What is God – part 1

If you are one of the many Jews who think of God as a purposive entity, a real being with likes and dislikes, who intervenes in the world of humans, then you know to whom you are praying.  For the rest of us, who can’t quite conjure up an image of a divine personage, to whom are we praying?  Or to what are we praying?

For us, the word “God” is a metaphor we use to describe something which is beyond description.  We have an experience of this force, but we can’t explain it.  God, then, is the name we use to describe the transcendent mystery that gives meaning to the important things we do.

This year, I taught a class in the Adult Education program called “What is God?”  about the metaphors we use to talk about this mystery.  Turns out, we have found dozens of metaphors in our liturgy that help us think about God.  I believe they fall into nine categories:

1.    Creator
2.    Rule-maker
3.    Holy
4.    Model
5.    Helper
6.    Presence
7.    Source of light
8.    Voice
9.    Ineffable

The trick is to find the metaphors that work for you.  A number of years ago, I was having a conversation on this topic with Roger Rudich, a former president of the Temple.  I said that metaphors for God based on “parent” didn’t work for me, because I had had a troubling relationship with my actual parents.  “Maybe,” said Roger, “that might mean that God as ‘parent’ could be just the thing you need.”  Hmm, I thought, I really need to explore this further.

So, I intend to use the Temple’s new blog to explore some of these metaphors with you.  Next time, we will look at the most basic question – why would we want to think of God as a metaphor.  Then, in subsequent blog entries, I will share with you pieces of liturgy that illustrate the various categories of metaphors we use.  I am hoping that you will share your thoughts about which work for you, and why, and which leave you cold.

We won’t have an exact understanding of to whom or to what we are praying, but we might have an image that makes the process of prayer more meaningful.  Let me know if you agree.

Dan Swartzman has been teaching in our Adult Education program for many years.  Dan is a professor at UIC, where he teaches ethics, law and nonprofit management.  He and his family have been members of Temple Sholom for 23 years.