Rosh Hashanah Day 2 - 2022/5783
How Can We Believe in God?
Yesterday I shared with you my emotional swings from crisis to joy and how difficult that has been to navigate, especially when we are experiencing so many global crises. I shared with you the midrash of the raven and the dove and ended with the comfort that God provides. Pictured as a stork with large, wide wings, God is able to shelter the distressed and the wounded under God’s protective wings.
Centuries ago the rabbis wrote the prayers found in our machzor. They and the Jewish community in ther time endured persecution, exile and murder at the hands of the Roman authority. In the middle ages, when more prayers were written, the Jewish community endured further slaughter, persecution and displacement. Given those historical contexts, the image of a comforting and protecting God should be found throughout our liturgy. It would make sense that the rabbis would want to encourage their community to find refuge and strength in God’s holy presence.
But instead the rabbis chose a section from Genesis to be read today that describes a demanding and almost tyrannical God. God commands Abraham to take his son to a mountain and offer him there to God. And over the course of the services of these High Holidays, God is pictured on a throne waiting for us to approach and beg for forgiveness before God will even consider being merciful to us.
How do we make sense of these images of God? How can we find a compassionate and benevolent God in the midst of these stark and disturbing pages? How can we find the shelter and protection we so desperately seek when we read the prayers instead of harsh commands and discipline? How can we interpret the Torah and repurpose the prayers to gain the comfort and strength we seek?
Last May, a guest essay by Scott Hershovitz - a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan - was published in the NY Times. It was titled “How to Pray to a God You Don’t Believe In” and in this essay Dr. Hershovitz presented a philosophical argument for praying to a God one might not believe in. As a rabbi and someone who believes in God I am glad to read such essays that respond to the search for God but sometimes I am left empty or even saddened by the approach presented.
Hershovitz lays out the problem of evil in the world and how that prevents belief in God. This premise is based on the traditional idea that God is the all-powerful creator of the universe. It’s also based on the premise that God is good and compassionate. The argument then is - if God is the benevolent, all-powerful creator of the universe, why is there evil in the world? Why did God create COVID-19, why did God create Hitler, or based on our Torah reading this morning, why did God ask Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac? If God is good, why did God create evil?
That is the perennial dilemma that theologians, philosophers and religious people have tried to grapple with throughout human history. One classic answer as stated by Rabbi Akiba, that at least explains human evil - like a Hitler or war - is that God is all powerful and nonetheless has granted us free will. It’s our fault that evil people are allowed to do evil in the world. It’s our responsibility to stop it, not God’s.
In response to these theological challenges, Hershovitz quotes his son’s question to him when his son - Rex - was four years old. Rex asked his father if he thought God was real. Instead of answering right away Hershovitz asked his son what he thought. His 4 year old son responded, “I think that for real God is pretend and for pretend God is real”. “God isn’t real,” he said. “But when we pretend, he is.” … Philosophers [Hershovitz continues to explain] have a name for this sort of view. They call it “fictionalism.” Suppose I say, “Dumbledore teaches at Hogwarts.” If that was a claim about this world, it would be false. Hogwarts doesn’t exist here, and neither does Dumbledore, so he can hardly teach there. But they do exist in a different world — the fictional world that Harry Potter lives in. The sentence “Dumbledore teaches at Hogwarts” is true in that fiction. But I think Rex was right — and onto something important: For real, God is pretend, and for pretend, God is real. I am a fictionalist about God. Still, I pretend. And I don’t plan to stop. Because pretending makes the world a better place. I learned that from my kids too — Rex and his younger brother, Hank. Pretending blurs the boundaries between this world and the ones we imagine. It breathes life into stories, letting them shape the world we live in. Just think of the delight kids take in Santa Claus, even those who know, deep down, that he’s not real. Or the way they lose themselves in play. Pretending makes the world more magical and meaningful. And it’s not just for kids. When it feels like the world is falling apart, I seek refuge in religious rituals — but not because I believe my prayers will be answered. The prayers we say in synagogue remind me that evil has always been with us but that people persevere, survive and even thrive. I take my kids [to synagogue] so that they feel connected to that tradition, so that they know the world has been falling apart from the start — and that there’s beauty in trying to put it back together.”
I think Hershovitz is onto something in this essay. I do believe that the rituals of our tradition help us in the face of evil around us. I can personally attest to the comfort our funeral services provide to the mourners in the face of their grief. While the world is falling apart for the mourner, the rituals of tearing the ribbon, reciting the prayers, shoveling earth in the grave and reciting kaddish, provide an anchor in the stormy sea of their despair. Though the mourners may not be thinking about the words of the kaddish in which they praise God and proclaim faith in God, the recitation of the words feels comforting to them.
So there is truth in what Hershovitz wrote in his essay. Pretending to believe in the words of the prayers can lead to moral and ethical behavior. It can lead to learning more about our tradition and may even inspire acts of lovingkindness.
But what troubles me about his article is that it seems to fall short. Though Hershovitz says that he belongs to a synagogue and that both his sons studied for and became bar mitzvah, Hershovitz understands Jewish religious tradition as an escape from reality - that when we come to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah for example we feel good when we are here and it may lead us to do good in the world. But our being here is like being in a movie theater. We escape the outside world and enter into an alternative reality that makes us feel good.
