The God Upgrade: Finding Your 21st-Century Spirituality in Judaism's 5,000-Year-Old Tradition

The God Upgrade: Finding Your 21st-Century Spirituality in Judaism's 5,000-Year-Old Tradition

by James S. Korngold, Harold M. Schulweis

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The biggest stumbling block when it comes to religion is God, even for an ordained rabbi who admits her rational mind "just can't buy into a God in the sky who writes down our deeds and rewards and punishes us accordingly." But not being sold on an intervening God shouldn't bar you from living a vibrant and fulfilling Jewish life. The God concept had seen many


The biggest stumbling block when it comes to religion is God, even for an ordained rabbi who admits her rational mind "just can't buy into a God in the sky who writes down our deeds and rewards and punishes us accordingly." But not being sold on an intervening God shouldn't bar you from living a vibrant and fulfilling Jewish life. The God concept had seen many upgrades over the centuries and it is these reinterpretations that have kept Judaism relevant. In this provocative look at the many faces of God, Adventure Rabbi Jamie Korngold examines how our concept of God has changed over the centuries, and how these changes have shaped every aspect of Judaism. She shows that by upgrading our God concept to one that is aligned with our modern sensibilities, the result is a Judaism that is both meaningful and accessible. In an exploration energized with enthusiasm and humor, Rabbi Korngold looks at God concepts ranging from the earliest perspectives to some of the most influential modern theologies.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Korngold, a Reform rabbi who as "Adventure Rabbi" leads outdoor hikes and retreats designed to recreate the spiritual connection between nature and Judaism, takes her 2008 book God in the Wilderness a step further. She presents brief updates of the concept of God as advanced by Maimonides, Spinoza, Buber, Heschel, and Kushner before offering her own understanding of God. She asserts that "upgrades" are in keeping with Jewish tradition and rejects the conception of a God that keeps score of human deeds and hands out punishments or rewards accordingly. Instead, she argues for modernizing the contemporary notion of God so that it becomes compatible with both science and Judaism. This involves maintaining ancient rituals as "gems" that tie today's Jews to ancestors and to each other. Traditions and heritage linked to contemporary understanding will produce a fresh view of God that can "inspire you, bring you comfort, and fill your life with peace." While Korngold primarily addresses Jews, her powerful message can resonate with people of all faiths as they struggle to reconcile science and religion. (May)
From the Publisher

"Funny, honest and passionate … a provocative, intriguing and always interesting exploration of Jewish theology that will grab you from the first page. God-wrestlers, this book is for you!"
Dr. Ron Wolfson, co-president, Synagogue 3000; author, God's To-Do List: 103 Ways to Be an Angel and Do God’s Work on Earth

“Clear, accessible … will serve as a safe entry point into serious conversations about Jewish theology and spirituality for a new generation.”
Rabbi Daniel Freelander, senior vice president, Union for Reform Judaism

“Courageous! Grapples with religion with such honesty, wisdom and humor.”
Harold Grinspoon, founder, Harold Grinspoon Foundation

“Offers a way into Judaism that doesn’t require adherence to a stale and rigid theology. [A] powerful and compelling articulation of Judaism.”
Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder, IKAR

“Offers terrific examples of how creative and innovative Jewish educators can link millennia-old traditions with the natural world to inspire young Jews to chart their own course through our rich heritage.”
Lynn Schusterman, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation

“Provides all of us—primarily parents and teachers—with a thoroughly accessible resource for introducing a younger generation into the riches of Jewish theology. Particularly unconventional and noteworthy is the author’s use of nature as another revealed 'text,’ parallel to Torah and the synagogue, where God can be experienced.”
Rabbi Neil Gillman, PhD, emeritus professor of Jewish philosophy, The Jewish Theological Seminary; author, Doing Jewish Theology: God, Torah & Israel in Modern Judaism

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Finding Your 21st-Century Spirituality in Judaism's 5,000-Year-Old Tradition
By Jamie S. Korngold


Copyright © 2011 Jamie S. Korngold
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58023-443-6

Chapter One

Looking for Lightning

If triangles had a God, God would have three sides. Yiddish proverb

The biggest stumbling block when it comes to religion is God. There, I've said it. Any lightning strikes? No? Okay. So far, so good.

What keeps people away from religion? Expensive fees? Rambling sermons? Boring religious schools? Pushy fundraisers? Inconvenient holidays? Religious zealots? None of those help, but I believe the biggest problem is God.

