Off the Shelf: Exploring the nature of God by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines theology as “the study of religious faith, practice, and experience, especially the study of God and of God’s relation to the world.” Over the centuries, much blood has been shed due to the different ways people understand the nature of God, yet few do a systematic study of these competing theologies. Exploring and understanding different Jewish theologies is the purpose behind Rabbi Kari H. Tuling’s “Thinking about God: Jewish Views” (The Jewish Publication Society).

Why does Tuling think it’s important to study different Jewish theological viewpoints? She notes that “theology defines what happens in our lives. To give an example: If you believe in miracles, then miracles can happen in your life. And if you do not, then they cannot. This is not a form of magical thinking but a statement about the role of belief. Our conceptions shape the contours of our world.” In other words, our theology shapes the way we see the world and what happens in our lives. To better understand how we think and feel, we need to understand the way we define the role of God in the world.

“Thinking About God” is divided into four sections that ask, “Is God the Creator and Source of All Being – Including Evil?”; “Does God Have a Personality – or Is God an Impersonal Force?”; “Does God Redeem – or Might God Not Redeem?”; and “Is God a Covenantal Partner and Lawgiver – or Might These Roles Be Rethought in the Modern Age?” Each of these sections are divided into chapters that offer more specific questions relating to the topic. For example, when discussing the idea of covenant, Tuling explores the relationship between God and Israel, the question of whether the covenant is binding and how the idea of revealed law should be understood. 

Every chapter opens with three questions, which are followed by different Jewish writings on the topic. Included are biblical and liturgical writings on the subject, followed by rabbinic, medieval and modern thoughts. Tuling presents the complete text she is discussing before breaking it into small sections and unpacking the ideas included. At the end of the section, she includes a summary of the different viewpoints so that readers can better compare the ideas offered by each theologian. 

Tuling offers so much material that it’s impossible to summarize the many topics she covers. One example is her discussion of whether God has a bodily form. She notes that while the biblical text suggests that God has a corporal body those verses could also be read metaphorically. Jewish liturgy moved from a theology in which God needs a physical, animal sacrifice to one where prayer suffices for forgiveness. Rabbinic texts often speak as if God has a body, but Tuling notes that doesn’t mean they took that idea literally. Rather, their focus was on deciding God’s place in the world. During medieval times, Maimonides rejected the idea that God has corporal form, even going as far as to say that no human words can describe what God is. It’s only possible to describe what God is not – creating an image of God by using negative phrases. Two modern theologians prefer to talk about humans’ relationship to God, rather than God’s specific form (or lack of form). Martin Buber looked for ways to connect directly to God in a spiritual way, while Arthur Green suggests that there is no separation between God and humans – that from a mystical viewpoint, we are all part of God.

The differing viewpoints offered in “Thinking About God” are fascinating. Tuling’s book works for solitary readers, although it would also be an excellent text for a class or discussion group. She does note something very important in her conclusion: “At the heart of it, all theologies in this book – and our own – are actually personal explanations for the world, defining what could be meaningful, what might become possible, and how everything we experience or imagine might come true.” Spiritual seekers and those interested in the development of Jewish theology will find much to enjoy.