Strangely, I never had any formal or informal instruction on ideas about God or relationship with God. My education in Jewish parochial schools never dealt with God, a fact at which Christians, especially Catholics, may wonder, but that is how it is in Jewish schools. We teach texts and culture, we practice liturgy, and we are active in politics and social justice causes. But we do not talk about God and spiritual awareness. My father, in spite of the fact that he was a rabbi, never talked about God or prayer. The professional who sang in his synagogue, whom I remember well, had great volume but no inwardness. It was only when my father acted as cantor that I was able to hear him actually pray and, then, I heard a man who had a deep personal relationship with God, who sang to God, and who sang for God’s people to God. I learned more by listening and watching than by being instructed.
The world around me couldn’t have cared less about God. My childhood peers were interested in games. My teenage and college peers were interested in women and grades. And my adult peers have been interested in building institutions, money, vacations, family, and all the many other preoccupations of the “real” world. Who thinks of God, especially in the Jewish community? Christian professionals think about God and, in recent years, orthodox rabbis have invoked God in their efforts to strengthen their communities, though they do not ponder the irreducible problems in understanding God. I was probably the only person in that childhood synagogue to wonder if the cantor was God; I still am.
Meanwhile, my Jewish identity began to take on form. I went to a Jewish day school (a parochial high school) and began to learn the basic texts. Some struck me more than others. I can still recite whole sections of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the other prophets. What power! The Hebrew is so lapidary, the imagery so forceful. The challenge to society on behalf of God, not as a matter of social contract, is so absolute. Surely, the God of the prophets Who calls us to justice on behalf of the oppressed is God. Yet I remember, too, modern Hebrew literature. The poetry teacher would read, the lunch bell would sound, and no one would move until he finished. No mention of God, no mention of social justice, but there was riveting power in the story of the people. The short stories which told of life in the old country and the courage of the pioneers in period before the State of Israel cast a spell though, again, no mention of God.
During this period I became a reconstructionist. I read many of the works of Mordecai Kaplan and used the Reconstructionist Prayerbook  in my daily worship. This Prayerbook deletes all references to the personal messiah, to the resurrection, to the sacrifices, and to the chosenness of the Jewish people. New prayers and liturgical formulations are substituted, and I used them in personal devotions, though I was being trained in an Orthodox day school and prayed in a Conservative synagogue on Shabbat and holidays. Surely, God was the expression of the spiritual forces inherent in the Jewish people, the expressions thereof varying from one historical period to another with none being inherently superior. God was the power that made for salvation, in Kaplan’s inimitable phrase. Other teenage extracurricular activity was expended in the Zionist movement. It was the 1950’s and I remember the vote in the United Nations in November 1947 and the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948. For years, extracurricular energies were devoted to studying the pioneers and to dreaming of going to Israel, though my peers were more interested in the social opportunities that youth activities afforded.
Wissenschaft des Judentums, the academic study of Jewish civilization, did not begin for me until I reached college, and I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. It was an honor to take graduate courses at the University of Pennsylvania, even as a freshman, with men who were legends in their own lifetimes. I read Genesis with E. A. Speiser while he was composing the Anchor Bible commentary. I read the Dead Sea Scrolls with Y. Kutscher during the colorful professional dispute over the possibility of the scrolls being medieval forgeries. I read Qoran and “The Thousand and One Nights” in Arabic with S. D. Goitein while he was composing his great work on Jewish life under Isalm. And I studied Ezekiel with M. Greenberg while he was writing his two volume commentary on that book. I could tell many stories about these men but the élan of being in the inner group of the best oriental studies department in the western hemisphere was very seductive. Being able to spend all day Saturday in the oriental studies seminar library following footnotes and checking sources was very appealing. I even wrote an honors thesis and published my first article on the phrase “skin of my teeth” — the phrase is one of those translation mistakes that became famous — while under the influence of this milieu.
