These spiritual seekers are lay-people. Joan Burstyn is an historian and poet; Gershon Vincow is a scientist and community leader. They study, discuss, teach each other, and draw conclusions. The result of this study partnership is a transformative learning experience about Judaism and the search for God.
"This touching and inspiring account of the commitment of two friends to study texts and share their insights with each other on behalf of their own, and each other's connection to holiness could well be titled Thinking as a Spiritual Path. Celebrating intellect as an instrument of prayer, this book will serve as a template for seekers across religious traditions who long for a spiritual practice that satisfies their minds as it gladdens their hearts."
-Sylvia Boorstein, author of Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life.
"This book successfully probes the most basic questions anyone should ask: What do I mean when I use the word 'God'? And how does the answer affect the way I live?"
-Edward D. Zinbarg, board member, Jewish Theological Seminary Rabbinical School; author of Faith, Morals and Money: What the World's Religions Tell Us about Ethics in the Marketplace.
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Searching for GodStudy Partners Explore Contemporary Jewish Texts
By Joan Burstyn Gershon Vincow
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Joan Burstyn and Gershon Vincow
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Year of Conversations and Letters
After I left you this afternoon, I had a brainstorm: that you and I take on a project, together, over the next twelve months to think through the issues we were talking about as we parted—namely, to find Jewish expression for the meaning of God to us, college educated people of the twenty-first century.
As part of that project, we'll talk as we usually do, and then we'll share with each other, letters about our reading and thoughts. We will amass by year's end a record of our thinking. Our thoughts as we progress with the project will interest others who may be seeking for ways to develop a new understanding of God. Our contribution will be a process to use in taking on the search we have outlined. Since we are educated lay persons, and not professional Jewish scholars, our method could have a strong appeal to other lay persons.
Our letters would not form a "how to" book, but rather an exchange of ideas that hinted at a process any two "study partners" might follow to tackle the issues. How about that? If you are game to take it on, I am.
"What you can do, or dream you can, begin it,
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it."
Goethe – Faust
What an ambitious idea! I'm interested in the possibility of a study project about Jewish theology but the timing isn't yet right—perhaps when I finish my term as president of the Federation, next June.
As for writing a book, that is an overwhelming thought. You've written and published books. I've published only scientific articles and, recently, bimonthly letters to the community in the Syracuse Jewish Observer. So, I won't say "no" but I can't say "yes." A lot depends on how our studies develop.
I was all agog last week when I wrote the note to you about planning our activities for the next twelve months. Then, I found myself mulling over the task, and I felt the hubris of the undertaking.
What led me to feel our hubris was a comment you had made that Arthur Green had started on his intellectual journey in Judaism when he was twenty. Here are we, almost or more than half a century further on in our lives and we are only at the beginning of our quest. What can we offer to people who are younger than we? And aren't we arrogant to cast ourselves in the guise of their teachers when our experiences have been so time-bound to the lives we have led? Perhaps we need, at the beginning, to acknowledge who we are, and what our experiences of life have been.
Your letter made me think further about my comment about our age. Yes, we aren't twenty and we don't have many decades to evolve our own thoughts about a new theology, as Arthur Green described when he gave the Hyman lecture here.
But that's not our job. Let's make a positive thing of our fifty years of adult life experience. A lot of books have been published during that time about Jewish theology and practice. Our task might be to study some of these books and take advantage of the authors' hard work of analysis and synthesis, based on their lifetimes of preparation.
We could select from each book what resonates with our individual pasts and values, hoping for some theological generalizations, specific directions for our Jewish practice, and even new approaches to how we will, during our remaining years, "act" in our individual lives, our interpersonal relationships, and the world at large.
Hubris appears to be a contagious disease.
The other day, when you talked about your education at Columbia University, your reading of western civilization literature, and your belief in the progress of humankind, I began to think about my own education and beliefs. In many ways, my education was similar to yours. I, also, read the literature of western civilization, and was introduced to the enlightenment beliefs in rationality and progress. However, my education and my beliefs differ from yours in several ways.
