2018-08-01 / Religion Column

Like Moses, we must build a theology of experience

Lions Gate Rabbi Emeritus

Parashat Eikev
Deut. 7:12-11:25

This week I am reviewing the proofs for my soon-to-appear new book, “I Am: A Journey in Jewish Faith.” If one were to describe it, it would be a theology that is a book about God.

Theology is a weighty term for many people, but it is a rather simple process. We all do it. Theology is talking about God. It is the attempt to articulate in a reasonable way those formative life experiences that connect us to that which is beyond us and to that which gives meaning and purpose to our lives. It is pausing for a moment or more to reflect upon our lives and to find a way to express our insights in words.

Theology helps us develop a way to talk about our ultimate commitments. A working theology is our latest, but not last, word about God and about us. A good theology needs to be flexible enough to handle life’s changing circumstances and strong enough to keep us from being swept away.

Theology takes different forms. Many are familiar with lengthy, dense tractates, which, in the style of philosophy, explicate analytically the fundamentals of religious faith and their significance in the believer’s life.

But there are other ways to do theology. Our sages enjoyed telling stories about God. Poets use words to turn our hearts to God. Halakhah, Jewish law, attempts to express beliefs about God in activities of daily human life. Most theology, however, is done when we talk seriously about what we believe and do not believe about God.

Our theologies grow out of the events and circumstances of our lives. All that has formed us—our culture, our spiritual heritage, our mother tongue, where and when we live—provides us with the tools we need to talk about God.

For Jews, theology, God talk, is an ancient practice. The Book of Deuteronomy, in Hebrew, Devarim, “Words,” presents the advice Moses offers to our ancestors just prior to their entrance into the Promised Land. Moses’ insights are buttressed by theological statements.

One of these appears in the Torah portion Eikev where Moses contends that Israel needs to keep the covenant because “the Eternal your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, mighty and awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing— You, too, must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10: 17-19)

Here Moses’ understanding of God rests on his experience of God. Moses perceived God’s saving and protecting power in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and through the years of wandering. The God Moses knew was not only powerful, but used that power to care for those who are powerless. Human rank, privilege and power had no affect on Moses’ God. His God’s heart turned to those who lack such things, and, for Moses, we, as people who have taken on that image of God as our own had to do likewise. We, who were the powerless strangers whom God saved from Egyptian bondage needed to befriend the powerless in our midst, especially strangers.

Moses’ words are clearly not all of Jewish theology but are a good starting place for us to articulate our own theology as Jews. They are grounded in experience, full of awe, and contain a clear action directive.

Over the centuries Jews have developed any number of theologies responding to the defeats and triumphs of the Jewish people and the ups and downs of their personal lives. Our tradition models for us many ways to talk about God. Some may move us and some might leave us cold. Some may seem incredible, while others may reflect our own insights. Whether they work for us or not, they provide the tools we can use to construct a theology that works for us.

By doing theology we seek the truth about ourselves in relationship with our highest values. If our theology is like Moses’ theology—grounded in the events of our lives, filled with wonder and pushing us to reach beyond ourselves—then we, too, are good theologians. s

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