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Encountering God and Wrestling with Faith - Reform Judaism Guide: 30 Stories

RJ: Do you believe in God?

Dawn Mollenkopf: I do, though over the years I find I struggle with the definition of the God I connect to. Starting in my childhood and throughout most of my marriage, I saw God as powerful and omnipotent, and when problems arose I trusted in God to work them out. When my marriage failed, gone were those beliefs in an omnipotent God. I blamed God for having led me into that relationship, for having let me down, and for not answering many of my prayers as I wrestled, with great difficulty, to get back on my feet after the divorce. Over time I was able to find purpose and meaning as I rebuilt my life, and I resolved a lot of the anger I felt toward God.

I now view God's role, as well as my own role in society, differently. Instead of seeing God as an entity intervening for humanity, I now see God as a partner with humanity. As a Jew partnering with God, this means working with the resources God provides and personally committing to social action to reduce the effects of evil. I believe the partnership of God and humanity will ultimately prevail over the inequities when people as a community are willing to work together for a better world.

Dana Jennings: In my prayer, in my study, in my actions, I always try to align myself with God, the Holy Breath That Sustains the Universe and Kindles the Divine Spark within each one of us. Though many may hold a Divine Spark that is dormant, perhaps only smoldering, I feel that each one of the 6.5 billion of us on this planet is a potential candle unto the Lord.

My own gradual journey from being a godless little heathen-in 3rd grade I decided that God was dead-to chasing the Holy Breath became possible once I understood that the personal and literal God is not for me, but an infinite holiness is.

Art Grand: Growing up, my image of God was based primarily on my father's memories of being forced to attend an Orthodox cheder where his teachers refused to answer his questions and hit him with a ruler whenever he had trouble reciting prayers he didn't understand. When my own son was born, my wife and I joined a Reform congregation and I attended services fairly regularly, but I hated God. For me, God was the Old Man in the Sky, distant and remote, and constantly demanding praise. How could I thank a God who'd been so harsh to my father? How could I pray?

Then, when I was in my early 40s, we moved to the West Coast and joined a small congregation. My son was in 5th grade at the time and my daughter was 2. Every Sunday morning I would drive my son to religious school-it seemed like it was 100 miles from our house-and my daughter and I would hang around the school. She'd take her shoes off and play in the sandbox and wander into the classrooms. Everybody welcomed her. For her, religious school was the most wonderful place in the world. Little by little, I began to see Judaism through her eyes.

I began volunteering-the education committee, the temple board, and eventually temple president. And that's when the miracle happened. The first piece of mail I received as temple president was a copy of a Biennial sermon by URJ President Rabbi Eric Yoffie in which he said that lay leaders' primary roles are to be lifelong Jewish learners and to be role models who put Torah at the center of their lives-people who teach Torah through their every act, their every word, and their every decision. I realized that I wanted to be such a person. In an instant, my entire life changed.

Six days a week I labored for the congregation as if the future of Judaism depended on me. On Shabbat I rested and I studied-and somehow I started to feel legitimate. I realized that I was working as hard for the Jewish people as anyone had ever worked, and perhaps, as a reward for my effort, I had earned the right to make my own interpretations of Torah-to study everything, accept what made sense, and reject what didn't.

The God I believe in is a personal God-the God who brought us out of Egypt and gave us the Torah at Mt. Sinai. My whole life is about serving God-about making my needs and my will subservient to those of my Creator. I'm a Reform Jew-I don't for a moment believe that God gave us 613 commandments. But God did speak to us, and our role in life is all about asking-"What does God want?"-just as the rabbis did before us.

I believe that God created the world for the sake of prayer. God not only listens to our prayers, He created the world just for the moments when we would turn to him, and when we would express our brokenness, our thanks, and our need for God's help. After years of struggle I've come to love the fixed prayers. I believe that by saying the right words, in the right order, I am meeting God's needs as well as my own.

My journey could only have happened in the Reform Movement, where an ignorant Jew who once hated God has become a living Torah.

Dick Israel: To the surprise of some of my dearest atheist and agnostic friends, I do believe in God. While I do not subscribe to the literal truth of creation myths contained in holy scripture, I cannot accept the view that life itself is the accidental consequence of the creation of our world from the stardust surrounding our sun. Neither do I believe that our species is an evolutionary coincidence. I agree with Einstein that God does not play dice with the universe.

Pam Rollins: I remember feeling a profound connection with God from a very young age: God was the source of my experiences, good and bad. My hardships were God's way of making me stronger. God was in my actions and in the consequences of my actions. God was my compass.

When I was 27, my husband of one year was diagnosed with cancer. I was devastated. How could God let this happen? The book everyone advised me to read, Harold S. Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People, was of little comfort. I could not give up the notion, instilled in me from Orthodox day school, that everything was God's will. If this was God, it was not my God! My faith shattered, I stopped believing. I lived in the rationalist world of academia. Still, as time progressed I began to feel as if a piece of me were missing.

