The God I Don’t Believe In
Rabbi Richard A. Block
The Temple – Tifereth Israel
Cleveland and Beachwood, Ohio
1 Tishre 5773 – September 16/17, 2012
Sadie Goldstein, getting on in years, heard there was a renowned guru in a remote corner of India. A woman of modest means, she saved for years so she could visit the wise man. Finally, she was able to go. She endured a long international flight, an overnight train, and an exhausting bus ride. The final few miles had to be travelled on foot. As she reached the vicinity, she saw that hundreds of people were in line to have a word with the famous sage. After standing for several hours in the hot sun, she neared the front of the line. One of the swami’s assistants, dressed in a saffron robe, approached her and said, “You will soon be ushered into the presence of the Master. As you see, countless people travel here daily to seek his wisdom, so he can only spend a precious few moments with each of them. When you enter, you may only say three words. Choose them with care.” Finally, it was Sadie’s turn. She stepped forward, looked into the great guru’s eyes and said, “Sheldon, come home!”
The search for Ultimate Truth is not an exclusively Jewish quest, but we’ve been at it longer than any of the world’s other existing religions. The Torah credits Abraham with the signal spiritual insight that gave birth to Judaism, but the text is silent on how he made this historic breakthrough. Two millenia later, rabbis tried to fill the gap. You know the tale from Sunday School. One day, while Abraham was tending his father’s idol shop, customers came in seeking idols resembling themselves. Abraham asked, “How old are you?” When they replied, Abraham upbraided them, “How can someone your age bow down to this thing that was just made today?” Needless to say, he made no sales. Another day, Abraham smashed all the idols with a stick and placed it in the hand of the largest one. When his father came in, he asked “Who did this to the gods?” Abraham said, “A woman came in with an offering and they got into an argument over who would eat first. The biggest one rose up and smashed the others.” “Do you think I’m a fool?” his father replied. “They can’t do anything!” Said Abraham, “Let your ears hear what your mouth is saying.”
A lesser-known tale has it that when Abraham was a young child, he wondered, “Who created heaven and earth and me?” All day, he prayed to the sun, but when it set, Abraham spent the night in prayer to the moon. In the morning, when the moon sank and the sun rose, he said, “There must be a higher sovereign over both of them. That is whom I shall worship.”
These are legends, not historical reports, but they point to a deeper truth, that Judaism began as a compelling critique of ancient religions, which worshipped inanimate objects, celestial bodies, or both. Instead, Judaism introduced a powerfully disruptive concept: one God, universal, unseen, the Creator of the universe. And it asserted that human beings are created in God’s image, not the reverse.
When we first encounter Abraham in Genesis, God tells him to go forth from his native land and father’s house to a land that God will show him. God promises to make a great nation of him, bless him and make his name great, declaring, further, that Abraham will be a blessing and that God will bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him. Remarkably, Abraham, age 75, uproots his life and family and sets forth at once with nary a question, complaint, or even a reply. Apparently, Abraham and God were already well acquainted.
With a few verses, the Abraham narrative reveals the Torah’s fundamental theology: that God knows, and to some extent can be known by, human beings; that God has consciousness and will, and can, if God chooses, communicate with people; that God commands and blesses, rewards and punishes; that God is aware of and intervenes in human affairs. Perhaps the most profound aspect of this narrative is that God and human beings, both individuals and nations, can be in relationship. We are soon to learn that God and Israel, the Jewish People, are to enter a unique, deep and eternal relationship called “a covenant,” a brit, with binding promises and expectations.
What is striking about Abraham’s relationship with God is its intimacy, best illustrated in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. Informed that God intends to destroy the cities due to their inhabitants’ wickedness, Abraham boldly points out that innocent people may be living there. “Far be it from You,” he tells God, ” to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty…Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” Like a customer haggling over a carpet with a merchant in a bazaar, Abraham bargains with God, extracting concession after concession, over the minimum number of blameless persons for whose sake the cities would be spared. The episode reveals several additional dimensions of the Torah’s theological outlook: that the relationship with God is reciprocal; that accountability is not unilateral, but mutual; that both our conduct and God’s must conform to a standard of justice; and that God can be persuaded by a compelling ethical argument, at least by the demonstrably faithful.
Abraham’s story is just the beginning of our people’s attempts to discern and explain the mystery of the Divine. Jewish tradition has more than 100 names for God, testifying to the many ways God has been experienced, each of them evocative and fragmentary. The Torah itself asserts that the aspiration to understand God can only be partly realized. When Moses implores God, “Oh, let me behold Your face!” God replies, “I will make all My goodness pass before you…but you cannot see My face.”
The impossibility of knowing God fully, and the profoundly personal character of each individual’s relationship with God, are illustrated by a rabbinic commentary on the Amidah. Why, it asked, does the prayer address, “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob” instead of “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” Because each of them had to find God for himself. So must we.
