My Theology Notebook
Ludwik Kowalski (Ph.D. Nuclear Physics)
Professor Emeritus, Montclair State University
I am a retired physics teacher interested in theology. My slow evolution from one extreme to another, from a communist student in Poland to an active anticommunist in the USA, is described in my published autobiography (1).
Summarizing what one learns is a pleasant intellectual activity. How can a retired teacher miss an opportunity to compose fictitious lecture notes for fictitious students? This Notebook was composed as I was re-reading a Kindle-book, "Lights in the Forest;"edited by Rabbi Paul Citrin (2). His well-written book shows how some contemporary Reform rabbis (ordained between 1974 and 2013) responded to theological questions. I am not a theologian. But their short contributions caught my attention. After first reading "Lights in the Forest" I published my own (rather simplistic) Kindle-book, entitled "What is God.?" which is also available at amazon.com (3), and at my university website (4).
This notebook is nothing more than a set of my comments on some rabbinic contributions appearing in Citrin's book. Please note that my own comments, in this essay, appear in blue; black text is used to show excerpts from the rabbinic statemens about God and faith. I hope that this short article will catch the attention of some people, preferably students, and trigger some debates, for example, in schools, houses of worship, or over the Internet.
In the beginning of his Preface, Rabbi Paul Citrin wrote: " Many Jews today wonder or even explicitly ask, 'What is Jewish faith? What does it mean to me, in my life?' So too, those considering Judaism want to know about Jewish faith and how they could partake in it. The beginning of a wide variety of responses comes with understanding the meaning of the Hebrew word for faith, emunah (אֱמוּנָה). Emunah means confidence and trust. Emunah does not refer to blind belief, assent to reason-denying principles, or accepting bequeathed dogma.
A person of emunah has confidence that the [entire] universe is undergirded by a life-sustaining, unifying force that is the source of moral insight and ethical imperative. One who possesses emunah, according to Jewish understanding, trusts in the goodness of life and its blessings. That trust includes a radical conviction that salvation— repairing ourselves and human society— is an eternal summons and possibility that is built into the fabric of the cosmos. Emunah flows from a searching heart, a heart of openness and yearning. At the same time, we enhance and strengthen emunah in our world by becoming, each one of us, persons who embody trust, confidence, loyalty, and integrity."
The definition of God, in the first sentence of the above paragraph, is consistent with Spinoza's definition (3) "God is everything." Would such a definition be acceptable to Christian and Muslim theologians? I think so. This is worth emphasizing, for the sake of promoting mutual respect. The distinction between "blind" dogmatic faith in God, and faith based on "profound understanding" is also worth emphasizing.
Rabbi Kenneth Chasen wrote: " As a teenager, I couldn't make much sense of the God-images that had been most frequently presented to me as a child. The God I learned about in religious school was anthropomorphic and omnipotent, and I just didn't see God operating as an almighty human being in the world. A further complication was that I, like so many, had been hung up on the literal meanings of the Jewish prayers. As I grew into young adulthood and began applying my critical thinking skills to the siddur, I grew uncomfortable with the notion of a God who intercedes to grant healing, bestow abundance, and free captives. There were just too many worthy people praying for those blessings and others but not receiving them. ..."
Similar recollections were written by Rabbi Susanna Singer, who wrote: " My mother was a survivor of Auschwitz. This reality has been the major driving force in my life. Overriding all that I do, think, and feel has been my struggle with the question: “Why?” When I was younger, I was torn between two poles. Either I was very angry at God or I could not believe in God at all. If God intervened to free us from slavery in Egypt, why had not God intervened during the Holocaust? Either God did not care what happened to human beings or, at best, God was impotent or nonexistent. And if one chose to blame the Holocaust on people and free will, then how could God have created a world in which such evil is possible? God's inaction during the Holocaust brooked no excuses.
