Finding God on the BART Train

As I write it is early morning and I am on BART headed to San Francisco. The full train is silent with people half awake. The woman sitting next to me crosses herself having completed her morning prayers. As I look around, I see a Sikh man a few rows down, and a woman reading the Bible. Conversations with God are taking place all around me.

I too use this quiet time for morning tefillah/prayer. I begin as I leave my car and walk to the station. I am usually at the Amidah, the central prayer and time of highest connection, by the time I board the train.  The Amidah begins “Blessed are you, Lord/Spirit of the World. God of Abraham, god of Isaac, and god of Jacob.” The compilers of the prayerbook asked why the text says, “god of” three times and does not condense the opening into “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?”  The sages answer rings in my ears as I look around at my fellow travelers engaged in prayer. This formulation was no accident.  The author of this prayer was telling us that though each of the patriarchs believed in one God, he experienced that God in different ways.

There are many approaches to and ideas of the nature of God. In Judaism, the view varies from a deity who micromanages the world and acts in history, to the pantheism of Spinoza, the religious naturalism of Kaplan, to the aspirational humanist ideal of Fromm. If across the ages our sages and theologians came to know God differently, why wouldn’t Abraham’s understanding differ from Isaac’s, and Jacob’s differ from theirs?  The opening to the Amidah reminds us that diversity in the way we know God is part and parcel of holiness. As the train hums along the tracks to San Francisco it is playing out before my eyes.