The Conspiracy

Can I Study God in Graduate School?

As the New Year passes, I am increasingly aware of the fact that I’ve graduated, and I don’t have a job just yet. Like many recent graduates, my biggest question is what path to take, as I consider a couple major choices on the horizon – in my case, graduate school vs. rabbinical ordination.

Rabbinical school or graduate school? | By theiler [CC BY 2.0], via Creative Commons

I want to continue to learn and to study – and either academia or rabbinical school would give me that opportunity, but one undoubtedly has more intellectual freedom than the other.

Sure, I’m at a point in life where I consider God to be an intellectually fruitful concept, but my worry is I’m woefully under-qualified to know whether I’ll hold the same opinion twenty years from now. I have a feeling that, in rabbinical school, I won’t be hearing any arguments about why the God concept could be a dead end. I want the freedom to admit after another few decades of life that I am utterly and completely wrong. This would be considerably more problematic for a rabbi than for an academic.

I’ve also never been a huge fan of the pastoral model of spirituality. Jews of my generation increasingly want an individualized spiritual path and are steering away from mainstream institutions. The emergence of organizations such as Moishe House, which organize Jewish community events outside of synagogues, is a result of this trend. Now and in the future, rabbis will have to adjust to this changing spiritual climate, and I like to think that their role in the pastoral relationship could be characterized more by dialogue and less by dictation.

So, I would perhaps feel more honest to worship through study and learning. After all, the academic study of religion is what got me to pay attention to God in the first place. I get so tired of hearing that any understanding of God that doesn’t conform to the literal words of this or that scripture is somehow dishonest or disingenuous. If, for those people, religion deals more with the contents of books than with the contents of reality, then I am content to relegate them and their religiosity to the idolatry of fundamentalism and leave it at that.

As I struggle with whether rabbinical school would give me a more honest avenue to approach God, I ultimately think back to the words of an academically minded theist. It was no less impressive a scholar than Nicolaus Copernicus – a man who had his own little run-in with religious orthodoxy – who believed that “to know the mighty works of God, to comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power; to appreciate in degree, the wonderful workings of His laws…must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High, to whom ignorance cannot be more grateful than knowledge.” As he describes it, academia can also be a form of spiritual service.

In these past few months spent considering my future since my graduation, I think about the way I felt after graduating high school. I remember feeling more than a little intimidated by the unknown that lay before me, and I feel much the same way now. I can’t help but feel anxious that, if I don’t deeply think about these two potential goals, I’ll be swept up in hectic post-college life before I know it and follow friends in begrudgingly accepting unwanted jobs in lieu of higher learning. I want to keep the fire burning, to force myself to remember what got me out of bed on cold winter mornings to schlep myself up the hill to sit in a classroom for hours on end, to make sure that passion follows me into my adult life – as a rabbi or as an academic.

Easier said than done.

Josh Daniels studied religion at Western Washington University.

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