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Dr Marina Bers on Personal Theologies

An interview by Andres Mosquera..

In June, during the semester-kinus of the Instituto Rabinico Reformista, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Marina Umaschi Bers, the Augustus Long Professor of Education at Boston College, with a PhD from MIT. Dr Bers gives major importance to theological reflection not only in rabbinic education and Jewish education, but also in our personal lives. She presented a shiur Personal Theologies during last Shavuot at her chavurah in Massachusetts, that will bring a dialogue opportunity to IJC members.

Apart from you impressive and successful academic career. Who are you, Dr Bers?

I am a Jewish woman who grew up in a Reform synagogue in Buenos Aires, spent a transformative year studying in Israel, experienced Jewish pluralism at the Jewish Community Day School, my children’s Jewish day school in Boston, I belong to a Conservative synagogue, participate in “The Creek”, a non-denominational chavurah and feel at home in an independent Jewish congregation that celebrates joyful participatory worship.

How did you start thinking about Personal Theologies?

I'll begin with a personal story. On 29th of June, 2001 in my 31st year and after attending my PhD graduation at MIT, I immediately left for Buenos Aires on an urgent call from my family. My dad had been sick for a long time, but I needed to fly immediately. I took Tali, my 1-year-old, with me. At home, in my parents' bedroom my father was lying in bed, his eyes were closed, and his pale, extremely thin skin was visible. The morphine was making it hard for him to breathe. The doctor assured us that it would just take a few hours and that he wasn’t suffering. I firmly grasped his hand and reassured him, "Dad, don't be afraid, we will meet again, we will find each other, God will make that happen." Suddenly, while he was on the verge of death, my dad opened his eyes and told me, "I don't believe in that BS, I don't believe in God,"

I thought this could not be possible. My father was a well-respected leader in Argentina's Jewish community and during his life, he took part in Jewish events and religious rituals. Why did he decide to tell me that before he passed away? I was deeply saddened. He snatched the little solace I had with those few words—meeting him again after we both passed away so we could continue living together. But with time, I realized that although my dad and I had a very strong connection and that Judaism played a significant role in our shared life, we had never discussed God. Never did we share our personal theologies.

But, is not God all over Jewish prayers and holidays?

We Jews have been discussing God for the past 4,000 years. You can find it throughout the Tanach, the posterior Jewish literature, the liturgy, and many cultural manifestations. It may be a forgiving father, a feminine divine presence (Shechinah), a harsh judge, a spiritual energy, or anything else. Nevertheless, it is rare for Jews to discuss God in our communities. Have you noticed that? At my chavurah, we share different learning experiences, so I thought Shavuot was a good time to examine our personal theologies, since we celebrate that at Mount Sinai we engaged in a covenant with God, we chose to be partners, we shook hands (via Moshe's mediation), and consented to live as a community guided by moral and ethical principles. If one way of thinking about Shavuot is as a partnership with God, what better occasion than to explore who is this partner? Theology can be defined as “the systematic study of the nature of the divine,” so in that shiur I encouraged my community to reflect on their personal theologies, on the theological foundations they rest on; and how do they affect our individual and joint decisions, behaviors, and challenges. Moreover, what implications our own personal theology has for the communities we are a part of and the ones we are currently looking for? How does it affect the language we use in prayer? How has—or hasn't—our own theology developed throughout time, as we change and mature?

Can you share your Personal Theology?

In my particular case, I incorporate from Spinoza the notion that God is nature, the totality of the universe, and manifests itself through the natural laws. He departed from Descartes’ dualism by maintaining that mind and matter, spirit and body, God and universe, are the same substance. Thus, to understand God, to develop a theology, we must understand the structure of nature, which speaks in mathematical terms and can be accessed through reason. For Spinoza, according to my own understanding, the existence of God and the existence of the universe are the same. Nothing could possibly have been otherwise. Everything is determined.

Spinoza argued against an anthropomorphic view of God acting as a judge or loving father. God doesn't possess psychological or moral traits that are similar to those of people. Reason, logic, and a comprehension of the principles of nature provide a solution to the theological issue of what is the divine. Those who know me and my work may conclude that this is appropriate for a person who creates programming languages and robots and who teaches computational thinking.

However in my personal theology, Spinoza’s unity of God and nature, is called “Thou”, using the Buberian terminology. This opens the door to a dialogic relationship with God. The “I” can choose to enter in a relationship with the “Thou”. This relationship is not predetermined. Even if the “Thou” is determined, the “I” has free will to engage in the relationship and craft it in many different ways. In my personal theology, which I humbly call Dialogic Naturalism, the highest virtue is not to know God (as expressed in Spinoza’s Ethics), but to encounter it. In summary, my mind belongs to Spinoza, and my heart to Buber.

Why talk about Theology at All?

I know that as Jews we are not used to talk about theology - that belongs to the Christian world - however I am fascinated by conversations that explore transcendence, mystery and purpose and I think I am not the only one. In our busy lives, we just do not make time for conversations that are not instrumental and that do not accomplish something. As human beings, I believe it is important to reclaim those dialogic spaces.

Judaism is a big tent, ohel gadol, with numerous and varied concepts of God, not one single interpretation. Thus, we need to be able to talk about that. My wish is that next time we encounter someone who claims that she, he or they, do believe in God, or do not believe in God, we ask the question: what concept of God are you referring to? What is your personal theology? This will provide the opportunity to engage in conversation: not with God, but with each other, which, in my opinion, is the most important of all conversations - human to human.



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