While we hold to the hope that age brings wisdom, Rabbi Gordon Tucker pointed out that sometimes the very young can light the way. It was a four-year-old in his congregation, he said, who approached him and asked, “Is God real or pretend?”
“Adults,” Tucker said, “most often ask it silently.”
Tucker, senior rabbi of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, NY, was giving the keynote address at the major convention of the year of the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, held at the Hanover Marriott July 17-20. He is also adjunct assistant professor of Jewish philosophy at the Jewish Theological Seminary and honorary chair of the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism in Israel.
The main theme of the conference — held for the first time in New Jersey, in the summer, and over Shabbat — was “Kodesh v’Chol: Balancing the Sacred and the Everyday.” In his East Hanover audience were individuals and members of around 500 sisterhoods and synagogue women’s groups from across the North America, with some from Israel and Britain.
The question about God, Tucker said, “is born of the heartache of being unable to access the holy.” The people asking it “don’t brazenly defy” Judaism’s teaching. “They’re nice people who have lost the ability to experience the sacred.” Their skepticism comes from a culture steeped in scientific thinking, and it doesn’t work to insist that they accept the wisdom of ancient texts.
But finding a way to “access the holy” is crucial, he said, if we are to make “a sacralized world plausible and compelling to our children.”
Tucker pointed out the ways in which Judaism specifies that which is most sacred — like the seventh day of the week, the “Holy of Holies” — the Ark of the Covenant within the First Temple in Jerusalem — and the people of Israel themselves, as the chosen among nations. But in terms of our modern cultural orientation, the notion that one place holds that honor, or that Jews are special, or that Hebrew is the language of God can seem “morally mischievous and incompatible,” he said.
On the other hand, he asked, “What are we to do without the transcendent? The old myths of the sacred are broken for us, but they can and must be reconstituted.”
If the authority of the ancient texts doesn’t inspire awe, Tucker said, the path to faith might lie in being “touched and moved by our own experience.” Perhaps we can see the wonders around us as “a manifestation of the divine.” That could mean something as simple as opening up to the glory of sunset — not just on Shabbat but on any day of the week.
Tucker preceded his talk with a tribute to Rabbi Neil Gillman, who has written extensively about the nexus of knowledge and belief. He was presented with a book written and autographed by Argentinian Rabbi Abraham Skorka, and also inscribed by Skorka’s friend and coauthor, Pope Francis.
Gillman, who said he is recovering his strength after undergoing cancer treatment, spoke seated in a wheelchair. He thanked the gathering for giving him what at this point in his life he said he desires most — “proof that I have made a difference.”
The four-day program included a spectrum of events focusing on the balance between the sacred and the everyday. They ranged from talks and workshops on leadership development, social action, and Torah to Shabbat services and localized social get-togethers. True to Women’s League’s tradition of establishing special charitable projects in connection with its conventions, this year the focus was on bullying and on how sisterhoods and communities can work to end its destructive cycle.