Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
As he crossed over into the next realm, he saw God.
Forty-eight hours later, he was well enough to speak about his vision: “She had a soft and soothing voice and her presence was as reassuring as a mother’s embrace.”
His Archbishop intervened quickly, issuing a press release stating that Father O’neal had suffered hallucinations linked to a near-death experience, and that God is not a female.
Just forty-eight hours after publication, the story was revealed as a hoax.
Still, it inspired our family to a great forty-eight minute discussion. We discussed images of God, authority, and creed in our own religion of Judaism.
“You can have any image of God you want,” said my husband, “because all of them are right!”
He was referring, of course, to the proliferation of metaphors for God in the Torah: eagle, consuming fire, spirit of compassion, mother bird.
“You can have any image of God you want,” said my son, “because all of them are wrong!”
“You can have any image of God you want,” said my daughter, “as long as you light the Shabbos candles in just the right way!”
She was referring, of course, to the view that some religious traditions are defined by practice, rather than faith or credo.
We, as a family, are glad to see this view recognized. Calling religions “faith traditions” seems to elevate one religion, Christianity, as the standard for all. Faith defines Christianity: in 35 C.E., the Apostle Paul declared it the key. Two hundred and fifty years later, the Council of Nicea delineated what Christians should believe.
Our Jewish family does not believe that faith is the key, and we certainly don’t agree on who God is. Instead, we agree to disagree — on God, and on whether Judaism has a credo.
Stephen Prothero writes in God is Not One, that “Judaism has no real creed.” Instead, he says, a key motif shapes our thought: exile and return. Losing connection with God, splintering of human communities, suffering unanswered — these are all states of exile. We constantly seek return, through Shabbat, ethical behaviour, and tikkun olam.
Still, as Reb Zalman z”l writes, this constant seeking does add up a to a doctrine: the doctrine of hope.
A fierce doctrine, to be sure, but also a soothing, reassuring one. A doctrine that is always available — as we imagine our ideal mothers might be. Not coincidentally, the prophet Isaiah sometimes describes God as an ideal mother. “Though a human mother might forget her children, I could never forget you,” says God to Isaiah (49:14). I could never forget you, because after exile comes return. If this is the structure of reality, hope is always an option.
Maybe images of God do say a great deal about what people need to believe. All around me, I see people invoking images of warrior Gods, meeting their needs to fight for liberation or dominance. Without a balance, I begin to despair. If a nurturing God brings hope in troubled times, I, too, need a vision of her reassuring presence.
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Photo credit: Tony Alter, wikimedia commons. Caption: “The baby mallards were all over the creek, but within 10 feet of mom, but when I stepped on the bridge they all rushed to mom’s side and she took them to safety under the bridge.”