I am a Boomer. There, I’ve said it.
Civil Rights, Vietnam War, Watergate, Chicago 7. Beatles, Rolling Stones, Elvis, Dylan.
And a political liberal from the tough streets of Skokie, IL. (OK, not really tough).
And a believer in peace. And that peace is an ideal and an attainable one at that.
So when I began attending Jewish religious services and confronted “God is a man of war, God is his name” (Exodus 15:3), I had a conundrum. I needed a God of peace, and the daily prayer book that I began to use was praising a God of war. Now, I also knew enough to know that the same Bible also had “‘Peace, peace, to the far and to the near,’” says the LORD” (Isaiah 57:19), but that quote wasn’t in my prayer book.
It took me quite a few decades to arrive at a conclusion: Religious literature (Jewish or otherwise) is the recording of how individuals and communities experience the divine at a specific point in time. The author of Exodus experienced God as a warrior. The author of Isaiah experienced God as a peacemaker and healer.
At no point in my spiritual journey did any teacher suggest that I had choices about the God I wanted to experience. My religious education, all the way through rabbinical school/yeshiva was a simple set of approaches. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” (Deuteronomy 6:4). And Maimonides’ rationalism; belief in a God who is the Creator, knows all, etc.
Missing also from the teaching was and explanation for the oddity that the one, unified God’s names are in the plural, even in the Shema: Hear, O Israel, Adonai (as it is pronounced, meaning “our Masters”) our Lords [is/are] one. What’s with the plural? And how does that work with a belief in absolute monotheism, as recommended by Jewish tradition (or monolatry, as James Kugel suggests)?
My suggestion is that the plural form, used in the same sentence as an affirmation that God is One, is exactly the point: That Judaism believes that there is one God, but that God is experienced in multiple ways. As a Jewish educator and a rabbi, I challenge my colleagues to offer to Jewish learners not a monolithic approach to God and the Godly, but the same multiplicity of choices that our texts – Biblical, Talmudic, and others – set before us. Like the prophets, scribes and scholars who authored the words, our fellow Jews (and we ourselves) need to experience God on our own individual and communal terms. And that experience will change over the course of our lifetimes. And unless we show others the menu offerings, they will too often reject a singular sense of God, without realizing that there were choices.
Among the God choices that we need to set before people:
God of War and God of Peace
“God is a man of war, God is his name” (Exodus 15:3).
“Peace, peace, to the far and to the near,” says the Lord” (Isaiah 57:19).
God of Strict Justice and God of Mercy
According to traditional interpretation, the name Elohim is used by the Torah to refer to God’s attribute of strict justice and application of Law.
According to traditional interpretation, the name Y-H-V-H, pronounced in our usage as Adonai, is used by the Torah to refer to God’s attribute of mercy and leniency.
God’s Perfection and God’s Imperfect Actions
Psalm 18:31 (according to Hebrew numbering) states that “God, perfect is His way”
Kabbalistic teachings tell of a God whose “vessels” shatter during the world’s imperfect act of creation, setting the stage for humanity to have to engage in tikkun olam, repairing the world.
God who Chooses the People Israel and God who Cares Equally for All Humanity
For you [the people Israel] are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession (Deuternonomy 7:6)
“Aren’t you, the people of Israel like the people of Cush to me?” declares the LORD. “I brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, did I not, as well as the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.” (Amos 9:7)
God who Appreciates Sacred Festivals and Offerings and God who Wants our Actions, Not our Sacrifices
Throughout the Torah, Holy Festivals are commanded to be observed throughout the year. In addition, commandments are given to offer animal and grain offerings. Those that are burnt are frequently described as giving off “a sweet savor to God”.
The prophet Amos quotes God as saying “I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:21 – 24).
The list can go on and on (and I’m sure that followers of this blog will name other dichotomies).
My point is as follows: We – rabbis and Jewish educators, as well as parents who speak wiith their children about God – need to give Jewish learners of all ages the language of divergence in speaking of God. We need to give learners the grounding in texts and traditions on which each can define what God is to them. And just as the teachers of our tradition throughout history, we must give the Jewish people the right to define and experience God in multiple ways, ways that will change as our lives and our world change.