In Sources, the Hartman Institute’s “Journal of Jewish Ideas,” two leading liberal rabbis eloquently tackle most modern Jews’ God problem. By neutralizing God as a force in their lives, liberal Jews make Judaism voluntary – and increasingly secondary. This weekend’s Shavuot holiday invites us to connect and “surrender”– to God, Torah, Jewish law and Jewish life.
In “A choosing people,” Rabbi Elliott Cosgrove, of Manhattan’s Park Avenue Synagogue, explains how Judaism stopped being “a prixe-fixe menu” and became “a buffet” serving each Jews’ “individual tastes…. God’s presence, once the means for Jews to understand themselves as living in accordance with the Divine will, has retreated to the shadows.” In abandoning God, we risk abandoning Jewish community, Jewish unity and Jewish continuity.
In “In defense of surrender in Liberal Jewish life,” the president of Jerusalem’s Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Rabbi Leon Morris, agrees that in rejecting God, authority and law, we deny “ourselves an essential human desire” and miss “a vital aspect of religious experience that would allow traditional forms of religious expression to be a persuasive and animating force in our lives.”
We will do and listen
Channeling Shavuot’s “Na’aseh v’nishma,” the Jews at Sinai saying, “we will do and listen,” Cosgrove offers a more pragmatic “doing” solution, while Morris a more philosophical listening-thinking approach. Cosgrove believes that incrementally, ritual by ritual, value by value, holiday by holiday, moderns can retrieve “the Divine by way of a life of mitzvot.” Going from action to meaning, Cosgrove trusts “that the riches of Jewish practice” will satisfy “the spiritually searching and God-thirsting soul, and can more than compete with the marketplace of secular alternatives.”
Echoing the psychoanalyst Emmanuel Ghent, Morris distinguishes between passive “submission,” which enervates, and conscious “surrender,” which empowers. Surrendering “our lives to a larger force” unleashes a cascade of counter-cultural blessings.
Using “our freedom to choose to feel commanded” frees us to care, connect, and celebrate rituals and holidays together. Going from believing to acting, healthy, voluntary, surrender liberates us from modern meaninglessness, loneliness, nihilism and drift.
The privilege to practice Judaism
I GREW up living the Enlightenment dream to “be a Jew in your home and a person on the street.” Translated into American, that became “be a part-time Jew when convenient, but a full-time American always.”
The Jewish God is a full-time God. This makes being Orthodox a full-time job. Jews had to choose one god or the other – the God of Abraham and Sarah, or the god of Abraham Lincoln. For us to be normal, God had to be compartmentalized.
Time-sharing God didn’t work. “If you can’t see God everywhere,” the Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859), warned, “you can’t see God anywhere.”
It’s self-destructive, individually and communally. We replaced Jews’ traditional, eternal, long-running, ever-renewable source of energy, God, with a battery that needs constant recharging – and often gets drained, especially because we moderns spend so much time turning our Judaism on and off and on and off again.
This Americanized god was domesticated – and neutered. The god we non-religious Jews grew up with was not a very personal or intimate force in our lives. We learned to sing prayers not as supplications to our awe-inspiring Creator, but as happy-dappy folk songs strengthening our sense of tradition and community.
It’s fashionable to list the millions killed brutally in God’s name – but what about the billions who have lived beautifully in God’s name too? God-bashers overlook the millions killed in the name of godlessness too – think Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and tribal mass murderers from Rwanda to Darfur.
It’s easy if you’re born into God, prayer and faith. It’s hard to grow into them. Still, more and more, I recognize that a God-centered life, when done right, respectfully and proportionately, is often more meaningful and better balanced.
Beyond tracking how lost so many people feel today, as they stagger around with God-sized holes in their hearts, polls keep showing that believers are happier, more focused, more fulfilled.
Religious people on average tend to be more generous, more community-minded and more altruistic – especially if they are smart and humble enough not to treat God as a political boss, dictating political positions and endorsing particular politicians.
Beyond those pragmatic payoffs, taking the leap of faith plunges you into a world of contemplation, reflection, speculation and appreciation. Jews don’t need New Age mindfulness exercises. We don’t have to run off to India to learn to meditate. And we don’t need to improvise gratitude charts. It’s built into our traditions, our prayers and our God-centered philosophy.
In 1979’s Frisco Kid, the Indian chief wants this new God he’s hearing about to make rain. Otherwise, what good is He? With a sparkle in his eye, Gene Wilder’s rabbi wandering the Wild West celebrates God as an anchoring force, not a superhero: “He can do anything. He gives us strength when we are suffering. He gives us compassion when all that we feel is hatred. He gives us courage when we’re searching around blindly like little mice in the darkness. But! He! Does! Not! Make! Rain!”
It being Hollywood, the thunder claps. Wilder pivots, “then again…”
Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Ten Commandments. These commandments, like the Torah, offer stories, insights, values and actions as ways to God. This Shavuot, let’s not let the focus on what we need to do and not do, eat or not eat, distract us from the real opportunity – to bring more God into our lives: be it step by step – Cosgrove’s Na’aseh! – or with one big leap of faith into greater meaning – Morris’s Nishma!
The writer is an American presidential historian, and, most recently, the editor of the three-volume set, Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People.