Thursday, January 10, 2013

Two-Minute Torah: Universal and Particular, Parashat VaEra

In my prior work as a Staff Scholar at the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies in Baltimore, I did a lot of research and writing on the issue of interreligious prayer. I firmly believe that Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the same God -- though between religions and even within each religion there are radically different conceptions of that one God. But since we worship the same God, why is interfaith prayer so difficult? Why is it so hard to create an interfaith service that seems authentic and truly prayerful?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out that Parashat VaEra seems to begin with a mistake or contradiction. At the Burning Bush God tells Moses that "I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai; but My name Adonai I did not make known to them." But Rabbi Sacks reminds us that God did indeed appear to Abraham as Adonai and Abraham "called on the name Adonai." So the Patriarchs certainly knew God's name Adonai.

Rabbi Sacks explains, however, that throughout the Book of Genesis, God is experienced as "Creator." And for that aspect of God, the Bible generally uses the terms "Elohim" or "El Shaddai." But now the People of Israel are about to experience God as "Redeemer" and "Revealer," not merely as Creator.

Creation, Revelation, and Redemption are the three key ways in which we experience God and these three concepts structure the liturgy of Judaism, morning and evening. All human beings share the experience of living in a created universe. But only Jews experience God as the One Who redeemed our people from Egypt and gave us the Torah.

This does not preclude the possibility that God redeemed other peoples in other ways or interacted with other peoples through other forms of revelation. God has more than one blessing, and our special and particular relationship with God should not be understood to mean that God cannot have other special and particular relationships as well. God is too big to be straitjacketed by one religion.

But it does mean that our specifically Jewish experience of revelation and redemption is different than the universal human experience of creation. And this is one reason why our worship is so specifically Jewish rather than generically human.

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