Why Are We Afraid Of Talking About G-d?

It was my last year in Arizona.  I had begun to slowly get introduced to the idea of being religious at my college Chabad house.  I had always been spiritual on the inside, but I never felt like anyone really shared the way I looked at things.  But now I had found someones, and they were opening me up to even more ideas.

I was sitting at a pizza place with a friend I had made in the Chabad.  He was around the same stage as me, and we were talking about some of the ideas we had been introduced to.  We didn’t know it at the time, but we were in love with Chassidus.

But here’s the weird thing: as the conversation progressed, I remember myself getting more and more uncomfortable.  At first, I wasn’t sure why.  But the more we talked, and the more we circled around a certain concept, the more my eyes started to dart around the room, wondering if anyone heard us.  It was pretty empty in the place, and I couldn’t help but worry about the guy at the register.  Did he think we were weirdos?

And so, I slowly changed the subject, tried to talk about the Sun’s playoff hopes.  I wasn’t sure, but it seemed like my friend was also relieved.

Since I was young, I’ve been aware of this cultural phenomenon wherein people get extremely awkward and uncomfortable discussing spirituality, and especially the “G-d” word in public.  I’m not sure if it’s like this everywhere, or just in the more liberal places I grew up in, but it just seems to be something people are truly afraid to bring up even if they want to.

Maybe it’s because we associate people that talk about G-d and spirituality with crazy evangelicals or crazy hippy mystics.  Crazy people, either way.  Westboro Baptist Church.  Al Qaeda.  The crazy preachers on college campuses.  People promising eternal reward or eternal damnation.

And so most of us growing up in the secular world felt like talking about this stuff, even if it was a legitimate topic of discussion, even if we wouldn’t have been crazy to discuss it, strayed far away from any such discussions.  Even if, like me, it was something we thought about almost obsessively outside of public forums.

Unless we’re crazy, and even if we’re spiritual, most of us consider G-d a four letter word.  Something to be avoided at all costs, lest we be associated, even accidentally, with the crazies and the terrorists and the preachers.

Now, to be honest, this seems fair enough.  Logical even.

And so, when I started my journey into becoming a religious Jew, I figured that things were finally going to change.  I was going to finally be around people that weren’t afraid to say the word G-d or to talk about spirituality in public.  And, who knows, maybe I would even become one of those people.

At first, my prediction seemed to come true.  Going to a baal teshuva yeshiva (a Jewish school for those becoming religious later in life), there were plenty of people like me.  People that were like explorers out in a desert who had just found a reservoir of water.  Like me, they had been dying to speak to openly about G-d and spirituality.  Like me, they were grateful to finally be in a place that didn’t judge them for that desire.

And so, as time wore on in yeshiva, and I got married, and then returned to yeshiva for another year, I was pretty sure I had finally entered a world where people were comfortable with the word G-d, comfortable with being spiritual in public, comfortable with all that good stuff.

Something has happened recently, though.  I’ve been out of yeshiva for a number of years now, I’ve gone out and struck it out on my own, my wife and I have had a child and have started hanging with other married folks with kids.  We’ve moved into a religious community.  And I guess you could say I’ve also entered the online discussion surrounding religion and Judaism.

And I’ve discovered something.

Religious folks also don’t want to talk about G-d.

Now, that’s a massive generalization, so don’t get me wrong: there are plenty of people that will always feel comfortable talking about spirituality publicly within religious communities.  There are events, farbrengens (chassidic gatherings), Shabbat meals, where the whole goal is to talk about spirituality and G-d.  There is no question that talking about this stuff is more expected and encouraged.

But what’s been surprising to me, I suppose, is that, much more than I expected, I’ve noticed that same awkwardness when speaking about G-d or spirituality in public.  At times, it can feel just as strong as my experience in the pizza shop.

It can even happen at the very gatherings that are meant to encourage discussion about these topics.  I’ve been at Shabbat meals, farbrengens, and more, where the word G-d is hardly uttered outside of blessings before eating.

