Why Jews should NOT Believe in God
There’s an old joke: a young Jewish man in the shtetl suddenly realizes that he doesn’t believe in God. He goes to his rebbe, and says “I don’t believe in God, what should I do?” The rebbe says, “You don’t believe in God? I can’t help you, but I know who can.” “Who?” Asked the young man. “Go to Krakow and seek out the Atheist Rebbe. He can help you,” replied his rebbe. So the young man got a horse and buggy and made the schlep from the shtetl all the way to Krakow. He went to the shul where the Atheist Rebbe davened (all the while thinking it very strange that an Atheist Rebbe would daven in a shul at all). He got to the shul during prayer time. And there, at the back of the room, was the rebbe, in long black coat, a black hat, a long white beard, and long curly payes; in fervent prayer, shuckling. “Excuse me, rebbe…” said the young man. “Sha! I’m davening!” said the Atheist rebbe. When the rebbe finally finished davening, the young man said “If I could just…” “Sha!” said the rebbe. First, we must eat! As they sat down to the meal, the young man said, “Rebbe, please…” “Sha!” said the Rebbe, “We must make Hamotzi and eat in silence. When they finished eating, the young man said, “Now, rebbe?” “Sha!” he replied, “Now we must bensch! (recite grace after meals). Finally after bensching, the young man said, “You know rebbe, for an Atheist, you sure strike me as a very pious Jew.” “Nu?” said the rebbe, “I may be an atheist, but does that mean that I should act like a gentile?”
There are a lot of us in this room who are not that different from that rebbe. We’re very Jewish. Very proud of it. But this belief in God thing, not so much. Not long ago, I was listening to an NPR show where they interviewed a young Evangelical man, who had a crisis of faith because he woke up one day and realized that he didn’t believe in God. He had to break off his engagement, he had to leave his church, and wander. All while hearing this, I kept thinking: just by not believing, he is cut off from his people, his church, even his beloved? That’s so NOT Jewish! So today, I am going to make a very radical assertion: as Jews, we should NOT believe in God!
To this you might say, But that’s absurd! Judaism is all about God! If we don’t believe in God, why should we pray? Why should we care about justice, and all other Jewish values? Why have a God concept at all?! In order to answer this question, I must first unpack what I mean by ‘believe in God’ in the first place. In truth, the whole idea of “believing in God” is quite new in Judaism. Historically, the question of belief never really came up for us. Remember, Christianity broke with Judaism 2,000 years ago over the idea of Faith vs. Works. For the Christians, the goal is to believe in Jesus in order to be saved. For us Jews, we don’t need to be saved from Hell, and we don’t need to believe to prevent us from getting there.
Of course, Judaism is also not as simple as saying that it’s just about what you do either. The essence of Judaism is more correctly expressed as living in a committed relationship with God. To this idea, you might say Wait a minute! I thought you said that we shouldn’t “believe in” God. How can we have a committed relationship with something that we don’t necessarily believe in? To answer this, I would like to ask us now to picture someone whom we deeply love. Do you need to believe that this beloved exists before you love them? It’s an absurd question, isn’t it? We don’t need to ‘believe’ because it’s patently obvious they exist. We have proof: they have a shape, they have mass, you can reach out and touch them. Now I will ask a follow-up question: Are your rational proofs of your beloved’s existence why you are committed to them? Obviously not. What commits us to our beloved is the sum of all the experiences we have shared together; what life we have lived together; what choices we make together; what actions we take. We don’t need to believe that the other exists because the life we live with our beloved touches us, transforms us…We don’t need to believe abstract things about our beloved. Instead, we just know: we know who they are; we know what they mean to us.
Ah, but we may say: Our minds can fool us. We all know stories of people really knowing something to be true, only to discover that they were mistaken. This, of course is true. But I speak today about an even deeper kind of Knowing. Take water, for example. One or two molecules of water in the palm of our hand isn’t going to feel like water. How many molecules are necessary before I have the experience of “wet?” Now, I could assert that I don’t “believe in” wet, because there’s no wet there at all, just molecules. And yet, none of us in our right minds would deny that there is such a thing as the experience of ‘wet.’ Why do we know that there is ‘wet?’ Well, we just…know.
Judaism is not a religion about “believing in” anything. Judaism is a religion that is all about ‘just knowing.’ There are many Hebrew words for Knowing/Knowledge: chochmah, sekhel, melumad. The most famous word for Knowing is “Da’at.” Da’at is a famous word because this is the word that means knowing “in the biblical sense.” But Da’at is not just knowing in a racy sense. Da’at really means the deepest kind of Knowing; it refers to intimate knowledge that comes from a deeply felt experience in life. We say that Moses “knew” God better than any other human being, that God Knew Moses panim el panim, face to face—intimately. It was this same quality of Da’at, knowing, that enabled Abraham to go forth to a land he did not know: he trusted his deepest Knowing of what was right and true. When Moses was at the burning bush, that bush is really a metaphor for an experience of Knowing that was so uncanny that a new Name of God revealed itself to Moses, and that name was YHVH. The essence of that Ineffable Name is the very Hoveh, which means What-is. When we truly open up to the What-is-ness of life, we don’t need to “believe in” anything. We just know.
