Good Life

Clergy: The same God

One of Judaism’s main prayers, the Amidah, begins with a passage acknowledging that the God we worship is the same God worshiped by our ancestors: “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, God of our Fathers and Mothers: God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob; God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Leah and God of Rachel. You are great and mighty and awesome; truly God Supreme ...”

One may wonder why it is necessary to state such a fact, but there are a number of different names for God in Jewish tradition, and the holy texts make it clear that the different names do not reflect different gods. One such passage is in Exodus 6: “God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am the Lord/YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My Name YHVH.” Different name; same God.

The Biblical names for God include The Lord/YHVH, God/Elohim, The Lord God/YHVH Elohim and El Shaddai (God Almighty or God of the Mountains). In the Talmud, there are a few more: Hamakom (The Place), King of the Kings of Kings, The Holy One of Blessing (The Holy One, Blessed be He) and Our Father in Heaven. Later generations added a few more, and we can hear God referenced as Ayn Sof (The Infinite), Shechinah (God’s Indwelling Presence) and simply Hashem (The Name).

Being Jewish and acquainted with our texts, we know that the same God who creates the world also speaks to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Isaiah and Amos, and we know that this is the same God to whom we pray — whose mitzvot we find compelling. But what about the gods of other religions?

Our tradition is quite clear about not worshiping false gods — like Baal or Zeus or Tiamat or Horus — but what about the “gods” of other monotheistic religions? Do we worship the same God as Christians or as Muslims? The Jewish consensus is that, yes, we do, but this same God understanding has limitations. The hostility between and within monotheistic religions is generally not over the question of which god is worshiped, but rather of what God wants humans to do. While interfaith advocates insist that, “We all worship the same God,” zealots fight over the details of God’s instructions. An example is the Salafist movement of modern Islam. So-called Islamists are not impressed with the fact that other Muslims also worship Allah/God. Their anger is over what they consider to be the misappropriation and sinful misinterpretation of God’s instructions. The same can be said of many religious controversies in Christianity and Judaism.

This is the basis also, I suspect, of the recent controversy at Wheaton College, where a professor was suspended over her “questionable commitment” to Christianity. News accounts focus on her statement that Muslims worship the same God as Christians, but I suspect this is not the real issue. For a college like Wheaton, the sameness of God and Allah is much less important than a Christian college allowing that Islam is a legitimate avenue to salvation. Suggesting that God is happy with Islam — that God does not require belief in Jesus and the various other Christian requirements for salvation — is quite challenging for Wheaton’s fundamentalist position. It will be interesting to see how the controversy develops and how the infraction is defined.

This all reminds me of a controversy some 20 years ago in Pensacola, Fla. The boxer Muhammad Ali was invited to speak to the county’s high school seniors, but a few Baptist preachers got exercised over Ali’s published belief that his Baptist mother would be waiting in heaven when he got there, and that they would be together. The issue was not the sameness of God and Allah (since Allah is simply the Arabic word for God). Rather, they were concerned with the suggestion that the one God could give different instructions (for worship and salvation) to different people.

There are lots of ways to slice or weigh these possibilities, but let us conclude for now with a calmer and more inspirational understanding. Here is a prayer by Rabbi Chaim Stern:

“O God, the guide and inspiration of all humanity, You have spoken in a thousand tongues for all to hear. In every land and age, we, Your children, have heard Your voice and imagined You in our separate ways. And yet, O God, You are One: though each may see You differently, You are the One God of all humanity. We give thanks for the sages and teachers of all peoples and faiths, who have brought many to deeper understanding of You and Your will. Gratefully we recall that among them were the lawgivers and prophets, the psalmists and sages of Israel. Joyfully we remember that from the very dawn of Israel’s life, Your children have turned to You and found strength. May the teachings of our ancestors live on in our minds and their passion for righteousness retain its power to move our hearts. Help us, O God, so to live that our daily conduct may reveal the beauty of our faith and that the house of Israel may continue to bear witness to Your truth.”

Rabbi David E. Ostrich is a spiritual leader at Congregation Brit Shalom.