Beshallach: Has your rabbi ever asked you this?

When was the last time your rabbi -- indeed, any Jew – inquired about your relationship with G-d?  I suspect that the answer is “never.”  

What would you say/how would you feel if he/she did so?  Would you be at a loss for words?  Would you consider it a highly impertinent and invasive question?  Or, would you welcome it as an invitation for a serious discussion of your spirituality?  

Shirat Hayam, The Song of the Sea contained in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, begins:

Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the LORD, and spoke, saying: I will sing unto the LORD, for He is highly exalted; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.  The LORD is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation; this is my God, and I will glorify Him; my father's God, and I will exalt Him.

Two things strike me as strange about these opening verses.  First, Moses is the leader of a great multitude.  He and the entire community of thousands – or hundreds of thousands – have just escaped destruction – all of them together.  

So, why doesn’t Moses sing: “We will sing unto the Lord … The Lord is our strength and song, and He is become our salvation; this is our God, and we will glorify Him; our father's God, and we will exalt Him.”  And why do Moses and the people first sing, “the Lord is my salvation; this is my G-d; and I will glorify Him,” and only then: “my father’s G-d; and I will exalt Him.”  

In both cases, the clear priority is upon the individual’s relationship with G-d.  Not the relationship of the Jewish people with G-d, and not what G-d did for our patriarchs and matriarchs.  This ancient Jewish poem – the one that above all would seem to cry out for communal thanksgiving -- prioritizes instead the individual’s relationship with G-d.

But for many – most? -- of us, our Judaism, especially outside the sanctuary during prayer services, is largely or entirely devoid of a felt-relationship with the Divine. 

We know many of the reasons:
  
•    Judaism’s emphasis upon behavior rather than faith.  (Indeed, my friend, colleague, and teacher Rabbi Joshua Adler points out that the Torah itself focuses on G-d’s deeds, not G-d’s character, and certainly does not encourage us to attempt to describe G-d.) 
•    The rise of science, Western rationality, nationalism, and the Enlightenment.  
•    The creation of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism in which there is little “G-d talk” (except during set prayers).  More about that shortly. 
•    The lack of knowledge about the liturgy and inability to even understand the Hebrew.  Universalism, post-modernism, and cultural relativism. 
•    An almost instinctive self-preservation mechanism in Western society.  We don’t talk about G-d in public – that’s what Christians do, and they want to either persecute or convert us.  Better to keep quiet about it! 
•    And perhaps most importantly, the ascendancy of personal autonomy.  

I find this last factor to be sadly ironic.  It seems to me that with the ascendance of personal autonomy has come isolation and alienation from all things outside the self.  Praying alone, or more to the point, not praying at all.  And, if we don’t pray, if we don’t believe in something more powerful and/or more worthy than ourselves, if we don’t feel a relationship with something transcendent, how can we feel spiritual?  

And if we don’t feel spiritual, unless we are strongly tied to a Jewish community for social or other reasons, we are likely to be lost to Judaism.  The recent Pew Report highlights the great extent of assimilation among non-Orthodox American Jews.  Yet, many of these same Jews say that they are seeking greater “spirituality!”  Could it be that they would find it in non-Orthodoxy if they worked on their relationship with G-d?  I think so. 

Here are what I consider four symptoms showing that we need “relationship therapy” in our non-Orthodox world: 

Symptom #1: No spontaneous G-d talk by the leadership in the synagogue.  Little, if any, discussion of the relationship between G-d and pray-ers except references in Hebrew prayers or their English translation.  All references are therefore formulaic and often or usually not internalized, or even understood.  Beyond the language issue, I think that this is because both rabbis and congregants feel uncomfortable talking about the person-Divine relationship AND congregants might consider it an intrusion upon their personal prerogative.  In other words, many feel “it is no one’s business – and certainly not the rabbi’s business – whether a congregant feels any relationship with G-d.”  

Symptom #2:  No blessings or spontaneous G-d talk at home. In my experience, at least, few non-Orthodox Jews say any blessings outside of synagogue, except maybe Friday night candle lighting and “special occasions.” Little or no parent-children discussion of G-d at home. 

Symptom #3: No non-clergy G-d talk in public. Little, if any, ability to lead spontaneous prayer/blessing/invocation.  (I include myself at interfaith clergy meetings, although I’m getting better).  Could you do so?  Have you ever tried? 

Symptom #4: No where to turn, or, with apologies to Lucy of Peanuts, “The Doctor is Not In."  Let’s say that I want to consult a therapist for my relationship problems with G-d.  To whom do I turn?  My rabbi?   Maybe, but he or she is as likely as not to say “I have doubts, too.  Here are some good books to read.”   Non-orthodox Rabbis don’t take confession or give faith pep-talks. 

We need to do more than sing the Song of Songs, which includes such familiar lines as “Mi Chamocha, Ba’elim Adonai,” “Adonai Y’imloch l’olam va’ed,” and references to Miriam and the women dancing with timbrels.  We need to improve the relationship of which it sings.  

In my last two d’vrei Torah, I have suggested that we (1) promote more talk about Jewish justice, and (2) encourage more youth interaction among Jewish youth.  This Shabbat, I am suggesting that we all start focusing on promoting individual relationships with G-d.  Ours and others’ – without embarrassment.  That we speak about this with family and friends, in synagogue, at home, and even in public. 

I often tell my Christian friends and acquaintances, who are focused on faith, that Judaism isn’t really a “religion” as they understand religion.  I refer to the Jewish people, our history, our land, our philosophy, etc.  But Judaism IS a faith, too!  It’s not rigid or fundamentalist.  There are many and extremely diverse Jewish views of G-d.  But we need some personal relationship with the Divine to be committed to Judaism.  And we shouldn’t shy away from discussing it.  

Just last night (which was Thursday night, as I write this), I strolled through market stalls deep in the Mea She’arim section of Jerusalem.  Over the refrigerator case of a fish market was a sign reading (in Hebrew): “Everything that happens is the will of the Creator.”  

We don’t necessarily need to go that far; yet, it seems to me that many non-Orthodox Jews are close to the opposite extreme.  If our Judaism is to survive, we need to say, to teach, and to believe, as did Moses and the Israelites at the Sea, “'This is My G-d' ... and I will have a relationship with Him.”  And start acting that way.   Why not start this Shabbat? 

Ken Y’hee ratzon. 

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem! 

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3