Where do Jews find God? This one question may divide our community, at least on the subliminal level, more than any other issue today, and the answers transcend politics or our various synagogue movements. I would divide the Jewish world into two broad types: those who find God in the outside world — the world external to themselves — and those who find God on the inside, in the deep recesses of the soul.
The prophet Isaiah speaks for the first group — the externalists — with his words “Lift up your eyes on high and see who has created these!” Isaiah examines the natural world — mountains, streams, stars, planets, insects and microbial life — and feels God’s sure presence “out there” in the infinite grandeur of the universe. Externalists also discover God by studying various sacred texts, which they believe God, in some way, composed.
The matriarch Rebecca symbolizes the other group — the internalists. During her difficult pregnancy — she was carrying twins — the Torah tells us, “The children struggled together inside her; and she said, ‘If so, why am I?’ So she went to inquire of the Lord.” Rebecca comes to God through a profound inner process. She struggles with becoming a mother; with raising twins whom she knows will fight and feud; with balancing her own needs with the needs of her family; with her role as wife and matriarch. She wonders where her “I” — her essential self — fits among these competing roles, and this complex inner drama provokes her to examine the role God might play in her life. My friend and teacher Rabbi Wayne Dosick points out that the Hebrew word Rebecca uses for “I” is anochi — a fancy, elevated word, but also the word God often uses in the Torah when referring to Himself. The first word of the Ten Commandments, for instance is anochi. For internalists, finding God is a journey through anochi. They discover God as they contemplate the drama of their relationships, responsibilities and priorities.
For me, both approaches are equally valid, equally authentic. But we have to admit that it’s the externalists who face the most serious challenges in today’s world. Because nowadays there’s a non-supernatural answer to Isaiah’s question. Ask a scientist “who created these?” and he/she will discuss Darwinism, and the Big Bang, and Evolutionary Biology — all naturalistic processes. And even non-scientists are influenced by this non-theistic, rational paradigm. Five hundred years ago, if you asked any of our ancestors where rain came from, most would probably begin and end their explanations with God. But ask most American Jews today, and even the religious will probably start by discussing cloud movements, relative humidity and condensation. There’s also a persuasive literary/scientific answer to the formerly obvious question: who wrote the Torah? Again, our ancestors wouldn’t have hesitated: God. But today, even believers have heard of modern biblical criticism, which postulates human authors writing the bible for distinctly human purposes. All of which is to say, it’s getting harder to find God outside of ourselves. The external world of wonder, of awe, is contracting.
Interestingly, the Torah itself seems to predict this contraction, in the story of Elijah at Horeb. After fleeing the wicked King Ahab, Elijah winds up at Horeb — “The Mountain of God,” also known as Sinai. He climbs the holy mountain, desperate for a revelation. Several natural forces assault him — lightning, an earthquake, a powerful wind. But after each one, the Torah insists, “God was not in the fire…God was not in the wind.” In other words, Elijah, like some of us today, couldn’t find God’s essential presence in the drama of the natural world. The earthquake was powerful, but he could understand it without invoking God. But, in fact, Elijah did find God. “After the fire,” the Torah reports, “was a still, small voice.” God’s not in the fire, but God is in the still, small voice. And in the very next verse, Elijah hears that voice — the voice of God. It asks him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” For Elijah, the “still, small voice,” is an inner voice, probing his conscience, forcing him to ponder his purpose, his next steps. Like Rebecca, he finds God through his inner crises, his existential drama, his anochi.
Personally, I haven’t given up finding God in earthquakes, or in lightning, or in any of nature’s marvels. And I continue to discover God when I study our sacred texts. Neither scientists, not archeologists, nor literary scholars have the last word on these things, which still have the capacity to provoke awe. But, as science explains more and more about our natural world, I’m increasingly drawn to the internalists — to the way of Rebecca. I contemplate the complex dramas of my own life, my relationships, my responsibilities. And I wonder, “If so, why am I?” And then I go and ask God.