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This article first appeared in JUF News and is reprinted with permission. Visit www.juf.org.
CHICAGO, June 27 -- Like all 5-year-olds, my niece Rebecca is rather inquisitive. Sometimes, her questions are expected: "Why is that man wearing an earring? That's very silly," she said of our sales clerk at a cosmetic store. Other times, her questions downright stump me.
Recently, she spent the night at my place, as she does once in a while. As I was putting her to sleep, we said the shema yisrael prayer together. Then she told me that she missed her great-grandmother, who "went up to shamayim [the heavens] to be with God," as her mother had told her at the time of Grandma Clara's death last November.
"I prayed to God and asked that Grandma Clara return to us," she said. She paused for a minute, and then continued. "Why doesn't God talk to us?" she asked.
If ever there was a moment for quick thinking, this was it. It reminded me of the old joke that one who talks to God is religious, but if God talks back, one is psychotic. But I didn't think that answer would satisfy my niece, so I took a different approach. We have the Torah, I told her, and in there, God talks to the Jewish people.
So God talks to us through the Torah, she interpreted my explanation in her own words, using the present tense. She seemed satisfied with the answer and drifted off to sleep.
As for me, the conversation lingered in my mind for quite some time. Rebecca's question was a profound one about the nature of faith. Our dialogue with God, for those who engage in one, does seem to be one-sided--at least since the days of prophecy.
It's a topic that was put to me a bit differently by "Mike," a student in the adult education class I teach through the JUF Leadership Institute/Florence Melton Mini-School. We spent this past year learning Jewish texts that challenged his assumptions about God. To him, Jewish texts, and by extension, Judaism, seem decidedly God-centered. Unsure as to how he feels about God's role in everyday affairs, this posed a theological challenge to him.
Mike and I met for coffee recently, and he told me that he's afraid to be a hypocrite. How can he go to synagogue and recite prayers that invoke God's active role in history when he doesn't believe in it? To make matters more complicated, he isn't satisfied to simply draw moral lessons from the Torah that "all civilized people can agree on," as he puts it: philanthropy, helping the widow and the orphan, and the like. If that is the sum total of Judaism, then there is nothing unique about it. (I must confess, I agree wholeheartedly with him on this latter point: those who concentrate on the feel-good values of Judaism at the expense of the ritual dilute the religion and jeopardize its successful transmission).
And yet, Mike tells of the primal, powerful sense of connectedness he felt at his grandson's brit milah, covenant of circumcision. It's the same feeling he had at his son's bar mitzvah at the Western Wall, a tangible sense of linkage to previous generations of Jews. His eyes light up when speaking of both experiences.
Therein may lie the answer, I suggested to him. Why should one feel connected to a bris if not that it hearkens back to the time of Abraham? Could it be a coincidence that what is arguably the most observed mitzvah, commandment, among American Jews is a physical symbol of the covenant between God and the Jewish people? I doubt that mitzvot such as these could have sustained the popularity they do were it not for their divine imprimatur, a sense of credibility lending weight to their observance. In Rebecca's simple words: God talks to us through the Torah.
Faith is not easy to articulate; it's more easily felt than expounded. Those who know me know I'm not inclined to maudlin expressions of anything, let alone Judaism. Yet there are times when the cerebral fails us and the experiential takes over. Not everything can be or should be rationally understood, as Mike's feelings at his grandson's bris indicate. And those feelings, if accompanied by a solid Jewish education, can go a long way toward a healthy Jewish identity (this admittedly sounds a bit like a diet pill plug: this pill, accompanied by regular exercise, will help you keep the weight off...)
Sometimes, all the reasoned explanations and practical advice in the world cannot compare to the untainted words of a child. God talks to us through the Torah, Rebecca said. How right she is.