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Books CCAR Press spirituality

Why Is It So Difficult to Talk about God?

Rabbis Edwin Goldberg and Elaine Zecher are coeditors of the new CCAR Press book Because My Soul Longs for You: Integrating Theology into Our Lives, which delves into the many ways we can experience the Divine. In this excerpt from the introduction, they examine the challenges of discussing God.

“Can you speak to my child about God?” The concern showed on her face. She had no idea how to explain who, what, why, and how God is.

She is not alone. God is the other three-letter word that makes some parents cringe when they are asked about it. Actually, it sometimes feels like explaining sex is easier and more rehearsed in our minds than getting involved in a conversation about God. The truth is, many people feel uncomfortable having this conversation.

Why is it difficult to talk about God? Is God like a mathematical equation we could solve if only we could get the right definition? There are many ways to describe God. Judaism is a monotheistic religion founded on the principle that all the disparate gods are really One God. There is no god of the seas, or the sky, or even the underworld. Our biblical ancestors Abraham and Sarah found one God uniting the universe and united by the universe. Jewish tradition teaches that their tent was open on all four sides in order to receive wayfarers from any direction.1 The image of the tent serves another purpose as well: it signifies that there are countless paths to come closer to this One God. Within our own tradition, many passageways lead us to an experience of the Divine—an experience that so many of us are longing for.

The title of this book, Because My Soul Longs for You, comes from an old Sabbath hymn, formally called Shir HaKavod (“Song of Glory”) and also known by its first two words, Anim Z’mirot. It is ascribed to Judah HeChasid of Regensburg (d. 1217). The entire song features a number of original verses and some language from the Bible. Our title is taken from the first stanza, אַנְעִים זְמִירוֹת וְשִׁירִים אֶאֱרוֹג, כִּי אֵלֶיךָ נַפְשִׁי תַעֲרוֹג (Anim z’mirot v’shirim e-erog, ki eilecha nafshi ta-arog, I seek pleasing melodies and thirst for songs because my soul longs for You), itself a reference to Psalm 42:2. The tradition is to open the Torah ark before reciting this prayer, a way of suggesting that God’s spirit is summoned when it is sung.

It is human nature to long for God’s presence in our lives. However, many of us do not know what to do with this longing. The subtitle of this book is Integrating Theology into Our Lives. There are many and diverse Jewish paths to experience and think about God, and we as Reform Jews have the privilege of having more than one path open to us. With a little bit of study and a lot of living, our soul’s longing can be addressed. All we need is intention, some humility, and the honesty that open up before us a warm and redolent world.

Shir HaKavod includes these words:

And so I tell your glory, yet never have seen you;
Imagine you, find names for you, yet never have known you

By hand of those who prophesied and throngs who worshipped you,
You gave imagination to the glory beyond view.2

Within these pages, we hope you will discover the One in the different forms described and experienced in the many and diverse paths by talented writers, rabbis, cantors, scholars, and seekers who allow and welcome God into their lives. In their wisdom, we hope you are inspired to allow and welcome God into your own life, too, while also drawing God out—in the path that is yours.

Read the full introduction, download the free study guide, and order the book at theology.ccarpress.org


1. Rabbeinu Yonah on Pirkei Avot 1:5.
2. Translation by Joel Rosenberg, in Kol Haneshamah: Shabbat Vehagim  (Wyncote, PA: Reconstructionist Press, 1994), 452.


Rabbi Edwin C. Goldberg serves Congregation Beth Shalom of The Woodlands, outside of Houston, Texas.

Rabbi Elaine S. Zecher serves Temple Israel of Boston, Massachusetts.

Categories
Books Rabbis Reform Judaism

Introducing “Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions”

In anticipation of the forthcoming publication of Lights in the Forest: Rabbis Respond to Twelve Essential Jewish Questions, CCAR rabbinic intern Andy Kahn interviewed editor Rabbi Paul Citrin.

