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Rabbis Have to Talk About God

Turns out, my congregants need to hear what I believe

Jordie Gerson
May 09, 2023
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

It took me five years as a rabbi to get comfortable talking to my congregation about God.

Instead, in my sermons, rabbi’s messages, and even classes, I would often offer a disclaimer like: “God—or, if you have a hard time with that word, ‘The Holy.’” I also experimented with “the Divine” (capital D) and “the Presence” (capital P).

It wasn’t because I didn’t want to talk about God. It was because I wasn’t sure my congregants wanted to hear about Her. After all, the most recent Pew report showed that only 17% or 18% of American Jews with college educations say they believe in God, with an additional 58% saying they believe in a higher power of some kind, but not the God of the Torah (for those with postgraduate education, the number drops to 55%).

At the same time, it was getting harder to avoid the God-shaped vacuum in my rabbinate. At Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, I’d studied with Eugene Borowitz, who insisted that rabbis should not be ordained without first being able to articulate a personal theology. In my fourth year, when I submitted a paper that skirted the topic, he insisted I rewrite it. “This isn’t inconsequential, Jordie,” he said. “For the rest of your life, your community is going to expect—and want—to know what you think about God.” And he was right.

So, last fall, with Borowitz’s words echoing in my head, and five-and-a-half years after taking the pulpit of my Reform synagogue in Greenwich, Connecticut, a suburb of New York City, I started offering a class titled “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in,” exploring Jewish views on God. After five years, I was finally comfortable enough with my congregants, and myself, to talk seriously about belief, faith, and doubt.

At our first class, 25 people showed up, and we planned to meet for six sessions in the boardroom. That first session, we covered traditional, biblical theology—the omnipotent man, as they saw him, who acts with agency in the world. I found that roughly 80% of the class conceived of the Jewish God this way, but they didn’t necessarily like this version of God, or fully believe in this God. They were struggling with this very traditional biblical theology. Unsurprisingly, nearly half of that 80% identified as agnostics.

But here was something I hadn’t expected: Even the agnostics said they’d been waiting to talk about God their whole lives—beyond the God of the Torah. And in the months since we began, a six-session class has turned into a projected 18 sessions of what students now just call “The God Class.” The group has grown to 40 students, forcing us to move to the sanctuary (perhaps appropriately), and congregants have become far more comfortable talking about God. I’ve watched their sense of awe, then relief, when they learned about other ways of thinking about God: Martin Buber’s relationship-centered theology, for example, or the kabbalists’ sense of an intimate, immanent Shechinah right here on earth.

And I have become more comfortable, too. Since my ordination in 2009, I’ve struggled with what I knew many Jews assume we rabbis believe. Many, in my experience, assume that rabbis believe literally in a God who flooded the world, split the Red Sea (and drowned Pharaoh and his chariots), and was thunderingly silent during the Holocaust. Laypeople are baffled, even disappointed, to learn that their rabbi’s personal theologies are often more nuanced and sophisticated. So I never gave a real accounting of my own beliefs. It was easier to talk about what my congregants believe. It’s not, I’ve always thought, about me.

The God I struggle with and believe in doesn’t just belong to me.

But when it comes to God, I was wrong. My congregants want to know what I believe, because they want to untangle what they believe. And for them, I’m a kind of cartographer of God. I’m the captain of the ship called Questions of Ultimacy, who can take them into the deepest waters of belief, faith, and doubt. And, as far as the layperson is concerned, I know a lot. I know our sacred texts, I know our holy languages, I know the tens of words we’ve named God over the centuries (and the many faces and aspects of God the rabbis of the midrash and the kabbalists imagined). I know—and have spent years reading about, thinking about, and talking about—not only God, but the problem of theodicy, how an all-powerful God can exist in a world where there is evil, and the problem of Judaism’s male language for God. So despite feeling like I wasn’t equipped to sail the most esoteric theological waters with my congregants, I was wrong. It couldn’t be anybody but me.

What I found in my teaching was that by giving my congregants theological concepts and language beyond an omnipotent man in the sky, something else began happening. My congregants no longer described themselves as atheists. Some don’t even describe themselves as agnostics. They now possess language, concepts, and metaphors to describe their sense of the ineffable, their sense of awe, and their sense of The Holy.

They have a much deeper, broader sense of what the word “God” might mean; they can see that a part of that word, and that holiness, might be found not only on top of Mount Sinai, receiving commandments, or at the shores of a split Red Sea, but in the quiet, warm feeling they get when they bless their kids on Shabbat, or when they stand on a mountaintop and look out at the marvel of creation, or even when they make love in darkened rooms. And that, other times, that huge word is actually describing the small, bright spark in their kishkes that, in their darkest moments, reminds them of their own goodness and wholeness.

For me, all of this has been a reminder that the God I struggle with and believe in doesn’t just belong to me. That God is not just found in my personal experiences of holiness or in the absence of them. Rather, God is present in the experiences of doubt, faith, belief, and awe that I share with my congregants, those deeply holy and sacred moments that maybe I engineer, or that arise spontaneously when we are praying or studying or grieving together. God is in the spaces between us when we’re singing “Lecha Dodi” on Friday nights, and She’s also in the joy we find in celebrating each other’s simchas and in each other’s shiva houses. And God is in the gratitude and relief, and even tears, I saw on their faces in our class on post-Holocaust theology, when, by reading theologians like Melissa Raphael and Jonathan Sacks, my congregants discovered a theology that might redeem the absent God they couldn’t believe in from the fires of Auschwitz.

Of course, the truth is that even before The God Class, I had hinted at my own theology, dropping bits of Heschel and Rilke, explaining how I believe that our social action committee members, and the work they do with Afghan and Ukrainian refugees, are God’s hands in the world. But I was on the bimah, talking to and at them, instead of with them. Because talking with them felt like a risk. Why? Because talking about belief, and talking about God, has always been, for me, deeply intimate. It is a peek into another person’s soul. It is a lot to reveal to anyone, especially your congregants.

But my congregants, at least the ones attending The God Class, know more of what I believe now. They know that my personal theology is a blend of feminist thought (a God beyond gender), Buberian thought, and kabbalistic immanence. They know that I believe in an intersubjective, relationship-centered holiness: That holiness, and the sacred, happens in the sacred encounter when two people are fully present to each other. They know that the work of feminist theologian and professor Melissa Raphael has had a huge influence on me. (Her brilliant book The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust argues that the Shechinah, the feminine, nurturing, immanent aspect of God, was present in the concentration camps in the way prisoners cared for each other’s broken bodies.) And they know that if they want to talk to me about God, my door is always open.

When I began teaching The God Class this past October, I thought it would be just another adult education class. But it has become so much more; together, we’ve entered a millennia-old conversation about meaning, faith, and the sacred. It’s a conversation that feels timeless, precious, and personal, and, in a bleeding and broken world, urgent and inspiring. It reminds me, and my community, that though holiness is always present, we need to speak about it, engage with it, and most of all, act on its behalf. We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about God with our rabbi, our congregants, or our community. You might be surprised who shows up.

Rabbi Jordie Gerson is the spiritual leader of Greenwich Reform Synagogue in Connecticut.