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]

Vayetzei: The Importance of Awe

Jacob awoke from his sleep and said “Surely God is in this place and I, I did not know”. He has a sense of wonder, and he expresses it:  “How full of awe is this place. This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven”

The phrase “Ma nora ha’makom ha’zeh, ein zeh ki im beit Elohim” (How full of awe is this place, this is none other than the house of God”) is part of the stonework on the exterior of the synagogue I   grew  up in, and as one walked in and looked up, that is the sentiment one felt – even though it is situated in what is now inner city Bradford, on a less than salubrious road.

The religious message I received as a child was bound up in this synagogue, in the community of people and in the building they worshipped in. It was a two-fold message- Firstly that we can encounter God wherever we are, for God is always ‘in this place’ as are we, and often we do not notice how close God can be to us.

Secondly it was made clear that awe is a necessary instinct;  God is beyond our comprehension or reason, and we must respect that reality. We have to live with not being able to control God or demand from God or expect to understand God.

When we pray, what are we really doing?

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was a scholar, theologian and social activist. He wrote “the predicament of prayer is twofold: not only do we not know how to pray, we do not know what to pray for.  We have lost the ability to be shocked.”

Heschel also suggested that we have overemphasized intellectual ideas when we think about religion, and that we also overemphasise religious belief; For Heschel religion is more like a way of being in the world, a way of facing life and dealing with it.

In Judaism, ‘Believing’ is not the most important thing for a religious Jew, but Awe, or the ability to be shocked is the fundamental requirement.  The bible talks of the religious person as one who is yirat Adonai, or yirat shamayim – in awe of God or in awe of heaven. Without a sense of awe, without the ability to be shocked or moved by what we see around us, we can never really move on to encounter God, or develop a sense of faith.

I have lost count of the number of times that I have been told in my rabbinate that someone doesn’t really believe in God;  the number of apologies that somehow come my way. I never quite know as a rabbi how to help people to believe in God if that is what they think they want, but what I am sure of is that the beginning of such a journey is Awe.

When Jacob first encounters God he notices how the place is filled with Awe, and he had not understood it. It takes time, and possibly even a certain vulnerability for us to open ourselves to noticing God.

Many of our services begin with the phrase “v’ani tefilati lecha Adonai eit ratzon” usually translated as “and as for me, let my prayer come before you God at a favourable time”, but it is more complex than that, meaning something more like and I am my prayer to you God at a favourable time”. We are in fact our own prayers – if only we would let ourselves be so. Rabbi Lionel Blue once wrote “Meeting God can be simple, but nothing can happen if we do not will it. If we seek God then God can be found. God will allow us to find God if we seek with all our will” (RSGB Machzor p 312)

 

One of the lessons from this sidra is how easy it is not to notice how close God can be to us if we do not choose to open ourselves to the possibility.  And we sometimes need help to do this. Beautiful places, whether natural or built by human beings, can help us catch the numinous. Too narrow a focus on what we are doing, our goals and aspirations, our desire not to look back – all can stop us being aware and in the moment.

The ability to be shocked, to notice and to understand the implications of what has become normalised – this is the skill we need to nurture. The ability to be moved by what we see and hear, rather than to blot it out or cover it with our own inner monologue. Jacob left his comfort zone when he left his home, and only then did he meet God. We may not need to leave our homes, but we too need to go out as he did – vayetzei – and begin to pay attention to all we have ignored.bradford interior

 

 

 

 

 

Ki Tetzei: whether you believe in the Metzaveh or not, you are not free to walk away from proper behaviour to others

The sidra of Ki Tetzei contains, according to Maimonides, 72 of the fabled 613 commandments in the Torah – on first reading the effect is of an enormous list of apparently haphazard rules ranging from family relationships to the treatment of a judicially executed corpse. From care for animals to cultic prostitution; from financial probity to cloth made from a mixture of wool and linen.

Throughout history Jewish scholars have tried to explain the unified theory of mitzvot; rather like with the laws of physics there is the sense that somehow there is an elegant rationale that, once found, will enlighten us about the world and its meaning. The best try (in my view) is that of Rabbi Pinchas b Hama who wrote (Devarim Rabbah 6:3) that “Wherever you go and whatever you do, pious deeds will accompany you. When you build a new house, make a parapet for the roof. When you make a door write the commandments on the doorposts; when you put on new garments consider from what they are made; when you reap your harvest and forget a sheaf, leave it for the widow, orphaned and the stranger, the vulnerable in your society”

In other words, every aspect of our daily life can be made holy through following these mitzvot – the mundane can be raised to the exceptional, the quality of our lives infinitely changed in these tiny regular incremental actions.

Many years ago studying with Rabbi Hugo Gryn zl I learned about the Shema, the prayer recited morning and evening of each day, for many people the defining prayer of Judaism. It speaks in the first line of the unity of God, and of the relationship of God and Jews. But before it does it demands something else of us – Shema – listen! Pay attention! Hear what is really important!

The first command in the prayer is to love God completely – with heart, spirit and physical strength. Then we are told that God’s commandments should be with us always, spoken of repeatedly to our children, talked about when we sit in our home, when we are walking outside, when we lie down, when we get up. They are to be written upon our doorposts so that going in and out of our homes we see and are reminded of the requirements of God. And in the Shema too we are told “ukshartam l’ot al yadecha, v’hayu l’totafot beyn eynecha” you shall hold fast to them as a sign upon your hands and they will be (reminders) before your eyes. The line has been understood to be the source of the practise of placing tefillin – small leather boxes containing some prayers – on the head and hand during the weekday morning prayer as an aid to remembering, but Rabbi Gryn had a different view – he understood it to say “in everything your hand touches and everything your eye sees you must respond to the requirements of God.”

If we really fulfil the commandment of ‘Shema’, then no part of our life is exempt from the dictates of holiness. We cannot be pious in the synagogue but not at home or at work. We cannot care about the humanity of the people we like but not that of those we dislike or disagree with. We cannot do the technical bare minimum to fulfil our obligations to society and consider our job well done. As another part of this sidra says – lo tuchal le’hitalem– You are not able to/ must not remain indifferent.

In this sidra too is the commandment to wear tzitzit – the knotted threads on the edges of some garments, most usually seen today on the tallit, which are the physical reminders that we have regular and routine obligations as Jews. Our obligation to love God is played out in our world – how we relate to others, how we care for the vulnerable, how we manage risk, how we nurture good values. The traditional unified theory of mitzvot is based on an unquestioned acceptance of the Metzaveh – the One who commands – that is God. In today’s world that understanding does not work so well – there are many who find such faith impossible or even undesirable. And yet the value of the system of mitzvot remains powerful – Judaism has never asked what you believe, but demands that you behave according to its belief. Lack of faith in God is no excuse for lack of proper behaviour towards others.