When my husband was 6 years cancer-free, I became pregnant. My husband was a Tay-Sachs carrier and it was unclear if I was a carrier. Taking tentative steps toward faith, I began to bargain with God for a healthy baby. Did this mean I believed in God again?

Our baby was born healthy and a few years later we joined a temple. I started teaching religious school. But God?

Sometime before my 42rd birthday I decided to read Torah during Shabbat morning services, reviving my almost-forgotten knowledge of Hebrew. I chose to read Parashat Lech Lecha, where God asks Abraham to have blind faith and leave the house of his father to a land that God would show him. Stepping up to the open Torah, I began to tremble. It wasn't standing in front of people that made me tremble-as a professor I spoke to audiences all the time. I felt I was standing before God.

I started to read, my voice clear, but I needed two hands to keep the yad steady. My soul could see what my mind could not: I needed to stop thinking so hard about God, so that I could open up and experience God. Trying to rationalize God, I was actually diminishing my relationship with God.

Now I can agree with much of what Harold Kushner wrote. There is a God of creation (Elohim), the God who set the rules of nature in motion that, once initiated, cannot be stopped. Cancer, floods, fire, a drunk driver-all are consequences of this aspect of God. At the same time, I have returned to my childhood belief in a more personal God

(YHVH) whose teachings are my compass, guiding my actions to hopefully do what is right and just.

I am thankful to have God back in my life.

Joan Pines: For nearly 15 years I have taught and attended classes which dealt with Jewish theology. It seems almost unbelievable (pardon the pun) that after so many years of teaching, reading, and studying what great minds have said about belief in God that I find myself today without a clear God concept. I do not believe in a personal God. For this reason, I have great difficulty with much of the prayer book. While its language is beautiful and the thoughts uplifting, I find myself mouthing the words but not truly believing what I am saying. I know that being part of the Jewish people is not predicated on belief in God. Still, I hope that, despite my doubts, I will be able to find my own comfortable place within the God tradition.

Steve Arnold: I have always believed in God in some form. As a child my God image was of a Divine overseer recording sins and good deeds in a giant ledger. Over time that childish view has been replaced with a belief in a spark of divinity within each of us-a spark we have to struggle to keep alive. I look forward to the day when my own spark of divinity is always in the forefront of my mind.

Jennifer Warriner: In the past I considered myself an atheist. Today I would say I believe in God, but not the personal God/father figure of our siddurim who exacts rewards and punishments. In my mind, God is more like an invisible string of energy connecting all souls.

John Planer: I envision God as a good, loving, compassionate parent-one who laughs, weeps, and despairs at human folly and cruelty. My God charges us to live virtuously, compassionately, and altruistically. She expects us to battle against ourselves in order to become better human beings and to try to leave the world a better place because we lived. She gives us tasks to accomplish-but what they are we do not know for certain. I recognize my leap of faith; hence I respect leaps of faith which others take-often in different directions.

I base my belief in a loving, omnipotent God upon experiences like these:

  • I feel intense gratitude for the life granted me. I cannot comprehend how I can feel such strong gratitude without the existence of a Being to Whom I am grateful.
  • I feel intense responsibility to use my gifts and time wisely. I cannot explain how I can feel such duty without being responsible to Someone.
  • Many events in my life and in the lives of those around me seem to work for the good in unforeseen ways-ways that suggest some underlying plan which I cannot comprehend.
  • In intensely personal moments when I envision myself communicating with God, I imagine God responding to my questions-and God's answers do not sound like me at all.
  • At age 16 I asked God for a lev chacham-a heart of wisdom. I sense strongly that God has granted my request.
  • At rare times, often involving music, I feel a shiver that suggests to me that Someone has touched me, Someone far beyond the ken of empirical science-that I have experienced a Reality beyond human reason and explanation.

Granted, none of these experiences constitute externally verifiable proof. I doubt and question. I passionately seek Truth. I hope and I believe. But most of all I hope.

RJ: Do you believe God hears our prayers?

Ellen Morrow: For me, praying to God runs the gamut from feeling very supported to feeling little at all. I will never forget one time in my life that I thought I'd never get through without falling apart completely. I prayed with great urgency, and it's hard to describe, but it almost felt like being held or cradled. This experience helped give me the strength to come through that period not only unscathed but thriving. Since then, whenever I am distressed, even if I don't experience the same sensation, I am confident of being strengthened and supported. I also derive a great deal of comfort when I look at the prayers in the siddur through the lens of what I need-so, for example, pleas for peace become a plea for inner peace.

