What I believe and don’t believe about ‘the word of God’


When I came to Barrington in the summer of 1974 to serve as rabbi of Temple Habonim (then called the Barrington Jewish Center), I made it clear at the outset that I do not believe that our Torah is the word of God.  From my perspective, God does not have vocal cords and therefore does not speak to us in any language – be it Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, Latin, King James English … or Hindi or Bantu, for that matter.  

Nevertheless, I do find every single word of Torah – and of our entire Hebrew Bible – sacred; for our TANAKH is the record of our ancestors’ ongoing attempt to put into words their lived experience with God.  To put it somewhat differently, our Hebrew Bible, our TANAKH, is the written response of generation after generation of our forbears to their sense of God’s presence – and, yes, their sense of God’s absence, “the hiding of God’s face” (hastarat Panim).

At no time do I feel more engaged with Judaism’s quest for God than when I have had the privilege of chanting Torah in the presence of a minyan or a larger group of worshippers. In a manner that is more than metaphor, I am with Abraham when he “hears” God call, “Lech lecha!  Go forth from your land, from your birthplace, from your father’s house to the land which I shall show you.”  And I am with Abraham when he challenges God over the fate of the twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”  And I am with Abraham when he, soul-torn, comes ever so close to slaughtering his own son, Isaac, on Mount Moriah.

I am also with Moses when he “hears” God’s mysterious name at the burning bush, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh,” best translated not as “I AM THAT I AM” but as “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE,” a God who is the One of infinite possibility. 

And I stand with Moses in the presence of God at the peak of Mount Sinai, only to share in Moses’ rage when, upon descending, he first lays eyes on the golden calf.  I also share in Moses’ agony of isolation atop Mount Nebo, from where, before he dies, he gazes upon the Promised Land, where his feet shall never tread.

The sections of our biblical library beyond our Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings), continue the record of our people’s search for God – sometimes successful, often unsuccessful, at times interrupted: David, heroic slayer of Goliath, slain by his murderous lust for Beersheba; the prophet Amos demanding that “justice roll forth like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

I keep on struggling with the author of Job, trying to fight my way out of that ancient paradox: so often it is the righteous who are condemned to a life of constant sorrow, while the wicked appear to live in the garden of earthly delights.

And I often find myself both tormented and comforted by the words of the anonymous psalmist who seems to feel that God is much farther away than the remotest star and yet closer, closer than our deepest self. 

Our Torah, then – indeed, our entire TANAKH – is a human document, a product of two millennia of human effort. And yet our Hebrew Bible overflows with a sense of God’s presence, a divine presence proclaimed not in the language of God but in the language of basar vadam, of flesh and blood.

Not long after I had arrived in Barrington as a young rabbi, an associate minister at the Barrington Baptist Church invited me to speak with a group of his parishioners.  The focus of my message back then was the very theme I am writing about today: my conviction that the Hebrew Bible is not a record of God’s words to my ancestors but rather a record of my ancestors’ response to their sense of God’s presence.

When I met with the Baptist pastor a few days later, I asked about his congregants’ reaction to my presentation.   To be honest, I had suspected that since the church leaned toward a kind of Baptist fundamentalism, many would be unsettled by my theological “liberalism.”  So I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I had been well-received.

The minister then made an observation that has stuck with me for more than 40 years: many of his congregants felt that I was a person who believed more deeply than I acknowledged, while they were men and women who carried more doubt than they could comfortably admit. 

Perhaps I had given this group of questioning Christians permission to be somewhat more comfortable with their religious doubts – and, perhaps, over the years I have given some of my fellow Jews similar permission to be just a bit more comfortable with their questions and their doubts. 

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.