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Etz Chayim: Hanukkah, Christmas, and Jewish Theology in a Christian Context, Part 2

In last week’s post, I wrote about some of my experiences growing up Jewish in New Mexico, living with fear of assimilation as well as attraction to certain aspects of Christian spirituality.

This week I want to reflect on some of the broader political and spiritual implications of what we might call “theological assimilation,” or the fact that many of us have a “Default G-d” idea that is derived from the mainstream Protestant theology that is ambient in the US. In the US, when someone says “G-d,” the words “faith,” “belief,” and “doctrine” aren’t too far from our minds (in my experience, at least). To me, this reflects the fact that this country is essentially mainstream Protestant, and as a result, Protestant theology pervades our “national” idea of “G-d,” no matter what faith background we come from. How does this “Default G-d” contribute to Jewish theological assimilation in the U.S.? (Now, I’m no theologian, and my knowledge of the history of religion is spotty at best, so keep in mind that I’ll be speaking as a layperson. I would love to hear the thoughts of other laypeople, and also of any experts out there who think I’ve got something here, or even that I’m totally off the wall!)

To state the obvious, Christianity and Judaism have been influencing each other for centuries, so the impact of Christianity on Jewish theology is neither new nor specifically United-Statesian. However, I think the fact that many young US Jews (not to mention Christians) have grown up with little exposure to Jewish theology and practice means that Christianity has the ability to influence with a broad brush (perhaps unlike earlier eras when Christianity was subtly, or forcibly, influencing Jews who were profoundly steeped in Jewish life). In my experience, many non-observant Jews from my generation and my parents’ generation unconsciously “fill in the blanks” of what we know about Judaism with concepts borrowed from US Protestantism.

I began thinking about this two weeks ago when I was trying to explain my relationship with G-d to an agnostic friend. I found myself explaining to her that I consider myself to have a relationship with G-d, but I don’t necessarily “believe in G-d” or have “faith in G-d” or subscribe to any doctrinal “creed” about the literal existence of or nature of G-d.

At first I thought that I was using these terms because I was speaking to an agnostic — someone who feels no conviction about the existence of G-d — and thus I was attempting to emphasize the non-literalness of my relationship with G-d so that she could better relate to my experience. However, upon further reflection, I recognized that the terms I was using (belief, faith, creed, doctrine) were all terms that I associate with Protestantism’s emphasis on redemption through faith in the literal existence of a supernatural, omnipotent, tripartite God. In other words, my sense of “what it generally means to believe in G-d,” and my (correct) assumption about the G-d my agnostic friend feels distant from, were fundamentally based in a Protestant theology.

Furthermore, while I usually think of myself as a “new Jew” theologically (i.e. someone who has departed from a traditional, literal theology in favor of a highly metaphorical, eclectic theology), it is possible that my theology is actually quite traditional in some respects, and that one of the main reasons it seems highly non-traditional (or, more precisely, non-literal) is because I’m comparing it to Protestantism, rather than to traditional Judaism. (In other words, when I was explaining my relationship to G-d to my friend, I felt at first that I was explaining how G-d fits in with “modernity,” but perhaps I was simply explaining how G-d fits into Judaism as opposed to Protestantism.)

Now, the friend to whom I was speaking is a non-Jew. However, I’ve had similar experiences with Jews. For example, when I told one of my sisters that I was considering rabbinical school, she said, “That’s nice, but I really don’t get it.” After talking with her further, I discovered that “it” means “G-d”: she feels utterly unrelated to the concept of G-d. This is one reason, I think, that throughout her adult life she has been essentially uninvolved with Jewish practice. Now, far be it from me to say that everyone should be involved with organized religion. However, I think it’s somewhat sad, or at least ironic, that there are Jews who feel removed from Judaism because they experience “an inability to believe” in G-d — since the “ability to believe” is, in my experience, primarily a Protestant concept. While G-d as a figure is certainly at the core of Judaism, the “ability to believe” in a specific theological manifestation of G-d seems to me to be peripheral at most. (Admittedly, in some cases, this confusion may spring from the fact that a particular local Jewish community isn’t providing any compelling spiritual alternative to doctrinal theology.)

Now, I know that Protestantism is more than just the Creeds, and not all Protestants emphasize doctrine (and not all Jews don’t!). But I think that there is a prevalent stereotype, among both Christians and Jews, that having a relationship with G-d means “believing in G-d.” And this is unfortunate, because there are lots of other ways to relate to G-d besides “believing,” and these other ways don’t get enough press — with the result that people who will never “believe in G-d” are unnecessarily exiled from spiritual life, which is a loss for everyone. I’ve had several friends say to me that they “just can’t get into the G-d thing,” but wish they had access to the community life and the deep meaning on which their religious friends seem to thrive. When I peel off what I imagine to be the “Protestant overlay,” it seems to me that traditional Jewish theology may provide a storehouse of useful tools for relating to G-d in ways other than through “faith,” and as a nascent spiritual leader, I’m interested in exploring how to offer those tools to those who are intrigued but as yet uninvolved.

–Ri J. Turner