“Since the thoughts concerning G-d in their basic elements are unclear, G-d’s being as conceived by the multitudes — and even by the individuals who should be their leaders — is that of a ruthless power from whom there is no escape…”
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935)
Not so long ago a student walked into our center in Jerusalem wearing a T-shirt that featured a “Calvin and Hobbes” cartoon strip. In it Hobbes the toy tiger turns to the little boy Calvin and asks: Do you believe in G-d?” Calvin responds, “Well, Somebody is out to get me.”
In our work at Isralight we have met all kinds of Jews, from die-hard secularists, to beginners in Torah studies to life long Yeshiva students – who all seem to be plagued with deep disturbing feelings and significant distorted preconceptions about G-d. And often, it’s these usually subconscious attitudes and feelings that sabotage our chances of being really satisfied, happy, and full of joy about being Jewish.
Somewhere in the back of our consciousness, we sometimes feel something we know just can’t be true: That G-d is somehow “out to get us” that He is “…a ruthless power from whom there is not escape…” All of our everyday personal struggles with being Jewish can be traced to this unspoken and ugly notion: that an egocentric deity is really demanding my enslavement, robbing me of the freedom to live my life as I choose and forced to do His commandments. Rav Kook warns us:
“When one submits to a service of G-d on this empty basis…..the person increasingly loses the splendor of his world… No grandeur of G-d is manifest in the soul, but only the lowliness of wild imaginings that conjure up a form of some deceptive, but vague, angry deity that is disassociated from reality. It confuses everyone who believes in it, depresses his spirit, blunts his feelings, inhibits the assertion of his sensibilities, and uproots the divine glory in his soul…
Every sensitive spirit must turn his mind from this. And this is the atheism which is due to arise…., when the knowledge of G-d is due to run dry in the house of Israel –and the entire world.” ~ Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook “Yisuriim Mamreikiim”
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Many people believe that the choice is between joining a religious community that “submits to service of G-d on an empty basis…” in a religion focused on a “vague, angry deity…” or joining those “sensitive spirits” whose disbelief is a necessary response to “tyrannical” religion.
Cleaning Out Graven Images
“The greatest impediment to the human spirit on reaching maturity, results in the fact that the conception of G-d is crystallized among people in a particular form, going back to childish habit and imagination.” ~ Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook “Yisuriim Mamreikiim”
In order to love learning and living Torah, we must rid ourselves of any vestige of this deceptive image of the “tyrant G-d.” And, to do that, we must first be honest with ourselves about just what we mean when we use the very term “G-d.”
There are very few areas of our lives where we rely on the conceptions we formed as seven year olds. We would never make major purchase or business decision based on the conception of money we had as seven year olds. We would never live by the diet that we, as seven year olds, thought was good for us. And, hopefully, we would never enter into a serious personal relationship on the basis of our seven year old concept of love. But somehow, when it comes to relating to G-d, we all too often find ourselves, in our maturity, “going back to childish habit and imagination.”
The first step to a healthy spiritual life is to clarify just what we mean, today, as adults, by the term “G-d.” At Isralight we have a Workshop in which I ask people to pause for a moment and try to recall what the word “G-d” meant to them both intellectually and emotionally when they were children. This is the answer I received from one of the participants in the Workshop:
“I must have done something bad. I cannot remember just what. But I vividly recall my mother chasing me shouting “G-d is going to punish you! G-d is going to punish you!” I frantically ran for shelter to the bathroom, locking myself in.
She continued to yell, “ G-d’s going to punish you.” Trembling behind the door I retorted, “No He’s not because I’m in the bathroom and he can’t get me here!”
“You’re wrong,” she said back, “G-d is everywhere, even in the bathroom…”
Susan (not her real name) tells this story with some humor, now. But the humor denies the impact that this unchallenged childhood concept of G-d has had on her life. Susan, like many adults of her background, vacillates between an outright denial of the existence of G-d (her rebellious mode) and a guilt ridden attempt to appease G-d through religious behavior lest she evoke his wrath (her “religious” mode).
But the real road for Susan is to find a third path: To cleanse ourselves of the graven images of G-d that we acquired as children and that now defile the sanctuary of our hearts and minds. We must find a way to emuna, to faith in G-d that will enhance our human happiness. And we will find that faith only through clarifying for ourselves, intellectually and emotionally, the true meaning of G-d.
The very essentials of Torah life have, over time, become neglected and grossly distorted. The real meaning of G-d, Love, Awe, Remorse, Service –these have gone unstudied, untaught and forgotten. Most people today have a very insufficient education regarding the real meaning of these fundamental concepts. So they are necessarily left with only their own “wild imaginings” to guide them. At best there are those who simply cannot relate to these concepts at all. At worst there are those who recoil at the very mention of these ideas, basically denying these ideas any place in their everyday lives.
The real problem today is that Jews don’t really love being Jewish because the most essential concepts of Judaism have not been properly clarified intellectually, emotionally, or experientially.
Restoring Inner Meaning and Joy
Our challenge is to restore joy to Jewish identity by restoring the inner meaning that Judaism offers. Rabbis, lay-leaders, concerned parents –if they really want to succeed — must show their congregations, communities and families just how the Torah can be “a tree of life to all who uphold it.”
Jews today are not asking “Why do I have to keep this?” They’re asking: “Why would I want to?” The “inner light” of the Torah responds to that question. In our Workshops at Isralight we’ve seen again and again how, in a few days or even hours of studying the inner spiritual meaning of Jewish life, you can emerge with a whole new perspective on being Jewish, one that brings joy and satisfaction instead of only guilt, duty, and habit.
We’ve seen it happen countless times: Coming to an intellectual, emotional and experiential understanding of the inner light of Torah causes a dramatic change in outlook, a sense of well-being, and a renewal of spirit energy, and commitment.
Rosh Hashana – the Day of Judgment – can be a deep, meaningful, beautiful and uplifting experience if we first truly understand – Who’s judging?