RH 2 Sermon – Hashem
The author Christopher Hitchens, who passed away in 2011, wrote a bestseller called G-d is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. He claimed that we’d be better off without any religion, writing, “Religion has run out of justification. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important in the world.”
With urbanization, education, and advances in science and technology, religion is certainly declining in America, with “nones” (people with no stated religion) being the quickest-growing religious demographic.
On the other hand, a national survey from 2016 by the Pew Research Center indicated that religion does matter. There are still no openly atheist or nonreligious members of Congress. 62% of US adults said it is important to them that the President has strong religious beliefs, down from 72% ten years ago, but a significant majority nonetheless. Among Republicans, 74% say it’s important that the President has strong religious beliefs, and among Democrats, it’s 53%. No self-proclaimed atheist has ever been elected President, and it’s unlikely one will any time soon.
There has been this uneasy, often strident division between reason and faith, science and religion, as if acceptance of one means rejection of the other. There are ardent atheists who have found a new and receptive audience, with best-selling books, deriding religion as the source of war, terror, and superstition. They see believers as naïve and dangerous.
On the other side, there are the fundamentalists, and their growing population of converts, also with best-sellers, who read the Bible as a science textbook and the literal word of G-d.They view atheism, humanism, and secularism as the causes of immorality and depravity in the world.
History renders both of those positions false. The Crusades, the Inquisition, present-day religious terrorism and oppression of women have more than demonstrated the dark side of religion. Communism, the regimes of Stalin and Mao, have taught us that atheists, too, can be responsible for appalling crimes against humanity.
You may think that atheists and religious fundamentalists are at opposite ends of the spectrum, but in fact, they share something essential in common. They both take religion literally, and in doing so they misconstrue and distort what it means to be religious.
Somewhere in the middle there are those who suggest that reason and faith are not at odds with each other, that science and religion are not opposing disciplines but rather different perspectives on life. Their books are not on the best-seller lists. As the voices on the extremes become louder, it is time for the middle to find its voice.
In Cold War America, atheism meant communism. G-d was part of the arsenal to fight the great enemy. So in 1954 a law was passed changing the national motto of the US from “E Pluribus Unum (from the many-one) to “In G-d we trust.” In 1956 the words “Under G-d” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. We were then in a cold war with the Soviet Union. But now, atheism is no longer our enemy, religious fundamentalists, like ISIS, are.
The US once posited G-d as a weapon against communism. But if you think, therefore, that atheism might be a good weapon to fight religion, think again. History teaches that across all times and places, there is great human yearning for religion, a deep desire to believe.
What is the voice in the middle between strident atheism and religious fanaticism? As a Reconstructionist Jew, I embrace doubt and skepticism. Everyone experiences doubts, especially in the realm of religion, where things are measured qualitatively – it’s inherently pseudo-scientific. But it is onlythrough doubt that we can ever arrive at the kind of active believing which characterizes religious life. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, wrote, “It is not within the province of the movement to pronounce any one theology (a belief about G-d) as truer than another. All that Reconstructionism stresses is that a Jew, to be a Jew in the full sense of the term, should have a theology in which he believes with all his heart, soul, and mind.” B’chol levavcha, u’v’chol nafshecha, u’v’chol meodecha. For Kaplan, doubt was just fine – it’s what Jews have always done. But that doubt should lead us to an invigorated faith in a G-d-concept that jives with us, that can help us in times of need and inspire us to grow and become more divine. I’ll say more about Kaplan’s theology in a few minutes, but now I’d like to trace a short history of “doubt” in the Jewish tradition.
In the popular hymn Yigdal, we sing about G-d sending a messiah to usher in the end of days. Yet the ancient rabbis taught that if you are planting a tree and someone tells you that the messiah has come, first finish planting the tree. Doubt is ironically at the core of Jewish faith.
