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18 Jewish Ways of Believing in God

Have you ever been to the Grand Tetons, our National Park in Wyoming? I did a few years back on a family road trip. It was magnificent. The jagged peaks of the Grand Tetons mountain range, rise up more than 7,000 feet above the valley floor, in a way that is just stunning. The lush green fields are beautiful, as are the rainbows of wildflowers that paint the meadows in vivid colors. Noisy streams cascade down the rocky canyons to fill larger lakes at the foot of the range. After driving around in the Park for a few days, I became so overwhelmed by the beauty that I had to pull off the road.

Overwhelmed by the Beauty of Nature
Grabbing my camera, I jumped out of the van and ran down to the winding Snake River. I was overcome with emotion. My heart beat rapidly, my breathing quickened, and, standing there, I began to shed tears of joy. The words of the Biblical Psalmist rang out in my head – (I’m a rabbi, what did you expect) – M’lo chol ha’aretz k’vodo – the whole earth is filled with God’s majestic grandeur. I was in awe. To paraphrase the 20th century Jewish thinker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, I was in awe of creation; I was filled with radical wonder at its magnificence. At that moment, I had no doubt that this world had a Creator, for I saw the Creator’s illustrious splendor before my very eyes. Mah nora hamaqom hazeh – how awesome was this place!

Have you ever been moved by the radiance of nature, a mountain, an ocean, or a beautiful sunset with a loved one by your side? Did you feel a sense of radical wonder? Did you feel “spiritual”?

I think spirituality is the “sense that we are all part of something greater.” Many of us feel astounding spirituality within nature. Which leads to the question: Is that God?

Personal Spiritual Connections among a Bunch of Addicts
Another story. Years ago I led retreats for Jews recovering from alcoholism and addictions. Participants learned and prayed together, confessed weaknesses to one another, and cried the reaffirming tears of recovery. Strangers at the start of the weekend, they grew close as they shared stories of pain and failure, of shattered dreams and broken lives.

At the end of each retreat, we gathered for a friendship circle. Interspersed between songs of hope, participants reflected on their experience on the retreat. A few described their interactions with others as being “holy.” In fact, a 20th century German-Jewish philosopher named Martin Buber taught that when two people place themselves so completely into a relationship, to truly understand and “be there” with each other, without masks and without pretenses, then God is in the moment. That Jewish recovery retreat became one, united by concern for each other. For them, God wasn’t some guy with a white beard sitting on a throne in high. God was a nearby Presence, felt in each encounter.

Have you ever had a feeling of spirituality borne within the intimacy of an encounter with another person? It might have been an interaction over a cup of coffee, sharing life’s stories, or the connection that happened while taking a walk with an old friend. Or with someone you deeply care for, truly making love.

So many of us have felt spirituality in those kind of human encounters. But one might ask: is that God?

Time to Talk about God
It is time we be upfront with each other. And speak about the three-letter word, which keeps coming up but that we continuously stop short of discussing: G-O-D! It is time to talk about God.

Let’s start with short poll. I’ll give you three options; you each may vote once: I believe in God. I don’t believe in God. I’m not sure about God. Everyone please vote, but only once: Raise your hand if you believe in God. (Please lower your hand.) Now raise your hand if you don’t believe in God. And raise your hand now if you are not sure.

[At that service, 60% raised their hands professing a belief in God, 30% not believing in God, and 10% not sure. These results are an anomaly from my experiences with other groups. It has been suggested that few would want to declare a lack of belief in God before their Rabbi, with their neighbors surrounding them, at synagogue, on Rosh Hashana. Usually about 2/3 of the group are unsure or non-believers.]

That’s a pretty interesting response on a day ostensibly devoted to thanking God for our blessings, and for asking God to write us into the metaphoric Book of Life. You would think it would be a given that people who will spend so much time in worship services would be God-believers. Yet as our poll evidenced, so many of us are not, or at least we are not sure.

I spend so much of my time as a rabbi speaking with people about their relationships with God (or lack thereof). The topic arises in the planning of a wedding when a bride or groom will ask, “How many times during the ceremony do you mention God?” It arises in difficult times when people ask why God “took” the 19 year old boy, or what was God’s plan in “giving cancer” to a kind, loving 48 year old husband and father of two?

What God Don’t You Believe In?
I often ask people who don’t believe in God, which God don’t they believe in. One congregant recently responded, “You know, God in the Torah who rewards the good people and punishes the bad. All knowing. All powerful. All Good. I just can’t believe in God because too many bad things happen to good people and too many bad people get away with murder.”

