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Talking theology in a house of God

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Rabbi 2 Rabbi

Rabbi Adam Cutler, Beth Tzedec Congregation, Toronto

Rabbi Adam Scheier, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, Montreal


Rabbi Cutler: Recently, a congregant emailed me Maimonides’ Thirteen Principles of Faith, and asked if I agreed with all of them. I replied in one word, “no.” Similarly, I recently met with a woman and her Jewish partner regarding her interest in conversion to Judaism. Before concluding the meeting, the boyfriend asked me a series of questions about my beliefs regarding the age of the world, the origin of the Torah and the existence of God.

These moments stand out for me, because I am so rarely asked about my personal beliefs regarding fundamental religious issues. These incidents forced me to question the extent to which a rabbi’s theology is important for his or her community.

Rabbis are evaluated by many criteria. Perhaps for a rabbi who is strong on many fronts – pastoral, preaching, teaching, etc –  theology is simply not an important criteria for evaluation. Or are we not inviting the conversation? Are we not open about our core beliefs, fearing that we will seem out of touch or maybe too radical?

How do you share your fundamental beliefs with your community? Do you worry that you may offend or push away congregants who hold a different truth?

Rabbi Scheier: It is true that our sermons and teachings focus more on how to be “God-like” than on how to be “God-believing.”

Maimonides’ influence on Jewish thought brought dogma to the fore. In fact, the Talmud does not record a comprehensive list of Jewish principles. It was Maimonides who insisted that agreeing with principles of belief are a prerequisite to being a member of the community. The irony you point out holds true: in all of the ways that congregations often grill potential rabbinic candidates, belief is rarely addressed.

I am reminded of the joke about the shul-going atheist who is asked why he attends synagogue. The atheist points to a religious Jew, Garfinkel. “You see Garfinkel?” he says. “Garfinkel comes to talk to God. I come to talk to Garfinkel.”

That said, I don’t shy away from speaking about God. I am aware that conversations about theology may be foreign turf for many of our members, but if we can’t discuss theology in synagogue, where can it be discussed?

Do you think there are measures communities can take to encourage this conversation?

Rabbi Cutler: I am now beginning my third year leading Havurat HaSefer, a modern Jewish philosophy reading group. At its best, this group, which meets every three weeks, not only reads and discusses great works, but also takes the opportunity to reflect upon them. I try to lead by example, not only serving as an explicator of text, but by speaking openly as a Jew whose theology is in flux.

I wonder if we created a safe space with excellent facilitators over a course of months or years whether we could empower a cadre of deep religious reflectors. For me, it would seem that it would have to be clear from the outset that no ideas are too foreign, no suggestions too radical. Facilitators would have to be knowledgeable enough to guide participants to thinkers whose ideas resemble their own. Rabbis would have to be comfortable enough to suggest books that may fall outside the stances of their own denominations (if not Judaism entirely).

How would you go about devising conversations on foundational issues of Jewish belief?

Rabbi Scheier: I think you are right that one begins discussing faith by exploring texts.

In the past, I have taught a class on belief using the text The God I Believe In, a 1994 book by Joshua Haberman that invited 14 prominent Jewish figures to pontificate about belief. I wonder if it might be a worthwhile project for our Canadian community to produce a similar volume, one that would explore the inner spiritual workings of our community’s spiritual, political and cultural leaders.

My wife, Maharat Abby Brown Scheier, often teaches that Jewish faith doesn’t address the present, it points to the future. To be a believing Jew means to believe that the future will be better. This idea stands behind the concept of the Messiah, and it is what motivates so much of what we do as rabbis and as a community.

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