Lately, a strange feeling has gotten hold of me. I am not yet able to fully articulate it, but something tells me that God is relocating to a different residence. The truth is He’s been thinking for a long time about moving but has not yet done so because we, in our ignorance, are still busy visiting His old home, completely blind to the fact that the curtains have been taken down, most of His furniture has already been removed, and He is standing in the doorway, dressed in His jacket and ready to go.
Synagogues – whether Orthodox, Conservative or Reform – are no longer His primary residence. Surely some of the worshippers are pious people who try to communicate with their Creator, but overall, the majority of these places have become religiously sterile and spiritually empty. So God is moving to unconventional minyanim and places such as Israeli cafes, debating clubs, community centers, unaffiliated religious gatherings, and atypical batei midrash.
The reason is obvious. In some of those places people are actually looking for Him. And that is what He loves; not those who have already found Him and take Him for granted. He is moving in with the young people who have a sense that He is there but cannot yet find Him. It gives Him a thrill. In some of these cafes He encounters young men sporting ponytails, without kippot, but with tzitziyot hanging out of their T-shirts, praying in their own words, attempting to find Him.
In secular yeshivot, He meets women in trousers and mini-skirts who are earnestly arguing about what it means to be Jewish and who kiss mezuzot when they enter a fashion show. Then there are those who, to His delight, are keen on putting on tefillin once in a while and do this with great excitement; or who enthusiastically light Shabbat candles Friday night and can get into a serious discussion about Buddhism and how to combine some of its wisdom with Kabbalah and incorporate it into Jewish practice.
No, they don’t do it because it is tradition, or nostalgia, as their grandparents did, but because they sincerely want to connect, to grow and become better, deeper and more authentic Jews, but at their own pace and without being told by others what they ought to do. They won’t go for the conventional outreach programs, which try to indoctrinate them. No, they strive to come closer because of an enormous urge and inner explosion of their neshamot. No better place for God to be, even if these attempts may not always achieve the correct goals and are sometimes misdirected.
At these unconventional sites, theological discourses take place over a glass of beer, and the participants talk deep into the night because they can’t get enough of this great stuff called Judaism. Many of these people want to study God and understand why He created the world and what the meaning of life is all about.
What is the human condition?
What is a religious experience?
How do we confront death?
What is the meaning of Halacha?
What are we Jews doing here in this strange universe?
They realize that life becomes more and more perplexing, and these questions are therefore of radical importance. These are, after all, eternal issues. Who wants to live a life that passes by unnoticed? It is in this mysterious stratosphere that God loves to dwell. He can’t get enough of it.
Regrettably, His interest wavers when He enters conventional synagogues. He finds little excitement there. People, including myself, seem to go through the motions, activate their automatic pilot, do what they are told, say the words in the prayer book, and go home to make Kiddush.
Few are asking questions on how to relate to God, why they are Jewish and what their lives really are all about. Many do not want to be confronted with these nasty issues. They only disturb their peace of mind. A nice, conventional dvar Torah is good enough. After all, everything has already been discussed and resolved. Regular synagogue visitors – again, like me – only speak to Him when they need Him, but almost nobody ever speaks about Him or hears Him when He calls for help in pursuing the purpose of His creation.
So God is moving to more interesting places.
He laughs when He thinks of the old slogan, “God is dead.” It was a childhood disease. He knows that He has not yet been replaced with something better. Oh yes, there are still run-of-the-mill scientists who believe that they have it all worked out. Some neurologists sincerely believe that “we are our brains” and that our thinking is nothing more than sensory activity. They seem to believe that one can find the essence of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony by analyzing the ink with which the composer wrote this masterpiece. There are even Nobel Prize winners who believe that we will soon enter God’s mind and know it all, no longer needing Him. They are like the man who searches for his watch in the middle of the night. When asked why he is looking under the street lamp, if he lost his watch a block away, he answers: “This is the only place where I can see anything.” These scientists have still not realized that there are more things, on earth and in heaven, than their research will ever grasp. They have convinced themselves that they are merely objective spectators and have not yet understood that they themselves are actors in the mysterious drama of what is called life.
And God simply winks. During the duration of this long-term disease beginning in the nineteenth century, antibodies have been developing to fight against the denial of His very being. Although atheism is still alive and kicking, many have become immune to all these simplistic ideas. Over the years, more and more antitoxins have accumulated, and we are now stunned by the fact that He, after all, may indeed be in our midst. Suddenly, an outdated hypothesis has come to life again. God is a real possibility, and we had better become aware of that.
But here’s the catch: While the religious establishment is now shouting from the rooftops “We told you so,” it has not yet grasped that this is completely untrue. The discovery of God did not happen because of conventional religion but in spite of it.
The incredible damage being done is beyond description. It makes Judaism laughable and, in the eyes of many intelligent people, completely outmoded. It makes it impossible to inspire many searching souls who know what science teaches us. If not for this mistaken understanding of Judaism, many people would not have left the fold and could actually have enjoyed Judaism as a major force in their lives.
And it is here that many of us, including myself, are at fault. We blame the Synagogue for this failure, as we blamed the Church hundreds of years ago. Many of us have said, “Judaism has failed”; “It is outdated”; “I am getting out.” But such statements are as unfair as they are illogical. Judaism is not an institution external to us, which one can abandon as one quits a hockey club. We are the Synagogue, and we are Judaism. When Galileo revolutionized our view concerning the solar system, it was not only the Church that failed; we all failed. Those who from the perspective of Galileo claim that the Church was backward are reasoning post factum.
We must realize that while Judaism consists of core beliefs and values that are eternal and divine, it is also the product of the culture during which time it developed. That, too, is part of God’s plan and has a higher purpose. And when history moves on and God reveals new knowledge, the purpose is to incorporate that into our thinking and religious experience. Ignoring this is silencing God’s voice.
Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science. Its principles may be eternal, but the expression of those principles requires continual development.*
That is why God is relocating. He doesn’t want to live in a place where His ongoing creation is unappreciated and even denied.
The question is whether we move our synagogues to where God is now dwelling. Will we, the religious, live up to the expectations of the young people in cafes and discussions groups who have preceded us? Will we apologize to them and join in their discussions, creating a real religious experience out of our synagogue service? Or will we, as usual, stay put, fight the truth, and then be put to shame?
Will we move to God’s new habitat, or are we still drinking coffee in His old home where the curtains have been removed and He is long gone?
***(With thanks to my dear friend Y.D. Zirkind for his comments. The ideas expressed, however, are solely mine.)
*I borrow this comparison from my dear friend Professor Yehudah Gellman of Ben Gurion University. See his: God’s Kindness Has Overwhelmed Us: A Contemporary Doctrine of the Jews as the Chosen People, Emunot: Jewish Philosophy and Kabbalah Series (Brighton, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2012).
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