15th Elul: Which God do you not believe in?

Elul 15 23rd August

A discussion among my colleagues – “What does one say when someone says to you “Rabbi, I don’t believe in God””

One answer – “I always ask them which God they don’t believe in”.

My teacher Rabbi Dr Jonathan Magonet used to bemoan the fact that so many Jews give up serious Jewish education at bar/bat mitzvah. They had, he used to say, a thirteen year old god. And as they grew and matured, their idea of God was frozen in time, adolescent and unbelievable.

Jews are the people of Israel – literally the ones who struggle with God. We are not required (despite the Maimonidean doctrine) to believe in God. Indeed earliest rabbinic Judaism was not so much interested in what people believed about divinity, but talked instead about shared narratives. Slightly later we have the extraordinary rabbinic midrash on the verse in Jeremiah (16:11) “They have forsaken Me and not kept my Torah”   – “If only they had forsaken Me but kept my Torah!” (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 5-7th Century)

Rabbinic Judaism is far more interested in how people behave, in the keeping of mitzvot, in action rather than in belief.

Since the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai on the way from slavery in Egypt to freedom in their ancestral land, Jews are a people who are commanded – who are under a chiyyuv, and obligation – and whose live are traditionally framed by the observance of mitzvot.

Of course the idea of commandments does somewhere require there to be a commander, but while we may have an historic metzaveh in our texts, the doing of mitzvot is in and of itself integral to our religious life. So for example Rabbi David Polish wrote that “When a Jew performs one of the many life acts known as mitzvot to remind themselves of the moments of encounter, what was only episodic becomes epochal, what was only a moment in Jewish history becomes eternal in Jewish life”[i]  His examples of the lighting of shabbat candles or of sitting at a Pesach seder are some of the examples he gives of our connecting with Jews across the world and across time.  The meaning and purpose of mitzvah for him is in part a way of sharing history and experiences across Jewish people hood, something that strengthens us in the world, and that momentarily allows us to transcend the mundane into the spiritual. 

There are many rabbinic names and descriptors for God. There are ways of understanding God not as a noun but as a verb – we are not tied to a thirteen year old god, some kind of supernatural being to whom we have to speak in stilted and formalised language. My very favourite name for God is “haMakom” – literally “the place”. Not a geographical location but a space where things can happen.

Israel – Jews – are named for struggling with God. Struggling with the ideas, the ethical demands, the behaviours that are required of us to be in covenant with God. The struggle is ongoing. If you find it hard to believe in the God of your childhood, then it is up to you to search the texts and find God with whom you can have a dialogue.


[i] ” Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle, ed. Simeon J. Maslin [New York: CCAR Press, 1979]

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