I get it. In fact I too don’t believe in God as literally depicted in the Torah: A God who punishes people with illness, who always rewards the righteous in ways we can see. My observations do not support this idea. That God-concept is like a youngster’s understanding of his parent. Like back when my kids were young and thought that I, Daddy, was the smartest man in the world, that everything I did was planned and perfect. (Oh, how I sometimes miss those days.) As my kids have grown they have developed a more nuanced view of me, which I’m glad has allowed us to develop a richer, more realistic, closer relationship.

Similarly, our Jewish people has grown up from the early days of the Torah, and our relationship with God similarly has evolved to become more mature.

New Jewish understandings have emerged that are at once more sophisticated while still embedded in Jewish tradition. This host of Jewish God concepts just might entice you to rethink your beliefs or lack thereof.

18 Different Jewish Views of God
Why rethink your belief in God? Because a relationship with God can give us strength, courage, perspective, patience, and an appreciation for something beyond ourselves. Because the very act of wrestling again and again with our beliefs can empower us. And because over the last 50 years, Jewish thinkers have articulated more than 18 different Jewish views of God, which are radically dissimilar from each other, and from the “reward and punishment” view of God.

We have talked about Abraham Joshua Heschel’s radical sense of wonder as one way to realizing God’s presence, and we touched on Martin Buber’s “personal relationships” theology.

Now, have you ever considered the “God is an idea” theology, that God is a well-constructed ideal against which we can measure our actions? That’s from Jewish thinker Eric Fromm.

Have you heard about the feminist theology, challenging the notion that God was not present during the Holocaust? Scholar Melissa Raphael teaches that the attempts by women to take care of others and to cover the bodies of the suffering restored God’s presence to Auschwitz.

Often I connect with a concept of God as the totality of all the forces in life – gravity, centrifugal force, of the forces that keep us breathing and moving forward. Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan’s God is not supernatural, yet is still very real.

Rabbi/author Marcia Prager and others have developed a God-concept from the name of God – Yud Hey Vav Hey. We usually pronounce this name “Adonai” but that is just a euphemism since we do not know how to actually say God’s four-letter name. God’s name – Yud Hey Vav Hey – is actually a collection of three verbs – haya – was, hoveh – is, and y’hiyeh – will be. So to those God-thinkers, God is that which was, is and will be forevermore. God is Existence. Which turns on its head the question of whether one has to believe. Existence just is and so are we.

Then there’s Limited God theology, which explains that while God created the universe, God limited Godself to make room for humanity, and thus cannot act in the world to change it. If you like that, check out Milton Steinberg.

And then there is Kipnes “Internet-analogy” theology, in which God is liken to the Internet, an endless source of wisdom, strength and connectivity. (That one hasn’t made it into the Top 10 theologies list… but it is still young.)

This smorgasbord of Jewish spiritual beliefs points us back to why we are here today. Is it tradition? Or because today is a holy day?, Are we here to count blessings or to ask forgiveness? Or for for introspection, for the kids, or because the music is inspiring and the rabbi’s sermons are thought-provoking… Or as just an excuse to buy a new outfit?

No matter how we interpret our time together we cannot escape the prevalent presence of God in our services. God’s name is written in our machzor (prayerbook). Does that mean God is among us?

God Lessons from a Funeral
Last week, sadly, I officiated at the funeral of a 19 year old. A wonderful, loving, caring boy, Josh Isaac’s recent heroin drug addiction sabotaged his blessed, beautiful life. His parents begged the assembled to remember his essential goodness, yet simultaneously to wipe out the scourge of addiction. Said his mom Joyce, “There is no such thing as recreational use of heroin.” One moment you are enjoying yourself. The next you are hooked.

At the funeral, I asked the 450+ mourners to hold hands. (Let’s do that now. Take the hands of those to your left and right.) Why? For the same reason I had them do it. Because Martin Buber said we could sense God’s presence through personal relationships. Because Mordecai Kaplan believed that we nurture a God-like compassion through our own hands. Our physical connection created a holy place for the community of mourners, just like now. At that moment, even those who were sure they did not believe in God, hoped and prayed nonetheless.

These many ways to think about and experience God are all Jewish, and are available for you to explore and incorporate into your spiritual life. In fact, Rabbi Julia Weisz and I are teaching a twice monthly, Sunday morning course called “God, Belief, and Disbelief.” Learn more about it in the Adult Learning postcards outside.

What’s the Difference Between Being Spiritual and Being Religious?
Let’s do another poll. This time may vote as many times as you want. Raise your hand if you consider yourself spiritual. Raise your hand if you consider yourself religious. Raise your hand if you think you can be spiritual and yet not believe in God.

