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4. Talking about God is newer to many Jews than working with God.

When it comes to “God talk” in the form of verbal, academic theology, most Jews lack the experience and expertise of most Christians.  Indeed, the whole realm of theological discussion is relatively new for Jews and, for the most part, more of a non-Jewish than a Jewish enterprise. Peruse a Christian – or a secular - bookstore, and you will see shelves-upon-shelves of books dealing with Christian theology. You will not see a similarly large selection dealing with Jewish theology - even in a Jewish bookstore (although the number of books on the subject is increasing).

This is not to say that Judaism is completely devoid of theological discussion. A number of major medieval, modern and contemporary Jewish thinkers have written on God’s attributes or on God’s roles in the world,19 however, most Jews are unaware of these writings. Most Jews figuratively stutter when it comes to God-talk.  Rabbi Gillman has suggested that one of the reasons that Jews are beginning to speak and write about theology now is to be able to dialogue with non-Jews who have more verbal facility with the subject. However, we ask you to keep in mind that most Jewish CPE students - including clergy and seminarians - are only just beginning to discover Jewish language in this area.

For most Jews, talking about the good deeds that we have offered the world is in fact, synonymous with talking about God. Often, the significance of this cultural and theological conversational pattern escapes the attention of our non-Jewish supervisors and peers20. This is especially true of those non-Jews who place a high value on “humility”. Often, they label Jews “competitive” or “boastful”. Certainly, it is possible that individual Jews may be competitive or boastful, but it’s more probable that in those contexts, they have been sharing what they have been culturally taught to share with each other, namely what they have been doing.  In Judaism, discussing deeds is normal and expected and it constitutes a theological statement of where they are vis-à-vis God.

Now match this to a CPE philosophy that teaches students not “to do” but “to be” - and a conflict develops. Jews who feel discouraged from talking about what they do - by CPE supervisors who simultaneously ask them to talk about God - are placed in a contradictory and often, an untenable situation. It is just this conflict which many Jewish students are unable to articulate, but which they feel.  And often, it makes them feel defensive in a CPE environment that then responds pejoratively.

Think about turning the matter on its head.   If you are a non-Jew, how would you have felt if your CPE supervisors had repeatedly told you that “You have too much ‘faith’, stop believing so much!”  How many of you would have felt disconcerted – and even defensive - at that repeated admonition? Similarly, telling Jews to “be” and not to “do” runs contrary to Jewish thinking. Taylor adds: “It took me a number of CPE units before I could articulate and reframe ‘being’ as a deliberate and a conscious strategy. That made it a form of action, therefore a choice, therefore a ‘deed’, and therefore Jewishly OK.”21

© 2004 , Bonita E Taylor & David J. Zucker

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