A Personal God Is The One I Know

My God is a personal one. I speak to God. Or, at least, I worry to God. And God calms me, when I let Them in.

When I feel low – racked with fear or worries or questioning – I take these knotted concerns, and I show them to God. I slow myself down, and I say, “God, what do I do with this?” or “God, I’m a little freaked out right now. What should I do?”

And I usually experience an answer, particularly when I am not trying to predetermine the outcome. That is, if I can enter into the space of seeking God’s counsel in a manner in which I am not saying “I hope the answer is X,” but rather, “I am totally lost and totally open to new directions,” I find the process to be an enrapturing and enlightening one.

None of this should sound novel. Many people in America speak about God this way. I grew up in an era when the President of the United States reportedly said that God told him to launch wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Evangelical Christianity and its emphasis on personal relationships with God filled the airwaves and, through them, the culture.

And yet, it’s precisely because of this backdrop, coupled with the tribal nature of our society, that for me to name a personal relationship to the Divine is in some ways antithetical to the communities I inhabit.

As a progressive Jew, many of the communities with which I have been involved shy away from speaking about God in personal terms. This, despite the fact that the liturgy used in these same communities is replete with personal references to God, including the triumvirate of words Baruch Atah Adonai, “Blessed are You, God,” with which most Jewish blessings open. The dialogical nature of traditional Jewish prayer is overt, but it is in Hebrew, and often overlooked or reinterpreted. The contemporary emphasis in liberal Jewish communities tends to be on social justice or community building, and references to God tend to be of an impersonal or abstract God that has little ability to connect with individual human beings.

Our tragic history as a people does nothing to mitigate our contemporary communities’ instincts to de-emphasize personal relationships to the Divine. The Holocaust challenged our ability to conceive of God as a being with whom to relate directly. No parent, friend, or shepherd (or any other relational metaphor we might use to conceptualize God) would dare stand by as such horrors transpired. For many Jews, the Holocaust severed the already fraying connection with a personal God.

But I have to react to the ontological reality I experience. When I look to God – to Hashem (a common Hebrew designation for God, which literally means “The Name”) – and feel responded to with the force I described at the outset of this post – a God Who calms we when I am nervous; Who gives me guidance when I open-heartedly seek it – I find myself drawn to this conception of God rather than to the more intellectualized formula offered by many in my community.

This is not to say my self-described iconoclastic streak is uninfluenced by the context of my surroundings. I was raised on the stories of Genesis and Exodus. I was raised on a God Who related directly to Abraham and Moses, Isaac and Jacob. The notion of a God who spoke to and with human beings was a part of the fabric of my youth. My father, it seemed, took great pleasure in transmitting these stories to my sisters and me, and in transmitting his own relationship to the Divine. I remember when he took me to the Kotel, the Western Wall of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, and told me I could write a note “to God” and place it in the cracks in the Wall. (Perhaps wanting to make him proud, five-or-six-year-old me simply wrote “I love God.” If I recall, he was unmoved.)

Thus, while I experience my relationship to God as very “real,” I also can’t help but be suspicious that this relationship bears a striking resemblance to the personal God of my childhood.

Muslim scholar Homayra Ziad articulates my dilemma well: “We become fixed on the reality of our own experience and begin to worship the God of our own belief. Of course, God must of necessity be refracted through the prism of our experience – we worship in the form most amenable to our nature – but to imagine that this one ray of light is the lamp itself is a grotesque misjudgment and indeed, denial, of God’s reality.”

So that remains my challenge. I turn to the God that nourishes me, the God of my experience, the God of my ancestors, while at the same time I acknowledge that a different background may have led me to experience a wholly different relationship to the Holy.

In some ways, this dialectic is the same one Jewish history has to offer. As a people, we have oscillated between a warm, embracing God, on the one hand, and a more distant, abstract deity on the other (if any at all). We have at times, turned to the God of Genesis, the God of the Psalms, or the God of Rebbe Nachman – conceptions which emphasize personal relationships, feelings, and fears. At others time we have looked to the God of Maimonides, or Mordecai Kaplan or of synagogues today – conceptions of God that can be naturalistic, impersonal, or complex.

If I sometimes find myself at odds with my progressive friends and colleagues, it is not because any of us is ignoring a deep reservoir of sacred history. We are all in relationship with our past and our present in constructing and identifying our sense of the Divine.

Instead, we all find ourselves positioned to incline towards the Force That Moves Us in whatever ways we know. I try to do it in a way that removes as much of my own spiritual clutter as I can, and I simply say, hineini. “Here I am.” “What do I do next?”

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