The Holiness in Doing

Rabbi Heschel
Rabbi Heschel

Mankind will not perish for want of information; but only for want of appreciation. – Abraham Joshua Heschel z”l

Heschel wrote those words long before the advent of the Internet. His words are truer today than ever before: we are drowning in information.

When I first began to study Judaism, I read everything I could find. The Internet was in its infancy, and there was not yet much there, but I scoured the public library, the congregation’s library, used book stores, and anywhere else I might be able to buy, beg, or borrow Jewish information. I was fortunate in finding a Jewish independent book store owner who was both kind and ethical: he’d sell me one book at a time, and ask me to come back and tell him what I thought of it before I got another.

Now, with so many sources online, and with much of our book-buying online, it’s a whole new world. I worry for my students: if you Google the word “Jew” or anything like it, you get a wild mix of Jewish information, messianic information, and anti-Semitic filth, and they are not always easy to distinguish from one another. The quality of the Jewish information is uneven.

Facts alone do not make a good Jew, or even a good person. I can study about tzedakah all day long, but until I give tzedakah, I will be ignorant about it. I can learn all the prayers in Hebrew, but if I do not actually pray, it is a pointless exercise. Judaism is a religion of doing. One of the things we do is study, but if we stop there, we are failing to fulfill our mission as Jews.

What does this have to do with Heschel’s appreciation? We appreciate the world and its wonders by engaging with the world via mitzvot. The pause for a blessing gives me a moment to appreciate the food I am about to eat. Giving tzedakah reminds me to appreciate my economic power, even if that power is small.  Saying my morning prayers properly helps me appreciate the fact of life itself and the body within which I live it.

The blessings for mitzvot include the phrase “Who sanctifies us with mitzvot.” This reminds us that the mitzvot are there to make us holy by sanctifying our experiences. With every pause for appreciation, every mitzvah, we invite the Holy to break in upon our mundane existence. Amazement crashes in upon the world, bringing life itself to life.

The Difficulty of God-talk

We’re about to embark on the Sabbath of Sabbaths, Yom Kippur, when we spend 24 hours with the fact of our human fallibility, with our failed efforts at reform, with all the mess of being human.  We do this in the context of a lot of God-language: God as Ruler, God as Judge, God as Parent (and those are just the gender-neutral options!)

For those for whom God-language is difficult or a barrier to good spiritual work, I’m offering a post I originally published last summer on the Women’s Rabbinic Network blog. How you fit this into your Yom Kippur reflections is up to you. Just remember that metaphors are only that – metaphors. The quest itself, the quest for holiness — that’s real.


Atheism is in fashion these days. About a quarter of my Intro to Judaism students worry that I will find out that they do not believe in God.  Another quarter are deeply suspicious of something they call “organized religion” because it is “the source of all the trouble in the world.” They are all serious, thoughtful people, and something has brought them to my class despite their misgivings: a need to explore Jewish roots, an important relationship, or a profound feeling of connection to Am Yisrael, the Jewish People.

And yet there is this god thing: I have begun to think of it as The Godzilla Problem.

A young friend of mine recently commented on Facebook that her phone now autocorrects “God” to “Godzilla.” I sat and looked at that post, and it dawned on me that THAT was a perfect distillation of the problem: the god that my students refer to so distastefully is a monster god who blasts and condemns and punishes very much like the Japanese monster with whom it shares three letters. Like Godzilla, he is scary but not real.

I don’t worship that god. There are people who do worship it. They believe that there is a Big Person who will blast and punish evildoers. They talk with relish about that god’s opinions and predict his actions at some future time. They act in the name of that god and do terrible things to other people “for their own good.” Those people espouse many different religions; they cherry-pick the Torah and other scriptures for proof-texts. Unfortunately they are noisy people and for many, they have become the voice of religion.

The God I worship, whose title I will capitalize, is more enigmatic: this God shines through every experience that leaves me with my jaw hanging open. I witness God in the smell of a newborn baby, in the power of an earthquake, in our questions at at the side of an open grave. I witness God in acts of selflessness and acts of courage. Abraham Joshua Heschel described this notion of God much better than I ever shall when he wrote about “radical amazement.”

Torah is the process of Jews trying to wrap their minds around the Wonder: it is a dance between the amazed People and the Object of their amazement. I believe that the best way our ancestors could come up with to relate to Wonder was to personify God, to construct a metaphor that would allow them a way to explore holiness. They made a covenant with God, with commandments to make them holy, that is, more in tune with the amazingness of the universe. At the same time, our tradition warns against falling in love with mere images.

Heartbreaking evil has been done and continues to be done in the name of someone’s deity. I believe firmly that such acts are acts of idolatry: that so-called “god” is indeed  “Godzilla.”

As a rabbi, as a teacher, my challenge is to wedge past the monster and lead my students through the door to amazement and questions. In our amazement with this world, with the questions of love and death, we may indeed approach the truth of Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy Blessed One.