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Drawing Near to God: A Discussion Guide

This discussion and study guide to the “Drawing Near to God” Focus section includes background information, article summaries, questions, a bibliography, and more.

A. Overview

This Reform Judaism Focus section, "Drawing Near to God," invites you to consider your understanding of God, encourages you to explore preconceptions about whether and how God is manifest in your life, and suggests traditional and modern ways to relate to God. The four essays explore rational approaches to God as well as dimensions of feeling and personal response. The profound and personal questions you will encounter are the same questions our ancestors asked. You will also explore the belief system that framed their approach to God, namely: 1. God is. 2. God is one. 3. God is approachable even though not entirely understood.

This section poses questions such as:

  • What does the phrase "draw near to God" mean?
  • Why would I want to have a relationship with God?
  • What preparation do I need to come closer to God?
  • What can I expect if I succeed in getting near to God?
  • How can I know for sure that God is?
  • Where/how do I find God?
  • If I find God, what, if anything, will God expect of me?
  • Does Judaism expect me to proclaim a belief in God?

The authors of the Bible understood the circumstances that shaped how our biblical forebears thought about God. The writers knew that our ancestors confronted God in ways that accorded with their understandings in their times, and believed that Someone or Something greater than humanity could become accessible if they knew how to look. The Bible record reflects, therefore, the ambiguities with which the biblical authors wrestled:

  • Adam & Eve met a God who was very much like them. "They heard the Lord God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day." –Genesis 3:8.
  • Sarah laughed when told she would have a child. –Genesis 18:12. Did Sarah think God didn't communicate, or that God lies? Did she wonder why God cared about her?
  • Abraham's first encounter with God was precipitous. "The Lord said to Abram, 'Go forth.'" –Genesis 12:1. Later "the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision." –Genesis 15:1. Still later, God's covenant-making with Abraham came via animal sacrifice and a "deep sleep." –Genesis 15:9-12.
  • Abraham knew God well enough to argue with God over the fate of the inhabitants of Sodomand Gemorah. "Shall not the Judge of the earth deal justly?" –Genesis 18:25.
  • Isaac based his behavior on his experiences with God. "Do not go down to Egypt; stay in the land which I point out to you." –Genesis 26:1.
  • Jacob failed to recognize that God was near. "Surely the Lord is present in this place and I, I did not know it." –Genesis 28:16.
  • Moses first encountered the mystery of God on familiar terrain while tending the flock. –Exodus 3:1-2.
  • God forbade the Israelites to approach God. "Do not let the priests or the people break through to come up to the Lord." –Exodus 19:24.
  • Moses and others saw God on, of all places, a bejeweled pavement on Mt.Sinai. –Exodus 24:9-11.
  • We think of Moses as one who "knew" God "face to face," but not entirely. "A person may not see me and live." –Exodus 33:20.
  • Following God's instructions, Moses built a Tent of Meeting so that God would have a place to "live among the Israelites." –Exodus 39:45.

The received biblical text is a starting point for the quest for God, its deeper meanings pointing to various ways in which we might comprehend God. For example, the God portrayed in Edensuggests that, far from being aloof and transcendent, God is near in our daily lives. Moses' encounter intimates that we might not have to search far and wide for God. God perceived on a jeweled pavement might suggest that God is "in charge" but is approachable by those who are worthy. Later, the psalmist wondered who is worthy to be in God's presence and concluded: "He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not taken a false oath by My life or sworn deceitfully." –Psalm 24:3. Many of the prophets encountered God in visions, others while going about their everyday pursuits. God came usually unannounced and the prophets were almost always reluctant to hear God's demands. Elijah actively searched for God and failed to find God in the fearsome power of wind, earthquake, and fire. Then there came "A soft murmuring sound (some translations: a still, small, voice)....Then a voice addressed him." -1 Kings 19:12-13.

