Here’s a book review I’ve been working on. The post is a little longer than usual….
Rabbi Jamie S. Korngold has written a book called “The God Upgrade: Finding Your 21st-Century Spirituality in Judaism’s 5,000-Year-Old Tradition.” Korngold, who is also known as “The Adventure Rabbi,” puts forth a theology of a non-interventionist God who is basically just an experience, and certainly not a being of any kind. In this she is typical of many of the liberal rabbis whom I know. They do not believe in a theistic deity, but they still claim a relationship with God. Ask them what they mean and they give non-sensical answers such as this one in the book:
“I do not pray to God when I pray,” I explained [to a participant in one of her seminars]. “I experience God through my prayers [emphasis in original]. Through my voice and yours joining together, and through the timeless echoes of those who came before me, I imagine my prayers joining those of my ancestors as I speak the same words they did, layer upon layer.”
How does this work? Sometimes prayer is like a meditation. I repeat a Hebrew phrase over and over and suddenly find myself descending below the tumult of my life….
Other times I experience God through the communal encounter. …The shared language of prayer even (or perhaps especially) saying words in a language we do not understand, enables us to connect with each other in a unique way. Saying the same exact words that I know my grandmother said when she lit the Shabbat candles…is another type of God experience. (pp. 108-109)
Such attempts to salvage God for modern Jewish purposes are responsible for the absurdity of most current Jewish theology.
What does it mean to say that you “do not pray to God” when you’re praying to God? What is it you’re doing when every utterance is addressed to God? Every siddur (prayer book) is filled with prayers that were written by pre-modern people. It is true that attempts have been made by liberals to remove the most extreme irrelevancies. In early prayer books, the Reconstructionists whittled away references to the chosen-ness of Israel. Reform Jews put an end to praising God’s power to resurrect and to petitions for restoration of sacrifices. However, today’s Reconstructionist siddur has reinstated the Jews as God’s chosen. The new Reform book has revived prayers for the resurrection of the dead (though translated poetically). Everywhere you look, liberal Jews are returning to traditional language and behavior.
As for “saying the same exact words that I know my grandmother said,” Korngold’s rationalist approach flies out the window every time she states, “Praised are you, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, who has sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us to light Shabbat candles.” If she’s not talking to God, to whom is she talking? Herself? Then why recite this formula? Why say things that she doesn’t mean?
I suppose it’s related to her parenthetical comment that it may be “especially” good to say prayers in a language we don’t understand. As a lover of Hebrew, I’m a little irritated that killing it off might be the key to true prayer. What would she say to Israelis who can’t unlearn their mother tongue? Perhaps they could recite their non-prayers to the un-god in some ancient forgotten language so they can be like the lucky Hebrew-illiterate diaspora Jews who really experience God. She is on to something, of course. The more people understand these prayers, the less they are interested in reciting them.
Korngold also addresses the doubts we have that anything is out there at all. Ultimately, she believes in the experience of God, even if she can’t say what the heck it is we’re supposed to be experiencing. In one of the sillier passages in her book, she cites that great philosopher, Morgan Freeman, who hosted a Science Channel series about physics and cosmology:
Having immersed himself in this world of scientific exploration and worked with hundreds of scientists, Freeman explains that scientists reach different conclusions about the origins of the universe. But there is one element in which they are consistent; when the scientists reach the part of cosmology that they don’t understand and that is beyond their knowledge, they credit the hand of God. (p. 47)
Don’t get me wrong, Morgan Freeman is one hell of an actor, but this statement proves nothing. The “God of the gaps” theory is nonsensical whether it comes from a scientist, a theologian or an actor. Based upon the scientists I am familiar with, I also don’t think his conclusion is accurate. We all should know by now that when Einstein said “God,” he wasn’t advocating prayer.
All in all, this book is yet another attempt by an unclear thinker to address the reasonable concerns of non-theists. She accomplishes it by patiently explaining that prayer isn’t prayer and God isn’t God. I understand this game because I played it very well for a long time.
In preparing for my upcoming holiday talks, I went back to look at the sermons I delivered before I became a humanistic rabbi. I was pleasantly relieved to find that I had aggressively rejected supernaturalism. I was not at all surprised to see that I had engaged in the same game as Korngold. It was in those passages that I found myself most unconvincing. I bet those who heard me felt the same way.
Here is my challenge to those rabbis who continue to bow and shuckle and praise and petition a god in whom they don’t believe. Look into the idea of cognitive dissonance. Think about how we are affected by expressing (or chanting) ideas that we do not hold. Reconstructionist Judaism comes to mind. Founded by the brilliant non-supernaturalist Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, neither he nor his movement gave up theistic language. As a result, for all of the writing and teaching that he did, his own movement no longer shares his philosophy. If speech and conviction do not match, one or the other will take over. (I thank my colleague, Rabbi Eva Goldfinger, for that insight.)
I appreciate that Korngold and others like her are trying to preserve a connection to Judaism. But they are going about it the wrong way. The key is not to say one thing while believing another. It is to say what we mean and to mean what we say. If we don’t believe in a God who is an Actor in history, stop talking to and about him that way.
I can also appreciate the desire to feel connected to our grandmothers when we light candles. It’s a ritual that Jews have performed for a long time. But we can preserve the meaningful rituals without parroting fossilized statements and beliefs that accompanied them. Our grandparents believed many things that we now understand to be superstitious nonsense. We’re advanced enough to know that no god commanded us to light candles. So let’s stop saying blessings written by people who had not yet arrived at that realization.
In closing, I ask you to imagine for a moment that you have an infection. You go to your doctor who prescribes antibiotics. But before you leave, your physician asks that you bare your arm so that she can perform the ritual bloodletting cupping to balance your humors. It’s not that she believes in it, but it’s a 2,000 year old medical tradition, so she likes to do it. It makes her feel connected to Hippocrates. She says, “Through the timeless echoes of those who came before me, I imagine this act joining those of my ancestors as I do the same things they did, layer upon layer.”
How fast before you’re out of the door?