During the time of the Second Temple, the early teachers of the Torah helped to define Judaism through doubt’s questions. They read the Sacred Scriptures and had misgivings about some of its claims. At that time, Hellenism and Greek rationalism permeated the known world, including Israel. The Jewish scholars were influenced by those values. They added layers of meaning to the Torah that weren’t there before, but have since come to be regarded as integral parts of the Jewish faith. They used reason to allow tradition to evolve.
Even earlier, sometime between 600 and 400BCE, someone took an ancient near-Eastern folk story about suffering and faith and transformed it into a narrative about doubt – It became the Book of Job. The Israelite author re-imagined the ancient tale as a story of belief pushed past its limits, into anger, revolt, and doubt. Job is the quintessential tale of chutzpabefore G-d. In the pre-Israelite folktale, Job lost everything and suffered quietly, waiting faithfully until G-d showed up and gave him riches, new loved ones, and a long life. But the biblical Job was not so resigned when the same events occurred. In our version, Job reacted angrily to his friends’ insistence that G-d is good and just and has the power to prevent his terrible circumstances. Job even confronted G-d about it directly! Job questioned the traditional notion of reward and punishment.
God’s response is to cite the mysteries of the universe, but never suggests that all will be made right in the afterlife. In the Hebrew Bible, the Tanach, there is no afterlife. This life is all we have, and it is blatantly unfair. Job decided that despite it all, there is a G-d! Job is a sacred text, but it is also a parable of doubt, and of chutzpah. As philosopher Walter Kaufman taught: “The only theism worthy of our respect believes in G-d not becauseof the way the world is made, but in spite of it.”
In the 12thcentury, Moses Maimonides, one of Judaism’s defining philosophers, argued that when ancient information, whether from Aristotle or Jewish tradition, is contradicted by the growth of a scientific discipline, the ancient information must be discarded in favor of new truth. Maimonides spoke against astrology, which saw the future in the stars, despite the fact that many Talmudic sages endorsed it. He wrote, “It is not proper to abandon knowledge that has been verified by proof…A man should never cast reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back.”
Maimonides did not believe in a G-d who could speak and act. He rejected the descriptions of G-d in human form and claimed that nothing could be said about G-d – nothing at all. The most that we could do, with our limited human comprehension, is to say “what G-d is not.”
In mid-18thcentury Germany, Moses Mendelssohn, whose thought eventually helped to shape modern Judaism, taught, “Among all the prescriptions and ordinances of the Mosaic law, there is not a single one which says: You shall believe or not believe. They all say: You shall do or not do. Nowhere does it say: Believe O Israel; do not doubt…belief and doubt are not determined by our faculty of desire…but by our knowledge of truth and untruth.”
Thanks to the telescope, the microscope, and MRI’s that image the brain, we have more knowledge about the universe and ourselves. But there are some questions that even these tools cannot answer. Why am I here? What is the meaning of life? (the Jewish consensus is to bring more G-dliness into the world) Why did my loved one die? Why must I battle this illness? We might think for a moment that the best answer to these questions should have the word G-d in it. I don’t think it always does. Sometimes “I don’t know” is the best answer. It recognizes that there is no good reason. It isn’t fair. And then it can offer the best response – an understanding and caring presence.
Assuming that there must be a good reason for human suffering is not only bad psychology, but also bad theology, according to Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. What kind of G-d would let evildoers flourish and cause untold anguish, illness, and death to innocent children, good men and women? What kind of G-d would send earthquakes and hurricanes, cause coalmines to collapse and bridges to fail? Certainly not a G-d that Kaplan could believe in with “all his heart, soul, and mind.”
Kaplan rejected supernaturalism because it implies suspending the laws of nature. The concepts of reward and punishment just didn’t jive with our lived experience. As such, he was the first rabbi to come up with a “naturalistic” (as opposed to supernatural) understanding of G-d. Kaplan’s program for reconstructing Judaism focused on the reconciliation of religion and science, of reason and faith. He sought to preserve the G-d idea within Judaism while adapting it to meet the needs of his 20thcentury generation.
