HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Beyond Belief: Metaphor and Awe
“Why should I study Tanakh if I don’t believe in God?”
“I study the Bible for its ethical teachings but I don’t believe in God.”
“I figure God is just a character in the story. The whole thing is fiction…a great story.”
After teaching for ten years in a Jewish day school, I’ve heard these questions and comments too many times to count. They point to two of the perennial questions Jewish studies teachers face: Is there a place for God in the classroom? If so, how can we best attend to it?
When I was a graduate student, writing about the philosophy of language and Jewish thought, I undertook to understand how Jewish texts refer to God: Tzur Yisrael and Avinu Malkeinu (Rock of Israel and our Father our King). What do these words convey? Why do they refer to God in contradictory ways? At least one of them must be taken to be a metaphor, for God cannot literally be both a father and a rock. How do we know which is literal and which is metaphorical? Are both metaphors? What is suggested by each description? These were the kinds of questions that drove my intellectual curiosity during this period.
As a Jewish studies teacher and leader in Jewish day schools, both high school and a K-8 school, my focus has shifted from a purely philosophical and intellectual pursuit to a pedagogical pursuit. Namely, why and how should we teach about God in the classroom?
Let me be transparent about where I am coming from when I talk about teaching about God. I don’t really care whether my students believe in God or not. Promoting belief in God is not a goal for me as an educator. For me, answering the question of why we should teach about God in school is simple. The role of God in the classroom is to inspire awe. We teach about God because it shifts students’ attention away from themselves and deepens their sense of wonder, of gratitude and of humility.
How we teach about God is perhaps the more complicated issue. While I do not profess to have all the answers, I want to share some of my thoughts and experiences, many of which are rooted in my former experience as a student of philosophy.
Teaching about God begins with text. During Torah study students encounter references to God as well as descriptions of God. When we think about God as “above” or “beyond” or “infinite” or “eternal” or as capable of hearing everyone’s prayers or as creator, we are using metaphorical descriptors that direct our attention beyond ourselves and beyond the here and now. By suggesting a “beyond” or an “above,” these descriptions of God can move us to ponder life’s grandeur. They can even lead us to wrestle with questions such as “What am I here for?” or “What is the purpose of human life?”
Likewise, many descriptions of God draw upon remarkably human qualities. For instance, in Exodus 34:6-7 it says, “Lord, Lord, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness…” We can only look to what those terms mean when applied to us to get an idea of how they might describe God. In describing God, they cast a light on us. When asked to think about concepts like “infinite” and “compassion” together, these conversations engender awe.
Let’s talk for a moment about awe. In a book entitled The Significance of Religious Experience, Howard Wettstein describes different kinds of awe. One can stand in awe of human greatness, such as acts of heroism, compassion or caring, or great works of art. One can also be in awe of the natural world, such as the night sky, a beautiful sunset, or a worm (especially among small children, who seem to have a natural proclivity for awe). One can also experience awe in connection with the fragility or fleetingness of life. Awe of this sort can lead to a sense of the significance of human life.
Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke about awe as radical amazement. He wrote, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement...get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” We can cultivate this kind of awe when we pause and ask questions such as, “What is suggested by the phase ‘God resides at the pinnacle of the universe’?”
For older students, a brief study of philosophy can be an effective hook. A central purpose of the Guide for the Perplexed is to clarify the meaning of words that describe God. This was important to Maimonides because language offers our only indication of God. When the Bible describes God in human terms (for example, as “speaking” or leading the people out of Egypt with a “strong hand” or as becoming “angry”) it is speaking about God in a way that we can relate to. Those descriptions are not literal descriptions of God, however.
Maimonides devoted himself in the first part of the Guide to showing how every word that describes God is actually a metaphor. For instance, Maimonides explains that when the Bible says “God saw” or “God heard” it means “God understood or knew.” Likewise, when the Bible refers to a part of God’s “body” such as a hand or foot, it means God caused something. For example, when it says God led the people out of Egypt with a “strong hand,” it suggests their great escape from slavery was for a purpose. Maimonides devoted himself to this work because he wanted to promote “correct thinking” about God.
According to Maimonides, God is ultimately beyond our knowledge. No wonder, then, that we find metaphors so useful in talking about God. They help us to speak about the unknowable in terms of the known. In fact, this is how metaphors work in our everyday speech. We often refer to the unfamiliar in familiar terms. Or we use metaphors because they convey or suggest many things that can be true at once. Think, for example, of Shakespeare’s famous line “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances.”
When we talk about God, we end up referring to ourselves or to the world in ways that deepen our sense of wonder, engender gratitude and cause us to reflect on our conduct. This is the pedagogical relevance of God. References to God and descriptions of the divine have the capacity to direct our attention beyond ourselves, beyond our knowledge, beyond belief and toward a sense of awe at the grandeur of our world. To cultivate awe as a mindset or lens on life—this is the role of God in the classroom.
Dr. Peg Sandel is the head of campus at Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Rafael, California. firstname.lastname@example.org
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