This Is My God

Menahem Mendl of Kotsk, one of the outstanding leaders of early nineteenth-century Hasidism, was reared by a learned father who also was an outspoken opponent of Hasidism. When he realized that his young son was veering away from normative Judaism toward Hasidism, he rebuked him and attempted to bring him back to the fold. But young Menahem Mendl responded to his father's admonitions by quoting the following verse from Exodus 15, along with a novel commentary:

This is my God, and I will glorify Him, the God of my father, and I will exalt him.

"This is my God...," Menahem Mendel told his father, "means that I must search for God in ways that have meaning for me personally, so that I can glorify God with integrity. Then and only then can I truly exalt "the God of my father."

When I first came across this exchange, it reminded me of the disappointment and disapproval my father--a learned Orthodox Jew--expressed when I decided to enter the Reform rabbinate. He never allowed his criticism to become hurtful to me personally, but he made it quite clear that Reform was, in his view, an illegitimate expression of Judaism. And so, he never attended a service that I conducted, and never heard me deliver a sermon.

My father retired to Jerusalem in 1970. Four years later, the Reform rabbinate scheduled its convention there. I looked forward to visiting with him, but I avoided telling him that I would be delivering a lecture at the CCAR convention. My assigned topic was the extent to which the modern State of Israel was--or was not--living up to the prophetic ideals of social justice, and I could not avoid criticizing the way in which Orthodox political parties hobbled efforts by successive Israeli governments to address human rights issues. Somehow, though, my father discovered that I would be lecturing, and he informed me that, since he had never been able to hear me preach in my synagogue, he was eagerly looking forward to hearing me lecture in a secular venue. I told him that it might be better for him not to be present for that particular lecture, but he was insistent.

I will confess that I did briefly consider softening my critique of Orthodoxy so as not to offend my father, but I decided that I could not do so in good conscience. And so, I delivered my planned lecture, occasionally looking over at him. He sat there attentive but expressionless. When I finished, I saw him rise and head for the door. (He had told me beforehand that he had a meeting of the tzedakah committee that he chaired later that afternoon at the offices of the Chief Rabbinate.) But just as he was about to leave, he turned to me, waved, and, with thumb and forefinger, made a clear gesture of approval. I was truly baffled; I knew there was no way that my father could have agreed with a good part of my message, and yet he had signaled his approval.

That evening I called my father and asked him what he had meant by his gesture. Did he accept my critique of Israeli Orthodoxy? "No, no," he answered; "I didn't agree at all with what you said, but I loved the way that you said it!" Through this and other incidents, I knew that while my father disapproved of my religious choice, he approved of my search for God according to my own lights.

Most people find it hard to fathom that nowhere in the Bible is there a commandment to believe in God. The Bible does give examples of people who believed in God and who thus earned God's love and approval, Abraham being a notable example: "Because he [Abraham] put his trust in YHVH, He reckoned it to his merit" (Genesis 15:6). But neither the belief in God nor any other belief is put forth in the Bible as a commandment. We are commanded to observe God's Sabbath; to refrain from lying, adultery, stealing, and murdering; to celebrate various festivals; to practice justice; to share our bounty with the poor; and more. There are hundreds of commandments (tradition puts the figure at 613) in the Bible covering everything from the proper way to dress to the treatment of birds, but we are never commanded to believe.

The authors of Scripture understood that belief cannot be legislated. Their argument, if indeed they felt the need to argue at all, was very much like that of the theologian who maintains that the proof for the existence of a clockmaker is the clock itself. "When God began to create heaven and earth...."; if there is a heaven and an earth, then it follows that there must be a Creator of heaven and earth.

The Torah itself discourages speculation about the nature of God. Moses, seemingly frustrated by the awesome task of convincing a stubborn people to accept the mandates of a God whom they could not see, asks God, "Now if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways....Let me behold Your presence." And God answers, "I will make all My goodness pass before you,....But you cannot see My face for a human may not see Me and live....As My presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away, and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen."

It is virtually impossible to overlook the anthropomorphism that pervades this passage. God has a hand and a face and a back; and, of course, as in numerous other passages in the Bible, God speaks. But we must not be put off by this rather primitive Divine anatomy lesson. The Torah speaks in the language of human beings, and human beings in the age when the Torah stories were first told could not have comprehended a totally metaphysical God.

And so, what does this passage teach us today?

It teaches that we should not attempt to define or quantify God. If God is God, then God is beyond human definition; we "cannot see God's face." There is no systematic theology in the Bible or in the vast talmudic literature. In fact, theology was not a Jewish science until medieval times, when Judaism was challenged by the rival faiths of Islam and Christianity, the former in particular. It was not until Saadyah Gaon wrote his Emunot ve-Deot ( Beliefs and Opinions) in the tenth century that Judaism began to posit particular beliefs about the nature of God.

Saadyah Gaon and others who followed him attempted to, as it were, "describe God" in terms that would respond to Aristotelianism and Islamic Kalam theology, both of which were very influential at the time. But Judaism was always very uncomfortable with attempts to characterize God. This discomfort is most evident in the writings of Maimonides, who taught that one must never attempt to describe God's attributes: one is permitted only to say what God is not, but not what God is. "None but God can understand what God is" (Guide of the Perplexed 1:59). Or as the fifteenth-century theologian, Joseph Albo, put it: "If I knew God, I would be God."

