Rabbi Rick Jacobs: 'I think about God every day. I'm not petitioning. I'm not praising. I'm simply sitting with the One.'
Editor’s Note: This article introduces a new column in which Rabbi Alfredo Borodowski, executive director of the Skirball Center for Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-el and founding rabbi of Congregation Sulam Yaakov in Larchmont, asks leading religious figures, thinkers and activists in Jewish life what they think about God? He began with Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
Alfredo Borodowski: Rick, you are going to share your views of God with a lot of Jews. Are you concerned, maybe nervous?
Jacobs: I’m not nervous, I’m excited because we talk about everything. We talk about Jewish political questions, and post-denominations. We talk about all these important things, but as my teacher Eugene Borowitz would say, people are uncomfortable talking about God. I actually think it’s great to open the conversation about God and to show that there is an incredible plurality of ways to understand and relate to God. I’m excited — not nervous — that we could talk about God.
Let’s play a theological game I call “Divine by surprise.” I will present you with two options and you choose the one that first comes to your mind.
1) Power or Being? Jacobs: Being
2) Perfect or Evolving? Jacobs: Evolving
3) Judge or Compassionate? Jacobs: Compassionate
4) Particular or Universal? Jacobs: Yes! (laughter)
5) Fair or Unfair? Jacobs: (long pause) Neither
6) Rational-Mystical? Jacobs: Yes.
I’m surprised about your “rational-mystical” answer.
I think that the rational approach gets us to some unique kinds of questions but not to the ultimate ones; so if you press me to choose one, I would take mystical over rational.
Then on Shabbat afternoon what would you read: Maimonides’ “Guide of the Perplexed” or the mystical “Zohar?”
The Zohar … but on Tuesday morning I may go for the Guide.
You chose an evolving God. Why?
You know, the Divine dimension that is beyond our existence, or Ein Sof [Without End], may be perfect, but the immanent, the God that we relate to, that we experience, feels like an evolving God. For me anything that is alive is growing, changing, evolving.
Do you think about God every day? Or as one of you favorite thinkers, Buber would ask: Is there a God-Rick pattern of encounter?
I definitely think about God everyday. For me, my daily meditation is my most intimate conversation with God. When I’m sitting very quietly, I’m not petitioning; I’m not praising, I’m simply sitting with the One who creates and sustains and envelops the world. God is not the source of my pain, but the source of my strength.
Let’s move back in time to meet little Rick. Who was he? What did he believe? How did little Rick discover the Divine?
When I went to summer camp in Northern California we would sit in a circle among Redwood trees and these Redwood trees literally would become part of our minyan. We would say a prayer about the creative power of God and I would feel connected beyond myself.
So little Rick, I think, had religious questions and experiences in him from the beginning. But it took a long time to connect anything that happens in synagogues, that happens in prayer, to what I felt about the ultimate ground of existence, God.
Why do Jews have such a complicated relationship with God? We were God’s first love. We have a ketubah [marriage contract] called the Torah. Is there any kind of marriage counseling for fixing that relationship?
Much has to do with language. A lot of the things we say theologically, I don’t believe them literally. When I think of the prayer book, to me the prayer book is poetry. It’s a way to talk about the most important relationships and the most important dimensions of my life, but you know I think a lot of us read theology as if we’re reading science.
Rick, you were a professional dancer, still a dancer… Is God an artist?
For sure. It’s the idea that first of all this is more like art than science and it’s more mystical than it is rational. People ask me “you were a dancer, then you went to study the rabbinate, aren’t those two opposite things?” I say they are the same thing because meaning is about exploring and living at times in the non-rational; the place that you can’t explain. That’s a place where, beyond the rational, art and religiosity live. So for me God is more artist than King.
When I visited your former congregation, Westchester Reform in Scarsdale, I always felt a sense of liturgical drama that involved more than words but music — sacred drama.
I’ve rarely met someone who will pull out a piece of liturgy and say `this speaks to my soul,’ but I have rarely found a person who did not pull out a piece of liturgical music that didn’t speak to their soul.
Rationalists, such as Maimonides, and mystical poets, such as Yehuda Ha-Levy, agree that at the end of the journey there is silence — that silence is the ultimate connection.
Which by the way, you’re a pulpit rabbi, too, Alfredo, how many times do we ask the congregation for silence and after 20 seconds there is all this coughing.
It’s so uncomfortable.
But emptiness can be the holiest and most important place.
Then besides social action in which we have to raise our voices loud and fix the world, at the end of the day the greatest gift we can give God is silence?
And to heal and to unify and to connect. People are not solitary. We’re integrated and connected in this oneness that is God. I think God would love us, in every small and large way, to do things that bring the sense of interconnectedness to reality. And sitting in silence for me is a moment to remember and to reconnect and to be responsible and to be compassionate and to be as clear as I can be. I think that would cause the Divine countenance to smile upon us.
Rick, is this life the end of the journey?
I don’t think so. There is something beyond the physical that makes us who we are. There is some dimension to our existence that is eternal.
Rick, thank you for being the first one to jump into this eternal dialogue.
Thank you, Alfredo.