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.

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2 Responses to “The Search for God”

  1. avatar

    I was rather surprised with Rabbi Yoffie’s last sentence, “Without God, we are reduced to being no more than a tiny speck in a vast universe”.
    Does this mean that a Jew who happily pays dues to belong to a temple, raises money for and contributes to Federation and believes in “justice and charity” but doesn’t believe in God is but “a speck etc…”.
    Please clarify, as I believe a rabbi’s role is to be inclusuive and welcoming.
    Member Temple Beth El, Providence, R.I.

  2. avatar
    Jordan Friedman Reply July 3, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    @ Dick Silverman
    I understand your concern because of the need for rabbis, especially those with major leadership positions, to be extremely welcoming and non-divisive. However, I cannot disagree with Rabbi Yoffie here. Indeed, I hope he really did mean that quote in the way you probably hope he didn’t–though it would be horribly wrong to kick people out or make them feel unwelcome in our community for not believing in God, I also very much hope that we do not lose the concept that a “search for God” is an essential part of a vibrant personal Jewish religious commitment. We are meant to wrestle with all sorts of questions, including theological ones, and blind faith is not desirable. Most people are agnostic at some point on their journey. However, I think we would lose the right to call the Reform Movement a brand of Judaism if the “search for the Divine”, with at least a theoretical end goal of arriving at a theistic worldview, is ever deemed an optional endeavor. We must always challenge ourselves to deepen our faith, even if at the moment we have none.
    The official position of the Movement, in my opinion, should be to encourage people to find a way to arrive at a worldview at least somewhat grounded in Classical, historical monotheism. Then, it would be up to individual congregations, and individual people, to determine how to implement that. We always have that personal and congregational autonomy to fall back on, and just because something is encouraged doesn’t mean that we have to make people who don’t respond to that encouragement feel unwelcome.

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