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Talking [and Not Talking] About God

A believing young daughter sweetly confounds her mom. Why is it so tough when adult Jews encounter the “verticality principle”?

"Sunrise on Mount Sinai," Flickr.com, Peaceworker46.

“Sunrise on Mount Sinai,” Flickr.com, Peaceworker46.

In response to my teasing about her upcoming birthday — a corny, sing-song of “Who said you could be eight?”— my seven-year-old daughter Adina looked up and pointed toward the bright blue sky.

“You know,” she said.

I paused, then stalled. “What are you pointing at?” I asked.

“God,” she said, as though it was an obvious matter of fact. I wondered whether I should explain. No, sweet girl, I thought I might say, there is no God, no omniscient, omnipotent, omni-anything up there deciding and directing matters such as who will turn eight, or who, like Mommy’s friend Johanna, will die in just a few days of an inoperable brain tumor and leave two children, ages six and eight, without a mother. There is no God who determined last week that your friend Hannah’s mommy should have breast cancer. And there is no God who decreed that the baby who tried to grow inside of me before you would not do so in the healthy way that you so magnificently managed.

I’d almost told Adina this truth of mine a few weeks prior when she prayed aloud from the backseat of my car for God to turn the traffic light ahead of us green so she wouldn’t be late for her play practice. She’d sounded so convinced and content with her faith that I’d let it go, like I would again, and justified my doing so on the grounds that I also let Adina believe in other untrue things, like the Tooth Fairy.

It should not come as a surprise to me that Adina believes in God. She attends a pluralistic community Jewish Day School where she prays daily to a masterful force and reads the weekly Torah portion. My 10-year old son Caleb is a student there too, but I didn’t feel nervous when he first asked about God because, well, he asked. Caleb came home in his early weeks of kindergarten having learned the story of creation.

“I don’t get it,” he said to my husband Larry and me. “Mrs. A. said God created the world in seven days, but I thought it took billions of years. What about evolution?”

Larry and I did our best to engage Caleb, telling him that people think and believe different things. There are some people, we said, who believe everything is because of God, and others who think the origins of the world must be explained fully through science. And, we told him, there are people like Mommy and Daddy who know that the facts of the beginning of the world are to be found in science but who also leave room in their hearts to appreciate the wonder of it all and to struggle with what it all means.

Caleb seemed satisfied with that and while he has since continued to learn to speak Hebrew, to celebrate the Jewish holidays and be a kind and moral world citizen, it is clear that both my firstborn’s head and heart are motivated by matters that can be seen and proven through observation and experiment.

Perhaps I should have more carefully considered the possibility that one of my children might take her lessons more literally, but now what am I to do? Do I question the lyrics to Adina’s innocent, joyful songs, point out the holes in the Bible’s beautiful stories, be the one who introduces religious doubt?

 “You don’t believe in God, Mommy?” I can hear Adina challenge if I were to try. “Well, then, what do you believe?”

I really wouldn’t know what to say.

I suppose I could tell her what I don’t believe. I don’t believe certain allegations from my Orthodox Jewish past — like, for example, that God created the world 5776 years ago and controls everything in it. I don’t believe that God wrote the Torah himself and revealed it to his specially chosen people, the Jews, in a real moment in time at the top of a mountain in a real place, the Sinai desert. I don’t believe that my choices in life are limited to literal obedience to all of the laws in God’s Torah, or punishment at the direct hand of God if I don’t obey. And I don’t believe that a girl who asks questions about God or the laws of her religion is unseemly or dangerous or that she is not a good and worthy female.

I could tell Adina that it was these things I do not believe that led her mother to leave the rigid Orthodoxy of her baalei teshuvah (or people-who-return-from-sin-to-the-proper-Jewish-path) grandparents. I could say it was because of these things that I put God aside and disregarded the big theological questions. But I yearned for something more positive to say. So I went in search of guidance. The title of Jewish mysticism scholar Arthur Green’s book, Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition, caught my attention. I bought it and brought it with me to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at the Conservative Jewish synagogue in Denver to which my husband and I belong.

In the sanctuary, surrounded by hundreds of my fellow Jews chanting the traditional prayers, I held my new book inside the open pages of my prayer book and read. It felt a bit ironic, but the Jewish High Holidays are supposed to be a time of tikkun nefesh, repair of the soul. For the first time in a long time, I was actually reflecting instead of taking frequent, lengthy chitchat breaks in the lobby and spending my time inside the sanctuary checking and rechecking to see how many pages remained until the mostly meaningless ritual was over.

That “God” might be a word used to describe a powerful force living within human beings is an idea I have considered. I was thus intrigued by Green’s assertion that a “root metaphor” for God is actually mentioned in the Torah. First, Green points out, the Torah says that Moses goes up Mt. Sinai to receive the word of God, supporting the “verticality principal,” or the notion that Adina seems to embrace of a God above. Subsequently, however, the Bible asserts (Deuteronomy 30:11-13), “The word I command you this day is not too wondrous for you and is not far off. It is not in heaven, as though to say, Who will go up to the heavens to fetch it and bring it to us? Nor is it over the sea…. But it is very close to you, within your own mouths and hearts to be filled.” According to Green, this passage tells the Jewish people not to take the previous tale of revelation literally, but to understand Sinai as “a vertical metaphor for an internal event.”

The congregation rose to begin the individually and silently recited Musaf prayer that thanks God for the sanctity of the holiday. I placed Radical Judaism face down on the seat next to me and stood up, too, but my thoughts stayed with Deuteronomy: “It is very close to you, within your mouths and hearts to be filled.”