Unlike American universities, the University of London, at the time I attended, insisted that you focus your studies on one subject. I chose history. In the course of my studies, I read eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth century historians who looked at political and military strategy on a grand scale. I was influenced by reading an abridged version of Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History where he puts forward his theory that all societies face constant challenges, to each of which they have to fashion a response. Inevitably, Toynbee suggests, a challenge will arise that will prove too complex, or too perplexing for a particular society to overcome and, as a result, the society will decline.
From my studies, I learned, also, that progress is not linear. When it occurs it is likely to be cyclical, with a period of progress followed by a period of retrenchment and even relapse. Moreover, progress rarely occurs within the lifetime of a single individual.
I don't believe that knowledge once known will inevitably be retained and built upon. I'm troubled because I think you do believe that. If so, we don't hold similar ideas about the continued progress of human life. If we don't agree on that, how will we be able to agree on our idea of God? I suppose we could agree on some "mind" at work behind the universe as Einstein seemed to postulate. But, then, where do we go from there?
Take care, Joan
I was interested to learn about the depth of your university education in Great Britain—so different from the breadth of my liberal arts education. My required courses at Columbia on masterworks of western literature, history, art, music, and philosophy constituted a great shaping influence on my life. How else would a poor boy from Brooklyn have been introduced to art museums and classical music concerts?
I agree that progress can be cyclical and may occur on a time scale beyond that of a single human lifetime. All the more reason, I conclude, to dedicate oneself to the ideal of human progress, however modest in results the effort may be.
As we judge human progress, I would encourage us to look, first and foremost, within individual, national, ethnic, or religious cultures. We don't seem well equipped to work across the substantial boundaries between them. Consider, for example, the modest successes of the United Nations and the clash of cultures between western civilization and radical Islam.
I don't know where the ideas of God that we develop may lead us. I am confident that we'll be able to respect any differences. Further, I have the perhaps naive belief that each of us will live a more meaningful life inspired by our idea of God. And, on the smallest scale, that's human progress, too.
Despite an urgent issue for me to deal with, and exams to grade, I am taking time out to write to you about my thoughts on God. When, as I often do, I think about God as a humanly created artifact, a way for humans to find a sense of purpose for their short lives, I ask myself "Is it important for anyone to go beyond the construction of their own personal understanding of God? Should I, for instance, share my understanding of God with others? In doing so, would I hope to persuade them to adopt it as their own? How could I expect them to do that?"
Ronnie, my brother, influenced me a great deal when I was in my late teens and early twenties. Belief in God was one topic on which he influenced me indirectly. I lived at home in London while attending university, and Ronnie came home most weekends from a job as an engineer in Chelmsford, a town about forty miles to the east. There, he attended evening classes, including a philosophy course taught by a Mr. Lemon. As I recall what Ronnie told me, the class was discussing "How can one believe in God if there is no way to prove God's existence?" So, Mr. Lemon asked the class to live for the next two weeks according to the proposition that God did exist and to report back on whether that made any difference to their lives. That story must have been important to me, because I recall it often. I concluded (whether from myself living for two weeks as though God existed, or from hearing Ronnie talk about the following week's discussion I can't recall) that the result was sufficient for me to agree to the proposition: God does exist.
I wonder, now, what were the characteristics of God that each person in that class came up with? And, from where do I draw God's characteristics? I am greatly influenced by what I have learned from Jewish thinkers of the past and the present.
Is the way I understand God now very different from the way I understood God as a teenager? When I began to write my spiritual autobiography some years ago, I started it by writing about my early teens. I am intrigued that I stopped writing the autobiography when I reached the descriptions of myself at age 17. I think I must now pick up the strands to see how my beliefs have evolved since that time. They changed dramatically, I think, after I ended a close friendship with a non-Jewish man when I was 22, and after my mother was taken terminally ill and died the following year. Those two events made me realize that my belief in God was inextricably linked to my practice of Judaism. How I came to that decision, then, has to be the next part of my spiritual autobiography.
I have exhausted the time I allotted myself today. Thanks for listening.
I was struck by the power of Mr. Lemon's challenge and I asked myself how I would respond during a single two-week period. As a Jew, central to my faith in God would be my religious practice. I would try to create a Shabbat of contemplation, study, and spiritual renewal, a Shabbat of thanksgiving to God as Creator of the universe and of my life. This would be a welcome turn inward for me—a turn away from noise and clutter that tends to trivialize my existence.
