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A Judaism bereft of its center

All the thoughtful, creative ideas in the world can't replace deep, personal, engagement with the beating heart of Judaism

I once asked a rabbi: “How is your personal relationship with God?”

Speechless, his face went white.

Then, before he answered, I asked him a second question: “When was the last time you were asked that question?”

This time he could answer: “Never.”

I have raised this question countless times with rabbis over the past 10 years, hoping to hear something different. And yet – rabbis who have been in the field for 10, 20, and even 30 years have all reacted the same way. In the last five years, since beginning Ayeka’s work in day schools, I have put this question up to teachers – who have also answered similarly.

We have lost our center. We have become a God-less people.

The Jewish people brought the idea of God to the world: a monotheistic God; a God who is not distant but interacts in our lives; a God who is a benevolent creator; a God who communicated directly with our ancestors for centuries.  

Now God is the one subject we don’t talk about.

Well, that is not exactly true. We talk about God, like we visit museums. Classes will talk about God when unpacking a story in the Torah. Rabbis may talk about God when teaching Jewish philosophy. Even those with a mystical inclination will talk about the God of the Zohar or Kabbalah.

But it is always “about God”. Not a personal, in-the-kishkes, affecting-my-daily-life, playing-a-vital-role-in-who-I-am-becoming God.

There are many amazing things happening today in the Jewish world. We have cultivated, knowledgeable rabbis and teachers who love Judaism, love learning, embrace the social aspects of living a Jewish life, and have terrific interpersonal skills.

We are also witnessing a renaissance of creativity in the world of Jewish education. There seem to be countless Jewish start-ups with innovative plans. Every conference I attend is flooded with seminars on developing a growth mindset, blended learning, experiential-based / project-based / holistic learning, Israel-based, flipped classroom, digital literacy, and more and more.

These topics are all wonderful additions to the Jewish educational agenda.

But well-groomed Jewish leaders and innovative pedagogic ideas will not cut it. If we keep avoiding Judaism’s center, we are following the recipe for a doomed Judaism.

A Judaism that has exorcised God from its core – will not survive. Period. It is an amputation following which the patient cannot live. It is doomed, no matter how many great rabbis, teachers, and pedagogically innovative programs may flourish.

As many have said before me, Judaism without God is like a cut flower – beautiful for a little bit of time, but with a terminal illness. Cut off from its roots, it will inevitably wither.

I think this is what we are seeing today.

Imagine that I started a vegetarian club and invited you to join. We had wonderful people and sparkling conversation, but there was one rule: no talking about vegetarianism. How long do you think that club could sustain itself?

Judaism began with God. There is no Torah without God. And now “God” is the one subject not talked about… Not really talked about.

Shavuot is coming up, the celebration of the giving of the Torah. The Midrash states that at Mount Sinai, everyone heard a different voice of God. Everyone has a different soul and each person brings God into their lives in a unique and personal way.

If I were to design a Shavuot program, there would be one goal of the night. Let’s talk about THE moment – revelation. Let’s talk about God talking to the Jewish people. How do you understand that? Literally? Figuratively? What does it mean to you? How does it affect your life? Are you filled with as many contradictions as I am? Let’s open up the conversation. Otherwise, once again, we’ll spend the night talking “about”, and never getting to the center.  

To be perfectly clear:

  • I am not preaching how someone should have a relationship with God. That is an inherently personal matter. Every person needs to explore his/her relationship in a personally authentic way.
  • I am not talking about level of observance or denomination.

What I am saying is that we have to rescue the question: “How are you doing with your relationship with God?” We have to ask the question, and then, without judgment or agenda, listen generously. We have to make space for the mysterious in our lives.

If we cannot bring God back to the conversation, then all of the other amazing, creative, dynamic, and thoughtful educational ideas that are proliferating today on the Jewish educational frontier will be for naught.

There is no Judaism without a relationship with God – for each person in their own way, their own pace, and their own unique expression.

I am not proposing a new idea. I am inviting us to return to the oldest idea.

About the Author
Aryeh Ben David founded Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education in 2008. Ayeka educates rabbis, teachers, and professionals in bringing Jewish wisdom from our minds to our hearts to our souls and to our lives. He lives in Efrat with his wife Sandra and their 6 children.
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