Kol Nidre – 2017-5778
God: A New Understanding
This past March, while I was attending a conference in New York, I received a call from my youngest son Eytan. Though the fact that he was calling me was a little unusual – parents of boys will commiserate! – what was more unusual was that he was calling me from Poland. Eytan and his Charles E Smith Jewish Day School classmates were there for the week visiting the sites of concentrations camps and ghettos. This was part of his high school’s 3-month trip to Israel and eastern Europe whose purpose is to help the students understand the 4,000-year-old connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. By travelling the length and breadth of Israel, gaining insights about its history and current political and social issues, and by going to Poland to understand Israel after the Holocaust it is hoped that the students will come away more enlightened and inspired to maintain a life-long devotion to our homeland and our people.
While in Poland the students visited the sites of Nazi horror and heard stories from their own classmates whose family members were killed in those very camps or housed in those ghettos. Obviously the week was emotionally overwhelming and devastating. Fortunately their teachers and counselors from Israel accompanied them on the trip and led many debriefing sessions to help the students come to grips with what they witnessed and what they learned.
When I answered the phone that afternoon in March there was little chit-chat. Eytan had a question for me and he got right to the point. Abba, he asked, “how can we believe in God after Auschwitz?” Now let me set the scene. I’m sitting at a round table in a social hall of a synagogue in Riverdale. I’m participating in a conference on disability inclusion and listening to a presentation. My phone vibrates and I see it’s Eytan. I discreetly exit the room to take the call and he asks that big question. How can I answer that question on one foot? It’s 10pm in Poland, he’s calling from his hotel room, and he’s wondering how he can continue believing in God after what he just learned and experienced. How can I provide comfort and inspiration over the phone? How can I convince him from 5,000 miles away that I’ve had those very same questions and despite that I still believe in God? Eytan and I ended up having several phone conversations that week and in subsequent weeks after he returned to Israel. I suggested books for him to read and people to talk to. And when he came home at the end of May we were finally able to talk in person.
What I told Eytan and what I’ve shared with you from the bima and in classes over the years, has sustained me as a rabbi. My theological understanding has enabled me to be a practicing and observant Jew and has enabled me to confidently recite prayers and conduct life cycle events as a rabbi. However, there was something about Eytan’s persistence and his probing questions that caused me to reexamine my beliefs. His adamant refusal to accept my answers frustrated me both as his father and as a rabbi. I want my children to believe in God and to find the beauty and fulfillment in Jewish practice that I do. I want them to find communities of like-minded Jews where they can go to shul, enjoy Shabbat services and celebrate Shabbat and holidays with other people their age. I want them to do that not because Lenore and I want them to but because they want to. It has always been my hope that they would feel a cultural connection in order to do these Jewish activities, and they should feel a theological impulse as well.
The theology that has sustained me over the years is one in which God is the creator of the universe. That God created the universe in all its glory. This all-powerful and all knowing God created the laws of nature, including the imperfections (hurricanes, earthquakes, cancer, etc.) and then stepped back to let us complete the work of creation. Our imperative as stated in the aleinu prayer we recite at the end of the service three times a day is to le-taken olam be-malchut shaddai – to repair or perfect the world under God’s sovereignty. If the world were already perfect and we were already perfect then we wouldn’t have to be here in shul today and we would be leading a robotic, uninteresting, life. There would be nothing to learn, nothing to achieve, nothing to strive for because life would be perfect. God intentionally created the world with these imperfections in the laws of nature and also in our character in order for us to be motivated to do good and make the world a better place.
We pray and believe in God after the Holocaust because God didn’t cause the Holocaust, people did. The murder of the six million was a human tragedy not a theological one. God didn’t intervene to stop Hitler and his murderous army because God doesn’t do that in the world. It has been our role in every generation to seek freedom and to end the reign of despots and dictators. When we do, as we did over Pharaoh, over Haman, over Hitler, we can say that it is as if, with God’s help, we did so. The biblical accounts of miraculous victories in which God played a major role is a human expression of joy over feeling as if God helped in that human endeavor. We felt the theological imperative to act and we felt bound by a covenant with God to do so. We want to be connected to God today so through our prayers, as we gather in community, and through the moral and religious teachings of Torah and our tradition we make that connection. When we do good and feel bound to always strive to do good then we also feel connected to God.
Many of you have heard me teach this theological approach over the years. I expressed it after 9/11 and I have shared it numerous times on Shabbat and holidays and in class. It has helped me navigate the chaotic nature of life in the world today and it has helped keep me grounded with values and a moral and religious direction.
Yet Eytan’s insistence that he still can’t believe in God nags at me. Why isn’t my answer good enough for him? Upon reflection I realize that I have - poo, poo, poo - led a relatively charmed life. I’ve been blessed with good health, a loving wife and beautiful children. Though I have witnessed many terrible tragedies in our shul community my theology has enabled me to continue to believe in God and to minister to you. Yet Eytan’s questions force me to realize that not everyone may accept my vision of a distant God, a God that once created and since has been waiting for us to make a connection.