My college years at the University of Pennsylvania also saw the fulfillment of my Zionist dream. I spent a year in Israel. In those days, a trip to Israel was not a summer outing; it was an ideological act. The trip was by boat and we built up to our arrival with song, dance, and ideological study. The conditions were primitive. We could see the Jordanian gun emplacements from our dormitory windows and there were no street lights on the campus. We visited and stayed on kibbutzim where we argued socialism, capitalism, democracy, politics, the meaning of Jewish history, and of course aliyah, that is, settlement in the land as the only true form of Jewish identity. We also took our turn in the barns, kitchens, and on night guard duty. There was no western wall to go to in 1958-59 and, if Jerusalem was orthodox, I did not know it. The University of Pennsylvania and the State of Israel in the 1950’s were not the place to ask, “Is that God?” Rather, life was framed by scholarly and historical-ideological issues.
Having been swept off my feet by Wissenschaft des Judentums and pioneering Zionism, I went to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. I was in was the (unofficial) scholarly track. In preparation for my masters exam, I read through most of the Tanakh excerpting the quotable quotations. It was great, and I can still reel off those lines that have made the Bible “famous.” (Goitein also used this “pearl” method when teaching Bible and, while I still find it an extraordinary study and teaching device, I’ve never been able to persuade academic colleagues and students of its value.) At the Seminary, I again studied with men who were legends in their lifetimes. I studied Jewish history with Salo Baron while he was still writing his twenty-volume history. I read Jeremiah with Shalom Spiegel who radiated scholarly and linguistic elegance. I worked on Job with Robert Gordis while he was writing his book on that subject. I studied with Saul Lieberman, the outstanding academic talmudist of the century, and with David Weiss-Halivni as he was evolving his complex theories about the literary redaction of the Talmud. And I worked with Max Kadushin, one of the most interesting though neglected minds in the area of rabbinic scholarship. For all of these men, the academic study of Judaism was a way of life. They were also traditional Jews, but it was their study of the sources that counted. This is best illustrated by a widely known bon mot: “Mysticism is foolishness but the study of mysticism is academic.” Only Heschel was different, but I did not study with him at the Seminary.
The Seminary years again saw me in Israel. This time I was more aware of spiritual issues though, again, it was the Zionist-pioneering issues that were predominant. The Seminary years also introduced me to Zalmen Schachter, the wild card of contemporary Jewish spirituality. Reb Zalmen, as he was known to us, came from a hasidic background, wandered into contemporary eastern spirituality and other things, and dealt in spiritual psychodrama. He would tell us to close our eyes and recite the Shma five times, each time with something else in mind: First, substitute your own name at “Hear, oh Israel”; then, substitute the name of a person you know to whom you want to send the message; then, recite the Shma as if you were Moses on Mount Sinai speaking to the whole people of Israel; then, recite it as if you were addressing all of contemporary Jewry; and then, recite it as if you were on your death bed, as if this were your last act. This was quite an experience. Under Reb Zalmen’s influence, some of us formed a break-away morning service where we actually prayed instead of reciting the liturgy. My attempt to bring some of that insight back into the regular Seminary service led to the Chancellor burying his head in his arms and a sharp reprimand. Rabbinical School and the State of Israel in the 1960’s were not the place to ask, “Is that God?” Rather, again, life was framed by scholarly and historical-ideological issues.
If I thought the active rabbinate was the place to ask my question, I was wrong there too. Four years in the pulpit were filled with professional tasks: programming, preaching, pastoral work, education, political action, and just plain administration and politics. I was good at some of this –primarily the teaching, preaching, and pastoral work — but the rest was not my forté. The congregation was wonderful. I left in good graces and still return there occasionally. But it was a time of isolation from my academic Jewish identity, although actually being a rabbi — in the pulpit and in the social role — engendered a practical kind of spiritual growth. I saw this again years later: A Christian graduate student trained in Germany was serving as chaplain in a local children’s hospital and came to me quite upset because her theological training was proving useless in the difficult setting of an emergency room. I comforted her by saying that theology flows from life, not to life.