If you believe that God can heal the sick, mend a broken heart, or bring peace to Earth, please do us both a favor and go read a different book. This is not the book for you.

This is a book for people who equate religious services with counting how many pages are left in the service or counting windowpanes or noticing how many people are wearing the same outfit. This book is for those who are as likely to willingly join a prayer circle as to go bowling on the moon.

Often, when I am sitting in a Sabbath service at another rabbi's congregation, diligently reading the responsive prayer in sync with the other congregants, I feel like I must have missed a very crucial explanatory meeting. It feels like the congregation has reached an agreement on how to understand the God in the prayer book and I am the only one who doesn't know it. Did they all agree to say words they don't believe?

The other day we came to these words in the prayer book: "You are our God and our Shepherd; we are Your people and Your flock: If only today we would listen to Your voice."

Everyone reverently read along with the rabbi and I wanted to stop and ask someone to explain it to me.

I could imagine myself raising my hand and saying, "Excuse me, man in the third row with the blue sweater and khaki pants, do you really believe God looks out for us like a shepherd protects his flock?"

Or, "Sorry for the interruption, but woman in the fabulous red dress and black heels with the two adorable kids, do you really believe that God has a voice we can hear? Have you ever heard it?"

The rabbi would probably turn to me and say, "Jamie, it's not literally a voice like we have a voice. God doesn't have vocal cords, obviously! But as humans, our descriptions are limited to the words of our language. It's a metaphor."

I would look around at the congregation and ask, "Does everyone know that when we talk about God in the prayer book that it's a metaphor? When we praise God's 'wondrous creative power [that] filled Heaven and Earth.... Awesome and Holy God be praised!' and when we ask God to 'cause peace to reign among us,' that this is all a metaphor? Did you all agree to that when I was in the bathroom? What is the metaphor anyway?"

That might be a good cue for the rabbi to have us turn to page 97 for the silent prayer. We Jews don't like to talk about God.

"It's a metaphor" is one of the common answers I hear when I ask questions about the God concept that I read about in our prayers and other holy books. It's one of the answers that sounds really spot-on when someone, especially someone you admire or think is smart, says it. But when you think about it afterward it doesn't really tell you much, does it? Later, maybe you try to explain what was just explained to you to a thirteen-year-old, who isn't afraid to challenge you, and you suddenly realize you're not quite sure what the metaphor is.

But I don't raise my hand and the service continues along uninterrupted. We read from the prayer book, "I, the Eternal One, have called you to righteousness, and taken you by the hand, and kept you; I have made you a covenant people, a light to the nations."

No one else seems the least bit perplexed by these words, which we read week after week. I look left; I look right. Why does this make sense to everyone else but me?

Sometimes I wonder if we are all too intimidated to ask questions about God because we fear that we might be the only one in the room who doesn't "believe." The entire congregation might turn around and glaringly point to the door and tell us to leave.

If my situation sounds at all familiar to you, either about yourself or someone you know, then this is a book for you. This is a book for people who feel puzzled when a friend says, "I'll pray for you," and cringe when a politician says, "I'll pray about that," or wonder when a sports team prays for God to lead it to victory. This is a book for people who don't believe that God cares if I have a ham sandwich for lunch. (I actually had a peanut-butter sandwich for lunch in case it matters to you.)

This is also a book for people who, despite all their doubts and questions, feel an inexplicable connection to Judaism. There are many of us who don't buy into the idea that God split the Red Sea or spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai, but still love a good Passover Seder with its discussions, debates, and matzah ball soup. How is that possible?

I can introduce you to thousands of Jewish people who don't believe God dictated the Torah to Moses and who don't believe the Torah is an accurate historical record, but are still moved to tears when we read from the Torah on the summit of a Colorado mountain. What is that about?

I propose that if we resolve the God piece so it doesn't trip us up, Judaism will become meaningful and relevant. In my work as the Adventure Rabbi, I have made it a priority to explore a different concept of God, a God that is congruent with our modern sensibilities. Where do we begin to "meet" this God?

Do you know those sudden moments of connection, where you feel linked to something bigger than yourself? Perhaps standing on top of a mountain? Sailing on a quiet lake? Talking with a dear friend? Watching the birth of your son or daughter? Touching the Torah for the first time? These are the moments in which we meet God.

If you have participated in the Adventure Rabbi Program, you have experienced the way we use the outdoors to experience God. For those of you who have not joined us yet, imagine the sense of awe that is generated by standing in a desert canyon, surrounded by towering red rock walls, and joining your voice with your community as we sing out the Shema (a central Jewish prayer that talks about the oneness of God). The feeling of connection in such a moment is beyond the realm of words. That, too, is God.

