“God is Here: Reimagining the Divine”
with Rabbi Toba Spitzer
Wednesday, October 19, 2022, 1 pm EDT
Video recording available here.
WATER is deeply grateful to Rabbi Toba Spitzer. These notes are not a verbatim text, but some ideas expressed which give the flavor of this stimulating presentation.
A special welcome to our speaker Rabbi Toba Spitzer from Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in Newton, Massachusetts. We are delighted to have you grace our circle and wish you a warm WATER welcome.
It is my pleasure to introduce Rabbi Toba Spitzer. We have not had the pleasure of meeting in person, but we do have some wonderful common friends so I look forward to that. I note you are from Maryland so perhaps you can picture us on Georgia Avenue in downtown Silver Spring.
RABBI TOBA SPITZER is a popular teacher of courses on Judaism and economic justice, Reconstructionist Judaism, new approaches to thinking about God, and the practice of integrating Jewish spiritual and ethical teachings into daily life. I am sure she, like many rabbis, is getting some rest after the recent High Holy Days.
She served as the President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association from 2007-2009, and was the first LGBTQ rabbi to head a national rabbinic organization. She has been included in Newsweek’s Top 50 Rabbis in America list and the 2010 Forward list of 50 Female Rabbis Who Are Making A Difference. Since 1997 when she was ordained, she has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Dorshei Tzedek in Newton, MA.
Rabbi Spitzer has been involved for many years in American Jewish efforts to help foster a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as work in the U.S. for economic and social justice. She has served on the Board of Truah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, and was a founding member of the Advisory Board of J Street.
Rabbi Spitzer has a special interest in Jewish approaches to economic justice and the mindful use of money in daily life. Rabbi Spitzer’s writings on process theology, Judaism and social justice, and explorations of Biblical texts have been published in The Reconstructionist Journal and in the anthology Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible.
When I blurbed her book I wrote, “Toba Spitzer is a trustworthy spiritual companion, a rabbi’s rabbi. Her teaching spans disciplines and time. She makes spiritual practices concrete and doable even for amateurs at prayer! Her insights into Hebrew Bible texts stir the souls of believers and non-believers alike. Use this book for personal reflection and expect to be refreshed, renewed, recommitted to a better, more divine here and now.”
Welcome, Rabbi Spitzer. I hope you feel at home at WATER where we look forward to your remarks and to a good discussion. Thank you for joining us.
Input from Rabbi Spitzer:
- The premise of the book: feminist sources led to deeper contemplation about the divine; process philosophy/theology and cognitive linguistics helped with insights into metaphors which are how we experience and perceive the world:
Active metaphor—literary metaphors like “dark hug of time” (Mary Oliver)
Dormant metaphors—where the meaning is clear though it is not literal like “up a creek without a paddle”
Extinct metaphors—these operate in the brain but not at a conscious awareness of them as metaphor like “time is money”
Goal: Since metaphors are not definitions, the goal is to find new metaphors that work for the divine; shifting metaphors involve shifting experiences. Complex human experience comes through metaphors. Metaphors are not true or false but shape thoughts and actions. Metaphors are always embodied.
- Hebrew Bible is full of Earth metaphors for the divine including water, place, voice, rock, cloud, fire, becoming, and more.
- Practices suggested in the book invite people to re-experience metaphors
- Reading from book about God as water
“Drinking from God” pp. 39 ff, (Psalms and Prophets)
–Thirsting for God; River of God; River of your delight
–searching for living water
These are actual ways of experiencing the divine.
- Reading from the book about God as electricity
“The Material World” pp. 247 ff
–Physics is a close cognate to theology/religion; wonder at the universe and interest in how things work and our place in the universe
–Holy danger in touching the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant
–Godly power is inherently dangerous if not channeled with care
–Power sources of the universe are in that which we find pleasant and what scares us. Need to be careful what we touch!
1. Mary E. Hunt
What were some of the major issues your congregants raised during the Holy Days? What are they concerned about and did your work on God-language help them on concrete ways? Christian denominations have made little progress on inclusive/expansive language about the divine.
Toba Spitzer: God-language and prayer language are different. Jewish liturgy is in Hebrew which most people don’t speak. The name of the divine, YHVH, is not said aloud. That implies not to limit the concept of the divine.
Some of the texts from the High Holy Days use judge, shepherd, and other male metaphors that are not bad in themselves but need exploration. Efforts to get beyond what can be problematic in these metaphors can be tough in liturgy, easier in long-term teaching. This is where we see that people hear the word ‘God’ with the metaphor they are connected to. A prayer book is not fact or fiction; it is poetry which one doesn’t believe or not believe, but raises the issue of where liturgy is trying to take us.
- Sheila Curran
The opening of their metaphors for indigenous people is key. Imperialist language of colonizers gets in the way.
Toba Spitzer: Misuse/appropriation of rituals from other traditions is not necessary for Jews who have their own deep experiences of grounded, earth-based metaphors.
- Erica Lee-Simka
Are there wrong images of God?
Toba Spitzer: Tyrannical power is unacceptable; there are problematic implications for some metaphors.
Human metaphors can be beautiful but don’t work in every situation. For example, human metaphors do not work well in theodicy conversations. God ends up being blamed or questioned: why does God let this happen? Rather, the Divine is part of illness/death, not in a causative way. The question is not why is God doing this to me which is only a question with regard to God as human, but what am I doing to get through a hard situation with support.
- Mary Yelenic
Mary expressed appreciation for insights and rich resources especially for people who come from traditions like Catholicsm that can be very restricted.
Toba Spitzer: Muslims as well as Christians join Jews in finding this book helpful.
- Mary E. Hunt
The quote from Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon about the singing as being more important than the song, the doing more important than what is done. So, too, perhaps the loving not just the loved one, the cooking not the food take on signal importance though in none of those cases is the object trivia. Can you say more about that insight, where it goes, and where it stops?
Toba Spitzer: God as Sound or Voice (ch.5, pp. 109 ff) is the context for this quote. Val Webb’s work on metaphor was a source of insight. The Black Church tradition teaches that sound is supposed to change the singer. Other traditions find that physical changes in the brain take place with chanting.
All metaphors are located in the body. Toba Spitzer recommends that people read the book of course but more so DO THE PACTICES. In the doing we have the experience.
- Pamella Miller
It is refreshing to see women stepping out of the shadow: Esther, Miriam, Deborah, as their experiences are taken seriously in language about the divine.
THANKS to Rabbi Toba Spitzer and to all participants in this educational and inspiring session.