Yom Kippur Evening: What about God?
I was standing in front of a class on religion, a guest lecturer, at Mississippi State University during a visit to my rabbinical student pulpit some thirty years ago. The student asked me, “You do believe that the Bible is true? You believe that the bible is the word of God, right?” All of sudden I looked like the deer staring into the headlights of an oncoming car. I gazed over to the host instructor, an Episcopalian priest, who looked back at me, and, with a little smirk taking shape on his face motioned me to answer the question. I began to fashion a response that parts of the Torah and the entire Bible were probably written in by human beings, even if we assume that some form of divine inspiration was involved in their writing. One could feel the tension in the room rise as if I was pronouncing blasphemy. Needless to say the students blasted me expressing disappointment and bemusement at my thoughts. Surely a rabbi believes in the inerrancy of the Scriptures, they imagined.
The truth is that it is difficult for Jews to define ourselves in a theological sense. Our Christian neighbors often react curiously when we describe ourselves as a mixture of ethnic group, religion and nation state when responding to their questions about what we believe and how God belongs to our theology. We just do not fit into mainstream western categories o f religion. We are a blending of several forces in the society at large. And if we think people from outside of Judaism are perplexed by our attempts to explain ethnicity and religion together then just imagine how we sound to ourselves when trying to define what Judaism means.
A current example of this creative tension is the one sponsored by the popular Jewish magazine called Moment. In its Fall publication it ran a symposium interviewing scholars, poets, teachers on one question. Can there be Judaism without a belief in God? Just imagine the multitude of answers given on this question. And I believe that if we held the same symposium here at Beth Yam we would probably encounter a broad spectrum of viewpoints as they did in the pages of the magazine.
This question is fair because we are sitting here tonight most likely holding the same level of practices and viewpoints as to whether or not God is absolutely essential for us to even have High Holiday services. No doubt Jews are going to disagree on everything except about what someone else should believe. But the moment is the High Holy Days and is it not fair to ask ourselves whether a faith tradition like ours needs God and whether Judaism would be Judaism without God? My view is that Judaism can handle a wide variety of viewpoints that do not include those who believe in god. Yet in the long run Judaism cannot sustain itself if God is taken out of the language and the conversation and the dialogue that we have in the realm of worship and spiritual dialogue.
Because Judaism is a faith tradition that focuses more on external acts, be they ritual acts or quite simply actions of ethnic solidarity, rather than depending strictly upon internal tenets of belief we have been able to dodge that bullet of theology. But when it comes to the High Holy Days this is one of the moments of the year when we, as a community, are obliged to face our beliefs or lack of beliefs about God, Judaism and any other aspect of the Jewish experience and ask ourselves these questions: not just whether Judaism needs God, but, if the answer is no then what exactly enters our minds when we utter the words out of the prayer book like Adonai Hu HaElohim-the Eternal is God?”
It is not unusual for those who would disavow belief in God to find themselves rising with the congregation to recite the Kaddish or the Shema or singing the Kol Nidre or Avinu Malkeinu. Why not? We know that Judaism as system of laws and rituals focused its energy primarily on establishing a fence around the Torah which meant that first and foremost the priority of our sages and the community was to secure the practice of law and ritual. Our sages were much more flexible about what we thought or believed in as compared to what we actually did with our laws and rituals. I remember a rabbi explaining to me that by practicing rituals it would lead to belief as compared to waiting for belief before practicing rituals.
Not surprisingly the scholars over the centuries could not agree on the basic tenets of Jewish belief. Yes they would agree about fundamental Jewish practices but not about an absolute list of basic beliefs. Great medieval scholars like Moses Maimonides, Gersonides, Bayah ibn Pakudah all debated each other over the centuries to create the ultimate list of what every Jew should believe. The result was that no one ever created that uber list of Jewish doctrine that everyone would subscribe to in order to be a believing Jew.
There are lots of Jews who discarded their beliefs in God when they came to this country. The Jewish socialists and Yiddish secularists celebrated Jewish culture and ignored Judaism. The same people who founded and led the movement to settle Palestine in the early part of the 20th century also came from primarily secular backgrounds. Thus, Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, was a completely secular Jew from Vienna, Austria. They focused on the new Jewish state in a way where religion was present but it did not define the character of the new Jewish identity burgeoning into the modern state of Israel. We still see that clash of culture today between so-called secular Israelis who do not believe in God vs. those religious or dati Jews for whom the only credible Israel is an ultra-Orthodox Israel.
In America we call ourselves a religious nation but are Jews God fearing people? The answer is mixed and the spectrum as broad as the number of Jewish opinions. Besides the mainstream branches of Judaism there is even a Humanistic Judaism movement of temples that declare they do not believe in a deity but still have services anyway. This movement was considered so outside the box that the normally liberal reform movement refused to admit their congregations into the movement decades ago.
