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One Thousand Words on “Meaning”

By Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer

Meaning Making

My source of meaning is God. For me, God is a character in the stories from the Talmud that are the scaffolding of my life. These stories begin with God consulting the angels: Should I create human beings or not? The angels, as argumentative as the Jews telling the story, break into factions and debate the issue. Some argue that human beings will be so morally flawed as to make a mess of the world, others that they will bring healing. While they fight, God sneaks off and creates Adam. The stories continue with God creating human beings in God’s own image. No exceptions. And further, God tells us that we are responsible for shaping that likeness. But how? Just as God clothed Adam and Eve in the garden, so are we to clothe the naked. Just as God buried Moses, so are we to bury the dead. Finally, the story I love the best. The rabbis debated for two and a half years if it was a good after all that humans were created. They finally came to a conclusion: it was a mistake. But, they added, as long as we are here, we ought to watch our ways or, as some would put it, scrutinize our deeds.

I love this God because the stories about him reflect the truest truths I know, at least so far. This is a God about whom later Jewish stories would say, “If He lived on earth, people would break all his windows.” In other words, I connect with Jewish tradition at its most humanistic moments. At those times, it edges close to atheism, but veers back on course with a resolute decision to say “God,” despite the absurdity. Resonating with Geertz’s definition of religion as the sense that one’s values are carved into the granite of the universe, I choose to believe that, however improbably, they are. Our lives are bounded on both ends by mystery. I assert that the little tale I am telling with my days here on earth is part of a larger story with direction and purpose. That is an act of faith, and God is how I name that faith.

When I first started hanging out with traditional Jews, I learned how to incorporate theology into daily speech. I had grown up confidently asserting all my plans, but my practice now (when I can remember) is to add “Im yirtzeh ha Shem” (God willing) when I state them. One of the many delights of encountering Muslims as friends was hearing “Insh’allah” used just as compulsively and discovering that the Qur’an teaches "Never say of anything, 'I shall do such and such thing tomorrow, except (with the saying): 'If God wills!" I cannot imagine why HaShem/Allah would not want me to go to the movies tonight, but speaking this way is a practice of humility.

When mentioning the name of another person, I learned to add “may he live and be well” or, if he had died, “may he rest in peace.” Sylvia Boorstein, a Jewish Buddhist teacher, taught me years later that this custom resembles metta practice of Buddhism. One always has the choice to incline one’s heart toward others in a friendly way.

Finally, among the many reasons I love my husband is that, although he is resolutely opposed to following ritual laws of any kind, when he is asked “How are you?” he invariably replies with the traditional Jewish answer, “Baruch haShem (Bless God).” This is not really an answer to the question. We still don’t know if he is sad or happy, well or ill. Indeed, an old Yiddish joke tells of the man who responded, “Baruch haShem, I’m sick.” But the intention here is the core of everything I believe, or strive to believe. How am I at any moment? If living my beliefs, “Praise God.”


The invitation to attach a photo to this essay proved informative. Would the picture be of me or of someone else? Would it include my husband and children, the synagogue and community in which I pray, the woods where I love to walk or an exotic foreign scene? Where do I feel connected to God? When do I feel that I am living out my faith? While I observe a moderate amount of Jewish ritual, participate in a Jewish congregation, and love hiking, snorkeling and travel, those are not my most powerful ways of relating to my source of meaning. The picture I ended up choosing shows an interfaith group of colleagues taken in September, 2010 at a press conference called by the Islamic Society of North America. I don’t fancy myself an important player in that event (I am pictured under the “N” in HorizonS), nor do I think it was an exceptionally courageous or dramatic political action. This was not the most important interfaith moment of my life, or even of that year. But standing shoulder to shoulder (or face to face) with people of other faiths, learning and teaching, is probably my core spiritual practice. It is how I encounter God and respond to God.

I want to close with the words of two of my teachers. The Hebrew poet Yehuda Amichai wrote, “From the place you are right, flowers never bloom in the spring.” And Abraham Joshua Heschel: “When I was young I admired smart people. When I was old, I admired kind people.” I don’t think I can become smarter, and I feel less right by the year, but I aspire – Im yirtzeh ha Shem-God willing-Insh’alla – to become kinder.