Thanks To Eytan I have recognized that there are problems or challenges with my approach. If God is all-powerful and all knowing as I said and as our tradition teaches, then how could God let the Holocaust happen? It would be abhorrent to think that God knew that Hitler would rise to power and did nothing to stop him! If God isn’t all powerful and all knowing what would be the point in believing in God? Anything short of omnipotence and omniscience would be a limited God.
Which leads to the second problem – who am I to impose limits on God’s power? How can I suggest that God “decided” to step back after creating the world and let nature and people take their course? How can I profess to know God and to know that God is limited in that way? Do I have the right or sufficient knowledge to define God in that way? God is infinite and abstract so how can I, a mere mortal human being, suggest that I know God’s nature and dare to limit God’s nature in any way?
This recognition that there is a challenge to my theology not only was highlighted by Eytan’s questions but it also was challenged in a meeting I had in early August. I was asked by Joyce Torchinsky to conduct a funeral for someone who had never been a member of a synagogue. In my meeting with the widower and two of his grown children he asked me if I, and why I, believe in God. His wife had suffered from Alzheimer’s for a few years so that by the end she could no longer recognize him and could no longer feed or care for herself. As we know Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia not only wreak havoc on the one suffering from it but equally causes great emotional stress on the family caregivers. The person they love is no longer the same and inevitably, even the most religious and ardent believers in God ask “why is this happening - how could God cause this to happen?” Though a meeting with the family to plan a funeral is not the best time to have a full theological discussion, I could tell that this grieving husband wanted me to answer. When I succinctly explained my theology I could tell that not only was he skeptical, he wasn’t buying it.
With these challenges in mind I knew I needed to find an updated theology. I needed to explore theologies that recognized God’s existence, that motivate us to be good, and that allows for both tragedy and blessing to exist. I firmly believe that belief in God is meant to inspire the best in people and the right theology will also help explain the chaotic nature of human existence. Yes American law and basic human decency compel us to at least follow the law, but what causes us to go beyond the law and do good for others and be positive forces for change? God is supposed to be that great motivator, and without God what fills that void to induce us to be better people? Is Jewish cultural history and tradition enough? Is our history of social action and social justice enough to provide a life of fulfillment and meaning?
While reflecting upon these questions, I remembered a special issue of Conservative Judaism magazine – the scholarly journal published by the Rabbinical Assembly – that was devoted to something called Process Theology. I had kept that issue from 7 years ago on my shelf and I re-read the feature article by Rabbi Brad Artson. That article and a less academic version that appeared in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, described God in a radically different way than we’re used to. As a result of his son being born with severe autism, Rabbi Artson found himself not able to pray anymore. In his words he told God, that “it’s better if we don’t talk for a while.” He came across the work of Alfred North Whitehead and many others who wrote about Process Thought and Theology.
A key feature of this theology is the eradication of our traditional understanding of God – a God out there, the unseen mover and shaker of the world, or even the God who intervenes in human events. Instead of this traditional view, which my former theology entailed, Artson and process theology understand God as part of us. The world and in fact the universe is a collection of atoms and energy that are constantly in motion and are constantly engaging with each other. Our bodies are a collection of cells that are constantly changing. Though we don’t experience that change every moment, just take a look at a picture of yourself from 10 years ago and you’ll see how our bodies evolve. Every moment we are changing and at the same time every moment we are interacting with other cells and forces around us. When we breathe, when we see, when we touch, when we eat, we are interacting with other elements of creation. Our world then, according to this understanding, is a dynamic, ever changing, interactive world.
At the core of this dynamic, energetic and interactive universe is God. Meaning that God is another source of energy within these other forces that are present. God not only set the universe in motion but God constantly sets the universe in motion. Every moment, even just by sitting and breathing when it seems we are passive, the universe is changing. The air we breathe this moment is different than the air we breathed a moment ago. As we change so too by infinite expansion the universe is changing. Therefore, God is constantly renewing creation at every single moment. As we say every morning in the service – mechadesh be-chol yom tamid ma-a-se bereisheet – God renews continually every day the act of creation. Even the rabbis centuries ago had the sense that God is a dynamic force in the universe and in their words we can understand the interpretation of this process theology.
One more step is crucial in applying this theology to our lives. Unlike a river whose water flows constantly and naturally, or animals whose movements and actions are instinctive, human beings make choices. We think and deliberate before we act. According to this theology when we make choices we do so based on our attempt, or not, to connect with God. But instead of connecting with God out there, we are connecting with God in us. You and I are all part of the universe and the universe is part of us. The air we breathe has elements from other parts of the world and is based on the recycling of atoms from centuries ago. The universe is constantly in flux and we along with it are part and parcel of the universe. God is also part of each of us and of everything in the universe. So whatever we do, whenever we move, whatever we decide to do and whenever we think, we are connecting in a way to God that is within us. Or as Rabbi Artson says quoting the biblical prophet Haggai, “’I am with you, declares the Holy One’ (Haggai 1:13), working in/with/through us to bring order to the chaos in our lives and societies, giving us the strength and insight to know how to struggle for health, connection, justice.”
