What Do We Mean When We Talk About God?
Closing ThoughtsOpinion

What Do We Mean When We Talk About God?

Jews are often better at talking to God than talking about God, comfortably falling back on the formulae of our prayers.

Rabbi Ruth
Rabbi Ruth

I think about the word God much as I do the phrase, I love you.

I love you can be anything from the automatic sign-off at the end of a conversation with a good friend, to the portent of a drastic change in a relationship when we first utter them to a new person in our lives. The words “I love you” contain and conceal exponentially more than they actually say.

Somehow, we tend to be okay with that because if we are honest few of us can really articulate the fullness of what we feel when we say them. They are a shorthand.

Similarly, I see the word God as a shorthand. One of the greatest Jewish philosophers of all time, Rabbi Moses Maimonides, explained that all the words we use to describe God are woefully insufficient because God is beyond human comprehension and therefore any human description is simply incomplete.

Jews are often better at talking to God than talking about God, comfortably falling back on the formulae of our prayers. This is one of the reasons liturgies works, even if the images of God described in the prayers do not fully resonate with us individually, they speak to a broader vision of the divine that few of us would be better equipped to explain.

But even if we are not able to fully articulate what we mean when we say God, it is important to try. When I prepare to marry couples, I meet with them several times.

By the last meeting, I have a sense of the love they share. Yet at the last meeting, I ask each partner to tell me what they love about the other. The sharing is only a small sliver of the feelings that exist in the intimate cocoon of their relationship.

Yet as I listen to the stories, traits, and joys that give voice to their feelings, I am able to come away with a much fuller sense of that inexplicable love that I will never fully understand.

Early in my rabbinate, I learned that while I will never have all the words needed for explaining God, talking about the Divine can help me understand also how broad and elastic the concept of God can be.

Leading High Holiday services for the first time as a student rabbi, I ran a workshop that shared different theological takes on divinity. There was a dozen of ways to approach talking about God. Given the dominance of the metaphor, God our Father in the High Holiday liturgy, I had deliberately left this model off the list.

For one congregant, this was a terrible oversight. Her earthly father had been an abusive man. God as Father, so central in the prayer book, opened her eyes to an alternative vision of love, compassion, and belonging; it gave her hope.

This conversation made me realize the limitations of my own experiences and words when it comes to talking about God. Talking with her moved me beyond those limitations and deepened my understanding of God. It also gave new meaning to familiar words.

When teaching b’nai mitzvah students I don’t shy away from talking about God. In the first lesson, we literally unpack a myriad of items that symbolize some of the many ways being Jewish is expressed. Parents and children take turns unwrapping the items and then we consider their meaning. I always include a yad, the pointer used for reading the Torah, in this activity.

There is a practical use for a Yad. The parchment and the lettering of the Torah scroll are delicate, and the Yad protects them from the oils and grime of our fingers. But after we talk about this, I suggest another way of seeing the Yad.

A Yad points to the words of the Torah but it does not hold them. Similarly, the words of the Torah point to our understanding of God, they are not the embodiment of the divine. I share with them the comparison with the word love. I go on to explain that the words of the Torah and in our prayers point to the complexity of what we mean when we say, God.

Because this is the first meeting and the children are still growing into their understanding of the complexities of love, it is often the parents who react most strongly to this. For many adults, it resonates and opens a new possible way to think about God. And that is what conversation about God is meant to do. Whether it stems from wrestling with the words of the prayerbook or attempting to give voice to the awe experience at a natural wonder, talking about God expands our ability to experience the divine.

Recently a parent told me that they were going to have their three-year-old talk to me about God. I offered that I would be glad to chat with the little one but gently urged them to tackle the conversation on their own. “But I don’t know what to say,” the father stammered. “That,” I assured him, “is a great place to start.”

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