On faith, belief and God
I love this quip from a favorite comedian of mine: “I have a lot of beliefs. And I don’t live by any of them!”
It’s different to have beliefs than to live by them. And that difference speaks to a little problem we have. Here it is: I am not sure we all believe in the God we say we believe in. Or that we pray to. Or that we call upon and complain to when things get rough. Or the God we thank when things go well. I’m not sure we all believe that.
You’re all here. The room is swelled. You come to shul to be touched. To grow. To be in a spiritual place. And what do we throw at you? The Mahzor. It is a beautiful and evocative text. But it is also filled with some of the loftiest images of God we have. God as King. God as Father. God as Judge. God as Shepherd who literally writes us in for life, or death.
Is that the best Judaism has for you? Is that the extent of the God that can operate in your lives?
If you wonder a bit when you read those images, you’re in good company.
I’ll tell you a story from the Chasidic tradition. A group of Chasidim know that their rabbi likes to daven in private. Something intimate, something exquisite. They know they should let him be. But they can’t contain their curiosity. They need to hear this prayer! So they sneak in to a room just outside his chamber. He’s just finishing up his morning prayers. He has gotten to a section called the Ikkarim, the 13 principles of faith that Maimonides wrote. They each start with the words, Ani Ma’amin. I believe. They are customarily said at the end of morning services. The Chasidim are listening through the wall. They overhear him crying, singing, davening. Ani Ma’amin. Ani ma’amin. I believe! I believe! But they couldn’t hear the rest of the words. So they lean in further. Because it is so important to hear every word of their rebbe. “Ani ma’amin be’emunah shleymah…I believe with perfect faith. Hal’vai Hal’vai Hal’vai.” Do you know what Hal’vai means? It is one of those great untranslatable Hebrew words. Something like, “Oh would it be true.” “I lashed out in a moment of anger. Halvai I can hold back the next time my child pushes my buttons. Hal’vai.” Hal’vai is a prayer in and of itself. Put that back into the story. You have this Chasidic rebbe. He is considered a paragon of perfect faith by his Chasidim. They want to hear every word, every syllable of what he believes. And yet everything he believes, he believes Hal’vai! Would that he believed with a perfect faith that god gave the Torah at Sinai. Hal’vai. Ani ma’amin be’eumah shleymah…I believe with a perfect faith in the coming of the Mashiah… Hal’vai
I was unpacking this story with a dear friend of mine, Rabbi David Ingber. We draw out two lessons from it, amongst many.
The first lesson: Even great men, and women, people you’d consider as religious role models…if we’re honest and true, there is always a recognition that belief and faith are aspirations. I believe is a “yearning” statement. It’s a “yearning for.” It’s not the pronunciation of a perfect credo. This rebbe—whatever he believed, he wanted to believe a little more. In this model, you need to think of faith not as a thing that you have. “Do I have faith? Yes I have faith.” No! Faith is something you do, that you work on. Jews don’t have faith. Jews should be “faithing,” at all times. We may ascribe to others that they have it all figured out. We may think they pray because they have faith. When in reality, they may not. They pray in order to try to achieve faith and most of the time they, and we, fail. The liturgy invites us, but believing the words is not a prerequisite to saying them. Often we add a Hal’vai.
The second thing that comes out of the story is that it is both hopeful and sad. Why is it sad? Why did the rebbe have to pray this prayer in private? Why did he have to hide his doubts, instead of modeling them, actively, openly, bravely to his Chasidim? And the hopeful part? That is that his struggle for faith is faith. His hoping to believe is a form of belief. And it is exceedingly Jewish. Having doubts is a good thing in our tradition. We shouldn’t have to keep them in the closet. Our theology could be and should be out in the open. And it should be all grown up.
That’s what I want to talk about today. I want to open up for you a grownup theology. What does that mean? I’ll give you a slogan from someone I studied with this summer at the Hartman Institute, Rabbi Dani Segal. He is the rabbi in the town of Alon in Israel. Whenever he meets with new couples on the way to preparing them for the chuppah, he says that in their new home above their beds, there shouldn’t be a ketubah. It shouldn’t be a picture of them from their engagement. There should be a sign that works a little bit better when stated in Hebrew, a sign that says “Zehirut, Kan Bonim.” “Careful. Work in progress.”
