Answers to questions about God
“Do Reconstructionists believe in God?”
Definitely. We believe that there is one God, but there are many ways of understanding and talking about God.
The traditional idea was that God created the universe, gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai and decided each person’s fate, that the Torah was a God-given list of instructions and that Judaism was important because of that direct connection to God.
But Jews have always had a lot of different ways of thinking about God. For most Reconstructionists, God does not decide everyone’s fate individually and intervene in human history through the use of miracles. Exactly what Reconstructionists do believe about God is as unique as each individual. While some feel comfortable with a more traditional way of thinking about God, a God with whom they can be in direct relationship, others perceive God more as a force in the world, and may feel God in the good things in life — when we see a flower, or when we feel better after hurting ourselves. And we may feel God when we act like our better selves — when we help someone, or are nice to someone, or love someone. This is when we see God in action in the world. We can effectively appeal to the natural, inherent spirituality that all children possess, by asking the question not as, What is God, but rather as, When is God.
When we say we believe in God, we are really saying that we believe that people can be good, caring, and loving, and that they can care about things that are bigger than themselves.
“Do I have to believe in God to be a Jew?”
Many people have come to reject God because they understand God as a being that can break the laws of nature and act like a person. Reconstructionism rejects those ideas about God, as have many Jewish philosophers over time. Reconstructionism has offered many people who previously rejected God a renewed possibility of belief as they have been exposed to different conceptions of God. [See question #1: “Do Reconstructionists believe in God?”]
But some Jews will continue to reject even a reconstructed idea of God. It is possible to feel committed to Jewish values without believing in God. Throughout the ages, God has been the source of the commandment for us to create a just and fair world. But it is certainly possible to feel committed to a better world without connecting the source of that commitment to God.
Reconstructionism has stressed belonging over believing when to comes to Jewish identity. Belonging to a group with common commitments, culture and memories has given us a valuable sense of peoplehood and mission that has power regardless of what we believe about God.
“If all conceptions of God are allowed, what do we teach the students? That there might be a supernatural power? That kind of ambiguity would disturb me as a parent.”
In dealing with issues of faith and belief, there is nothing but ambiguity – certainly nothing can be proven scientifically. In any kind of talking about God, we are in the position of trying to express the inexpressible, explain the inexplicable, and help our students comprehend the incomprehensible. That this is difficult, or is usually done imperfectly, should be of no surprise to us.
Remember first of all that children of different ages are at different stages developmentally, and that the kind of ambiguity and abstract thinking about God that 14 or 15 year olds might understand would be completely incomprehensible to a 4 or 5 year old – and vice versa. (See “Introduction part A: Developmental Introduction” for more on this.) So we need to deal with our students where they are.
Second, all language about God is metaphorical. If we call God Healer, or Peacemaker, or even Father, it is because these words are a metaphor for some aspect of God that we are keying into at that moment. Younger children are more likely to use concrete language to represent abstract concepts, which means that it is our job to point out that no description can capture what God really is. Educating about God is on some level a gradual process of teaching what metaphor is, and how it applies to talking about God, as well as creating an environment that engages with profound and ultimate questions about our lives and our world.
When a question about God’s nature comes up, understand and respect the student’s opinion, and work with them, not to convince them of something else, but to go deeper into their own point of view. Answering, “Yes, that’s one way to view God or God’s presence. What might be another view?” or, alternatively, “What makes you think (picture God) that way?” or sometimes, “Huh! I might not have thought of that. What does it mean to you when you say ____?” fulfills these functions of respect and deepened understanding.
“If Reconstructionists don’t believe in a supernatural God who hears and responds to prayer, then what’s the point of praying?”
There is more to prayer than asking God for favors. Although people may be surprised to see Reconstructionists praying using traditional descriptions of God and God’s role in the world, prayer has a vital role to play in the life of a Reconstructionist congregation and each Reconstructionist Jew.
