The Column | Looking for God in strange places

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OK, so if you’re in search of proof positive that there is a divine power at work in the universe, you do could worse than watch a sunset from the beach in Pacific Grove. That’s where, over Presidents Day weekend for the second year in a row, Limmud Bay Area worked its magic, bringing together more than 500 teens and adults for two days of Jewish learning.

Last year I wrote about the deer. It was Limmud Bay Area’s inaugural run, and the 300 participants lucky enough to sign up wandered around the Asilomar Conference Grounds in a kind of happy daze, pleased as potatoes that we got to spend two whole days in paradise.

This year the place was old hat, for half of us anyway — and the fact that there was construction (jackhammer style) did disturb the reverie.

But that’s not why we were there. We were there to learn, and to kibitz, and to make new friends and grow closer to old ones.

Limmud, for those who don’t yet know, is an all-volunteer, grassroots-inspired Jewish learning confab that started 32 years ago in England and now takes place in more than 60 locations worldwide. (Check it out at www.limmud.org.) While the overall format is the same, each gathering has its own local flavor, depending on the interests and talents of the people who take part. Our Bay Area Limmud is heavy on text study, with strong doses of Jewish environmentalism, culture and what I can only describe as body-centered Jewish experience (while folks in one room were meditating, another group was busy singing Leonard Cohen songs).

I was intrigued by the title Rabbi Peretz Wolf-Prusan had given to his Monday afternoon workshop: “Looking for God in the Strangest of Places.” Isn’t the very act of looking for God strange in itself? It’s not something one admits to in polite company.

Like the scholar and teacher he is, Wolf-Prusan directed us to ground our search in the text, using specific passages he had selected from the Talmud and later rabbinic writings. The early rabbis were, he told us, pretty smart guys dealing with the same basic questions we confront today — where did I come from, where am I going, and who cares?

So, what did we have? First, in Niddah 31a, we saw how the rabbis found God’s presence in the creation of a child. Not in some cleaned-up fanciful brought-by-the-stork version, either. The passage describes how the father contributes his “semen of the white substance” to build a physical body together with the mother’s “semen of the red substance,” and then God kicks in with the senses, thought, memory and everything else that together makes up the human personality. The parents build the body, and God animates it. When you die, that inexplicable vitality leaves and the parents’ contribution — the flesh and bones — remains behind.

Ok, so God can be found in the creation of new life.

We moved on to a later section of Niddah 31a, in which R. Yossi tells of two friends who set off on a trading expedition. One gets a thorn in his foot and starts to curse God, but those curses turn to praise after he hears that his partner’s ship sank with all aboard. The message: Those for whom a miracle is performed remain unaware of it.

What is that “miracle” of which we are unaware, Wolf-Prusan asked us? The miracle of not being on a ship that sinks. The miracle of recovering from a thorn in your foot. The miracle of waking up in the morning, again and again, of not flying off the face of the Earth as it spins in its orbit — the miraculous regularity of daily living.

God can be found in the persistence of the ordinary.

Then we turned to Bereshit Rabbah 68:4, where a non-Jewish woman asks a rabbi what God has been doing in all the years since creating the world. The rabbi says God has been arranging marriages. The woman says she can do the same thing, yet her efforts to marry her 1,000 manservants to her 1,000 maidservants fail miserably. Yup, the mysterious force that permits two human beings with all their faults and neuroses to live together without strangling each other is certainly not of this Earth.

God can be found in the space between lovers, the space that is not empty but pulsing with energy and hope.

And the sunset isn’t a bad place to look, either.

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at [email protected].

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].