The place I’ve seen this happen the most, though, is online.  In publications, blogs, Facebook discussions, Twitter… just about everywhere.

There are a ton of discussions about halacha (Jewish law), religious Jewish culture, scandals, controversies, recipes, etc etc… It’s fascinating, really.  It seems that unless we write for something that explicitly covers G-d or spirituality, most of us have trouble discussing those topics.

And the most surprising of all of this: I’m one of those people.  I’m back in the pizza shop.  Whether it’s my Shabbat table or my blog, even if I do talk about these things, it’s almost reluctant, and in the meantime I’m trying to do everything I can to avoid these topics.

I imagine the reasons are probably not exactly the same as secular culture.  Maybe we’re worried that we’re not rabbis, and so aren’t qualified to talk about these topics.

But I think there’s more in common between the two than we think.  I think this might not just be a cultural phenomenon, but a human one.

Because the truth is, even those folks that most of us consider to be the crazy G-d talkers, like Al Qaeda and campus preachers, and whatnot… they’re not really talking about Him.  They’re just getting lost in their own political insanity and using that word as a vehicle for power.

I think that even people that talk about halacha, get caught up in, argue it, are sometimes avoiding G-d.  Not always, but often.  I see these discussions going on and on sometimes, especially online.  And it seems like the goal isn’t to find out what G-d wants, but to justify what we do.

In other words, I think that even when some of us are talking about G-d, we’re not talking about G-d.  Perhaps we’re even avoiding Him.

The truth is, I think most of us, whether we’re religious or not, are afraid to really talk about spirituality.  To talk about G-d.

And to be honest with you, I’m not really sure why.  If I had to guess, I would think it’s because to talk about G-d and spirituality really means to look inward.  You can’t really talk about these things properly without realizing your own faults and inadequacies.

And maybe it’s also because this stuff reminds us how small we are.  Reminds us that our daily struggles, the things we want to complain about, the people we want to criticize… all these things aren’t really as big as we think they are.  That our accomplishments are really part of something larger.

Or maybe it’s because we don’t want to seem corny.  Or maybe because we’re afraid people will think we’re weird.  Or maybe it’s because we’ll realize we’re weird.

Maybe it’s all of that.  Maybe it’s none of that.

But one thing is for sure: it’s real.  It’s something most of us religious folk deal with, and it’s something humanity deals with, whether it realizes it or not.

I suppose that maybe it doesn’t matter why.  Maybe what matters is that we realize it.  And use it to remind us to dig harder.

Maybe.

  • Rivka Nehorai

    I think its different in Israel,no?

    • Yes! I think you’re right! Totally referenced you in my response to @elirubin:disqus also.

  • Totally agree with this, and I’ve thought it for some time. I think part of it is that, as Jews, we know that we can never fully or accurately talk about G-d. A pagan can talk about his gods quite easily: as the forces of nature, they can be easily quantified, studied and understood. But the G-d of Judaism is by definition beyond all definition. As ‘Akdamut’ says, we could never completely praise G-d, however long and hard we tried. Perhaps this leads to a fear of heresy or at least of lese-majesty if we try and, necessarily, fail to talk about G-d properly.
    But I think there is also a tendency to get lost on the way to G-d, to forgot that the Torah is important as the word of G-d (ironically the same mistake made by those atheists who respect it as a great work of world literature). The Kotzker rebbe said a Hasid fears G-d, not the Shulchan Aruch. Not that love of Torah, performance of mitzvot and fear of sin aren’t important, but that we should always remember Who commanded these things.
    And, yes, thinking about G-d is frightening, because it confronts us with our own inadequacies, both our transgressions and the fact that, as finite, flawed, mortal beings, we will always be inferior to G-d. I fear that people turn to religion for comfort and reassurance, to be told how good they are and that everything will be OK, not to see their flaws and their need for growth. Of course, when talking of G-d one sees His love as well as His judgment, but lots of people want only the love, even though the full extent of the love is only apparent once one confronts the judgment. The power of the end of Sefer Iyov is that only after Iyov becomes truly aware of the greatness of G-d and man’s insignificance before Him is Iyov truly able to experience the closeness of G-d.