Grownup theology is a theology under construction. Whether you believe with a full heart in the God of the Mahzor, or you question it. A grownup theology is a permission to be in process. I am going to share with you some of the theologies that speak to me, that have redeemed me from pure doubt and a sense of meaninglessness. Perhaps one or more of them will resonate with you. But as your rabbi and as your friend, the takeaway is not the particulars of what you believe. There are any number of images and theories of God that can work, for you, for me. What I care about is that you are in process, and that what you believe leads you to a Godly life. That’s the most important thing.
I want to share with you another story about a boy who comes to a rabbi. He is forlorn and embarrassed. He goes to the rabbi’s office and confesses, “I don’t believe in God.” He expects he will be corrected or reprimanded. Or even shunned and publicly embarrassed. But he can’t lie to his rabbi. “I don’t believe in God.” The Rabbi says, “…tell me about this God.” And the boy says, “…which God? I told you…I don’t believe in God.” The Rabbi says, “—Tell me about this God you don’t believe in.” The boy goes on to describe the God on the throne, the God who punishes and rewards every act. The God of third-grade religious school. The Rabbi says, “—you know what? I don’t believe in that God either. Now we can talk.”
In the story, the Rabbi echoes this little kid’s apostasy. Or supposed apostasy. And then learning can begin. So I share with you some versions of my grownup theology, which remains a work in progress. I share it with you not with certainty, because I don’t have it. But with earnestness, and with options, and a sense that God can be reclaimed and can matter. Not just in a foxhole, when you’re in crisis. Not just in a throw-away English phrase when you “thank God” after the last out of a baseball game. But as you construct and try to live through a Jewish life that matters.
These theologies, that are from some of the brightest Jewish minds of our times, are amalgamations of centuries of thought and development of the idea of the Jewish God.
We’ll start by speaking of a man named Rabbi Art Green, who is a Kabbalist, philosopher, and a theologian. He directs the non-denominational rabbinical school at Boston Hebrew College. He is a wonderful, ideological thinker for all of us to get to know. Here is his theology, Rabbi Green’s sense of God, which he hears not as a rejection of traditional Jewish thinking, but rather he hears this idea screaming out from our sacred texts. Believing in God means believing in a world where the other obligates me. The fact that you live, and that you are also from God, and of God— that fact puts a claim on me. I cannot ignore you. Or if I do, I am also ignoring God. Part of it based on Chasidic notions that emerge from the Talmud and Kabbala. Here is Arthur Green in his own words. As you hear them, ask yourself, “Can I believe this? And if I did, what would it mean in how I lived my life? My Jewish life?”
“Listen to one of the great Jewish sages, the Chasidic master Sefat Emet of Gerer, who let this secret truth out of the bag in a letter he wrote to his children and grandchildren: It is entirely clear to me that the meaning of the Shema, that God is One, is not that He is the only God, negating other gods (though this too is true!). But rather there is a deeper truth. There is no other being than God. Everything that exists in the world, spiritual and physical, is God himself.”
Does that sound too modern, too 21st century, too foofy, too liberal? Too universal? Not specific enough? This is the Chasidic Rebbe of Ger, giving these words as an inheritance to his children and grandchildren!
Back to Rabbi Green. He re-reads the Shema, that prayer we are so sure we know. Hear O Israel Lord is God Lord is one? No. That’s not what it means, or at least it’s not the only thing that it means. Rather, it means this: Listen, Yisrael (from the Hebrew meaning to struggle), all you who struggle, who wrestle with life’s meaning. Being is our God. Being is all unified, it’s all one.
To Rabbi Green, and the Gerer Rebbe, God means that all is one. God means your understanding that the person sitting next to you, in that nice suit, or the ones across town with different colored faces, and the ones who are hungry and the ones that are lonely, and who are fleeing Syria, are extensions of us, because we are all God. To Green, that knowledge, that truth, that awareness is God and Godliness. And acting from that awareness is living with God. God is obliterating the inconvenient differences between us and them. And worshipping the Jewish God is doing all of that, in a tallis, holding a siddur, blessing your children and eating flatbread in April. Can you believe that? Can you live that?
