A Path Back to Jewish Living

I experienced the God I could believe in — One who inhered in the divinity of human striving here on earth.

While studying for a master’s degree in Jewish education almost 20 years ago, I enrolled in a class at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America called “Translating Jewish Theology for Educational Settings.” At the first class meeting, the professors instructed us to write a paper stating our beliefs about key concepts including God, revelation, redemption and the end of days. Although I had no formal theological ideas or language as the course began, I discovered I had some significant Big Ideas.

The words flowed surprisingly easily. Without hesitation, I wrote that God is not supernatural, but that the Divine is present in human activity. I wrote that Judaism has evolved and continues to. I wrote that we use metaphors to speak of God, and that chosenness is a call to service, not election. I read the professors’ red-ink scrawls when I got my paper back. “You are such a Reconstructionist!” they said. Interesting. I had grown up in the Reform movement and gravitated to Conservative Judaism as a young adult. How did I end up in the Reconstructing Judaism camp? This is my story.

I was afraid of God as a child. The God I imagined was the God who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, the One who visited 10 plagues upon Egypt, the Lord who opened the earth to swallow Korah. I thought that God must look like the rabbi our synagogue. The rabbi was impossibly big and tall, and wore a shiny black choir robe during services. He was long-winded and distant, and didn’t seem to get kids. I imagined that it was the same way with God.

The High Holidays were the scariest time of year. I dreaded them. I had to dress up and sit still for a very long time. Worse than the physical discomfort was the sound of French horns blaring from the choir loft. I thought the deep sound was God’s voice and that it was directed at me. I cowered as God took stock of my flaws and misdeeds. I was sure I would not be sealed in the proverbial “Book of Life.”

Yet, I loved being Jewish. Or rather, doing Jewish. I so enjoyed making up the seder plate, putting the candles in the hanukiyah and singing the blessings on Shabbat. I marched for Israel, dropped tzedakah into the JNF pushka and worked up Israeli dancing with my fellow HaBonimniks. Jewish behaviors inspired my religious feelings.

Most of the kids in the neighborhood where I grew up were Roman Catholic, and like me, they immersed on their religion. They attended parochial school and Latin mass. I was intensely curious about their practices and sometimes got to participate. I hung shiny ornaments on their Christmas trees and dyed Easter eggs. What interested me the most were the devotional scapulars dangling from red strings around their necks. I remember fingering the tiny, plastic-covered pictures of rapturous saints, their eyes cast heavenward. I studied images of Jesus with a halo around his head. My friends seemed comfortable wearing their God on their chests. I, on the other hand, couldn’t imagine ever coming so close to my scary God.

I don’t remember much talk about how to think about God when I young, most certainly not in my home. I was too worried to share my fear of a punishing God because I thought giving it voice would provoke God’s anger. In religious school, I was taught that God is one, whatever that meant, and that I was obligated to love God with all my heart, soul and might. I learned that God chose the Jewish people, but the teachers didn’t say for what. I was sure I was a failed Jew because I couldn’t bear to be with God like heroic Abraham. I had a God problem with no solution other than to turn away from the God I pictured and did not understand.

I’m fortunate that my fear and confusion didn’t keep me from sensing something sacred in places other than problematic biblical narratives and unsatisfying encounters with clergy. A special feeling overcame me when I was in nature, primarily during canoe trips with my family in the backwoods of Canada. Isolated in the bosom of the natural world, I melded with the web of life and untouched surroundings. Scanning the starry night sky to the soundtrack of yodeling loons, I felt embedded in a sacred vastness. Camping trips opened me spiritually and lingered with a charged aftertaste.

I also encountered a spiritual sense in the Hebrew language. It was thrilling to learn and use it. Hamotzi lekhem min ha-aretz were among the first Hebrew words I said at home and synagogue. These were words I heard my grandfather mumble, words our seder guests chanted before eating matzah, words the congregation recited along with me at my bat mitzvah. Reading and speaking modern Hebrew gave me a feeling of connection in the present. Texts like Pirkei Avot [fn]“Sayings of the Fathers,” part of the Mishnah[/fn] connected me with the past.

Hebrew also bound me to Israel. I studied the photo of strong chalutzot (woman pioneers) carrying Israeli flags on the cover of my Hebrew textbook, Ivrit Hayah. I remember looking up words in my paperback milon (dictionary) and thinking how cool it was that I could speak the same language as those mighty young women. Hebrew was also the ancient language of the Torah, which I wanted to one day read and understand. Using Hebrew gave me the feeling that I belonged to something that was both old and continually renewing, something as tiny as the pointing of the alef-bet and as huge as Creation.

Raising children opened me to religious practice. I wanted to give my kids the rich and warm Jewish upbringing that I had enjoyed. I built a strong home-ritual practice and began to keep kosher. I sent the kids to a Jewish preschool. We joined a synagogue where we became Shabbat regulars and the children made friends. I instituted Shabbat lunch in our home and regularly invited other families to join. At home, in synagogue and through engagement with the work of communal institutions, I felt a strong and comforting sense of belonging.

When the synagogue became aware of my facility with Hebrew, I was invited to join the community’s first cohort of women who would learn to leyn (chant from the Torah scroll). I fell in love with how trope punctuated and made sense of the text, and challenged me as ba’alat korei to dramatize the story. Leyning was a high honor and a huge responsibility. From the very first moment I chanted, the letters seemed to leap off the parchment and bound me to k’lal Yisrael.

In my 40s, I discovered NECHAMA: Jewish Response to Disaster, a nonprofit whose mission is to help homeowners and institutions clean up their properties after wind and water disasters. NECHAMA gave me the opportunity to take waterlogged structures down to the studs with pry bars and electric screwdrivers. It asked me to hold space for grieving storm victims who had lost everything. NECHAMA’s field staff always chose to aid the neediest victims and seek out damaged communal institutions, including churches. While I was mucking out basements, squeegeeing floors and helping people sort through sopped memorabilia, I experienced the God I could believe in — One who inhered in the divinity of human striving here on earth.

My Reconstructionist beliefs coalesced once I felt free from believing in a supernatural deity. I realized that Judaism was not handed to us from on high, but rather grew out of our unique perspective on the world. I concluded that there were so many ways to be Jewish in the modern world because Jews, not God, had adapted and changed our culture over time. I came to believe that it was our ancestors, not God, who suggested a culture of service, and that we Jews ran with it.

My “Translating Theology” professors made a final assignment: rewrite the first paper in light of everything we had learned about theology. Had our beliefs changed as a result of the course? Mine had not. I was completely comfortable with the theology that a lifetime of being Jewish had taught me. All that remained was to put a name to it: Reconstructionism.

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