There are other times, though, when I enjoy praying but feel no particular spiritual connection. Still other times I pray without getting anything much out of it, except the knowledge that I'm helping to provide prayer for those who need it or can feel that connection at that moment.

Dick Israel: As human beings we have been endowed by our Creator with the power to imagine a world in which we live in harmony with other humans, all of life, and the environment which supports life on Earth. In my prayers I recognize, accept, and express gratitude for the opportunity I have every day of my life to strive for the harmony in the world that God wills. I do not believe God intervenes in this world, so I don't pray for God's intervention. Still, I do not believe that God is indifferent to the world. I weep with God at the evil which we humans do.

Martin Graffman: I reject the biblical and talmudic notion of a theistic God who creates miracles and to whom we pray for "stuff" as if He were a divine butler. The God with whom I almost daily wrestle created Laws that help me grow and experience pleasure, but it is up to me to recognize and use/obey them. God often tells me to get off my tuches and help someone. God is always here.

Barbara D. Holender: Six years ago my beloved 18-year-old grandson died after a horrible automobile accident. Of all the losses in my life, this was the cruelest. Our little family was torn apart, and we are still hard put to deal with this crushing loss.

I went into therapy immediately. But it was as a spiritual being that I was able to cope with the loss. One day, as I wept and cried out, I'm so alone! I suddenly felt a presence behind me, pressure on my shoulders, and a voice said, "But I'm here." It was a feminine voice, and immediately I said, Thank you, Shechina. I was that sure.

God did not take my grandson. But God enabled me to say, This is what happens to people. Life does these things.

I did not ask Why? The Jewish answer to Why? is Why Not? And so I said to myself, Here I am in my life. What can I do? And I resolved, No matter what, nothing, no one, will ever rob me of my joy in living.

It is no stretch for me to believe in things unseen. We all believe so. Our most fundamental beliefs are in hope, in peace, and in love.

Dick Israel: I appreciate the power of prayer to influence the thought and behavior of prayerful people. I don't believe that God is moved by prayer, but I have come to see that some people are. From conversing with other worshipers, I believe that prayer affects and impacts each person's relationships with others, with the community, and with God.

Barbara K. Shuman: I do not believe in a personal God, one who hears and answers my prayers. I pray in order to give voice to my deepest yearnings, to hear the inclinations of my heart. If there is an answer, it comes in the ways that I am called to change, to be a better person, as a result of that inner conversation.

My Hebrew name is Yisraelah, the feminine form of the name Jacob received after wrestling with that Divine being. Although I have always thought of my relationship with God as wrestling, my understanding of that metaphor has evolved. At first I thought I could wrestle with the Divine to the point of being able to explain or define God. Then I presumed that if I studied enough, I could find out all there was to know and I would somehow "own" God. More and more I have discovered that my constant wrestling is not to overcome God, but, rather, to remain tied forever-like Jacob-to that Mystery.

RJ: When do you most experience or feel closest to God?

Barbara K. Shuman: I believe that God is everywhere, both within us and surrounding us, all the time. It is our task to recognize the sacred quality of life, to open our eyes to the multitude of ways in which God is manifest. God is the sum of all connections, those visible and those as yet unseen. I feel closest to God when I am mindful of those connections and awake to the potential for holiness that is always present.

I experience God when things seem to fall into place, when my actions feel right. I also experience God in bad times, when despite illness, sadness, fear, or loneliness, I sense that I am not alone, that I have the strength to overcome adversity, that somehow I cannot fall out of the "hands" of God.

Steve Arnold: I feel closest to God during moments of silent prayer in the temple service. In those seconds, freed of the trouble of the week, I am at peace-a feeling sealed when our cantor begins to sing Oseh Shalom.

RJ: Do you believe that, as the CCAR Statement of Principles says, "the partnership of God and humanity will ultimately prevail"?

Martin Graffman: Yes. And to partner with God in the midst of evil means that not only must I take the responsibility to fight that evil; I must also sensitize myself so that I can recognize the evil.

Barbara D. Holender: I do have faith that the partnership of God and humanity will prevail, if only because it is unthinkable that man can survive on his own resources. We can sit around till eternity waiting for God to come along and make things right; it's not going to happen. Once people stop expecting God to fix everything and take full responsibility for themselves and their world, there is strength to be found in faith on its own terms. God is that reservoir of strength, the source of resilience and the belief that we can be better and more creative than we think we are.

The Rabbis Speak

"We affirm the reality and oneness of God, even as we may differ in our understanding of the Divine presence."

-A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, CCAR, 1999


To Learn More...

about connecting with God, read Finding God: Selected Responses (Revised Edition) by Rabbis Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme. This series of essays by significant Jewish thinkers (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Emil Fackenheim, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Dr. Judith Plaskow, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, and others) explores "how can we know God?" and "what does God 'want' from us?":