Come anyway

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.

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