    • Love all these thoughts. It’s so fascinating how talking about Torah can become a distraction. I guess it depends how we actually look at the Torah.

      Your first paragraph totally reminds me of the post I wrote before this one, about science and G-d. I suppose it can all become a distraction if we let it.

      And your last paragraph I find really fascinating, mostly because I think I’ve always felt similarly: that I would prefer just to think about the loving G-d. On the one hand, it seems easier. But when you access the other side, you really feel this enormity of Hashem, and, obviously, that feeling is absolutely essential, as much as it scares us.

      Thanks so much for your thoughts!

    • Leah Shoshi

      Yes, this last paragraph about being confronted with our shortcomings when thinking about G-d is what I think makes it hard to talk about G-d with other people. It doesn’t take long for a discussion about G-d to bring up painful personal problems. It’s all the more reason to talk about Him, but you can’t do that casually. Which is why it’s great that PopChassid is making a safe space for it!

  • Eli Rubin

    I think you are touching on a fundamental issue. Lately I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the G-d issue for religious Jews in western society. Two general thoughts:
    1) For western society as a whole G-d is a strange concept, not because it seems irrational, but because the concept is completely intangible. We have the capacity and language to appreciate and describe other non-rational phenomena, like the elements of fine art, writing, or music. But how are we to make sense of an ineffable G-d?
    2) Religious Jews in western society are undergoing a constant identity crisis. As Jews we are supposed to accept one set of axioms, and as westerns we are are supposed to accept a different set of axioms. Elements of these sets do overlap, but the central role of G-d is not one of them.

    • Great points! Incidentally, I think what you are saying is part of why mystical Eastern thought has become more popular in America: it allows people to speak about spirituality without speaking about G-d.

      And I think your second point is totally fascinating. My wife pointed out below that this seems like less of an issue in Israel, even among secular Israelis, and I think your point really brings out why. There are so many principles within our society that demand we don’t talk about G-d that it becomes almost impossible to talk about it in an honest manner. Instead, we focus on the “hard” western ideas like law, debates, culture, etc. Because it’s simply what’s easier to talk about.

      Anyway, totally agreed, and thanks for fleshing out some of the ideas I touched on.

      • Rebecca K.

        I also think that #2 is where it’s at.

        It helps when you’re in a community that supports G-d talk. In my little corner of L.A., it’s actually pretty normal to bring up G-d…the non-Jews in the neighborhood will even point out little hashgacha pratis moments (the parking space that pops up at the perfect moment, you show up for an item and the last one is just waiting there for you) as “G-d wanted to help you out today.”

        But when I venture outside the neighborhood, I share this inhibition. What I’ve decided recently is that I have to fight this embarrassment about mentioning G-d tooth in nail. Not just for myself, but for my kids. It’s important for them to have an interpretation of the world around them that is G-d-centered, to see that G-d was with us at the beach yesterday and hung out with us in the line at Target, and so on. G-d isn’t only in our house or at our shul. The only way they’ll absorb that message is if you confirm the reality of G-d’s presence everywhere when you are, well, EVERYWHERE.

  • Great article!

    The start of being a true chossid is to WANT to be inspired, to change, to grow, to come closer to Hashem. The secular world conflicts with this because it naturally cools off and dulls this desire, creating timtum hamoach vehalev–spiritual dullness of the heart and mind. This is the golus hapnimi, the inner exile, which is the true cause of our external exile.

    See my post here, that discusses this in greater detail:

    A spiritually healthy Jew limits the intellect of the Nefesh HaSichlis, the Intellectual Soul, and subjugates it to the ends of the Nefesh HoElokis.