Think to a time that life that just broke your heart wide open, positive or negative: the moment you fell in love, the birth of a child; the death of a loved-one; think to a moment that changed the course of your life: a nearly fatal car accident or heart-attack; think of any moment when everything you thought you knew fell away. In that gap, in that free-fall, the rest of your life began. When you think about those moments, they gave us something. They gave us a deeper Knowledge about life; a deeper sense of ourselves, of life’s fragility and preciousness. It’s in this ever-deepening awareness of ourselves and our place in the universe, in gaining our sense of the What-isness, the YHVH of life—that’s the beginning of what Judaism means by God. At no point does Judaism ask us to believe in something irrationally; to give up our integrity for an idea. Rather, Judaism asks us to live, really to live, and let life itself show us panim el panim, face to face, the nature of What-is/of YHVH. And this Knowing is miraculous, transformational. Carl Sagan, a noted atheist himself, once said “Science [another word for the pursuit of Knowing] is miraculous, and life on earth is the most improbable of possibilities.”
Why do I talk of this today? There are so many Jewish people who tell me, “I just don’t believe in God.” They try to conjure up an image of God as depicted in our prayers and in the Torah, and in good faith, they just can’t buy it. What these good and well-meaning people may not realize is that these images and concepts of God in our Torah and prayers are actually more like vessels or tools that exist as a place holder, as a container to hold our experience of life that is unnamable. So don’t believe in God! Believe, instead in Life, in Reality, in What-Is. Don’t think you have to believe in a story or a concept about God. Rather, believe in your deepest experience of what is true in your personal relationships and in your open-hearted experiences.
I talk of this subject today because we are all here, in this newly renovated space. But what we see here is not just a face-lift of a synagogue. This new space is only an external part of a whole paradigm-shift that is going on in Judaism here at Adas Israel. Our new paradigm is actually a renewal actually tshuvah in its best sense: of the most ancient and central paradigm of Judaism: it’s about living not with God or Judaism as a concept to believe in or not. But rather, it is to live a Judaism that exists as a portal, a gateway to Da’at, to our deepest and most transformational human experiences.
I talk about this subject today because through the years, I have heard choruses of Jews who cannot find personal meaning in a synagogue or in services. I have heard scores of older parents grieve the fact that their children are no longer in synagogue, but turn elsewhere for meaning and connection. Our new vision here at Adas Israel is a response to these deep concerns. No longer will we present Judaism only as held-on-high, as a sacred relic of an ancient past that we must make obeisance to only on holidays and at life-cycle events. Rather, all of Judaism: our Torah, prayer, Mitzvot, concepts of God—these all exist as a technology that exists FOR us to find meaningful connection to ourselves, to others, and to God (no matter if you use the word God, or call it anything else: Truth, Science, Nature. It all works!)
The bold experiment, the new vision of Jewish life at Adas Israel is a Judaism that is not a series of abstract ideas and quaint ancient practices; it is NOT a source of guilt and anxiety only focused on whether or not we will have Jewish grandchildren. Rather, it is a vision of Judaism as constant opportunities, as experiences that bring the mind and heart together to make us better human beings.
Adas will be a synagogue where you don’t have to make a choice of leaving your heart or your intellect at the door, but where you not only bring the fullness of your integrity. We will be the kind of synagogue we have always been--finding releveance and connection between our lives and Judaism. In new programs like MakomDC in the Biran Beit Midrash we will find innovative ways to come together around learning and Jewish conversation. In the Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington, we will bring back Jewish spiritual practice for those for whom this is meaningful. In our newly expanding Hazak program, we will be having new ways to engage our senior members with substantive experiences. Our Vision of Renewal is also all about inclusion for people who have long felt ostrasized from the Jewish community: people with disabilities, intermarried families, LGBTQ people and families. We will expand the role of a synagogue beyond ritual life and conventional education to new ways of growing as human beings in community; with our new Engagement initiatives in the synagogue, we will expand beyond the walls of the synagogues into homes, cafes, and elsewhere. We will find ever-increasing ways of forming bonds, connection, and relationships that can enrich us not just as Jews, but as human beings.
Most importantly, we won’t require you to “believe in” anything;. But like the joke, we only ask that you find out what happens when we act like Jews together.
The ancient Temple that once stood in Jerusalem was know as THE House of God. When it was destroyed, we mourned the literal loss of God in our midst! Did God ‘live’ there more than anywhere else? No, of course not. It was God’s House because we all banded together as Jews and through our committed action, in our creating sacred conditions, we were the ones who made that place more Godly than anywhere else. We can still do that through the conditions we create right here today: In the experience of doing sacred acts for one another: in affirming our values of kindness and justice; in living in this experience that is Adas: we can, collectively create the experience of Da’at: of Sacred Knowledge of the Ultimate (I call it God) together. Together, may we fulfill the real Jewish notion of God so beautifully expressed in Hoshea (2:21) v’erastich li le’olam: I will commit myself to you forever; V’Erastich li be’tzedek u’mishpat, I will commit myself with righteousness and justice, uv’chesed uv’rachamim: with kindness, and compassion; v’Erastich li b’Emunah, I will commit myself to you with faithfulness; v’yada’at et Adonai, and together may we all KNOW Adonai. Amen.