March 8, 2018

Streams of Belief at GOA Enrich Exploration of Judaism

Ben Gutstein ‘20

Although there are official Jewish religious positions, if you ask any two students or teachers in Golda Och Academy about G-d, you will likely hear two very different interpretations. Many in the GOA community have thought about and describe deeply personal and diverse concepts of G-d.
Sophomores Noah Kamens and Naomi Esrig, although they are good friends, sit on opposite ends of the spectrum of belief. Kamens credits G-d with the creation of the universe, whereas Esrig cannot connect with any type of deity since there is “no substantial evidence” of G-d’s existence.
While they have divergent views on G-d, they both feel that Judaism is not a religion based solely on faith. They explained that Judaism is just as custom- and community-based as it is religious.
“The fact that people do not believe in G-d, does not necessarily mean that they do not believe in tradition,” Kamens said.
One may practice the customs and feel a sense of spirituality despite questions about G-d.
“My parents are Jewish, my ancestors were Jewish and therefore, I am Jewish,” Esrig explained. “Practicing the customs, even when you do not believe, is a method of connecting with the past.”
While some students are more decisive in their religious convictions, others like sophomore Mia Har-El and junior Gidi Fox have a more difficult time understanding the concepts behind G-d.
Har-El does not know if she believes in G-d, but what she can say is that one does not have to believe in order to participate in religious observance. Fox demonstrates the same sort of indecisiveness when discussing his view of G-d. He believes that there is no stereotypical form of G-d.
That stance is supported directly by Rabbi Waldman. She says that people get hung up on proving the wrong aspects of religion. She explains that attempts to imagine a bearded man in the sky as G-d is merely “grasping at straws.”
Even though everyone has differing views on G-d, there seems to be one constant. Students and teachers alike believe that religious writings contain many lessons relevant to human interaction and not just descriptions of G-d.
Rabbi Waldman says that there is a prodigious amount of information that could be taken from texts such as the Talmud and Tanakh, even if students consider themselves to be atheists. Esrig adds that despite her doubts about G-d, she has been able to internalize many lessons from learning Biblical texts over the years.
Most students also state that it is not necessary to accept ancient stories as fact in order to learn from them.
Kamens explains that the story about the Oven of Akhnai is an example of a Talmudic debate that is intended to teach an important lesson. In this story, the Rabbis emphasize the importance of human discussion rather than relying on G-d to set a precedent.
Rabbi Mayer points out that students with differing religious viewpoints bring diverse perspectives to the classroom.
“In my experience,” he said, “people who claim to be atheists oftentimes learn the stories with a cynical eye.”
Even if students do not have a strong belief in G-d, they can still learn important lessons from Biblical studies.

Opinions about G-d and tradition vary among the students and teachers in our community, but diverse views bring a richness to the educational experience of each person at our school.

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