    However, when one becomes preoccupied with using one’s intellect in a way that lacks submission to the will of Hashem and of the Divine Soul, instead pursuing secular pursuits and studies for their own sake (as explained earlier here), the intellect of the Nefesh HaSichlis has become predominant.

    This “defiles” the “pure olive oil”—the natural sensitivity to G–dliness of the intellect of the Divine Soul. In this state, although the Jew is fully intellectually capable of grasping secular studies that discuss physical phenomena, he comes up against a dullness and resistance when he attempts to study spiritual concepts.

    How can he possibly emerge from such a degenerate state?

    Also on this topic, see these articles: On the human subhuman and
    on the spiritual living dead
    and The corrosive impact of
    half-hearted worship

  • David Olidort

    Kuzari talks about the G-d of our patriarchs vs. the G-d of the philosophers. The meaning of “G-d” is itself not cast in stone (so to speak).

  • Boruch S.

    “Maybe it’s because we associate people that talk about G-d and
    spirituality with crazy evangelicals or crazy hippy mystics. Crazy
    people, either way. ”

    That’s definitely why I’m uncomfortable talking about G-d. Religious people have ruined Spirituality. There are many different religions out there but they all follow the same basic formula: “What can I do in this world to get what i want?” In other words, “how do I have to behave in order to get into heaven/paradise/72 virgins/, get a nice life, etc.” In a religion, you’re not really serving G-d you’re serving yourself. If you remove the reward system from any religion, the entire thing falls apart.

    By this definition, Judaism is not a religion. When G-d gives us the Torah/Ten Commandments, he begins by saying “I am G-d who took you out of Egypt.” The reason he didn’t begin by telling us how awesome he is for creating the entire universe is that G-d is essentially saying, “I did you a solid by taking you out of Egypt, and now i’m cashing in the favor. I did what you need. Now here’s what I need.” Only then he lists all the mitzvot. Being Jewish is not about doing what you need to get into heaven, its about doing what G-d needs!

    Two million people at the mountain all heard G-d’s voice. They didn’t believe in G-d, they heard him! They didn’t have to believe in anything, it was right there in front of them! Besides serving as a proof to Judaism’s validity, we see how unique Judaism is. There is no concept of someone showing up and saying, “G-d spoke to me, now believe in everything I have to say.” There is no concept of believing, we heard him ourselves!

    Judaism is not a religion. (In the entire Torah there isn’t a word for Religion, because it’s completely foreign to Judaism). But in the world today, I hear people talking about religion and G-d, and how if you don’t accept a certain way of life then you are going to burn in the fires of hell for eternity. (so if you don’t love G-d, you get punished? sounds more like manipulation and control, than a religion of love). I hear people preaching their views, and enforcing them often with violence. I hear people react by saying “all these religious nutcases screaming at each other!” “religion is BS” etc. and I find myself completely agreeing with them. Religion is ridiculous. What exactly is the big difference between religions? they all preach the same story, our way or the highway…to hell.

    Judaism is something completely different. Every Jew has a neshama, a soul, which is an actual part of G-d. Jew’s don’t need a religion to feel related/connected to G-d, Jews are automatically related to G-d! How many mitzvot do you need to do to be classified as “religious?” 10? 100? 612? A Jew doesn’t do mitzvot because he is religious, he does it because he is Jewish. We do mitzvot because G-d needs them from us, and besides being an incredible opportunity to provide our creator with what he needs, that justifies our very existence!

    The bottom line is, as a “religious” person. I get thrown into this category of hell-preaching religious whackos and I don’t like it, and yes i do feel uncomfortable. I’m not religious. I don’t belong to a religion.

    I’m Jewish.

    (There’s a lot more to say about the subject, and for more information, I urge every single Jew to watch this short 15-minute video from Rabbi Manis Friendman, http://youtu.be/esK9gPf-rDc .)