The Hebrew word for praying, “l’hitpalel”, is a reflexive verb—that is, it applies to oneself, not to one’s actions toward the outside world. L’hitpalel means to look inside of yourself. This suggests that even when prayers end with God, they begin with us. We don’t know whether prayer can change God. We know that it can often change us.
Prayer reinforces values and creates community. In addition, prayer acknowledges that human beings, at least individually, are not the most powerful force in the universe. In other words, prayer helps keep us humble!
Prayer gives us an opportunity to deepen our spiritual lives, to increase our connection with God and to notice spiritual moments when they occur. Prayer is a spiritual practice that helps us become more aware of what we are thankful for, and what we are longing for.
Prayer also keeps us linked to our history. When we say the Shabbat kiddush over the wine, for instance, we are saying much the same prayers that our ancestors have said in the same situation for nearly two thousand years. That is a very powerful connection.
And lastly, prayer is a way that we can come together as communities. In times of celebration, or in trying times, we look to our community for group support. During the silent Amidah the entire congregation faces the same direction and prays together soundlessly, as individuals but in a group –this is truly a moment that expresses the intimacy of community. By praying together we share sacred time, connect with other Jewish communities around the world, and best of all, we get to sing together!
“In the Bible, God can heal people from illness. Why can’t God heal my grandmother?”
If you look closely at healing stories in the Bible, you will see the important role that humans play in the healing process. God is the source of healing, but it is human beings who initiate the call to healing. Healing also may not mean the prevention of death or even suffering. Healing can come about when human dignity and love are increased in the face of pain. The Bible stories are not so much teaching us how we should expect God to act, as they are teaching us the way people should act.
We only have to look at the way a child heals from an injury to see the power of healing in the world. In the Book of Exodus, Miriam is healed after Moses prays for her. We by and large don’t believe in a God that listens and answers. We do see Moses’ prayer as a model for how we can express concern. In the Bible, Moses’ prayer worked: Miriam got better. For us, praying for healing still helps, but not in such direct ways. Praying helps us to focus on what’s most important. Prayer helps us to be thankful for what we have. Prayer helps the sick person know she is not alone. Prayer can help lift the spirits of a sick person, even if the prayer itself evokes feelings of anger, sadness, or helplessness.
“How do we deal with the fact that in the Bible, God is on the side of the Israelites exclusively?”
Almost every religion or culture puts itself at the center. The word “China” in Chinese means: “the country in the middle.” Young children are also very self-centered. It turns out that this self-centered nature is a critical piece of a child’s – and a culture’s – development and identity formation.
During the period when the Bible was being written, the Israelites lived side-by-side with other peoples in the land of Canaan. These other peoples held religious ideas that were very different from what Judaism came to be – they believed in many gods, for instance, instead of one. The Bible describes a time when the Israelite religion was becoming different from the religions of the neighboring peoples. Part of the “sales pitch” was the idea that the Israelite religion was all good, and that the other religions were all bad. Since the idea of God was such an important part of the Israelite religion, the Israelites used God to emphasize their message. Sometimes that sounds very unfair to our modern ear, but it is really just an ancient “hard-sell” campaign.
As Israelite culture evolved in the period when the Bible was written, God’s concerns also begin to move beyond the Israelites. In the Book of Jonah, God shows great concern for the people and creatures of Nineveh. Here a Jewish prophet is commanded to prophesy in order to save a non-Jewish people. In the prophetic literature, the prophets’ vision is of a unified world moving beyond national boundaries.
“Why does God often seem so unlikable in the Bible?”
.Reconstructionists believe that human beings were inspired to write the Bible in their quest for God. If you want to understand how God and God’s actions are described in the Bible, you would need to know about the people who wrote the Bible and what lessons they were trying to teach. How God is portrayed in the Bible might serve to teach a lesson.
For example, God is described in the Torah as an el kana — a jealous God. At the time the Bible was written, the idea of one God was new, and it was a different and difficult idea. The Canaanite neighbors of our people had elaborate and compelling rituals that used many different gods. Writing about God as being “jealous” is a way to let people know in a powerful way that believing in only one God is what Judaism demands.