A return to doctoral studies seemed to be the best path. My doctoral program at Columbia University, however, was a great disappointment. There was no real instruction in history of religions, only one superficial survey course. The New Testament courses were all tendentiously Christian. There was no student teaching and no working on syllabi. However, the program left me free to do what I really wanted to do — read medieval Jewish texts. So, I read philosophic texts from the beginning to the end, together with the secondary literature, and wrote and took my own exam. For my thesis, I again worked with a man who was a legend in his own lifetime. Georges Vajda of Paris, who is not well-known in the anglophonic world because he wrote in French and Hebrew, was a scholar without peer. He was an authority on Islam. He combined the knowledge of Gershom Scholem and Harry Austryn Wolfson, each of whom was a giant in his field. Vajda, a very unprepossessing man, had a knowledge that was so vast that, when he retired, it took fourteen of us to replace him. He was deeply committed to Wissenschaft des Judentums, in fact he was la science juive in Europe after the war.
Two books and several essays — rich in edited texts and learned footnotes on an obscure figure in Yemenite Jewish thought — and a career in medieval Judaism, resulted from my work with Vajda. Also, several revolutionary scholarly hypotheses: that there was an intellectual renaissance in 15th century Yemen, contrary to the received historiography that shifted the focus of Jewish intellectual activity to Spain and southern France after Maimonides’ death; that the Yemenite milieu reflected an eastern school of Maimonidean interpretation which was free from the pervasive Averroesian influence in the west; and that Maimonides himself was not the Kantian rationalist of modern revisioning but had propounded a form of intellectual, or philosophic, mysticism quite appropriate to his 12th century context. Each of these hypotheses has, with time, been accepted though the philosophic-mystical thesis has had the hardest going. Studying the intersection of Jewish philosophy, mysticism, and traditional rabbinic theology was a good place to ask, “Is that God?” especially since philosophy and mysticism claim to have definitive answers to that question. It was also a safe place to be: analyzing and writing footnotes about works written hundreds of years ago when people still believed in ptolemaic astronomy, spontaneous generation, and mono-cultural truth. Louis Finkelstein, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, had told me, “David, you are not destined to write learned footnotes,” yet here I was doing exactly that, enjoying the detective game of academic scholarship and getting credit for it academically and Jewishly, and I was getting paid.
Jacob Neusner is the one who opened my eyes to what I was doing, though I’m not sure he intended the outcome to be what it became. While teaching with him at Brown University, Neusner asked me to teach what I knew: Jewish mysticism. I said it could not be done because the material was very complex and besides there were no texts in English. “So, translate them,” he replied, “A teacher must be able to teach what he knows.” As the two volumes of Understanding Jewish Mysticism  evolved, Neusner asked, “Why would anyone want to study this?” So I had to be explicit about the nature of spirituality, the difference between spirituality and mysticism, and the various types of Jewish mysticism. I thought my work was pellucid but Jack would say, “I don’t understand this. Did you show it to your wife? Did she understand it? You cannot write only for the elite.” So I rewrote, many times, getting more explicit and clearer each time.
Neusner’s other contribution came in requesting a syllabus on modern Judaism. To my effort at Buber-Rosenzweig-Kaplan-Heschel, he responded, “What about Zionism and Reform-Conservative-Orthodox Judaism?” To my expanded effort, he replied, “What about Einstein, Freud, Marx, and Wissenschaft des Judentums ?” Eventually, I got the point: Judaism was not just what the duly authorized rabbis and thinkers were saying; it was what the people were doing. Even more important: most of “Judaism” was not religious, and certainly not spiritual, much less philosophic or mystical. Secular forms of Judaism were, in fact and much to my surprise, the norm. It was not the others who were not “with it”; it was I who was not “with it.” And they were no less legitimately Jewish than I. In fact, Jewish identity through culture, history, and polity was a way of being Jewish unto itself and “the academic study of Judaism,” which had become my way of life and from which I was making my living, was the key to this secular Jewish identity. The historian, Simon Dubnow, had seen it correctly in 1907 when he noted that the Jewish people would, in the course of the 20th century, become increasingly secular in their self-understanding. They would look to Jewish history and Jewish culture as the verifying moment of their Jewish identity. Judaism, that is Jewish religion, would become part of the background or the fabric of Jewish existence; it would not be primary. Jews would look to institutions of national existence for their salvation, not to God. Religion would be the small circle within the larger circle of history, culture, and national identity. And I had become the very embodiment of that identity-complex: I was really teaching Jewish civilization and I was doing it in the accepted academic, not the spiritual, mode. Brown University was not the place to ask, “Is that God?” but it was a good place to ask, in full self-consciousness, “What substitutes for God?”