Emil Fackenheim offered as a 614th commandment that we are forbidden from giving Hitler a posthumous victory by abandoning Judaism. In theological terms, that meant I could not give up on God. In my struggle to come to terms with God, I studied many different theologies. I slowly came to understand that God was not necessarily the equivalent of the old man with a white beard, sitting on a celestial throne and running the world like a puppeteer. This freed me from my narrow conception of God and allowed me to embrace a new understanding of the Divine. ...
The God of the Bible is thus a metaphor. God is not a Being, but a Force; not a personal or providential God, but a Source from which to draw strength and inspiration. I realized that if I could open myself up to this God, I could become the person I was meant to be in the world. I no longer had to blame God for the Holocaust because that was no longer the kind of God I believed in or rejected. I understood that I was God's partner, co-responsible for perfecting the world.
Of course, there are still times that I revert to the notion of God as the old king in control, so I still get angry at Him on occasion. But who are we as Jews if not God-wrestlers, struggling to know and to respond to God, struggling to understand why we are here?"
This dilemma faces all religious people, not only Jews. A very interesting article can be found, for example, on a Christian Internet forum CARM (5). By the way, I did not know that "attempts to answer the question 'why a good God permits manifestations of evil' are called 'theodicy.'"
Rabbi Paul Kipnes's wrote a fictitious conversation of Man with God: about Good and Evil.
"MAN: God, You created everything?
GOD: Yes, each creation has its own purpose. Some of it blessedly benevolent; some of it potentially dangerous. Think about lions. Leave them alone and they are just gorgeous creatures. Bother them, and look out!
MAN: What about earthquakes, tornados, and other natural disasters? Why did You create those?
GOD: Call these the dreadful consequence of an imperfect Creation. Call it collateral damage of My desire to create humanity. Natural disasters and unnatural disease were unintended; they weren't in any plan. Setting out to create, I began with exactness and perfection. But when I began creating the universe, I failed to realize that I was creating something that was other-than-Me. And because it was other-than-Me, it was imperfect. All approximations are intrinsically imperfect.
MAN: So You created all those diseases— Alzheimer's, AIDS, and cancerous tumors that ravage our bodies and that cause children to die young and others to suffer so intensely?
GOD: Unintended for
sure, but eminently treatable. I give you humans big brains and teach you to
understand science and medicine. Then you must decide whether to focus your
research dollars on curing diseases like cancer or Alzheimer's or if to use your God-given resources instead to build sophisticated smart bombs and laser-guided missiles.
MAN: So You admit responsibility for evil and suffering?
GOD: I prefer to focus on My efforts to provide humanity with the ability to lessen suffering. Since earthquakes are unintended but inevitable, you humans have knowledge of them. In fact, all new homeowners in California sign a form acknowledging that they will be living near an earthquake fault and that they understand the danger."
Still, given the whole 'free choice' component built into Creation, everyone
(in theory) gets to decide how to live and where to live. With free choice, you
humans have the freedom to make your own decisions— even dangerous and
foolish ones. Imperfection allows humans to be greedy, to be cruel, or to
ignore the responsibility
to help and heal each other. Collectively, you humans have the ability to cure all these diseases and curb all evil. Do you also have the inclination to make it the priority?"
The concept of "free choice" appears at the end of the conversation. P. Kipnes apparently thinks that humans, who are partners of God, are partially responsible for evil.
The format of direct communication with God is also used by Rabbi Josh Zweiback.
"Dear God, It's been a while since I've written. I know that You understand. (OK— that was presumptuous. I don't really know much about You. You are infinite, beyond words, beyond worlds, beyond my finite ability to understand, to know. But my sense— my faith— is that You do understand.) I give thanks to You every day. When I wake, when I eat (although, to be honest, I don't always remember, but I try), when I gather with others to say words of praise and thanks.
