Our Torah portion this week, Vayishlach, includes the famous episode of Jacob wrestling with…what? A man? An angel? His conscience? We aren’t told too much about who this mysterious man was, but after Jacob prevails, the man wrenches Jacob’s hip (giving us the law that we are not to eat the “geed hanasheh,” or sciatic nerve–instead, we sell the rear half of the animal to a non-kosher butcher, hence that witty commercial: “no ifs, ands, or butts”) and gives Jacob the name Yisrael.
Yisrael means “to struggle with God.” While Jacob may have literally wrestled with God, we, his decedents, continue the wrestling match. We wrestle with God concepts, God ideas, God issues and God questions. Does God truly hear our prayers, and answer them? Does God create miracles (like the one associated with the Hanukkah story)? Is God aware of each person? How do we know the will of God?
I have my own ideas, my own beliefs, but my quarrel is not so much with God as with Jews who become intellectually lazy and decide that they don’t believe in the God of the bible. And because they don’t believe in the God of the bible, to such people it follows that we therefore don’t have to do anything particularly Jewish, like going to services, celebrating holidays, or keeping kosher. They erroneously think that the God of the bible is their only option.
We need Jews who struggle with God. Who study God ideas and theologies. One of our rabbis teaches a class to our seniors exploring various God ideas so the students can realize that we don’t have to believe in the God of the bible. Or of the Talmud. Or the God of the pious Jew down the block. This is the pluralistic approach.
We need Jews who realize that, as central as God is to Judaism, Judaism can be lived without a strong belief or understanding of God, and who continue to study and learn and debate and question.
And so, even as we continue our struggle as Israelites, we shouldn’t forget to live as Jews!
-Rabbi David Vorspan, Rabbi-in-Residence