“Why is God treated as almost like a person in the Bible? I was always told that God is not a person.”
Remember that human beings wrote the Bible and God became a character in the story because people love characters and stories. Also, showing God as intervening in human life was a way that the writers could show us that we should be involved in making the world better.
The rabbis who interpreted the Bible had an important decision to make. They knew that God isn’t a person, but they also knew that they could not simply dismiss the stories in which God appears as a character without losing a lot of what makes the Bible worthwhile.
Instead they took a different approach. Recognizing that the Torah always speaks bilshon bnay adam (in the language of human beings), they said, let’s forgive God (or the people who wrote about God) God’s humanness, and see what we can learn from the story.
So while we can be entertained, intrigued, or repulsed by the mashal (the narrative) – including God’s role in it — it is the nimshal (the teaching or lesson) of the story that most concerns us. This gives us a way to think about a story a bit apart from weighty questions like “Does God really act this way?”
Instead we can ask other questions, such as, “What does this story tell me about being a Jew? about people’s relationships to each other? about their relationship to God? What’s most important in life?” These are the questions that make our tradition most alive, and which give us the opportunity to offer our own comments and insights as midrash (commentary on the text).
Eventually we need to return to the question of what God is really like. But the Bible may not be the best place to answer that question. There is a wealth of Jewish philosophy, theology and other thought which is more useful in thinking about God’s nature than the Bible is.
Answers to questions about Torah
“What is the Torah?”
Broadly, Torah means all of collected Jewish wisdom throughout time, while more narrowly it refers to the first five books of the Bible, often called “the written Torah.” Some Jews believe that the written Torah is the word of God. Reconstructionism asserts that the Torah is a collection of history, stories and religious laws that was put together over hundreds and hundreds of years. It is the result of the Jewish people’s attempt to understand God, themselves and their origins, and what was important in their lives and in the life of their community. Kaplan said that Torah was also the earliest diary of the Jewish people.
Many Reconstructionists think that Torah is the result of a connection between human beings and God, and others see it as an explanation of what Jews considered “godly.” In either case, talking about Torah as God-given can help us understand the wish to act as if we work for a “higher authority.”
The fact that the words of the Torah were crafted by people doesn’t take away from its holiness. The Torah has, over its thousands-year long history, become holy in the eyes of the Jewish people. While Reconstructionist Jews do not take the Torah literally, we do take it seriously, as a record of our ancestors’ search for moral principles and spiritual practices that can help us become more fully human.
“Was the Torah given by God at Sinai?”
No, not even if you look at the Torah stories literally: Moses heard the word of God, and then he had to write it down. The act of writing the Torah occurred over a long time, and it is forever marked by the human hand. Sinai is a mythic moment when all the Jews of the past, present and future stand together to experience the deepest possible connection with each other and with God.
“Come on, God didn’t really create the world in six days!” or “What about the dinosaurs? How can Torah be worth anything if it’s so wrong about its facts?”
The Torah never pretends to be a scientific document. It says that God created the world in six days, but it doesn’t say how. The Torah is a religious and national (peoplehood) document. It cannot be accepted on scientific principles, and it can’t be denied on those principles either. The Bible doesn’t take into account the theory of evolution, the dinosaurs, or any of the other scientific advances of the last few hundred years.
Yet despite all that, the Torah is a valuable document. For one thing, it tells us about how our ancestors understood who they were and where they came from – how the people called “Israel” came to be. For another thing, Torah tells us what the people who wrote it considered important – their relationship to God, their ethics, their prophetic voice.
Its importance is based on spiritual principles – Does it help us to live an ethical life now? Do its stories teach us something of human nature? Reconstructionists believe that the answer to these questions is, Yes!
“I’m a vegetarian, and I don’t like all the animal sacrifice in the Torah!”