But I haven't written, I haven't reached out to You from my heart, from the depths, in a while. It's like that sometimes, our relationship. Sometimes, especially when I'm deep in a forest or high on a mountain or gazing out into the endless expanse of the ocean or the night sky, I feel so close to You. Your presence, the wonder of Your creation, fills me with awe. But other times— now is one of them— You seem distant, detached, wholly Other, transcendent in every way. I yearn to be close to You but it's hard. It's hard to be in relationship with You— Unseen, Unheard, Mysterious, Transcendent, Hidden…
Traces of Your power, of Your Creation, are all around, but too often, I find myself searching for You in vain. And then— sometimes— comes acceptance and gratitude for all You have done, and the disappointment about our lack of true intimacy slips away. For this world, O God, I offer You my humble thanks. Life itself is the ultimate gift— You owe us nothing more. You have already given us all we need to live lives of meaning and goodness. In these moments of clarity, I find satisfaction in simply offering You my gratitude for the abundant kindness of Your creation without any expectation of further service to me on Your part. So, thank You, God, for the universe, for life itself."
Is P. Zweiback writing to God as a Rabbi or is he telling us (and his congregants) that 'it is OK to have doubt in God's existence', occasionally, without feeling guilty.
Rabbi Zoe Klein wrote: "God as Creator, Parent, Shepherd, Judge, Love. We all have metaphors that speak to us. Metaphor is very personal, and potentially redemptive. As I've grown, my concept of God as “Author of All Metaphor” has deepened. I now believe that God is a Fiction Writer.
Some theologians assert that God is truth and everything else is falsehood. I disagree. I believe God is truth and everything else is fiction. Fiction differs greatly from falsehood. The world is a story spoken into being by, about, and for God. At the center of this exquisite poetic and tragic adventure is covenant.
...Metaphor says, 'I have no other means of language to express my feelings and fears, my creativity and my intellect, my sense of spiritual connectedness… I have a million thoughts and ideas and questions that I could unload over hours and hours, or I can simply admit the shortcomings of language and in my desperation to communicate, simply say everything in one easy breath: ‘Man is a passing breeze.’”
In nonfiction, there is little need for relationship; but with metaphor, we must assume an intricate understanding based on trust. Metaphor relies on the ability for any two people to immediately begin a relationship.
The definition of metaphor is the conditional relationship of two concepts, a relationship between two nouns that is reciprocal . Both influence and redefine each other. Covenant is also a conditional, reciprocal relationship between two parties.
Stories reach deeply into hearts and minds because unlike nonfiction, demanding fractional attention, fiction invites our presence wholly: mind, body, spirit. It sweeps us away and returns us renewed with keener vision. We do not live objectively. We live in metaphor. Poetry does not just 'make pretty.' It reveals and it redeems. God is the Author of All Metaphor.
Before the universe came into being, God had no means to know that God existed. There was nothing against which to compare Godself. No mirror, just blank infinity. Then came the brilliant moment God realized 'I am.' Creation exploded into being with God's next thought. 'I am what?' The Hebrew word for 'what' and 'matter' is the same: mah (מַה). We matter. We are God's story, the reflection through which God understands Godself.
God is a Fiction Writer, and fiction, ironically, is Ultimate Truth's
a) Is the first sentence above an example of 'emunah,' the word defined by Rabbi P. Citrin (see my Note 1), or is it an example of blind faith? The answer would be clear if the author provided his justification for the stated proposition.
b) Do metaphors, such as "Truth's master key," used above, help those whe seek exact understanding of ideas or do they interfere with such understanding? Personally, I am often confused by metaphors. I do not like expressions that have sevelal meanings. But this is probably due to the fact that my familiarity with English language is limited.
Rabbi Jason Rosenberg wrote: " ... God did not 'create' the world in the way that I might create a sculpture. God does not influence history in the way that a powerful person can. ... The complexity of our world, on every level from subatomic through geopolitical, is breathtaking. It is, in the original, religious sense, Awesome. Awe-inspiring. And, one of the primary goals of religion is to draw our intention to that Awesome interconnectedness.
