Grandpa would probably call me an atheist or a Spinozist because, like Spinoza, God to me is not an entity with conscious oversight, but rather the entire process of the universe in its (His/Her) unfolding. Given this theology, I just love God’s response to Moses’ question about God’s precise name: “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.” It is not “I am that I am,” but “I become what I become.” (Exodus 3:14) Moses wants a god with a fixed name and identity, but in a most idol-shattering epiphany, God won’t be pinned down.
The “name,” YHWH, emerges in that moment. Like a cubist painting, this portrait in a word shows the God-process from many angles — YHWH is the verb “to be” conjugated in several tenses simultaneously, past, present, future, and still unfinished. As Rabbi Arthur Green suggests, God is in-process; God is not a noun.
If I am to live with this God, I have to take my own unfolding seriously. I must ask: “If I am not fixed, what am I becoming? How shall I better align myself now with the evolving divine process?”
And our Judaism too may not be fixed. We are all agents of its unfolding. And as human “beings,” perhaps we too are more verb than noun.
Verbs need nouns and nouns need verbs. I’m old-fashioned that way. Somebody or something committed the action. Swimming is meaningless without a swimmer. And, likewise, was, is, will be, and is becoming are incomprehensible without attaching a being. In that sense, I would argue that Y-H-W-H, God’s personal name, is a noun that has been verbed — rather than a verb that has been arrested as a noun, as Rabbi Arthur Green writes.
Seeking to understand who God is, as Moses did, is at the heart of any religious quest. Are You an angry God, a capricious God, a loving God? Are You distant or are You present in human activity? And God’s cryptic answer, conventionally translated as, “I am that I am,” strikes me almost as playful: “I am Whoever I wanna be, and you can’t put me into a box.”
It’s tempting to try to pin God down, to define and re-define: God as noun, verb, a bit of both? My inner Moses still stubbornly believes that when I pray, I am talking to Y-H-W-H, the noun, a Being. I love the notion that God entails the entire process and, to paraphrase Rabbi David Cooper, just as the divine process is not fixed, so we, too, are becoming, evolving.
For me, being Jewish is about the values, activist traditions, and culture that have been proudly passed forward, handed over as my most cherished yerushah (bequest). Rabbi David Cooper asks, “If I am not fixed, what am I becoming?” My Jewish identity is always in process, “becoming.” Becoming rooted in Yiddishkeit, becoming connected to my immigrant grandparents, becoming the vehicle for personal and societal change. It is the legacy of standing up for those most vulnerable, speaking out for those who have been denied a voice, and carrying forward traditions of fairness to others: to workers, immigrants, Dreamers, and more.
As a child I accepted the existence of an all-knowing God. I had no doubts. Sometimes, as an adult, I find myself hoping, wishing for an all-knowing presence with the power to heal, to magnanimously fix so much of what is broken in the world. I feel the void of that all-knowing deity, and then I remind myself that in its place is the power of the collective. My strength is the might of thousands, millions, standing together on the shoulders of those who came before us. It is the voices of Clara Lemlich, who at 23 led the “Uprising of 20,000” women shirtwaist workers in 1909; of Sidney Hillman, the founder and president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America; of Marek Edelman, the last surviving commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, who in the face of terrible odds had the courage to act for good. It’s the words of community organizer Saul Alinsky and playwright Tony Kushner. The humor of Carl Reiner. The songs of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and Phil Ochs. These are all activists who do not and did not sit idly by, but actively fought, created, worked for a better world for all. For them, Jewish values themselves were and are a verb.
God becomes a verb, a symbol for living a just, proactive Jewish life. And I am inspired each day to carry forward the proud, fierce, and compassionate activism of my Jewish identity into the future.