If we choose, these are the kind of moments that can lead us to a different, more palatable understanding of God. If we can let go of the concept of an anthropomorphic God, a God who loves us and takes care of us, a God who intervenes and interferes with us, we can discover that our lives are infused with God encounters. It is just a different kind of God. This is a God we can't describe very well, but we can experience in moments such as those I've just mentioned. This is a God of connection, a God that motivates us to action, but not a God who acts.

But of course it is not so easy. For centuries our teachers have tried to tell us that God is not a man in the sky, and yet the myth that this is what Jews believe persists. Why? Perhaps because we want it to. Perhaps because part of us is not ready to give it up. Maybe, despite our adamant insistence that we do not believe in God, we don't really want to be presented with an alternative understanding. Could it be that what we unconsciously want is to be convinced that an omnipotent God actually does exist? That way, He can swoop down here and fix the mess we have made of the world.

Cultivating an alternative understanding of God, one that builds on the wisdom of the generations who came before us yet is consistent with our modern world, takes work and the willingness to ask questions, seek answers, and wrestle with concepts. We must be willing to lay down the theology of a personal God of agency who is very easy to describe yet difficult to experience, and trade in that theology for a less tangible God concept that we can more easily experience but can describe only inadequately. It's hardly a fair trade, and I recognize that many of us are not ready to do this.

I began to write this book as a story about my personal struggle with faith, my envy of those who believe in a God that can intervene in their lives, and my resolve to find meaning in Judaism without sacrificing my rational intellect. But over the many months of research and writing, after long animated conversations with the members of the Adventure Rabbi community, on hikes and chairlift rides, in lecture halls and classrooms, through e-mails and Facebook, the book expanded beyond my personal struggle and has come to reflect the struggle many of us face with Judaism.

Many of us feel alienated from Judaism and religion precisely because we have had it with being preached at about a God concept that makes no sense to us. We want Judaism to be part of our lives, but we are not willing to check our rational minds at the door.

I submit that if we are willing to look carefully at our Judaism and understand what works and what does not, if we are willing to upgrade our God concept to one that is aligned with our modern sensibilities, then we will be able to reclaim and modernize Judaism at every level.

Once upon a time our ancestors believed the world was flat and that demons caused strokes. But our understanding of the world around us has evolved and so, too, should our concept of God and our religion. We need not be tethered to a God concept that does not reflect the world as we know it.

It is my hope and expectation that these pages will spark conversations and controversy, so that you and I, and the people around us, will be prompted to discuss and debate, question and converse, and explore how to make Judaism relevant and meaningful for ourselves and for generations to come.

Chapter Two

They Taught You That in Sunday School?

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education. Albert Einstein

Although this is not a parenting book or a book geared for teachers, I would like to share with you a little about what I have learned about God when confronted by my daughters' and students' questions about God. Interactions with children have an incredible capacity to force us to own up to what we truly believe.

There is an odd hypocrisy in the world of Jewish professionals. Behind closed doors, many (although certainly not all) of the Jewish professionals I know do not believe that there is a God in the sky who keeps an eye on us, rewarding good and punishing bad. In a recent Harris poll, only 9 percent of American Jews claimed to believe in a God who makes things happen in the world. Yet, in many classrooms this is what we continue to teach our children.

I frequently visit communities and lecture on my innovative approach to Judaism. In preparing to write this book, I invited audiences to share their questions about God. Adults consistently ask questions such as "Does God hear our prayers?" and "How could God let the Holocaust happen?" and "Does healing prayer work?" and "Whose prayers does God decide to answer?"

I am accustomed to adults struggling with the idea that God can come down here and intervene with our lives, so their questions rarely surprise me. But children's questions continue to shock me. You see, I errantly expected that with so much adult ambivalence about this God in the sky who watches us and records our deeds like a Jewish Santa Claus, we would teach something different to our children. Apparently, I was mistaken.

One particular talk stands out. The audience was mostly adults but some inquisitive children had accompanied their parents. I was stunned by the words of two bar mitzvah students, one from California and the other from Colorado.

The first boy said, "My Sunday school teacher taught us that God is everywhere and sees everything. That means God is watching me while I am showering and that kind of gives me the creeps."

The second student shared, "My Sunday school teacher told us that God is always watching us and knows everything we do. She said God is like those cameras on top of traffic lights, catching you at every moment. But what I want to know is why doesn't God ever send us speeding tickets?"