    • Ze’ev Gotkin

      I see you are a fan of Manis Friedman! You may be pleased to know that a new book is coming out based on his talks on the subject of G-d needing our mitzvoth and the difference between religion and Judaism! 🙂

      • nissimbenmoshe

        I don’t agree with this. Hashem doesn’t need us, to say he does implies that Hashem lacks, and is therefore incomplete. This is contrary to the Jewish understanding of Hashem. The classical understandingis that the world and creation was an act of pure free will and love. We do the mitzvot because it is how we ultimately become true to ourselves and develop a deeper connection to and understanding of Hashem

        • Boruch S.

          ” Hashem doesn’t need us, to say he does implies that Hashem lacks, and is therefore incomplete. ”

          Your question is, “how can G-d need?” “Isn’t he complete?” I would argue, that having needs is required to achieve completeness.

          A human being “needs” to eat. If a human does not eat, he dies. A human needs to eat, an animal needs to eat, even a plant needs to eat. Eating is a need that is a weakness. Without it, you cannot survive. But what about the need for companionship? What about the need to have meaning in your life? Are those needs weaknesses? Does being vulnerable make you weak? I would say no. Having the need for companionship and meaning in your life is what Makes you a human! If you didn’t need companionship or meaning, you’re less of a human and more of a robot. Vulnerability is not a weakness, it is a vital part of a successful relationship. These needs define you as a human being. What happens if you don’t find meaning in your life, or you live alone? Are you going to die? Not necessarily. You can theoretically survive by yourself, but is that really a life? You can theoretically survive thinking your entire life is meaningless, ,but is that really a life? Not all needs are weaknesses.

          The same is true of G-d. G-d needs us and he needs our Mitzvos, BECAUSE he is G-d! Is G-d going to die if we don’t do Mitsvos? Of course not. G-d is not going to die.

          G-d predates the world, humans and even the Torah. Why did he create a world in the first place? Why wasn’t he content to be all alone? Why wasn’t he content to just be G-d and leave well enough alone?

          G-d needs to be G-d. He needs to be a Creator, he needs to have creations, and he needs us to do Mitsvos. They are not required for his “survival,” but they are his needs.

          When someone deals with a frustrating child, they might tell them, “go outside and tell me if its raining.” Since they want to distance themselves from the child for the moment, they ask them to perform a task that they don’t need. The child doesn’t need to do it, the person doesn’t need to know, the only reason for this task is to create distance. When G-d tells us to do a Mitzva, it is because he needs us to do it and desires to be close to us. Pretend G-d doesn’t need us to put on Tefillin. If we don’t need it, and he doesn’t need it, then what exactly is the point?

          When a husband takes care of a wife’s needs, is he sad about it? Do we feel bad for him? Maybe only if the wife doesn’t care. But fulfilling the needs of someone you care about is one of the greatest things in this world! In the creator/creation relationship, the creator needs the creations. If the creation has the opportunity to not just do what his creator says, but to be able fulfill the needs of his creator-that is the most rewarding thing there is. The more Chassidus you learn, the more you begin to realize how romantic G-d is. We as Jews have a very deep, intimate, and meaningful relationship with our G-d. Our relationship is often compared to a husband and wife. A husband and wife who care deeply about each other and put their own wants on the back-burner in order to take care of the needs of each other, is the second most special relationship there is. Second, because it is modeled after our own relationship with G-d.

          (( http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLSajHqqVuJGT3CILicI9SRaq2POKpMJFM ))
          If you’re interested in any of this, I HIGHLY recommend Manis Friedman’s King in the Field series where he goes into great detail, and expounds upon these concepts further.

