This sermon was delivered at Chicago Sinai Congregation on Yom Kippur 2009.
I want to speak with you this morning about that most widely used and most abused three-letter word in our language, spelled G-O-D. We must say the words “God,” “the Eternal One,” “Adonai,” and “Eloheinu” dozens of times over the course of these Holy Days. The question is: Can one doubt the existence of God and still be a good Jew?
It should come as no shock to you for me to acknowledge that almost all of us have our doubts about the existence of God. And there are others who, while they may be willing to acknowledge God’s existence, doubt whether God has any actual influence on their lives. They may be willing to admit that God is that unknowable Source that created the world at one time and may, in some also unknowable manner, sustain the world. But beyond that, most contemporary Jews essentially are humanists, meaning that we tend to believe that human and not divine values direct our lives. Especially interesting is the fact that this skepticism is trans-generational. There are many young people who express these same feelings. More than a few of our bar and bat mitzvah students will say to me privately that they are willing to go through the ceremony and, of course, the celebration, but they really don’t believe in God at all.
Belief in God has many challenges. When things are going well, it is pleasant to thank God. But then life has a way of smacking us in the face, and we start to doubt. Crises of faith are completely understandable, and the admission of such a crisis is, in no way, an irreligious or disloyal act. It is completely understandable that when, facing a severe calamity, such as the unexpected and fatal illness of a loved one, almost anyone would question whether God exists, whether God is really as powerful as the prayer book would have us believe, or whether God even cares, especially if he/she had prayed fervently for a positive outcome, and it did not come to pass. On a much more massive scale, just about every thinking Jew must question God’s existence in confronting the enormity of the Holocaust and God’s apparent silence.
So rather than just pretending that the state of Jewish belief is secure, let me address this issue squarely.
Any serious discussion of Judaism must begin with a discussion about God, and yet paradoxically, this is a subject that none of us know anything about. The great rabbi and philosopher Maimonides was incredibly honest when he wrote that people actually are not capable of knowing anything about God; that whatever God may be is completely beyond our finite comprehension. All we can know is what we believe about God.
Even something as basic as God’s existence cannot be proved. On the other hand, God’s existence cannot be disproved either. Therefore, all attempts to prove or disprove the existence of that which is unprovable are a waste of time.
This is why I have never cared much for “theology.” Serious discussion of God whether God exists is the work of a handful of philosophers of the seminaries and graduate schools. The rest of us form our own opinions concerning what we believe or don’t believe at a relatively early age and are usually content to retain them without much questioning for most of our lives, and therein may lie a big part of the problem. Unfortunately, far too many otherwise intelligent and well-educated adults cling to perhaps well-intentioned, but nevertheless naïve teachings about God.
So, can one doubt God’s existence and still be a good Jew? The answer to this question is: Definitely yes. One’s doubts about the existence of God should be no obstacle to our being a good Jew.
Judaism’s essence is expressed far more by deed than by creed. Doubt about the existence of God is no reason to deny the validity of Judaism as an ethical code and a way of life. Despite its ultimate goal of bringing humanity to the recognition of God and of universal moral law, Judaism stresses action far more than faith. The Talmud attributes to God a declaration which is probably unique among religious writings:
“Better that the they [the people of Israel] should abandon Me, but follow My laws”
(Jerusalem Talmud Haggigah 1:7)
Think about that for a moment. It is really a startling statement coming from the Talmud itself. “Better that the people of Israel should abandon God, but follow God’s laws”
According to Judaism’s most authoritative source, one definitely can be considered a good Jew while doubting God’s existence, so long as he or she observes the precepts of Judaism.
My intention is not to say that God is peripheral to Judaism, it is merely to emphasize that the value and excellence of Judaism can be appreciated and enacted independently of one’s belief in God. One may easily incorporate Judaism’s ideals into one’s daily life even if one doubts God’s existence, because Jewish principles are beneficial in and of themselves. A person definitely can be a good Jew and doubt God’s existence. In fact, without question, there are many very good Jews here today who are harboring serious doubts about where all these prayers are going.
However, the converse is not true: One who claims to believe in God but disregards Jewish ethical values and moral practices cannot be considered a good Jew. In fact, such a person cannot even claim to be a good human being. Both history and current events are filled with examples of supposed “true believers” whose daily conduct unfortunately demonstrates just how true this is.
No doubt most of you have read about the small group of rabbis in the Syrian Jewish community of New York, who were arrested over the summer for crimes of money laundering, which were connected to the illicit and completely illegal practice of trafficking in human organs.