The most refined condensation of millennia of Jewish thinking about God is found in our liturgy, whose prayers address a personal God with whom we can communicate, collectively and individually. When all is said and done, there are only three Jewish prayer themes: Wow! Help! and Thanks! “Wow” prayers express awe and wonder – radical amazement at the universe and its order and majesty, nature and its beauty, the marvelous complexity of the human body, the miracle of life itself. “Help” prayers articulate our deepest needs, hopes and fears, aspirations and longings. “Thanks” prayers give voice to gratitude for our blessings – for our lives and souls, the miracles and wonders and goodness that surround us every day, the privilege of being Jews, the opportunity to be God’s partners in the ongoing work of creation, for God’s love and care.
Our high holy day prayerbook emphasizes our need to receive and grant forgiveness. The most vivid image of these sacred days is “the book of life,” in which God is said to record each person’s destiny in the year ahead. Patient, compassionate, and forgiving, but no pushover, God is invoked as Avinu Malkenu, our parent and ruler, but also in more intimate terms. “We are your possession. You are our portion. We are your flock. You are our shepherd. We are your vineyard. You are our keeper. We are your beloved and You are ours.”
Throughout the ages, especially in the most difficult times and circumstances, Jews have derived comfort from the belief that God knows and cares for us. Many still do. But prayers that invoke a personal God do not speak to everyone. For some, such a God concept is not credible, persuasive, or appealing. It may even be off-putting. According to a recent Harris poll, ten percent of American Protestants and twenty one percent of Roman Catholics do not believe in God. What percentage of American Jews, would you guess, do not believe in God? Fifty-two percent! These statistics parallel attendance at religious services. Forty-seven percent of Protestants, 35 percent of Catholics, and 16 percent of Jews say they attend once a month or more. One might logically ask, “Why would someone who does not believe in God attend religious services?
One possible answer is revealed in the following story. Two friends, Sam and Max are talking. Sam asks, “Max, you’re an atheist, but you go to shul every Shabbes with Ginsberg. Why? You’re surely not there to talk to God.” “No,” replies Max. “Ginsburg goes to talk to God. I go to talk to Ginsburg.” The tale reminds us that there is much more to going to synagogue than services and prayers. Jewish tradition assigns synagogues a tripartite role: as, yes, a bet tefilah, a house of prayer, but also a bet limmud, a house of study, and a bet keneset, a house of communal gathering. Thus, our congregation’s recently-adopted vision statement begins by saying, “The Temple – Tifereth Israel is a warm, welcoming synagogue family where each person matters.” Though not fully realized, to be sure, that is our foremost aspiration. Whatever our beliefs, doubts, or uncertainties about God, at temple we can experience community, connection, and meaning.
A second story: In a small shtetl in Poland lived an apikoros, a Jewish non-believer. One Erev Yom Kippur, he thought, “Every Jew in town except me will be in shul tomorrow. It’s going to be lonely.” He decided to walk to the nearest shtetl and spend the day with his friend, the apikoros of that town. After shlepping all the way, he couldn’t find his friend, so, before going home, he sat down in the shade outside the town synagogue and fell asleep. He woke up just as the sun was setting. The doors of the shul flew open and everyone poured out, including his friend. He rushed up to him and said, “I came all this way to spend the day with you. What were you, of all people, a non-believer, an apikoros, doing in the synagogue?” His friend replied, “I may be an apikoros, but I’m still a Jew!”
On the High Holy Days, more than any other time, Jews, whatever our beliefs, feel drawn to be among our people, to experience the beauty and emotion of the music, to be inspired and challenged, or so they hope, by the sermon, to experience cleansing, renewal and atonement, at-one-ment. Because Judaism is a religion of deed, not creed, regardless of faith or doubt or disbelief, there are certain things that Jews just do. High holy day attendance is one of them.
Can we say anything more about prayer to those of us, dear friends, family members or we, ourselves, who struggle with or cannot accept the idea of a personal God? We can. In three decades as a rabbi, any number of people have told me they don’t believe in God, but more often than not, the God they don’t believe in is an a old man with a long white beard sitting on a throne high in the heavens. I don’t believe in that God either. The only depiction of God I’ve seen resembling that is on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, an image Michelangelo surely did not intend anyone to take literally.
While some insist they learned that concept in Sunday school, I can’t believe any Jewish teacher ever described God that way. I think it far likelier that we form a primitive visual image of God in childhood, but even as we mature, our concept of God may not, especially if our Jewish learning stopped at 13. There are ample reasons to believe in God, to be uncertain or doubtful or even to disbelieve, but none of them involve a man with a white beard on a throne in the high heavens.
