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Dispatch from the Institute: Thinking about God Before Talking about God

The primary mission of the Jewish Outreach Institute (www.JOI.org) is to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Originally founded in 1988 as a think tank and research facility devoted to the study of intermarriage, JOI's services have since grown to include advocacy, training of outreach professionals, and the sponsorship of innovative outreach programs throughout North America as part of its Jewish Connection Partnership program (www.JewishConnectionPartnership.org). This column is an opportunity for JOI to share its findings and views with the InterfaithFamily.com readership.

Many Jews are uncomfortable with "God language." It just doesn't seem a part of mainstream Jewish culture over the last couple of generations. Sure, there are sprinklings of God-related expressions (God willing; God forbid; thank God; get me out of this God-forsaken place; and so forth), but little attention is paid to the central role God might play in individual lives.  

Those who participate in synagogue life may notice that a personal relationship with God is not often the focus of attention and discussion in Jewish religious schools or from the pulpit. Of course, God plays the lead role in Bible stories and in prayers, but the emphasis seems to be placed much more on interactions with other humans than with God. In fact, Jews may define their closeness to God more through their actions towards God's creations (other people, the Earth) than to the deity itself.

For practicing Christians, on the other hand, "God talk" seems much more comfortable and frequent. Ironically, this level of comfort--in its most passionate form, what some call "witnessing" (and those in Twelve Step programs call "qualifying")--makes many Jews uncomfortable. As a result, interfaith couples are often forced to dance around issues of God (and theology) and try to translate them into a more religiously neutral vocabulary. In attempting to better connect with one another, some may try to disconnect from their own relationship to God, or at least the outward language and manifestations of that relationship.

At the Jewish Outreach Institute, we believe that this "neutral" place--perhaps thought of as "spirituality" rather than a particular religious dogma--can initially benefit interfaith couples who are looking to find their religious grounding before moving into the more difficult territory of specific religious beliefs. Such an approach can help create a strong foundation early in their relationship and will provide them with sustenance throughout their relationship (as they struggle, as they celebrate, as they enjoy the blessing of children). This gives people an opportunity to explore issues of meaning with those who are most meaningful to them.

So where do we start? We start with the basics. And we start with ourselves--before we approach others. What do I really believe about God? Have I ever experienced God in my life? What do I think about the role of God in the Bible? How do I relate to God now? What is the relationship between my conception of God and the way the tradition understands God in the context of the holidays?

Write down the questions. Think about the answers. You may even want to keep a journal as you think through them. When you are ready, talk about them with your partner.

If you can discuss these questions with your partner (or potential partner), then resolving questions about children and family will become a lot easier.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple."

The Jewish Outreach Institute is dedicated to "reach out and welcome in" the intermarried, and to promote inclusiveness in the Jewish community for intermarried families and disconnected Jews. Its website is joi.org.

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