          • ravshmuel

            I’m very interested to read up on this but you do realize that by going into great depth to explain how G-d could have needs all that is happening is that you are going to great lengths to explain something that can not be ultimately comprehended and one must be very careful because this path can easily lead to creating G-d in our own image. To ascribe “needs” to G-d at all is to say that we understand something about Him – I would say that a more appropriate way to talk about this would be to clearly state that what we are doing is explaining G-d’s “needs” based upon how we experience G-d as opposed to what He actually is… IMHO G-d is NOT romantic although we may experience the ideas that we conceive about him as being romantic. There’s a BIG difference between the two.

      • nissimbenmoshe

        And also I personally believe that Judaism is a reminder, its a reminder of our eternal bond with Hashem which was ultimately represented in the Egypt experience but which we individually and collectively re-experience if we have the right level of conciousness. Its the understanding that salvation can come at any moment if we have a positive attitude, emunah, and resolve to do the right thing from this moment forward (ie the mitzvot). If we do that then Hashem will minimize the out standing decrees against us (meaning there is still concequence for action but thatat mercy is real. I believe that Judaism is a reminder that salvation exists

  • Bentzy

    Nice post. Interesting comments.

    I think it boils down to this: Faith in G-d is a personal relationship. As such it’s not the same to you as it is to me. As such it’s not so comfortable (at times) to talk about it in public, the same way I can say to a friend that I love my wife but if I start getting into details of “how much” I love her then it starts getting a bit weird… Why? ‘Cause it’s a personal thing.

    2+2=4 is not a personal thing. It’s a reality which is the same by all at all times (except to some abstract-minded math professor that can convince you how 2+2 isn’t always 4. I had that happen to me), not so is faith. Let’s be honest, it’s not a “palpable” reality and it’s not even “trasfereble” from one person to the other, at best one can help the other *cultivate* (reveal?) their *own* faith.

    So when one speaks about Gd she/he is essentially speaking about something no-one around him knows (his *personal* Gd) what she/he’s talking about. At least not fully. And that can be awkward.

    Did anyone get what I’M talking about? 🙂

    • I disagree: Rambam rules that if one loves Hashem, one will naturally want to tell others about Hashem. The love will make one want to praise Him to one and all. So lack of talking about Hashem shows a lack of true love:

      “You[1] shall love the L–rd your G–d”[2] … This commandment includes [the obligation] that we call out to all people to worship G–d and believe in Him—just as when one truly loves someone, he will tell that person’s praises, and elaborate upon them, and he will call upon people to love that person … like Abraham [called upon people to serve G–d].
      ______________________
      [1] Rambam’s Sefer HaMitzvos, positive Mitzvah 3.
      [2] Devarim 6:5.

      I would say that the reason that many frum people and even chassidim don’t want to talk about Hashem is simple–their love relationship with Him is sorely lacking. How many people want to davven and enjoy doing so? Very, very few, from my observation (I’d be happy to be proven wrong, though). If one doesn’t davven with preparation, kavanah, etc., each person on their level, one can’t possibly come to true love for Hashem.

  • Mary_Linda

    “Religious folks also don’t want to talk about G-d.”

    That just ain’t true, my friend.

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  • Joseph Cohen

    When one joins a dinner table there is a saying that one should not talk about money, politics, and g-d. The discussion of g-d can lead to an awkward conversation. One reason why people become perhaps shy when it comes to this discussion is because no one knows what exactly g-d is. We must all interpret the meaning of g-d and therefor there will be many beliefs of g-d. In todays society people are so self consious on the way society will judge them. People are scared to mention this topic because they will be judged. Another reason people are scared to talk about g-d is because they are scared that the person they are talking to may have a bad relationship to g-d. For example i know someone jewish who’s dad died at a very young age and the child until today has trouble finding g-d. He is know an atheist, and honestly i wouldn’t want to have a conversation about g-d to him because I can’t imagine what g-d has put him through. The reason we all feel comfortable to speak about g-d over social media is because we are not seeing peoples faces after someone writes their feelings. The person responding to the blog is someone who is intrested in this topic.
    As a jewish nation we need to continue to spread the discussion of g-d. We must do this in a proper manner.