Jewish thought about God is not limited to a God with attributes of personhood, who intervenes in human affairs and listens and responds to prayer. Consider these expressions of belief by rabbis of modernity.
Mordecai Kaplan: It matters very little how we conceive God, so long as our belief in God makes a tremendous difference in our lives.
Leo Baeck: There is one overarching commandment: Thou Shalt…We figure that out through our lives. That we have that urge testifies to the Mystery that is God.
Solomon Freehof: The Talmud speaks of God in analogy to life in the body; as life fills the body and is omnipresent in it, so God fills the world. God is the soul of the world.
Bradley Shavit Artson: People misunderstand the nature of divine “power” as coercive, as omnipotence. Thinking of God as having all the power leaves us rightly feeling betrayed and abandoned. “Was I not good enough for God to intervene?”…It [forces] theologians…to defend the indefensible. We do know good and evil: God infuses us with that awareness.
Abraham Joshua Heschel: It is precisely because God has an image that idols are forbidden. You are the image of God. But the only medium in which you can shape that image is that of your entire life.
Samuel Karff: God is beyond our capacity to define because to define is to limit…[Y]et our religious traditions guide us in our attempt to experience God’s presence…We are invited to trust that beyond the mystery there is meaning.
If Judaism embraces such a wide range of theological perspectives, shouldn’t our prayerbooks reflect that diversity? They should, and increasingly they do and will. But keep in mind that when our traditional prayers address God as Sovereign, Parent, Creator, Judge, Savior, Shield, Healer, Helper, Rock, Redeemer, Teacher – these are metaphors, not doctrine or dogma. And the prayers within which they are contained are not prose, but poetry. Their aim is not to limit or define, but to evoke, to help us express the inexpressible, to say Wow! And Help! And Thanks!
In the 1979 Robert Aldrich film,The Frisco Kid, Avram, played by Gene Wilder, is a young rabbi sent from Poland to San Francisco in 1850. After his train fare is stolen, Avram travels across country on horseback with Tommy, a lovable scoundrel played by Harrison Ford. At one point they’re taken captive by Indians, who don’t know what to make of this strange, holy man who is willing risk his life to protect a small handwritten scroll he calls “the Toyrah.”
In the midst of a severe drought, the Indians have tried every ritual they know to cause rain, without success. Avram comments, “Wonderful, wonderful, nice dancing!” Chief Gray Cloud replies, “Nice does not make rain. Yes or no, can your God make rain?” “Yes.” “But he doesn’t?” “That’s right.” “Why?” the chief demands. “Because that’s not His department,” Avram responds. “What kind of a god do you have?” the chief exclaims with exasperation. “Don’t say ‘my God.’ He’s your God, too,” Avram insists. “Don’t give him to us,” the chief says. “We have enough trouble with our own gods.” “But there’s only One God,” Avram asserts. “What does he do?” the chief demands again. Avram answers, “He…..He can do anything.” The chief persists, “Then why can’t he make rain!?” Avram says, “Because He doesn’t make rain. He gives us strength when we’re suffering. He gives us compassion when all we feel is hatred. He gives us courage when we’re searching around blindly like little mice in the darkness….but He does not make rain!” Suddenly, there is thunder and lightning, followed by a torrential downpour. Avram continues, “Of course….sometimes, just like that, He’ll change His mind.”
So can we. Religious faith is not a simple thing, at least in Judaism. The very word Israel, Yisrael, means to wrestle with God, and wrestling can be hard and painful. Sometimes I wish it were easy. How comforting it must be to have no doubts, see no ambiguity, just complete and utter certainty that God is in charge of the universe and, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, everything is right with the world or will be made right somehow in the fullness of time.
There is something admirable about absolute, unquestioning faith, but at one extreme, it can lead to intolerance and fanaticism, and at the other end of the spectrum, it can oversimplify life’s complexities and trivialize the challenges of existence. Like atheism and agnosticism, unquestioning faith, too, can be complacent, intellectually lazy, and self-indulgent, bringing the whole enterprise of religion and prayer into disrespect or ridicule. I would put in that category the ubiquitous prayers at sporting events, epitomized by players like Tim Tebow, who drops to one knee in prayer after making a touchdown pass and begins post-game interviews by saying, “First of all, I want to thank my Lord and Saviour…”
A New Yorker cartoon captures the irony (and, I believe, the absurdity) of such a theological notion. An enormous football player speaking to an interviewer says, “First, I’d like to blame the Lord for causing us to lose today.” In a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, former NFL quarterback, Fran Tarkenton, himself deeply religious, asked, “Does God care who wins football games?” His answer, which accords with mine, is No. He writes, “As a player…I never understood why God would care who won a game between my team and another. It seemed like there were many far more important things going on in the world…For what it’s worth, my forays into hoping for divine intervention didn’t work out.”