What does all of this have to do with the rebellion of the young Menahem Mendel two centuries ago or my own rebellion half a century ago? The fathers against whom we rebelled intellectually were our teachers; they taught us to love God and to observe the mitzvot. But neither of them demanded that we believe some dogmatic formulation of the nature of God. They taught us to be good Jews and good human beings, but they never taught us that rejecting any particular item of faith would condemn us to damnation. And so, we were able to construct for ourselves systems of Judaism which, though departures from their beliefs, retained the essence.

I feel certain that as the Kotsker grew older, he, as I, realized how much he loved his father and how much he owed to him. In my case, that love and reverence grew stronger, paradoxically, the more I departed from the details of my father's teachings. Why? Because it was my father who set me out on the path of inquiry. It was he who gave me the basic tools of discovery and who encouraged my curiosity. That my practices later differed so much from his saddened my father, but it did not cause a rift between us, because he knew that I too loved God. (I can hear my father responding to this idea by saying: "Yes, zunele, you love God in your way, and I love God in God's way!"

One more personal anecdote: When I made the decision to study at the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, I did not know how to tell my parents. And so I devised a rather cowardly stratagem; I waited until they were overseas on a vacation, then addressed a letter to them at the port of Le Havre in the hope that they, and particularly my father, would calm down during the following five days of their return voyage. I was then a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, and I took the train up to New York to meet their ship when it docked. After our reunion, I informed my parents that I would be catching a plane to Cincinnati in just five hours for my initial interview at the seminary.

We took a taxi to my sister's apartment in upper Manhattan, and my father immediately led me by the hand into her bedroom, where he proceeded for the next three hours to importune me not to go to Cincinnati (or Sodom, as he called it). He laid out every possible argument for the efficacy and beauty of Orthodoxy and the sterility, as he put it, of Reform, but I had made up my mind. When the time came for me to leave, he accompanied me to the subway station, arguing every step of the way. He continued even as we walked down the steps together and continued to the turnstiles. Finally, he stopped trying to dissuade me. With his wallet in his hands, he asked me, "Do you have enough money to get there?" And we embraced.

In the siddur, the traditional Tefillah or Amida prayer, which opens with the Avot (the Patriarchs), begins by invoking "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob--Elohei Avraham, Elohei Yitzhak, v'Elohei Yaakov." An obvious question: In a religion that places great importance on every utterance of the name of God, why is that name repeated for each of the patriarchs separately (and for each of the four matriarchs in the liberal prayer books)? Why does it not say: "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob"? Would that not mean the same thing and avoid the overuse of the name of God? No; there is a very important lesson to be learned from the connection of the name of God to each of the patriarchs individually.

Abraham was the pioneer who discovered God and struggled at Sodom and at Mount Moriah to understand his new and mysterious God. His entire life was devoted to the quest for "the Judge of all the earth." Ultimately he achieved a wonderfully inspiring faith in God, a faith which he transmitted to his son, Isaac.

Had Isaac been content to worship the God taught to him by his father, he would not have been worthy for inclusion among the patriarchs of Israel. What made him worthy were the struggles of his lifetime and the new wisdom he acquired in his generation that expanded on the concept of God. True, he prayed to the same God as Abraham, but Isaac had a greater understanding of God than Abraham did; he added the new dimensions of paternal love--consider his poignant consolation of Esau (Gen. 27:38-9). Similarly, Isaac's son, Jacob, received his knowledge of God from his father; and Jacob, in turn, expanded that knowledge--with the wisdom he acquired through hard years of servitude to Laban for the sake of love, with the moral strength that he developed while wrestling with Divinity at the River Jabbok and emerging as Israel, and with the empathy that he gained as the father of contentious children. And so, Jacob's understanding of God added even greater depth to the faith of Israel than did his father, Isaac, or his grandfather, Abraham.

God does not change, but the human understanding of God grows--or should grow--with the life experience and the expansion of knowledge of each successive generation. And so it is that Jewish tradition prescribes that through the Avot prayer we invoke the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. Each generation begins with the faith bequeathed by the previous generation, but if the heir to the tradition merely accepts the wisdom of the past, he or she has not fulfilled the mitzvah of loving God with all one's heart, soul, and might. We must accept--but then struggle--with the faith of the past in order to be a co-worker with God in the ongoing process of creation. Each time we speak the ancient words of the Avot, we are, in effect, pledging that we will add our own life stories to the story of God.

And so, "This is my God" is a summation of my own life stories, my studies and struggles that have led to a vision of God that inspires me to work for a better and nobler society. I do not piously pray for healing, but rather for the strength to deal with pain and the will to aid the sick. I do not pray for the hurricane to change its path, but rather for the wisdom and empathy required to deal with the aftermath of disaster. I do not pray for God to intervene and change the laws of nature, but rather for the comfort of God's presence when we sit together on the low mourning stool lamenting human folly and hubris. I do not believe that I serve God by the pious performance of this or that ritual, but rather by working in partnership with God for the well-being--the shalom--of God's children.

Like generations before me, "God of my father" is where I began my studies and my struggle, with the God taught to me by my father. But that inherited faith, great as it was, was tainted with tribal particularism, with a reverence for ritual over social responsibility, and with an unwillingness to recognize the sacredness of so many human achievements in the centuries since antiquity. Still, the solid foundation of faith bequeathed to me by my father is an incomparable blessing. In gratitude for that blessing, it is my sacred responsibility to achieve what I believe is a deeper faith, a faith that may truly glorify God for the human family of my generation.

Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin is a past president of the CCAR and rabbi emeritus of Congregation Keneseth Israel of Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. This essay is an excerpt from a work in progress, Penetrating Verses.