To me, a big part of religious involvement is developing and understanding a relationship with God. I understand that this is not necessarily true of everyone. I understand that there are people who feel a connection to, and who observe religious tradition without a deep sense of connectedness to God or any authoritative or creative power regardless of one’s definition or description of that entity. But I believe (or need to believe) that behind natural law and moral truth is a force that I, and most people, call God, or whatever name a particular religious or ethnic group uses.

What is also true for me is the belief that the relationship with the deity and with the tradition, in order to be genuine and authentic, needs to be very personal and unique to each of us. Perhaps this feels counterintuitive. After all part of peoplehood is a shared set of beliefs, a shared ethos, a shared set of rules and responsibilities. All this is true but we are also all individuals. A person’s relationship with their spouse or partner is subject to certain rules and norms necessary for the survival and thriving of the relationship but there is still room for great flexibility in the dynamic between two individuals so that the people involved can be themselves within the social fabric and not just “Stepford” partners.

There are strong hints to this need for a sense of unique relationship in our sacred texts and in our prayer liturgy. In the Song at The Sea sung by Moses and the children of Israel at the time of the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15) verse 2 reads “this is my God and I will enshrine Him; the God of my Father and I will exalt Him”. My God, my Father’s God; one God, two relationships. Enshrining God, making God a focal point of devotion, is similar to, but not exactly the same as exalting God, praising and lauding God which seems to be more a response to a particular act of circumstance.  So, too, the quintessential Jewish prayer, the Amidah, begins “our God and God of our ancestors, God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob”, not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It seems wordy and redundant. There must be a reason. The authors of the Bible and the prayer liturgy were not fools or hacks; they had a message to convey.

I think the message is this. The reference to God of our ancestors teaches that we are part of a chain of history. We have to respect and emulate the beliefs and practices of our parents and grandparents. L’dor, va’dor is a real and important concept. Continuity of our very rich tradition is vital to the survival of our people.  On the other hand, God of Abraham, God of…. highlights the individuality of each of our tribal founders including Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, including the differences in their view of God and how they related to God. Would Abraham have interceded with God on behalf of Sarah as Isaac did for Rebecca (Genesis, 25:21)? Would either of them tried to make the kind of quid pro quo bargain with Jacob did after his dream in Genesis, 28:20? I believe not. Each of them respected their fathers. Each of them related to God as their fathers’ God. But each of them, our primordial role models, followed their own slightly divergent path. Each saw his own personal situation and needs and reacted to God in their own tailored way.

So, too, each of us needs to be our own person. We are the product of our parents’ DNA, physically, intellectually and spiritually but we are not their clones. We are also the products of our environment. We have had different formative experiences. We have encountered different people and situation. We feel different needs. The way we see God, the way we see the rules and behaviors expected of and commanded to us, for the sake of honesty and integrity, can and must reflect who we are and how we see ourselves in relation to our world, both parochial and universal. A man whom I knew and respected, but did always agree with, used to say in response to change “if it (the old way) was good enough for my grandfather it’s good enough for me”. I admire his respect for tradition and his ancestors. They are praiseworthy and necessary. But I reject his lack of understanding that this respect needs to be tempered by “I gotta be me”.

Communal tradition, law and ethos; personal needs, feelings and, frankly, attitude: it is a tough balance, a difficult pairing. It is, however a necessary balance to struggle and search for if we are to be part of a people and a community and still be honest to who we really are.