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Rabbi Wittenberg's Weekly Message

Erev Shabbat 27 November 2009
10 Kislev 5770

Dear Community,

I’ve been privileged to have some wonderful conversations over the previous few weeks. Last night it was about God; the weeks before, the discussions were about prayer. I love such conversations, when they become real.
Jacob dreams of a ladder with its feet towards the earth and its top in heaven, which leads us into the presence of God. This ladder has become a metaphor not only for Judaism but for religion itself, grounded in the rights and wrongs of what we must do here on earth, guiding us through the realms of the spirit and helping us to find God. It’s in this spirit that I can hear in my head Paul Robeson singing the words ‘We are climbing Jacob’s ladder’.
It was a special conversation last night, because it was honest. For many people, the way God seems to be described in Judaism presents difficulties. In the Siddur, God appears as the recipient of our prayers, who, depending on unfathomable factors, will, or won’t, heal our sick, grant us forgiveness or provide the right balance of rain and sunshine for a plentiful year. In the Torah, God creates the world, and reaches down from heaven to reward or to punish. Again and again, if and as people find the context and the confidence to talk about it, I hear them express similar things. They don’t necessarily say, ‘I don’t believe in God’ (a sentence which might well continue ‘but I love Judaism’). Rather, they say something like: ‘I feel a sense of the oneness of things; I feel awe and sometimes beauty; I’m moved by a sense of the spirit’. Then they say, ‘I find that hard to relate to the God of the prayer book’. Many people don’t know that Judaism has many ‘God languages’, from the personal, emotional father, king, judge and friend of the Bible to the abstract God of the philosophers, the beloved of the poets and the infinite yet all-present nameless One of the mystics. Nor have the rabbis ever been afraid to challenge what God does, or fails to do, and why. The point is not that we have to choose, but that these riches are available to us in our own struggles. 
And struggle we must. It’s not a matter of replacing an old language with a new one. Rather, I see it like this. We have received, through Jewish tradition, sacred texts of the Torah and, later, of the Siddur. They are human creations, imbued with the search for God, in history, in ethics and in prayer. They lie at the vital core of all subsequent Jewish interpretations and explorations. The language of the Siddur is beautiful and venerable, resonant with the spirituality of up to a hundred generations. To enter it is to sail in a vast river of spiritual seeking. Would I swap it for something different? Never!
Yet it isn’t my language. Why should it be? I have to work with it, and let it work in me. It becomes music and metaphor, questions and challenges, teacher and guide. The more we know it, the less we know it. It’s fluid, changing, moving in its very familiarity. ‘Blessed are you, God’, we say this morning. Who’s the ‘you’ today? And where are we, and how do we relate to God, if at all, today? Is this part of the presence of God, this falling November semi-sunlight and the last crab apples? Is this also, the pained voice on the phone, saying ‘My sister is ill’? The ancient words are no longer in the Siddur, but in us, with the challenge of their constant becoming.
Shabbat Shalom
Jonathan Wittenberg