For the last hour or more, I have been writing an account of my professional life during the last year for the University's annual curriculum vitae update. I've not finished yet, but I have broken the back of the task. Each year at this time, I spend at least a day reconsidering the work I have done, and assessing its effect. Now, I realize that never again will I have to fill out such a form. Does that please me? Not really. It leaves me apprehensive for two reasons: first, it seems that no-one will care now what I do with my time. The responsibility will fall on me entirely. And then, I'm not sure that I will properly account for myself without such a constraint.
I'm reminded of my reaction, once my mother had died, to my freedom to come and go at home without anyone asking me where I had been, what time I had come home, and whether I had enjoyed myself. When my mother asked those questions, I found them intrusive and inappropriate. I was in my early twenties; I felt I shouldn't have to answer such questions. But, when freed of her constant interest, I found my father's and my brother's unconcern disconcerting. Did no-one care about me now?
All this leads me to think that in retirement I will have to create new constraints on myself, ones that are less stressful than those of the past, but surely ones that stretch me. I will have to do this by creating or joining a community that cares about me as well as one that I care about. Perhaps I could belong to several such communities. I read in Bertrand Russell's autobiography that as one ages one should participate in some movement that is ongoing and will continue once one has left the scene, like the nuclear disarmament movement. That's a way to experience immortality, I guess, because the cause to which you are dedicated is one that others will continue to work on once you have died.
A while back, I talked about my concern that once I had retired I would have no constraints on me to help me achieve anything. You suggested that perhaps I could overcome that obstacle by changing constraints into goals. I think I could do that since I have been in the habit of setting myself goals for the last thirty years. So, I plan to explore the idea more, later on.
Now, I want to turn back to the writing I did some years ago on "What does it mean to me to be a Jew?" That piece spoke about the way that being a Jew signifies to me that I am commanded to empathize with the downtrodden even while I may relish my own security and contentment. I don't disagree with what I wrote then, but to be a Jew is far more than that. The main reason I am engaged in this project is because I want a deeper understanding of Judaism. And the understanding I seek is intellectual as well as emotional.
I have come to realize by re-reading earlier snippets I have written that I have been engaged in intellectual exploration of Judaism over the years. My exploration, though, has been haphazard and not guided by a specific goal. So, is my aim to become more organized, more goal oriented? I hope I can make it so because I want to become more systematic in my studies. But, how to organize myself, that is the big question.
At the moment, my goal is quite specific. I am part of an interfaith group going in March to Spain. So I have decided that I should now concentrate my energy on learning more about the lives of Jews in Spain before 1492. For several centuries up till then, Jews held positions of responsibility in Spanish political and cultural life. One can easily romanticize about that, but there was relative prosperity for Jews in Spain over several centuries, even though uncertainties arose with every change of caliph or ruler. I plan to explore more of that period in the next couple of weeks.
Oh dear! I wrote the paragraph above before I went to Barnes and Noble searching for a gift. While there, I came across Harold Kushner's book Who Needs God? I bought it and now, instead of focusing on reading about Spain before we set off on our trip, I have been sidetracked into reading Who Needs God? There's my problem, you see, I so easily get sidetracked from my intention.
Best wishes, Joan
You speak of setting goals and focusing your study during your retirement years. Perhaps our luncheon discussions, every other week, can provide you a supportive structure to help develop that process. Perhaps we could, next year, follow your suggestion of last October and begin a study project together. In the yeshiva world such a partnership is called studying in hevruta. That is what we would be doing, though our focus would be on contemporary writing, not on Talmud.
You also write about the challenge of focusing yourself given your tendency (which I share) to get sidetracked, for example into purchasing Harold Kushner's book, Who Needs God? rather than preparing for your trip to Spain. Let me offer the following encouragement. I find that today's sidetrack often leads to tomorrow's main track.
What do I mean? As I tell my chemistry students, I have never studied anything that didn't turn out useful later on—sometimes much later on. For example, as an undergraduate chemistry major, who had to take many physics and math courses, I was "sidetracked" in a sense by the required, intensive liberal arts education at Columbia. Who would have thought that, twenty-five years later, my knowledge of the humanities and social sciences would be essential in my position as dean of the college of arts and sciences at Syracuse University? I'm sure that someday you will introduce ideas from Who Needs God? into our discussions.
