Congregation B'nai Israel

2710 Park Avenue, Bridgeport, CT 06604 | (203) 336-1858 | |

  • Find us on Facebook

Reflections on God, Christmas, and American Religion – 2020

Rabbi Evan Schultz
December 25, 2020
Reflections on God, Christmas, and American Religion – 2020

Earlier this week Rabbi Marion and I met on Zoom with a lovely couple who are soon moving to the area and were interested in learning more about us and our B’nai Israel community. We got to know each other, and they asked a lot of great questions about our synagogue. One in particular stuck with me. “We were looking through your website,” they noted. “I noticed something was glaringly missing. I can’t help but ask, where is God?” 

What a great question. Peruse the B’nai Israel website and you’ll learn a great deal about our community. Our history, learning opportunities, ways to volunteer, and information about our many affinity groups. All great things. And there is certainly no “God” tab on the website. While we do refer to the divine in our values and principles, we focus our attention much more towards the values of building relationships, Jewish learning, tikkum olam, and Israel. Again, all great things. This of course, is not a new conversation in our synagogue, or even in Reform Judaism. One congregant once noted to me that it seems we’re more comfortable talking about the synagogue budget than we are talking about God. While we pray to God in worship services every Friday night and Saturday morning, there has classically been a discomfort with discussing or engaging in conversations about God in many liberal Jewish congregations. 

Perhaps it’s that many of us grew up learning about the God with the long white beard who lives up in the heavens, a concept that no longer resonates for most. I know of others who have experienced tragedy or trauma and no longer believed in God when their prayers for healing went unanswered. I too have had conversations with many congregants who look at the Holocaust and could no longer believe in or wish to engage with a God who could somehow let such great bloodshed befall our people. We Reform Jews, too, were born in the tradition of the great Enlightenment, setting us on a course of historical criticism and rational thinking, which caused many to no longer believe that God wrote the Torah or actually liberated our people from slavery in Egypt.

I too grew up believing all of those stories, imagining my ancestors receiving the Torah at Sinai, and God ushering the Israelites ultimately into the Promised Land. It was in college and subsequently in rabbinical school, that the curtain was pulled back. I learned from top biblical scholars and professors about the various theories on biblical authorship, and that there’s no archeological evidence of any of the events described in our sacred scrolls. It was a loss of naivete, in a sense, and I didn’t quite know what to do with God after that. So none of that actually happened, I asked? I almost had to start from scratch. Or think about God in entirely new ways. God became more of a scientific and scholarly endeavor to me than the spiritual or imaginative deity of my youth.

Certainly I know I am not alone in these feelings, both from anecdotal conversations with congregants and Jewish friends, and from sociological studies that denote the decline of religiosity and belief in God in America. Just look, for example, at today’s festival of Christmas, which in so many ways has become an American cultural institution,less a festival about the incarnation of the son of God and more about the universal values of the day, joy, light, peace, as well as family traditions passed down from generation to generation. Again, all good things, but not particularly religious. Many of our Jewish holidays have shifted away from their religious origins. How often did we talk about God or the Temple cult when we lit the Chanukah candles, but more about the notion of miracles and light? And how many of us talk about universal values of freedom and liberation on Passover as opposed to God reigning down plagues upon our enemy or believing that a divine being parted the Red Sea? It does beg us to ask the question- Is there space for God in our lives? Our Jewish communities? On our website?

I’m guessing you know my answer will be yes, at least to the first two questions. We somehow need to figure out how to rewrite God’s narrative, and ask new questions about what and who and why God is and can be in our lives. I believe it can be done. I have experienced it personally. Several years ago I engaged in an exercise with Rabbi Larry Hoffman, who many of you know, asking a group of rabbis to write down some of the most profound moments in our lives. I thought about it for a while, and began to write. I wrote about sitting up in my treehouse as a kid and watching the world below (that was when treehouses were high off the ground, and about the feeling when I was 15 and used to jump in the lake at Jewish summer camp before Shabbat began. I wrote about moving from place to place as a kid, and traveling through different countries when I got older. I wrote about the feeling of standing under the chuppah with Jenny on our wedding day, and witnessing the birth of my children. I too described how I felt when Jenny’s father died of cancer, and how I witnessed a classmate die in a car crash when I was 17. I thought back to the moment when I became a rabbi, what that was like to experience such a transformation of self. And then Rabbi Hoffman said to us, so what does that tell you about the world? About life? And maybe even about God? 

And so I answered. That the world is so beautiful that it must have been crafted by a masterful artist, and this artist must be God. And that when I felt such a loss of strength amidst tragedy, I discovered something within myself to keep going, that this strength came from God. And that when I was young and moving from place to place and school to school, I never felt alone – and too this feeling was God. God to me was no longer the God of the Bible, but a God who existed in the only thing that I knew to be true in life, my own experiences. Those questions helped me to make meaning of those experiences, understand them in a deeper way, make sense of them, and ultimately develop my own story about what and who God is.

We live in a time when so many people are looking for meaning. The world feels bleak, many are lonely, or don’t take the time to think deeply about the experiences of their lives. I know there are people in our community who want to speak about God, but don’t know how, or it feels uncomfortable, or hard, or they don’t know where to begin.  Perhaps we begin with experience. The profound moments in our lives. Or we open our prayer book and think, what must have happened in the life of this author to craft the words of the Hashkiveinu, or the Mi Chamocha? And how can I find my story in those prayers as well? And what might that tell me about myself? About the world? Could it help me craft a sentence about God that I believe in? 

New years always bring new possibilities. And certainly 2021 is as good a time to start than ever. To ask new questions. To view the world anew. I’m not sure when we’ll have a God tab on our website, but you never know. But I do want to thank this curious prospective B’nai Israel member to get me thinking this week, about American religion, about Christmas and Chanukah, and about God. May 2021 be a year of new narratives and deeper understandings, and maybe even a fresh new conversation about the divine.

Wishing you all a Happy New Year, and a Shabbat Shalom.