The BEST: One of Us

Sarah Golubtchik Tradition Online | December 30, 2021

Summary: The song “One of Us,” written by Eric Bazilian and debuted by Joan Osborne in 1995, contemplates man’s encounter with the Divine. The refrain “What if God were one of us?” asks us to consider if and how we would relate to any life-altering “big event,” such as a personal encounter with God.

Why this is The BEST: Despite its overt Christian references, Bazilian claims this song wasn’t intended as a religious piece. Rather, his intended goal was to make his audience think honestly about how they relate to a life-changing encounter, however that might appear to a given individual. The process of grappling with the questions presented throughout the song is a positive theological exercise with the potential to deeply impact the development of one’s religious persona.

I was first exposed to this song as a yeshiva high school student, as an introduction of sorts to a course on the book of Jeremiah. Throughout the era of prophecy, the Jewish people were privy to various types of messages, from warnings and threats to promises of redemption. There was no need for popular artists to croon fantastical lyrics about engaging with representations of the Divine; such phenomena were in front of their noses – on the subway walls, as it were. Nowadays, we are forced to consider these issues from a distance, and as a result, not only are the words of the prophets fading, but the experience of active engagement with God has become entirely foreign.

As Jews, a critical listen to “One of Us” begs us to reconsider how we relate to the Divine. The first stanza asks, “If God had a name what would it be? And would you call it to his face?” Though our Jewish tradition provides us with names of God, these questions probe at a larger issue: Do we relate to God casually and intimately, or with reverence and awe? Are these options mutually exclusive? Furthermore, how do we talk about God? 

The bulk of our current religious thinking can be divided into two categories: ritual practice and matters of belief. The former, which is expressed through various shades of ritual observance and social action, takes up most of our religious energy. This song poses a challenging question relating to the latter category: “If God had a face what would it look like? And would you want to see if seeing meant that you would have to believe…?” When something theoretical becomes actualized, how will we react? Will we be left dumbfounded and unable to cope, or will we embrace the opportunity, whether it be good or bad, as part of our religious experience?

The song ends with the idea that perhaps God experiences loneliness. Though this anthropopathic concept may sound foreign to our Jewish ears, it begs us to consider if and how we connect with Him. In Jeremiah’s time, despite all of the warnings and cries for change to which the Jewish people were privy, did God, as it were, feel ignored? For all our pronounced religiosity, do we feel and acknowledge His presence in our lives? How do we express this personal connection, and are we able to effectively pass this on to the next generation?

The imagery in “One of Us” is certainly provocative, if not potentially heretical to classical Jewish thinkers like Rambam. Its value lies in breaking down esoteric matters into concrete and critical questions. The religiously-concerned Jew does not ride the same bus featured in the song, but the route the bus takes is universal.

Sarah Golubtchik is a graduate of Matan’s Morah L’Halacha program, and is the menahelet of an innovative educational afternoon program in Raanana, Israel. Click here to read about “The BEST” and to see the index of all columns in this series.

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