I have been mulling over the questions that came up during our conversation last Monday: Do we believe that God intervenes in human affairs, and in our own affairs specifically? I used to believe that God did not intervene in human affairs. Rationally that seemed impossible, and I wanted to control my own actions. To believe that God guided me was, I felt, to give up some control over my life. But then, I have to ask what motivated me to feel that I have to control my own life? When I think about that, I come to the conclusion that part of me was quite terrified by the thought of believing that some force outside myself had a role in my decision-making. So, what was the source of my fear?
Excerpted from Searching for God by Joan Burstyn Gershon Vincow Copyright © 2011 by Joan Burstyn and Gershon Vincow. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part One Deciding to Study Together....................1
Discussing Judaism in a Chinese Restaurant....................3
Chapter One A Year of Conversations and Letters....................5
Part Two Starting with a Mystical Approach to God....................19
Selecting Arthur Green's Seek My Face: A Jewish Mystical Theology....................21
Chapter Two God and the Ways of Knowing....................23
Chapter Three Creation and Four Mitzvot Based on Creation....................37
Chapter Four Reflections after Discussing Green....................50
Part Three Examining Maimonides' Rational Approach....................59
Selecting Kenneth Seeskin's Maimonides: A Guide for Today's Perplexed....................61
Chapter Five On God and the Meaning of Monotheism....................63
Chapter Six On Creation and Prophecy....................69
Chapter Seven On the Commandments and an Examined Practice of Mitzvot....................81
Chapter Eight Are Maimonides' Ideas Useful for Today's Perplexed?....................89
Part Four Exploring Mussar: A Jewish Discipline for Building Character....................95
An Exchange of Letters about What to Study Next....................97
Selecting Alan Morinis' Climbing Jacob's Ladder: One Man's Rediscovery of a Jewish Spiritual Tradition....................100
Chapter Nine Climbing Jacob's Ladder and What We Learned about Mussar....................102
Chapter Ten Our Mussar Practices....................110
Part Five Understanding Revelation and Commandment through Metaphor....................127
Selecting Neil Gillman's Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew....................129
Chapter Eleven On Revelation....................131
Chapter Twelve On Religious Authority....................147
Part Six Using Metaphors from Physics to Describe God....................161
Selecting David Nelson's Judaism, Physics and God: Searching for Metaphors in a Post-Einstein World....................163
Chapter Thirteen Introduction to Religious Metaphors....................165
Chapter Fourteen Modern Cosmology and Creation....................170
Chapter Fifteen Chaos Theory and Fractals....................177
Chapter Sixteen Special Relativity and Light....................186
Chapter Seventeen The New Metaphors and Nelson's Belief about God....................197
Part Seven Summing Up....................203
Chapter Eighteen Reflecting on Our Hevruta Relationship....................205
Chapter Nineteen Gershon's Concluding Thoughts....................211
Chapter Twenty Joan's Concluding Thoughts....................218
About the Authors....................229
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It was an honor to read this book and to glimpse into the lives and thoughts of two good friends. The significance of this joint writing is the demonstration of the freedom of thought and questioning which to me is so precious about Judaism. I have observed that although Judaism seems to offer more opportunity for questioning and discussion than other religions, at the same time many Jews are bound to Jewish teachings in ways that do not allow them to venture forth as the authors have done. Their searching and deeply intimate thoughts are shared in such beautiful and genuine ways. They explore yet respect their traditions. It is wonderful that we have Rabbis and other clergy and scholars that we can learn from but they are by no means the whole show in terms of learning. The life experiences that each of us have and the thoughts and interpretation of those times are terribly important. This book does not object to traditional learning and respects the clergy and scholars. What it does is add to what is there and gives another dimension of study and exploration and the experts are really at your fingertips if you need them. The book will inspire others to take up independent study with those who are ready. If people are interested in learning more about religion/God and need permission to do that on their own, this book will certainly accomplish that. The authors have faced and dealt with the problem. They are well-respected scholars. I would think that many people would want to follow their example.