Remember that Reconstructionists say that Judaism evolves over time. That means that the way we worship today is very different from the way we worshipped 100, 500, or certainly 3,000 years ago. Way back at the beginning of Jewish history, the Jewish people worshipped by sacrificing animals. This was pretty common at the time; the Greeks and Romans used animal sacrifice in their prayers also. We can look at the parts of the Torah that deal with animal sacrifices as a history book, a description of how things were then.
When the Temple was destroyed, the Jewish people had to find a new way to worship. They stopped sacrificing animals and began to pray with words, in synagogues, and to observe events like Shabbat and holidays at home. These practices have continued to this day.
But although we don’t do or want to do sacrifices today, we can still look to what the sacrifices were supposed to mean. To give only one example, the Torah says that Jews were to offer sacrifices on the three festival holidays of Sukkot, Shavuot and Pesah — we can take this to mean that these holidays are important and should be celebrated in special ways. This is something we can do today, even if we do it differently from how they did it then, or even differently from the way the Torah says we “should” do it.
“How do we deal with the violence of some of the Bible stories?”
We believe that violence is never the best way to solve human problems, whether in the Bible or in our own lives. The Bible portrays imperfect human beings in an imperfect society, and violence is a part of that imperfection. But because the Bible is such a complicated story, one often has to ask if the violence is being supported by the narrative, if it is simply being reported as fact, or if it is later condemned (as is the case when the prophet Nathan holds David accountable for the murder of Uriah the husband of Bathsheba).
We can think of the Bible as a challenge to our own problem-solving capacities. Perhaps in the Bible the only way they could imagine to resolve a particular problem was with violence. Given what we know about the story, the characters, and our own best sense of Jewish values and good behavior, can we think of any alternatives, either in the Bible or in our own lives?
“If God didn’t give us the Torah, then why should I care about the Ten Commandments?”
Like the rest of the Torah, the Ten Commandments were developed by human beings who were trying to put into words their understanding about living ethically and about what they thought God wanted them to do. The reason that the Ten Commandments, in particular, are so powerful and universal even to us today is that they speak about the most important values in life: Don’t murder, don’t steal, respect your neighbor’s property – these are universal ideas, spoken about by every religion on Earth. The Jews attributed them to God because the Jewish religion always put a big emphasis on God, but that doesn’t change the universal nature of the commandments.
Answers to questions about Israel
“Israel” is used here to mean both “the people Israel”
(the Jewish people) and the modern State of Israel.
“My father is Jewish and my mother isn’t. Am I Jewish?”
The Bible tells us that, at that time, the status of the child when it came to inheritance and family identity came through the father. The rabbis who decided Jewish law, though, changed this so that the status of a child was based on the mother – that is, if the mother was Jewish, the child was Jewish. They did this because, at that time, having a Jewish mother was pretty much a guarantee that the child would be raised Jewish.
Reconstructionists understand the child of one Jewish parent – whether father or mother – who has been raised as a Jew, as Jewish. Jewish law treated the Jewishness of the mother as sort of a magical transmitter of Jewishness to the child, when we know today that birth does not decide what will happen later. A family who lives a Jewish life, educates its children Jewishly, celebrates Jewish holidays and identifies with the history and culture of the Jewish people is a Jewish family, and the children of that family are Jewish, regardless of whether both parents or only one are Jewish.
[Despite this, Orthodox and Conservative Jews do not recognize the Jewishness of a child of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, regardless of how the child sees him-/herself, how the child’s community sees him/her, or how Jewishly well-educated the child is. This is especially so in Israel, where Orthodox rabbis rule in matters of “Who is a Jew.” There’s no denying that this is a problem – if the child of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother wants to marry a Conservative or Orthodox Jew, he/she will almost certainly have to have a formal conversion ceremony.]
“Orthodox and Conservative Jews say that being Jewish is based on halakhah (Jewish law) – that if you follow halakhah, you’re a good Jew. How does Reconstructionism feel about that?”
