Divine Experience

Rabbi Toba Spitzer ’80 reimagines God.

How do you talk about God with someone who doesn’t believe such a thing exists—or at least isn’t sure about it? For that matter, how do you talk about God with anyone?

During an April 5 Conversation With Friends, Rabbi Toba Spitzer ’80 said that, first, we have to change the way we talk about the idea of a divine being. “Most people in the West, when we talk about God, we are inhabiting a metaphor that God is a ‘Big Person,’” Spitzer said. “The way we talk about God—God sees, God knows, God loves—all those verbs show that we think of God as a human being.”

That’s a mistake, Spitzer said in conversation with classmate and moderator Arshad Mohammed ’80 (who said his first conception of God was a “European nobleman who was hugely tall” and sported a red coat, a cravat, and a sword, which “was an odd image for a 6-year-old Muslim kid to come up with”). Thinking of God as a Big Person not only limits God, but it limits our understanding of the Divine. In her new book, God is Here: Reimagining the Divine, Spitzer examines the metaphors the Hebrew Bible and other spiritual and religious traditions have used for God, including Water, Voice, Fire, Rock, and Cloud.

“I wanted to shift the conversation from, ‘Do I believe? Do I not believe?’ to an assumption that all human beings have had, collectively and individually, experiences of the Divine,” she said. “The experiences are similar, but the concepts are radically different—and we have ways into that experience that go beyond, ‘God is a Big Person.’”

On a personal level, Spitzer talked about the death of her spouse from breast cancer. She found comfort in the idea of God as Water, citing Isaiah 43:2, which reads in part: “When you pass through the waters, I am with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.” It’s a difficult concept to hold onto when you’re lost in grief. “As I tried to understand where God was in this, I realized water was essential to life and yet it can also threaten me, overwhelm me, drown me,” Spitzer said. “God was, at the same time, the waters through which I was passing and which supported me as I made my way through an unbearable reality.”

Often people grapple with the idea of a divine being who allows bad things to happen to good people. Asking why can be largely pointless and possibly harmful, Spitzer said. “‘Why is this happening to me?’ is a useless question,” she said. “Why not me?” However, she said, if someone instead asks, “‘How do I navigate this?’—that’s something I can do something with.”

There’s another big problem with thinking of God as a Big Person: It subtly convinces us that anyone who seems like a Big Person must also seem like God. “If our only metaphor for the Divine is God as an imperial ruler and the only model we have for godly power is tyranny, we’re going to think tyrannical power is godly,” she said. “And that’s unhealthy.”

God Is Here also contains suggestions for practices readers can do to reimagine and possibly reconnect with their idea of Divine. “You don’t have to use the word ‘god’ if it doesn’t work for you,” she said. “For me, the Divine is as big as the reality of human experience, as love, as creativity. It is foundational to who we are.”


To view the full Conversation with Friends, click here.

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