Several years ago I started an educational start-up. I left a wonderful position at a prestigious educational institution. It was a big risk.
It didn’t work out as I hoped.
After teaching Jewish texts for 20 years, I wanted something more: I wanted to bring God back to the conversation.
I had a dream of reviving the most central idea in Judaism – a personal relationship with God. I wanted to create a safe venue where any Jew could explore his or her personal relationship with God. This start-up would be a place where people could articulate wherever they were at – without fear of being judged or attacked. It would be an incubator for belief – without any goal of religious observance or identification.
The tagline of this start-up was: “Bringing God back to the Conversation”.
I didn’t want to talk about spirituality. I felt that spirituality had been co-opted in the Jewish world to be synonymous with yoga, meditation, vegetarianism, and an overall “crunchy” orientation. I wanted a place where everyone could explore their relationship with God.
But it didn’t work. The tagline that I was so proud of proved to be a disaster.
I heard again and again from people in the field, from our own educators, and even from the participants: “Aryeh, the word ‘God’ closes the door for so many Jews. We would have 10 times as many people in the programs if we just dropped the word ‘God’. You’re shooting yourself in the foot.”
I was stubborn. I wouldn’t give in. I said to myself, “We are going to charge ahead and the rest of the Jewish world will just have to catch up.”
Well, it didn’t happen that way. After 3 years, I gave in. I took ‘God’ out of the conversation. I replaced “God” with “Soulful”. And you know what? Everyone was right. “God” was the obstacle. People started coming in droves. The program boomed – in high schools, universities, and in synagogue adult education programs. But something in me is still very sad.
A Judaism without God – however that word is understood – is a bit empty. We Jews brought an awareness of a personal God to the world – but now it is the one thing we don’t like to talk about.
Judaism began with Abraham hearing the voice of God. Jacob wrestled with the angel. Moses took off his shoes at the burning bush. They were having a personal relationship with a transcendent God. A God that is paradoxically very far away and very close.
The Torah does not talk about having a ‘spiritual’ or ‘soulful’ experience. The Torah uses the word “God”.
But I understand why dealing with the “God issue” can be so daunting for adults.
For me, after learning for many years and teaching for almost 30, I am aware that my relationship with God is not as clear as it once was. It is full of contradictions. I know that when I begin to talk about my relationship with God I often spout clichés and sound like a third-grader. I feel nervous and vulnerable because it is such a personal issue. I feel shy and embarrassed that I went to rabbinical school, studied for so many years, and still have figured this out. Shouldn’t I know what my relationship is with God by now?
I don’t have the answers and I’m not looking for someone to “show me the light” or give me advice. I need to deal with my relationship with God, to explore it and talk about it – on my own terms, in a safe non-judgemental way.
I wonder when we will be ready to bring God back to the conversation.