Have you ever felt out of step with those around you? Sometimes, even among those we love most, we feel “different.” I witnessed several experiences of that this week. In the first, I read Cantor Jennie Chabon‘s beautiful drash, “Is God the one thing?”
When my brother was in college, he and his friends began what became a years-long search for one thing-one place, one food, one anything- that everyone in the world either loves or hates. No one can be neutral about it or it doesn’t count. He would ask this question whenever he was hanging out with new people, to see if someone could come up with an answer.
New York? That has to be a place that people either love or hate. But no, it turns out that some people have neutral feelings about NYC.
Anchovies? I am firmly planted in the hate category with anchovies, but apparently some people could take them or leave them.
Camping? That is such a love-hate activity! I love camping, but I certainly know people who can’t stand it. Alas, some people like it just fine.
My brother and his friends never did find their one thing, and over time the question stopped being very interesting. But I have found myself thinking about it again lately as we have been diving into interfaith work here at Congregation B’nai Tikvah.
We have had two interfaith dialogues over the past several weeks, the first with members of the United Church of Christ in Orinda, the second with members of the Sam Ramon Valley Islamic Center. These two communities are obviously very different from each other–one Protestant, one Muslim–but there was one striking similarity between them: a love of God is at the center of their communities and their faith.
As liberal Jews, we are taught that belief in God is an optional part of our spiritual and cultural identity. You don’t have to believe in God to be Jewish, or even to be an observant Jew. I have clergy friends who don’t believe in God and who were outspoken about their atheism in seminary. They are happily serving congregations and leading prayers that praise God week after week, even though they don’t actually believe what they are saying. For them, God is a magnificent character in the greatest story ever told.
This concept is absolutely unfathomable to a Muslim or a Christian. God IS their faith. Which makes me wonder, would Christians and Muslims say that God is the answer to my brother’s question? Is God the one thing, the one being about whom no one has ambivalent feelings?
I think the reason I love doing interfaith work is this: when I spend time with people of other faiths, people who are unashamed of their love of God, I feel like I fit in in a way that I don’t among liberal Jews. I was at an ice cream parlor yesterday with my son, when I noticed a young couple walk in together, hand in hand. Around the girl’s neck was a large key chain with “I love Jesus” written all the way around it. My heart sang for that girl and her shameless faith.
It’s true that we are not a people that publicizes our Judaism or proselytizes in any way. That caution has grown out of centuries of needing to protect ourselves. But sometimes, I wish I could shout out my faith like that girl with her ice cream cone. I wish I could exclaim my love of God without feeling like I need to defend it to my own people.
When Jews believe in God they are often assumed to be fundamentalists. Most likely, they are not. Why? Because highly educated Jews don’t believe there is ONE way to interpret or experience God. Don’t let someone who lacks knowledge to make you feel bad. Take a look at the book, Finding God: Selected Responses, by Rabbi Rifat Sonsino and Daniel B. Syme. The book was originally titled, Finding God: Ten Jewish Responses.
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My second experience was during a discussion of a PJ Library book with 9 and 10 year olds. We were talking about Confessions of a Closet Catholic, a book for PJ My Way kids. The kids were puzzled and then pleased as they realized that each of their families does Judaism a bit differently. I think that being young and not yet stuck with a TRUTH, they were quite comfortable letting others be different from themselves. Some keep kosher, one doesn’t drive on Shabbat, another family does the opposite. I’d like to see us adults strive to be open to the different practices and choices of others.
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Third, I received an article from a colleague; the article is written by a Conservative rabbi titled It’s Time to Say Yes and describes his personal decision making process to determine that he will officiate at interfaith marriages. My colleague assumed I would be thrilled with this article, after all, I refer interfaith couples to rabbis who will officiate at their wedding all time. But I was not thrilled, because the rabbi argued that the Right thing to do is to officiate at interfaith weddings. That means that rabbis who choose otherwise are “wrong.” Like my nine year old friends I strive to see the path that I have chosen while acknowledging that there are other paths that are valid for other travelers.
Jewish tradition teaches that there are 70 paths up the mountain to God. The number 70 is a metaphor for “many”. Seventy is also used when referring to all the humans on earth, i.e. the Seventy Nations. Thus, Judaism teaches that there are different AND VALID paths (religions). In fact there are as many paths as there are different kinds of people.
Shouldn’t Jews allow other Jews to be different? I am delighted to have a large list of rabbis who will perform an interfaith wedding. Do I need to condemn those who are not on my list? Nope. I believe that diversity is a good thing — even among Jews!
Speaking of all different kinds of Jews, try to get over to see the photo exhibit, This Is Bay Area Jewry. It will be showing at the Marin JCC from June 12 to Aug. 25, 2017.