The rabbis of the Talmud, starting around the second century C.E., wrestled with the same questions. Their replies, firmly rooted in biblical views of God, are addressed to all generations and, thereby, help validate our own search and our tendency to speak about God in anthropomorphic language. They, like the Bible before them and we after them, acknowledge that God is ultimately a mystery but nevertheless approachable. Note Wolpe:

"The Rabbinic view of God...blossoms from such biblical imagery. The Rabbis did not concoct a God alien to the tradition. They turned to the God of their ancestors: the God depicted in so many poetic passages. The God who is, in the Psalmist's urgent words, close to those whose hearts are broken.

"Therefore, the Rabbis spoke of God in categories one would normally reserve for another person: friend, parent, even lover. Such terms afford an avenue for the expression of feeling toward God and of relation to Him. Each appellation highlights the part God can play in human life, at various times and in different situations..."We liken God to His creations in order to understand Him better" (Mechilta, Bachodesh). Speaking of God in human terms is, in its way, a religious imperative.

"If you desire to know He who created this world with words, study the Aggadah [Midrashic legends]" (Sifre Deut. 49). It is through our words that we come to know He who created everything with words. We study the Midrash because through that medium we come to know God." –pp. 61-62

Yet, in fairness to the tradition, we should also note that some biblical texts do not so automatically accept God's existence. For example, the very generation that experienced God's power firsthand when God freed them from slavery soon built a golden calf as Aaron officiated and proclaimed, "This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt" (Exodus 32:4). The accounts of the years of desert wanderings are replete with rebellions and denials of God. On the plains of Moab, the next generation, born in the freedom of the desert and poised to enter the Promised Land, traded Adonai for Baal Peor (Numbers 25). Centuries later, even after Elijah had publicly demonstrated God's power (1 Kings 18), the Israelites succumbed to the lure of Canaanite gods. The prophets consistently chided the Israelites for their lack of faith, disobedience to God, and involvement with pagan deities. For such transgressions, the prophets warned, the Jewish kingdom and nation would suffer severe penalty. Thus, the same Bible records instances of certainty that God is and instances when our ancestors denied God or denied God in their lives.

The search for God confronts this paradox: God is ultimately unknowable, but we want assurance that God has something to do with us. Thus, one psalmist declared, "The heavens are the heavens of Adonai, but the earth was given to humanity" (Psalm 115:16). Another psalmist, having it both ways, said, "Adonai our God is enthroned above, looking down low on heaven and earth," but added, "God raises the poor out of the dust and lifts the needy out of the dunghill" (Psalm 113:4-9). The solution may lie in abiding as best we can the tension of contradiction and, at the same time, finding ways-–imperfect as they may be-–to bring the transcendent God to us, to make God immanent. Note Jacobs:

"The transcendence of God is taught in many a Biblical passage...(Gen. I:-2: 4a): God is Creator of heaven and earth and all their hosts. He brings the world into being by "saying" 'Let there be.' (Is. 40: 21-26): 'Know ye not, hear ye not?...Have ye not understood the foundations of the earth? It is He that sitteth above the circle of the earth.'

"...The truth is that it is not really possible to speak of the Biblical view, as if there is no development of thought...the Bible is not a series of philosophical treatises. Indeed, the very concepts of transcendence and immanence...are far removed from Biblical forms of thought and expression...while there are numerous statements in which God is regarded as apart from the universe, there are also many statements in which He is said, so it is implied, to be involved in the processes of the universe...(Ps. 139: 7-12): 'Whither shall I go from Thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in the netherworld, behold, Thou art there.'" –pp.57-58

This guide summarizes each of the essays and then discusses their implications under the rubric of three "Big Ideas."

