I Totally Stole This Idea About God

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Stealing business bright ideas. Man in mask with vacuum cleaner sweeping with tube brains, thoughts of creative worker, using without permission or legal right. Vector flat style cartoon illustration

Pirkei Avos really only has five chapters. The sixth chapter, called “Kinyan Torah” (the Acquisition of Torah) or “Perek d’Rabbi Meir” (the Chapter of Rabbi Meir), was appended because of the custom to study Pirkei Avos each Shabbos from Pesach to Shavuos. There are six Shabboses so we need six chapters but Avos chapter 6 is really something else. I mention this only because I chafe a little every time I have to refer to Avos chapter 6.

That being said, we learn in Avos (not really) 6:6 that one who repeats something in the name of the person who originally stated it brings redemption to the world. This is derived from Esther 2:22 in which Esther told the king of the assassination plot in Mordechai’s name. Because she credited Mordechai, Achashveirosh later remembered that he wanted to reward Mordechai, which was the beginning of the reversal that led to Haman’s downfall. Esther giving Mordechai credit helped to save us all.

Giving credit is important, so we cite the sources and teachers from whom we have acquired our Torah ideas. But I think there reaches a point where ideas become so firmly entrenched that we take them as axiomatic and no longer even think to cite a source. For example, if someone were to ask whether God has a physical body, I think most of us would simply reply, “No, of course not!” rather than, “Well, according to Maimonides in his commentary on the Mishna in Sanhedrin, the answer is no.”

There is an idea that I read recently, which was a chiddush (novelty) to me, and I will fully credit the author when I get there. But my hope is for this idea to become so axiomatic that we don’t even think that it needs to be sourced. But first, some background.

Recently, Sarah Rudolph wrote an essay for OU Life entitled Hashem is Where? in which she discussed our cultural discomfort with talking about God. Here’s an excerpt:

“In the modern(ish), intellectually-oriented, halachically-observant circles in which I spent most of my formative years, there was often an odd discomfort with talking about Hashem. We believe in G-d, but we are afraid to encounter Him; even in discussions about meaningful spiritual experiences, I would rarely hear ‘Hashem’ mentioned explicitly.”

That we have such discomfort is not in and of itself a great revelation. I made similar observations four years ago in an article entitled Why Are We So Scared of God? Again, an excerpt:

“(T)here is a way in which we excel when it comes to fearing God, even though we shouldn’t. For some reason, Jews are afraid to talk about Him. It’s true. We can go through yeshiva for pre-school, grade school, junior high, high school and college, yet never have a single class talking about God.”

Mrs. Rudolph is well aware that others have trod this territory before. In her essay, she referred to having read two very different articles on this subject. She provided me with their web addresses in case I wanted to link to them. I didn’t end up doing so because, while I liked one of them very much, we deemed the other inappropriate for us to link to. But the one I liked very much had an idea that I was eager to share. And here it is.

Techiya Levine wrote a blog post on Times of Israel entitled Knock, knock, knock! Is God there? She includes observations similar to Mrs. Rudolph’s and my own, such as:

“I found 8 websites for a variety of high schools, both ‘in’ and ‘out’ of town. … They cited lofty and valuable goals like ‘inspiring girls to excellence in personal growth, middos and Torah Values’ or ‘encouraging them to become active members of their communities.’ ‘Seeking excellence in Limudei Kodesh and Limudei Chol’ ‘Loving Torah and Eretz Yisrael.’ But after the first three, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen anything like ‘developing a relationship with Hashem’ on any of them. Actually, none had mentioned G-d. At all.”

Now, unlike Mrs. Rudolph and me, Mrs. Levine doesn’t just identify the problem, she is melamed z’chus on the practice (meaning that she explains our shortcoming favorably). Mrs. Levine continues:

“Now, there was one word that was present on each and every site, either in the mission statement itself, or in the ‘about us’ paragraphs. That word was Torah. … And then it hit me! Often, great Rabbis are often referred to as the name of the most preeminent book! … Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, A.K.A. ‘the Chofetz Chaim.’ Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, A.K.A. ‘the Chazon Ish.’ And… Hashem, A.K.A. ‘the Torah!’”

It would be dishonest for me to suggest that this is Mrs. Levine’s final point. She goes on to state unequivocally that Torah is not the same God, nor should the words be used interchangeably. She does have an action plan, so go read her article to see what it is. That’s not what I want to focus on. I want to continue being melamed z’chus that when we talk about Torah, we really mean God.

If I say, “The Chofetz Chaim owned a shop in Radin,” you know I don’t mean the book. A book can’t own a store. Clearly, I am referring to the author, who is known by the title of his magnum opus.

Similarly, if I say “The Torah wants us to be good to one another,” I can’t mean the book. That’s what the Torah is: a book. It has 187 chapters, some 5,800 verses (the exact number depending on how you break them up), 79,847 words and 304,805 letters. It can’t want us to keep Shabbos, to give charity or to honor our parents. If we say that the Torah wants something, we should understand that all the Torah can do is reflect the will of its Author.

I think the first step to overcoming our fear of talking about God is to realize that we’re already talking about Him. When we hear “The Chofetz Chaim,” we know when it means the book and when it means Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan. We should be equally aware that when we talk about Torah, what we really mean is very often God. This may not be the end of the process but I think it’s a very good first step.

This idea was new to me. I credit Mrs. Levine for making the initial observation and Mrs. Rudolph for bringing it to my attention. My hope, however, is that the idea that “‘The Torah wants…’ means God” becomes so ingrained that we don’t even question it. We should say, “Of course!” rather than “That’s a nice thought; who said it?” Once we get past that first hump, I think we’ll be on our way to overcoming our collective case of glossotheophobia.

Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.