My Epiphany

Having been raised in a traditionally observant Jewish home and attending Orthodox yeshivot from kindergarten through ordination and later serving as a Conservative rabbi, I found myself over the course of my career on a slippery slope (or in the language of Beit Shammai – “holchin u’pochsin”) in matters of both faith and observance. As I matured and grew in autonomy, I felt even more strongly the need to be consistent in my views and practices as well as open about them to others. I remember preaching on the first morning of Pesach, when still serving a Conservative congregation, that there is no evidence that the Hebrews had been enslaved in Egypt, but that it was essential to learn about self liberation and being redemptive in society from the myth and the ritual observances of the holiday. My raising such doubt about the veracity of the Torah distressed and raised the ire of a number of congregants, regardless of their level of personal observance. I felt it important to be “tocho kevoro,” speaking only as I truly believed.

I was becoming a religious naturalist and found inspiration in Spinoza’s pantheism, his rejection of dualism yet being God intoxicated (one could still feel and recite that “the whole world is full of God’s glory”). I found Kant’s concept of the God Idea the most direct and clear of the formulations of monistic thinking and was excited to learn that the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885 emphasizes the God Idea.

Hermann Cohen taught that to be religious is to strive to correlate one’s personal character with the traits descriptive of the God Idea. This really spoke to me, to my emphasis on taamei hamitzvot, the usually personal transformational rationale for the commandments, and reminded me of the rabbinic teaching that “kemo shehu rachum vechanun af atta hevai rachum vechanun.”  Just as God is merciful and compassionate you too must be merciful and compassionate.” Imitatio Dei, the effort to identify ourselves with the midot, the positive attributes of our anthropopathic God image as described in the Torah, does not require belief in a supernatural being.

My dissertation addresses how our upbringing is related to our worldview and specifically to our image of God as wrathful or compassionate, whether we experience midat hadin or midat harachamim in our operational theology, what we really feel regardless of the dogmas we articulate. If we are to correlate ourselves with the sublime attributes of the God Idea, it is important that we foster an Idealism enabled by our experiencing life from a secure base. This can be accomplished in adulthood, regardless of the challenging early life experiences of many, through loving relationships, psychotherapy and being part of a caring community of spirituality seekers.

Multi-vocalism, which is emphasized in Reform liturgy, enables people to have differing views about God, while using the same theistic language, which is supported by Maimonides’ approach. The pluralistic emphasis in Reform Judaism enabled me to find a home in which I could be a religious naturalist and observe only that which was spiritually meaningful to me.

In our progressive approach at The New Reform Congregation Kadima, where I serve, our Shabbat morning observance involves the study of Mussar with an emphasis on character development and personal transformation. This, of course focused on self transcendence and altruism, reinforces the congregation’s commitment to social justice work, which is so core to our identity as Jews and as part of Reform Judaism’s emphasis on Prophetic Judaism.

I feel a deep sense of satisfaction and fulfillment to have progressed in my spiritual journey and in my rabbinic career to have the freedom to think and to function in a manner in which I can be true to myself. The archetypal story of yetziat mitzroyim really speaks to me as an allegory about freeing myself from external authority toward a growing autonomy on my journey toward the promised land. I am grateful to the Reform Movement which has provided me the context in which to be free in thought and in deed while pursuing a deep love for Judaism and its inspirational and transformational power.

Rabbi David I. Oler is celebrating 50 years in the rabbinate at the upcoming 2019 CCAR Convention.

5 replies on “My Epiphany”

Hi rabbi
It’s been many years since I worked for you at Ahavath Torah
Our little boy is now 45 …. Oy vey
I’m still teaching Hebrew
I believe it’s 51 years now
Fond memories of ATC
Iris Gamerman katz

Are you the Iris who majored in African studies and studied in Jerusalem in 1970-71? And your father was a butcher?

Close. I lived on Rehov Guatemala in Kiryat Yovel. I was on the University of California Education Aboard Program. I think you may recall our mutual friend, Richard Shapiro (z”l). So…what are you doing now? I am retired, worked as a librarian for 42 years, live in Long Beach, California.

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