1. It's not possible or necessary to know everything about God in order to search for God.

2. There are many ways to approach God.

3. Being Jewish means putting righteousness above belief.

B. Summaries

1. "This is My God" by Rabbi Simeon J. Maslin

Rabbi Maslin takes us on his personal journey of faith in which his quest for God led him to exalt God. He found that the absence of a biblical command to believe in God did not deter him from his desire to find God because the biblical authors provide ample evidence that our ancestors believed in God and God's ability to communicate with them. His journey followed his understanding of a Hasidic Master, Mendel of Kotsk, who taught that each search for God should have personal meaning, a view that helped Rabbi Maslin navigate his Orthodox father's rejection of Reform Judaism. His father ultimately came to approve his personal quest, despite continuing to disapprove of his move from Orthodoxy to Reform.

Rabbi Maslin warns that we are ill-advised to construct a system of belief that attempts to define or completely describe God, although Jewish thinkers attempted to do so starting in the tenth century, prompting Maimonides to write, "None but God can understand what God is." How, then, do we know God? By learning from our forbears, as Rabbi Maslin learned from his father, to love God and perform God's mitzvot. In this way, he came to understand that his father and he might love God in different ways – but that they both loved God. That insight freed him to experiment with ideas that help us to be good Jews and good persons. Those Jewish thought systems also help us to love God in our own, personal, ways. (For more on systems of Jewish belief, see Rifat Sonsino & Daniel B. Syme. “Finding God,” Revised Edition. New York, URJ Press, 2002.)

Rabbi Maslin's hard-gained, personal comprehension of God inspires his work for tikkun olam, informs his prayers, helps place social responsibility above ritual alone and acknowledge human achievement. It is a firm belief that rests on his father's bedrock faith, a faith that knows God does not change although ideas about God change constantly.

2. "God Training" by Rabbi Richard N. Levy

Rabbi Levy observes that our biblical forbears did not automatically or easily encounter God and asks why we should expect to be more successful. It's not easy, he advises, but there are some approaches that might help in our God quest.

a. Learn God's name, but understand that Torah provides many names for God because it is not possible to pronounce the name God "prefers" – YHVH.

b. Experience God's gifts manifest throughout the universe. Appreciate them by thanking God through prayer.

c. Acknowledge God daily in your personal life through appropriate blessings.

d. Recognize that every person is holy, created in God's image. Ask, therefore, what can I learn from each person I encounter?

e. Use your daily experiences to: learn from co-workers; let Jewish tradition and ethics guide your job-behaviors; perform mitzvot to balance inappropriate behavior; practice silence and stand in awe before nature; engage in Jewish study; express ecologically sound practices in the food you eat

f. Involve family in Jewish study and the practice of tzedakah.

g. Recite the Shema at day's end.

Paths to God, including prayer, abound if you are receptive to the possibilities. Once we open ourselves to God we can sense God's response in the most common experiences. The key is silence, listening, and paying attention to the events and people we meet daily.

3. "God Wrestling" by Barbara K. Shuman

Raised in a loving home that taught her all the right values but did not value contact with organized religion or religious ritual (save for lighting Chanukah candles, sans blessing), Shuman grew up suffering from "a spiritual void." It wasn’t until the young girl began to explore the rituals of her Christian playmates that her parents finally turned to the synagogue. Thus began a lifelong search for self-identity and relationship to the Jewish people and to God. Shuman’s studies led to a personal connection with biblical figures--especially with God-wrestling Jacob-–who were engaged in their own searches. Hidden truths revealed through Bible study brought her closer to God and a sense that life had meaning and purpose.

The critical distinction between God as a concept and God as a Divine companion came to her through the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, whom Shuman credits with teaching her that "God is mystery." She learned that it is possible to know that "God is" even without being able to define God. The personal act of seeking and encountering God soon replaced intellectual speculation and opened the door to an intimate God relationship and a continuing struggle to understand God's demands. She later came to realize that ego impedes access to God, God is manifest in all events and people and transcends time and space, each life blesses and teaches, and "mindful" meditation and prayer is God speaking through us and us allowing God in. Regular spiritual practice makes it possible to be aware of God, to hear the still, small voice and to be able to struggle with the ultimate question, "What does God demand of me?"

