October 27, 2014 § Leave a comment
Sometimes, when I meet people, I am asked: ‘Is it necessary to believe in God to participate in congregational life? Can you join the Temple, for example, if you don’t believe in God?’
Sometimes it is phrased as a statement: ‘I don’t participate because I don’t believe.’
That’s fine, I say, come anyway.
You might think that I say ‘it is okay’ because I am an easy-going sort by nature. You might think that it’s my personality, my outlook, my approach to welcome everyone regardless of belief.
But it is actually a profoundly Jewish point of view.
Whenever I teach Introduction to Judaism at the university, the students are always a bit surprised when I explain that it is entirely possible to be a Jewish atheist. The reason for their surprise lies in the fact that we live in a Christian culture, where religion is defined as ‘belief in God.’ If you do not believe in God, then you are not religious. That is the Christian view.
Judaism is a more complicated subject. Defined in Christian terms, it might not make sense: By all means, we say, participate if you don’t believe in God.
Why? Because Judaism is much more than a belief in God.
As a matter of fact, we have had a number of movements or groups within Judaism that were explicitly or implicitly atheist. For example, the early political Zionists were not religious in the Christian sense of the word – they were avowedly secular. They were seeking to create a nation like all other nations. They were not interested in waiting for God’s redemption. They were interested in forming a state with their own hands, their own effort.
And, similarly, there have been a long line of union organizers and socialists in this country, particularly at the time of the sweatshops and tenements in New York, who were not believers in God. They were not motivated by a sense of commandedness when they worked for social justice. They were, however, very much moved by the lessons of the prophets who decried taking advantage of the poor.
And in the most recent Pew Report, a significant percentage of Jews cite their sense of humor as a key part of what makes them Jewish. For many, a Jewish sense of humor is more closely tied to their self-understanding as a Jew than a belief in God.
Which would explain why, as a rabbi, it really helps to have a sense of humor.
But Judaism is indeed more than a belief in God. To a large degree, in fact, Judaism favors the belief in the power of community over belief in the power of God.
But let’s think about that for a minute: if a belief in God is not absolutely necessary to be Jewish, then do I tell people to come to services anyway? Why should we gather here in this manner, with these books and these songs?
Let me give you a sense of context.
For the early Israelites, belief in God was not an abstract concept. For them, ‘God’ was an experience, and ‘worship’ meant doing something. Their holidays and celebrations were expressions of the natural order of life: of harvest and planting, of birth and dying.
As they became a people, many tribes rather than a singular tribe, they told stories of their foundations to cement their unity.
Their stories related how they encountered God in grand historic terms, redeeming them from slavery, conquering their foes, and revealing the commandments amidst earthquakes and fire. They experienced God as a pillar of fire, something intense and powerful and otherworldly.
As they settled down, and ceased to be nomads, God’s presence continued to be conceptualized as a form of energy – like a lightning bolt in its intensity – that could create life and death. So the Temple would hide that presence, envelop it, and create a process by which it would be encountered.
The rituals that grew up around this Temple dwelling-place were in fact organized around a desire to manage this energy, to keep it holy – to keep it separate – so that it was not chaotic or destructive. God commanded them to create a structure, a process, and a ritual, that allowed them to live in proximity to this energy, and to organize their community around it.
After the destruction of the First Temple, their religious self-understanding became more sophisticated. Contact with the great empires increased the range and depth of abstract thought.
What had been an overwhelming divine force encountered either in moments of grand revelation or as a terrifying pillar of fire was then living in community with the people of Israel, among them, joining them in exile and rejoicing in their return, like a character in an epic play.
They thought of God in terms of covenants and obligations, using the language of diplomacy and statecraft. Holidays and celebrations included the remembrance of significant historical events, moments in the nation’s history. Stories helped keep the culture alive, waiting for the moment of return to the land.
Then, returning home from exile, the stories become more formal, and more structured: they become a defined heritage, a cultural memory. Eventually, they become canonized, to form the literature we know as the Hebrew Bible.
Rabbinic Judaism, the form of Judaism we know best, developed in response to the destruction of the Second Temple, after the return from exile.
It is, in fact, the product of the second exile: the rabbis were working out, over the course of multiple generations, how to live in the wake of this new tragedy. Whether they were standing before the ruins of the Temple, or studying in an academy dispersed far from that place, they felt keenly the loss of the nation’s center-point. The Temple’s sacrifices would occur no more; the central practice of the nation’s worship could no longer be performed. The rabbis sought to answer the question: How do you rebuild, then, after the worst has happened?
It was these ancient rabbis who created our prayer services, a great leap of faith. It took courage to decide that words – and words alone – would be good enough to suffice as prayer.
They were wrestling with the greater problem of meaning – which is why our services bear witness to their questioning. You should know that the assertions of God’s sovereignty are not as certain or as absolute as our inherited liturgy makes them sound. Their literature is marked with a relentless search: why, God, why?
Their life-work is our inheritance, and we are left to wrestle with their texts. Our Father, Our King, we pray: why is our language so lopsided? Why is it so hard to break out of authoritarian and dictatorial images? Why do we feel so distant from You? It’s difficult, always difficult.
In these services, in these printed pages, we are attempting to address what is inchoate and unmanageable in ways that are familiar and engaging. We are here to address the fundamental existential loneliness that we all feel in ways that are real and lasting.
And these traditions, this inheritance, together serve a definite purpose: It’s hard to make up that sort of thing all by yourself, to find something that extends past your own lifetime and your own circle. You need something transcendent.
Sitting here with a prayerbook in your lap, looking out the window at the darkened sky, you join 4,000 years of restlessness, of genuine unease, in the presence of the holy. You are not alone.
What we offer here is a taste of redemption, in the form of a community.
