by Yedidya Sinclair
“Why doesn’t God speak to people any more?” my five year old asked me the other day, after a few months of learning the stories of Genesis in her kindergarten. After all, God seemed to have so much to say to our ancestors. Why has He fallen so quiet lately? A philosopher friend at our Shabbat table who heard the question answered her, “Maybe God does still talk to people, but not in the way that He used to.”
Perhaps an even more interesting question is, “what would God say today if He were to talk to people?” Would God criticize school children for the insufficient length of their blouse sleeves? Or weigh into the debate on whether public transport should run on Shabbat in Israel? Or perhaps offer an omniscient opinion regarding which presidential candidate was really best aligned with the interests of Israel and the Jewish people? Would God, in other words, talk about the sorts of things that we talk about?
Michael Kagan, in his important and powerfully-written new book, ‘God’s Prayer’, thinks not. ‘God’s Prayer’ begins with a cry of anguish at the suffering and destruction that human beings are wreaking on Creation. “My Creation cries out to me. It is in pain…The cry of the Adamah has reached my ears… My precious Garden has been raped. The rivers have been diverted, the orchards ploughed over, the mountains dug through…” Michael Kagan’s God rails against the deafness of human beings; despite all of the prophets, sages and teachers that God has sent, we seem impervious to instruction. We continue to pollute and despoil the Earth even though we should know better.
God’s Prayer might be called a book of interfaith ecological prophecy. In a series of powerful chapters, the author addresses, in turn, the adherents of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, excoriating them for their failures to live up to God’s hopes and their religion’s highest teachings. The section addressed to us Jews does not make comfortable reading but it is hard to deny the truth in it. The Jewish people suffered and died for God’s Word for millennia. Now we have returned battered, but not broken, to our land, what are we doing? Are we communicating God’s wisdom to the world or are we preoccupied with trivialities (or worse)? Are we treating our cherished and prayed-for land with love, or are we trashing it? What was the point of our painful history? “Are you prepared to have died for nothing?” demands God. (Christians and Muslims come in for similar treatment. Let us be clear: neither Michael Kagan nor God is a self-hating Jew.)
Shabbat is at the center of the message that the Jewish People has carried through history. But it is not enough now simply to keep Shabbat, charges God’s Prayer. “Shabbat is love, loving and lover….””the time has come to live Shabbat! The time has come to be the Shabbat.”
The book has forewords written by three distinguished religious leaders, Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi, Founder of Jewish Renewal, Rev. Richard Cizik, President of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, and Ghassan Manasra, a renowned Sufi teacher in Israel. Impressively, each testifies that the book says something powerful and relevant to their faiths.
One remarkable feature of ‘God’s Prayer’ is that that it claims to be God’s Prayer. Kagan would answer my five year old that yes, in fact God does still speak to people. And here I should add that Michael Kagan is a good friend of mine. He lives just down the road in Jerusalem. Michael has a Phd in Chemistry, a couple of post-docs, more than a dozen scientific patents to his name and he co-founded a string of high-tech and clean-tech companies, a number of which have been very successful. He is not a flaky guy. How, then, should one understand his description of the introduction of the revelatory experience that led him to write the book?
Is this a work of prophecy in the sense that Maimonides speaks of prophecy, as a state that will rest on those who achieve intellectual and spiritual perfection? Is it an instance of the Talmudic statement “From day of the destruction of the Temple, prophecy was given over to children and madmen?” (Bava Batra 12a) I can personally testify that Michael, though a very fine person, is not perfect and neither is he a madman. Rather, if you need to locate this book, place it somewhere between New Age, where God speaks to people regularly, Jewish Renewal, and the contemporary spiritual revival in Israeli Religious Zionism. Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi puts like this in his foreword:
“In the Mutuality of the Mutuality that exists when people pray to the living God we all receive a response. Often we repress it. Just like the person who speaks to someone on the telephone and before they can get an answer, they hang up. Michael Kagan did not hang up. He made himself available to take down an answer, which he shares with us.”
Ultimately, categorization doesn’t matter so much. You put the book down thinking that if God were to speak to people today then this is the sort of thing He might well say. Most importantly, God’s Prayer leaves you wanting to be a better person, which is the most reliable indicator of true spiritual teaching.
“God’s Prayer” is an important contribution to the renewal of Jewish ecological thought. Too much of what passes as Jewish environmental teaching has consisted of cherry-picking Jewish texts and sources in search of justification for political views that we antecedently hold. Arguably, we still await a Jewish environmental theology that listens deeply to the breadth of relevant sources and lets them speak on their own terms. Meanwhile, Michael Kagan has given us one by listening deeply to the insistent inner stirrings of his soul.
‘God’s Prayer’ written by Michael L. Kagan, published by Gaon Books, 2012
Review by Yedidya Sinclair