I love speaking with seventh-graders about God. They’re so eager to shock the rabbi–they can’t wait to tell me that they don’t believe that God controls the world or, often, that they don’t even believe in God at all.
I pause, then offer an invitation: “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” The students, suddenly less confident, attempt an answer, usually involving a very imposing bearded man sitting on a throne in heaven looking down on the world and deciding what happens to everyone: this is the God they don’t believe in. “That’s funny,” I say. “I don’t believe in that God either.”
The truth is, in my experience, very few Jews actually believe in that God. Perhaps we would be comforted to think of God who intervenes in history–the God who splits the Sea of Reeds for the Israelites and makes the sun hold still in the sky for Joshua–but that conception of God doesn’t seem to match what we see in the world around us. Good people suffer every day, and too often, the wicked thrive. Tragedies take place all around us, such as last month’s tragic earthquakes in Indonesia that killed an estimated 6,000 people. Is it any wonder that so many among us, Jews and non-Jews alike, have trouble accepting the concept of an omniscient, omnipotent God who acts with directed purpose in the world?
Some, of course, solve this problem by saying that mere mortals can’t understand God, that God works in mysterious ways: “It is not in our power to explain either the tranquility of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous.” (Pirkei Avot 4:19) Others reject God’s existence altogether.
A third approach is articulated by Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism. Kaplan says that God is real and is a force for good in the world, but that God isn’t a supernatural being who intervenes in the natural order in response to our particular actions or prayers. Rather, God is the force for goodness inherent in all of us and that works through us to bring peace and justice to the world. When we behave generously and selflessly; when we act in accordance with divinely inspired values that promote justice and peace; when we are grateful for the blessings we enjoy in our lives; when we pray for strength and are strengthened, then God can work through our hands and our hearts.
This understanding of God–as a force for good working through us rather than as a figure who intervenes in the world to reward and punish–has its origins in the thought of medieval Jewish philosophers like Maimonides and Gersonides, who did not accept the idea of a God who willfully intervenes in the natural order. Today it is most evident in the work of thinkers like Lawrence Kushner and Harold Schulweis, although it has its analogs in Hasidic thought as well, which tends to focus more on our side of the human-God equation.
For some this approach may feel confusing–certainly, it does not offer the comfort of a God who knows all and is responsive to every particular being’s individual needs. It is a more nuanced conception of a God with whom we share responsibility for bringing goodness and peace into the world. Yet this is a powerfully affirming way to conceive of God and one that enables me–and the seventh graders–to understand the ways in which God is manifest, every day, all around us.