As a part of Kaplan’s naturalistic philosophy, he embraced an idea of G-d called predicate theology. A predicate is a verb, so predicate theology means seeing G-d in various kinds of actions. So rather than saying, G-d heals the sick, Kaplan flips the sentence to say, “healing the sick is G-dly.” For Kaplan,acts of compassion and deeds of lovingkindess are G-dly. When hope triumphs over fear and despair, that hope is divine. When people wrestle joy and laughter from the midst of difficulty, that joy is holy. When people struggle for what’s right when everything conspires against them, that impulse to righteousness is sacred. For Kaplan, justice, compassion, and forgiveness are G-dly, and we are the agents and vessels.
About 200 years ago in Poland, the Kotzker Rebbe asked his students, “Where do you find G-d?” “G-d is everywhere!” replied a student. “No!” The Kotzker Rebbe explained, “G-d is only where you let G-d in.”
When Charles Darwin was asked at the end of his life, what was his most extraordinary experience, he answered, the rainforest. Darwin said, “No one can stand in the solitude unmoved and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath in his body.” But it is not just the rainforest that evokes such reverence. You can feel it looking out at a beautiful sunset, or into the emptiness of a quiet desert, or standing at the top of a mountain. I feel it every time I stand with a bride and groom under the huppah, watch parents pronounce the name of their new baby, or hear them speak to their emerging adolescent at a Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
Kaplan didn’t believe that some supernatural force intervenes in the laws of nature. These ordinary moments can be seen as miraculous, not because they are contrary to nature but because they are wonders and miracles of nature. No one can stand in these moments unmoved and not feel that there is more to man and woman than the mere breath in their bodies.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a disciple of Kaplan, put it bluntly. “I believe in G-dliness, but I do not believe in G-d as a person. When I suffer, who comforts me? Who consoles me? You do. My people do. Does G-d console and comfort me? The answer is yes. Through you.”
Our High Holy Day liturgy envisions G-d as a King who sits on high – Melech El yoshev al kise ram v’nisa, a G-d who writes and seals our fate in the book of life. But Jewish philosophers throughout the centuries have asked us to take those descriptions not as a literal picture of an old man in the heavens determining our future, but rather as a poetic metaphor. Job’s holier-than-thou friends sought to be defenders of that kind of G-d – a Zeus figure who sits on his throne rewarding and punishing. But Job silenced his friends’ theological cruelty and personal insensitivity. He questioned such a notion of G-d, and the Bible agreed with Job. Job’s friends received G-d’s wrath and had to repent, while “the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.”
So if you are sitting in this sanctuary and you question whether there is a G-d who actually listens to and answers prayers, who rewards the good and punishes the wicked; if you don’t believe in an afterlife as a place with white robes and harp music, you are in good Jewish company. Another nationwide Pew survey found that 88% of Evangelicals and 86% of Mormons are absolutely certain there is a god. Catholics are at 64%, and only 37% of Jews feel the same way. If you are among the 63% of Jews who are uncertain, you don’t need to reject all faith because of the way some people have trivialized and distorted what it means to be religious. Find the middle voice.
Religion offers us something precious. It gives us the poetry, the drama, and ritual that help us journey through life. When we despair, feel all alone in our suffering, Judaism gives us community. When we are bereft, when grief overwhelms, Judaism gives us words – Kaddish. When we are moved by a deep joy that language is not large enough to contain, Judaism gives us speech – shehecheyanu. And after all, it’s better to practice Judaism because atheists don’t get any days off for holidays!
A distraught parent once told me that her son no longer wanted to come to synagogue because he didn’t believe in G-d. I responded, “Tell him, what really matters is to discover what it is that you do believe in, and the synagogue is a better place than most to do just that.”
What is it that we believe? What drives us? What matters? How do we make sense of the world? What is worthy of our devotion? The synagogue is a better place than most to look for the answers. Let us not reject religion because of what some have done to co-opt and misrepresent what it means to be a religious person. Let us find the middle voice of a faith that can sustain our world and us in the year ahead.