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God

Answer By: 
Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

We live our lives as a tapestry of relationships: with parents, siblings, partners and other relatives; with friends, neighbors, and colleagues; with the larger world and the environment; and with God. Our relationships are a lens through which we see ourselves because we gain self-understanding when we consider how others see us and fell about us. In addition, our relationships are a vehicle for our interaction with the world. Jewish tradition teaches us to take each relationship seriously by nurturing and attending to it so it can be as healthy and constructive as possible.

Jews believe that we have a covenant with God. A covenant is a relationship of reciprocal love, caring, and loyalty. Individuals can have covenants with one anothe — marriage is a covenantal relationship — but the covenant that the People Israel has with God involves the entire people. One of the chief benefits of that special relationship is that it helps to define us as a people who have connections (relationships) with one another because we are all party to the same covenant with God. In other words, it contributes to our communal self-understanding and encourages us to examine who we are in relation to God, and who we ought to be. Another benefit, arising from the first benefit, is that it reminds us that everyone in the community is a member of the covenant and important to God, and therefore, they should be important to us; no one should be permitted to slip through the cracks. A third benefit is that our covenant with God helps us focus on our obligation to live as our tradition teaches — the way God wants us to live: generously, compassionately, and with concern for justice and the welfare of others.

Our understanding of our covenant with God does not, in any way, mean that Jews claim that they, exclusively, have a special relationship with God. It is the expression of our understanding of our relationship with God, to be sure, but that does not mean that other groups of people cannot have their own special relationship with God.

Topic: Doing Jewish, God
Answer By: 
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg

In answer to your question, "Can a Reform Jew believe that God gave the Torah at Sinai?" I think that the most honest answer is, "Yes, but..." Let me start with that "but."

One of the early foundations of Reform Judaism was the acknowledgment that the Torah was written by humans. When scholars began to understand this (in the 18th century), many Jews rejected this new way of thinking, holding to the old belief of a literally God-given Torah. Many others instead rejected Judaism, now believing that it was founded on false claims, and was therefore useless. Reform Judaism, however,  was an attempt to find a middle ground-one which could accept the findings of science and scholarship, while maintaining the rational parts of Judaism.

That's always been the way of Reform Judaism-one of its most important ideas - not being afraid to follow science and rationality wherever they might take us, but still holding on to the core teachings of our religion, albeit often reinterpreted in new ways. So, in some ways, I could say that believing in Torah from Sinai goes against our core, foundational principles.

But, don't forget the "Yes" part of "Yes, but...".

 At the same time, Reform Judaism has never been a dogmatic movement, and it's never demanded a test of faith for its members. There is no catechism, and there are no required beliefs. Everyone is free to believe and profess whatever they have learned about and believe. In fact, I know of one Reform Rabbi who believes that Torah was revealed at Sinai. Some of his colleagues (myself included) may not agree with him, and may not even understand how he reconciles that belief with Reform Jewish philosophy, but that doesn't disqualify him as a Reform Rabbi! We're a big-tent religion, and everyone agreeing on everything isn't the point, and it's never going to happen, anyway.

Another consideration is what people mean when they talk about "God giving..."  Many Reform Jews have a deep belief in a God that is not literal or theistic, but rather is more mystical or spiritual.  Many believe that though the Torah was written by humans, there is still a deep, abiding and divine wisdom that is imparted through the teachings which separates Torah from other literature.

So, I'd argue that Reform Judaism rejects the "traditional" idea of Torah from Sinai, but it doesn't insist that Reform Jews do the same!

Topic: God
Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor S. Appell

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Writing "G-d" instead of God is a fairly recent custom in America. Many believe this to be a sign of respect, and the custom comes from an interpretation of the commandment in Deuteronomy 12:3-4 regarding the destruction of pagan altars. According to the the medieval commentator, Rashi, we should not erase or destroy God’s name and should avoid writing it. In a Responsa (legal opinion) by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the primary prohibition against erasure of the name God applies to the sacred names in a written text of Torah. With the advent of computers and the internet, rabbinic authorities have debated whether or not this applies to what is typed on a computer or read on a screen. Most have concurred that it does not apply.

The bulk of Jewish legal opinion agrees that the law applies only to the written name of God when written in Hebrew and not when written in other languages. Reform Jewish practice reflects this opinion. Some Jews will avoid discarding paper or books in which God’s name appears in Hebrew. Rather than being thrown out or destroyed, they may be stored in a genizah (a storage place) and buried in a Jewish cemetery.