There is such a wide range of religious practice amongst Jews today – committed Jews, Jews who take Judaism seriously as a religious practice – that making Judaism dependent on one particular definition of how to behave or which laws to observe cannot be useful.
Reconstructionists prefer to think of Judaism as a living, ever-growing way of life. This means that Jews today do not practice their religion the same way that Jews did even 100 years ago, let alone farther back in time. Those who currently consider themselves the guardians of halakhah for the most part refuse to acknowledge this process, and instead look at Jewish law as a rigid, unchanging body of laws.
People choose their practices based on their study of holy text, of history, and on the basis of their own personal values and their community’s practices. Reconstructionists feel that decisions about how to practice religion as a community should be made by the community, and that personal religious decisions are best left to the individual, in connection with Jewish tradition and with others in the community. Certainly Reconstructionists strive to be dedicated, educated, and practicing Jews, and that’s what’s important.
“What makes Reconstructionists different from Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews?”
The answer to this question is not very simple. We might ask in what ways we are alike and in what ways we are different from some of your friends who may be Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox Jews. If you and your friend are both committed to Judaism and the Jewish people, then you are probably more alike than different.
How might you be different? It’s likely that you will think about God a bit differently. As a Reconstructionist you are more likely to think of God as a powerful force for goodness and holiness in the universe. Your non-Reconstructionist friends will probably think of God more as a person. It is also likely that you may think about the chosenness of the Jewish people somewhat differently. As you may know, Reconstructionists simply don’t believe that Jews are the chosen people. As much as we feel that Judaism is a wonderful tradition, we are convinced that Buddhists, Christians, and Moslems can feel the same way about their religion.
Let’s return now to what you share with Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews. You are committed to Judaism. You may remember an important line from the aleynu prayer that says “letakeyn olam b’malchut shaddai” – our job is to make the world into a better place, the place God intended when he or she said of the world that it was “very good.” All Jews believe that Judaism gives them the wisdom to make the world a better place, and that a belief in a single, good and just God gives us the faith to keep trying to accomplish this goal even when it is difficult.
“I understand how Reconstructionism is different from Conservative and Orthodox Judaism, but what about Reform? They seem so similar.”
There are indeed many similarities between Reconstructionism and Reform Judaism as it is currently practiced. In their attitude toward halakhah as tradition rather than as binding law, in their belief in equality between women and men, in their acceptance of gays and lesbians in all aspects of the life of the congregation, and in their inclusion of intermarried families, Reform Judaism and Reconstructionism have taken a stand together as the most progressive elements in Jewish life.
But there are still some significant differences between the two movements:
Democratic decision-making. Reconstructionist congregations make many of their decisions about ritual practice on the basis of study, conversation and group decision-making. For instance, a community deciding which activities are acceptable in the synagogue building on Shabbat and which aren’t, or what role non-Jewish family members of congregation members may play, would generally make such decisions as a community, in consultation with the rabbi. In contrast, the Reform movement often makes such decisions based on policies set by the central institutions of the movement, or leaves it solely to individual choice. The central institutions of Reconstructionist life generally provide guidelines for their congregations, but they don’t set policy, which is left to the individual congregation.
Role of the rabbi. Even in the Reform movement, less interested in halakhah than the others, the rabbi is often the central decision-maker in the community, deciding matters of synagogue policy alone or based on the decisions of the central institutions of the Reform movement. We have already seen how different that is from Reconstructionist practice. In Reconstructionism, rabbis are a source of authority, not the source of authority.
Attitude toward tradition. Although there has been a movement among Reform Jewry toward traditional modes of observance, Reconstructionists have always been more comfortable with such observance and so don’t need to make any “movement back” to it. To give only a couple of examples: while many Reform institutions like camps and synagogues pay little attention to the traditions regarding kosher food, Reconstructionist congregations and institutions take such traditions very seriously when making their decisions, and most in fact observe kashrut to some degree. Reconstructionist congregations usually include far more Hebrew in their services than Reform congregations do. And while it is still far from universal to see kippot and tallitot in Reform services, these garments of prayer and connections to tradition are very common among Reconstructionists.