In the symposium article entitled, “Can there be Judaism without God?” Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the greatest Talmudist of our times, said, “Judaism without belief in God is like humanity without life- A collection of dead bodies, cemeteries and memorials.” Rebecca Goldstein, an atheist and highly regarded author and philosopher said, “”If an open-minded look at the world makes a person conclude that this is a godless universe, does she have to renounce the culture she grew up with, that has done so much to develop a moral outlook and human values? The answer, for me and many others, is no.” Rabbi David Wolpe commented, “Judaism without God exists. “It can last a generation or two, but will disappear without the roots that gave it nourishment. Absent a connection to God, Judaism cannot sustain itself.” Noah Feldman, professor of international Law at Harvard responded, “You can be a culturally committed Jew, for whom the ritual is symbolic; a Diaspora Jew, committed to the practices of Jewish life outside Israel; or a Zionist Jew, connected with Jewish life in Israel. So, while those who believe that Judaism cannot exist without God, there are clearly those who think it can and should.
Part of our challenge is recognizing that we don’t fit into the neat theological litmus test of belief that our friends in the Christian community have developed in their faith tradition. It is the reverse situation where they focus on belief and practice is secondary. We are seeing in America a long term effort to make America a more God-fearing country and we can see the repercussions of this type of strident religiosity in our political culture. But Jews just are not wrapped that way. We struggle with God. We wrestle with the Divine. We are always probing and testing ourselves and our beliefs. And that is not any different than what our ancestors did since biblical times either.
For us we can say “I’ don’t believe in God but I still rise to recite the Shema.” We can listen to the music of Kol Nidre and not think about the meaning of the words themselves. It is the music that carries us to a place of history which inspires us to remember the hard times and the defiance our ancestors demonstrated in the face of bigotry and hatred towards us. We can sing Avinu Malkeinu and there is no belief in God neither as “Our Father” nor as “Our King” yet we still sing the melody and the words and it resonates deeply in our souls. Does it make sense? No. But does it work? Yes.
Elie Wiesel tells the story of the trial against God conducted by a rabbinical court in one of the concentration camps. He recalls that they held a trial to condemn god for not saving the Jews. The rabbis debated and came up with a verdict. God was judged guilty of the crime. After the decision was announced that a rabbinical court found God, guilty of silence in the Holocaust, the chief rabbi of the court exclaimed, “Now that the decision has been reached the court will break so that we can pray the evening service.” Only with the Jewish people.
But what about us? We are not all scholars who write Torah commentaries or philosophical treatise on the existence of God. We have our histories. We have the years and life experience. We do not have the threat of eternal damnation hanging over our heads if we do not swear absolute homage to God. We are free thinkers. But do we take God seriously? It is not about absolute belief. It is about not giving in to the inertia of forgetting what is sacred in our lives. It is about not forgetting the pain and the beauty of what makes our life worth living. It is about having seen suffering and wondering why have I survived these years? What is my purpose? Are these questions less important as one accumulates years?
It is true that Judaism is more than only the focus on God. It is about the struggle to understand, to question everything, to pursue learning and to see how the presence and idea of god follow us no matter how much we may want to ignore the Holy One. Judaism is a culture. It is a tree with many branches extending out from it. But the trunk of that tree contains the presence of God and that we cannot ignore. Judaism needs God, I believe, in the same way that a tree needs the soil which it is rooted and without which it cannot survive.
I do not believe we can always give the answers to our grandchildren and children that they want to hear when they ask us about God. We may even disappoint them with our answers. But what we should not do is to think that being a Jew provides the option to forget about God and to ignore the conversation about God that is part and parcel of our lives to the last breath whether we admit it or not. Just because we can accept non theistic viewpoints in the synagogue does not mean that we don’t cast God out like the goat which carries our sins on Yom Kippur into the wilderness! We need that religious and spiritual grounding even if we cannot always fall in line into the kind of God fearing people we admire.
A congregant came to the Rabbi, “Rabbi,” he complained,
“I am struggling and I cannot resolve my God issues.”
“What are the issues?” the rabbi asked.
I keep struggling about whether there really is a judgment and a judge.”
“What does it matter to you!”
“Rabbi! If there is no judgment and no judge, then what do the words of the Torah mean?”
“What does that matter to you?” the rabbi quipped.
“Rabbi! ‘What does it matter to me? What does the rabbi think? What else could matter to me?”
Well, if it matters to you as much as all that,” said the rabbi, “then you are a good Jew after all-and it is quite all right for a good Jew to struggle: nothing can go wrong with that person.”
Whether Judaism or something we choose to call “Judaism”- can survive without god remains, alas, an open question for some. For me, however, Judaism without God would have to be called by a different name, and I pray, that day will never come. Judaism can tolerate and embrace all kinds of perspectives as long as we do not give up on the struggle to define, understand and believe or not believe in God. It is the questioning that counts. Always the questioning.
Shabbat Shalom, Shana Tova.