In spite of my academic commitments, which I now realized were really ideological, I enrolled my children in Jewish day schools and prayed in an Orthodox synagogue, though I kept my Conservative affiliations. I also learned to support women in their quest for Jewish identity, especially when the quest was also spiritual. The possiblity of conflict between these two worlds never developed for me, just as I never felt conflicted about being a rabbi and a professor at the same time. I have met many Christian colleagues, and Jews too, who have rejected their religious and spiritual roots in order to join the academy. I never felt the need to do that. For me, religion was a circle within culture and history, a larger circle than for most Jews but still within Jewish civilization. I could not figure out how to make it bigger, how to take spirituality and make it more central to my work. But religion did not conflict with academic identity because both were part of the human enterprise.
The move to Emory introduced me to serious Christian academics. Men like Jack Boozer and Will Beardslee were not only fine academics, capable of holding their own in any critical intellectual discussion of the sources, they were also seriously committed Christians. Boozer’s ethical activity on campus and in the Atlanta community grew out of his Christian commitments. He really believed that the love of Christ included even Jews, and African Americans, and women, and even homosexuals — not in a proselytizing way, but in its simple meaning: to love like Christ is to love, period; the rest is commentary. Will Beardslee’s commitment to critical New Testament study and to process theology flowed from his understanding of the life of Christ, not just from his reading of the texts. Spirituality and academic study went hand in hand for these people. Later, I met other colleagues who also embodied this mixture, and it seemed natural to me though I did not yet see myself this way.
Several years of work with the Presbyterian Church on a document in Christian-Jewish relations opened my eyes for the second time. The document was to be a theological document. As a Jew, I was worried about its political and historical implications. Slowly, it dawned on me that the Presbyterians took theology seriously. They really believed that doctrine made a difference, that what the church taught was important. As a Jew, I could scarcely believe it for, even though I was the one who had been asking “Is that God?,” who had written the first textbooks on Jewish mysticism, and who had sent his children to parochial schools, I had learned enough to know that thought alone didn’t count; only political stance and action in the social setting counted. Slowly, I realized that Jews are instinctively political while Christians are instinctively theological. But, what if the Presbyterians were right? What if doctrine did count? What if theology was not only an area of wissenschaftlich study but also a serious intellectual discipline, a serious spiritual option? These questions were not new to my Christian colleagues, but they were new to me and, instinct told me, this was the way, this was the path that was intellectual-academic as well as scholarly-spiritual. Of course, I would have to work with Jewish sources and work in a literarily Jewish form, but I could “do theology.” So I dug into my own faith and prayer life, and I reopened my study of Abraham Joshua Heschel and hasidism, and I wrote God at the Center.  It is a book of divrei Torah, of words of Torah-teaching. Each dvar Torah contains a problematic biblical text, the spiritual interpretation given by an early hasidic master, and a theological response by myself. It is a book of spiritual theology, written as a type of commentary to a biblical-hasidic text and arranged according to the lectionary cycle. It is, thus, Jewish in its form as well as in its content; all those years of studying texts had paid off. It is a beautiful book but it is theologically naive, what Vajda would have called un travail de jeunesse, though I was not so young when I wrote it.
Meanwhile, almost all my great teachers had died. Their deaths freed me from the obligation to be like them, great antiquarians. My father, who was one of the leading rabbis in Conservative Judaism, had also died, freeing me from the obligation to be like him, a builder of institutions within the Jewish community, which I was never very good at anyway. In addition, the great trauma of our century had reared its ugly head. During my entire time in a Jewish parochial school, in the premier department of oriental studies in the west which included one year in divided Jerusalem, in the leading rabbinical school for the scientific study of Judaism which also included one year in divided Jerusalem, and in three years in the rabbinate; during all those years in the Zionist movement and in Jewish organizational and institutional service — I heard only one fifty-minute lecture on the holocaust. In my experience, until 1967, no one spoke about the holocaust. It was a taboo subject, or at least, it was a very carefully contained topic. As I see it, it was only after the stunning victory of the six day war, that Jews felt comfortable enough to confront the holocaust. The reasons for this are complicated, but the fact remains that I, for one — and I think the larger Jewish community as well — came to the holocaust after 1967. The holocaust became a significant part of my life only at Emory University when, in 1978, Jack Boozer insisted that we teach a course on the holocaust. Later, this was followed by the establishment of the Witness to the Holocaust Project by another Christian Emory colleague, Fred Crawford. The holocaust mushroomed as an object of study and commemoration, and my own involvement grew. I learned the facts. I learned how to teach the holocaust — much harder than teaching Jewish mysticism — and I learned how to speak publically and write on the holocaust. But I did not know how to connect it with Jewish spirituality, with Jewish theology.
