A central theme of the Rosh Hashana liturgy is affirming God‘s authority to judge us; then on Yom Kippur we ask God to forgive us and be lenient in executing judgement. But whom are we speaking of when we use the word God? In his new book The Evolution of God Robert Wright describes monotheism’s evolving conceptions of the Deity. Not only are there differing views of God between the monotheistic faiths but also within each. Six articles on the nature of God in the current issue of Kolot: Voices of Conservative/Masorati Judaism demonstrate different approaches and emphases to the Divine within one stream of Judaism.
When I switched from Reform to Conservative Judaism a quarter of a century ago I suffered magazine envy. Reform Judaism Magazine is a professionally produced periodical whose articles are engaging and wide ranging. Until recently the Conservative movement’s quarterly periodical had low production quality and felt very much like an in-house publication. That is no longer the case. Last spring’s issue had a section on same sex ordination and commitment which included moving accounts of gay Conservative Jews who now have a spiritual home in the movement. Likewise the Summer 2009 issue featured a section entitled “Choosing to Be Jewish” with articles by and about Jews by choice.
The six articles in the current issue take exception with rational, philosophical, abstract approaches to God. Benjamin Sommer’s “The Bodies of God” revives the ancient Near eastern view of a fluid deity that inhabits different bodies in different places. Before reading the article I thought Judaism rejects the idea of a corporeal deity. Neil Gilman’s “God: The Two Questions” challenges the idea of an omnipotent God who is everywhere. Gilman’s approach “eschews objectivity, triumphalism, and certitude in favor of tension, ambiguity, and a degree of agnosticism.” Like Wright’s book Aryeh Cohen’s article “Reason Versus Faith: Judaism, Christianity, Islam” surveys views of God in the three faiths and describes the evolution of these views of God in each of the three. Cohen also emphasizes the tension between the abstract and personal approaches to the Deity. Eitan Fishbane’s “God as the Breath of Life” takes a new age touchy-feely approach that uses Kabbalistic source texts. Jill Hammer’s “Gender and the Hidden Faces of God” surveys descriptions of and references to God as female or feminine. She points out that when we adopt gender neutral God language we not only lose patriarchal descriptions of God but also feminine ones. Shaiya Rothberg’s “Hear O Israel” uses midrash to discuss the Sh’ma. Following Jill Hammer’s example Rothberg uses female pronouns to refer to God throughout his essay.
However you conceive of God I wish you a sweet New Year whose challenges lead to personal growth.