Monday, March 07, 2011

Rabbis & God: A Call for Intimacy

Carol Ochs, a wonderful teacher and spiritual guide, wrote an article in the current issue of The Reform Jewish Quarterly entitled: “Fostering a Relationship between Rabbi and God.” I had high hopes for the essay, but was very disappointed.

First Dr. Ochs says, “If we are to deepen the formation of a religious life in others, we must nurture a growing intimacy with God in ourselves. Oddly, we have to put aside the first question we may ask—What do we mean by God?— so that we can overcome the distance required for analytical thought and enter the closeness aspired to by a lover.”

This doesn’t make sense to me. Do we want to be intimate with just anyone? Is our “lover” an unknown quantity? Is there no place for reason in relationships? If we don’t define God how do we know that with which we are becoming intimate is God? If we don’t define God how can we say to a Jew who takes Jesus or Krishna as her lover that she is outside Judaism, or should this no longer concern rabbis?

Dr. Ochs goes on to say that rabbis and rabbinical students need to “return to our own personal experience of the presence of God. In this way we can wrestle with the question, “How do we relate to God, who is now the center of our reality?”

If we do not know what is meant by God, how can we speak of the presence of God? And if we do not what God is, how can we say God is now the center of our reality? And how are we supposed to return to the presence of God in the first place?

The bulk of her essay is a series of interpretations of lines pulled from the Torah, lines she finds to be “touchstones” on her “unmarked journey to a maturing relationship with God.” Despite her claim to the contrary these texts not content free, and do in fact assume a theology, one that I suspect most Jews no longer hold.

For example: “Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Clearly God is a self–conscious being who has intentions and who somehow controls our lives and does so for our own good. Most Jews don’t think this way, which is why organized Judaisms that promote this theology have less and less impact on Jews.

What Jews (and everyone else for that matter) need is a way to encounter reality at a level that transcends and transforms the narrow mind (mochin d’katnut) of self and selfishness, opens us to the spacious mind (mochin d’gadlut) of Self and selflessness, and awakens us to the truth that Alles iz Gott (all is God), understanding God as the intrinsically creative source and substance of all reality.

If I were the head of a rabbinical college I would offer students shamanic training where they learned the ecstatic kabbalistic visualizations of Abulafia, the ecstatic dancing and nigunnim (wordless melodies) of the Hasidim, the dream work of Solomon Almoni, the meditation techniques of Nachman of Breslov and Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, and how to use these and other techniques to create services and life-transition events that had the potential to transform people.

Calling rabbis to God is great. But unless we give them the tools for meeting God—not the anthropomorphic god of the Bronze Age but the timeless God who is Reality itself—the call is going to fall on deaf ears.


Unknown said...

If an anlaytical take is recommended, at an early stage at least, Spinoza's concept of Natura Naturans (literally, nature naturing) - the spontaneous, active, and living character of the world, seems to me a good place to start. But that's controversial!

Unknown said...

I like her point. I was talking to a friend who is a mental health professional the other day and we agreed on this point - understanding often doesn't lead to acceptance. It is not a necessary step to acceptance. In fact, trying to understand our experiences with spirit usually leads us away from that connection. We must accept that God is and that we can't understand God to move into just experiencing God. Continuing to analyze just creates distance.

andrea perez said...

I guess it's kind of like knowing any other being...I personally have to have a construct of who my "mother" or "father" is in order to feel who they are to me.
I have to understand where "god" relates to me in order for me to accept "it" .
That's just the way some of us are wired...Accepting for accepting sake is to arbiturary and dogmatic...The "god" of the book just doesn't hold the strings for me anymore, if it ever did.
Some of us analyize until we trust and can then feel. Others just feel without knowing what it is they are accepting. I think or feel or whatever, that as a Jew, I was told to question...and what is questioning if not analyizing. I don't think that we have that Protestant, Kierkagard kind of leap of faith thing going. When we try it we get really angry because "it" let us down.
So, I don't think that a Jew will find the answer in a Krishna or Christ or even a God. We're just meant to ask until we understand and start asking some more when we have more questions.

Rabbi Rami said...

Great comments. I admit, however, that I can't do what Karen suggests. If I just accept without applying reason, I can easily be moved to accept a God of hate that justifies all kinds of evil. This is the history of religion, especially in the West.

If, on the other hand, we assume that God wouldn't lead us to hate, we are already on the path of defining God. I don't think we can escape our capacity to reason, we can only pretend we aren't using it.

Barry said...

I use that Genesis 50:20 often. I feel that my life has worked out very well, although there have been many jokers who moved my path in ways I didn't originally think were helpful.

Of course, millions of people in our tradition trusted in God, and had horrible lives. So maybe my good life is just random.

What I take from this is that God, without defining God very well, is on my side. I know this to be true, like I know that my husband loves me. I can't explain it in either case, but I have to go with it.

Unknown said...

I strive a sense of intimacy with experiencing the divine, yet it often depends on what's going on with me. Sometimes it's a father figure, most often a divine mother, other times a divine lover, sometimes as a friend. I almost would say there's a subtle shift sometimes what feels like I construct as personality as a metaphor, other times a sense of Reality.

Analysis for me comes out of some sense of reacting to the world around me, not just getting lost in some psychodrama with the divine for its own sake. Often it's just a sense of having patience. I don't think intimacy and analysis have to be enemies, but complements of who I am.

Unknown said...

To be clear Rabbi, I'm not talking about religion, I'm talking about God, about spirit. That which cannot be understood. Religion is a whole different thing.

Jay said...

I would like to respond to Karen's last point. Arguing from experience is going to be difficult: how do we know that we are experiencing God or "Godness" if we do not understand what we are experience?

Also, what do we do about multiple traditions experiencing God in different ways (i.e. experience of the Jewish conception of God, that of Christianity, or other belief systems worldwide)?
One way would be to say, "They are all experiences of or with God, in their own way- I would certainly applaud that approach.

Are you not, at the end of the day, defining what a God experience is? Is not your relationship with God a sort of definition of God, at least in our limited, subjective way?