The passage made me recall my own Mt. Sinai experience, a nocturnal hike I undertook with two friends in 1991 when we were students at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. My father had condemned the study-abroad program as the wrong kind of Judaism.

“Hike magnificent landscapes of deserts, forests, cliffs and riverbeds — and 4,000 years of history,” the flyer I pulled off the billboard in the University of Maryland Student Union promised. “Earn credits in Middle East Politics, Biblical Literature, and Modern Jewish Philosophy.”

“What kind of classes are those?” my father interrupted as I read.

“They’re college classes, Jewish college classes. I want to go to Israel, to learn more about Judaism,” I replied.

“A fucked-up version of Judaism.”

I earned a full scholarship and went to Israel anyway. Though I could not accept Orthodox Judaism’s senseless restrictions or its limited roles for women, I had not lost my Jewish lens. And though my father claimed his love was conditioned on me living the life he believed to be right, I summoned the strength or the anger or both to go and personally explore.

My new friends at Hebrew University and I did not set out to the Egyptian desert with aspirations of achieving a holy summit. In fact, somewhat to the contrary: It was a week’s break between our summer and fall semesters that the beach of a tiny seaside village on the southeast coast of the Sinai Peninsula, called Dahab, lured us across the border with its promise of cheap, legal hashish.

We had been lazing on exotically-colored, distinctly homey floor cushions arranged into makeshift booths in Dahab’s warm, soft sand, smoking from an elaborate brass hookah in the center of our circle of pillows, and eating chocolate-and-banana pancakes while staring into the bright-blue distance over the Red Sea for three days when a friendly Egyptian guy (whose name I swear he said was Mohammed) approached us and said he could take us to “the mountain.”

He meant Mt. Sinai, the mountain where (according to the Book of Exodus, my father, and the rabbis at the Orthodox Jewish schools and synagogues I’d attended as a child and teen) God had given the Torah directly to Moses on behalf of the Jewish people. How could I say no?

Mohammed drove my friends and me to the base at St. Catherine’s Monastery, the oldest Christian monastery with a history tracing back over 17 centuries. At midnight we began to hike. Wearing short cut-off jeans, a T-shirt, and classic white Keds — and with the sustenance in my small backpack limited to a 16-ounce bottle of water and a couple of bags of m&m’s — I was not only ill-prepared to be a religious pilgrim, but also uncertain about whether I possessed the resources or physical ability needed to hike uphill for four hours.

The Camel Trail leading to the 7,500 foot summit of Mt. Sinai is a steep, narrow, snaking footpath. I tripped a lot as I followed our Bedouin guide around the jagged masses of barren rock, and I had to pause more than a few times, head down, hands on top of thighs, to catch my balance and breath. But after each stumble or break, I always resumed my climb. Back up the rocks, around, my feet ached, I was cold, I could barely see, down, up, around, it seemed implausible that we’d ever get there. Eventually, our guide came to a halt on a sandy flat surface. I stopped, looked up, and was told that just 750 stone steps separated me from my first mountaintop.

The sky was a mystical bluish-grey sprayed by waves of virtuous white; surrounding that, on all sides, were vast layers of ashen rock. I led myself up the shaky natural staircase and then sat down on a flat, smooth rock and huddled under an unzipped sleeping bag with my friends. A deliberate glow emerged from the east. Then, a few moments later, a burst of fiery rays ignited the sky and rejoiced in full red, yellow, and orange glory. My heart, already filled with confidence from the climb, burst from awe.

It had been painful to hear my father’s claims that his love was dependent on my staying his Orthodox course. Nonetheless, as I watched the sun rise over the Sinai desert, I knew that, just like he had done by choosing to become an Orthodox Jew, I too could write a unique Jewish story.

On the self-same mountain that the Bible says Moses ascended to receive God’s word (and from the self-same Bible’s declaration that the word is “not in heaven,” but “very close to you”), I suddenly understood the power I possessed to create my own life. In that briefest, most beautiful of moments, there was no other mountain for me to conquer.

 

Tekiah gedolah,” the rabbi in Denver called out from the bimah.

The cantor blew one extra-long final blast from the shofar. As I listened to the sound, I knew. Adina had to find her own path, too.

As it relates to my daughter and her God, it really doesn’t matter what I believe. My job as her mother is to help her build the foundation for her own spiritual journey. I need to guide Adina in the work that will allow her to take charge of her life, and navigate its twists and turns with savvy and intelligence and with trust and grace.

That’s why my husband and I send her to a Jewish Day School that’s pluralistic, egalitarian, analytical. That’s why I want her to have a chance to connect with Judaism’s rich intellectual and ethical heritage. That’s why I have to embrace the fact that God and the struggle to understand what that word means plays a critical role in the history and culture of the Jewish people.

The right time for me to share my thoughts about God with Adina is certain to come, and I look forward to then trying to tell her what I believe.

Adina, I might say, I believe in the beauty of the mountains and the sunrise. I believe in the inner strength that brought me to Jerusalem to study Jewish history and philosophy even though your grandfather wanted me to go to a religious seminary for girls. I believe in my love for you and I know that love is in no way related to what you believe. I believe that love brings people together, time and again, regardless of what they believe.

Could that be God?

Tell me what you think, Adina. Please. 


 

Evelyn Becker is a writer and advocate for women and girls in Denver, at work on her first book  a memoir about finding her voice as a liberal Jew and feminist after an Orthodox upbringing. An attorney, you can follow her at @evelyncbecker