Take, for example, the seemingly simple act of eating a piece of bread . Normally, we don't think much about it; it's just bread. But, that bread has within it hints of an infinitely complex world. The bread comes from grain, which is a plant, which grows through the process of photosynthesis. Of course, photosynthesis only happens because of sunlight, which only happens because of nuclear fusion in the sun. The plant also needs soil to grow, which brings in a whole other complex network of science. And, of course, the bread got to the supermarket on a truck, which was powered by gasoline, which comes from oil, which comes from dead dinosaurs. So, eating a piece of bread is, with the proper kavanah (כַּוָנָה), “intention,” a reference to molecular biology, fusion, geology, paleontology , and more. Arguably, the entirety of science is contained within a single piece of bread."
This, again, is consistent with Spinoza's "God is everything" view, mentioned in my Note 1. Albert Einstein also shared this interpretation of the almighty, as quoted in my "What is God" book (3,4).
Rabbi Ariana Silverman wrote: "... We, as human beings, are limited by our language and symbols and frameworks, and we are limited by the particular cultural and historical context in which we live. We must use limited tools to describe the limitless. And yet I am compelled to write about God because I worry that fear of talking about God prevents Jews from realizing the diversity of thought about God that is authentically Jewish. I am disheartened by how many Jews think that the only legitimate understanding of God is the man-on-a-throne image presented in the Bible and, to some extent, in Rabbinic literature. That is the understanding of God with which I grew up, and only as an adult have I come to realize that view is only one perspective."
Then she adds: "It should come as no surprise that my understanding of God has evolved, because if I still believed what I did as a child, that would be a disservice to God. Everything else in my life has evolved— what I eat, where I live, what I know, who is in my family and my most intimate circle of friends.
But the anthropomorphic understanding of a male God has perhaps been the hardest thing to let go. And so when I am confronted with the biblical or liturgical texts that present such a view of God, there is a guilt that emerges —how do I know that my understanding of God has evolved in the right way? Am I smart enough, sensitive enough— Jewish enough— to have an authentic experience?
Perhaps the best I can do is to give examples of where and when I experience the Divine. God inspires my pursuit of social justice. God is the power that makes me, in the words of one of my teachers, tremble with prophetic rage. I perceive God when I am confronted with the awesome beauty and complexity of the natural world. And it is that beauty that helps me to experience God in amazement and gratitude.
I experience God in Jewish study and stories. The process of engaging
with that wisdom is a form of sacred relationship with God. I believe the Torah
teaches us truths about the world in which we live. And so do our
teachers— from the Rabbis of the Talmud to twentieth-century theologians
to the scholars of our time."
a) Yes, human definitions of God change with time. This fact is worth emphasizing, especially in dealing with children's questions.
b) Did God create us in his image or did we create God in our image? These are difficult questions. The answers depend on definitions of terms. Debating this topic people should be aware of two undeniable facts, God is not a material entity, as emphasized by several rabbis in Citrin's book. God's hands and eyes are metaphorical organs. But our bodies--hands, eyes, etc.--are made of material particles, atoms, molecules and cells. Physical similarities should not be confused with spiritual similarities.
Rabbi Elaine Zecher wrote:
"My understanding of God is filled with contradictions. How is it possible to turn to the Divine to ask forgiveness— to say Avinu Malkeinu when God is neither Father nor King? [These words are examples of metaphors.]. At the same time, I sense this life force within me that is more than I am and connects me to something larger in the universe. How can it be that when my father died years ago, I derived real comfort in a belief that some essence of him would dwell in God's presence? That presence is everywhere and nowhere, within me, through me, and beyond me; within you, through you, beyond you. No rational explanation applies.
It wasn't until rabbinical school that I began to try to articulate a concept of God. And then I discovered God by discerning the soul. Here's a whopping confession: through all of my intense Jewish involvement in synagogue life and in youth groups growing up in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, no one ever told me I had a soul! I found my soul in rabbinical school. I didn't find it through the assumed way, that is, through a deep and intense engagement with sacred texts, punctuated by meaningful interactions with instructors. I didn't even discover it by presiding over transformative life-cycle rituals and rites in my student pulpit. I found my soul by witnessing the strength and healing power of someone else's soul."
