Kol Nidre - 2012/5773
Why I Believe
Early last May prolific author and illustrator Maurice Sendak died. He’s best known for his book Where the Wild Things Are, which my kids loved to hear over and over again. On May 8 Terry Gross, who has a show on National Public Radio called Fresh Air, played highlights of interviews she had conducted with Sendak over the years. The interviews were fascinating to hear as we learned about his life growing up in Brooklyn, images from his childhood that led to his books, and also his Jewish upbringing. He fondly recalled his Mother lighting the shabbat candles every Friday night. So Terry Gross followed up and asked if he considers himself religious today. Sendak replied that he doesn’t find meaning or value in Judaism - he said, “I don’t need faith. Keats, Dickinson, Mozart, Shakespeare and Melville are my gods. They have gotten me through the narrow straits. I like the candles but nothing else.”
On August 9, Lisa Miller who writes on the Religion page of the Washington Post, wrote an article about a profile that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer of Rahm Emanuel’s brother. Ezekiel Emanuel is a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia Inquirer called him a “kosher atheist”. The profile highlighted a dinner party he hosted at which one of the guests joked with Emanuel as to why the food was kosher. Emanuel answered that “atheism and Judaism are completely compatible.” He explained that one can be orthopraxic without having to be Orthodox.
When I heard the Sendak interview and when I read the Miller article I was dismayed. My first thought was personal - I believe in God and I observe the commandments how can anyone not? The two go in hand in hand. Then after thinking some more I thought that it may well be possible that many other Jewish people think and act like Sendak and Emanuel. And if that’s the case why would people act Jewishly but not believe Jewishly?
As you know I grew up in a very Jewish home. My father is a Conservative rabbi so our home was kosher, I went to Jewish Day School, and I went to shul every week. I even was the Torah reader in our shul every shabbat of my high school years. My first Jewish memory in fact is of walking with my father to shul when I was in kindergarten and sitting in the front row. So for me Jewish practice was as much a natural part of me as eating and breathing. Jewish practice was me.
When I went to college and especially during my junior year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, I studied in great depth about Jewish history and Jewish thought. I studied Judaism in a scientific or academic way. That study only intensified my Jewish belief and commitment and I applied to rabbinical school right before my senior year.
So for me Jewish practice and Jewish belief have always gone hand in hand. When others my age experimented with other paths or stopped going to synagogue or observing, I only intensified my Jewish observance. I never questioned my belief in God and I never wavered from Jewish practice.
Now I understand of course that most Jews aren’t like me. Most Jews don’t have a passionate commitment to both practice and belief. In fact the rabbis of 2,000 years ago knew that about Jews back then too. They had a debate as to which is more important, practice which they called קבע or intention which for our purposes we can call belief and they called כוונה. They asked which is better, to have the intention to pray - meaning knowing the reason why we pray and to whom we are praying - or to just pray - to go through the motions and recite the words without having the intention? After some back forth it was agreed that going through the motions is preferred because it will lead to intention or belief.
This debate then could be understood by people like Zeke Emanuel to mean that it’s ok to keep kosher without having to believe in God. It seems that practice, the routine of daily observance of the commandments is more important because it defines us and differentiates us from other cultures. When we do Jewish things we recognize that they are identifying features of our Jewish culture and they are what historically we have always done. There is great value in keeping kosher, lighting shabbat candles, going to shul in that we maintain our cultural heritage and teach our children that these are Jewish things to do.
But that isn’t what the rabbis had in mind when they debated this issue. They didn’t say that practice is more important than belief, they said that practice has to lead to belief. The ultimate reason for why we practice isn’t cultural or historical it is theological. The practices of Judaism are called commandments which means that God commanded us to do them. We light the candles and keep kosher because they are among the 613 ways we can experience God in our lives. Each time we choose what to eat and whether to do an act of charity is an opportunity to get closer to God. They are ways in which the connection to God can be made and can be strengthened.
I understand why people may have a problem believing in God. If people were raised with the traditional belief, of God as a man wearing a white robe and sitting on a throne with the book of life and death before him - I would understand why that picture doesn’t work anymore. That kind of God is capricious and cruel. That God causes death and destruction in this world and prompts us to be in awe of and actually fear him. If we have experienced sickness and tragedy in our lives then it is this God who has caused it to happen.
People might also not want to believe in God because many have been tortured and have died over the centuries in the cause of religion. The crusades, the inquisition, 9/11 all were perpetrated in the name of a warped perception of what religious people thought God wanted to be done. Any religion that professes that one way of life is better than another and those who don’t profess the “true” religion are deserving of eternal damnation certainly can lead many to leave the fold in frustration and disgust.
I also understand that if one reads the Torah and our prayer book without the benefit of commentary and interpretation one might be disgusted as well. The Torah seems to profess hatred of the other and commands annihilating whole populations for the sake of the sanctity of the land of Israel and in God’s name. The Torah seems to teach male domination over the female and homophobia. Our prayer book seems to teach that we are the chosen people, better than others. In an age of universalism or multiculturalism, when we are taught that all people are equal and all are entitled to human rights, these concepts from the Torah and prayer book not only are outdated but are simply wrong.