Here is another grownup theology. It comes from Los Angeles, from Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l of Valley Beth Shalom, a titan of Judaism who died this past year. Before I share his ideas, a bit of context. As a congregational rabbi, you deal with suffering all the time because you deal with the congregation’s suffering. You have to stop and consider what you actually believe in, before you rush in. Because evil and pain and suffering will ruin most theologies, and they ruin many of the prayers we say today. Imagine a mother or a father who, God-forbid, lost a child. They come to the rabbi and say, “I can’t come to shul. I can’t be there for yontef.” Why? “Because I can’t sit through one more unetaneh tokef. Who will live? Who will die? Was my child not inscribed last year? Why not?” What do I say? Come to shul anyway? It will feel good, despite the words? Reinterpret the words? There has to be more to offer. Rabbi Schulweis felt this deeply and intimately. He was born in 1925 and came of age during the Shoah. He could not live in a world in which God allows children to die. He rejected the idea of a personal God, because it left him, and his congregation, too vulnerable to the question of why all this evil exists, and happens to good people. So he came up with something different. Something possibly radical to our ears, but perhaps not so radical within the kaleidoscope of Jewish God-concepts.
I’ll illustrate with a story. When Rabbi Schulweis died, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, the current senior rabbi at VBS, went into the Day School to talk to kids about his death. And about his life. And he did it in a Schulweisian way. So he asks the kids, “What is a noun?” They responded aptly: It is a person, a place or a thing. “Most of us think of God as a noun,” he continued. “A somebody. In a someplace. There to look out for us, and take care of us.” And they all nodded their heads. Then he asked, “What is a verb?” Something you do! And then he pulled a Schulweis turn. “Suppose the word God is not a noun. But a verb. What if God is stuff that we do? What if God is the stuff that we do that is really important? If that were true, what stuff would you have to be doing to be doing God?” Hands shot up as if they were theology students. “Feeding the hungry! Respecting one’s parents! Praying!” Why? “Because it makes people feel better. And it makes life meaningful. And it connects you with your people and community.” Exactly. To Rabbi Schulweis, that was God. The beauty is that this approach is universal enough to encompass the wide variety of Jews, people, and believers, but also specific enough to require mitzvah, and doing God as Jews. Not because God, the being, commands it per se. But because mitzvot is how Jews God, as a verb.
Rabbi Schulweis also showed that this conception of a God also has the greatest stickiness and the greatest chance of gaining adherents. Rabbi Feinstein told me that once Rabbi Schulweis was interviewed by Krista Tippett for the “On Being” program. He described a class where he wrote two columns on the blackboard. On column A, a list like this: God is merciful. God is just. God feeds the hungry. God cares for the sick. And he asked for a show of hands, “Who believes this list?” Very few hands went up.
Then he pointed to Column B, which had phrases like this: “Extending mercy is Godly.” Yes! “Doing justice is Godly.” Yes! “Feeding the hungry is Godly.” “Curing the sick is Godly.” Hands shot up! Rabbi Schulweis did not invent this. Maimonides, the Rambam from the 12th Century, popularized it. Whatever we try to say about God is not true, because it limits that which should be limitless. But what we do in order to be, to live, Godly? That list is endless. And people really believe it!
Can you believe in this God? The God of the gentle touch of friends who came to comfort a mourner? Can you worship a God of a loving husband who touches his wife when she is in pain? Whether or not you believe it…can you do it?
Here is the third theology. And, remember, this is three of hundreds, thousands of workable adult theologies. This one is for me the most wondrous. It comes from Micha Goodman, who is one of the leading writers, thinkers, and builders of Jewish life today in Israel. I have had the great blessing of learning with at the Hartman Institute. This theology has two parts. The first is a paradox. The second is a paradigm.
First, the paradox. And I promise to go into this more deeply in a class I will be teaching this fall on faith, belief and God. Here it is. If you really believe in God, religion makes no sense. And if you really believe in religion, then God makes no sense. Or, at least, God is a very small thing. Confused? Think about it. If God were real and great, and transcendent, other, beyond, Creator of the Universe, and a commander of humanity—would that God care whether I shake my lulav forward first rather than back? The greater your conception of God is, the sillier the trappings of religion look. And the reverse is true. If you really believed in religion, in the specifics of religious practice as themselves having celestial import…if God cares about all that, how great could God be? In that construct, haven’t we really replaced God with ritual? Are we not worshipping ultimately small things, rather than a great God?
The more I think about this paradox, the more true it is for me. But it is a confounding truth. Because what do you do with it once you enter into it?