Both of these students attend well-run, highly regarded religious schools. How is it possible that we continue to teach students a theology like that? Yet so it is. A religious school textbook still advertised in 2010 as "the consummate Confirmation course for the religious school" teaches: "God is all-powerful. He can do anything He chooses and nothing can prevent Him from so doing.... God knows all."

Eventually, these kids will realize that the anthropomorphic theology they have been handed doesn't make rational sense and is contradicted by what they experience in the world. Will they have the tools to create a new theology for themselves? Or will they simply toss the God idea in the trash and Judaism right along with it?

Why are we teaching this God concept to our children? Part of the reason is that we adults don't know what we believe. If we Jewish professionals and parents are not clear in our own God concepts, how can we expect to teach our students and children about God?

Add to our lack of clarity the exhaustion and frustration that are all too often part of teaching and parenthood and you have a teaching moment disaster in the making.

When my daughter Sadie was about three years old, the lightbulb above the washer and dryer blew out. It was late at night and already well past her bedtime, which meant it was past my bedtime because I go to bed very early. But there was a little problem in our nighttime routine. I had washed Sadie's favorite blue flannel sheets with the little sheep and clouds on them, and she insisted that she could not possibly fall asleep on the blue-and-white checkered sheets that were now on her bed. After I tried to compensate for her loss by reading two extra Maisy stories by Lucy Cousins, getting her a glass of cold water, putting more ice in the glass of water, and putting more stuffed animals in her bed, I relented and we trooped to the laundry room to get the little sheep and cloud sheets out of the dryer so she would go to sleep.

I pulled the cord dangling from the light fixture and felt that satisfying click, but the light did not come on. Standing in the dark room, Sadie asked me, "Mama, who broke the light?"

"Nobody broke it," I answered. "It just broke."

As a three-year-old will, she asked again, "Mama, who broke the light?"

"Nobody," I answered. "It just broke."

Again she asked, "Mama, who broke the light?" And as I pulled the sheets out of the dryer, she continued to ask the same question, with the same exact wording, and the same exact tone, because that is what three-year-olds do when the answer they are given makes no sense to them.

I tried to explain electricity as best I could to her, but the truth is that I am not really sure how electricity works. Something about pulses through a wire and a vacuum in the bulb and then the light goes on. Predictably, with each attempt to answer the now very grating refrain, "Mama, who broke the light?" I became less and less clear and more and more frustrated.

At the exact moment my handsome husband Jeff walked into the room, finally, in exasperation I said, "God broke the lightbulb because He was mad at it."

"Who is God, Mama?" she asked

"Can we talk about it in the morning?" I said.

Completely shocked, my husband asked me, "What are you teaching our child?!?!" Then he rescued me with, "Honey, why don't you go ahead and go to sleep and I'll put Sadie to bed."

Now this was a bad parenting moment in a lot of ways. Mainly this statement is so contrary to my theology that it is comical that such words would come out of my mouth. It is exactly what I do not want our daughter to learn. The last thing I want Sadie to think is that God comes down here and breaks people's lightbulbs, or their hearts, or their bodies, or their lives. I certainly don't want her to think God is this powerful force that gets angry at people and makes bad things happen to them.


Excerpted from THE GOD UPGRADE by Jamie S. Korngold Copyright © 2011 by Jamie S. Korngold. Excerpted by permission of JEWISH LIGHTS Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Rabbi Jamie S. Korngold, the Adventure Rabbi, has been featured in the New York Times, USA Today and many other media outlets for her innovative work in Judaism. Founder and spiritual leader of the Adventure Rabbi Program, she is a popular retreat leader and speaker on the topics of Judaism and Jewish life. She is the author of God in the Wilderness: Rediscovering the Spirituality of the Great Outdoors.

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, one of the most respected spiritual leaders and teachers of his generation, has been a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California, for close to forty years. He is the founding chairman of the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, an organization that identifies and offers grants to those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews threatened by the agents of Nazi savagery. He is also the founder of Jewish World Watch, which aims to raise moral consciousness within the Jewish community. Synagogues and other religious institutions are now supporting this effort across the country.

Rabbi Schulweis is the author of many books, including: Conscience: The Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey (Jewish Lights), Approaches to the Philosophy of Religion, For Those Who Can't Believe, Finding Each Other in Judaism, In God's Mirror, and two books of original religious poetry and meditation—From Birth to Immortality and Passages in Poetry. His Evil and the Morality of God is regarded as a classic.

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