Lights in the Forest is unique as an anthology of essays by a variety of authors on Jewish theological and philosophical questions. What spurred your interest in creating one?”

A volume that made a large impact on me was something published by the American Jewish Committee in the mid-60s called the Condition of Jewish Belief. It was a symposium compiled by editors of Commentary magazine where 38 rabbis from all of the streams of Judaism responded to five theological concerns. I found it to be tremendously interesting and helpful as an undergraduate student in Los Angeles. It recently dawned on me that there was nothing like that on the market today. I looked at 12 different publishers that produce Jewish books and there was nothing that came close to it, by which I mean a collection of essays by various contributors not targeted for either children or graduate students in philosophy.

The questions in the book are stimulated by real questions that congregants ask their rabbis. I find that there is a core of Reform and Conservative Jews who want to be well-grounded in Jewish tradition. Their Jewish knowledge and identity is a central part of who they are, even if they don’t have all of the formal education they may desire. This volume will help strengthen that serious commitment.

LITFXXX_Page_1 “This book is full of essays on topics that might seem a little heady. There are questions of theology, Jewish peoplehood, conceptions of humanity in general. Who is this book intended to reach?”

My hope was that such a volume would not only stimulate individuals, but that it would also be a resource for group study in synagogues and in learning communities. I can see it being used in synagogue-based adult education class or chavurah study groups, or in a Confirmation class of teens. This text is meant to be a goad towards wider discussion and deeper thought. It also doesn’t need to be read cover to cover in a few sittings. It can be read selectively and over time. Each essay can stand alone to a reader, while the whole collection together helps to provide a wide-range of perspectives on the deep theological issues present. Because of this it has broad appeal and is very accessible. Even people who do not necessarily consider themselves seekers may indeed find a light of curiosity or deeper interest turning on. I hope that this accessibility and flexibility will help to bring greater interest to our movement.

“What led to you picking the contributors who are included?”

We tried to find a wide and representative range of the rabbinate. It covers two generations of Reform Rabbis with people ordained 1974 all the way up to 2013. We strove for gender balance, and also for some geographical variety. We have one Israeli contributor, and one currently working in Hong Kong.  There are contributors who are pulpit rabbis, Hillel rabbis, and academics. Although the language is meant to be easily accessible for the non-technical reader, we have a wide variety of writers who thought a lot about these questions.

“What need or niche do you see this book filling?”

At the time I made this proposal I had been on the pulpit for 38 years. My experience as a congregational rabbi was that many Jews want something that is both an intelligent and a communicative discussion of key theological ideas from a liberal perspective. I think that clarity of theology helps to ground Jews in their connection to Judaism and the Jewish community. Theology is what yields values, and when we have values firmly rooted in our faith system we can take actions rooted in our theology and our values.

Aside from the Condition of Jewish Belief as an inspiration, often I have used a little vignette spoken by Rabbi Israel of Rhyzin about two people entering a forest. One person had a lantern and one did not. The two meet, and the one carrying the lantern is able to illuminate the path of the one travelling in the dark. When they part company, one is left alone in the dark once again. Rabbi Israel of Rhyzin says that from this we learn that everyone must be able to carry his own light. My hope is that this book will provide light for people’s paths to provide a wider horizon of ideas and permission to enter this debate and discussion of what Jews believe, along with further study.

About Lights in the Forest and the free downloadable discussion guide.

Rabbi Paul  J. Citrin  was ordained  by the  Hebrew Union  College– Jewish Institute of Religion in 1973. The focus of his rabbinate has al- ways been in congregational life. His passions are education, Israel and social justice. He is the author of a children’s novel, Joseph’s Wardrobe (UAHC   1987), Gates of Repentance for Young People (co-authored  with Judith  Abrams, CCAR,  2002), and  Ten Sheaves (Create  Space 2014). He serves the Taos Jewish Center on a monthly  basis.