Review of The Jewish Approach to God

By Cheryl F. Coon

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Book Review: The Jewish Approach to God: A Brief Introduction for Christians, by Rabbi Neil Gillman (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2003).

It’s a staggering task to describe Judaism’s view of God, but to do it briefly is even more daunting. Yet Rabbi Gillman manages the seemingly impossible—he shares with his readers, Christians and Jews (for there is much to learn here for Jews as well)—a thoughtful articulation of the Jewish approach to God. His reliance on and citations to text and other commentators reassures the reader that his discussion is well grounded in an understanding of Torah, Talmud and contemporary Jewish thinking.

Rabbi Gillman begins by explaining that since Jews believe that to expect to comprehend the nature of God is to commit the sin of idolatry, it leaves those of us who want and need to talk about God with a paradox. Either we can acknowledge that God cannot be comprehended or described, and fall into worshipful silence. Or, and this is the answer he chooses, we can speak of God in all the ways available to us while understanding that as humans, our ability to ultimately understand or describe the nature of God is necessarily limited.

With that introduction, The Jewish Approach to God is organized in a very accessible way, through a series of chapters each of which discusses an aspect of the Jewish view of God, such as “God is Power.” Although the chapters have deceptively simple titles, Rabbi Gillman’s discussion is lucid and sensitive.

For many Jews, the central dilemma is how to explain God in light of the Holocaust. Rabbi Gillman explores that question in “God is Not Nice (Sometimes).” Rabbi Gillman tells us,

Is God caring and loving? Or is God abandoning and even abusive? Again, the answer will be “both”–sometimes one, sometimes the other. Classical Jewish texts provide ample support for both of these options, but the tension is far from textual. These texts emerged out of the life experience of their human authors. Our own experience confirms that tension, doesn’t it? We too know moments when God seems near at hand and nurturing. We also know moments when God appears to be distant and even cruel.”

Specifically addressing the Holocaust and the post-Holocaust view of God, Rabbi Gillman delves into a discussion that cannot have a definitive answer. But what he provides is the essence of a Jewish approach—a portrayal of the range of opinions Jews hold about the nature of a God who could allow the Holocaust to happen.

For interfaith families, The Jewish Approach to God: A Brief Introduction for Christians has an important role to fill. This is not a discussion of how to behave Jewishly, of our rituals, or even of our sacred texts. But it goes to the heart of Judaism because it focuses on the central question—how do we as Jews view God and our relationship with God? The answers Rabbi Gillman provides are the beginning, not the end, of a long conversation a family might have about its own views. Equally important, for the member of the family who is not Jewish, Rabbi Gillman’s discussion may come as a revelation—that one distinguishing aspect of Judaism is our willingness to discuss and even disagree on the most central question in our theology.



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About Cheryl F. Coon

Cheryl F. Coon is the author of Books to Grow With: A Guide to the Best Children's Fiction for Everyday Issues and Tough Challenges. Cheryl lives with her husband and children in Portland, Ore.