And it is powerful stuff. If you have not been here in a while, perhaps now is the time to come back. Even if you don’t believe and you’re not sure it’s important, and you don’t really know anyone: Perhaps now is the time to come back.
If you find that the words of prayer are not moving you – if you simply hate sitting in this sanctuary and reading responsively – then do something else: Pray with kitchen towels and dish soap. Pray with classroom attendance and fundraising. Pray with your hands and your feet. Be the one who sets up the oneg and moves the chairs; be the one who shows up with a hot dish after the funeral; be the one who cuts the fruit and arranges the seder plate. Come on a Friday night and read in the library until it’s time to eat cookies. We won’t judge – especially if you help clean up afterward.
We’re glad you’re here.
You don’t believe in prayer, you say? That’s fine, I say, come anyway.
Talking to ghosts
October 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
There is more to this world than meets the eye.
It is possible, of course, to have an empiricist view of the world, in which the only things that are possible are the things that can be seen and measured.
But when one spends enough time in this unique space, helping families and individuals make the transition from one kind of life-stage to the next, one starts to become aware of how much energy there is that goes unseen but is indeed felt.
In my own experience, I am most aware of this reality when in the presence of the dying.
In the last stages of the process, a dying person appears to be able to negotiate both realms at once: they speak to persons living and dead, often in the same conversation. It can be difficult to watch, but it also seems somehow holy.
Wave it off as projection if you wish, but there is certainly more here than meets the eye.
You learn, actually, that folks seem to have some control in those last weeks as to when to let go. They will wait for the daughter to fly out from California, or the last cousin to arrive from downstate. Some choose; they wait for the right time; others hold on to every last moment.
And in that liminal time – that holy time between worlds – it seems like they are able to negotiate with both sides at once. They speak to peoples living and dead, as if they were all present in the room.
Personally, I believe that there is some way in which we hear from those who are departed. My grandmother, of blessed memory, died a decade ago. And over that decade, different family members have heard from her – in the sense of hearing her response to things going around us. She comes and goes; we don’t hear from her all at the same time; it’s like she is visiting each of us for a while.
That sort of thing makes the empiricists and other rationalists roll their eyes, if not outwardly, then inwardly. Really? They ask: You want me to believe that you hear from your dead grandmother on an ongoing basis? The dying are hallucinating when they are talking to the dead. And you are projecting your grandmother’s voice.
You don’t have to believe that I hear from her. You can reject it outright if you would like. It may be a pleasant illusion.
Many of us find it difficult to think of the world as having any kind of metaphysical aspect to it at all. But if that’s the case, then there’s no room for God if the empirical world is all there is. And if that is the case, then why should we pray?
Consider the Sh’ma, for example. It is a Biblical text that we recite in each of our services: Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord Your God the Lord is one. That’s what it means – it gets called the ‘watchword of our faith’ in the old Union Prayer Book, because it’s a foundational text for us. If you don’t believe in God, how can this statement be meaningful to you?
There is a way to approach it even if you don’t want to adopt a grand metaphysical view of the world. Let me explain.
The first word is often translated as ‘Hear’ – but it could also be translated as ‘Listen’ or ‘Pay heed.’ That means: don’t just hear it, but put down your phone or your magazine, stop thinking about something else, and really listen. This is important. Are you fully present? Are you fully engaged?
‘Sh’ma Yisrael,’ it says. Listen, Israel. The Lord, your God.
‘The Lord’ is actually a euphemism. We are avoiding saying what’s literally written there. The text says Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh, which is the unpronounceable name of God. It’s God’s first name, if you will, and only the High Priest may say on Yom Kippur. Otherwise, we say Adonai in place of that unpronounceable name. So, Adonai is our way of addressing the transcendent divine creator – the God of everyone – in the context of our own uniquely Jewish relationship.
But you could also think of it as the name for the creative force in the world, the energy that drives evolution forward, that allows chemical reactions to become life. You could decide to say ‘my Lord’ instead of ‘blind chance.’ You are naming a process here; it does not have to be a person.
The Lord is one.
When we say that the Lord, Adonai, is one, echad – what does that mean?
The point of saying echad is the idea that God is singular. By singular we mean unique, unlike anyone or anything else. Extraordinarily different. Transcending time and space, beyond our definitions of it, more than our imaginations allow.
This might not seem like a particularly important point, but it is actually most crucial. When we try to define God – when we try to tame our God-concepts so that they might be comprehensible – we imagine things that are not God.
It’s like creating a small box and then asking God to step inside so that we might carry it around with us like a good-luck charm.
God is so much bigger, and grander, and wilder than our charms and incantations. What most folks call ‘God’ is just a subset of the whole.
What do you do, then, if that’s a bigger statement than you want to make? Is it necessary to take it literally?
Perhaps you might think of it this way: every human being is created in the image of God.
Imagine, then, that it says, ‘Listen, O Israel: every human being, your fellow-humans, every human being is singular.’
Take that message to heart and act upon it.
In other words: if you find it too much, to grand, to foolish to contemplate God, the universe, and everything in the macro scale, then think about God in the microcosm. Value human life, each individual you meet. Listen carefully when people talk. Put down your phone, and stop thinking about what you are going to say next, and listen. Every human being is singular, created in the very image of God. Listen.
If you listen long enough, eventually you might see that person as an individual, rather than as an example of a category. A person rather than a stereotype.
I want to be clear: this isn’t humanism that I am suggesting here. I am not saying that humanity is all there is; I am not saying that humanity is necessarily the most important part.
I am saying, rather, that if you want to know God, then humanity is a good place to start.
In other words, if you are not sure how to love God with all of your heart and all of your mind and all of your being, then direct your attention to the individuals around you, find what is godly in them, and love them for it.
And then you will find that there is more to this world than meets the eye.