Then she adds: "A fellow rabbinical student experienced a terrible accident. She might have died. When I went to see her in the hospital, although she had tubes running in and out of her, she lifted her hand and gave us the thumbs-up, informing us she would be okay and so would we. It was in that moment that I was able to look past her mauled body and see that the marvel of her spirit shone brightly. Like the soul that we cannot see but gives us life, God, too, is not seen, but is a life-giving and inspiring Force in the universe.
We have access to God and God reaches toward us through our consciousness of God's presence. I have learned that I have to work at experiencing God. In study, in prayer, in meditation, and in acts of loving-kindness, God becomes manifest. The simple act of awareness opens the possibility. The Zohar [mystical commentary on Bible] calls God many names and one is Zot (זֹאת), 'This': this experience in prayer, in study, in relationship, in the quiet moment of vacation or the crazy busy race of the week; in the eyes of a beloved, in the smile of a stranger, in the iridescent orange glow of the setting sun. Then there is no contradiction, really."
The word "soul," appearing at the beginning of the above quote, is widely known. But what is a soul? How is this question answered by rabbis, in religious schools? Unfortunately, I never learned theology in a religious school. Here is an answer found on the Internet (6).
"The soul is the self, the 'I' that inhabits the body and acts through it. Without the soul, the body is like a light bulb without electricity ... With the introduction of the soul, the body acquires life, sight and hearing, thought and speech, intelligence and emotions, will and desire, personality and identity. Everything Has a Soul.
In truth, not just the human being, but also every created entity possesses a 'soul.' Animals have souls, as do plants and even inanimate objects; every blade of grass has a soul, and every grain of sand. Not only life, but also existence requires a soul to sustain it--a 'spark of G-dliness that perpetually imbues its object with being and significance. A soul is not just the engine of life; it also embodies the why of a thing's existence, it's meaning and purpose. It is a thing's "inner identity, it's raison d'źtre. Just like the 'soul' of a musical composition is the composer's vision that energizes and gives life to the notes played in a musical composition--the actual notes are like the body expressing the vision and feeling of the soul within them. Each soul is the expression of G-d's intent and vision in creating that particular being."
He wants us to believe that only one entity, named soul, is responsible for so many different things. What evidence does Rabbi Tuber have that this is true? In Note 1 I wrote that the desirable kind of faith, "Emunah, does not refer to blind belief, assent to reason-denying principles, or accepting bequeathed dogma."
Tuber's answer does seem to be a 'bequeathed dogma.' How should it be modified in order to replace 'blind faith by 'reason-accepting arguments? I have no answer to this difficult question. His answer, by the way, contains many metaphors.
Let me end this set of notes by quoting what Rabbi E. Zecher: "
If theodicy means a defense of God's goodness in view of evil, then we make an assumption that God is connected to evil. The God so many people know comes straight from Bible stories and our initial reactions to them. Without further exploration, that is what remains with us. Isn't God more than that? Many of us reject God not because of a particular image or a specific name, but because other people use the Divine in the name of violence and destruction. Yet, to step away from God because others invoke the divine name in this manner is no excuse. We have the capacity to use our heads along with our hearts to think, ponder, and meditate to discover God's presence in a way that transcends simplified biblical descriptions and manipulation of God's purpose.
1) Ludwik Kowalski, http://www.amazon.ca/Tyranny-Freedom-Diary-Former-Stalinist-ebook/dp/B0065TVGEO/
Also free online at : <http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/life/intro.html at: <http://ludkow.info/byt,> and at < http://ludkow.info/kolyma >.
Also see http://www.reformjudaism.org/blog/2015/01/20/essential-questions-thoughtful-answers
3) Ludwik Kowalski, http://www.amazon.ca/What-God-Ludwik-Kowalski-ebook/dp/B00RG786QA >
4) Also free at < http://pages.csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/god.htm >
5) Mat Slick, at < https://carm.org/if-god-all-powerful-and-loving-why-there-suffering-world
6) Yanki Tuber, http://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/3194/jewish/What-is-a-Soul.htm