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Rabbi Deborah Waxman Talks Prayer and Personal God in Reconstructionist Judaism

Rabbi Deborah Waxman gives a lecture about Reconstructing Judiasm in the Hall of Philosophy Friday July 19, 2019. SARAH YENESEL/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

 

For Week Four’s Interfaith Friday in the Hall of Philosophy, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion and senior pastor, posed a series of questions to Rabbi Deborah Waxman, who spoke on behalf of reconstructionist Judaism.

The first woman rabbi to head a Jewish seminary and congregational union, Waxman is the Aaron and Marjorie Ziegelman Presidential Professor and president of Reconstructing Judaism, a rabbinical college and the central organization of the Jewish reconstructionist movement. Under her leadership, the college has been able to develop a new curriculum.

Waxman has also written for publications such as the The Forward, The Times of Israel, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Huffington Post.

What follows is an abridged version of Waxman’s conversation. Waxman and Robinson’s remarks have been condensed for clarity.


Robinson: You talked about how religion is evolving. I actually happen to agree with that, but what does that do to the notion of eternal truths?

Waxman: When Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan proposed his way of understanding Judaism — and he really wanted it to be vitalizing for all of Judaism and for all progressive religions — the first thing he suggested was to look at the breadth of Jewish life and see that religion was at the center of it. It was an animating impetus to create a whole, rich civilization. … The continuity was not any particular understanding of God or any particular core beliefs, but in fact the ongoing existence of the Jewish people wrestling with God at all times, open to other influences … and also reactive to things that were thrust upon us, like the destruction of the temple or the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the 15th century.

And, it was the persistence of the Jewish people and our connection to the divine that led to Jewish existence. As self-conscious moderns aware of history and how things changed, if we insisted on any one understanding of God or other eternal truths, it’s likely that the Jewish people and the Jewish civilization would have disappeared. Israelite rite was based around animal sacrifice at a central location in Judaism. Had there not been some way to re-imagine another way of approaching and experiencing the divine, the Israelite people and the nascent Jewish religion would have disappeared.

The ancient rabbis didn’t think that they were breaking with what came beyond; they were seeking some kind of continuity. In the Talmud, they were seeking to weave together continuities, but they also were introducing radical change that ended up being continuous rather than disruptive. So, what this means is that we are constantly seeking after the divine and seeking after eternal truths, but we do it with a sense of humility and with a sense of recognition of how much Jewish thought and Jewish life has changed. This ideally should inoculate us against fundamentalism and against too much certainty. We liberal Jews do it with an understanding that (is represented) here at Chautauqua Institution — that we can learn deeply from other traditions. So Kaplan himself read the Christian theologians who were putting forward process theology with great interest and was deeply informed by their insights, even as he Judaized them. What it means, I think, is a lot of work and a lot of wrestling and not a lot of certainty. I think that is an apt religious stance for our time.


When we think of Job and this incredibly manipulative sport between God and the devil — which it just seems unbelievably cruel — what are your thoughts?

Satan’s a conundrum because I believe the Book of Job is the only time that Satan appears in the Hebrew Bible. So, it’s an outlier character, and God responds, so it’s not like you can just put this off. It is a conundrum, though, because here we have this incredible book of not just theology, but the odyssey of divine justice with this character who makes a brief appearance and doesn’t really return again. That’s its own subject of discussion. But, it’s clear that Job emerges from a large philosophical and religious conversation happening among faith traditions in the time. And, we see evidence of that throughout the Hebrew Bible, of other traditions winning their way in. But, you’re right about the cruelty in the Book of Job. I do not turn to Job for comfort myself. I know that there are many rabbis who feel like it is the greatest source of poetry in the Hebrew Bible. I am deeply pained by that.


Do you suppose that Satan … figured more heavily in the millennium before Job, that Job was sort of the tail end of that?

What I feel convinced of is that we humans have been asking these questions about why some evil people are rewarded and some good people suffer so terribly. … It’s an abiding impulse to say all of this is embedded in … a God who is co-equal to the divine or subordinate. … I find that that’s a slippery slope, and it is too easy to turn it into some othering that I think lets us off the hook too much. And I don’t really want to be let off the hook. I want to be called every single day to try to make manifest godliness in the world.


In terms of not positing a personal God that you can snuggle up to and have a chat with, what does that do for prayer? Does prayer then just become a stylized, liturgical act?

One of my teachers, Rabbi Jacob Staub, has a really powerful article titled “Building a Personal Relationship with a Nonpersonal God.” Even as there is rich imagery and tremendous poetry for names of God, a lot of the liturgy really does address a personal God. When I pray, it is something much more than a stylized exercise. One thing I know that I’m doing is I’m joining in the hopes, the aspirations and the pain of thousands of years of my ancestors before me, and putting forward my own expression of those. There is certainly a practice of individual prayer in Judaism, but overwhelmingly, we come together in a group of at least 10 in a quorum, and we’re praying from a set liturgy. At all times, prayer is an act of humility. Prayer is about remembering that the universe and the world is much larger than just myself. And so, I cannot know who the address is. I’m very happy to use sometimes the traditional liturgy, sometimes more contemporary liturgy. But that said, I’ll tell you two quick stories.

Our sister-in-law died of metastatic breast cancer at the age of 36, after a valiant four-year battle, and I was incredibly angry at a God I didn’t believe in. And every day, my brother asked me to say the mourner’s meditation because he was parenting a 4-year-old child. Every single day, I would cry and ask “Why?” and my answer is this: My pain was the pain of why. Eventually, it was the community that held me and supported me and brought me back around. And the pain lessened but didn’t disappear.

I’ll tell you another story. There’s a line from the Psalms that says: “From a narrow place, I crawled out to God, and he answered me and brought me into a wide open space.” And, any number of times where I just feel so constrained and so uptight and so miserable, all I have said is “help” and … just in that action of turning to something that is larger than myself, I can breathe more freely and the space is wider. I do not know who or what the address is, but I know it is something beyond myself.


Richard Rohr said there are some things that we can’t resolve; we just have to hold them. Does this sound right to you?

I think that’s right. I don’t think that my theology needs to be systematic and comprehensive and complete. I have two different images that work really well for me. One is poetry. For me, theology is evocative and what works in the moment. And sometimes, it is very traditional and sometimes it is just the help. Then, I think the way I piece it together is much more like a quilt than it is a blanket. And, I love the seams (because) the seams are part of my own story and help me remember how I went from a place of suffering to a place of greater peace.


Would you describe to us what godliness looks like? How will we know it when we see it?

What is true for one person may not be true for others.  … I’ll tell you another story. I came to visit my brother and sister-in-law. … Right as (my brother) arrived home from work, someone from their synagogue came and delivered the shabbos meal for us, the meal for Friday night. She arrived just as my brother and I were greeting each other — and it was an emotional greeting — and she just handed over the package and left. My brother had a kind of arrested look on his face as she left. He turned to me and said, “I have no idea who that was.” I tell that story as … an example of godliness. … If we exercise and hone ourselves to be attuned to godliness, then we will know it when we see it, and we will be inclined to see it often.

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AnaBella Lassiter

The author AnaBella Lassiter

AnaBella Lassiter is a rising senior at Penn State Behrend in Erie, where she’s studying English with a focus in professional writing and history. She also serve as the Arts & Entertainment editor of her school’s paper, the Behrend Beacon. She is eager to report on the afternoon lectures for The Chautauquan Daily. When she’s not writing, she is walking her dachshund or rereading Wuthering Heights for the 30th time.

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