As for me, I am often clearer on what I don’t believe about God than what I do. I don’t believe that God cares about or influences sports or weather.
Although insurance policies call natural disasters “acts of God,” I believe they are not. I don’t believe God decides how or when people die. I live more comfortably with the belief that life can be unspeakably cruel and unfair, that senseless tragedies occur, than with the idea that God allows or causes undeserved suffering or that God has the power to prevent evil from occurring, but chooses not to use it.
In a Joseph Heller’s classic novel, Catch-22, Yossarian and Lt. Scheisskopf’s wife, with whom he’s having an affair, have a heated confrontation about God. Yossarian says, “Don’t tell me God works in mysterious ways. There’s nothing mysterious about it. He’s not working at all. Or else he’s forgotten all about us.” As his comments about God get coarser and harsher, she gets very upset and lashes out at him. “Stop it!” she demands. “What…are you getting so upset about?” he asks, bewildered. “I thought you didn’t believe in God.” “I don’t,” she said, sobbing. “But the God I don’t believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He’s not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be.” Yossarian replies, “Let’s have a little more religious freedom between us. You don’t believe in the God you want to, and I won’t believe in the God I want to. Is that a deal?”
Heller was on to something. You see, even if we don’t believe or aren’t sure we believe in the existence of a personal God with attributes of goodness, love, and mercy, that concept teaches us qualities we should exemplify. Rabbi Eric Yoffee writes, “We may not know…what God is, but our tradition clearly tells us what God does: God heals the sick, clothes the naked, houses the homeless and pursues peace. We cannot be God. We are weak and imperfect human beings. But we can, within the limitations of the human condition, emulate [what we are taught of] God’s behavior and, in this way, bring God into our lives.”
There is also much to be said for living with an open mind and an open heart. Life is a great teacher and as we journey through it, our experiences cause us to revise our ideas and beliefs, time and again. In a beautiful essay in Reform Judaism magazine, “The God I Don’t Believe in Showed up Today,” Barbara Shuman observed that she had long proclaimed her lack of belief in a personal God who hears and responds to prayers. But then her father-in-law and mother-in-law experienced simultaneous health crises. She wrote, “I find myself calling out to the God [I don’t believe in], asking for their health to be restored, for their physicians to be guided, for our family to be strengthened. Today I want to know God the Healer, God the Protector, God of the [prayerbook] I so often put aside because I don’t believe in words addressed to a being who hears my cries. And so, even though I don’t believe, I ask this God, ‘Open my lips. Grant me the ability to pray, to feel your presence, to know that ultimately all is in your hands. Be with us in our hour of darkness. Hold us in your hand. Grant me courage and faith, above all faith in the One I don’t believe in.'”
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk answered the question, “Where is God to be found?” “Wherever we let God in.” Personally, I believe that just as the universe has a physical order, it has a moral order and a spiritual order, and that these three powerful, unified forces emanate from the same source, whom I call and address as “God.” I experience God’s presence in the wonders of nature and the arc of history that bends toward justice, in the power of art, poetry, and music, in the boundless promise of America and the beauty of the land of Israel, in the rhythms and rituals of Jewish observance, in loving relationships and simple acts of kindness. I experience God’s presence when I open my eyes, mind, and heart and soul to the extraordinary that lurks behind the ordinary, when I embrace the miracles concealed in, and revealed by, the Mystery, that wait, that long, to be discovered.
I don’t know if God is aware of us, hears our prayers, or answers them. As Michael Meyer, now an eminent Jewish historian, told me long ago, when I asked if he believed in God, “I live in the tension between believing and not believing.” There is wisdom in the adage, “Pray as if everything depends on God. Act as if everything depends on you.” And as our prayerbook says, “If we rise from prayer better persons, our prayers have been answered.” Even in those times when I can’t believe in a God who knows, loves and cares for each of us personally, I fervently hope that is true, and I try to pray and live as if it is. Doing so makes me better and, I trust, worthier of God’s love and care, and of the abundant blessings I have received, so far beyond my deserving.
As we gather once again, this Rosh Hashanah, one congregation in holy convocation, let us learn anew to say Wow! and Help! and Thanks! Let us hearken to the inclinations of our souls, voice our deepest yearnings, express our utmost gratitude, acknowledge our bond with the Jewish People and each other, and seek to become better persons. Let us pray wholeheartedly, to the God we believe in, or the God we don’t, the God who is, or the God we hope may be. Let us pray passionately, in the words our tradition has bequeathed to us, or words of our own composing, in recitation, song and silence. Let us pray unreservedly, as one sacred, united, covenantal community, for a year of health and happiness, forgiveness, fulfillment and peace, for us, for those we love, the Jewish People and the entire human family. Amen.