Keep Dreaming: God comes in many flavors

Jews in Israel are becoming more religious, but the tradition they are embracing is increasingly open and flexible – contrary to the impression created by the fanatic fringe.

NNWoman rabbi 311 (photo credit: NAlissa Altman)
NNWoman rabbi 311
(photo credit: NAlissa Altman)
Aman walks into an ice cream parlor and asks for chocolate in a cone.
“Sorry,” says the server behind the counter, “No chocolate today. Choose a flavor from the wall.”
“Hmmm,” says the customer. “Okay, then, let me have a single scoop of chocolate.”
“I’m sorry,” replies the server patiently, “as I said, no chocolate.”
“Oh, just a minute then,” says the man scanning the list carefully. “All right, I’ll have two scoops of chocolate in a cup.” Several such exchanges later, the server decides to explain the situation more creatively.
“How do you spell the ‘straw’ in strawberry?” he asks.
“S-t-r-a-w,” responds the customer, somewhat puzzled by the question.
“And the ‘van’ in vanilla?” “V-a-n.”
“Good. And the ‘f--k’ in chocolate?” The customer looks at him quizzically for a moment and then blurts out in frustration, “There is no f--k’n chocolate!” “That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” says the server.
The good news is that, unlike ice cream, the many flavors God comes in never run out. The bad news is that too many of our rabbis behave like the server behind the counter, telling us just what flavor the Deity is available in today. Absurd beyond belief. And I’ve chosen my words deliberately. How can they have spent the hours they have studying Talmud and not understand that being monotheistic doesn’t mean being monolithic? Which brings me to what reminded me of this little ice cream story: the sudden decision of the State Rabbinical Authority, official arbiter of kashrut in this country, that Haagen Dazs is no longer fit for consumption (“Surprise! Haagen Dazs not kosher,” January 10).
Made from whole milk not extracted under rabbinic supervision, its origins have been declared suspect. Utterly ridiculous.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m as disgusted as the next guy by the thought of suckling from a sow, but that’s not what this is all about. Haagen Dazs uses only pure cows’ milk and the Orthodox Union in the United States continues to stand by its kashrut certification of the ice cream. So what’s going on here? Haagen Dazs’s ingredients haven’t changed.
The laws of kashrut haven’t changed. And God certainly hasn’t changed. Fundamental to our tradition is that She/He is both eternal and immutable. So why is what was permitted yesterday not permitted today? The only apparent answer is that those who constitute our rabbinic establishment seem to be in an increasingly escalating rivalry with one another as to who can make Judaism more unlivable – a competition, of course, in which there can be only losers.
In doing so, they have chosen to ignore that while God is one, She/He is also variegated. It’s not by chance that “Elohim,” the most common Hebrew word for the Almighty, is in the plural. Nor that when we pray to the God of our ancestors we specify the God of each – elohei Avraham, elohei Yitzhak, v’elohei Ya’acov – rather than a single God of all three. Our deity is a multifaceted, unfathomable, complex one experienced and discerned differently by father, son and grandchild. And if we include the Gods of our foremothers alongside those of our forefathers, the Divine Being takes on even more diversity for certainly their understandings of the supernatural were different from those of their husbands. Because believers, like God, also come in all flavors and always have.
RABBIS HILLEL and Shammai are only the most famous of an unending list of halachic adversaries. And the pronouncement that there are “70 faces to the Torah” is not some wacky present-day fabrication of Reform or Conservative Judaism but an age-old dictum of our sages who, while concurring on little else, did agree that there were multifarious ways to interpret our Holy Scriptures. As to the nature of the Jewish God, depending on in which book of the Bible or where in the prayer book we happen upon Her/Him, we will find a Being who is alternately jealous, forgiving, punishing, merciful, vengeful, exacting, just, loving, brutal, compassionate, stubborn, immovable, ready to bargain, slow to anger, rashly violent, a maker of war and a seeker of peace.
For rabbinic officialdom to claim otherwise is to disingenuously attempt to reframe Judaism as a fundamentalist faith devoid of nuance and mystery. Doing so will inevitably result in the estrangement of many from our tradition, for the latest study of the “Beliefs, Observance, and Values of Israeli Jews” conducted by The Guttman Center for Surveys of the Israel Democracy Institute makes it clear that we, too, come in all flavors (“Israeli Jews becoming more religious,” January 26).
While 22 percent of us define ourselves as haredi or Orthodox, somehow only 14% say they adhere meticulously to tradition. At the other end of the spectrum, no less surprisingly, a full 25% of those who say they are anti-religious still observe tradition to at least some extent, as do a full 62% of those who proclaim themselves secular! Two-thirds of us light Shabbat candles, the same number who watch TV or listen to the radio and who believe that cinemas and restaurants should remain open throughout the week. And though 80% believe it is important or very important to be married by a rabbi, that doesn’t present half of us from believing that civil marriage should be an option for those who don’t. Finally, while 80% believe in God, at least 61% understand that it is legitimate to welcome Her/Him into our lives in different ways, stating that Reform and Conservative Judaism should be given equal status in Israel to that of the Orthodox. “The results of the survey are evidence that Israeli Jews are committed to two significant values,” says Dr.
Eli Silver, director of Avi Chai-Israel, under whose auspices the research was carried out: “preserving Jewish tradition on the one hand and upholding individual freedom of choice on the other.” What a flavorful idea.
The Chief Rabbinate, however, doesn’t appear to like it, and is doing whatever it can to squash the trend of the last several years that has seen a new generation engage with tradition in non-traditional ways. When asked what people should do in light of the Haagen Dazs ruling, Rafi Yochai of the rabbinate’s kashrut division answered simply that they should “love God more than ice cream.”
That is not a choice they should have to make. If forced to, however, I have little doubt that many will choose the latter if the fanaticism that has taken hold of certain elements of the religious community continues unabated.
If young Israelis who would seek a colorful relationship with our tradition are told that it is only accessible in black and white, that God is not available in the flavor they want, then I fear that more and more of them will turn away in disgust, arriving at the conclusion, as did our customer, that there is no f--k’n god.
That’s what I’m trying to tell you.
The writer is deputy chairman of the World Zionist Organization and a member of The Jewish Agency Executive. The opinions expressed herein are his own.