There are clear advantages to understanding God in this Process way. The traditional theology ascribes power, knowledge, and other actions to a God that is out there. These elements are fine if we are blessed by them but we are challenged when we feel punished by them. That kind of thinking – actions imposed on us by God – doesn’t apply in Process Theology. Instead God is part of us and the universe around us and is constantly acting and interacting with us. God is a force – not for good or for bad – but a force that we connect with and which motivates us to act. That interaction happens when we pray, it happens when we make positive choices in our lives, it happens when we do good for others.
With this understanding of God we can now see that the Holocaust wasn’t a matter of God making it happen or sitting back and letting it happen. It’s not to be understood in that traditional way of a transcendent God choosing to act or not. Instead the Holocaust was a human horror in which God was active but in which many chose to ignore God’s impulse in them. God’s force was felt during that time by the many righteous Gentiles who saved thousands of lives, and by the Jews who despite the horrific conditions still prayed to God and observed Shabbat in the camps. But the commandants, the SS and Gestapo, did not feel God in them. With process theology we no longer understand what God did or didn’t do, instead we understand how God’s force is felt, or not, by us.
The more challenging piece is attempting to explain God’s role and relationship with disease. Human tragedy and horror is easier to explain since they were caused by human beings. What is more difficult is to understand is how God in process theology affects the laws of nature like the forces of hurricanes we felt the past few weeks and earthquakes. How or why would God create such a destructive world for us to live in? Why would God create diseases that cause incalculable suffering? Rabbi Artson’s answer forces us again to rethink God. By thinking about God as a force of Nature that is also within Nature, by imagining that God is one of many forces created by and with the big bang, we see that there are many powerful forces at play around us. The universe is pushed and pulled by many competing elements and inevitably we will feel the result in our world. God isn’t causing these forces to act, rather God is in these forces every day as they are acting. Disease is the natural result of these competing forces interacting with each other and we are either stricken with disease or not. God didn’t cause the disease - God is an active force in a universe in which we find positive and negative energy.
Our responsibility, our religious duty, according to this theology is to connect to that dynamic force at play in us and around us. We must acknowledge this energy as if it’s our gyroscope, meaning that God is that force that provides stability and equilibrium among all the other competing forces around us and in us. By focusing on God we allow ourselves to navigate confidently through the chaos of nature and humanity. By focusing on God we are inspired to do good and be a force for good and change. By focusing on this God-force we gain the strength to overcome the variety of challenges we personally face every day.
It will take some time to fully understand this theology and to allow it to be a guiding principle in our lives. Perhaps as we begin this Yom Kippur, this day of personal reflection and meditation, we can apply it to the words we read. As we express our apology and ask God for forgiveness, we can imagine praying to God that is within us. We don’t need to follow the traditional view that we are speaking to a God up there rather we can understand that we are speaking to ourselves, directing our focus to God in each and everyone of us. When the liturgy has us imagine God sitting on a throne with the book of life and death before Him, we see that as a powerful and frightening poetic image. It’s not real. That’s not the God I believe in. I use those words to inspire me and motivate me to take my choices seriously. Every decision I make should be felt as if it’s life or death. How we act in the future can make a difference in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
Eytan’s phone call and our subsequent discussions caused me to rethink my theology and to realize that our understanding of God is always changing. Events in our lives prompt us to express gratitude to God for such blessing and joy or cause us to be angry and even give up belief in God. And to be honest most of the time we don’t even think about our connection with God. We go through the year living through our routine and hope that we remain safe and healthy. However, as we gather on Yom Kippur we can’t help but think about God. Every page of the machzor is another attempt to articulate forgiveness to God. Every page forces us to think about our lives in relation to a supreme being. Every page forces us to recommit our lives to God.
I do believe that we can be good people without a belief in God. If we have a value system that is guided by Jewish tradition and American democratic values then we can lead a meaningful life and be a positive force in our family and community. However, doing good without a belief in God can lead us to think that the only reason to do good is because it feels good to do so. Doing good could become all about what feels good and right at this time. It becomes situational and it becomes human centered.
I believe that we need God in our lives to guide our actions so that we always remember that life isn’t just about me. Choosing to do good is not about whether it feels right. It’s about eternal values that transcend our life. It’s about feeling humble in the presence of the world around us. Belief in God helps us understand that the values we live by are Divine and that the world we live in is part of a greater universe. God elevates our actions from what we think is right to what we know is right.
I know that I haven’t convinced Eytan yet to believe in God again. I do hope though that he continues to question his religious and Jewish beliefs. The process of questioning and study is life-long. We may never find a theology that is perfect. But the goal is to be committed to the tradition and to the process. Thanks to Eytan I have been able to refine my thinking about God. Rabbi Artson’s theological approach makes sense to me today as I continue in my quest to find a theology that is consistent and is motivational. I pray that as we begin this Day of Atonement and reflection that we too can question our beliefs. We ask “who are we and what are we” throughout the day’s prayers. May we be able to answer those questions with honesty so that we can lead lives of meaning and inspiration. Amen.