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July 2, 2009

Guest post: Fear of G-d's name

Rabbi Yaakov Menken is the Director of Project Genesis, a Jewish cyber-outreach organization based in Baltimore.

No, it's not what you think. I am not referring to a healthy (and Biblically-mandated) fear of G-d and his Ineffable Name, but an aversion to mentioning G-d as a motivating force in our lives. Joel Alperson, a past national campaign chair for United Jewish Communities, wrote about this in a recent op-ed entitled "Don’t fear ‘G-d,’ ‘Torah’ and ‘Judaism’ " published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He writes:

I’ve collected the mission statements of the largest 17 Jewish federations in North America, and not one mentions “G-d,” “Torah” or “Judaism.” Nor do the mission statements of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, Hillel, the National Council of Jewish Women, The Wexner Heritage Foundation, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, Hadassah and the Jewish National Fund. Of all the organizations I looked into, only United Jewish Communities mentions but one of the three words, Torah, in its mission statement.

Mr. Alperson's theory is that these terms are avoided because they are "more particularistic. Tzedakah [Charity], tikkun olam [Repairing the World] and klal yisroel [the People of Israel] are considered universal and inclusive terms." He bemoans this phenomenon, and considers this problem to be one with a uniquely Jewish angle. He believes that the reason these terms induce such discomfort is because communal organizations, aiming to serve the breadth of the entire Jewish community, are afraid of any mention of a term that might highlight our numerous and profound internal divisions.

He may be right. But at the same time, I am reminded of an article written over 20 years ago by Daniel Polisar, today the director of the Shalem Center, and at that time a fellow student at Princeton University. He described an experience in a class in Philosophy and ethics, in which the students were asked to respond sequentially to a classic question of moral and ethical behavior: when confronted by an assailant who orders you to murder another, on threat of your own life, what are you supposed to do?

Now as it happens, Jewish ethics offers clear and unambiguous guidance on this matter: "who says your blood is redder?" Thus the Talmud prohibits murdering another person, even in order to save your own life. And this is what Dan, when asked, proceeded to tell the class: that Judaism teaches us that G-d Commanded us to react this way.

It so happens that Mr. Polisar was somewhere in the middle of the group of students. At the end of the class, he realized that he had triggered a sea change in the way the class answered the question: not one of the students asked before him had mentioned G-d in his or her response... and all, or practically all, of the students responding after him also mentioned G-d.

This encounter, along with numerous others, led him to argue in The Princeton Tory that G-d has been exiled from the college campus -- that students are inculcated to regard belief in G-d as anti-intellectual, the realm of irrational fundamentalists rather than the enlightened students of the Ivory Towers. And thus, while the vast majority of students clearly regarded G-d as a force in their lives (based upon the answers following his), no one wanted to be the first to admit that he or she sought the guidance of a higher power.

The directors of our communal organizations are generally well-educated, and if there is considerable truth to Mr. Polisar's argument -- and I believe there is -- this offers an alternate and more inward-directed reason why the mission statements of Jewish organizations might be averse to mentioning the Jewish religion. It is not that the writers fear highlighting our divisions, but that they do not want to highlight terms with which they themselves are uncomfortable.

At the same time, this is not necessarily the (only) reason why the students were reluctant to use G-d in their answers in that classroom. While in retrospect it may seem almost instinctive to call upon G-d's Name in a discussion of ethics, it is also fair to say that most people could not be nearly so unequivocal about what G-d would want them to do. Most religions, including the modern Jewish movements that do not regard the Talmud as an authoritative source, do not state an absolute, required answer to that precise question.

It could similarly be argued that many in the Jewish community feel this sort of ambiguity about their religion overall. How should they observe, or not? What should they, or shouldn't they, believe? Having departed from the moorings of Jewish tradition, they aren't quite sure which way to point themselves when the waves start crashing around them.

In the end, I think all three of these factors -- a reluctance to highlight divisions, ambiguity about religion, and a reluctance of the educated class to express religious feelings -- combine to explain why Jews outside the Orthodox community are apt to avoid mention of G-d, His Word, and our religion.

Where Joel Alperson and I certainly agree is regarding the consequences of that silence.

We must be the only people on the planet who believe we can transmit a message to future generations without saying specifically what that message is. Is it any wonder that most Jews cannot articulate Jewish purpose beyond some catch phrases or beyond merely expressing a desire that we survive as a people?

As with so many areas in life, religion is about making choices. We cannot be all things to all people, and we serve no one if we try to pretend otherwise.

Posted by Matthew Hay Brown at 4:04 PM | | Comments (0)
        

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About Matthew Hay Brown
Matthew Hay Brown writes and blogs about faith and values in public and private life for The Baltimore Sun. A former Washington correspondent for the newspaper, he has long written about the intersection of religion and politics. He has reported from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, traveling most recently to Syria and Jordan to write about the Iraqi refugee crisis.
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