4. "Our Children Need God" by Rabbi Edythe Mencher

Rabbi Mencher teaches that the spiritual lives of children are much richer than most adults realize. The parent's task, therefore, is to help children express what's already there. The earlier we facilitate that, the better prepared the child will be, then and in later life, to turn to God for assurance, comfort and understanding. Parents can help children acknowledge God and feel close to God by following some simple guidelines:

a. You don't have to resolve all your doubts in order to talk to children about God.

b. Jewish literature provides stories children understand to be true at the deepest level although the stories themselves appear to be literally untrue.

c. Because a child's insight evolves with maturation, over time, children will adapt their "primitive" God pictures into more sophisticated understandings without believing that parents lied to them at an earlier stage.

d. Learn to interpret the question your child asks about God before replying or changing the subject.

e. Don't impose pat answers. Allow children to take their own spiritual journey of discovery by expressing their own ideas freely.

f. Share your own wonderings about God and the universe, while including God in everyday play activities.

g. Help your child develop trust through your loving care, supported by religion and belief in God.

C. "Big Ideas" to Explore.

1. It's not possible or necessary to know everything about God in order to search for God.

Neither we nor the tradition can agree on what to call God. TaNaKh (all of the Hebrew Bible), Talmud, Kabbalah, and Jewish philosophy employ more than one hundred names for God in addition to El and the six other Torah names Rabbi Levy provides. The rabbis called God friend, parent, lover. The Apocrypha uses terms like God of truth, Sovereign lord, Shield of Abraham. Mystical Kabbalah speaks of the "ancient of ancients" and the "first cause," while Maimonides asserts that "All the names of God that are to be found in any of the books derive from actions” (Guide to the Perplexed, 1:61-64). The tradition seems to get around the difficulty of naming God by describing aspects of God instead, as in the Thirteen Attributes (Exodus 34:6) cited by Rabbi Levy.

More difficult than naming God is "knowing" God in a personal way. Rabbi Maslin suggests that each one of us can come to a unique knowledge of God just as our ancestors did. Whether or not we can agree on God's name or what God is like is irrelevant; it's the struggle to find God that counts and we should not shy from it. Wolpe addresses the implications of what Rabbi Mencher calls a love response from God and what Barbara Shuman calls the discovery of God's mysterious nature:

"God says: 'You love Me, and I love you' (M. Ps. 116:1). In this boldest of anthropomorphic images, God is the lover of the human race....Whatever the particular nuances, the aim is to emphasize that the relation between God and His creations is one of love.

"More important than the love of God alone is the human awareness of it. Said Rabbi Akiba: 'It is with love that God made human beings in His image, but it was with a special love that 'He let them know that He made them in His image' (Pirke Avoth 3: 18)....Rabbi Akiba's insight is profound: To be loved is insufficient....Love must be expressed, felt, shared.

"The Rabbis realized that they were not penetrating to God's essence. In the enigmatic words of the Talmud, 'God has a special and secret place where He resides and its name is mistarim'--mystery (Hag. 5b). There is no access to the ultimate nature and secret of God. Still, God is close enough to describe with encomiums and attributes." –pp. 70-73

Heschel puts it this way:

"The Bible speaks not only of man's search for God but also of God's search for man. 'Thou dost hunt me like a lion,' exclaimed Job (10: 16).

"'From the very first Thou didst single out man and consider him worthy to stand in Thy presence.' This is the mysterious paradox of Biblical faith: God is pursuing man. It is as if God were unwilling to be alone, and He had chosen man to serve Him. Our seeking Him is not only man's but also His concern, and must not be considered an exclusively human affair. His will is involved in our yearnings. All of human history as described in the Bible may be summarized in one phrase: God is in search of man. Faith in God is a response to God's question." –pp. 68-69

Questions for Discussion.

1. Explain Rabbi Mencher's statement that God responds to our deeds with love, not punishment. Why do you agree, or disagree?