Topic: God
Answer By: 
Rabbi Lewis C. Littman

I know that there is a prohibition against erasing the name of God. Given today's technology and the widespread usage of computers, how is that prohibition being interpreted?

The advent of the information age, and the proliferation of computers as a medium of communication and study raises questions which our tradition could not have anticipated, yours among them. Nonetheless there is a body of discussion on the subject of destroying the Name of God that is helpful in approaching this most modern issue. An overview of the traditional issue from the Reform perspective is found in CURRENT REFORM RESPONSA, edited by the late Solomon Freehof, and published by HUC Press in 1969. Your local Rabbi or synagogue may have a copy.

I have not seen a more recent discussion, though the Computer Committee of the Central Conference of American Rabbis may be discussing the issue. The prohibition of destroying God's name stems from a passage in Dt. 12:3-4, where we are commanded to obliterate the names of idols, "but you shall not do so to the Name of the Lord your God." Through the centuries, the rabbis expanded the prohibition to include the Name of God (YHVH) in all sacred writings. But they created exceptions to the rule. Two of them, in my opinion, apply directly to your question.

First, the Mishnah (Shabbat 12:4) concludes that writing done with any material that does not endure is not actually writing. The Name of God created in such a way could thus be erased without violating the law. Since electronic images are not permanent, they are only digitized electronic impulses, and thus are not actually writing as the sages defined it, erasing the Name of God from a computer screen or disk would not violate halakhah. Second, the rabbis debated whether the prohibition of erasing God's Name applies when the Name appears in a text which has not been consecrated for a religious purpose. Citing the SHULCHAN ARUCH and a number of later halakhic works, Rabbi Freehof concludes: "It is the opinion of many of the earlier and later authorities that no sin is committed by erasing a Name which we know for certain was not consciously consecrated.

Again, this all applies to the Shem Ham'forash, the Tetragrammaton Yod Hey Vov Hey. It seems to me that both of these principles apply to the Name of God "written" on the computer. Electronic images are temporary and not writing at all. as halakhah defines writing; and the Name of God in the computer, I presume, has not been consciously consecrated. Under these circumstances, erasure of the Name would not be a violation of Jewish law.

Topic: God
Answer By: 
Rabbi Bonnie Margulis

There are many different names for God in the Hebrew Bible, or the Tanach. These include YHVH, Adonai, El, Elohim, El Shaddai. In addition, God is called by many epithets - YHVH Tzvaot (Lord of Hosts), Tzur (Rock), etc. The epithets reflect the different ways we relate to and think of God in different times and in different situations. The various names of God probably also reflect this, but historically also probably reflect an assimilation or adoption of various Canaanite and other cultic gods into the persona of the Israelite God.

Etymologically, the meanings and origins of the names of God are a complex and difficult subject. The standard scholarly dictionary for Biblical studies, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Brown, Driver and Briggs, assumes that Elah is the root of El, possibly of Elohim, but writes that perhaps El and Elohim come from different roots, El coming from a root meaning 'strong', and Elohim from a root meaning 'be in front of', so that El is God the Strong One, whereas Elohim is God the leader (the one who goes in front). But theories vary. Perhaps Elohim comes from Eloha and has the root meaning of 'fear'. YHVH seems to come from the root HVH - 'to be' - and has the meaning 'the one who is', but again, this is a matter of some speculation.

Topic: God
Answer By: 
Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Our tradition reflects the view that humans are created in the image of God. Many interpretations have been proffered to explain this notion, including that humans have a capacity for morality and gratitude, unlike other animals, that they have an insight into the world that is unlike other species and closer to God's, and that they have a sense of self and relationship which is God-like. Tradition holds that humans have free will, meaning that they choose their own actions. This entails great responsibility.

The Talmud teaches that within each person is a Yetzer Tov (inclination to do good) and a Yetzer Ra (inclination to do evil). At all times, we are aware of the correct course of action as well as tempted by the wrong course of action. These struggle within us, as we struggle to make the correct behavioral decisions. Judaism does not promulgate dogma about God, but does limit legitimate Jewish belief to say that there is only ONE God, and that God is incorporeal. Throughout the ages, many scholars, sages, and philosophers have share a wide variety of ideas about God, all of which are legitimate by Jewish standards. As for the relationship between God and the individual, it is one spoken of by metaphor: king/subject, parent/child, shepherd/sheep, lover/beloved, and so on. Each individual's relationship with God is unique and deeply personal.

Topic: God
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