April 18, 2020, the day of my granddaughter Clara’s Bat Mitzvah, dawned with a surprise blanket of heavy, wet, soon-to-melt snow covering southern New England.
Rabbi Toba Spitzer took her place on the bimah in the Dorshei Tzedek synagogue, in Newton, Massachusetts, along with an off-screen technical assistant to help oversee what was to be Rabbi Toba’s first Zoom Bat Mitzvah, made necessary by the sudden and frightening onset of COVID-19.
The Torah from which Clara was to chant had been safely delivered to her family’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Clara and her family would be participating in the worship service from their dining room. The table was set up to receive the Torah, which was being kept in its living room “ark,” separated from the dining room by sliding pocket doors.
Clara’s was to be the first such rite of passage I would experience in the Zoom zone – with Clara and her family in Cambridge, Rabbi Toba in Newton, and my wife, Sandy, and I in Providence.
When Rabbi Toba was leading the service in Newton, she was center screen; when Clara was leading the worship, she and her family filled the screen. This necessity, imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, proved to be the mother of magical and celebratory invention.
Clara’s Bat Mitzvah, despite some minor glitches with the then-novel Zoom technology, turned out to be a miracle of intimacy despite the fact that more than 190 worshippers were logged in from Maine to Florida to California, to Israel and even to Ireland.
This miracle of intimacy could not have happened without Rabbi Toba’s resourcefulness, flexibility and compassion.
About two years after Clara’s Bat Mitzvah, Toba Spitzer published her first book, “God is Here: Reimagining the Divine” (St. Martins Essentials, 2023), which brings her remarkable virtues to the reading public.
“God is Here” is, in many ways, a celebration of the many metaphors for God; the author challenges the reader to approach God through the prism of poetry, to attempt to experience God both in the heart and in the head, rather than to reduce God to a set of beliefs A, B and C.
Again and again, Rabbi Toba reminds us that a metaphor is not meant to be a definition, that a metaphor is not designed to be judged as either right or wrong. Rather, a metaphor can be, at its best, nothing less than a gateway to living with increased intensity in our world.
In her second chapter, Rabbi Toba writes that “Biblical metaphors for God include Voice, Fire, Warrior, Eagle, Parent, Lawgiver, Water, and many more.” In the following chapters, she focuses on eight of the dozens of biblical metaphors for God: Water, Place, Voice, Rock, Cloud, Fire, Becoming/Change, the Material World/Electricity.
Rabbi Toba goes on to write that “something new and radical for its time and place was the Bible’s insistence that we resist the urge to represent God in any physical way.” Nevertheless, she continues to remind her readers up to the very last pages that we in the West “are deeply stuck in the ‘God is a Big Person’ metaphor.”
Her entire book, then, can be read as an ongoing attempt to refute the “God is a Big Person” metaphor by probing the depths of counter-metaphors for the God we worship – or attempt to worship.
The first biblical metaphor for God that Rabbi Toba explores is Water. In her provocatively titled chapter, “Drinking from God,” she points to numerous verses in our TANAKH (Hebrew Bible) that compare God to water.
Of the many verses she selects for discussion, I am especially drawn to the water metaphor in Jeremiah 2.13, in which the prophet compares God to mekor mayim chayin, source of living waters, an overflowing of Divine, life-giving nourishment.
As she does in her exploration of other biblical metaphors for God, Rabbi Toba strives to demonstrate how this water metaphor pushes us away from that pesky metaphor in which we still find ourselves stuck – “God is a Big Person” – as well as such other images of God as “Man of War” or “Tyrannical King,” who metes out punishments and delivers rewards as he so chooses:
“In the metaphor of God as Water, we are given a whole new way to think about God’s power and how that power affects us ….
“If we think about God’s power using water metaphors – as an ocean, a stream, a driving rain – we can move beyond a concept of power as ‘control over,’ and let go of the notion of God as some kind of puppet master … God as Cosmic Flow can show us the way and guide our path, but only if and when we are willing to channel that Power for the good.”
But in this chapter, and the following ones as well, Rabbi Toba is not satisfied with engaging our minds alone; she challenges our hearts, our souls, our bodies, with suggestions for Torah study, for exercises in chanting, mindfulness meditation, even yoga.
In brief, “God is Here” provides us with a wide variety of recipes to help us to go through our world astonished.
By the time I had read the book a second time, I found myself going through our world even more astonished.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.