The God Upgrade
Finding your 21st Century Spirituality in Judaism's 5000 Year Old Tradition
By Rabbi Jamie S. Korngold
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2011, 143 pages
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - May 9, 2011
Rabbi Korngold may be a pantheist. She writes that she believes what she understands Spinoza did that God is found in nature. She runs religious adventure outings and takes people to camps and woods to experience God. She admits that she receives hate mail from fellow Jews who strongly dislike her approach to Judaism. But she feels that she is right and, more importantly, she feels that everyone should find their own way to understand God.
She quotes Albert Einstein frequently because she agrees with him. He said: "I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals Himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns Himself with fates and actions of human beings."
She notes a recent Harris poll that "only 9 percent of American Jews claimed to believe in a God who makes things happen in the world" even though the opposite is taught in Jewish schools and sermonized by pulpit rabbis. She quotes Albert Einstein: "It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education."
Korngold feels that while the Hebrew Bible made an undoubted significant contribution to civilization, moving ancient people to a higher level of humanity and inspiring further development, it "fits into our modern (computer) world about as well as a manual typewriter from the 1960s does." She doesn't "advocate throwing out meaningful history and tradition. Rather, let us build on the thousands of years of wisdom we have inherited." She emphasizes that we need to recognize "that when we talk about God in the prayer book that it's a metaphor," not meant to be taken literally. A person doesn't need to "buy into the idea that God split the Red Sea or spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai" to be a good Jew.
She rejects the idea of a personal God who is involved in human affairs, who listens and responds to prayers, who tests people, rewards them for good deeds and punishes them for bad ones. She cites a poll that found that "Twenty-one percent of Americans (but few Jews) still cling to this belief" that in "the afterlife, I will be rewarded for my misery here." "If people are good because they fear punishment, and hope for reward," Albert Einstein wrote, "then we are a sorry lot indeed."
Prayer is a period of reflection, of judging oneself, of making an assessment. The Hebrew word for praying l'hitpaleil, means "to judge oneself." Prayer reminds us of our history, family, our potential, and to care for others. People have a responsibility to think and act, take control of their lives, and not sit back and rely on divine help. Galileo wrote: "I do not feel obliged to believe that God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." She writes: "I do not pray to God when I pray…. I experience God through my prayers."
She offers the views of some famous Jewish thinkers. Maimonides (1138-1204) taught that we cannot know God but that we can learn about God by studying the universe. Thus people should study science. He and many others were convinced that the Torah as everything else must make sense. "Thus, when he encountered an irrational teaching in the Torah, he felt compelled to reinterpret it so that it made rational sense." A serpent did not entice Eve in the garden, and Jonah was not swallowed by a whale. These are parables. The donkey did not speak to Balaam, or Jacob wrestle with an angel. These were dreams.
She does not believe that "the Torah was revealed by God to Moses on Sinai." She writes that "some students of his (Maimonides) works believe that this was only his belief as written for the public. In private, they argue Maimonides doubted the possibility of revelation at Sinai because it didn't make rational sense." She could have added that this view is consistent with Maimonides' contention that prophecy is not a revelation or a communication from God; it is the human ideas of a very intelligent person.
She understood Spinoza (1632-1677), as we mentioned earlier, as believing that God is found in nature. But just as Spinoza is unclear, so is she. Does this rabbi mean that there is actually no God, but if we want to think of God, it is nature? Or are she and Spinoza saying what Maimonides said before them. We cannot know God, but the best way to understand Him is through His creations. Scholars debate what Spinoza meant. It seems that she understands Spinoza in the first way: "he thought God was nature and nature was God, all one and the same."
She mentions the views of some modern thinkers. Rabbi Harold Kushner, for example, believes that God has nothing to do with the bad things that happen to good people. Although she does not say so, Kushner took his idea from Maimonides who said the same thing and elaborated: what people consider bad comes from what they do to themselves, such as overeating; what others do to them, as when someone hits another person; or is a natural event, such as a hurricane, which cleans the air but kills people. She understands Kushner to believe that while God is not involved in the hurtful event, "God helps us respond to and cope with the disaster." This seems like a contradiction to her Spinoza view that God is nature; if so, how could inanimate nature help? Maimonides does not think that God helps; people need to do help themselves.
In short, she seems to take a pantheistic view of God: "As Spinoza taught us, the whole Earth (the capital E is hers) truly is filled with God's glory, and holiness abounds." "We meet God in places and moments of awe." "For me," she writes, "the first step toward making traditional prayer meaningful was to move the service into the wilderness." Readers can decide it they want to accept her ideas in total or in part or not at all. They are thought-provoking.