Based on Hershovitz’ thesis, we can easily discount the troubling Abraham and Isaac story as fiction or myth. We can discount the images of God found in our machzor as stories from another time and era. The God presented here, according to Hershovitz, isn’t real. We have to realize, he says, that when we come to synagogue we are entering a fictional space that provides us with music, values, and lessons that make us feel good and inspire us to be good people.
But is that enough? Is coming to synagogue because we pretend to believe in the stories and prayers enough to lead us to a deeply spiritual, ethical and moral life? Isn’t there a way to believe in a real God, not a pretend one, that would account for evil in the world and stand up to religious and academic questions?
I don’t believe in the traditional idea of God I mentioned earlier nor do I believe that God wrote the Torah. Instead my theology has two parts that respond to problematic sections in the Torah - like God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son - and respond to difficult theology - like God causing evil in the world. I believe that our Jewish tradition is a man-made tradition. I do not believe that God wrote the Torah and then handed it to Moses on Mt. Sinai 3,000 years ago. The text of the Torah is just too problematic - both in content and in lessons being taught - to allow me to believe that the Torah is the word of God.
Instead I believe that our Torah, the rest of the Bible, rabbinic literature including our prayer book and the commandments we observe, are all human responses to the questions “where did we come from”, “is there a God”, and “how are we supposed to behave”. People have tried to answer those questions since the dawn of human civilization and Judaism is just one of many answers. The authors of the Torah and the Bible had a set of answers and the rabbis had a slightly different set of answers and I would argue that rabbis today have even different answers. Our tradition is an on-going, evolving tradition of religious leaders studying and interpreting the sacred texts and deriving new answers to these age-old questions. Therefore, instead of believing that the Torah is God’s way of telling us that God exists, I believe that the Torah is the way our ancestors tried to tell us that God exists.
I also don’t believe that God created everything in the world today. I believe that God created the universe with imperfections and left us to try to fix those imperfections and make this world better. The concept of tikun olam is our inspiration for everything we do. We give back to the community, we better ourselves intellectually and emotionally, we love our family and our neighbors, we do ritual and social action all in the name of tikun olam.
So instead of believing that God takes an active and on-going role in everything that happens in the world today, I believe that we need to take an active and on-going role - through our beliefs and actions - in trying to find God and be in God’s presence. Instead of believing that God caused a particular person to have cancer or a particular volcano to erupt, I believe that God created our earth with volcanoes and that God created human life to evolve diseases and genetic mutations. It is our purpose, through tikun olam, to do our best to repair and perfect the world. By doing so we are not only fulfilling our destiny we are attempting to get closer to God.
I understand that for many people belief in God is difficult. How can we believe in something that we can’t see? How can we believe in God in the face of tragedy, evil and calamity all around us? It may simply be easier to just live a life based on moral and ethical values like justice, liberty, equality and to do our best to pursue those human concepts.
But I think that justice, liberty and equality are religious values. If we determine to live according to human constructs of ethics and morality, the challenge then is which philosopher or political leader’s definition do we live by? It’s one thing if we try to follow Thomas Jefferson and the American founders who laid out the system for our civic society. But what about such problematic authors like Karl Marx or evil authors like Hitler, each of which led to different societies and countries around the globe following those corrupt ideals? Following a human understanding of values as we have tragically learned, can lead to cruelty and evil.
Granted, religious values can lead to cruelty and evil too. The crusades, the inquisition, even the command in the Torah to the Israelites to annihilate the indiginous population of the land of Israel are all examples of evil perpetrated in God’s name. Even more so they are examples of human beings acting as if God literally commanded them to do it. When one believes that the Bible is God’s word then one believes that we are commanded to do everything as written in the Bible.
Instead I believe that Jews over the centuries have attempted to act in a way that they believed God wanted them to act. The author of the Torah thought that God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. Though that is still problematic, to me it’s better than God actually asking Abraham to do it. I believe in a God that is compassionate and loving. I believe that God inspires me to be the best person I can be. I believe that God inspires me to do tikun olam. It’s not enough for me to just be an ethical and moral human being. I need to be ethical and moral within the framework of a religious tradition - a religious tradition that has always sought to understand who God is and to live in God’s presence.
As psalm 27, the psalm we add to the services in this High Holiday season, says, “one thing I ask of God…allow me to dwell in God’s house.” If we can believe in God in a way that is intellectually and emotionally satisfying to us, then we can achieve that goal. Yes, we all want the world to be a better place. Yes, we want to see the end of evil and yes we want there to be peace. I think we can achieve that with this understanding of God and religion.
And so, the rabbis who wrote the high holiday prayer book challenge us. The religious leaders who edited the oral traditions that became the Torah challenge us as well. By imagining God sitting on a throne waiting for us to ask for forgiveness, or imagining God demanding a tragic mission of Abraham, they are asking, “Who are we and where are we going?” “What are we doing to make our lives better and the lives of those around us?” “Are we following dictates of a particular human ideology or are we following values based on more eternal religious values - values which have been and continue to be interpreted and refined?”
These are the questions that we need to ask ourselves. Does Scott Hershovitz’ approach to religion provide the inspiration we seek? Is a human construct of morality and ethics sufficient to provide meaning in our lives? I challenge us today to consider our understanding of God and our relationship with God. I laid out my approach and I encourage you to reflect on your approach. Our life on earth is meant to have meaning and deep, eternal value. If we can find a way to have a relationship with God that motivates us to be better people then we will have achieved the goal of the high holiday season.
May our prayers today and everyday be meaningful and may this new year be filled with study and inspiration. Amen.