Remember, I think spirituality is the sense that we are all part of something greater. Spirituality can lead to behaviors and thought-processes, which connect us with a larger reality. Spirituality can but does not necessarily include a connection to a higher power or divine.

Now religion is a collection of beliefs, rituals, and prayers intended to help people retain a feeling of connection to an intensive spiritual encounter. Religion aims to connect us with our spirituality. For Jews, our Torah teaches that generations ago, our people – the children of Israel, the Jewish people – had a spiritual encounter with the Holy One that embedded within us a clear sense of who we were and how we should live forevermore. Jewish rituals are intended to lead us back to the central experience of the Exodus from Egypt and our later spiritual encounter at Mt. Sinai. Jewish religious prayers return us to these spiritual events, as well as our arrival into the Promised Land, and our covenant with God.

How Religion Sometimes Ruins One’s Spirituality
So why do so many people say they are spiritual but not religious? Religion can be its own worst enemy. Sometimes religion just gets in the way of the spiritual quest. When the religious rituals become overly dry and ritualistic, they tend to suck life out of a potentially spiritual moment. When religious leaders become overly concerned about saying just the right prayer or about standing in exactly the right position when they pray, our traditions can strangle the spirituality right out of us.

I don’t believe that God cares how big our sukkah is or how long we sound the tekiah gedolah on the shofar. Nor does God does ask us – as some literalists believe God asked Abraham – to sacrifice our children, either on a mountaintop or by strapping a suit of dynamite around their waists.

I do believe that God cares that we use our minds and our hearts to nurture compassion, pursue justice and make peace. I am drawn toward those ritual actions and prayerful words that deepen our connection with Yud Hey Vav Hey, the totality of existence.

And I believe passionately in the ability of people to gain purpose, strength, and consolation from their relationship with God. Why?

When I Talked to God and God Answered
Because it has happened to me.

One final story. Many years ago something occurred in my family, which required prompt, critical decision-making, but the crucial response was beyond my capability. Anxious to guide and protect my family, I heeded the counsel of Nachman of Bratslav, a 18th century rebbe. Rebbe Nachman advocated for hitbodedut, for speaking to God – crying out to God if necessary – in a normal way “as you would with a best friend.” So I opened my heart and began talking to God in the same way that I am talking to you now. I discovered through my conversation with God a new voice and unparalleled strength, just what I needed to help my family. I felt as if God had heard my plea for guidance.

Have you ever called out in a time of need and felt like something, someone, was listening?

Was that really God? For me it was. And perhaps for many of you.

Yes, the idea and reality of God are complex but they are worth it. The investment of your time and attention might introduce or reintroduce you to another or even a more sophisticated God concept.

Perhaps like I did at the Grand Tetons and in my time of personal need, and like the recovering addicts did on the retreat, you too will break through to a new spirituality or religiosity. Of course, Cantor Doug, Rabbi Julia and I, and all our interns, are always here to listen to you, to help you with your God questions, issues, or disillusionment. Together, let’s explore the human desire for connection with God.

This New Year, let’s each get in touch with our spiritual side. Now that would truly make it a Shana Tova uMetuka – a sweet and good new year. The invitation is on the table. Let’s walk that road together. L’Shana Tova.

Words of Thanks

My Rosh Hashana Morning Sermon in 5774/2013.

Sermons are always result from the collaboration with a group of people. I thank my wife, Michelle November, for her brilliant editing skills and unfailingly on target suggestions. I thank my practice partner Rabbi Julia Weisz (also of Or Ami), whose insightful comments helped bring the written text to vocal expression. I am indebted to (and slightly irritated by) my friend Rabbi Ronald Stern (of Stephen S. Wise Temple) for honestly telling me that my intended sermon needed a lot of work; that constructive criticism led me to shelve that one in favor of this sermon, a message I really wanted to share. (I only wish I had sent it to him much earlier so that I would have had more time to write a new sermon.)

So many people introduced me to the thinking of the theologians reviewed here, including my teachers – Drs. Eugene Borowitz, David Ellenson, Larry Hoffman and Leonard Kravitz of HUC-JIR; author Rabbis Rifat Soncino and Daniel Syme; my Facebook friends – Rabbis Jordie Gerson, Heather Miller, and Kari Hofmaister Tuling who helped crowdsource this sermon; and my Institute for Jewish Spirituality teachers  – Rachel Cowen, Nancy Flam, Myriam Klotz, Marc Margolius, Jonathan Slater, and Sheila Weinberg, who collectively led me into deeper connection with the Holy One and helped me understand how to live Reb Nachman’s hitbodedut.

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