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Theology: How Reform Jews Picture God

As a child visiting my grandmother, for a long time I saw a drawing taped to the refrigerator that my cousin had made in elementary school. It included four separate images depicting the four things for which my cousin felt most grateful—my grandma (hence its position of honor), recess, candy, and God.

I stared at that drawing for years. Wanting to honor God but knowing that God had no image, my cousin had made an astonishing artistic decision: first, she drew a block androgynous figure with arms, legs, and a head—and then she erased it. Left behind was an obvious physical impression of God created by her intentionally removing evidence of a divine form. In her own way, this eight-year-old had solved a theological conundrum: my cousin’s drawing suggested both the absence and presence of God. God was there but not there.

Curious about his congregants’ perceptions of God, Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro of Sinai Temple, Springfield, Massachusetts surveyed his congregation in 2011, essentially asking members to do what my cousin had done: Draw a picture of your idea of God within the boundaries of your belief in GodReform Judaismmagazine published Rabbi Shapiro's analysis of "The God Survey" findings and then invited the entire Reform Movement to take “The God Survey” in the hopes of gauging the God beliefs of Reform Jews throughout North America.

More than 4,300 people responded, including Jews by birth, Jews by choice, men, women, teenagers, Gen Xers, Baby Boomers, and people from the “Greatest Generation.” Respondents shared their thoughts and doubts about God, choosing from a range of divine attributes that might describe God and God’s actions, and indicating where and when they felt closest to—and most distant from—God. They also considered when in their lives they needed or wanted a God-figure to praise, to blame, or from whom to derive comfort. 

God Wondering

An overwhelming majority of respondents—79.8%—responded “a lot” or “a little” to the question: “I wonder about God.” That so many contemplate God on a regular or semi-regular basis might not be overly surprising given their choice to complete a survey about God. Perhaps more striking is that many of them queried the question itself: “Is thinking about God ‘daily’ frequent enough to be considered ‘a lot?” “Does ‘wondering’ about God mean the same as ‘thinking,’ ‘believing in,’ ‘questioning,’ and/or ‘reflecting?’” Their uncertainties tell us that Reform Jews think deeply about the nature of their intellectual and/or emotional relationships with God, and that they care about the vocabulary they use to describe those relationships. For Reform Jews, who are grounded in an almost 200-year-old tradition of reflecting on God as the supreme creator of morality, justice, and ethical behavior, such care and attention to the language of faith may be as significant as the data itself. 

God Wrestling

Contemporary Jews also wrestle with how to understand the divine. More than 67% of teenagers answered “frequently” when asked how often they question God. The percentage dipped as Jews entered mid-life (52% of 40-year-olds answered “rarely” or “never” to the same question) and rose near the end of life (57% within the 90s+ bracket questioned God “frequently”). “The God Survey” results suggest that teenagers begin God-wrestling once they encounter God on their own terms, outside of the walls of the institutions of Jewish education. Older Jews, having largely decided on their conceptions of God, question God’s presence less. Yet the questioning of God begins again as seniors more advanced in age encounter illness or feel the loss of loved ones. 

The God–Nature Connection

Notably, an overwhelming majority of respondents across all age categories said that of all the life experiences they had (or at least those listed in the survey), they feel closest to the divine while experiencing “nature’s wonders.” For teens (75.5%) through Jews in their 50s (76.6%), 60s (74.5%), and 70s (63.9%), the great outdoors is where people most often encounter divinity; this connection tapers off only as people reach their 80s and 90s (47.7%). This shows that the majority of contemporary Jews do not need the four walls of a Jewish institution to facilitate a relationship with the divine. Appreciating God’s presence in all the workings of the larger ecosystem is compatible with the Jewish theological understanding that God works within and through nature; the Psalms are full of references to and praise of the glory of God in the natural world. 

God Connections at Services

Interestingly, in contrast to data that indicate the “Millennials” (ages 18–30) and Gen Xers (ages 32–47) have distanced themselves from participation in institutional programs and services, “The God Survey” shows that both groups feel closer to God while attending Shabbat services (66.75% of Millennials and 67.4% Gen Xers) than do empty nesters—people in their 50s (66.1%) and 60s (56.9%). This finding may explain why Jews in their 50s and 60s whose children have become b’nai mitzvah and who do not feel close to God in the synagogue are finding fewer reasons to stay engaged with their congregational communities. Without specific synagogue obligations, many of these middle-aged Jews seek out individuals and communities with shared interests that go beyond ethnic and religious identification. 

Responsibility for Moral Behavior

The majority of Reform Jews believe in human accountability for moral/immoral behavior, as indicated by the finding that 75% blame humans for the presence of evil in our world (“Evil is a human responsibility, not God’s”).

In response to the two questions related to the Holocaust (“Auschwitz tells us that God’s power is severely limited” and “God could have prevented Auschwitz”), a number of respondents added comments rejecting the questions’ simplification of God’s power (“It’s not clear to me that God has anything to do with this”; “‘Distant’ isn’t the right word for me in thinking about the Holocaust; it’s more ‘why’”; “I think it is irrelevant to an understanding of God”; “I have a problem with the personification of God that makes it hard to answer the questions”). Along the same lines, many of the comments responding to the statement “Sometimes innocent people suffer without any reason” (86.5% said yes) mentioned that the question does not allow the important qualification that God may not be to blame. The mixed nature of people’s responses—for every person who wrote about a personal loss, another mentioned feeling close to God in moments of deep need and sadness—points both to a deep diversity of belief and to a healthy questioning that one could date back to Abraham’s argument with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah. 

Gender Differences

Women tend to view God more in terms of relationship and interdependence, whereas men conceive of God in a more abstract and autonomous way. Women were marginally more likely than men to say that God comforts, and men decidedly less willing to allow that God serves as a “presence in the universe supporting us to do our best.” 

Imitation vs Anthropomorphism

As a whole, Reform Jews consider their own acts as imitatio Dei —imitating God—rather than employing anthropomorphisms to understand divinity. Men and women saw the act of feeding others (78.1%) and healing the sick (77.5%) as divine, and named both justice (73.4%) and mercy (73.8%) as “Godly.” Far fewer (together, fewer than 39%) defined God as “merciful” or “just.” There seems to be an unwillingness to think that God acts in human ways (in comparison to humans acting in Godly ways), and a concomitant desire to think of God as a transcendent partner. Reform Jews also appear to consider the adjectives describing God as less than adequate in capturing what God can—and should—be.

And when respondents do encounter what they think of as “God,” the survey shows they do so in “traditionally” Jewish ways and images. While the responses do not echo the explicit vocabulary describing God in the Torah (“king,” “father,” “just,” “all powerful,” etc.), they nonetheless model divine behavior, thinking of God in terms of acts of loving-kindness and in the models of human action that help us to take care of ourselves and one another. 

The Larger Picture

“The God Survey” seems to suggest that contemporary Jews are still heavily invested in Jewish notions of God and God’s work. We see this link not only in their beliefs but also in their wondering, questioning, and doubting.

Fostering the complexity of God talk is Jewish; the messiness of the Jewish relationship with God dates back thousands of years. And, similarly to my cousin’s drawing, these results indicate that contemporary Jews think of God as there—not as an image, but as an impression—different impressions that depend on our age, genders, and time of life. As the rabbis say: God is everywhere.

Leah Hochman is director of the Louchheim School for Judaic Studies at University of Southern California and assistant professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.