Posted on July 2nd, 2012 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Congregation, Featured, Intra-Faith, Learning, Philosophy, Theology
Tagged with Belief, community, Faith, Formation, God, Humanism, identity, Judaism, pluralism, questioning, Questions, Religion, seminary
Many Jews, as we enter into our 20s, begin to critique the religious education we were given as children. While we were perhaps taught the importance of community, the obligation to tikkun olam, or the words of the prayer book, when we get a bit older and look back on what we learned, we realize that God was not a part of the curriculum we received. Though it seems as if God should be a part of our relationships, how we act in the world, and, hopefully, how we worship, for many of us the realization dawns on us that we have no idea what God is, nor have we ever been asked to consider this question. I understand that this amorphous concept, this intangible existence, this indefinable entity is, by nature, difficult to talk about, not to mention to teach about. How does one educate others about that which one can never really, fully know? Much easier to teach about that which is written in books: historical, sacred, and liturgical.
In fact, I believe that it is this lack of engagement with the unknowable aspects of existence which causes so many of us to turn away from the religion we were given as children. We understand, as every human being does, that there is a mystery that permeates life, but we often weren’t given an opportunity within a religious framework to explore, marvel at, be confused by, struggle with, or wonder about its nature. In addition, we likely weren’t shown models of adults within our communities doing this either. For many, the synagogue is a place for gathering together, the religious service a space to assert what we know to be true. Rather than an opportunity to convene as fellow travelers helping one another navigate the exciting, sometimes scary, channels of the unknown, the prayer service can easily become a time to build up walls, insulating ourselves with words we know, tunes we were brought up with, and messages that are easy and familiar.
This month I am working as an Education Fellow at the Brandeis Collegiate Institute (BCI) in Southern California. It is a program that brings Jews in their early twenties from all over the world together to explore in a safe, supportive, open, and diverse environment questions of community, identity, and God. In our beit midrash study sessions Jews from China learn with those from Uganda, and Orthodox participants study alongside humanists.
Last week in beit midrash we led a session entitled "God! God? God." In this session we encouraged the participants to express the ways in which they relate to each of these stances towards God. Many expressed a deep yearning for connection to God, a yearning that they have been feeling for many years but have not known quite how to pursue. Others vented resistance and anger towards a God they did not believe in as the start of a process of opening to an idea of God they might connect to.
In his book Radical Judaism, Rabbi Art Green writes, “If you believe as I do that the presence of God is everywhere, our chief task is that of becoming aware. But that job is not only an intellectual one; it involves heart as well as mind. God is everywhere, but we build walls around ourselves, emotional walls, barricades of defensiveness, because we are too threatened by the oneness of Being to let ourselves be open to it.”
I hope that these beit midrash sessions were productive steps in helping to dismantle the walls we build around ourselves, to help students open to that which feels true and real. In whatever ways can make space for these questions and can show one another that none of us is alone on this path of exploration, we will be strengthening our religion, our community, and ourselves. It is by asking the unanswerable questions and articulating that which we don’t know that we can move beyond the pediatric version of religion that no longer fits us and come to inhabit a less clear, perhaps scarier, but ultimately more true and fulfilling sense of religion as adults.