I would imagine that you also remember the scandal of Agriprocessors, a large Kosher meat packing company, owned by Chasidic Jews, who not only played fast and loose with the laws for kosher slaughter, but also treated their employees, most of whom were illegal immigrants from Latin America, with utter disregard for their well-being, paying substandard wages, shorting their paychecks, denying them proper medical care, and many other abuses.
I am sorry to say that these people may observe all the minutiae of Jewish personal religious practices, but their callous disregard for the law and for basic rules of human decency stand in contradiction of that which they claim to believe. Lest you think that I am just picking on the Orthodox, I do need to state that there plenty of non-Orthodox Jewish unethical people, but least they do not seem to parade their religiosity.
We could just as well speak of whether one can be a good Christian if they participate in bombing abortion clinics, or whether one can be a good Muslim if he engages in acts of terrorism and murders innocent civilians. I am referencing these Jewish offenses this morning only because my subject specifically is about being a good Jew. Clearly, the offenders to which I have referred are not good Jews, and no one should pretend otherwise. And before leaving this sore subject, let me only emphasize this point: Just because one seemingly acts religious, or dresses religiously, does mean that such a person is actually a religious person or a good Jew.
One of the most amazing and powerful passages from Jewish tradition reads as follows: “If you observe My commandments and follow My instructions, then I am God. And if you do not…then, I am, one might say, not God at all.” Those who deny God’s existence most explicitly and tangibly are not the agnostics and atheists per se, but rather those whose personal conduct shows no sense of moral accountability. Whether one claims to believe in God means very little when that person’s ethical behavior contradicts their supposed beliefs.
A person who truly believes that God cares about ethical conduct; that God pays attention to personal practices and keeps score, as it were; I can’t imagine how such a person would ever habitually conduct himself in an immoral or unethical manner because he/she believes, and even knows, that God is watching. So when supposedly religious people act immorally, it shows very clearly that they really aren’t such true believers after all. They are just faking it.
We should try to keep in mind that G-O-D is a word, that our description of what we describe as God is the product of the human mind. Again, to remind us of what Maimonides taught, we actually can know nothing about God. What we call by the word “God” is a theoretical construct, intended to convey a sense of ultimate purpose in life and the conviction that there meaning to our existence because we are created beings; that there is such a thing as moral law and personal accountability.
The Torah begins with these words: “B’reisheet bara Elohim et hashamyim v’et haaretz” In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Our entire religion begins with this one basic assumption that Creation is purposeful, and that such qualities as kindness, compassion, human responsibility, ethical behavior, to name only a few, are not arbitrary nor are they artificial; we identify them with what we call “God.”
Unfortunately, much of the language of religion tends to lead one to envision God as having human qualities. Even such seemingly innocuous phrases as “And God spoke to Moses,” or “And God saw” are anthropomorphic. There are others phrases that are even more problematic, such as when they refer to “the hand of God” or the belief that “God’s eye is ever upon us.” No doubt the writers of these prayers and passages were only attempting metaphorically to convey the sense that God is connected to our lives. But the consequence of these metaphors is that, together, they tend to portray God in such naïve way that is destined to leads disillusionment, and loss of faith.
It might be better if we were not so attached to the word “God.” One of the Ten Commandments is that we should not take God’s name in vain. For that reason, traditional Jews will not say “God” or “Adonai” in everyday speech. They will use expressions like: “HaShem.” In the days of the ancient Temple, only one person was permitted to pronounce the Divine Name, one day a year, and that was the High Priest in the Holy of Holines within the Temple on Yom Kippur. I think that the ancient aversion to using the name of God has merit. The word “God” becomes an idol all by itself because it conjures, if not an actual physical image, at least a collection of powers. And more times than not, I find that when someone says: “I don’t believe in God,” what he/she really means is they don’t believe in the God that early in their lives that person has come to associate with the word “God.”
There is no way to conclude this sermon or to tie it all up in a neat package. I can’t tell you that your doubts about God are wrong. I can’t tell you that they are right…because I don’t really know anything about God. But I do know something about what it means to be a good Jew; that has little to do with what one believes and everything to do with what one practices.
So I will simply end with this story, that will leave you perplexed. Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut tells of a famous philosopher who once gave a lecture before a large Jewish gathering on the subject “A Critique of the Existence of God.” The lecture was very well attended. A thousand people were there who wanted to know how the professor, who was known for his atheism, could prove his proposition. After the professor had been at his lecture for some time, he noted that the audience was beginning to leave.
Finally, when out of the thousand people only a few were left, he turned to the chairman and asked, “Mr. Chairman, am I talking too long?” “No,” said the chairman. “your lecture is not too long. And you have proved to almost everyone’s satisfaction that God does not exist, but you see it’s almost time to assemble for our evening worship services. And, God forbid, we wouldn’t want to be late.”