Jews throughout the ages have tried to understand God and God’s relationship with their world. These questions are addressed in the Bible and Talmud, and have been contemplated by many great Jewish thinkers, including Philo, Maimonides, Spinoza, and Kaplan. Thus at Beth Adam, we carry on a tradition that was begun many centuries ago.
The concept of God has undergone constant modification in Judaism. The God of the Prophets is different from the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; certainly the God of Maimonides is different from them both. It is impossible to examine here the myriad of concepts for the term God, for that would take volumes. Every Jewish thinker has suggested an understanding of the term, redefining how God interacts and participates in the affairs of this world. Many feminist theologians are trying to reconcile traditional male interpretations of God and modern feminist thought. There has always been and continues to be great diversity in the Jewish understanding of God.
Changes in theological concepts have never been readily accepted. Spinoza, whose theology was considered a heresy in his day, is today proclaimed by many as one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of all times. Over the years, ideas that were regarded as radical or heretical have come to be accepted by the community. Consequently, the entire spectrum of Jewish theology today is diverse and at times contradictory.
To be a Jew has never meant that one must accept some predefined concept of God. Each Jew has always had the right to understand the term as he/she determines. This is evidenced by the fact that the classic definition for the term Jew — one who is born of a Jewish mother or who converts according to traditional law — does not mention belief. It is clear from this definition that belief is not the primary factor in determining who is or is not a Jew. Lacking any definition of what one must believe to be a Jew, a Jew can accept any theological stand and still remain a Jew.
Because Beth Adam’s services do not incorporate traditional prayers, many falsely assume that a humanistic approach to Judaism is atheistic. As acknowledged in our Mission Statement and reaffirmed in our educational philosophy, Beth Adam’s liturgy “gives expression to Judaism’s ever evolving religious experience and promotes humanistic values of intellectual honesty, open inquiry, and human responsibility.”
This understanding of Judaism does not preclude one’s having a concept of God. In fact, there are many views of God that are compatible with this perspective. The basic criteria for determining if a view of God is compatible with a humanistic perspective are whether it allows for the belief that the ultimate authority for what a person does rests with that individual, and the belief that the events in our world are the product of human action and the laws of nature. At Beth Adam we also affirm that ethics/morals are the product of human thought and experience.
There are in fact many members of Beth Adam who have a concept of God, but not a God that intervenes or manipulates the events of this world. Such a God does not hand down, dictate, or decree, and does not regulate or direct the actions of human beings. Neither would this God act in a way that would contradict or be inconsistent with the laws of nature or scientific truth. Traditional prayer, which presupposes a God who intervenes in and manipulates the affairs of the world, is contrary to this worldview; thus, the use of such prayer in services would be incompatible with such a theological system. Individuals who have a concept of God affirm their Jewish identities in services that focus upon human beings, strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears, pasts and futures. They recognize that traditional prayer is not essential for declaring one’s membership with the Jewish people and that a service can affirm both their worldview and their Jewish identity.
Of course, there are those individuals who do not accept a concept of God at all; the term God does not reflect their views or attitudes about the world. However, they affirm their Jewish identities and their right and responsibility to control their own destiny based upon ethics and morals arising out of the human experience. Their desire to participate as Jews in a service that reflects their views is possible only in a congregation such as Beth Adam.
Whether or not an individual has a concept of God is not the central issue. What is central to Beth Adam is our agreement upon a philosophic system that is based upon human reason and experience. One’s Jewish identity is a function of one’s commitment to the Jewish people. Through public acts or statements, individuals declare their membership in the Jewish community.
The liturgy that has been formulated by Beth Adam’s Ritual/Life-Cycle Committee reflects this philosophic system. Upon hearing these liturgical changes for the first time, many immediately find them to be an articulation of their own long-held worldviews, and find their clarity refreshing. Others who are comfortable with and understand the philosophic nature of Beth Adam nevertheless are uncomfortable with the unfamiliar liturgy. Yet with time our liturgy becomes a natural expression of their philosophic beliefs.
The removal of specific language that invokes God from the liturgy does not preclude examination and discussion of concepts of God in other congregational settings nor does it necessarily mean that the concept of God is not explored in services themselves. The fact is that the issue of God is addressed often and in depth. Once the concept of God becomes open to question and discussion, people feel free to express and examine their ideas.
At Beth Adam, no one is judged based upon his/her theological system. Consequently, God is discussed, examined, questioned, and explored with an open and inquiring mind. Some may find this endeavor uncomfortable. They may prefer not to open the concept of God and God’s role to discussion. But at Beth Adam, the ongoing search for truth and understanding is paramount. There is no issue too sacred to be discussed. The goal of Beth Adam is to enable people to work within our philosophic system to struggle and search for an understanding of the world in which they live, while affirming their Jewish identities.