The God Upgrade

Finding your 21st Century Spirituality in Judaism’s 5000
Year Old Tradition

By Rabbi Jamie S. Korngold

Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011, 143 pages


Rabbi Korngold may
be a pantheist. She writes that she believes what she understands Spinoza did
that God is found in nature. She runs religious adventure outings and takes
people to camps and woods to experience God. She admits that she receives hate
mail from fellow Jews who strongly dislike her approach to Judaism. But she
feels that she is right and, more importantly, she feels that everyone should
find their own way to understand God.

She quotes Albert
Einstein frequently because she agrees with him. He said: “I believe in
Spinoza’s God who reveals Himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in
a God who concerns Himself with fates and actions of human beings.”

She notes a recent
Harris poll that “only 9 percent of American Jews claimed to believe in a God
who makes things happen in the world” even though the opposite is taught in
Jewish schools and sermonized by pulpit rabbis. She quotes Albert Einstein: “It
is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.”

Korngold feels
that while the Hebrew Bible made an undoubted significant contribution to
civilization, moving ancient people to a higher level of humanity and inspiring
further development, it “fits into our modern (computer) world about as well as
a manual typewriter from the 1960s does.” She doesn’t “advocate throwing out
meaningful history and tradition. Rather, let us build on the thousands of
years of wisdom we have inherited.” She emphasizes that we need to recognize
“that when we talk about God in the prayer book that it’s a metaphor,” not
meant to be taken literally. A person doesn’t need to “buy into the idea that
God split the Red Sea or spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai” to be a good Jew.

She rejects the
idea of a personal God who is involved in human affairs, who listens and
responds to prayers, who tests people, rewards them for good deeds and punishes
them for bad ones. She cites a poll that found that “Twenty-one percent of
Americans (but few Jews) still cling to this belief” that in “the afterlife, I
will be rewarded for my misery here.”
“If people are good because they fear punishment, and hope for reward,”
Albert Einstein wrote, “then we are a sorry lot indeed.”

Prayer is a period
of reflection, of judging oneself, of making an assessment. The Hebrew word for
praying l’hitpaleil, means “to judge
oneself.” Prayer reminds us of our history, family, our potential, and to care
for others. People have a responsibility to think and act, take control of
their lives, and not sit back and rely on divine help. Galileo wrote: “I do not
feel obliged to believe that God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and
intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” She writes: “I do not pray to
God when I pray…. I experience God through my prayers.”

She offers the
views of some famous Jewish thinkers. Maimonides (1138-1204) taught that we
cannot know God but that we can learn about God by studying the universe. Thus
people should study science. He and many others were convinced that the Torah
as everything else must make sense. “Thus, when he encountered an irrational
teaching in the Torah, he felt compelled to reinterpret it so that it made
rational sense.” A serpent did not entice Eve in the garden, and Jonah was not
swallowed by a whale. These are parables. The donkey did not speak to Balaam,
or Jacob wrestle with an angel. These were dreams.

She does not believe
that “the Torah was revealed by God to Moses on Sinai.” She writes that “some
students of his (Maimonides) works believe that this was only his belief as
written for the public. In private, they argue Maimonides doubted the
possibility of revelation at Sinai because it didn’t make rational sense.” She
could have added that this view is consistent with Maimonides’ contention that
prophecy is not a revelation or a communication from God; it is the human ideas
of a very intelligent person.

She understood
Spinoza (1632-1677), as we mentioned earlier, as believing that God is found in
nature. But just as Spinoza is unclear, so is she. Does this rabbi mean that
there is actually no God, but if we want to think of God, it is nature? Or are
she and Spinoza saying what Maimonides said before them. We cannot know God,
but the best way to understand Him is through His creations. Scholars debate
what Spinoza meant. It seems that she understands Spinoza in the first way: “he
thought God was nature and nature was God, all one and the same.”

She mentions the
views of some modern thinkers. Rabbi Harold Kushner, for example, believes that
God has nothing to do with the bad things that happen to good people. Although
she does not say so, Kushner took his idea from Maimonides who said the same
thing and elaborated: what people consider bad comes from what they do to
themselves, such as overeating; what others do to them, as when someone hits
another person; or is a natural event, such as a hurricane, which cleans the air
but kills people. She understands Kushner to believe that while God is not
involved in the hurtful event, “God helps us respond to and cope with the
disaster.” This seems like a contradiction to her Spinoza view that God is
nature; if so, how could inanimate nature help? Maimonides does not think that
God helps; people need to do help themselves.

In short, she
seems to take a pantheistic view of God: “As Spinoza taught us, the whole Earth
(the capital E is hers) truly is filled with God’s glory, and holiness
abounds.” “We meet God in places and moments of awe.” “For me,” she writes,
“the first step toward making traditional prayer meaningful was to move the
service into the wilderness.” Readers can decide it they want to accept her
ideas in total or in part or not at all. They are thought-provoking.