When Jack Boozer died, I felt I owed it to him to do something within the general Atlanta community where my involvements had been peripheral. I’m not sure why I went to the Georgia Council on Child Abuse but they were very kind and allowed me to sit in on the monthly supervision sessions for therapists who were doing group therapy for them. Listening to these very brave people, I heard stories I could not believe — of physical abuse, of sexual abuse, of drugs, and of ritual abuse — and I listened to the heart-wrenching struggles of the therapists as they trod the path of helping the abused, lost their way, and returned to the path of good therapy. The involvement of the therapists, their countertransference, was the most difficult part. Then I began to read narratives and studies. I acquired a new vocabulary — splitting, multiple personality disorder, post-traumatic stress syndrome, empowerment, rage — and I learned new rules: never touch without permission, holidays can be a traumatic time, mother’s day and father’s day can be a mockery, and middle class status is no protection from abuse. Any set of profound insights into the human condition must have an echo in each of us. A new perspective on human behavior will provide a new view on our own lives, even if we are not textbook cases. So I began to look into my own life for signs of abuse and evidences of self-protective behaviors. Is there any one of us, at least the males, who does not have a fantasy ego? Is that a form of splitting, or multiple personality disorder, granted that our having a secret alter ego may not make us terribly dysfunctional? Abuse and the responses to it are a paradigm of human existence, present in many of us though in very much diminished strength.
The jump from contemplating abused persons and their lives to an analysis of contemporary Jews in the post-holocaust setting was not great, though it was novel. Hypervigilance, hyperalertrness, overreaction, a seige mentality, and an unwillingness to trust — all these characterize the lives of adult survivors of child abuse. They also characterize contemporary Jewish existence after the holocaust. I was the one who had coined the term “anticipatory guilt” to explain that my generation was not responsible for the holocaust — I was born at the end of 1938 — but my generation and the one after it does not want to be responsible for the next holocaust. I do not want to be asked by my sons, now in their twenties, “Hey, Pop, where were you?” or by my students, also in their twenties, “Hey, Dr. B., why didn’t you …?” We, the post-holocaust generations, suffer from “anticipatory guilt” rooted in the holocaust that was and in the one we know can happen tomorrow. We are hyperalert, just like children who have been abused. Israelis who react to stone-throwing Palestinian teenagers as if they were nazis are hyperalert. Neo-orthodox Jews who react to western civilization as if it were the first step in cultural genocide are hypervigilant. Yet, some kinds of hypervigilance and unwillingness to trust are healthy — we do, after all, have real enemies — just as these reactions are healthy in adult survivors of child abuse.
Then, the question struck me: If we are behaving like abused children in our post-holocaust life, who was the abuser? If we are the victims, who is the perpetrator? This is a horrifying question and the more I pondered it, the less I liked it. I confess that, when I came to write the concluding section of Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest,  I was physically ill — vomiting and in bed — for two days. I just did not want to say what I already knew: that Jews who know about the holocaust behave like abused children because we were abused, and we were abused by our Father in heaven, the God of our people. When I present this material in public, I usually begin with Psalm 44. This is an angry psalm in which the psalmist assails God for defeat in battle which the people has suffered. It is the psalm in which the image of “being led like sheep to the slaughter” appears. It ends with a protest so angry that the rabbis suppressed recitation of this psalm in the temple. One evening, in Washington, D.C., a psychologist interrupted my explication of the psalm and said, “Professor, are you telling us that God is an abuser? If so, it will be easier for us, and for you, if you just say it straight out.” He was right; I did and I do say it straight out — God is an abusing God — but it is not easy. I am, after all, the same child who asked, “Is that God?,” and who asked it out of wonder and spirituality. I am, after all, the same person who is a rabbi and academic scholar of Judaism, a father, and an active member of the Jewish community.