2. Wolpe says we should return God's love; Heschel says we should respond to God. Explain what they mean. How can you get closer to God by following their advice?

3. How is "faith in God" a response to God's demands? How can you demonstrate faith?

4. Why does Rabbi Mencher believe that faith in God is important for children? Is believing in God as important for adults? Explain.

5. Maimonides says that all of God's names derive from actions [by us]. What actions evoke God's names and bring us closer to God?

2. There are many ways to approach God.

Monastic religious sects, some nun's orders, and others believe they can approach God best when they remove themselves from the daily demands of life--that they can reach God through ascetic living, constant prayer, silence, or denial of the flesh. Buber, by contrast, proposes Hasidism, an eighteenth century East European Jewish movement, as a model for coming close to God:


"In most systems of belief the believer considers that he can achieve a perfect relationship to God by renouncing the world of the senses and overcoming his own natural being. Not so the hasid. Certainly, 'cleaving' unto God is to him the highest aim of the human person, but to achieve it he is not required to abandon the external and internal reality of earthly being, but to affirm it in its true, God-oriented essence and thus so to transform it that he can offer it up to God." –p. 5

How might we acknowledge God's place in our day by day reality? Note Waxman:

"From this conception of God as an archetype of ethics, there emerges the leading principle that guides Jewish conduct and is the standard aim or end. This is likeness to God; man must endeavor to conduct himself in such a way that his conduct shall resemble, insofar as there can be a resemblance, God's action as it is conceived and manifested in the world and in life. This is the meaning of all the laws and commandments given in the Torah." –p. 230

Wolpe suggests a framework for making God immanent, a guiding factor in daily life:

"We are instructed to emulate...compassion, love, and guidance. lmitateo Dei is the Latin term for it, the "imitation" of God. The biblical verse most frequently offered to illustrate this injunction is Leviticus 19:2: 'You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy.'

"Human beings are godlike...when they act with decency and compassion. They are godlike when they approximate the prophetic ideal of goodness...still forgiving of the flaws of humanity.

"Of course, there are limitations to the extent that we can emulate God. To be godlike is to be distinguished from thinking oneself like God. Even the attempt, however, presupposes that we can know something of God, of His actions, and so of His character. An inaccessible God cannot be imitated." – pp. 73-74

Rabbi Levy suggests that we might draw near to God by emulating God's Thirteen Attributes revealed to Moses on Mt.Sinaiin Exodus 34:6. Plaut (p. 663) summarizes the verses. What strikes you about the general thrust of this passage?

1 & 2. Adonai, Adonai. This name reveals God's attribute of mercy; it’s repeated to show that God is merciful both before and after we sin-–we change, not God.

3. El. Supreme ruler.

4. Rachum. From the Hebrew rechem, womb; compassionate.

5. Chanun. Gracious, helpful concern.

6. Erech Apayim. Slow to anger, providing the opportunity to repent.

7. Rav chesed. Filled with kindness, more than humanity deserves.

8. Emet. Truth, though preceded by kindness.

9. Notzer chesed la-alafim. Extends kindness to the thousandth generation; remembers human merit.

10, 11 & 12. Nosei avon vafesha v'chata-ah. Forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin; indulges humanity's evil disposition, rebelliousness, and guilt.

13. Ve-nakeh lo yenakeh. Yet does not remit all punishment; mercy has limits.

Questions for Discussion

1. Rabbi Maslin serves God by being God's partner for shalom. Explain. How does this imitate God?

2. What can you do daily-–or once in a while--to affirm that your reality is God-oriented?

3. Which of the Thirteen Attributes are you capable of fulfilling? Which have you fulfilled? Explain.

4. Explain Rabbi Levy's statement that God is found in small and big things. Under what circumstances have you experienced God?

