One of the most difficult parts of my becoming a liberal rabbi is sorting through my personal theology. Unlike some traditions, Judaism in general is fairly open on what one can believe as an individual, and non-Orthodox Judaism is even less defined. I had a lot of resistance to the theologies of others in some of my classes, and had great difficulty trying to articulate something of my own views.
Luckily, the Reform movement’s rabbinic arm, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, publishes a journal exploring topics of interest to Reform Jewish leaders. The Spring 2014 issue was devoted to issues of theology, spirituality, and education. The opening essay comes from Rabbi Arthur Green, who founded the transdenominational rabbinical school Hebrew College. His approach to theology resonates strongly with what I’ve discovered so far.
I’m suggesting a theology that sees through the personal, understands that it is all metaphor, and yet remains affectionately bound to it. Demythologize and remythologize. Both the Rambam and the Zohar understood that the reality of YHVH lies beyond all description in human terms. Maimonides chose the apophatic path: saying less about God is saying more. Purify your theological language, attempt to come as close as you can to the abstract truth. Get rid of myth. The Zohar, recognizing the same truth and inadequacy of language, takes the opposite strategy. Drown them in metaphor! Make everything a metaphor. Of course God is an elder on the throne – Daniel saw Him that way! But so too is God mother warrior, sun and moon, fountain and river, myrtle branch and etrog, bridegroom and bride. With so much metaphor, and with the metaphors switching back and flowing together at every moment, you couldn’t possibly freeze a single one of them and mistake it for THE truth. Dress the mystery of YHVH up in an endless variety of mythic garments of glory.
For me, the religious experience is a poetic experience – from liturgy and Torah to interpersonal connections and social justice. Metaphor is a potent paradigm for conceiving and reconceiving my sense of self and my relationship to others and to the world.
Walter Brueggemann, a prominent Christian biblical scholar and thought leader, also has a view on religion that resonates with what Art Green said and with my own beliefs. In an appearance on Krista Tippett’s podcast “On Being”, Brueggemann talks about how “poetry keeps on opening and opening and opening, while doctrine [or theology] keeps closing until you have nothing left of power.” Brueggemann’s point is that at its core, religious texts are meant to widen our understanding and experience of life. All too often, the need to clarify, to define, to create boundaries, to systematize, and to simplify result in a religious formulation that loses the rich quality that is precisely its worth.
Poetry requires patience, openness to how others read it, empathy, and an appreciation for ambiguity. For me, so too do religious texts and experiences.