I also experience God in nature. Suddenly I see the creative power beyond what I perceive — in different seasons, when walking, when driving. I recite the blessing over natural phenomenon, or I just thank God, often during the year.
I also feel God’s presence in moments of human contact — with students, with friends, frequently with family, sometimes even with strangers. Much of human contact is routine, some of it is abrasive. But, I have become accustomed to stopping myself and looking at the other — in wonder — and that returns me to God.
I sense God, too, when studying and teaching sacred texts. The personal and transpersonal presence of God, in all its forms and varieties, springs out at me from the pages. Religious texts are religious because they embody the presence of God; the rest is art, literature.
For me, God is “He.” That is the way I experience this presence. This “He” often acts like a “She,” if such characterizations can be stereotyped — compassionate, loving, comforting, embracing — but I feel God as He. When I talk about humans, I always use inclusive language. In writing about God, I also use inclusive language so as to include women. But, when I talk to God in prayer, I use male-gendered language. It is fuller, more complete, more powerful — for me. Others sense and worship God impersonally, using abstract language and metaphors of detachment. Yet others sense and worship God as She, utilizing female-gendered, or mixed-gendered, language. Those of other religions experience and worship God in all the different modes of human understanding and expression. There is no right and wrong way to experience, talk about, and address God. I understand, and support, my fellow worshipers.
I also sense God in history. Every trip to Israel, especially to Jerusalem and the Wall, brings God’s presence to me. On Yom Ha’atzma’ut and Yom Yerushalayim I will not, as a matter of principle, pray in a synagogue which does not recite Hallel with the blessing. I also do not like to pray in synagogues that do not recite the prayers for the State of Israel and for the Israel Defense Forces. I try to attend the community commemorations of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzma’ut, and I include the State of Israel and its Defense Forces in the Birkat Hamazon. I am embarrased that I do not own property in the land given us by God and revitalized by the Jewish people.
The holocaust was a terrible problem for me, which is why I wrote Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest. In it, I studied some texts, explored the domain of psychotherapy with adult survivors of child abuse, reached some very unpleasant but true conclusions, and made some suggestions for confronting God in prayer on the subject of the holocaust. I use this liturgy, twice a week and on Yom Kippur. It is frightening to confront God, in thought and in prayer but, since truth and mercy are essential to our relationship, I say the words of anger and protest. This has brought me closer to God; it has strengthened my faith.
The rest is commentary. The Torah is God’s communication to us. It is the structure of God’s relationship to us, and ours to God; that is the meaning of covenant. I accept the view that teaches that God’s presence appeared powerfully on Mt. Sinai to all who were there, but that that appearance was given form by Moses and interpreted by subsequent authorities. Some commandments are more binding than others. The tradition has always known this, though it sometimes teaches that all mitsvot are alike in value.
God chose the Jewish people for this revelation, though God has made God’s presence known to others and is in covenant with all humanity, as the tradition teaches. This chosenness is for closeness and intimacy; it is not a license for superiority or inferiority. It does, however, excite jealousy; there is not much remedy for that, except understanding and humility.
I accept, too, the teaching that says that God’s presence gives our personal and collective lives meaning and that, in the end, humanity will live in a better world. We need to work toward that world, but we cannot bring it about by ourselves. God will have to act to bring the messiah who, in turn, will inaugurate this better time in ways we scarcely comprehend.
The most serious challenge to Jewish belief, secular and religious, is the shadow of the holocaust. The question of how God allowed it to happen leads to a denial of God’s participation in our national life. For some, this is conscious; for others, it is just below the surface. But it is there in the attitude of resolute self-help, in the widespread secularism and assimilation, in the determined preoccupation with Torah, mitsvot, proper belief, and religious politics, and in the conspiracy of silence that surrounds the very question. The holocaust, as it projects its shadow toward the future, also obliges us to a hypervigilance which often distorts our political and social perspectives in areas as varied as the security of the State of Israel, the need for peace in the Middle East, the depth of the threat of antisemitism, and the need to participate in, or be separate from, the non-Jewish world. I do not see any great stimulus to renewal of the presence of God in our personal and national lives, though there are efforts by small groups here and there. Nor do I expect a large-scale revival of a God-centered Judaism anywhere.
Jewish unity, religious or otherwise, is a fiction belied by reality and Jewish humor. What is at stake is the ability to form coalitions to achieve common goals which have been considered carefully. In matters of security and peace, despite the 1996 elections in Israel, there will be a great deal of consensus. In matters of culture and identity, there will not be much agreement. Coalitions in these areas will be difficult to form.
Modernity comprises both an impulse to increased demand for recognition of one’s individual and group rights as well as a thrust toward authority and centralized control of belief and praxis. The tension between these two components will put stress on all forms of Jewish identity, as it does on non-Jewish identity. Further, the increasing level of communication will project a “crowding” effect on modern life, which will also increase the tensions of identity- and community-formation. These processes are not specifically Jewish and need to be addressed by modern society in general.