In addition, Reconstructionist congregations usually value smaller congregations, and are oriented towards spirituality and new and innovative forms of worship. These ideals make Reconstructionism unique among the four major streams in American Jewish life.
“I was at my cousin’s bat mitzvah last week, and at her temple some of the prayers are different. What’s up with that?”
One of the most important ideas that the founder of Reconstructionism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, had was that Jewish civilization evolves – that it changes in response to its times and the situation it finds itself in. One of the ways Judaism changes is in its prayers.
When a Reconstructionist is deciding how to pray, he or she looks at the prayers that we have inherited and sees how they fit the way we live and believe now. If a prayer doesn’t fit what we believe, we can revise it so that it is closer to what we mean to say.
One of the places where this really comes into play is in the idea of Jews as the “chosen people.” Reconstructionists starting with Kaplan have rejected the idea that there is anything necessarily superior about Judaism or Jews, compared with other peoples or religions. Unfortunately, many of our prayers were written at a time when Jews did think they were superior to other peoples. This might have been compensating for being oppressed by these other people, but in any case, for Kaplan, this was a moral issue. Asserting that we are chosen – and by implication superior – exacerbates ethnic conflict. So he felt that the time for such language had passed, and most Reconstructionists have followed his example.
For instance, the Reconstructionist prayerbook has changed the blessing before reading the Torah from “asher bahar banu mikol ha’amim” (has chosen us from among all peoples) to “asher kervanu la’avodato” (who has drawn us to your service). In this way we acknowledge the special nature of our relationship with God, while not putting down anyone else. Several of the prayers have been revised in this way, including the Shabbat Kiddush and the Aleynu prayer.
“What is the Reconstructionist attitude towards Israel?”
The founder of Reconstructionism, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, was very supportive of Zionist settlement in Israel. He felt that nowhere else could Jews live so completely a Jewish life as they could there. And that is still the case today: Jews in Israel speak a Jewish language (Hebrew), their calendar is a Jewish calendar, their holidays are Jewish holidays, etc. There is even a well-developed Israeli culture that is a Jewish culture, but not necessarily a religious one, which embodies the idea that Judaism is a peoplehood, not simply a religion.
Some early Zionists felt that nowhere else in the world but Israel could people truly live as Jews, that Jewish life in the Diaspora would disappear and that there would be no place except Israel to make a Jewish life. Reconstructionists have never felt this way, and feel even less this way today. Despite the advantages of living in Israel, there are some real advantages to living outside of Israel as well. For example, there is much more room for religious experimentation in America than there is in Israel. Liberal forms of Judaism have a hard time in Israel because “church” and state are not separated there like they are in America, and the Orthodox rabbinate controls life-cycle events like weddings and divorces. Woman rabbis are still fairly rare in Israel.
Despite all this, Reconstructionist Jews are supportive of Israel. They mostly support liberal positions in Israel — on the peace process, on religious pluralism, on civil rights, on the environment and on many other matters besides. And although Reconstructionism still has a small presence in Israel, it’s getting bigger all the time.
“How can I support Israel when it does such terrible things to the Palestinians?”
The situation of Jews vs. Arabs in Israel has been going on for 100 years, and both sides have done terrible things to each other. Reconstructionists have been supportive of efforts at coexistence and reconciliation between the two sides, including supporting the peace process developed at Oslo. It is our hope that by supporting these peacemaking efforts, we can help Israel become the kind of country that we would all like it to be, a place that first of all is at peace with its neighbors.
But just like we keep loving America when it does things that we don’t like, and just as we continue to love members of our families when they do things that we don’t like, so it is important that we keep in mind the love that we have for Israel, even when it does things that we don’t like. It is only our supportive love and efforts for change that will help make the situation there better. [Note: This type of response could also apply to issues of religious pluralism or other areas where we are disappointed with what happens in Israel.]
Jan 17, 2005