An Approach to G-d-Talk
Interestingly, very few people doubt His existence. Whereas in the 1970s and 1980s you could barely pass for an educated person if you admitted to a belief in G-d, over the last decade G-d has definitely made a “comeback.” As someone said: Although He is not the head of the department of philosophy, He is certainly regarded as a well-respected member of the faculty.
So, with the above in mind, how do you talk about G-d in a Jewish community day school? This problem is most acute during the Open House. The audience is filled with prospective parents who want to know what sort of a Jewish education the school offers. Some are afraid that it will be too religious, for others it is not religious enough, and everyone wants to know how the school will handle the differences of belief between Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and non-affiliated children in a classroom.
Interestingly, whatever the student background, elementary students display none of the inhibitions described above when talking about G-d or a host of other topics that older students might find embarrassing. G-d is the person we address in our tefillah, He is the One who looks after our daily needs, He is the G-d of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and He performed many miracles for the Israelites in Egypt and in the desert.
Upon entering grade 7 students begin to question these beliefs, which until now seem to have been self-evident. It is the task of the Jewish educator to help students in this age group grapple with their questions, including their questions about G-d. But how can we create an environment in a pluralistic day school where students feel safe to discuss what they really think about G-d?
Instead of being cause for confusion, the pluralist character of our student population is a great asset for a rich Jewish learning experience. If you would define Judaism as engaging in the study of sacred texts through constructive dialogue, you may prefer study partners whose outlook is different from yours. We all know the famous line: “Two Jews, three opinions.” This can actually be a good thing. In fact, the Torah contains some important stories that deal with the issue of how to speak about G-d in a diverse environment in a very concrete manner.
When G-d spoke the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai, there were hundreds of thousands of Israelites listening. With such a large number of witnesses, we would assume that there is just one, definitive version of the Ten Commandments. But that is not the case. There are two versions of the Ten Commandments, one in the Book of Exodus and one in the Book of Deuteronomy, and they differ slightly. Apparently, individual listeners can hear different things in the same oral message and record it differently, and this applies even to an event as significant as G-d’s revelation on Mount Sinai. Why? Because we experience things differently. The Torah records both versions. One is not more important than the other, but both need to be preserved. Of course, the different versions in Exodus and Deuteronomy are explained by many scholars as stemming from different sources that were amalgamated into one document, the Torah as we know it today, by an editor. However, I believe that this theory avoids reading and explaining the text itself.
An even more striking example of different versions of events is found in the Creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2. The first chapter records how G-d, majestically and in an orderly fashion, creates a perfect and harmonious world within six days. “And G-d saw that it was good,” as the text states at the conclusion of every day. G-d’s point of view is the perspective from which the course of events in chapter one is told.
The Creation story in the second chapter is told from a completely different perspective. The reader finds himself in a garden and is observing the course of events without the regular beat of the six days of Creation. “It is not good for man to be alone.” Man was alone? Had we not just read at the end of chapter one that G-d created man and woman together? How can it be that man is suddenly alone in chapter 2? How many books exist where chapter 2 seems to contradict what the reader has learned in chapter 1? Of course, these different accounts of Genesis 1 and 2 are likewise explained by many scholars as originating in different sources, but, again, that theory avoids reading the text itself.
By including both versions of Creations the author of the Torah teaches that there are different perspectives and that reality can look different depending where you are. There is G-d’s perspective on Creation, but Creation looks different from Adam’s viewpoint and this diversity is important enough to be noticed. Even stronger, the omnipotent Creator notices the unhappiness of his creature, Adam, and finds a solution for his loneliness. Reading Genesis 1 and 2 as consecutive and complementary, the Torah does not draw the portrait of an authoritarian G-d who speaks and expects human beings to be happy with what He has decided is best for them. Instead, the combined stories show G-d as the all-powerful Creator who takes a personal interest in the situation of His creatures and who acts on their concerns.
In a later story in Tanakh, it becomes even more clear that G-d is not merely concerned with man, but is looking for a partner with whom He can have a constructive dialogue. When He contemplates the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, He invites Abraham directly to give his opinion on His intended plan by saying, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? … For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right…” (18:17-19)
This is strange. If we suppose that G-d knows everything, why does He want to go on a personal fact-finding mission to Sodom and Gomorrah? He must be well aware that there no righteous people left in these cities. But if He knows that that is the case, why then does He ask Abraham for his opinion?
And if we compare Abraham’s response with G-d’s own words, we see that Abraham takes his cue from G-d, “doing what is just and right”: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” G-d not only invites Abraham to challenge Him, but He also gives him the words with which to do this. This dialogue between G-d and Abraham is followed in Tanakh by the often fierce conversations of Moses, Jeremiah and Job with G-d.
These stories from Tanakh teach us that G-d did not create us so that He could speak and we would blindly obey Him, but He intended us to be a constructive partner in our dialogue with Him. In His conversation with Abraham, G-d wants him to respond and give his opinion on G-d’s intentions. The two versions of the creation story show that there is not just one “correct” perspective, namely G-d’s, but man’s perspective is also legitimate and is included into the sacred narrative. And finally, the two slightly different versions of the Ten Commandments teach us that a single group of people can listen to the same voice and still hear the words differently.
In our school, we use these stories as a starting point and a model on how to talk about G-d. When we study Torah, in the broad sense of the word, we enter into a conversation with our sacred texts, with each other and, ultimately, with G-d. It is our task to educate our children to find their voice as informed partners in this dialogue. ♦