Here is the paradigm. Micha teaches it through the prophet Jeremiah, who taught that the question of religion is not God’s presence, but rather the people’s presence. God is not shokhen, dwelling in the mishkan, because we did something. God is mashkin, making us dwell, because of what we aspire to be. Religion is not that you will appease God because you prayed. Religion is that you might change yourself if you pray. Religion is not that God will be beckoned. You can’t beckon God. With a sacrifice? Or a prayer? But you can summon yourself.
Here is Micha’s theology. When religion, and belief or worship in God does not cultivate spirituality, but rather shuts it down, you’re worshipping the wrong God. When religion closes your heart rather than opens it, it is the wrong God. For Micha, salvation does not come from above. It comes from below. Don’t listen to the demagogues saying that God is here, therefore you are protected. What guarantees our protection is not the quality of our rituals, but of our sense of what is just. Justice replaces rituals as having ultimate import. Through rituals, Jewish rituals, you may connect with God and Judaism. I do it too. But it is not your bond with God that will guard you. God is not going to come and be present because you prayed. But you might be present! And you might be a bit more just. And more alert to the world around you.
Our childhood theology (which I learned also) is that God is powerful. And so our relationship with a powerful God will save us. Serve God and be saved. Micha says “no.” It is your relationship with the powerless, not the powerful, that guards you. The orphan. The widow. The stranger. The lonely.
You want a theology? Live your life in such a way that everyone who comes into contact with you is a bit less lonely because you were present. That’s God. Don’t think up. Think down. Think across. Think differently. And act on it.
Hopefully some of these ideas normalized the doubts you may be harboring about what to do with God in religion. Maybe it opened up some pathways, both for belief and action. I want very much for these ideas to continue throughout the year. And I want to share with you where I stand, now, as I synthesize these and other theologies.
To accomplish both goals, consider this. I am going to share with you now my theology. In about a hundred words. It is what I believe, or reckon with, today. But it is fluid, and if I wrote this in a few months, it would be different. In fact, this is an evolved version of something I wrote this past year in response to a prompt from a colleague. It is a current snapshot of my God-struggling, of my attempt to bridge Jewishness and grand religion that matters with a God who is not made small in the process. After the holidays, I am going to open up a digital portal for all of you to share your theologies. I’m going to ask you what you believe, in one hundred words. It will be a living portal, on which we can read one another’s beliefs, and perhaps even comment on them, and learn from the discourse. You may share that you resonate with one or more of the theologies I shared today. Or you may be fulfilled and enriched by some of the theologies I challenged today, and that is fine too. If you come to shul to appease God, and to summon, God bless you. That is Jewish, too. And to quote Rabbi Donniel Hartman, sometimes we have to believe in the thing that gets us through the day.
I will teach a three-part series on believing, starting in November. And I hope that for those of you here today, and who participate in some way moving forward, we can put our heads and minds together to revisit God, to recapture God, to do God even if we struggle with what we believe in about God. To be comfortable identifying the God we don’t believe in, to admit it, and to orient ourselves, with purpose and dignity, towards a life of God we do believe we are called to live.
Here is my theology in one hundred words. I believe in a God. In God. More than I believe that God commands, I believe that God has a commanding voice. It is heard through our texts, our nation's narrative, and through all of humanity's shared consciousness. The voice commands us universally, to care for earth and her inhabitants. All of them. And the voice commands us particularly, to care for Torah and build a Jewish life worthy of existence. There are rewards for living aspiring to Godliness. And there are deficits to eschewing such a life. They come not from the heavens, or from earthly courts, but rather from an internal calibration. From the gap between what one experienced and accomplished in life, and what one could have. Living with mitzvot, attuned to Godliness, is not slavishness. It is loving devotion. We fail at it almost as much as we succeed. We stay committed because the bond is that dear. I believe in God. And I believe that God was at Sinai. But more importantly, I know that we were at Sinai. And we listened.
As those one hundred words sit with you, and you think about your own vision, remember, I am still in process, as are you. If you entered my mind as I prayed, you’d see a swirling storm constantly shifting with pristine images that seem to work and make sense, but only for a minute. They are fleeting. If you came to me in the middle of my prayers, whatever you think you saw, the little secret is that inside I am whispering, or even shouting, Hal’vai. If it could only be so. Aspiring. We could be Hal’vai Jews together. Hal’vai that we were Hal’vai Jews together. Because above us all hovers a slogan. Zehirut, Kan Bonim. It is a reminder to myself and to all of you. Careful. Belief is a work in progress.