A feisty sixth-grader sauntered up to my desk where I taught religious school years ago. “I don’t believe in God,” he announced. He really hoped to shock me.
“Join the club,” I responded. “You come from a long tradition of Jews uncomfortable with God.” I wanted him to know that he wasn’t alone, nor was this an easy out. His proclamation was, from a contemporary Jewish point of view, uninteresting. After all, half of all American Jews doubt the existence of God (“American Grace,” 2010).
In this week’s Torah portion, Jacob struggles physically for an entire night with a Divine being who, in the morning, renames him Yisrael, “He who struggles with God.” This story has become a metaphor for the contemporary Jewish struggle with the idea of God. Many Jews are comforted by the idea that as the children of Jacob (Israel), we are the people who struggle. Judaism is defined not only as a system of belief, but also as a civilization or a peoplehood.
Mordecai Kaplan helped broaden our definition of Judaism by naming three equally legitimate ways that Jews connect, the three Bs: belonging, behaving and believing. The story of our namesake, Yisrael, has helped legitimate our struggles with that last B.
But perhaps we are not that much like Jacob in the story after all. He engages in a battle with God all night long. Frankly, I don’t think most put that much energy into it. Atheism can certainly be a carefully construed adult stance, but I wonder how many make this decision around sixth grade, like my student. It’s often noted that Jews proceed into adult spiritual life with a seventh-grade education — since they usually leave religious school post b’nai mitzvah. Most don’t read our great thinkers and doubters, and are therefore left with a child’s image of a God they reject.
I am not knocking the legitimacy of atheism. What I challenge is the absence of struggle. I fear that our insistence on belief being optional has offered us a way out of having to wrestle with difficult concepts of theology, meaning and religious practice.
We are scared to talk about God, to struggle with God. We have robbed ourselves of a Judaism with a deep spirituality, conceding it to other traditions that are comfortable talking about how to live a spiritual life. Even as a rabbi, it’s hard to broach the subject without sounding irrelevant, out of touch.
To begin engaging with theology, we have to stop asking this simplistic question: Do you believe in God? It begs for a one-word answer, and we know that only open-ended questions warrant a nuanced response.
People define God in a myriad of ways, and their life’s meaning may or may not be connected to that overloaded word. When I am curious about someone’s spiritual life, I ask instead, “Why do you think humans are here? What does it mean to live life well, or with meaning? When does life feel pointless? Why aren’t we here indefinitely, and is there meaning in death? When do you feel connected or whole?” I want to know how a person constructs her universe. I think that answers to questions like these are what we are really after. Instead, we ask, “Do you believe in God?”
When we are ready to dig deeper, we have lots of guides. For Martin Buber, connecting with God was about being in relationship. Mordecai Kaplan and Harold Schulweis reframe theology not by asking whether we believe in God, but by asking when we sense godliness in the world, or act in godly ways. Judith Plaskow and feminist liturgists challenge metaphors that reify a theology of hierarchy and dominance. One kabbalistic definition of God is “No End,” and for Abraham Joshua Heschel, the important question is whether we approach life with “radical amazement,” a constant state of awe of the universe. These God-strugglers grapple with the nature of reality and the same essential human questions we all ask.
Jacob wrestled God all night long and left behind a metaphor and a namesake for us to live up to. Decades later, I would still respond to that sixth-grader’s statement of atheism the same way. But now I’d add, “Let’s see you really struggle.”
Rabbi Mychal Copeland is the director of InterfaithFamily Bay Area. She can be reached at email@example.com.