Eilu v’eilu: Balancing differing views of God and Prayer
by Jordan Friedman
President, Beloit College Hillel, Class of 2013
In the liner notes to the CD album Ruach 5761, the renowned Cantor and composer Jeff Klepper writes the following:
When I was growing up in the 1960s, during each service the rabbi would invite everyone to “rise as we affirm the watchword of our faith”. Then we proudly recited the Shema prayer aloud in Hebrew and English, followed by a thunderous organ swell and a choral rendition which was impossible for us, the congregation, to sing. This reflected what was then an important part of Reform Judaism’s theology: God was Transcendent, On High, best approached through solemn prayers rendered in archaic English, best serenaded by angelic choirs and cathedral organs. It is different today, reflective of a shift in the way we think about, and talk to, God. For many of us, God becomes present for us in our smiles, hugs, and tears, in the deeds of kindness we do for each other. So, instead of rising and triumphantly proclaiming God’s universal Oneness, we find it more meaningful to cover our eyes while chanting softly, searching for the God who is within our souls.
That paragraph immediately sets up a dichotomy of two opposing views of God and prayer–it would seem, two totally different expressions of Judaism. Need they really be so opposing, though?
If God is EVERYTHING, then God includes both of these views–God must be transcendent, magisterial, and frightening but also personal, indwelling, and intimately loving. God must be male and female, both genders and neither gender at the same time. That is all part of the mystery of an all-encompassing Being. Therefore, should our prayer practice not also reflect the many different aspects of God? I say yes–we owe our heavenly Ruler worship which is humble, reverent, and submissive, perhaps even not without a little fear and trembling. Yet, that same God is also our Eternal, Ever-present Parent and Friend from whom we may receive comfort, love, and understanding in every aspect of our lives. Of course we are meant to find God in everyday interactions, and not just in the sacred atmosphere of an ornately decorated sanctuary surrounded by organ music.
Some Reform Jews, such as those of a persuasion heavily influenced by Classical Reform, prefer to focus most often on the conception of God criticized by Klepper (although it would be foolish to think that they explicitly disbelieve any of the more personal attributes). Others choose to focus on a more intensely personal experience of God through prayer, and would be more likely to pray the Shema in the manner preferred by Klepper. Clearly, both approaches are valid, beautiful expressions of Jewish faith, and both have a place in Reform practice. Eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim Chayim–these AND those are the words of the Living God.
I submit that while both approaches are valid responses to the reality and truth of various attributes and conceptions of God, it is a good idea to incorporate both so that one might be inspired to awe by the majesty of God, yet also be healed and sustained by the loving, indwelling Presence of God. I believe that to focus too strongly on one extreme while paying insufficient attention to the other is unwise, and can lead to a spirituality which is lacking in depth. The summoning of God’s loving embrace through quiet, contemplative prayer is a life-transformingly beautiful experience, and yet sometimes fails to impress upon the worshipper the collective experience of reverence that one finds with awe-inspiring music and formal, UPB-style liturgy. Likewise, a totally grand, lofty, magnificent worship experience with maximal decorum can be cold and even scary unless it is balanced with quiet, personal reflection and meaningful participation.
As Kohelet reminds us in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, there is a time for everything. We should not be so arrogant as to impose on people only the decorum-filled formality of Classical Reform worship, nor should we be so immature as to encourage only a me-centered, hyper-individualistic or pietistic form of prayer. We need a balance between old and new, loud and quiet, lofty and worldly, formal and fun, particularistic and universalistic, personal and collective. It is a mistake to dismiss forms which are perceived to be “old-fashioned” simply because they involve concepts which are less comfortable or familiar to us than the current trend of making God into whomever or whatever we want God to be. If the Classical Reformers’ mistake was paying insufficient attention to the spiritual and emotional needs of the individual Jew-in-the-pew, then current Reform Jewish thought is likewise failing to foster the necessary sense of the timeless and eternal, of collective obligation and reverence, all of which I believe are an inseparable part of the Jewish religious experience. Why not strike a healthy balance?