Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Jews and God, and VaYechi Redux

I just watched Julia Sweeney's one-woman show "Letting Go of God" on Showtime.  She is a very funny comedian who was raised Catholic and has become a proud atheist.  The monolog is funny and engaging, and if you are interested in seeing it you can either watch the first 15 minutes or so on YouTube or, which I recommend, the entire show on Showtime (if you have it).  The schedule is here  - just go to "more airings" for the times and dates.

The first time I was the show I missed the beginning, and just watched the last portion.  What struck me was her description of a conversation she had with someone after her father died, and when she had already decided she was sure there was no God.

Her friend said to her, not exactly in these words, but close:  "You know you're Jewish."

Sweeney was surprised, and asked what was meant by that comment.

The answer was that what she was doing - struggling to understand God - was a particularly Jewish thing.  Almost obligatory, if I remember the exchange properly.

And I loved that comment.  We do struggle to understand God.  And we have room in our Jewish community for many ways of understanding God.  And that, to me, is one of the most wonderful things about Judaism.

Jewish thinking is questioning - not simply memorizing and repeating.  We know that, and we need to help our learners - whatever their ages - to learn that.

On her blog,, she wrote the following:
I am thinking about some of the questions that people have asked.  Some people worry about having meaning in a world without god in it.  I don't have the best answer for that yet (I am mulling on that one) but I remember once being at a convention with Daniel Dennett (such a hero of mine) and he said (Dennet is a philosopher and scientist at Tufts and has written several books, some of which really impacted me) and anyway, he was talking to someone else and he said, "People say to me, 'You're a philosopher, what is the meaning of life?' and I say, 'I don't know but I do know the secret to happiness.  Find some subject that you love and spend the rest of your life studying it from every angle you can.  That is the secret to happiness."
 My personal opinion is that God is precisely what helps me find meaning in the world.  I do, however, appreciate the statement about finding some subject that you love and studying it for your entire life.  That subject will be different for different people.
In fact, if we look back at Yaakov's blessing of his sons we can understand them as recognizing and celebrating the various talents of each one.  Jewish wisdom?  Howard Gardner Multiple Intelligences?  Learning Styles?  Myers Briggs?

It's a wonderful day when there is overlap between what I learn in the scientific world about thinking and what I learn in the world of Jewish thinking.

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