If one only learned Judaism in an old fashioned religious school and then never took any Jewish studies classes in college then it is clear that one would have these outdated and awful ideas. But this isn’t what Judaism believes. Jewish belief has never been based just on a straightforward reading of the Torah. Judaism has always been about commentary and interpretation. For example, the Torah says “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” We don’t go around gouging out people’s eyes and pulling out people’s teeth as punishment for assault and battery. Rabbis have always understood that to mean the value of the eye or the tooth - the one who injures has always been forced to pay a fine.
We even see the interpretation in the Bible itself. The Torah teaches that when the Israelites start settling the land they are to have a ceremony on two mountains at which the Torah is inscribed on two stones and the people commit themselves to the covenant. The Torah says that only Israelites are to attend and participate in that ceremony. But Joshua, who took over for Moses and carried out this command just 2 or 3 years after it was given, invited non-Israelites to participate!
My point is that Jewish belief has always been evolving and subject to scrutiny and interpretation. I would never believe in the God of the Torah. I would never believe in a God that would want me to hate the non-Jew or degrade others in the community. I would never believe in a God that would act capriciously and cause bad things to happen to good people. That God to me isn’t worth praying to and that God doesn’t inspire me to true and righteous living.
But if that’s the only God that Maurice Sendak and Zeke Emanuel know then no wonder they looked elsewhere for inspiration. No wonder Sendak found value in literature and Emanuel finds it in science. If that were the only possible Jewish theology to have then I too would leave the fold.
I grew up with a different idea of God. Sure I had the picture when I was young of God as a white-robed, bearded old man, but as I grew older I had the opportunity to learn more about theology. I kept on taking Jewish studies classes so that my understanding of God expanded and developed. I learned that Judaism isn’t based on a strict, literal reading of the text but rather is based on a dynamic interaction with our tradition. In other words I was raised with the understanding that theology is ever evolving.
I also constantly read and study. Over the years I have presented to you how I understand God. I had to write it in my application to rabbinical school, I talked about it after 9/11, and I talked some more last year as a result of the tornadoes in Alabama and Missouri and the tsunami in Japan. I read Kushner and essays and books by Rabbi Neil Gillman and I read new ideas on something called process theology by Brad Artson. For me Judaism is all about learning and growing. I think about everything I do and always am fascinated by new ideas and innovative interpretations.
The fact that I grew up with an open view of God and that I also continue to study are predicated on the notion that I do believe in God. That has never been a question for me. I always believed and I could never imagine not believing in God. I have met many people like Sendak and Emanuel, people who say that “I’m Jewish in here” (pat my chest) or who say that so much death has been caused in the name of the religion that they just can’t believe in God.
I’m not here to tell you you’re wrong, but I am here to say that I feel badly when I hear such statements. I know that religion is supposed to teach love and respect. It is supposed to provide meaning - eternal meaning - to our finite lives. Sure Dickinson and Shakespeare and Mozart are beautiful and inspiring. Their work has moved people to tears and has shown people beauty and love for centuries. But they were people. Ethical and moral systems that are devised by people like Aristotle or Kierkegaard may seem worthy and may seem to work for our lives. In fact many people lead very fulfilling and meaningful lives based on their interpretations.
But for me an ethical system based on theology, based on how I understand Judaism to teach how God wants me to live my life elevates my behavior. I don’t just do things and act morally because it makes sense to do so or some philosopher wrote about it a few hundred years ago. I do what I do based on a 4,000 year tradition and a God who is eternal. By putting it in this context I recognize that everything I do has a history. Everything I do has meaning that relates to what God would want me to do and that is extremely meaningful and motivating to me.
Now I know that I can’t convince you that God exists. I don’t have empirical evidence to show you that there is a God. But by the same token I can’t prove to you that God doesn’t exist. Given such a choice, and given that I’ve grown up believing in God, I see no reason not to believe. Certainly that isn’t a ringing endorsement of Judaism, but it highlights for me that since I do believe that God exists then I know that God exists. Belief in God leads to seeing the evidence right before our eyes. When the trees start turning magnificent colors, when we see incredible features in nature, when we witness the birth of a child or get married or survive an illness, we feel as if we are in God’s presence and that is enough to know that God exists.
So now I leave you with a question - why are you here tonight? Please - I am not being judgmental by asking. I’m not accusing I’m only highlighting that the question of what we are doing here in shul is the essential question of the high holiday season. We should find value in asking ourselves what we believe and why we behave the way we do. Do we feel like Maurice Sendak and find emotional satisfaction in such ritual practices as lighting the candles? Do we feel like Zeke Emanuel and find value in performing Jewish practices? Is that enough for us? Is it enough to continue coming to shul every Yom Kippur? Is it enough to base our values and to pass on to our children?
And if you think it’s not enough then what will you do? To whom will you turn to learn more about yourself and your religious identity? Don’t find your answers just in a superficial reading of the prayers. Delve deeper into the liturgy and try to apply the prayer to your life. If a concept doesn’t make sense to you think about it and rework it your mind. As you do so recognize that you aren’t alone in this process. Jews have been doing it for centuries and Jews are doing it right now in synagogues around the world. As the Talmud says - הפוך בה והפוך בה דכולא בה - hafoch bah ve-hafoch bah de-koola bah - keep turning it over and studying it because it’s all there.May this Yom Kippur be one of introspection and reflection. May we examine our belief system and start looking for answers. I would enjoy going down that path of searching with you so that this year can be one of great meaning and enrichment. Amen.