Consider and Converse: A Guide to Understanding God’s name, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” / “God-Is-Process”
Sh’ma Now curates conversations on a single theme rooted in Jewish tradition and the contemporary moment. At the core of this issue of Sh’ma Now is the Jewish sensibility of “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” / “God-Is-Process.” Whenever possible, I attend “Creative Commentary,” a text-study/creative writing program at the Jewish Studio Project. The studio, which hosts an array of engaging programs, is awash in color; it has the messiness of an art studio, a library of sifrei kodesh — holy books — with volumes on Jewish feminism, art, justice, and philosophy, large tables for partnered study, and a cozy couch area for conversation and singing. A number of decorated signs adorn the walls. One says,” Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh / God-Is-Process.” Each time I enter the studio, I’m drawn to that bold decorative, hand-painted sign: What does it mean that one of God’s many names, the name God tells Moses to use when speaking to the Israelites, is “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,” “I Will Be What I will Be”? Rabbi Adina Allen, the co-founder and creative director of Jewish Studio Project and talent behind the studio signage, translated the name as “God Is Process.” Intrigued time and again, I decided to examine what this particular translation might mean. I started my search with Adina, and asked her to write about how she understands an ever-dynamic God. And then my curiosity led me to another couple of rabbis and a Buddhist teacher. As we approach Shavuot, the holiday that signals our covenant with God, I hope you’ll find this issue of Sh’ma Now expands your notion of covenantal responsibility and the dynamic power of understanding God as ever-becoming.
Sh’ma Now has never viewed learning or “meaning-making” as solely an individual activity. That’s why we have included this guide, which is specifically designed to help you to consider the idea of going forth in your discovery of ideas and questions independently or with others, formally and informally.
#How to Begin
This guide offers a variety of suggestions, including activities and prompts for individual contemplation and informal or structured conversations. We suggest that you use this guide to share reflections and thoughts over a Shabbat meal, or, for those who are more adventurous, to lead a planned, structured conversation, inviting a small group of friends and family to your home or to a coffee shop. If you would like more information about ways in which this journal can be used, please contact Susan Berrin, Sh’ma Now editor-in-chief, at SBerrin@shma.com. You can also print out a PDF file of the entire issue at http://forward.com/shma-now/.
Guidelines for Discussion
If you wish to hold a structured conversation, the following guidelines may help you to create a space that allows for honest personal exploration through sharing:
- Create a sense of shared purpose that can foster the kind of internal reflection that happens through group conversation.
- Remind participants of simple ground rules for conversations. For example: Avoid commenting on and critiquing each other’s comments. Make room for everyone to speak. Step into or away from the conversation appropriately. No one participant should dominate the conversation. Let silence sit, allowing participants to gather their thoughts.
- For each of the questions below, we recommend that you print out the article in question, or provide the link to it, and we ask that you take a moment to read it in print or on screen, before the conversation begins.
- Allow people a few minutes to absorb the article, perhaps even to read it a second time, before moving into the discussion.
Interpretive Questionscan focus the reader on the ideas in the articles.
- Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, who wrote her dissertation on the work of Dr. Eugene Borowitz, the founding editor of Sh’ma, writes about Borowitz’s covenantal theology and sense of non-Orthodox “commandedness.” Borowitz offered “a new theory of non-Orthodox Jewish duty, the acts which constitute the primary expression and medium of Jewish holiness.” She goes on to write that while liberal Jews often feel ‘radically free’ from halakhah, she, like others, seeks “more room for the claim of Jewish… In my own religious life, I have sought out a balance of being both radically free and radically claimed. It was Borowitz’s notion of the ‘autonomous Jewish self’ that gave me the language to say that while we celebrate our autonomy as liberal Jews, if we are truly part of a covenant, that autonomy is limited by the demands of a commanding God as well as by our commitment to the wisdom and lived experiences of the Jewish people of the past, present, and future. God is therefore a constant commanding voice in the life of the Jewish people both as individuals and as a community.” For all of the talk about a dynamic and changing God, Rachel channels Borowitz’s voice that we know just what a commanding God expects of us. How do you reconcile a commanding God with notions of personal autonomy? How have societal approaches toward authority changed over the past decade or so, and how do those changes manifest in religious terms? What is the relationship between a “commanding God” — one that is the “senior partner” — and the notion of covenant, that we partner with God in our religious and secular experiences?
- In NiSh’ma, our simulated Talmud page, three commentators examine a line from the writings of Rabbi Arthur Green: “Y-H-W-H is a verb that has been artificially arrested in motion and made to function as a noun.”** (**Arthur Green, Seek My Face, Speak My Name page 18) We begin with Rabbi David Jonathan Cooper, who writes that while Moses wants God to have a fixed name and identity, God “in a most idol-shattering epiphany… won’t be pinned down.” And then David goes on to challenge his own assumptions about himself: “If I am to live with this God, I have to take my own unfolding seriously…What am I becoming?” Ann Toback, the executive director of the Workmen’s Circle, and author Angela Himsel respond. Angela acknowledges that when she prays, her prayer is directed to God as noun. And Ann writes that she “feels the void of that all-knowing deity…in its place, is the power of the collective.” How has your understanding of God emerged and changed over time? What would bring you to understand God as a “verb” or a “noun”? What stifles your search for God? And how is that search for God related, or not, to your search for meaning?
- Rabbi Adina Allen, co-founder and creative director of the Jewish Studio Project, writes “God is…evolving alongside us. And we, human beings made b’tzelem Elohim, in the Divine image, are, likewise, not created static and sure, but rather are in our own process of becoming.” What impact does an evolving God have on your worship? How do understand the evolving nature of humanity? Are we, as individuals, co-creators with God? What do we learn about our own capacity for creativity through our search for meaning?
Reflective Questionscan help one to integrate the ideas in these articles with one’s own sense of self.
- Rabbi Elliot J. Cosgrove, senior rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City, opens the issue with an exploration of textual sources and stories about this particular way of understanding God. He writes about making “the revelation of Torah as the dynamic, ongoing, and covenantal process of realizing a divine truth embedded within,” thus understanding our relationship to God as manifest in our daily actions: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, helping the destitute. He goes on to write that with “God’s presence manifest in our own actions, we are, at one and the same time, fulfilling God’s Will and we are realizing the world of possibility embedded in our own humanity. What power do we hold to bring more holiness into the world? Where does that power reside and how do we access it? How is the idea of being God’s partner in repairing the world connected to the idea of “na-aseh v’nish’ma”, “we will do and we will hear”?
- Norman Fisher, founder and spiritual director of the Everyday Zen Foundation, writes personally about his own yearning. He writes, “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh implies that God isn’t a Supreme Being, somehow above it all. God is within the being-aliveness we share. And yet God is more than our ordinary sense of aliveness. God is an aspect of aliveness that is unknown and inaccessible to us. And yet we sense it and yearn for it. I’ve felt this yearning all my life, which is probably why I have devoted myself full time not only to spiritual practice but also to poetry. Somehow, through these activities my yearning can be met and expressed, however imperfectly.” Norman’s striving to know Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh has led him to an acknowledgement that we cannot know the Divine. What are the implications of not knowing God? If God were to be known, how would our relationship be the Divine be different? How does the mystery of the Unknowable influence your spiritual home?