5. How, specifically, can you act so as to imitate God in the small things of daily life?

3. Being Jewish means putting righteousness above belief.

Rabbi Maslin notes that while the Bible provides many examples of people who believed in God, it does not command a belief in God; rather, the Bible commands us to follow God's laws. Shulman asserts that while she cannot define God, she knows that God is. And Rabbi Mencher reports that even small children have notions of God (and embark on voyages of spiritual discovery in evolving stages). Borowitz, echoing Maslin, notes a danger in dwelling on what to believe about God:

"'The Chasidic master Abraham, so pious a mystic he was called "The Angel," made this comment to his disciples: he said that the higher his mystical practices took him, the more he realized how little he knew and how important it was simply to try to serve God. That's the Jewish way. What we know mostly about God is what God 'wants' us to do. Judaism is mostly about living--and for good reason. Think too much about what God is really like and you forget about this world and what you should be doing to make it better.

"Think of our great religious book, the Bible. It is about people, how they lived, and how they ought to have lived. It's mostly history, laws, prophecies, proverbs, poems, and stories. It says very little about what God is like." –pp. 201-202

Bergman clarifies the distinction between believing and doing:

"We can understand the true nature of faith...only if we recognize the fundamental fact that any definition of faith which considers it a special source of truth is wrong in principle. Faith is not a special source of truth independent of reason or opposed to it. The Biblical term for faith, emunah, designates an attitude of trust and confidence between man and God. To have emunah...is to "entrust" oneself to God and to feel secure in this trust. The believer, as Shalom Ben Chorin put it, 'does not believe in God; he believes Him.' Buber expresses the same thought when he writes that 'Biblical man is never in doubt as to the existence of God. In professing his faith, his emunah, he merely expresses his trust that the living God is near to him..." –pp.14-15

The Talmud also makes it clear that doing is more important than believing:

  • All whose good deeds exceed their wisdom, their wisdom will endure. But all whose wisdom exceeds their good deeds, their wisdom will not endure. –Chanina ben Dosa, Pirke Avot 3:12
  • All whose wisdom exceeds their good deeds are like trees with many branches but few roots; the wind comes and (the trees) are torn out...But all whose good deeds exceed their wisdom are like trees with few branches and many roots: the strongest winds cannot budge them. –Elazar ben Azariah, Pirke Avot 3:22
  • Doing, not expounding Torah, is the chief thing. –Simeon ben Gamaliel, Pirke Avot 1:17
  • To the Rabbis...He who is 'good' must believe in God. He who is bad must deny or ignore Him. Goodness implies faith in God. Faith in God implies, at the least, the obligation to be 'good '...to fulfill the ordinances of the Law... –Montefiore, pg. 122

Questions for Discussion.

1. Explain how it is possible to have faith in and obey a "mystery" like God.

2. Debate the proposition that you can (or cannot) be a better person by believing that God is.

3. Explain why the Jewish tradition does not say, You must believe in God to be,,, (Jewish, good, true to your ancestors).

4. See Healing the World, Reform Judaism, Winter 2005 and the Discussion Guide athttp://reformjudaismmag.org/Articles/index.cfm?=1092for additional discussion on fulfilling the command of tikkun olam, repairing the world, as a means of drawing near to God.

D. Resources.

Samuel H. Bergman. Faith and Reason (Washington, D.C., B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundations, 1961).

Eugene B. Borowitz. Understanding Judaism (New York, UAHC Press, 1952).

Martin Buber. The Way of Man (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1950).

Abraham J. Heschel. Between God and Man, selected, edited and introduced by Fritz A. Rothschild (New York, Harper & Bros., 1959).

Louis Jacobs. A Jewish Theology (New York, Behrman House, 1973).

C. G. Montefiore & H. Loewe. A Rabbinic Anthology (Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1960).

W.G. Plaut. The Torah: A Modern Commentary (New York, UAHC Press, 1981).

Meyer Waxman. Judaism: Religion and Ethics (New York, Yoseloff, 1958).

David J.Wolpe. The Healer of Shattered Hearts (New York, Henry Holt, 1990).