God is Here, Where Am I?
The following is a sermon delivered in Sandusky, Ohio at a student pulpit on Yom Kippur morning.
God is everywhere. Not in an omnipresent sort of way, but in a way that we are exposed to every single day. God is on our money, we say “God forbidden” when we hope something doesn’t happen, we bless one another, assumedly through God, when someone sneezes. There are, in our culture, hundreds of references to God, in ways that really have nothing to do with our belief in any kind of deity or higher power.
In Reform Judaism, though, God has all but disappeared from our regular discourse and conversation. Of course, it isn’t that God isn’t present in the room. We read prayers all the time that have overt mentions of God and spirituality. But our ability to understand what God means to us and what we truly believe about a higher power has almost entirely evaporated.
Part of this comes from the fact that we, as modern Jews, have a collection of what we see as the “right” interpretation of God. We read our texts and our prayers and we see a fairly rigid interpretation of divinity played out. I would venture a guess that most Jews avoid conversations about faith and belief because we read our prayer books and we see an iteration of God that can be difficult to get behind. If I don’t see God as God is depicted in the prayers, do I really have any ability to claim a connection?
The Christian tradition that surrounds us in the world doesn’t help our case. When we hear people invoke God in their daily lives, we see a notion of God, a relationship with God, that can seem impossible to attain. What is it that I, as a person of faith, am failing to do that I can’t “be in relationship” with God on a regular basis like these people? Why is it that faith is so easy for them, and so difficult for me?
We’ve all thought about the “classic” view of God. We can imagine the old man with the white beard sitting in the heavens dictating what happens to us on earth. We know about the pearly gates and the imagery of God surrounded by angels. I have a secret, though. Whoever invented that idea of God has just as much authority to know, for a fact, about the nature of God as you or I. Sure, rabbinical school helps, a philosophy degree can go a long way, but to say what God is with any certainty is an impossibility that you or I are free to attempt.
The first place we can look for answers as detectives of God is in the prayer book itself. The “God” that is depicted in it can so often be a stumbling block for our own belief, our own faith. In fact, there doesn’t even seem to be one interpretation of God depicted. In one prayer, we see God as the giver of gifts, as we thank God each morning for our daily miracles. God lifts us up in the morning, gets our day started, and gives us all that makes up the foundations of our lives. In another prayer, God is the still small voice, calling to us gently amidst a world of staggering noise and action. In yet another section, we see God as the binder of the covenant, God as a hero in our world, God as enthroned in heaven having completed God’s great creation.
What we forget is that our prayers are interpretations of faith, presented by those who compiled the prayer order so long ago. Sure, some of it comes directly from scripture, but a great deal of our prayers were written by men centuries ago, attempting to understand their own relationship with God. We read the prayers as if they are THE singular path to a conversation with God, when, in truth, they are an example, a demonstration of what it has looked like for others to gain this kind of partnership. We read prayers not in order that they should complete the task for us, but rather in order that we may be inspired to do the work ourselves, to go out and seek a relationship with God.
This is why there are so many different kinds of expressions of God depicted throughout our ritual. Each tells a story, captures a moment along the spiritual journey of past pray-ers. For one, God as a small voice within us was comforting, helped to make sense of a complicated and difficult world. For another, God as a hero who defends the world was strong and safe, in order to shield the Jewish people. In yet another, God is a parent, looking after and defending God’s people.
In this regard, I have always connected with Y’hiyu L’Ratzon. “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my soul be acceptable to you, my Rock and my Redeemer.” We offer words of our own and we ask that those words convey our relationship in a way that can manifest into real faith, real meaning, real commune with something more powerful than myself. Y’hiyu L’Ratzon doesn’t pray that the words on the page reach God; it hopes that the prayers of our mouths and souls do.
We’ve all, at one point or another, experienced gendered language when we encounter prayer. Hebrew uses the masculine for God, and people sometimes have a hard time with saying a prayer that makes God a “He.” I would argue that our prayers do not make God a masculine figure, but rather that they convey a past experience with God that depict someone else seeing God as male. If that is difficult, the answer isn’t to ignore prayer altogether. The answer is to come up with our own prayers, prayers of the heart and prayers even of our own pen and paper, that create a more authentic bond with our own understandings of the divine.
It is important to acknowledge, too, that our expectations of God can be totally out of whack. More often than not, our prayers ask for things from God that defy the rules of the world. We ask God to cure the terminally ill. We ask God to intercede and make our lives easier, to make our paths safer. We ask God for things that are completely outside of the reality in which we see the world, and grow incredibly upset with God when things don’t work out as we asked. Some reason that we ask for things, and God doesn’t always say yes. Is it possible, though, that we make demands of our faith that inherently drive us to disbelief? If I ask for the impossible, and I don’t get it, is that a problem with my faith, or a problem with my expectations?
Most of all, in this conversation, though, is the fact that we, as Jews and as people, should be having conversations regularly about what God means to us. Let’s discuss what it is that we’re struggling with. Is it that we can’t understand how a higher power based on kindness can allow bad things to happen to good people? How do we allow our faith to balance that? Is it a question of why God needs to exist if we are in charge of our own destiny? Ask that question of others, and be ready to engage with it yourself.
At every point in a person’s life, we are confronted by questions of what exists beyond ourselves. Most of the time it is brought on by a moment of struggle: the loss of a job, of a way of life, of a loved one. We are existing in a society that has grown all-too-illiterate when it comes to having conversations about God, and it results in our stunted development as spiritual individuals.
Why do we think it is that people have gravitated so much to yoga and mindfulness? Walk into any Barnes and Noble in the country and there will be an entire section on meditation and getting in touch with yourself. These are occupying the spaces that we have shut down to God. We feel the desperate need for understanding, for connection, and yet have no real grasp of what it means to actually dive into what it is we hope to believe in beyond what we can control ourselves.
For as long as there have been human beings, there has been a desperate search for meaning in our world, and God has been a big part of that search. God has been the answer to life’s great questions for so long, and we have an opportunity to continue to grapple with the mystery. We read in this morning’s Torah portion: Lo Ba’shamayim Hi, God’s covenant is not in the heavens, but it is near to us. Our relationship with God is not something foreign, something difficult, something incomprehensible. It is something we can practice, and it is something we can learn to discuss and engage with on a meaningful basis.
I again must remind you that I have no concrete answers any better than anyone else. I do know that, in our search for understanding, we have to pass through some difficult questions, and to force ourselves to confront that which we do not and sometimes cannot know. Yet the answer to life’s great questions may not be the point of the question. Sometimes, simply inviting God back into the conversation can be an act of faith in and of itself, offering fulfillment and purpose along the way.
Gamar Chatimah Tovah.