The Search for God
by Frank J. Dyer, PhD
Member of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Short Hills, NJ
Rabbi Yoffie’s article The Search for God (RJM Summer, 2011) offers some profound advice that I found thought provoking, yet ultimately unsatisfying. The search for God takes on an ever greater importance and urgency for a particular segment of many Reform congregations. At present, many regular attendees at Friday night services are at a point in life where they are confronting issues of physical decline, loss, and questions about the meaningfulness of their lives. Most of the solutions offered by Rabbi Yoffie have a certain palliative quality to them, but offer little in the way of approaching the Divine.
The advice in The Search for God to open oneself up to the beauties of the natural world, reminiscent of the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, is sure to provide brief uplifting experiences of wonderment, but no real guidance toward forging a connection with the Divine. The further advice to emulate God’s behavior: healing the sick, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, and the like, is also powerfully inspirational and a valid guide for moral and ethical conduct. Yet, it has a Manichean quality to it as well.
We do not worship a mere god of light who does battle with dark forcesthat are autonomous products of an entirely different system of agencyapart from the Creator. The God of Judaism is a Unity, omniscient andomnipotent, and therefore necessarily associated in some way with allaspects of existence. This is indeed the central stumbling block formany Reform Jews who try to understand the Mystery: how can acompassionate God who does all these wonderful things to relievesuffering, at the same time be responsible for creating human misery inthe first place?
Yoffie’s suggestion that we turn to the sacred texts of our tradition asa means of finding God furnishes a way to shed some further light onthis problem of faith. It’s a suggestion that I enthusiasticallyendorse, but in the direction of Kabbalistic rather than Talmudicwritings. I suggest that sacred texts such as Likutei Amarim, Derech HaShem, and Mesillat Yesharim (this last work cited in a previous RJMarticle as associated with the Mussar movement can also be considered asa work of Kabbalah), should be given a more prominent place in ourstudies. The sublime vision of Divinity that they present, along withthe notion that there is a progressive descent and obscuration ofspirituality ending with our physical world, provides guidance on theproblem of a just, perfect, compassionate God inflicting unbelievablesuffering on humanity.
God is the sole Reality. Any apparent existence outside of God isderivative, subordinate, less meaningful, less valuable, and less realthan the worlds above it. And we are the lowest figures on the totempole, so to speak. From our egocentric view, many of our experienceshave an aversive, even an unjust quality; yet, from the perspective ofother levels of existence, they carry a high wisdom. This wisdom is notalways in a form that we are capable of grasping; but it exists for thepurpose of calling forth in us those qualities of compassion, faith,love, tolerance, sacrifice, and spiritual inspiration that enable us togrow and advance toward the day where we may gain an intimation ofDivine Reality.
Judaism should not simply offer lofty sounding palliatives for thepurpose of enabling congregants to feel good about living essentiallyself-centered and secular lives. The search for God should proceed inthe direction of exploring the difficult, abstruse, counterintuitivetruths contained in the inner recesses of our beloved tradition.