There is a famous joke about two men, Goldberg and Schwartz, who are walking to synagogue. They are stopped along the way by someone who asks them where they are going. They casually tell the man that they are both on their way to synagogue.
The man responds, “Goldberg, I know why you go to synagogue. You believe in God, and you’re an observant Jew.” Then he adds, “But Schwartz, you don’t believe in God, why are you going?”
Schwartz responds, “Goldberg goes to synagogue to talk to God, and I go to synagogue to talk to Goldberg.”
As Jews flock to synagogues this season of High Holy Days, I’m reminded that there are many Jews who are like Schwartz. A survey by the Pew Research Center observed that only 37 percent of Jews “absolutely believe in God.” Another 27 percent say they’re “fairly certain they believe in God,” and another 36 percent are in some place of nonbelief, uncertainty, or questioning.
In other words, over a third of American Jews are like Schwartz, our synagogue-goer who attends to talk to Goldberg.
I also imagine that Schwartz might give himself the popular label “spiritual but not religious.” Spirituality has become “in,” and religion has gone out of fashion. When people use the term “spiritual,” it’s fitting to point out that they generally have trouble defining it.
Definitions frequently describe an individual or personal connection to something larger than oneself. I want to offer a novel definition for the idea of spirituality: Spirituality is feeling, experiencing, or being in relationship with the divine, without being comfortable with a concrete label.
The spirituality phenomenon emerges from what we might call a “God gap.” Most of us were taught about a God who is a man with a white beard hanging out in the clouds. He may have even borne a striking resemblance to Zeus. And we were told that God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. And that sounded pretty fantastical and, for an innocent child, believable.
Then something happens in our lives that disconnects us from our childhood beliefs about God, and the realities of life. This is how the God gap surfaces. The God gap happens at moments of suffering or loss in our life. When a family member succumbs to cancer, when an infant child tragically dies from sudden infant death syndrome. When life feels broken with no repair in sight, we struggle to reconcile our belief in God and the reality in which we live.
The God gap often begins in the adolescent years, when we start to question the world around us and our eyes are opened to the harshness and unfairness of the world. When students become bar or bat mitzvah at the age of 13, they generally struggle with difficult biblical texts that seem out of sync with the contemporary world. They ask questions like “Why would God tell Abraham to sacrifice his beloved only son?” Unless we have honest and thoughtful conversations about God, this God gap will continue to widen in society.
I remind people that the word “Israel,” or “Yisrael” in Hebrew, means “one who wrestles with God.” This isn’t just a biblical reference to Jacob, who wrestles with a divine being. Israel has become the namesake for the Jewish people because it describes our theological wrestling with God through ages of persecution and suffering. Perhaps now in addition to wrestling with God, Jews and non-Jews wrestle most often with the feeling of being spiritual but not religious.
This High Holy Days season, I plan to delve into theological discussions about God so that we might be able to express comfortably our own beliefs using language that feels authentic to us and to the Jewish experience. Spirituality belongs in the synagogue alongside religion, just as Goldberg and Schwartz both belong to the Jewish community.
It’s okay to celebrate Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur so that you can talk to Goldberg, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find a way to talk to God as well.
Josh Franklin is the rabbi at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons in East Hampton, online at JCOH.org. Rosh Hashana begins Sunday evening.