One of the occupational hazards of being a rabbi is that self-identified atheists seem to have a habit of making sure you know that they don’t believe in God. Never mind theorizing the impetuses for such self-disclosures, I have become more interested in learning what a self-described atheist “doesn’t believe.”
One of my rabbis has a wonderful response for the occasional confrontational atheist:
“I bet that I don’t believe in the God that you don’t believe in either,” he gently responds.
The more opportunities I have to speak with students and young adults about their personal theologies or, more broadly, their ways of seeing the world, the more I find my teacher’s statement to be true. More and more, I have the sense that far less distinguishes the Jewish “believer” from the “non-believer” than we might think.
So what does this atheist “not believe in”? In my experience, the God many of us are busy not believing in is essentially some variation on the iconic image of a man in the sky with a big white beard. It is often a transcendent, anthropomorphized God who acts in history — the grand puppeteer who manipulates every human act — that many Jews have in mind when they reject Jewish theology.
While the image of an all-powerful, transcendent deity is certainly present in biblical and rabbinic texts, it is hardly the sole conception of the Divine we find in our tradition. From the Hebrew Bible to the Talmud, to Midrash, to halachah, to medieval philosophy, to Kabbalah, to Chassidut, to modern Jewish thought, we find multiple and sometimes quite different notions of the Divine. Creator, Parent, Spouse, Protector, Redeemer, Punisher, Place, Peace, Judge, Truth, Healer, Without End, the Name, Indwelling, Shepherd, King — these are just a few of the many, many names and images for God we find in our vast tradition.
For certain, there are Jewish people who reject the idea of God by any definition. But what I often find in having conversations with students is that, God-specific language aside, many self-described irreligious, atheists and agnostics share a worldview markedly similar to my own. They talk of the mystery of the universe or they have a sense that there is something elusive which unifies all of Creation. They are deeply moved by the wonders of the natural world and they strive to live in a state of gratitude for their lives. I have learned that people who steer clear from ever using words like “God” or “divine” often perceive the cosmos and the underlying fabric of Creation in much the same ways that I do.
One of the tragedies of contemporary Jewish life is that we have lost the ability to think and talk about God. My brother Aaron, also a rabbi, worked for a time as a hospital chaplain. He was very surprised to find that, in a way, he actually found it easier to sit at the bedside tables of Christians rather than Jews. The Christians he encountered were, by and large, much more comfortable talking openly about God and their spiritual lives and praying spontaneously than their Jewish counterparts.
Many of us imbibed as children some variation of the image of the white-bearded God. And as we matured, many of us were never exposed to other Jewish conceptions of Divinity. Some of us woke up one day as emerging adults and realized we didn’t connect with any of the images of God we had been introduced to as children. What happens when we shed our childhood conception of God without a tool chest of alternatives to take its place?
The failure on the part of a generation of Jewish teachers to engage their students in nuanced and compelling theology has led to (at least) two unfortunate consequences. The first is that many Jewish young adults never develop theologies personally meaningful or relevant to them. While they mature into sophisticated human beings in every manner of ways, their theologies — and likely their religious lives — are stunted. And, equally tragic from my perspective, other Jewish young adults develop a spiritual worldview entirely consistent with Jewish tradition but assumed by them to be antithetical to Jewish belief for lack of exposure to the multiplicity of Jewish theologies. These individuals may identify as “spiritual,” but not Jewish. Both scenarios can lead to a feeling of alienation and marginalization from Jewish tradition and community.
I have come to the conclusion that the seemingly innocent three-letter English word “G-O-D” is responsible for part (though hardly all) of our problem. This loaded word is wrought with so many associations for most English-speaking Jews that it, ironically, serves as a stumbling block to connecting with the very force it is meant to represent.
With this in mind, I have recently taken to banning use of the word during my classes on theology. I have a favorite exercise in which I poster the walls of the classroom with 40-plus names for the Source of Life in the Jewish tradition. I have found that just being exposed to this diversity of names and images serves as a useful starting point for group conversation and personal reflection on the topic of our personal theologies. If — or rather, when — someone slips and says the word, “God,” he or she has to do 10 pushups. Besides being fun, this exercise in refraining from using the word G-O-D, forces us to find a word or image for that which the word is simply a placeholder — it forces us to be more honest with ourselves as to what we believe.
Rav Kook, the first chief Ashkenazic rabbi of British Mandate Palestine, and one of the most influential rabbis of the 20th century, wrote that the “greatest impediment to the human spirit, on reaching maturity, results from the fact that the conception of God is crystallized among people in a particular form, going back to childish habit and imagination.” He suggests that “one must always cleanse one’s thoughts about God to make sure that they are free of the dross of deceptive fantasies, of groundless fear, of evil inclinations, of wants and deficiencies.”
As individuals and as a Jewish community, we need to proactively address the “wants and deficiencies” of our theological imaginations. We need to dedicate more time to developing and refining our personal theologies to ensure they are not crystallized in “childish habit and imagination.” We can, and should, use our tremendously rich and diverse theological inheritance as an inspiration and guide. And, most importantly, we need to give our children and students the gift of engaging them in lively and open conversations about God — and we might consider avoiding the word “God” while we do it.