The Presbyterians were right: theology does count. To follow the usual theodicies is not productive. We cannot really say that God punished us with the holocaust for our sins because, no matter how sinful we were as Jews, we did not deserve the holocaust. Nor can we really say that God was hiding God’s Face or in eclipse because that is an intellectual sleight of hand. Nor can we hide behind some greater hidden wisdom in God because the very principle of covenant implies that God must abide by the rules, or explain. Nor can we deny God, or deny only the God of history, for that forces us to deny the spiritual awareness of God’s real Presence in our personal and national lives. Of what, then, does faith consist in the post-holocaust, abuse-sensitive world? My answer is: protest. We assert God’s living Presence among us in our personal and national lives and we demand that God live up to God’s own covenantal promise of justice and fairness. In its most powerful form: since God has sinned against us, God must seek forgiveness from us. The thesis is very Jewish. As one colleague has noted, it is rather orthodox — until I make suggestions for modifying the liturgy. The book is also very Jewish in form. But it does “do theology”; it does address the question of faith — reasonable faith after abuse.
Having proposed an answer to the question “Where was God in the holocaust,” I then felt compelled to tackle the question, “Where was humanity.” The sadism of the holocaust is not unique, nor is the number of Jews killed or the systematic character of the killing. The real issue is twofold: why did so many people go along with the holocaust and, why did the few who resisted do so? The best way to approach these questions is to study social psychology and history in the area of obedience / conformity and altruism / resistance. The results of this study, then, need to confront the question, “What does all this have to do with theology?” The social psychological and historical conclusions must be correlated with religious teaching and praxis and, then, practical suggestions need to be made on how to teach people to be good. I have just completed this study.
Theology is the process by which we learn things from life and bring those experiences and insights back into the accumulated tradition. When you give the keys to the car to your teenage son, you learn about the doctrine of providence. When you hear the suffering of the other, you learn about God’s action in the world. When you study Aristotelian science and metaphysics and bring those insights back to the tradition, you “do” theology. When you study eastern mysticism and bring those experiences back to the tradition, you “do” theology. When you wrestle with biblical paganism or Greco-Roman society and you bring an insight back to the sacred traditions of the people, you “do” theology. In our day, we study psychology — the inner workings of the human being; the expressed and the repressed, the ethically beautiful and the morally ugly — and then we turn again to our traditions and we bring those insights with us, and we contemplate God and our relationship to God. That is the task of the theologian. It is a task of inter-pretation, of standing between — between God and the people, and between the tradition and new knowledge. This has been my mid-life re-calling. This has been my re-visioning of my calling.
How did I change yet stay the same? I stayed the same by asking the same question, “Is that God?” and I stayed the same by adhering closely to the texts and the traditions. But I changed in moving from Wissenschaft to theology, in moving from scholarship on Jewish sources to a confrontation with God andhumanity from within the sources. I changed by moving from an identity rooted in Jewish history and culture to one rooted in Jewish faith and belief, for I believe now in a way I did not believe before. And yet, in a strange way, the change was really a re-turn to the original query. The sense of wonder has not left me, and life has made me more sober, but the question remains, “Is that God?”
 The Commentary of Hoter ben Shelomo to the Thirteen Principles of Maimonides (Leiden, E. J. Brill: 1974) and The Philosophic Questions and Answers of Hoter ben Shelomo (Leiden, E. J. Brill: 1981).
 “Maimonides: Prayer, Worship, and Mysticism,” Prière, Mystique, et Judaïsme, ed. R. Goetschel (Paris, Presses Universitaires de France: 1987) 89-106; reprinted in Approaches to Judaism in Medieval Times, ed. D. Blumenthal (Atlanta, Scholars Press: 1988) 3: 1-16; available also on my website (http://www.emory.edu/UDR/BLUMENTHAL).
 On the question of uniqueness, see S. Katz, Post-Holocaust Dialogues (New York, New York University Press: 1985) 287-317 and idem., The Holocaust in Historical Context (New York, Oxford University Press: 1994-).