: Do you worry about airing the realities of doubt within the Jewish community?

YK: Oh goodness, no. If it’s not only the Talmudic Rabbis who think this about their own ambivalence, but that the editors of the Talmud included it, that shows they were also struggling. That’s good. The flack I get that makes me more nervous is when people ask me, “Can you share ambivalence about God with young people? Aren’t you supposed to inculcate God into your children?”

My answer is no. I think we’re meant to raise children — and teach Jews — who are searching. I don’t think educators are meant to be exemplars of a faith, especially if we don’t have it. There’s something very holy and moral about trying to model seeking, as opposed to certainty.

‘Marketing God to solve for discomfort’

AP: Where, in this framework of uncertainty, do you put the daily pastoral work of our clergy today — the oft-used language of healing and a sense that God is walking with us? I know you’re not standing at gravesides as regularly as those who have to guide us through grief. But when clergy tell us God is near, in our hardest moments, is that just convenient for those looking for consolation? Or do you believe God is with us in our pain?

YK: I want to be clear: As much as I am concerned about dogmatic faith, I don’t want to come across as dogmatic in my lack of faith. That’s where the atheists and humanists lose me.

It’s one thing to say we want to create space — not just for people who are really certain, but for people who are uncertain.

But it’s another thing entirely to say, we’re going to build an ostensibly religious doctrine around certainty of our own atheism; that’s the same idolatry.

And it’s true: I don’t have the job of comforting the afflicted in the same way that rabbis do. I understand that form of comfort. But I will tell you personally, there are plenty of people who are left cold by that pastoral comforting. As though the existence of God should help make sense of unspeakable tragedies. There are a lot of people for whom that is not a satisfying answer.

So if a rabbi is coming up with words of certainty in spite of their own ambivalence because they think it’s going to work, then we’re not talking about faith at all. That’s just marketing God to solve for discomfort.

AP: So finally, if someone asks a very basic question: Yehuda, are you a person of faith?

YK: Umm….Probably not. I would rather be a person of commitment.

AP: To what?

YK: Judaism and the Jewish people.

Abigail Pogrebin, author of My Jewish Year; 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew,is a Forward contributing writer. Follow her on Twitter. @apogrebin. Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer is President of Shalom Hartman North America.

A mosaic of participating 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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